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What does dance mean to you?

O que a dança significa para você?

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Dance is a form of expression that has been around since the start of civilization. Our ancestors danced to the gods in religious, celebratory, life and death rituals, to express something that transcends the power of words. But dance has also become a form of existing. And interestingly, this is something I have started to ask myself: why do we dance? Why is dance such a big part of our lives, regardless of it being a profession or not? Some of us have an urge to let loose on the dance floor, some choose to spend precious evenings watching dance at the theatre, some have dedicated their lives to dance since they were babies...

In the lockdown period, a lot of people have turned to online dance lessons as a way of getting their dose of exercise, having fun, or staying connected. The Royal Opera House has been streaming performances like The Winter’s Tale and Anastasia and thousands of people have connected to watch. Dance is playing its part, like it always has in the history of humanity, in getting us through difficult times.

I decided to dig deeper into what dance means to me personally and to society as a whole, revisiting the origins of classical ballet and modern dance. As always, I turned to my bookshelf for guidance and found an old book called Dançar a Vida (Dancing your Life) by Roger Garaudy.

To dance is to experience and express, with the utmost intensity, the relationship of man with nature, with society, with the future and with the gods. To dance is, first of all, to establish an active relationship between man and nature, it is to participate in the cosmic movement and dominion over it.’

I don’t remember having read this book before; if I did, I don’t think I could fully comprehend it. I guess what Garaudy means is that dancing is something spiritual, a way of connecting us with nature or a higher power and celebrating our existence. It is innate to who we are as human beings, a way of forging relationships with each other and with the world around us.

When I was little, I could never explain why I enjoyed dancing so much. ‘I dance to express myself’, I’d say, but only because that was what I heard other dancers say. I couldn’t explain why. I can describe it now as something that makes my spirit elevate, when I feel in my element. Simpler to say: it just makes me happy! I remember my ballet teacher telling me: ‘You don’t get to pick dance, dance picks YOU!’

Fifteen years ago, it did feel to me like I was making a very conscious decision that "I" was picking dance. I was moving to another country to pursue my career, but perhaps there was a bit of truth in what my teacher was saying after all. I don’t think I would have endured the physical and mental demands of ballet if I didn’t feel a strong pull, a spiritual calling, that sense of being ‘chosen’ to deliver a message and to show who I really am.

Frederick Ashton's Rhapsody. Photo by Dave Morgan.

For some, dancing means a way of excelling or 'being the best'. Some people are driven by its athletic side, the fitness or mastering of 'tricks'. Many stick to it because they are very talented and have the right physique, but I truly believe that if you don’t have your heart in it, it gets harder and harder to sustain any satisfaction down the road. When you choose dance as a profession, it becomes a lifestyle that requires commitment, dedication, and discipline. It is a short lived career; sadly, for there is only so much the body can take. Most dancers stop in their forties, or when the body doesn’t respond well to the physical demands of classical ballet, they will turn to other kinds of dance.

Dancing as a hobby, on the other hand, can be practiced at any age and any time in our lives. It can aid the development of children and teenagers and improve the well-being and health of adults and the elderly. The benefits of dance are endless! Besides being a form of exercise, it inspires creativity and develops a certain attitude about life, giving you the skills to succeed in other areas, be it personal or professional.

'What is dance? It is the physical expression of relationships, feelings and ideas through movement and rhythm. Math is not taught just to create mathematicians, writing not just to create the next generation of novelists. The same goes for the arts. It is taught to create well-prepared citizens who can apply the skills, knowledge and experience of being involved in the arts in their careers and lives.’

- Cecilia Kerche (renowned Brazilian dancer)

A young girl starts ballet at the age of three or four because of her parents, or because she wants to wear a pink tutu and a sparkly tiara. But as she grows, she discovers that there is more to it than being a princess, she falls in love with the music and that challenging movement. The weekday lessons turn into weekend rehearsals and monthly travels to festivals and competitions. Growing up in a close and safe environment, this little group of friends now face the same fears and expectations and they share the same dream. And even when some give up dancing to follow a different path, whatever that may be, they find themselves surrounded by the happiest memories.

Dance brings people together. For me, it gave me lifelong friendships, a second family. One friend became a doctor, the other an architect, entrepreneur, veterinarian... and each in their own way have become happy and successful and continue to love dance in their own way, especially because dance taught us how to fight for our dreams, how to live with our differences and be supportive of each other. It gave us something to feel very proud of, moments we will cherish forever - and it gave us a lot to look forwards to: our reunions and celebrations of each other's life achievements!

'Dance only finds its greatest success when it is the expression, or the hope, of a collective life.' (Garaudy)

Dance means connecting with others, with an audience who watches us tell a story, with fellow dancers who exchange that adrenaline on stage. I love looking into people's eyes when I’m dancing with them. Finding those moments when I catch someone’s eyes gives me the greatest feeling, as if we share a little secret. I can read into people's facial expressions and tell when they are trying hard not to laugh at something, which can easily turn into me having an uncontrollable urge to laugh as well. These moments are terrifying (and so unethical) but they are some of my best memories. If one gets the giggles on stage, that's it. It is very contagious, precisely because it's wrong! But we all need a bit of fun at work!

There is such a powerful exchange of energy between us dancers. If I’m standing on stage or watching someone from the wings - someone I really admire - the next minute, I feel ecstatic and I'm trying to match their enthusiasm with my own dancing. Wouldn't this be the true meaning of feeling inspired? True artists can make me forget technique even exists.

With Hiro Takahashi in Swan Lake, Northern Ballet
'Every dance implies participation: even when it is a performance, it is not only with the eyes that we' follow 'it, but with the outlined movements of our own body. Dance somehow mobilizes a certain sense, by which we are aware of the position and tension of our muscles [...] This sixth sense establishes, thanks to a phenomenon of muscular resonance, the contact between the dancer and the participant.' - Garaudy

The way I see people react to performances so enthusiastically makes me believe that there truly is a deeper connection between the artist and his/her audience, one that goes beyond the visual. It is as if they relive the feelings expressed by the dancer. I am fascinated by those who tell me that they come to the Royal Opera House every night and watch the same ballet six, seven, eight times! I don’t know if I could have the same level of commitment, but I do find tremendous joy and relief in knowing that an audience feels what I feel when I am out there performing.

Life is all about giving and receiving. I have witnessed the excitement in people’s faces as they watch the dancers come out of stage door at the end of a show. They want pictures and autographs, they give you smiles and flowers and make you forget it has been a long, long day. I think of the audience a lot when I’m dancing. I try to really engage with them, communicate with my eyes and smile, even when I can't make out their faces in total darkness.

At the start of the pandemic, in light of all that was going on in the world, our theatre was still full! People were putting their health at risk not to miss a show, and that really touched me. Even with all the reasons to avoid the theatres, they write so passionately that they will be there, seating in the auditorium, as soon as the doors reopen. I find it so incredible, and I'm so grateful for their appreciation and love for this artform.

Steve Hutchings' love for ballet was immeasurable. He showed me how dance can touch one's soul..
Post-show Japan Tour 2019. Fans waiting at stage door

There have been times when I thought my job wasn't doing enough to help mankind. Was I being too self-centred? Shouldn’t I have become a doctor, or teacher, or be doing something that would have a bigger impact on society? Am I just part of an elitist art? Not long ago, I realised that I am only beginning to grasp how much dance can touch people’s lives and improve mental and emotional well-being.

I came across the webpage of an author and ballet-lover, Kate Eberlen. Kate had recently released a novel inspired by her passion for dance (Only You is currently #1 Bestseller in Ballet on AmazonUK), but the blog post I found wasn’t about the book itself. It caught my attention because it was called ‘How dance saved my life’, where she opens up to how dance has helped her get through an extremely difficult period in her life. By attending tea dances and making trips to the theatre, she found strength and courage to face every obstacle.

'I admire the dancers' almost superhuman physical skills, the precision, the bravery, the technique, but it is the artistry of combining these with music and storytelling, that transports me to a place where I feel emotions more strongly and see beauty more clearly. For me, watching ballet is like getting a shot of pure happiness.'

Read Kate’s blog here.

The fact is, we never know the repercussions of any of our actions, how much we are affecting those who we come in contact with through dance or those who watch us from afar, perhaps seating in the audience and appreciating our dancing like it was their own body and spirit taking flight. Stories like Kate's make me feel so proud of what I do and helps me believe in the transformative power of dance. It is not just an escape from reality, but a way for others to live a happier and more fulfilling life. It brings us joy!

Dance is not just my job or my way of living. It is a journey of self-discovery and how I share and receive happiness, how I best use my gifts to serve others. It is my attempt to make the world a better place.

And what does dance mean to you?

#lifestyle #literature #ballet #royalballet #mytop5 #lockdown

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