People who “danced themselves to death”
In the very claustrophobic religious setting of The Dance Tree, the dance also goes against the grain. It is, as Paracelsus so helpfully reminds us, far too pleasant to be anything but suspicious. “Dance has such an important role in so many cultures outside of ours, especially Indian culture,” says Millwood-Hargrave. “In terms of faith and movement…they are simply absolutely perfect bedfellows, because the purest expression of devotion is in the body.” But within religious institutions that demand quiet piety, such gestures become dangerous. “It’s a really interesting thing to me that these women were never encouraged to move…” continues Millwood-Hargrave. “In every other sense, the church is so theatrical in the place and time of the book: those beautiful buildings, the perfume, the incense, the beeswax, the clothes, everything is so camp and so theatre. But once you’re there, you’re still and you’re silent… It’s theatre, without the warmth, without the actual bodily connection between people.”
A dancing flail for all ages
Mass disorder events have always captivated artists. There is something fundamentally fascinating about a time when the social fabric is being shattered, conventions replaced by much stranger and inexplicable events. In the case of choreomania, what emerges is not just a feeling of elation or self-destruction (another popular artistic theme), but a physical protest. Currently, the idea of a dancing bane not only registers as an oddity, but something more liberating. As scary as an unstoppable dance can be, it also has appeal. What could happen if we got carried away properly? What could we achieve with this feeling if it were reproduced in the bodies of hundreds of other people moving around us?
It’s not always the case. As Gotman explores in his book, once upon a time a dancing scourge – however designed – was something to be viewed with suspicion. In her research on approaches to choreomania in the 19th century, she discovered an attitude of alarm shrouded in colonial thinking and fear of otherness. “There was a real articulation of a version of modernity, as being in contrast to what was understood to be more feminine, more animalistic, more wild and untamed,” she tells me of the medical and historical writings she has. discovered in the Victorian era. “There was a racist and very gendered discourse taking shape.”
At this point, when contextualizing new perceived instances of choreomania, the medieval period was a convenient setting to understand it. “The medieval…was compared to the African, largely as this kind of backward, non-European, pre-modern man. [period]”, she explains. The very concept of “dance mania” was a useful political tool, allowing a cross-comparison with – and rejection of – protests and practices involving any element of physical movement. Gotman sets the example of the puppet king Radama II, who took control of Madagascar in 1861. When his people showed their displeasure, “exercising their right to protest against these kingdoms [that] sold their lands to the Europeans,” with the king finally deposed, it was easy for colonial missionaries to dismiss these actions as just another example of choreomania, turning a political protest into a mere case of madness.
Now the prevailing mood has changed. It is precisely the femininity and otherness of a dancing scourge that makes it interesting. For the artist or the thinker of today, it is both a historical curiosity and a symbol. At the center is a simple idea. A group of people start dancing and can’t stop. But why they dance, and for what purpose, remains an open question: a question that can be asked again and again, with different answers depending on what is sought. Madness. Hunger. Expression. Freedom. Pleasure. Ecstasy. In the imagination, however, the dancers’ feet remain forever in motion, moving to their own inscrutable rhythm.
Dance Fever by Florence + the Machine and The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave are now available.
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