The Importance of Dancing like an Idiot


One of the strangest but also most intriguing and redemptive things that humans get up to,

in almost any culture one cares to study, is occasionally to gather in large groups,

bathe in the rhythmic sounds of drums and flutes, organs and guitars, chants and cries,

and move their arms and legs about in complicated and frenzied ways, losing themselves in the

bewilderment of a dance. Dancing has a claim to be considered among the most essential

and salutary activities we ever partake in. Not for nothing did Nietzsche, a painfully

inhibited figure in day to day life, declare ‘I would believe only in a God who could

dance’ (a comment that stands beside his equally apodictic pronouncement: ‘Without

music, life would be a mistake.’) But dancing is at the same time an activity

that many of us, arguably those of us who might most need to do it, are powerfully inclined

to resist and deep down to fear. We stand on the side of the dance floor appalled at

the possibility of being called to join in, we attempt to make our excuses the moment

the music begins, we take pains that no one will ever, ever see our hips unite with a

beat. The point here is definitely not to learn

to dance like an expert, it is to remember that dancing badly is something we might actually

want to do and, equally importantly, something that we already well know how to do toat

least to the level of appalling proficiency we need to possess in order to derive key

benefits. In almost all cultures and at all points of

history (except oddly enough perhaps our own), dancing has been widely and publically understood

as a form of bodily exercise with something very important to contribute to our mental

state. Dancing has had nothing to do with dancing well, being young or revealing one’s

stylishness. Summed up sharply we might put it like this: dancing has been valued for

allowing us to transcend our individuality and for inducing us to merge into a larger,

more welcoming and more redemptive whole. The Ancient Greeks were for the most part

committed worshippers of the rational mind. Their foremost God, Apollo, was the embodiment

of cool reason and disciplined wisdom. However, the Greeks understoodwith prescience

that a life devoted only to the serenity of the mind could be at grave risk of desiccation

and loneliness. And so they balanced their concern with Apollo with regular festivals

in honour of a quite different God, Dionysus, a god that drank wine, stayed up late, loved music and danced.

The Greeks knew that the more rational we usually are, the more important it isat

pointsto fling ourselves around to the wild rhythms of pipes and drums. At the festivals

of Dionysius, held in Athens in March every year, even the most venerable and dignified

members of the community would join into unrestrained dancing that, irrigated by generous amounts

of red wine, lasted until dawn. A word often used to describe such dancing

isecstatic’. It’s a telling term. Ecstatic comes from two Latin words: ex (meaning

apart) and stasis (meaning standing) – indicating a state in which we are symbolicallystanding

apartfrom ourselvesseparated from the dense, detailed and self-centered layers

of our identities which we normally focus on and obsess over and reconnected with something

more primal and more necessary: our common human nature. We remember, through a period

of ecstatic dancing, what it is like to belong, to be part of something larger than ourselves,

to be indifferent to our own egosto be reunited with humanity.

This aspiration hasn’t entirely disappeared in modernitybut it’s been assigned

to very particular and woefully selective ambassadors: the disco and the rave. These

associations point us in unhelpful directions: towards being cool, a certain age, wearing

particular clothes, liking a certain kind of often rather arduous music. Such markers

of an elite, knowing crowd reinforce, rather than dismantle, our tendencies towards isolation

and loneliness. We need, urgently, to recover a sense of the universal benefit and impact

of dancing. But the greatest enemy of this is fear, and in particular, the fearas

we may put itthat we will looklike an idiotin front of people whose opinion

might matter. The way through this is not to be told that we will in fact appear really

rather fine and, with a bit of effort, very far from idiotic. Quite the opposite; we should

accept with good grace that the whole point of redemptive, consoling, cathartic communal

dancing is a chance to look like total, thoroughgoing idiots, the bigger the better, in the company

of hundreds of other equally and generously publically idiotic fellow humans.

We spend a good deal of our time fearingas if it were a momentous calamity that we did

not even dare contemplate in daylightthat we might be idiots and holding back from a

host of important aspirations and ambitions as a result. We should shake ourselves from

such inhibitions by loosening our hold on any remaining sense of dignity and by accepting

frankly that we areby natureof course completely idiotic, great sacks of foolishness

that cry in the night, bump into doors, fart in the bath and kiss people’s noses by mistake

but that far form being shameful and isolating, this idiocy is in fact a basic feature of

our nature that unites us immediately with everyone else on the planet. We are idiots

now, we were idiots then, and we will be idiots again in the future. There is no other option

for a human to be. Dancing provides us with a primordial occasion

on which this basic idiocy can be publicly displayed and communally celebrated. On a

dance floor filled with comparable idiots, we can at last delight in our joint foolishness;

we can throw off our customary shyness and reserve and fully embrace our dazzling strangeness

and derangement. An hour of frantic jigging should decisively shake us from any enduring

belief in our normalcy or seriousness.

Whenever we have the chance to invite others around, especially very serious people by

whom were intimidated or whom we might be seeking to impress, we should remember

the divine Dionysus and dare, with his wisdom in mind, to put on Dancing Queen, I’m so

excited or We are Family. Knowing that we have Nietzsche on side, we should let rip

with a playlist that includes What a Feeling, Dance with Somebody and Hey Jude. We should

lose command of our normal rational pilot selves, abandon our arms to the harmonies,

throw away our belief in arightway to dance or indeed to live, build the intensity of our movements to a frenzy

and merge with the universe or at least its more immediate representatives, our fellow new mad friends,

before whom the disclosure of idiocy will be total. Through a glance, we glimpse a huge project. How we might more

regularly experience ourselves as vulnerable in front of other people in order to become better friends to ourselves and more generous and compassionate companions

to others. The true potential of dancing has for too long been abandoned by thoughtful

people to stylish ambassadors who have forgotten the elemental seriousness of allowing themselves

to be and look idiotic. We should reclaim the ecstatic dance and uninhibited boogie

woogie for their deepest universal purposes: to reconnect, reassure and reunite us.

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