The old joke goes: Mennonites don't have sex because it might lead to dancing.
I recently was at a birthday party for some friends of mine, held at a club. This brought to mind an experience I had in Turkey this last fall. They were quite different situations, but both involved dancing. Growing up where I did I've thought a lot about dancing and what it means, though I've never before written anything down. So here are my somewhat rambling thoughts on dancing and the body.
But first a quick aside: Let me say that these thoughts are part of a larger, completely unstructured project. That project being my attempts to understand how I, as a young, christian, white male, should interact with the world. How is my faith to influence what I do and how I do it? Should my life be noticeably different than those who are not Christian around me? Should I shout it from the rooftops? Or quietly go about a radical life? How does my gender and ethnicity fit in to all this? This is something I struggle with greatly, and what better place to struggle than a public forum?
And now, here is my confession: I love to dance. I am not good at it, though I am not terrible either (I hope). That does not matter though, as I find an escape on the dance floor. There I can surrender myself to the more primal aspects of music. The mystery of sound. That ability some songs have to reach past my finely tuned reserved nature and make me want to move my body to the beat.
There is a pleasure in the movement of my body that does not exist anywhere else. I believe it is a form of sexuality that focuses on the joy of movement.
And I like to see dance as just that, joyous bodily movement.
I grew up in the footloose town, or at least that is what one radio station in Winnipeg called us. Yes, just like the 1984 Kevin Bacon movie Footloose, dancing was not allowed in my hometown. My understanding is that town leaders were nervous not of the dancing itself, but what seems to come with dancing. That is, the sex.
The fear was that at a dance young people would be overcome the vision of gyrating bodies around them and be helpless to resist. And before you knew it all sorts of little Mennos would be running around.
Sarcasm aside I do see where this fear comes from.
I am not a frequenter of clubs, but I have been to a few, and I find myself in a love/hate relationship with them. The love side being the possibility to dance the night away in a dark room filled with people doing the same. Music with fantastic beats that can take you out of yourself for a little while. Which, as an introvert, is something I occasionally seek out. The hate comes from of the sexual politics of these places, and it is in this I see what those town leaders were afraid of. There is a disturbing kind sexuality on display that seems a perversion of that joyous bodily movement.
Whatever joy that can be found in dance is replaced by a sad desperation for someone, somewhere to think they are sexually worthy. There is no pretence at attempting to get to know the other people in the club, only a focus on the body above all things. Those outer trappings of a person.
The joy of the body in motion becomes a desire for the body at the exclusion of the person. And the desire to be the prize object.
The result is that these places are often filled with intense judgement, hierarchy and a great deal of pain.
This came in stark contrast to what I saw in Turkey. Let me tell you a story.
About a month into my Turkish adventure I went to a bar with some friends of mine on the party and shopping street of Istiklal. We found a crowded patio down a small side street and ordered our beers (the Turkish classic Efes). There was a single musician playing some Turkish pop songs on guitar inside of the bar who we could hear but not see. People were talking boisterously, in classic Turkish fashion, and seemed to be barely listening.
As the guitarist started the next song expressions of joy broke out over the faces of the crowd. Everyone seemed to know and love this song. The noise level crept up as people began to sing along and a few got up to dance.
There was no room on this patio, as every square inch was covered by tables and chairs, but this did not stop anyone. People simply stood up in their places and danced anyway.
This was a dancing without reserve, yet without boastfulness. It was not only for the talented, nor was it to gain the attention of others. It was a revelling in the moving of ones own body. A finding of joy in music and ones place in it.
The movements were simple and became communal. Everyone could participate or not and no one was judged for their part.
This dancing came from somewhere inside, an expression of deep joy. Yet it was also not ignoring the sexuality of it.
It truly was a beautiful thing.
I suspect that how a culture dances can say a lot about how a culture understands the body. We, in the West, feel that we have liberated the body. Set if free from some sort of prison imposed upon it. Yet when I look about a club, and see the destructive extremes people have taken to look sexy, I don't see liberation, but another form of enslavement. I'm not saying that the Turks have truly liberated the body. What I am saying is that there is much we can learn from the way they dance.
It is a question the Church needs to wrestle with as well. What is this thing we walk around in? What is this body of ours? And a huge question for many, how can we, or even should we, take pleasure from it? I think dance is one way, at least the body affirming dance of the Turks I saw that night.
Let me leave you with the words of one Kevin Bacon:
“'David danced before the Lord with all his might... leaping and dancing before the Lord.' Ecclesiastes assures us... that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to laugh... and a time to weep. A time to mourn... and there is a time to dance... See, this is our time to dance. It is our way of celebrating life.”