Education & the Dance of Death

| November 8, 2010

Dance, of course, is squeezed out of schools. Squeezed out and then reinserted. This is not paradoxical but strictly necessary. Within the already marginalized arts, dance itself tends often to represent the very margins within the margins. School is the place where dance is the dangerous other.

So what are we to make of any number of programs, some of which become sources for Hollywood renditions, that find that dance is an exceptional intervention into challenged schools? I might just mention, for example, the extraordinary critical engagement of Contra Tiempo, or on the cliché side of things, movies such as Take the Lead. Do we not find dance at the very heart of the matter? And yet, this is perhaps more consistent with dance’s exclusion than we might think.

Dance seems to work best from the margins. From the brink of collapse. If the act of dancing is to be acceptable within the educational framework, it is as if it must take on this role. I wrote recently, of the traditional dance from Michoacán, Mexico, Danza de los Viejitos, the “dance of the old men.”

This dance, performed on the Day of the Dead, evokes one of the central paradoxes of dying, that it is often ritualized as a rather lively affair. Witness this illustration from the Heidelberger Totentanz, one of the first books to illustrate the dance of death.

From BibliOdyssey:

The Dance of Death or ‘Le Danse Macabre’ or ‘Totentanz’ or ‘la Danza de la Muerte’ was an artistic response across Europe to the devastation brought about by the plague or black death.

Although the origins are obscure, the idea of death visiting households without regard for social or economic status arose as a cultural phenomenon by way of dramatic plays. {Dante and Petrarch are mentioned as possible examples} The inevitablity of death was a reminder to be prepared by living a pious life: ‘Memento Mori‘ — ‘Remember You Will Die’.

Within this educational context, dance, if it comes, and must be engaged with, also contains a pious injunction. Don’t get carried away, because anyone might get carried away.

Indeed, the codification of dance in relationship to death has a long secret history. Early city’s relationship to death often involved a narrative of downgoing into hellish spaces, from which only the heroic, pure and/or clever might return. The labyrinthian underbelly of the city was full of dead ends. But the ritualized tellings of ascent would take on the sure footedness of traditional dances. The labyrinth would become regulated and even grid like. In Plato’s cave allegory, the path is direct. The city dances it’s way to order. While dance might slip into a school as an extreme, the typical dance of schools is orchestrated by the bell, coordinating the timely transitions down hallways, marking the school day and calendar until the day one will finally emerge into the light.

The dance might be excessive, coming to sweep all away, but it can also serve a narrowly educational function, keeping us in our place, codifying our proper relationships. This is it’s odd relationship to death. It is not with death that the dance ends, but rather this is when it takes over, going on too long, calling for a recalibration, sacrifice. And even when the dance appears to stop, it crawls on.

What are we to make of the dance of death, the exuberant excess of life?