Europe

World History of the Dance. Curt Sachs. pp63-64    


Medicine Dances

In the healing of the sick, the relation of the circle dance to the world of the ecstatic, visionary mental state becomes most impressive. The dancer or dance leader of a whole dance chorus is the sharnan, the witch doctor, the medicine man. Demoniac, clairvoyant, prophetic, appointed because of a natural, often a parapsychic predisposition, possessed by a transcendental inspiration, he condenses and increases within himself the ecstatic powers of the tribe to a miraculous extent. Transported far from the physical, he looks at the mythical past and the future. He as­cends to the spirits who threaten the well-being of man and struggles with them, until they give up and release their victim. The medicine dance is his most direct medium of expression.

The picture of such a dance in pure form is the same in all shamanistic cultures. The sick man is placed in the center and encircled, until the dancers in an ecstatic state have overpowered the spirit of sickness, chased him away, or even drawn him into themselves and conquered him. The Vedda dance described in detail on page 12 may be considered an example, even though the Vedda have only adopted shamanism. It would be difficult to think of anything more impressive than the fact that as late as the end of the nineteenth century the rural population of France ranged itself in unaffected primitiveness alongside these pyg-moids whose culture is of the Early Stone Age: in the departement of Seine-et-Oise a child suffering from a hernia was carried under an oak tree and danced around by the women.

In other cultures wild ecstasy often gives way to grave solemnity. Thus in the Celebes (Neneng) in an unconstrained procession men and Women wearing red wreaths of holy flowers on their heads, their hands on the shoulders of the dancer in front, jerk their bodies forwards and backwards and move slowly in measured rhythm around the sick per­sons, who squat on mats in the middle of the circle. Further up in the scale of mankind, among the Yurok of California and those Vedda of Ceylon no longer reckoned as primitive, the dancers hold branches in­stead of flowers—the same branches that are so often swung in the fertility dances.

Contrariwise, it may be the sick person himself who dances to get well. The sick Toba women of the Gran Chaco dance faster and faster within the circle of townspeople, who sit and sing, until the sickness spirits escape in perspiration and are driven into the woods by one of the men with a firebrand. There are parallels in North America. The Ute, for example, create healing power against rheumatism by dancing around a sun pole. But even in Europe, in Rumania, there are healing dances for the sick.


Medicine Dances

In the healing of the sick, the relation of the circle dance to the world of the ecstatic, visionary mental state becomes most impressive. The dancer or dance leader of a whole dance chorus is the sharnan, the witch doctor, the medicine man. Demoniac, clairvoyant, prophetic, appointed because of a natural, often a parapsychic predisposition, possessed by a transcendental inspiration, he condenses and increases within himself the ecstatic powers of the tribe to a miraculous extent. Transported far from the physical, he looks at the mythical past and the future. He as­cends to the spirits who threaten the well-being of man and struggles with them, until they give up and release their victim. The medicine dance is his most direct medium of expression.

The picture of such a dance in pure form is the same in all shamanistic cultures. The sick man is placed in the center and encircled, until the dancers in an ecstatic state have overpowered the spirit of sickness, chased him away, or even drawn him into themselves and conquered him. The Vedda dance described in detail on page 12 may be considered an example, even though the Vedda have only adopted shamanism. It would be difficult to think of anything more impressive than the fact that as late as the end of the nineteenth century the rural population of France ranged itself in unaffected primitiveness alongside these pyg-moids whose culture is of the Early Stone Age: in the departement of Seine-et-Oise a child suffering from a hernia was carried under an oak tree and danced around by the women.

In other cultures wild ecstasy often gives way to grave solemnity. Thus in the Celebes (Neneng) in an unconstrained procession men and Women wearing red wreaths of holy flowers on their heads, their hands on the shoulders of the dancer in front, jerk their bodies forwards and backwards and move slowly in measured rhythm around the sick per­sons, who squat on mats in the middle of the circle. Further up in the scale of mankind, among the Yurok of California and those Vedda of Ceylon no longer reckoned as primitive, the dancers hold branches in­stead of flowers—the same branches that are so often swung in the fertility dances.

Contrariwise, it may be the sick person himself who dances to get well. The sick Toba women of the Gran Chaco dance faster and faster within the circle of townspeople, who sit and sing, until the sickness spirits escape in perspiration and are driven into the woods by one of the men with a firebrand. There are parallels in North America. The Ute, for example, create healing power against rheumatism by dancing around a sun pole. But even in Europe, in Rumania, there are healing dances for the sick.

 

 

Europe since Antiquity

 The late Middle Ages

The Great Outburst of Dance Ecstasy

pp.251-256

At the beginning of this book it was necessary to state repeatedly that ecstasy in the broader sense is preserved in all dancing, even in the most conventional social dance—ecstasy as an irresistible urge to the dance and as a sloughing off of the world and the self in and through the dance. This we shall not discuss again here; it fits into normal life and may be reckoned as a healthy phenomenon. On the other hand we have had, in the earlier part of the book, countless examples of compulsion and abandonment so strong and so perverse that they must be regarded from our point of view as abnormal and diseased. We shall deal here only with these pathogenic excesses in the West and their gradual de­cline.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries there are increasingly numerous

reports that on days when somebody dies or at Christian festivals men

and women begin suddenly and irresistibly to sing and dance in the

churchyard, disturb divine service, refuse to stop at the priest's bidding, and as a result are finally cursed to dance the whole year through until a sympathetic archbishop removes the ban. This is the gruesome motif of the dance curse which Hans Christian Andersen in his popular fairy tale has fashioned into the story o£ the little Karen, who cannot find rest until the executioner has cut off her feet.

The Bohemian Leo von Rozmital found a strange example when he came to Brescia in the year 1466. He saw a gigantic crowd of people who had flocked together from the surrounding country, as was their annual custom on this day, to dance on a mountain from sunrise to sun­set, so that they had to be brought back in a wagon completely ex­hausted. They were forced to do this as a punishment from God because once on this mountain the dancers had failed to salute the Corpus Dominicum as it was carried by.

Generally, however, these frenzied dances took place in the church­yards. Here, in accordance with an ancient belief, the dancers sought communion with their dead. It was literally a dansc macabre. For in the Arabic fyabr means "grave," m&kbara, "churchyard," and mafyabr, "churchyards." There can no longer be any doubt that the name has come from the Arabic, since we know that one of the roots of the dance of death goes back to the Arabs.

For a thousand years the ecclesiastical councils opposed these ob-scoeni motm, s&ltationes self choreac (obscene dances) in church and churchyard—each time the evil was to be rooted out, and each time the attempt failed.

What these festival dances were and how they were performed is scarcely ever told. Only one writer of the twelfth century, Giraldus Cambrensis, has left us in his hinerarium Cambriae an exact descrip­tion: "You may see men or girls, now in the churchyard, now in the dance, which is led round the churchyard with a song, on a sudden fall­ing on the ground as in a trance, then jumping up as in a frenzy, and representing with their hands and feet, before the people, whatever work they have unlawfully done on feast days; you may see one man put his hand to the plough, and another, as it were, goad on the oxen, mitigating their sense of labor, by the usual rude song: one man imitat­ing the profession of a shoemaker; another, that of a tanner. Now you may see a girl with a distaff, drawing out the thread, and winding it again on the spindle; another walking, and arranging the threads for the web; another, as it were, throwing the shuttle, and seeming to weave. On being brought into the church, and led up to the altar with their oblations, you will be astonished to see them suddenly awakened and coming to themselves."

What is revealed in these dances is not a "relic" of "paganism," but a piece of ecstatic inner life, which since the Stone Age has been disguised and concealed through innumerable racial influxes but never extin­guished, and which must break out through all restraints at the favor­able moment. When volcanoes which have long been extinct become active again, there are first a few small partial eruptions and then one day enormous masses are flung out and rush along burning, destroying, and burying everything that is living. Similarly, about the middle of the fourteenth century that uncontrollable dance madness, born per­haps out of the dances to avert the plague, which is known to physi­cians as chorea major and to laymen as St. Vitus's dance, broke out in the valley of the Rhine:

Amidst our people here is come,

The madness of the dance.

In every town there now are some

Who fall upon a trance.

It drives them ever night and day,

They scarcely stop for breath,

Till some have dropped along the way

And some are met by death.

Harried by plague, long wars, and endless misfortunes, and stirred to the depths of their being, hosts of distracted people roll westwards from place to place. Singly or hand in hand they circle and jump in hideously  they rave, the hysterical psychosis lays hold on the spectators, so that, quivering and grimacing, they enter the circle and under a fearful compulsion join in the dance. The evil lasted for months; physicians and priests were powerless. And it continually flares up anew. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries new eruptions occur, and there are recurrences far into the seventeenth century.

In Italy there raged at the same time and on into the eighteenth century another form of dance mania—tarantism. This malady was thought to be caused by the bite of the Apulian spider Lycosa tarcntula. From the melancholia which followed the bite, only the wild jumping dance of southern Italy, the tarantella, which like the spider takes its name from the city of Tarentum, brought temporary release. In con­trast to the German St. Vitus's dance, the movement here is, like fever, rather a kind of assistance from the sick person himself in the curing of the disease. But as in Germany it infected the spectators and induced in them the same manic depression.

What sort of dance was the tarantella? In Naples, Goethe tells us, it is "common among the girls of the lower and middle classes. At least three of them take part in it. One of them beats on the tambourine and shakes the bells on it from time to time without beating on it, the other two, with castanets in their hands, execute the steps of the dance. As in all cruder dances, the steps are not distinctive or graceful in themselves. Rather the girls keep time with their feet while they trip round for a while in one place, then turn, change places, and so on. Then one of the dancers will exchange her castanets for the tambourine and stand still while the third begins to dance. And thus they may go on amusing themselves by the hour, without being conscious of the spectators. This dance is only an amusement for girls; no boy would touch a tam­bourine."

What Goethe describes is a faded, metropolitan survival. The taran­tella of the dance mania did not look like that. A good description of its modern but true traditional form brings it close to the Roman saUardlo and the Tuscan tresca. This description tells how the dancer, kneeling, adores his female partner and then, as though sated, speedily forsakes her again; how with a thousand turns and tricks he now holds aloof and now rushes upon her. His gambols and capers are grotesque and yet charmingly light and tender. His bearing is now proud and resolute, now querulous and elaborate. Legs and arms, even the fingers, strum­ming on the tambourine, and above all the glance, ardent, languishing, suddenly bold and shameless, reinforce the expression of the posture. The girl comes out of her corner, now wayward, now willing. Her smile is eloquent, her eyes are drunken. She swings her skirt; she picks up the corner of it as if she were going to gather things in it; or she raises her arm so that the hand hangs down loosely over her head as though from a hook, while the other hand presses against her heart. Now she is the axis around which the male dancer rotates. "What a dance," ex­claimed Rilke once, "as though invented by nymphs and satyrs, old and as though rediscovered and rising up anew, wrapped in primeval mem­ories—cunning and wildness and wine, men with goat's hooves again and girls from the train of Artemis."

We are more likely to find an approach to the phenomenon of tar­antism through this demoniacal, primitive tarantella than through Goethe's insipid city dance in which the girls "dance away the happiest hours of their youth." Johann Hermann von Riedesel, who shortly be­fore Goethe's journey investigated the enigmatical connections between these dances very thoroughly, saw in Otranto a girl of twenty-two dance uninterruptedly for ten hours and reported that thirty-six-hour dances without eating or drinking occurred. He ascribes it less to the sting of the tarantula than to the general lushness of the south Italian midsum­mer and assumes the cure to be the result of the increased circulation of the blood through the dance. But the dancers are mainly peasant girls. Would they be likely to need exercise for the circulation of the blood? How poverty-stricken the rationalistic interpretations of the eighteenth century appear! How they pale before the fearful, divinely mad ecstasy of the dance!

WORLD  HISTORY OF  THE  DANCE

These things can be understood only in the light of the extreme ex­citability that characterized the people of the Middle Ages, when none, from the youngest to the oldest, was immune to this infection of the mind. The history of dance manias in the north as in the south records striking examples. In what is known as the "Great Hallelujah" of the year 1233, all the people of Italy, in the grip of an ecstatic urge, fol­lowed round after the penitential preachers and carried with them branches and burning candles. And from Germany four years later, in 1237, it is reported that more than a hundred children of Erfurt were suddenly and irresistibly impelled by some morbid hallucination to set out on foot for Arnstadt. Many of them died of exhaustion; others were afflicted with palsy for the rest of their lives. From this it is but a step to the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who lured the children into the mountains with the music of his pipes:

However proud each boy in heart, However much the maidens start, I bid the chords sweet music make, And all must follow in my wake.

If for the children we substitute pope, emperor, journeyman, soldier, beggar, and noblewoman, and for the Pied Piper the Grim Reaper, we find ourselves in the midst of the pallid world of the dance of death.

From the ranks of the living the Inexorable One summons dancer after dancer. None is spared, neither woman nor child, neither emperor nor peasant:

His cruel! daunce no man mortall can stent Nor lede his cruell cours after his intent The pope nor Emperour, if they be in his hande Hath no maner myght his sore cours withstande.

The bysshop, lorde, the Pore man, lyke a state Death in his daunce ledyth by the sleue.

Since the close of the fourteenth century, poets and painters have de­scribed how the skeleton figure of death steals up on mortals unawares and carries them ofT from their joy and splendor, their hope and de­spair, sometimes linked in a long chain, hand in hand, sometimes two by two.

Once we were men as you are now; But one day you shall be like us.

Thus wrote a King of Mecca at the beginning of the third century, and this prophecy of death has never since been silent. From the Arab world it has found its way into the Occident, and in all languages churchyard portals warn:

As you are, so were we; As we are, you shall be.

Since the twelfth century this idea has taken literary form in the dra­matic legend of the three dead men, once great lords, who preach to three living men of high rank about the vanity of all earthly glories in the face of death. Finally the painters seized upon this grateful mate­rial ; the first fresco to fix the legend in form and color was the world-famous "Triumph of Death" from the fourteenth century in the Campo Santo at Pisa. How could the vanity of rank and riches in the great reckoning have been more vividly impressed upon the mind of the faithful than by the overwhelming power of such a picture? (Plates 18,'9.)

Why did the Middle Ages seek to pour into the mold of the choral dance ideas of death and equality before death? Obviously there are three different underlying concepts:

1.  The relationship between the living and the dead in the dance;

2.  The dance as the form of movement peculiar to the dead;

3.  The dance of the dead with the living as a warning of death and departure from life.

The first two concepts reach far back into primitive folklore. The consummation of the union between the living and the dead in the dance is an idea characteristic of all civilizations in which the religion has arisen from ancestor worship. Every dance has this power. Cali­fornia Indians, circling around a woman, begin to dream of the dead. Moreover, in dances using impersonation, the union reaches the point of an incarnation of the deceased in the form of a doll or a masked dancer. The Batak of Sumatra introduce into their dance a puppet in effigy of their departed chieftain. And before the burial of a Yoruba of West Africa, a man draped in the shroud of the deceased and wear­ing a portrait mask over his face begins to dance. In the first case death is practically denied, but in the second the dead man is unmistakably marked as dead by the shroud. He is no longer represented as belong­ing to the living. A custom of certain Tibetan monasteries carries us a step further: besides two buffoons, there appear in the choral dance of the living two other figures with skulls and wearing tight-fitting white costumes on which skeletons have been painted. It is no longer a question of one dead person but of death as a concept, as the last stage of everything living.

The second idea—the dance as the form of movement peculiar to the dead—originates in the more universal conception that all supermun­dane, otherworldly motion is dance. Stars, gods, and spirits all dance. Even among the people of the Stone Age, this conception was given concrete form in gruesome pictures of the dance of death. The most striking one is the vision of a Chavantean Indian of East Brazil: a host of skeletons whirled about in a dance, in chaotic confusion. The putri-fied flesh hung from their bones and their eyes were withered and sere in the sunken sockets. The air was heavy with the foul stench. . . -Thus did the Indians learn that no heaven of bliss awaits them up

yonder, however the stars may gleam and charm. This is almost the same medieval vision that Goethe saw:

They crooked their thigh bones, and they shook their long shanks,

And wild was their reeling and limber; And each bone as it crosses, it clinks and it clanks,

Like the clapping of timber on timber.

The mystical dance of death has become a horrid apparition. This con­ception, and also the memento mori, is more crudely expressed in a volume of woodcuts assembled in Mainz about 1491:

Come along, come along, ye masters and men, Haste ye hither whate'er ye ben, Or young or old, or high or low, Ye all must to the dance house go.

And between the Stone Age and the Middle Ages stands classical antiquity with the same vision. A relief on a tomb in Cumae, an early Greek colony on the west coast of Campania in Italy, depicts three shriv­eled corpses dancing, and similar dancing skeletons are represented on Roman vases. This symbolism entered into the very midst of their joys and festivities: Roman hosts used to have little silver skeletons dance on the dinner table. To the ancients this symbol always meant carpc diem. At the feasts of the wealthy in Egypt, Herodotus tells us, a man used to go around, when the meal was over, with a wooden image of death in a coffin. ... He would show it in turn to each guest and say: "Behold this image, then drink and be merry; for this is what you too will be, when you are dead."

But not until the Middle Ages was the last of these three ideas de­veloped: the dance of the dead with the living as a warning of death and departure from life. There is a legend that at a ball of Alexander III of Scotland a ghost appeared and took part in the dance; shortly after that the King died.

This is a different kind of memento mori. No longer is it "One day death will come—enjoy your life," but "Death will come soon—make use o£ your life." Death has come horribly close, stands ominously near, and already the menacing hand is raised. Powerless, mankind obeys the inevitable summons.

The man of the Middle Ages was more accustomed to receiving new and strange ideas through the medium of the choral dance than through any other. Only in the form of that dance, which he had seen since a child and in which he had himself taken part, did the picture resolve itself immediately into a clear experience for him. The choral dance robs the participants of their own wills—as though in a trance they follow the leader, who seeks out the path for them, closes and opens the chain, ties and looses the knot. How could poets and painters have presented to the mind the idea that all, all must go the same road towards the same goal with the same trials and tribulations, more forci­bly than in the dance of death which brought them all into the round dance?

They could do this the more readily because the people of the four­teenth century had not found in the choral dance merely the ecstasy of happiness. The man of the Middle Ages had learned in his dances, too, the ecstasy of mortal terror and of despair. He had seen those hide­ously distorted dances which people performed against their wills and the curse of which only the grace of God could remove. And he had recently experienced how mortal terror and despair raged in frenzied dances and how the Great Destroyer snatched his victims from among the dancers. The dance had changed for him from healthy enjoyment into painful suffering, from festive pleasure into fatal pestilence and consuming madness. The leader guiding at will the exuberant youths on flowery spring meadows into ever new convolutions of the dance, and Death drawing after him everything living, great and small, rich and poor, in irresistible rhythms—the dance as a symbol of living and of dying—in no comparison can the terrific tenseness of the Gothic soul be more clearly comprehended.

The painted dances of death do not always reflect the features of the real dances of the time. The movements of the dead person are often absurdly and grotesquely distorted. This lies partly in the nature of things. Everything incongruous has a comic effect—the giant who walks trippingly like a dwarf, the child who puts on his father's hat, the man in woman's clothes. The skeleton which, instead of moldering in the grave, stands upright, walks and acts like a living person, belongs among these incongruities. And what could be more anomalous than the convulsive rhythms of the most youthful and most lively movement of man in the fleshless, clattering bones of the dead? Can it be that he is really dancing, actively and consciously? Is he really moving those arms and legs and feet, which do not seem to have grown thus organ­ically at all? Are they not tied onto him like the limbs of a puppet which are made to leap and dance by invisible strings in the hand of the master?

We look at the pictures of the death dance and suddenly the stark skeletons begin to move, and the way in which they move is curiously familiar to us. This posture, this placing of the feet, these gestures, do we not know them from the temple friezes of ancient southeastern Asia, from Angkor Vat and Borobudur, and from the modern dancers of the Indian world who, in accordance with a tradition thousands of years old, like the marionettes of the shadow play, dance so remotely, so im­personally, and yet more than personally? And the absurd behavior of the whole mummery of distortion and perversion is already familiar to us. With horror we beheld it when in demoniacal primitive folk masks the dead were revived in strange dances. And now we realize that it could not be a brilliant invention of the mind that formed the dance of death, but that like all other concepts of ultimate things, it is a conglomeration of fantastic images born of grandiose dreams.

 



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