I HAVE been watching choreographers create dances ever since my childhood, when I often visited the studio of the legendary Ruth St. Denis in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. At 80, Miss Ruth was no longer teaching or performing and had delegated the administration of her school to a young assistant. But now and again, I was fortunate enough to be present on those rare evenings when Miss Ruth came drifting down the stairs from her apartment over the studio.
What a spectacular experience that was! Her tall, lithe figure crowned by a great mass of white hair defied her advanced age. Her charisma was so overwhelming at close quarters that she seemed more specter than person. Her smallest gesture was unexplainably expressive, magnetic, magical.
I had no idea what her movement meant, but I had absolutely no doubt that it was meaningful. It seemed to me, as a youth, that through Ruth St. Denis I experienced the ritual heart of some marvelous and alien religion.
What is it about a great dancer that transforms ordinary gesture into powerful art? How can something as illusive and non-literate as dancing contain a potential for expression that verges on religiosity?
Since my youthful encounters with Ruth St. Denis, I have never ceased to be intrigued by that question. This perplexity about the communicative power of dance is not unique to me. As a whole society, we are probably more mystified by dancing than any other art form.
Undoubtedly, part of our discomfort comes from the fact that we live in a culture in which the body has a terrible reputation. From the earliest days of Western civilization, the abhorrence of the flesh and its association with paganism and evil resulted in the castigation of the body.
The dominant religions of the West officially banned the ritual use of dance as early as the 8th century. For all other peoples of the world, such a situation would be unthinkable. For them, dance is an implicit part of religion. In fact, dancing is indistinct from praying.
Given this bit of history, it is little wonder that tribal people have retained a strong conviction about the power of their bodies, while we of the West gradually became so out of touch with our physical selves that in the 1960s and '70s it was necessary to rediscover our bodies through ``consciousness raising'' therapy and courses in body language. Eventually many churches reinvented ecclesiastical dancing, and dancers once again became the acrobats of God - a spiritual role they had held in most other civilizations.
For many of us the reemergence of dance as a respectable form of expression did not answer a fundamental question. Why does something as apparently useless and primitive as dance possess such power among most of the world's peoples?
It took many journeys into the heartland of remote nations before I could answer that question. While body movement is unquestionably pleasant to the eye, its real power is more profound than its visual niceties.
Movement communicates. Yawning is an obvious example of its contagion; so is the desire to stretch when we see someone else stretching. Because of this inherent quality of motion, which makes onlookers feel in their own bodies the exertion they see in others, the body of the dancer is able ``kinesthetically'' to convey the most intangible and metaphysical experiences, impressions, feelings, and ideas.
What I discovered among the ritual dancers of Asia, Africa, South America, and Indian America is that the body is capable of communicating in its own language. The choreographer uses that powerful quality of movement to produce an effect upon an audience that achieves an ideal fusion of feeling, form, and thought called ``art.''
People like Ruth St. Denis managed to understand something that utterly escaped the rest of us. For the dancer, the body is an organ of expression. It is not simply an embarrassing and utilitarian network of limbs. It is not just the machinery of procreation, digestion, and other functional activities; it is also an organ of expression - perhaps the most vivid facility for the expression of immediate and strongly felt ideas and feelings.
For holy dancers, the body is the organism in which motion makes visible the sacred forms of life itself. Our bodies live through motion. And thus motion is a most important and pervasive means by which religious rituals celebrate living.
The idea that spirituality can be associated with the body is extremely remote from our belief in the dichotomy of mind and body, spirit and flesh. That conviction has made us resist the importance of dance as art.
Until very recently it was inconceivable that there could be any relationship between spiritual and physical realities. To most of us, dances like the ballet and the fox trot or the waltz are, at best, simply pretty, mindless forms of amusement. Only after the turn of the century was dancing changed into a true art by people like Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, and Merce Cunningham.
Until the time of these pioneers, dancing was profoundly misunderstood as an activity that was both pointless and profane. Even today, there are many people who look upon dance as a passionate but pointless waste of energy. I recall my foster father's comment at the close of a dance performance, ``If those people would just apply all that sweat and effort to hard work, they could really accomplish something.'' After all, he asked, what does a dance accomplish?
There are as many answers to that question as there are people who create dances. Most choreographers would insist that what a dance achieves is what poetry achieves. It transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Dance changes natural movement into metaphors much the way poetry changes ordinary words so they can mean something that words normally cannot mean. The most curious thing about any art form is its power to insinuate. Sometimes by not saying exactly what we mean, we are able to imply exactly what we mean.
That is precisely what Ruth St. Denis did for me many years ago when she turned the descent of a stairway into an unspeakably impressive and memorable experience. She was in such control of her body that she was capable of investing that simple movement with the kind of metaphor that is expressed through poetry.
What does dance accomplish? W.B. Yeats was a poet, so he perfectly understood how powerfully but also how imprecisely art expresses our most sublime thoughts and feelings. It was Yeats who asked: ``Who can tell the dancer from the dance?''