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Dance as a language

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MUSINGS Dance is as enchanting as the idea of the written word.

Vocabulary of a different kind:Dance communicates through body.Photo: V. Sudershan
Vocabulary of a different kind:Dance communicates through body.Photo: V. Sudershan

Iwas reading a book on dance when some seemingly obvious but taken for granted thoughts came into my mind. I was amazed that I was able to understand what is essentially just a large number of organised patterns on a paper. The idea of language, something that is said to separate and elevate us from the status of other animals, suddenly seemed ingenious to me. The written language has been around in the human world for so long that we don’t pause to think about what a fascinating invention it is. But really, the fact that we have the alphabet in so many different scripts enables us to communicate in a way that is non-verbal, which is nothing short of a miracle.

Through the various scripts, we have been able to communicate and document through writing. And thus, we have been able to etch in historical memory – fictional stories, real life accounts, scientific research and cultural processes. As a result of this non-verbal skill of communication, as a species, we have been able to live beyond our lifespan. William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein and Isadora Duncan are dead and gone, but because of their writing, they remain alive through their legacies.

Dance has often been called a tool for non-verbal communication. It has been said that dance is a language. This is, arguably, as enchanting as the idea of the written word.

Why, one might ask, is dance as a language so miraculous? To start with, dance communicates not just with the mouth, through which we speak the written word, but rather it involves the entire body. The whole body lends itself to the role of communicating something in a non-verbal, yet powerful way. To communicate through language, one usually requires the mental discipline to memorise and internalise a script, but communicating through dance requires mental as well as physical discipline. It requires the same mental discipline to learn the ‘grammar’ or ‘vocabulary’ of any other language, but it requires a physical discipline to communicate this language through the body.

The written and spoken forms of language, no doubt, convey emotions. Any author or scholar of literature would say that words are amongst the most powerful ways of conveying emotions. Words do indeed have the power to please and hurt other people, and in that sense, they are powerful tools of conveying and generating emotion. On the other hand, dance conveys, expresses and generates emotions in a somewhat different way than words do. Yet it serves a similar purpose to words – it communicates as a language. When the body dances, it creates a visually powerful display of emotion. Some dance forms that involve facial expressions add another dimension to the visually powerful expression of emotion in a non-verbal way.

Finally, just as good writing communicates a story in a compelling and aesthetic way, dance also involves aesthetic communication. And along with that, it involves a sense of real-live drama that is different from the drama that manifests itself in one’s mind while reading a dramatic piece of writing. This sense of drama and movement is visually intelligible right in front of your eyes.

We don’t often think about the wonder that is language. It is something we are so accustomed to, that we barely stop to even think about how amazing it is that human beings are able to put together arbitrary symbols in their heads, transform them into understandable sounds that they utter and actually communicate meaning in detailed and intricate ways. Neither do we stop to appreciate how ingenious it is that humans have found a language in order to communicate through bodily movement – through dance.

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