Dance: Dance for Joy

May 31, 2007

Amy Brunvand

Instructions for everyday expression.
-by Amy Brunvand
dance.jpgPeople talk about "dancing for joy," but in real life you almost never actually see anybody (aside from dogs) spontaneously break out dancing just because they are so happy they can't keep it inside. I don't mean to say that dancing people aren't joyful. It's just that it usually seems like the dancing comes first and joy follows from it. To me, "dancing for joy" implies that joy is the cause that makes dancing irresistible. Maybe a lot of people out there actually feel intense joy deep down inside, but they repress the urge to dance because they feel too shy to dance in public (I sometimes feel that way myself), but lately I've been thinking that there are periods in life when it's just very, very hard to connect with joy.

Of course dancing is not always meant to be joyful, and there are plenty of dances that express the hardships of life: Tango is for people with broken hearts; flamenco taps into duende, a spirit which draws on a universal power of sorrow and intense emotion. Even polka, the world's happiest dance, has a punk side which strongly hints at the manic half of manic-depression.

However, in her book "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy" (Metropolitan Books, 2007), Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that today's epidemic of depression could actually be cured by more opportunities for communal pleasure such as carnivals and other traditional festivities. She views the suppression of public celebrations as a power-play for class and race dominance, and writes, "Elite hostility to Dionysian festivities goes beyond pragmatic concerns about the possibility of uprisings or the seduction of the youth. Philosophically, too, elites cringe from the spectacle of disorderly public joy."

Well, perhaps it is a cliché that innocent, unaffected children are more capable than adults of finding joy in everyday things, but one thing they can get away with is being disorderly in public. My two-year-old daughter Rosalie doesn't talk much yet, but certain things make her extremely happy, and she communicates her delight through ecstatic dance. Her dances aren't just random movement, either. The steps and patterns seem deliberate since she nearly always does the same dance to celebrate similar occasions. (Her big sister eggs her on by pointing out opportunities to dance.) It seems that dancing for joy is infectious. If an opportunity for joyful dance arises but Rosalie isn't nearby, her big sister performs Rosalie's happy dances herself and announces, "If Rosalie were here, she would do this."

I suppose one of these days Rosalie will outgrow her dancing, but I'll be sorry when she does. For one thing, the sight of a cherubic toddler dancing for joy is one of those unremarkable but wonderful moments that add a spark of joy to an otherwise dreary day. More deeply, her dances remind me to notice joy when I might have missed it. Very rarely, when I don't think anyone is looking, I'll sneak in a Rosalie dance myself. 

If you have been feeling a need to reconnect with joy, give it a try. I'm sure Rosalie won't mind if you do her dances. Here are the instructions:

Joy of Spring: Find a blossoming tree and get a tall person to shake it so that petals fall like snowflakes. Raise your arms towards the falling petals and spin.

Joy of Puddles: Find a place where sprinklers or rain showers have left a shallow puddle of clear water. Jump in with both feet and dance with small, rapid, flat-footed steps so as to create a splashing percussive sound. (Note: This dance is best accomplished in rubber boots, river sandals or other waterproof footgear).

Joy of Manhole Covers: When you see a manhole cover, utter a cry of joy, run to it and jump on. Dance with small, rapid steps while turning in a small circle. At the end of each rotation, spring into the air.

Joy of Doughnuts: Upon approaching a doughnut store, run quickly forward, taking very long steps with your right foot and very short steps with your left foot. The desired effect is a syncopated mazurka step with an aspect of galloping.