Hierarchy of Dance

The Hierarchy of Dance

(This essay was written by Sherezzah, and was published in Crescent Moon magazine July-August 1997.)

Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no more translation or abstraction from life; it is life itself. -Havelock Ellis

A day I don't dance is a day I don't live. -Wendy Buonaventura

To live is to dance; to dance is to live. -Snoopy

Many people have remarked on how dance mirrors life. I've been thinking about why I dance, and my thoughts in that direction have led me to a theory about why and how dance, particularly Middle Eastern Dance, is so closely connected to life.

If you've studied any sociology, you've probably heard about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This theory describes the needs that motivate human behavior as a hierarchy, and states that only when people have met lower-level needs do they try to meet higher-level needs. At the base level are the physiological needs, such as food and water. The next level is safety and security, such as clothing and shelter. The next level is belongingness and love: the need to feel part of a group. Then comes self-esteem: the desire to to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition. The top level is self-actualization: to strive to reach one's full potential as a human being.

My observation is that dance follows a similar hierarchy in the way that it meets people's needs.

At the lowest level, dance addresses a physical need, the need to just move your body around, to exercise. Dance has been called a celebration of the body. One of the things that makes life what it is is the body.

Of course, many activities meet this need for exercise, such as walking and many sports. And all forms of dance also meet this need; as Martha Graham said, "Dance is a song of the body." Some forms of dance are aimed primarily at the physical level: aerobic dance, for example.

The next level of need is social: this refers to the need to be with other people, to feel a sense of camraderie. This second level is why many people prefer to do their aerobic dance workouts at a class in a health club, with other people, instead of doing them home alone in front of the TV. Folk dancing tends to be optimized at the social level, whence the slogan "Folk dance is friendship set to music."

At the next level, we have a need to exercise our brains. If we don't get mental stimulation from an activity, we tend to get bored and lose interest. This need is met when you're learning new things, such as steps, routines, or styles. Some dance forms maintain this mental stimulation longer than others. For example, I used to do clogging, but clogging only has about a dozen different steps. Once I learned those, it got pretty repetitive. On the other hand, there are so many variations, styles, and related dance forms for Middle Eastern dance that I'm convinced you could keep learning about it forever. I've been studying it since 1981, with numerous teachers, and am constantly learning new things. I've been to about 100 seminars and I've never been to one where I didn't learn something new.

Once you've learned something about the dance, you can move up to the next level, which is to be creative. At this level, you get to apply what you've learned, in whatever way that suits you. You can create choreography, or you can perform in your own unique style. This is the level at which folk dancing lost me: I had fun with the people, I was learning stuff, but I really didn't feel there was a lot of opportunity for creativity in it. But again, this is an area where Middle Eastern dance shines.

But even beyond this, there is more. Middle Eastern dance fascinates beyond this. Why? It has that quality I call "depth". There are just so many aspects to it that you can continue to be fascinated in many different directions. You can get into the music, which is something different from what most of us in the Western world are used to. You can learn about the many different countries and peoples who have been associated with this dance form, and their history and culture. You can get into the spiritual nature of the dance, in whatever aspect means something to you. You could get into costumes, ranging from the elegant nightclub style, through folkloric and tribal, into total fantasy. And on and on. It reminds me of a funky old antique shop: every time you turn a corner, or move something, something new and interesting catches your eye. (Well, maybe that's to be expected from a funky old antique dance!)

So, what does all this mean? It means that Middle Eastern dance provides everything we need for personal growth and spiritual well being. It's why I love it so much, and I'm sure it explains why so many people fall in love with it and stick with it for so long.


(c)1997 by Sherrezzah Bint al-Waha


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