Why Dance Matters

A Walk through the Landscape of Dance with Mindy Aloff

Mindy Aloff’s new book Why Dance Matters is part of a series, published by Yale University Press, on why this or that thing should matter to the reader. The series has already taken on such subjects as architecture, translation, poetry, and acting. And as of next January, it will include Aloff’s meditation on the many ways dance enters and alters our lives. At different points in her career, Aloff has been a poet, a dance critic, an essayist, a teacher, the editor of the anthology Dance in America, and the author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation. She has spent her life looking at dance and thinking about what it means—how it interconnects with music, visual art, the movies, life.

But what is special about this book is that it is precisely not what one might think it is. It is not a well-reasoned disquisition on what dance has to offer the average human. Neither didactic nor instructive, Why Dance Matters seems to take in the experience of watching or taking part in dance in one breath, moving with great ease—even virtuosity—between subjects as wide-ranging as tight-rope walking, woodblock printing in the Edo period, Anna Pavlova, Fred Astaire, John Travolta’s walk in Saturday Night Fever, and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. (These particular topics are covered over the course of just eight pages.) Aloff’s frame of reference is vast. It includes everything she has seen, perceived, read about, experienced, touched, and dreamed of. Novels, poetry, movies, the writings of Thoreau, photographs, paintings, even coins have their place in this vivid stroll through the seemingly infinite corridors of her musings. As do, of course, myriad dance forms, from ballet to hip-hop to the post-modern dance movements that changed the landscape of performance in New York in the sixties and seventies, Katherine Dunham, Merce Cunningham, and the Germanic dance theater of Pina Bausch. Her book is like a great memory palace of dance, in which she easily peeks into this room and then that one, while constantly discovering the ways in which those rooms interconnect. The experience of reading it can at times be dizzying. But by the end, one can’t help but feel that she has made a powerful case for dance as something that exists everywhere around us, as ubiquitous and necessary as the air we breathe.

We spoke recently about the book’s genesis, her relationship to dance, and about how, in the end, the words almost wrote themselves.

You start your book with a photograph by Helen Levitt, “Children Dancing,” of two children dancing in the street. Why this beginning?

I happen to adore Helen Levitt’s photography—she was a specialist in street photography, and in photographs of children. What she captured there, and what I was hoping to capture via my discussion of that photograph, was the spontaneity of response. Children are less guarded than adults, not always, but in her photographs they are. Once I chose the photograph, I knew that the whole chapter had to be about children.

There is so much in the book about childhood, and about our experience of dance, music, and movement as children. In your mind, are childhood and dance deeply connected?

Dancing is deeply affiliated with my own childhood. The first ballet I ever saw was “The Nutcracker,” Balanchine’s, on television in the very early 50s. This was followed for me, again on t.v., by The Royal Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty,” with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora and Frederick Ashton as Carabosse. And then my father took me to see a ballet live. It was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in 1956. And I remember vividly a work now long lost called “La Dame à la Licorne,” the lady and the unicorn, by a choreographer named Heinz Rosen. The unicorn dancer wore a white unitard with white pointe shoes and a milky-white mask with a horn protruding, as if from her forehead. She did a particular pose that stayed pinned in my mind: a backbend accompanied by a tendu of the foot to the front. And I realized as I looked at that pose that the tendu and the horn were somehow connected, graphically connected, formally connected. And that revelation was for me utter magic.

Your experience of dance comes across as a series of revelations, like the one you just described.

Mindy Aloff, author of Why Dance Matters. Photograph by Mina Witteman

That’s true. For me, dancing is profound. It’s very much part of my identity, and it was part of a certain kind of magic that my childhood had. I was an only child, but I wasn’t lonely. The world to me was very magical. We lived within the city limits of Philadelphia, on the border of a golf course. And between the houses and the golf course was a little forest and a little meadow. I would go by myself and wander through the meadow. I remember specifically looking up, at dusk, and seeing the birds flying toward wherever they were going to settle for the night, and thinking “Who are they? I want to be part of that flock. I should be part of that flock.” And then, when I was in college, I found me in a book doing just that. It was in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The protagonist stands and watches the birds at dusk and says, “what birds are they?” Exactly the same impulse and feeling I had had. It was so exciting not to be locked in my own response, and to know that other people have the same.

There is a kind of magic in that.

Yes. There were times when I was writing poetry—I was a terrible poet, but I really loved the act of writing poetry—when I would get up in the morning and look at an object, or touch it, and suddenly I had a line of poetry, which was also a kind of magic.

One of the things that strikes me about your book is the freedom with which it meanders from one idea or image to another. Reading it feels almost like joining you on a walk through your thoughts.

There have been three times in my life when I’ve had the experience of sitting down to write and having complete flow. And this book was the third, but it came after 11 years of trudging painfully through an extremely dry landscape. Finally, I got a call from my publisher [Yale University Press] and they said, this is the last possible moment. Can you get the book to us in a year? And I said, yes. At that moment I thought, this is it. And I just sat down and asked myself, “how am I going to start over with the first chapter?” And then I remembered that Helen Levitt photograph, and it turned out that that was the beginning of Ariadne’s thread.

Does this way of moving through and between ideas reflect the way you experience art?

If I’m not tired, yes. But those connections don’t come without labor. The labor is constantly asking questions and then following that curiosity at the moment it happens, not deferring it 10 years, but in the moment. And so I’ve done that with a lot of different arts. My focus is not on one thing, and there are a lot of tradeoffs for that. I never finished my dissertation, which was in medieval literature, on pilgrimage. I was interested in a certain aspect of pilgrimage in literature and art.

That’s interesting, since pilgrimages are also about walking. Why is walking such an important subject for you?

It means being alive. Perceiving, hearing things, sometimes smelling things that aren’t nice . . . being in the world. Something wonderful happened to me two days ago. I was walking on the downtown platform of the A train at 14th Street. And in front of me was a man in his 30s, maybe early 40s. He was just walking. And on the uptown platform there was a musician playing some kind of world beat. And suddenly, the man in front of me heard the music, and his walking—presto!—became dancing. I saw how his body changed in a breath. It was a change of the transfer of weight. When you’re walking, your weight is paced. But when he heard the dance beat, he bent his knees more deeply and his rebound from the kneebend became a bounce. It was walking, exaggerated. Then, he began to play with his steps, moving three to the right and one to the left. This was someone who responded to music and was at one with his body. He was in the moment. What a pleasure to see. He was a gift.

Is dancing, then, a heightened form of walking?

Some, not all. Dancing is, for me, a transformation, moment by moment. Either you’re exchanging your weight from step to step, or, if you’re dancing in place, you’re transforming your upper body. Or maybe it’s a gesture, but it’s something where you are not the same at moment Y as you were at moment X.

You make me think of Jerome Robbins. In so many of his dances, the people start out walking, and then gradually, magically, you realize they’re dancing.

Yes, Robbins was kind of obsessed with the border between everyday movement and dancing. I wonder if some of that came from his own fascination with Fred Astaire and also with Balanchine’s admiration for Astaire. Robbins even made a dance based on an Astaire duet with Rita Hayworth—I’m Old Fashioned (The Astaire Variations). I was at the premiere, which happened a month and a-half after Balanchine died. I wasn’t alone in my impression that Robbins was paying homage to Balanchine through Astaire in that ballet. In thinking about Astaire for this book, I went back to his films, and I was shocked by how many of the dances in them are about walking, or come from walking.

It’s apparent from reading the book that you take in an enormous amount of dance, both live and on film and online. Do you get the same stimulus from watching dance on a screen?

I started going to movies when I was four, and so I always was interested in how they worked. It’s not the same as live dance. Dance onscreen always makes for an analytical experience, at least in my case. You have to fill in, imagine what you’re not seeing, work backward from the image to how it might have been produced.

You also seem to have a high tolerance for dance that you don’t really enjoy, which is something I, as a fellow dance critic, have trouble with. I could sense this, for example, in your discussion of Pina Bausch’s “1980,” which I don’t think you love, but which you write about very visually and eloquently.

You’re very generous. What you say about my tolerance is often true. Regarding “1980,” it was a big revelation to me on a trip to Berlin to stand in the Grosse Hamburger Strasse Cemetery, Berlin’s oldest Jewish cemetery, and to suddenly be aware that I had been here before, not this literal place but a place that was similarly ordered, and that I was experiencing feelings I’d felt in such a place. Bausch had recreated something specific to her that I retroactively recognized as specific to me. That uncanny sensation is separate from liking or not liking.

Your experience of dance seems to be like an internal pilgrimage or adventure. Are you drawn to all kinds of dance?

I love watching people move freely for the pure pleasure or satisfaction of it, like that man in the subway. He wasn’t performing. Certainly he wasn’t performing for me. He was dancing for himself. And it was beautiful to watch. 

You say you used to write poetry. I feel like what you’ve written here, in a way, is like a book of prose poems.

That’s interesting, and it’s probably true. The kinds of connections being made and the tone of voice are similar to the poems.

You’ve made such a compelling and many-layered case for why dance matters. What would you say to someone who says dance just isn’t for them? What would you suggest that might open that door to them?

I presume you mean what kind of case I’d make once they turned down my offer of seeing marvelous casts in “Symphony in C” or “Esplanade” or the “Jumpin Jive” clip of the Nicholas Brothers from Stormy Weather, right? So, I might ask them to go on a walk with me. And make sure that the walk goes by people doing street dance, and then just stop to look at it. The key would be not to force them to confront or like what they’re seeing, but rather to arrange the world for them for a little bit so that dancing caught their attention while they were relaxed. As we sauntered, we would see a lot of things, trees, and animals, and buildings, and a lot of human behavior—many different layers of the world. One of those layers would be dancing. All you can do is to plant a seed, though. After that, it’s out of your hands.

Why Dance Matters is published by Yale University Press on January 17, 2023