This is a slightly modified version of an essay I originally published on Wordpress in December 2015.
Some time ago I watched a documentary film on a long flight. It was a film in Spanish titled Five Days to Dance directed by Rafa Moles and Pepe Andreu, and tells the story of two professional dancers and teachers, Amaya Lubeigt and Wilfried Van Poppel, who go into a high school in Spain, take a bunch of students who have never danced before and, over the course of a five-day dance workshop, bring them to the level where they present a successful dance performance to the school community.
The fact that within five days the students move from absolute novices to publicly staging a compelling dance performance is incredible enough. But to me that was secondary in the film, for the part that had a greater impact is the story of how the act of dancing transforms the students. Many of them had fallen into certain roles one often sees in high school students: the class bully, the victim, the unconfident introvert, the rebel, the social magnet; and each of these roles conditioned their bodies to act and move in a certain way. When they dance, the new freedom that their bodies discover awakens them. It occurs to them that the unthinking acceptance of stereotypes to which they had become conditioned need not be the only reality they inhabit. The act of dancing becomes a path of self-discovery.
Watching the film reminded me of Frank Herbert’s powerful science-fiction short story Try to Remember. The story describes an alien race who realise that the greatest threat to their continued existence was themselves, for their greed and jealousy was pushing them into violent fights with each other instead of a collaborative aspiration to greater heights. Having the wisdom to foresee impending doom if they continue along that path, they set themselves the task of discovering the primary reason why they tend toward self-destruction. And they place the cause in the nature of their language: primarily because words are so easy to manipulate that language allows you to state a falsehood so easily. The challenge becomes the design of a new language, one in which it is impossible to lie. This leads them to the conclusion that language must incorporate dance, for to dance with insincerity visibly reveals that you are not dancing at all. The new language combines verbal utterances with bodily movements so that each is not meaningful by itself, and it is the combination that creates meaning. The race saves itself by constructing a new language in which dance plays a fundamental role.
When we feel dissatisfied with our lives, our tendency is to ruefully wish that circumstances could be different. We wish for something that is missing from our lives: money, a new job, a change in career, or a different place to live. But the lesson of dance reveals that what we really need is a different mode of inhabiting the space within which we already are: one where we break self-imposed constraints to live with an authentic freedom that truly sees where we are.
Initially, when we learn to dance, we become aware of the new possibilities within our grasp. When we continue to dance, the repeated practice gives our sense of self a new dimension. The unencumbered agility that practice liberates grants us a refined discernment that builds new relationships between ourselves and the world we inhabit. As the famous dancer Martha Graham said, “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which come shape of achievement, the sense of one’s being, the satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
Watching Five Days to Dance made such an impact on me that I felt I would like to own a DVD of the film. But the film is in Spanish and the only DVD’s that seemed to be available had subtitles only in Spanish and Catalan. In my search, I came across the email address of Wilfried Van Poppel, one of the dance teachers featured in the film, and I wrote to him seeking his help. He eventually put me in touch with one of the directors, through whom I was able to obtain a copy. What continues to resonate in my mind is a statement that Van Poppel makes in the film, that he repeated in his email reply to me, “If people can dance together, people can live together.”