Lockdown raves, dodging people in the street, more hugs, then hugs, then more hugs, then hugs; the confinement in the house worthy of house arrest – and the language of self-isolation, shelter, security… all the makings of a sci-fi horror movie depicting the end of the world. Or a history book, the way this pandemic has made me feel at times, after spending more than a decade thinking about historical epidemiology, especially as it relates to ideas about dance.
What in the 19th century became known as the “Black Death”, or bubonic plague, decimated between a third and a half of the population of most cities and towns, towns and countryside by the mid-14th century. It returned in episodes for centuries afterwards. At the same time, people, it seemed, were dancing; this gaiety in turn attracted the attention of moralists who thought that nothing of the sort should be done. Sometimes these people dancing were itinerant pilgrims, as I found out, rummaging through the archives of this medieval tradition. Sometimes they were hippie-like characters who wore crowns in their hair and hung out at makeshift campsites outside of town. By the time these stories first appeared in the eyes of 19th-century settlers, it began to look like rebellions—often dancing, sometimes not—were seen all over the colonial world. In Madagascar, people were “possessed” by the dead queen, Ranavalona I, who was called upon to help depose her puppet son; this too has been described in the medical literature as a “plague” or dancing epidemic. And yet, as I came to realize, as I delved into this, it was in fact a perfectly legitimate form of government response. And the examples are multiplying.
What today’s choreographies of coming together and distancing show is that far from being “unprecedented”, today’s times have something of a long history of precedents in ways of to move and to imagine or apprehend bodies in motion. Disordered bodies – those that seem not to adhere to the rules of good behavior – tend to be equated with the sick, the contagious; tend to be considered “contagious” themselves. At the same time, as we well know now after two years of pandemic life, quarantine has long been a proven measure to reduce infections. In times of severe contagion that threatens to jeopardize the health and lives of the most vulnerable people, and in fact makes everyone much more vulnerable than would be the case in more “normal” times, we change our choreographies, change our ways of understanding what is a user-friendly way to move or what is right; also change the way we see the present moment.
What I like to think of as the feeling of historicity describes that feeling of finding something strange or comfortable, in the sense that the experiences of the present will be lived…that something not unlike that has been experienced before. Or, and this is not mutually exclusive, that something could drastically change – a hope that many have nurtured, especially at the start of the current pandemic, thinking that perhaps relationships at work, family or climate will eventually transform. The sense of historicity—perhaps the inverse of the sense that these times are “unprecedented”—allows a measure of closeness to other people, places, and times. The “crisis” becomes relativized.
“What today’s choreographies of coming together and distancing show is that far from being ‘unprecedented’, today’s times have a long history of precedents in ways of moving and in how moving bodies have been imagined or understood.”
Of course, the crisis is also very real and felt right now, no matter how “previous” it may be in some ways. Much of what’s happening is a release of pent-up tension and tension: dance “crazes” sweeping TikTok or Instagram are playing – unwittingly, perhaps – on a very old trope, the phrase of a convivial energy release and even of a kind of “madness”. , who has just been locked up too long. In a great ‘case’ of so-called ‘dance madness’ or epidemic contagion which I heard of in the Shetland Islands in the 18th century, some people were more or less climbing the walls with ‘cabin fever’; other “cases” in the Middle Ages involve girls and boys who are bored in church and are told to go out and dance forever, until they die. Many stories have come from this kind of tradition: today’s familiar version includes the moralizing version of Hans Christian Andersen in his story of the “red shoes” – too much fixation on the things of the world would drive one mad. The remake of the film by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell The Red Shoes in 1948 featured a young woman (Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer) who was so obsessed with dancing that she eventually drove herself to madness and eventually death. Many different moralizing perspectives can be drawn from this, including, in my view, a relationship to over-commitment or overzealousness in work, to institutional pressure (her dance master is a kind of slaver, and she is driven by its own passion, but also stimulated by this culture of “better, more” to the point of harm).
With the gatherings of crowds mimicking madness, or with the many remakes of “crazy” dance scenes filmed at home or in the studio during confinement, the desire to embody “madness” seems to have never been stronger. What these moments teach us, and what I was able to explore in my book long before the current pandemic hit, is how the figure of dance epidemics, or contagious dance, or the madness of dancing are nothing if not enduring, and often accompany xenophobic or sexist prejudices associated with seemingly messy bodies. Equally true is the fact that “madness” as such is at best a very volatile affair, often composed of a very serious desire to let go and “go a little crazy”, as well as a feeling that one really has a few screws. cowardly. Dancing literally allows you to crush some of the tension, laugh, bond with those around you, and open your chest or neck, among other basic physical or physiological things. Nothing very ‘crazy’ about it, even if to speak of it as madness or infatuation translates retrospectively in a derogatory way – only if we take this dance too literally as an expression of entire populations or groups being “sick”. On the contrary, it is the well-being that they seek and express, and this well-being is of course, when the world is a little crazy – when it has become unrecognizable, we have lost our coordinates, we are confused and undocked – consisting of a solid helping of humor, joy and pure reprieve.
This does not for a moment minimize the seriousness of a truly contagious disease; doctors who dance for their patients in covid wards, in videos that have gone viral themselves, know this well. The two go hand in hand: when tensions rise, so does the need to ease them. The challenge today is to do so nevertheless in complete safety, to legalize gatherings in order to put in place security measures, for example, as the municipal authorities in Strasbourg did at the beginning of the 16and century, in a dance “episode” that was grossly sensationalised, rather than driving the gatherings far underground. Opposite my flat in London, huge crowds gathered as the clubs closed. It was outside, in a park. This is not an ideal measure given that the spread takes place even outdoors; but the accumulated energy kept some people going for a while. As I discovered the writing of my book, there is, as I have also noted here, nothing “manic” or “contagious” about it; but there is a long history of judgment, demonization in some cases, and medicalization of the fringe – the feeling that these young people should shut up and stand still (that their dancing itself was a curse). They are sort of survival mechanisms, at the global level as well as at the local level. Survival comes in many forms, most of them in pandemic conditions, involving distancing and masking, sanitizing and other precautions; at the same time, if what we’re looking at is the history of underground culture and rebellion, I think it’s important to realize that the need to dance, or the feeling of needing to uniting with others in a release of energy which in turn produces more energy has sometimes been accompanied by criminalization. For Native American ghost dancers in the 1890s, dancing in the face of genocidal conditions brought a sense of togetherness and therefore collective strength, even as cultures and lands were decimated by government treaty abuse. The dance becomes a cipher for other tensions and culture wars, for other forces of judgment on who is allowed to move, why, when and where.