Why do Dancers Dance?

Having recently performed after a break from being on the stage itself, it reminded me of the thrill that dancing in front of a large audience gives you and the sense of achievement that a dancer is left with. I often question why is it that dancers dance? What is it that motivates a dancer to train relentlessly everyday with no guarantee of work and frequently have to juggle several different jobs, whilst trying to maintain fitness, creativity and love for the subject.

It can be difficult to describe these experiences to a non- dancer and the emotions and excitement that run through the body before and after dancing. The adrenalin produced in these situations can become uplifting, exhilarating and in some cases addictive. Many dancers feel that being a dancer is a ‘vocation’, meaning that it is a lifestyle rather than a job. It becomes an identity and a way of being. I often introduce myself when meeting new people as ‘ I am a dancer’. It is who I am and it is not something I can just stop being.

Judith Jamison, Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey Dance Company comments in her autobiography,

I’ll always be a dancer; I was born that way. I’ve never stopped. That’s what I was supposed to be doing in life… Dancing is a gift. You’re supposed to do it, it’s like breathing. And if supposed to do it, you know it, and you pursue it ” (1971,p.261).

Many dancers, religious or not, identify this need to dance as a calling, a mission or a ‘Gift from God’. This need to be a dancer (or indeed those that have a vocation in another profession e.g nursing, teaching etc) can sometimes seem to be bigger than the Individual itself and acts as a magnetic pull, finding it difficult to leave or escape it during tough career times. I wonder where this magnetic pull comes from and what it is? Why is it so powerful? Dancers, in interviews I have researched, frequently refer to their intuition or ‘inner knowing ‘ that they are meant to be a dancer. Generally if dancers take a break from the industry, either because of injury, the need for a break, to have a family or for money reasons, a dancer will more often than not find their way back to the dance path – maybe in a slightly different capacity to before but still within the industry. Dancers interviewed on this subject have felt a responsibility to this unaccountable higher power, and if they are not fulfilling their calling, they feel guilty and frustrated. When speaking to dancers who have left the dance world it is almost as if a bereavement has taken place and there is a sense of grief for what was or for a loss of identity and purpose.

Famous ballet dancer, Rudolph Nureyev described in his autobiography that he was ‘moving towards an already fixed destiny:that of a dedicated dancer’ (1962,p.34). The inner knowingness that Nureyev had to be a dancer drove him to working towards being one of the most famous ballet dancers of all time.He felt as if he had an important calling and a responsibility to the dance world and to his faith.

Jean Butler, former dancer with Riverdance explained in an interview:

“Dancing on stage took on a religious quality for me, like I was in church. I’d experience an elevated sense of self, of otherworldliness …. And this was when I was happiest” (2008, p.245).

The elevated sense of self could feel powerful to the dancer and a feeling of control over the body. That feeling of the whole body being in tune and working at its fullest potential is immensely satisfying and gratifying. The natural high that is produced is an intense state of happiness and contentment and caused by endorphins being released in the body. Endorphins are natural pain relievers, a similar effect to morphine and reduce the level of pain in the body. If an individual is dancing in large amounts, the body can become accustomed to these large amounts of adrenalin and the dancer can become addicted to these sensations. It becomes strange for a dancer to to not have these feelings of a natural high on a regular basis, which can in turn cause low mood and even depression. This demand to experience this sense of euphoria, which may be in patches due to times of unemployment, could motivate a dancer to ensure that dancing and performing happens again and again.I guess for whatever reasons we dance, it can have a powerful hold over the dancer. Dance is a beautiful art form and there is always so much more to discover about it and as an artist. It becomes a way of being, living and breathing.

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