“Playboy has only shifted the fig leaf from the genitals to the face.” -Rollo May
I have always looked at modern (ahem) “dancing” with much contempt, not least of all because I am terrible at it. No doubt this personal insecurity has colored my opinion on the matter, but all reaction-formation aside I still get the feeling when watching modern dancing that the erudite commentary of a David Attenborough or Desmond Morris is appropriate; never able to shake a sense that these people are unconsciously playing out some kind of mating ritual or biological role on the dance floor. It seemed all the more comical that our modern dance forms look so much like dry humping; leaving so precious little of the “true purpose” of all that gyrating and flailing to the imagination. It was so easy to write off as an art form because it looked more like the auditions for an adult film. However, I may have missed a deep insight about man’s existential condition hidden behind the vapid rap lyrics and shameless pelvic thrusting. Perhaps “getting low” or “freaking” is actually a healthier and more passionate expression of love than any resulting fornication would be. Bear with me…
In “Love and Will,” Rollo May explains that modern man has overemphasized the “performance” and “accomplishment” aspects of sex to such a degree that he has managed to rob sex of its sense of passionate abandon. He does this, May explains, in an attempt to protect himself from a seemingly alien drive that overtakes him and, in a sense, controls him. Modern man is not secure enough in himself to let himself go completely, especially in the case of “giving himself over” completely to a woman. Not only does this seem to give her all the power, but it also puts him in a perilous situation where he could be rejected not just as a humping machine, but as a person. We do everything we can to depersonalize sex, to make it less threatening to our identity, while all the while staking our entire identity on how much or how well we “score.” Instead of simply making sex less taboo, the success of Playboy and Hustler has made sex less intimate, less personal, and thus rendered true, intimate, erotic sex the new taboo. The true face of feminine sexual love, with its vulnerability, warmth and care has been replaced by a suggestive, empty-headed, Paris Hilton-like, “girls-just-wanna-have-fun” smirk. As May so eloquently puts it, “Playboy has only shifted the fig leaf from the genitals to the face.” In reality, the face is much more intimidating than the T & A is, and if we can shift all of our anxiety about love and sex over to the mechanics of it all, never risking our true face, then we can at worst only be failed mechanics or athletes and never failed people.
In May’s formulation, “sexual love moves through drive to need to desire.” The “drive” is essentially biological; Freud’s “Id.” The “need” is a “less imperative form of drive,” that is, less “forceful.” The “desire,” in contrast to “drive” and “need” is psychological and it is here that sexual love becomes personal–where you select that girl from the crowd instead of just any suitably attractive mate. “Desire” works exactly in opposition to “drive” and “need,” in that these latter two constitute a certain amount of tension that begs to be released or alleviated, while the former prompts one to increase the tension, prolong the release for just a little longer, and thus intensify it. This “desire” is Eros. “Eros,” Plato tells us, “is a daimon,” which he meant in the sense of a “genius” or “muse.” Today, we are so afraid of Eros, of the genuinely erotic, that we tend to reduce sex down to a matter of Id impulses or pent-up tension in order to protect ourselves from an experience that threatens us with annihilation (losing our self) or rejection (finding our self to be inadequate). In doing this, we reject another truth that May warns us not to forget: “For human beings, the more powerful need is not for sex per se but for relationship, intimacy, acceptance, and affirmation.” Or, perhaps we are also trying to avoid discovering ourselves. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin asked “at what moment do lovers come into the most complete possession of themselves, if not when they are lost in each other?” Could it be that we fear both annihilation and integration (in the sense of self-discovery); that we fear not only rejection by the other, but rejection by our own selves?
May explains that in many cultures dancing was used as a means of “exercising demons,” as they called it. However, in the dance, the possessed person would boldly identify with the demon, with what he or she feared, in order to “exercise” it or gain control over it. May tells us that “the principle this implies is identify with that which haunts you, not in order to fight it off, but to take it into your self; for it must represent some rejected element in you.” This is the way that ancient people literally “faced their demons,” though always with the support and help of the whole tribe in an elaborate ceremony. Given that Eros has since the 60’s been systematically undermined and repressed, should we not see a proclivity for expressing or exercising this daimon in modern dancing? At first glance “getting low” looks only like a caricature or parody of the biological sex role; a further proof of our deliberate attempt to “de-mean” human sexuality into something less threatening. However, within the (ahem) genre of “freaking,” there is considerable room for personal expression, and certainly ample room to “lose oneself” in the experience (in the sense of investing all of one’s conscious energy into it, even that energy normally dedicated to self-scrutiny). It never ceased to bother me that modern dancing seemed to reduce everyone to the same primal role; that it was an unspoken test of one’s sexual athleticism. My culture seemed to revel in this little return to nature; championing the hidden assumption that all “true” dancing or art is really just an expression of libidinal urges. Bill Maher once joked that he respected rappers because they were at least being honest about the inspiration behind their music when they sing, for example, “back that ass up!” This is a total misunderstanding of Eros, which is a striving not for sexual release, but for a heightening of sexual tension! We have so totally bastardized the meaning of Eros in our culture that the first hit on a Google search of the term is for an escort service!
But perhaps this return to nature, this more “honest” form of expression has a purpose besides demeaning or reducing human sexuality to something less intimate. Every self-respecting male hipster will likely tell you that he goes to the club to “mack on hot bitches,” or some other half-truth, but in reality, even if he does get laid at the end of the night, he has just spent the better part of his evening building more and more sexual tension, the exact opposite of his avowed intention! Guys don’t go to the club because they are horny, they go because they need something much more Erotic than modern pornography to get them excited, and it is only at this point that our hipster’s avowed goal may ring true. Though they are playing the role of a primate in heat, they are in actuality searching for something more rarefied than animal lust. They play this role as a pretense to face what really scares them, intimacy and self-expression. And what safer place for self-expression than a club? The music is too loud for you to even overhear your own thoughts, let alone be overheard by another person, and thus self-expression is reduced to body movement, safely removed from the fragile soul. But who are they fooling? Is it not patently obvious that they invite the daimonic in the hopes of exercising its power over them? It seems clear that this form of dancing has emerged in an attempt to reintegrate the Eros that we have been trying so hard to deny. After all, the point of all of the bumping and grinding is not sexual release, but instead a desire to prolong the tension; to build the tension again and again so as to achieve new heights of consciousness. No form of dance looks more like a “tease” than “freaking.” Ironically, this dancing is probably markedly more erotic than any resulting sex would be and certainly more erotic than the expressed goals of our male hipster. Adding to the irony, it would seem that those who are good at this form of dancing, those who really do lose their selves in this parody of human copulation may face Eros in such a way that they are more able to integrate it into their selves and subsequently into their love-making. The dance, as with any sexual display, must show off some “fitness indicator” or other–otherwise it wouldn’t survive as a cultural practice. Superficially it looks as if the dancers are showing off their ability to adeptly, almost athletically perform the mechanics of copulation, but on a deeper level, they are transcending the mechanics of copulation and merging with Eros. Maybe the best dancers do make the best lovers after all, but not because their dance skills have given them some intangible sense of rhythm or incredible physical stamina. Instead, the “fitness indicator” that they are primarily, if unconsciously, displaying is that of a willingness to be swept away by experience, a desire for genuine passion, and perhaps also a willingness to “go all out,” putting one’s whole self on the line. They are displaying their “daimon” just as a piano virtuoso is displaying his “genius.” Finally, these dancers are also displaying another virtue: self-control. The dance serves as a test of their willingness to let themselves go, but also of their moral will to pull themselves back together again. After all, truly sensual, erotic union is not about totally letting go and giving your ego free reign, but letting go only to the extent that it pleases the other, after which point one always must regain control and composure, only to start the process all over again. The holding back communicates a genuine caring that soften the tyrannical self-expansion of Eros. In this way modern dancing, though appearing to be the apogee of cultural degradation, is actually a meaningful cultural response to the “free love” of the 60’s, with its weak assumption that sex can be divorced from commitment and emotions like sexual jealousy, etc. Though it appears more vulgar than the euphoric swaying of the flower children, “freaking” might actually represent progress, because at least today’s hipsters acknowledge Eros in their dancing; losing themselves in committed action as individuals instead of losing themselves in a predictable, uniform swaying meant to signal oneness with the group. The flower children embodied not Eros but Agape in their dancing, with its child-like playfulness and a self-soothing rocking motion much akin to what they may have felt as babies in their cradles, safe in the arms of their protectors. At least today’s hipsters have decided not to regress back into childishness in their attempt to embody the “childlike” freedom of self-expression.