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Wonderful Advice From Socrates and Nietzsche: Dance... Dance Alone


These two philosophers found a form of happiness in dancing.

Dancing can reveal all the mystery that music conceals.

Charles Baudelaire

Visualizing Nietzsche or Socrates dancing is not the first image that springs to mind when thinking about the two philosophers. The first was a taciturn nihilist and the second a master of dialectic who always maintained a level-headedness amid discussions among political animals. However, the image in itself is one of the happiest and is based on reality. Nietzsche and Socrates danced, and their defense of dancing constitutes an irresistible temptation to move our bodies.

We are all familiar with Nietzsche’s statements on god and dancing (“I would only believe in a god who could dance”), but his work is overflowing with praise for this practice (Dionysian ballerinas, dancing satyrs, men, women and children who dance ceaselessly), while he was a solitary dancer himself. For him, freedom is never more participative, in the sense that we can choose how to move with the flow of the world, as is the case with dancing. By dancing one enters into the rhythm of things, of the wind, the pulse of life that is always the same but which is at the disposition of the free will of the body. There lies its beauty. The body can choose how to participate in rhythm and gravity while the conscious ego is perfectly focused and relaxed, and the self leads to the sum of the parts in a game of free forces.

As Walt Whitman would declare incessantly in his poems, for the philosopher it is a stupidity to believe that the material body is a physical entity that exists independently of the spirit. Even thinking, for him, was a physical activity: “Thinking wants to be learned as dancing wants to be learned, as a kind of dancing… Who is there […] who knows form experience that light shiver which spreads out to all muscles form light feet!”

It is therefore not surprising that this lover of physical ecstasy would favor the lyrical over the discursive, and would want his words to move with light feet – like his Zarathustra – and transcend their conventional meaning. It was more the movements of his great teacher Socrates that first showed him this great dance of reason.

In the Symposium, Xenophon says that while Socrates observed the performance of a Syracusian dancer he was infatuated with his grace. In the harmony of his movements he saw him as even more beautiful than when at rest. Then, Socrates confesses that Charmides found him dancing alone and though that he was crazy, but when he described to him his intention to find harmony in his movements, Charmides began his own solitary practice of shadow boxing (because he didn’t know how to dance). This of course reminds us of the famous phrase by Nietzsche (and who perhaps imagined it from this anecdote): “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

For Socrates, dance was the optimum way of moving the body in simultaneous symmetry with all of its parts, unlike other kinds of physical exercise such as running or wrestling. The relationship between beauty (kalos) and more beautiful (kallion) is one of movement and proportion. The philosopher, realizing that the body is much more beautiful and graceful in total movement than in simple repose, learned to dance as an old man, aged 70. We should remind ourselves that he also said: “Music and dance are two arts that complement each other and form the beauty and power that are the basis of happiness.”

Both philosophers, who were also characteristically solitary, found happiness in dance. A happiness that can be understood by all those who have danced alone and have surrendered to the Dionysian forces that emerge from the depths to the surface of the body. It is true that it is not necessary that the dance be solitary, but it is more likely that in solitude the rigid clumsiness of self-consciousness and the ego will be momentarily suspended. The less the conscious ego is involved, the greater the agility of movement and freedom will be. We do not create the flow of the world or the gravitational forces, and we cannot abolish them –– But we can dance with them. This is one of the great manifestations of the free will that has been given us: it is necessary to feel, even if just once in a while, all of the freedom of the body. The poet and critic Edwin Denby summed it up perfectly: “There is a bit of insanity in dancing that does everybody a great deal of good”. Let’s dance.



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