I have learned many things from American dancer Isadora Duncan, even though she died decades before I was born. One was how to read the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
In Nietzsche’s books, from first to last, the word “dance” appears again and again, most often when he is writing about one of his primary concerns: how to affirm life – how to love life, all of it. Easy and hard. In sickness and in health. In joy and in sorrow. Most commentators interpret Nietzsche’s allusions to dance as poetic images, or as metaphors referring to internal mental processes. Isadora Duncan did not. She took Nietzsche at his word. Dance meant dance – rhythmic bodily movement.
In 1902, two years after Nietzsche died, when Duncan was 25, she hired a tutor to help her read Nietzsche in German. She read at least two of his books: his first, Birth of Tragedy, and the one he considered his finest, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Duncan wrote in her autobiography, “Nietzsche’s philosophy ravished my being” (My Life 141). She called Birth of Tragedy “my Bible”; and she carried around a dog-eared copy of Zarathustra until her untimely death in 1928 (Art of the Dance 108).
In Nietzsche’s writing Duncan not only found inspiration for making dances, she found a philosophy that supported her vision of what dancing is and can be: vital to the process by which humans become human. In her estimation, “The entire Zarathustra is filled with phrases about man in his dancing being” (Art of the Dance 123). In such phrases, Duncan read a call to action: a charge to discover the bodily movements that would realize the potential of dance to catalyze in dancers and viewers alike a radical affirmation of life, all of it. As she discerned: “[Nietzsche] did not mean the execution of pirouettes. He meant the exaltation of life in movement” (Art of the Dance 77).
In what follows, I explore this relationship between Nietzsche and Duncan. What did Nietzsche mean by the “affirmation of life”? What role does “dance” play for him in relation to affirmation? And how did Duncan create and teach and perform dances that she intended to effect such affirmation?
The first point needed in order to understand Nietzsche’s perspective on dance and affirmation is that he walked. Nietzsche walked, daily if he could, for hours at a time, particularly during the decade of his prime writing life.
Nietzsche walked, not because he felt good, but because he didn’t. From youth on and increasingly as he aged, Nietzsche suffered from headaches and nausea that kept him in bed for days at a time. Even though his evident genius was enough to land him a prestigious professorship at age twenty-four – before he had even completed his PhD – he was too ill to keep the job. After 10 years, he retired. So sensitive was he to the weather, that he generally spent his winters at warm seaside spots in France or Italy, and his summers in the cooler heights of Switzerland.
Walking was his salvation. Nietzsche walked to feel a sense of well being. He walked to come alive to himself – to wake up to the present moment of his own experience, so that he could “think through his senses” (Z 2 “On the Blessed Isles,” p. 198). He walked in order to think thoughts that he would not and could not discover while sitting with his head and heart buried in book. In his words: “It is our habit to think outdoors–walking, leaping, climbing, dancing” (GS 5 §366, p. 322). He walked to think thoughts that would help him affirm life – all of it – including his own sickness (EH “The Birth of Tragedy” §2, p. 272).
For Nietzsche, the act of thinking thoughts that affirm life – thoughts that express full body movement — was not a luxury. It was a necessity. It was the only way he could sustain his resilience, his enthusiasm for living, in the face of constant pain. As Nietzsche confirms: “The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value” (TI “Maxims and Arrows” §34)
But why? Why are thoughts born of walking are the only ones capable of affirming life?
A second point needed in order to understand Nietzsche’s take on dance and affirmation lies in his notion of the nature of human creativity. According to Nietzsche, human beings are inherently creative. While not everyone trains to be an artist, all people create moment to moment at a sensory level by virtue of the bodily movements that make. People create by virtue of what they notice; where they place their attention; how they orient themselves in space. And as they see, hear, touch, reach, and release they determine what is worth engaging. What is worth loving. What matters. They create values (TL p. 186).
For Nietzsche, all values are expressions of human kinetic creativity. Yet not all values adequately honor the bodily selves whose movements they express. Humans can and do move their bodies in ways that find expression in values that disparage their earthly, bodily selves (GM I §10 pp. 36-7). Humans can move in ways that generate ascetic ideals that encourage them to deny their desires; or still their movement. And as Nietzsche sees it, a sedentary life is sure to produce such life-denying values – values that encourage a disregard for our sensory selves – values that privilege mind over body and truth over art.
Walking, then, for Nietzsche, was not just a way to feel better or get some exercise. It was a practice of quickening his kinetic creativity. It was a way to awaken an internal sensory awareness that could help him discern whether or not an ideal or value was one that nurtured his well being. Walking provided Nietzsche with a litmus test for evaluating whether or not a given ideal or value was one that said yes to human, bodily life – whether it was one that could dance. As Nietzsche wrote: “Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?” (GS 5 §366, p. 322).
When walking lifted his spirits to the point that he felt happy and free, Nietzsche described himself as dancing – as one able to think thoughts and create values that, in the words of Zarathustra, “remain faithful to the earth” (Z 1 §3) that catalyze an affirmation of life. In short, Nietzsche walked because he wanted to write “Books that teach us to dance” (HH §206).
What, however, does Nietzsche mean by “dance”? Isn’t he simply using the word as a metaphor for some mental act, like looking on the bright side or thinking positively? Having a sense of humor or making the best of a bad situation?
A third point needed in order to understand Nietzsche’s take on dance and affirmation lies in what Duncan understood that Nietzsche had learned from the Greeks. In the book Duncan called her Bible, Birth of Tragedy, she found a path to grasping Nietzsche’s dance references as a vision for what dancing can be – not an account of what dancing is but of what it has the potential to be in the present day.
In Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche examines the genre of Attic tragedy, created by the Greeks in the 5th C BCE. These dramas featured a narrative acted out by individual actors on stage that was punctuated by the singing, dancing, and truth-telling of a multi-person chorus. Nietzsche found these tragedies remarkable because of their effect: even though the narrative told a tragic tale of human fallibility, audience members would leave paradoxically propelled into a joyous, empowering affirmation of life. Nietzsche described this change as a “magic transformation [Verzauberung]” (KSA 1, pp. 61-2; BT §8, p. 64). He wrote the book to discern how it happened.
Nietzsche found the key to the life affirming effects of these Greek tragedies in the dancing and singing of the chorus. The dancing and singing sounded out elemental rhythms that hooked audience members beneath the ribs and invited them to move in response (BT §8, p. 62). They were compelling, contagious. The singing and dancing thus facilitated a visceral identification between audience and players, such that the audience members felt that they too were part of the chorus, part of an eternal movement pulsing through them.
The experience, according to Nietzsche, transformed audience members’ sense of their bodily selves. They felt “godlike” – “he feels himself a god [als Gott fühlt er sich]” (KSA 1, p. 30; BT §1, p. 37). They knew themselves as part of an endless flux of nature, part of the creative will of life, endlessly recreating itself (BT §17, p. 104). According to Nietzsche the feelings of pleasure and power brought about by this visceral knowledge of elemental rhythms meant that audience members were able not only to endure the tragic tales, but to greet these losses and failures as enlivening. As occasions to love life. All of it.
Duncan understood this dynamic as well as any commentator I have read. Here is her account: “At the sublime moment of the tragedy, when sorrow and suffering were most acute, the Chorus would appear. Then the soul of the audience, harrowed to the point of agony, was restored to harmony by the elemental rhythms of song and movement. The Chorus gave to the audience the fortitude to support those moments that otherwise would have been too terrible for human endurance” (Art of the Dance 84).
As Duncan points out: the affirmation for which Nietzsche praises Greek tragedies is not a stoic act of mind over matter. Nor does it involve an Aristotelian emotional catharsis. Affirmation is a thoroughly bodily phenomenon in which people’s sensory selves are moved by elemental rhythms. Affirmation represents a shift in visceral experience in which audience members’ inherent kinetic creativity wakes up, such that they know themselves as creators – as godlike – as making the movements that draw the world into being. This realization, according to Nietzsche, releases feelings of power and possibility, of overflowing joy.
In sum, when Nietzsche hymns his intention to write books that teach readers “how to dance,” he is proclaiming his desire to find ways of using words that will do for his readers what Greek tragedy did for its audiences: to catalyze a visceral identification with elemental rhythms – to awaken a sensory awareness of themselves as movement – so as to effect a magic transformation to a sense of their own “godlike” participation in the creation of values.
To dance, for Nietzsche, is to feel the overflowing joy, the kinetic power and pleasure, that emboldens people to question inherited values and reject those that do not honor the health and well being of the earth in and around them. Dancing is the means, the medium, and the fruit of affirming life. Dance is, for Nietzsche, not only a symbol of an ideal, nor a metaphor for a mental state; it is the bodily action humans must do in order to ensure that the values they create in all realms of their lives remain faithful to the earth. Any ideal, value, or god, Nietzsche insists, must model and demand such sensory, kinetic awakening. As he confirms: “I would only believe in a god who could dance” (Z “On Reading and Writing” p. 153).
Isadora Duncan, unlike Nietzsche, was not sick. By all counts, she enjoyed a supremely healthy constitution. Even so, her passion for dancing put her at odds, as Nietzsche was, with many of the cultural ideals of her day – especially those concerning women’s bodies.
Duncan, like Nietzsche, was perceived as a rebel for rejecting values that preached hostility towards bodily selves, women’s in particular. She, like Nietzsche, lamented how deeply the values of sedentary life had permeated western culture, separating minds from bodies. She, like Nietzsche, was a nomad, always searching for the most agreeable place to establish her school of life – Germany, the United States, Russia, France.
Thus, when Duncan read Nietzsche’s account of Greek tragedy and the radical affirmation of bodily life, his project resonated deeply. She wanted to be the chorus (Art of the Dance 96). She wanted to find movements that would help people identify with the elemental rhythms of the universe, so that they could know that they too are part of what she called the “divine continuity” of the natural world, overflowing with vibrant sense of their own health, able to affirm life in all its bodily dimensions (Art of the Dance 102-3).
Teach people how to move their bodily selves, Duncan averred, and you will be teaching them how to live. As she put it, “To dance is to live. What I want is a school of life” (Art of the Dance 141).
The Power Within
Who did Duncan teach? Children. Knowing how impactful a sedentary life is, Duncan preferred to teach girls and boys young enough that the actions of reading and writing had not yet conditioned them to think and feel and act as if they were minds living in bodies (Art of the Dance 117).
What did Duncan teach? Duncan provided her students with experiences of beauty in nature, art, and music, and encouraged then to respond. Rather than imposing patterns upon young limbs, Duncan offered her students exercises designed to quicken their sensory awareness, and so evoke from them spontaneous movements. As she writes: “[W]hen I have taken children into my schools I have aimed above all else to bring them into a consciousness of this power within themselves, of their relationship to the universal rhythm, to evoke from them the ecstasy, the beauty of this realization” (Art of the Dance 52). This “power within themselves” is akin to Nietzsche’s notion of the kinetic creativity awakened by the singing and dancing of the chorus in Attic tragedy. It describes an ability to sense and respond to elemental movements that are coursing through the natural world and through our bodily selves in every moment. Elsewhere Duncan calls this “power within” “soul,” and writes that the first step in learning to dance is to “awaken soul” (Art of the Dance 52).
As a child’s soul awakens, Duncan introduced movement sequences designed to cultivate this “power within,” so that a dancer could more easily sense and receive impulses to move. Duncan believed that humans receive such impulses in the solar plexus – the bodily location where the life-sustaining rhythms of breathing and heart-beating cross. So she guided students to trace the pathways in their bodily self to and through the solar plexus, and thereby strengthen the channels of sensory awareness through which humans may sense and follow through with impulses to move.
What kind of movement sequences were adequate for this task? Duncan created sequences that embodied what she claims to have learned from the Greeks, and what she claims the Greeks learned from nature: that a never-ending wave is the form of all elemental rhythms. From her studies of ancient Greek vases and reliefs, Duncan concluded that the secret to the beauty of their dancing figures lay in wave-forms movements inspired by nature. As she discerned, a wave is the quintessential form of nature. It is the pulse of gravity, and the medium of sound and matter and light. It is the shape a bodily self assumes when it is moving in ways that amplify and unfold its kinetic potential. It is a movement that never dies.
In her teaching, Duncan designed movement sequences modeled on waves. As Duncan insists, “The movements should follow the rhythm of the waves: the rhythm that rises, penetrates, holding in itself the impulse and the after-movement; call and response, bound endlessly in one cadence” (Art of the Dance 99). In a signature warm up called “The Universe,” students pull their arms strongly up through the center of the body, and then float them down to the sides, creating a vibrant circular flow of energy and awareness around the dancer’s head and torso. Through such exercises, Duncan sought to cultivate a dancer’s “power within.” She aimed to improving her students’ ability not only to receive impulses to move, but to receive impulses that would express and support the health and well being of their own, singular bodily forms, and thus affirm bodily life.
While teaching was her passion, Duncan also made dances and performed them throughout Europe and in the United States. Touring was a means for her to raise money to fund her Schools of Life and attract students to them. Lectures after the show provided her with opportunities to communicate her philosophy.
In making her dances to perform, Duncan used wave movements as the building blocks to create dances that would hook her audience members under the ribs; establish a visceral connection; quicken their ability to sense and respond and know themselves as movement; and thus rouse in them the sense of joy and health that overflows in an affirmation of life.
Her ability to make such dances is nowhere perhaps more evident than in a brief gem of a work, Mother which she choreographed in 1923 to a piano etude by Scriabin.
In this dance, Duncan gazes deep into the void and comes face to face with the tragic death of her two children, Deidre and Patrick, at ages five and two. In 1913, ten years earlier, the children had been riding with their nanny in a car along the Seine. When the chauffeur stepped out to crank the stalled engine, he forgot to engage the parking brake. The car rolled over the embankment into the river. Children and nanny drowned. In the waves.
In Mother Duncan becomes the chorus (Art of the Dance 196). She becomes the elemental rhythms of song and movement. She is the waves of love that lift her children, bring them to life, engulf them, and carry them away. She is the One into which we are gathered.
In this dance, Duncan’s moving female body—her dancing—appears as the medium in which she is able to perceive and know a divine continuity, to feel its power coursing through her, to participate in it actively, and to transform her greatest suffering into a reason to dance.
According to Duncan, such soul-awakening, life affirming dancing has the potential to catalyze a renaissance of religion (My Life 85), not only in terms of practices, but in terms of ideas. Such dancing is not mere entertainment. It is not about the steps. Such dancing harbors within it a “complete conception of life” that is, “more free, more harmonious, more natural” (Art of the Dance 101). It is a conception of life in which how we move our bodily selves matters to who we are, to what we can think, feel, and do. It is a conception of life in which the sensory awareness awakened by visceral connection with elemental rhythms serves as a test of whether or not an ideal or value is good. It is a conception of life that remains faithful to the earth.
In Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote: “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” (§5, p. 52). In relation to his appeals to dance and Duncan’s living interpretation of them, this sentence makes sense.
Here, what matters in life or about life is not what you have or what you earn. It is not who you are or what you have to give. What matters is what you create where the paradigm for that creation is dance. What matters are the patterns of movement that you make and become. Towards and away. Into and out from. Around and through. Under and over. Including and excluding. Ignoring and engaging. In such sensory and kinetic patterns of movements-made lie the value of life – the value of a life.
We are inherently creative at a sensory level. With every movement we make, we create ourselves, our relationships, our values, and the world as we know it — as it has the potential to be. What are we creating? Does it dance?
Duncan, Isadora. Isadora Speaks. Editor Franklin Rosemont. City Lights, 1981.
———- Art of the Dance. Theatre Arts Books, 1928a.
———-. My Life. Liveright, 1928b.
LaMothe, Kimerer L. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming, Columbia UP.
———- 2006. Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Editor & Translator Walter Kaufmann. Vintage Press, 1989.
———- Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Translator Marion Faber with Stephen Lehmann. U of Nebraska P, 1984.
———-. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden. Editors Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag; Berlin: Walter de Gruyer, 1980.
———- The Gay Science with a prelude in rhymes and an appendix of songs. Translator Walter Kaufmann. Vintage Press, 1974.
———- The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. Editor & Translator Walter Kaufmann. Vintage Press, 1967.
———- The Portable Nietzsche, Editor Walter Kaufmann. Penguin, 1954.
———- “On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense,” in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Editor Oscar Levy. Volume Two. Macmillan, 1914.
 For an analysis of these commentaries, see LaMothe, Nietzsche’s Dancers, Introduction.
 The Portable Nietzsche, Editor Walter Kaufmann. Penguin, 1954.
 The Gay Science with a prelude in rhymes and an appendix of songs. Translator Walter Kaufmann. Vintage Press, 1974.
 “On Truth and Falsity in their Ultra-moral Sense,” in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Editor Oscar Levy. Volume Two. Macmillan, 1914. For a full exposition of this idea, see LaMothe, Nietzsche’s Dancers, chapter 1.
 On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Editor & Translator Walter Kaufmann. Vintage Press, 1989.
 The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. Editor and Translator Walter Kaufmann. Vintage Press, 1967. See LaMothe, Nietzsche’s Dancers, chapter 1 for a fuller description of this term.