The Dionysian and Dance in Nietzsche By Yunus Tuncel


Most of our movements in the world are for a purpose: in order to produce something or to go from one point to another. In other words, we do not create our bodily movements, but rather move according to an already set, regimented motion. We go to work or go to school, and we must do that in the shortest possible way. Most of our movements are of this nature and  therefore, limited. On the other hand, there are many possible ways of moving the body, but these other possible ways have gradually fallen aside. I would like to make a distinction within the realm of human bodily movement between everyday, “useful” forms of movement, on the one hand, and free, creative, and ecstatic forms of movement, on the other hand. I do not suggest that these two types of movement are separate in essence. But we can separate them in terms of our own disposition to movement and what these types of movements do to our body. In what follows below I will explore dance as an ecstatic movement by way of Nietzsche, Duncan, LaMothe, Belilove, and other dancing spirits.

Regular Movement vs. Dionysian Movement

Dance is an ek-stasis of movement and may be, along with music, the oldest art form. Clearly, the term art itself is open to interpretation. But we can assume that human beings were dancing before they made music and painted. For the latter, one needs tools, even if they are rudimentary; for dance one does not need any tools. Ek-statis means coming out of oneself and becoming one with all—seeing oneself in the other and losing oneself in the other. Nietzsche uses the term Dionysian to express a specific, human way of being. All other beings may belong to one another, but human beings need to have or be Dionysian in order to belong to one another, or to simply belong. In other words, Nietzsche’s Dionysian is a cultural construct, not a “natural” one. Now, we need to belong to other beings, because we co-exist with them. One can say that by default we already belong, but this belonging often falls into oblivion or is repressed because of our presumed subjectivity and individuality, which is strong in the West and has become even stronger in the modern age. Nietzsche’s conception of the Dionysian stands in polemical contrast to modern subjectivity, understood philosophically and culturally.

To sum up Nietzsche’s argument against modern subjectivity and its dualistic order, we can say that human beings belong to an everyday realm and a Dionysian realm–this should not be taken as yet another dualistic structure, but rather a heuristic way of explaining our disposition to being. The Dionysian realm, however, often falls into oblivion, or it has fallen into oblivion in the so-called progress of civilization. Nietzsche presents this everydayness as the lie of culture: “The contrast between this real truth of nature and the lie of culture that poses as if it were the only reality…” (BT, sec. 8, 61). Here Nietzsche contrasts not so much the Apollonian to the Dionysian, but rather the everydayness in which we come to believe our reality to be the only one, with the Dionysian where all reality is broken down and re-created. These ideas Nietzsche uses to understand Greek theater can be applied to movement and dance as well. We move in everyday life, one way or another. We moved our bodies to come to this event. Now, from an heuristic standpoint, movement can be said to be useful/purposeful or ecstatic. In the former, we have a specific goal, we need to go from point A to B and there is only one short-cut; this is what we do in our everyday routine. In the latter ecstatic movement, we come out of ourselves, our typical everyday movements and move our bodies in different way:, freely, spontaneously, and aesthetically. It is no longer “useful” or “routine” but rather “excessive” in the sense that the ecstatic exceeds our ordinary limits. Dance ultimately operates within this type of ecstatic movement. The two types of movements are not ontologically separate. Therefore, to say dance uses many everyday, natural movements does not contradict what I am saying. The difference lies in the disposition, not in the nature of the movement itself.

Moving with Others

How do we relate to other bodies and how do we move in relation to other bodies? What are some relational modalities? We keep space so that we do not bump into each other, but this is true among strangers and the space among strangers varies from culture to culture. In the public sphere, our inter-relational movement is determined by the function that space serves. What about in “framed” settings like in sports and dance where our movements are regulated according to the rules of a particular sport, or dance patterns or the dance genre? In these cases, the way we move in relation to other bodies is governed by the rules or movement patterns observed in that specific setting. Whether it is with strangers or in an “enframed” setting, we always have a sense of our own body in motion and other bodies in motion. Merleau-Ponty calls this “embodiment,” a notion which was foreseen by Nietzsche in his conception of the Dionysian. What follows below is an investigation of these two concepts with the hope of bringing out their differences and thereby helps understand collective movement.

For Nietzsche the Dionysian signifies the capacity and the actuality for a human being to be connected to other beings, more concretely to those beings that are in the immediate environment of that person. We are almost always embedded in our environment. This connection, for Nietzsche, is not just a rational construct or an expression of conscious thinking, but exists, or must exist, at all primordial levels of the body and the psyche. If we are disconnected in our culture today, that stems from our conception of detached individualism, the philosophical root of which lies in modern subjectivity. LaMothe, a scholar and a dancer, discusses this problem in her book, Why We Dance, as she rightly claims that human beings as infants have an impulse to connect—this is happening at primordial, pre-linguistic levels—and dance expresses that primordial need for and actuality of being connected. As she writes, “Within modern culture, this idea of a human being as an individual serves as the basic conceptual unit for nearly all forms of social organization and knowledge. An “individual” is the unit we use not only to chart evolutionary trends. It is also the one to whom we accord legal rights, grant political representation, and apply laws…” (“To Dance is to Connect,” 110). Clearly, a specific type of individualism became dominant in modernity, and one major problem that stems from this individualism is its disconnectedness from which stem many of our socio-cultural problems. Nietzsche explains this phenomenon in broader terms as the loss or underestimation of the Dionysian. For Nietzsche, ultimately we are both individual and collective beings. Dance is one cultural formation that bridges the two, as LaMothe observes: “Dancing is an ethical necessity because humans, without it, do not develop the visceral sensibility they need to divine ways to move that are not too individual (and self-absorbed), too social (and self-sacrificing), or insufficiently either.” (Why We Dance, 135) She rightly calls dance “an ethical necessity;” I take ‘ethical’ more in the German sense of the word ‘Sitte,’ meaning that dance must be a living reality of culture, a living practice.

Merleau-Ponty, like Nietzsche, looks at the body in an integral way, as the body is always embedded in its environment, and perception is not an isolated act of the mind, as Descartes perceived it. While coming up with the concept “body-subject,” Merleau-Ponty debunks the misconception of a body as passive receiver and sees the body in an oscillation between an object and subject of perception. For him, the body cannot be seen as a servant of consciousness or as inferior to the mind; in fact, he attempts to move beyond this type of dualism. His conception of ‘embodiment’ is based on the primacy of the body; we are bodily beings before we become linguistic and rational, and, as such, we exist in an environment of other bodies to which we are connected immediately. Then the body too becomes a way of communicating with the world. Dancing is a form of embodiment in action. Bodies communicate with one another, as they embrace their immediate environment.  Our skills in a specific filed, as in dancing, emerge from this embodied movement and this embracing.

Embodiment or the embodied self is an idea that Merleau-Ponty developed, as he took his cue from a unique theory of perception. Merleau-Ponty claims that we are thrown into a body that precedes the making of the self. The body is not just a thing to be studied scientifically, but as a condition of the experience of life. As he writes, the lived body is “a horizon latent in all our experience and itself ever-present and anterior to every determining thought” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1996, p. 92). One’s original self is this experience of the body, or what Merleau-Ponty calls “embodied self.” It is the primary condition of all subsequent experience in human life, whether cognitive or otherwise. This conception of the body must be distinguished from the body as a physical entity. In this regard it will be helpful to use the German distinction between Leib and Körper, as the former has to do with the experience of the body in the Merleau-Pontian sense. Furthermore, for Merleau-Ponty the body has a life of its own and is already connected to other bodies, whether our consciousness is in tune with the life of the body or not. In conjunction with this, Merleau-Ponty develops his ideas on inter-subjectivity[1] as he argues for the contemporaneity of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity. The moment one starts comparing oneself with others; one has entered the field of inter-subjectivity. This is not, however, to be understood at the level of minds recognizing each other, but rather at the level of embodied selves. It is the first recognition of a baby that perceives that the world does not consist of only him or her. The other is participating in the same embodied experience as he/she is; a primordial recognition of mutual presence in the world between ‘I’ and the ‘other.’

Merleau-Ponty not only breaks down the Cartesian dualism between mind and body and reverses the priority of the classical order, what he calls “intellectualism,” but he also shows how we are connected primordially at the level of the body. This is a thesis that was implicitly and explicitly defended by Nietzsche before him, but not in these terms; Nietzsche uses rather the terminology of instincts and drives. In a way Nietzsche’s unconsciousness-driven paradigm of instincts and drives compliments Merlau-Ponty’s subjectivity-driven paradigm. While Nietzsche emphasizes Dionysian functions in bodily experiences as in singing, dancing and orgiastic rites (BT), Merlau-Ponty focuses on inter-subjective experiences in perception. Moving with others is a Dionysian act; one must be connected to others at primordial levels to be able to move with others, as Merleau-Ponty and Nietzsche propose. One must feel as though one were in one body with others, as in embodied movement, so that the total movement comes out as coherent, as one body, so to speak.

Dance vs. Thought and Knowledge

In the chapter, “Dancing is Knowing,” LaMothe raises many interesting points about the kind of “knowing” dance is. In English we use the term ‘know’ in many different ways. We know scientific principles, we know moral principles, we know facts, we know information, we know and we know. We can also know how to do things, like dancing. The weight of the meaning seems to turn towards an informational, cognitive way of knowing, which falls under the rule of the mind. However, dance is primarily a bodily movement. Therefore, how can we get out of this difficulty in the realm of knowledge? I will do so by discussing this chapter in Why We Dance.

The rational paradigm of knowledge is what LaMothe calls a “materialist paradigm,” which takes objectivity, verifiability, stability, and measurability, as its main principles (62). The book served as one of its relays, and its modus operandi is logic. Everything that can be called knowledge must conform to principles of logic. Although LaMothe sees this dominant form of knowledge in modernity only, its roots go as far back as classical Greece; for Nietzsche, it starts with Socratic rationality. Now, dance cannot be this type of knowledge since it is primarily a bodily movement. If dance were to be reduced to this type of knowledge, it would be only on paper and not a living reality. Dance, on the other hand, can be a form of “knowledge” insofar as it stands for the living form of dance. I believe it is in this sense that LaMothe says “to dance is to know.” “Dance is applauded as a kind of technical knowledge…Dance is heralded as an embodied knowledge….So too, dance is lifted up as a kind of symbolic knowledge…Finally, dance is embraced and celebrated as a spiritual knowledge…” (65). The “knowledge” LaMothe describes is a “knowledge of how to participate consciously in the rhythms of bodily becoming–that is, how to create and become patterns of sensing and responding that connect us with sources of sustenance in life-enabling ways.” What needs to be kept in mind here is the many meanings of the word ‘knowledge’ in English, which can be used in different contexts. In aligning Nietzsche with Duncan, LaMothe sees reading and writing, typically considered to be strictly cognitive exercises, “as bodily practices that work by training our sensory selves.” In this way, she also incorporates Nietzsche’s critique of ascetic idealism, while critiquing the logo-centric paradigms of knowledge and reduction or subordination of bodily regimes to the rule of the mind. To conclude this part, we can say that dancing is a way of opening up to Dionysian experiences.

The “Language” of Dance and Symbolism

In bodily movements we test the limits of our body, as in dance, sport, sex, or performance art. Yes, not every body can do the same things, because we are all different types of bodies, but every body can do more than what it is accustomed to do. In other words, if there are limits to our movements, these limits can also be overcome. It is often suggested that the body is more flexible when it is young; this may be true, but what is more significant is our disposition to the body, to use Nietzsche’s phrase—our will to power and how we see the power of our bodies. Dance, as a field of bodily regime and a symbolic one, opens up those limits and allows our bodies to manifest their power, where, in day-to-day living, they would not be materialized, especially in our age where life is sedimentary and the body becomes sedated as it finds itself in a car or at work or home on a couch.

Dance with its rich repertoire of symbols expands the limits of bodily movement. In contrast to everyday, utilitarian movements of the body, dance does not follow any rigid patterns. Dance is the poetry of body-movement. It forces the expression of bodily movement to its limits; this is another sense of dance as Dionysian, or what Blanchot calls “limit experience.”  In classical forms of dance, as in ballet, this limit experience is already defined and becomes limited for future choreographers, whereas modern dance leaves the possibility of many movements open.  In this sense, I find modern dance to be more Dionysian than classical dance, although dance in itself is already Dionysian. Therefore, we can say that the “language” of dance is bodily and symbolic, and this is why a dance piece has many meanings and is open to different interpretations.  Furthermore, dance is not only a human simulacrum but, as an ecstasy of human presence, functions as a dynamic production of simulacra[2] and can serve as a guiding artistic force to break down the rigid Spectacle vs. spectator divide[3] that has been created since the rationalization of theater and arts in ancient Greece.

Epilogue. Why Dance?

Nietzsche diagnosed “ascetic idealism” as one of the main problems of modern culture and detected it in my different cultural formations, including arts and sciences and not only religion, although religion seems to be the origin of this malady. Ascetic idealism, amply discussed in the Third Essay of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, is simply the denial of the body, all of its functions, and the idealization of this denial. Today we have come a long way, one may think, since Nietzsche, psychoanalysis, and other movements that embrace the body, but yet in overall culture we still suffer from ascetic idealism and its co-phenomena such as mind/body dualism and contempt for the animal and the animal life. As a thinker who accepts Nietzsche’s diagnosis and prognosis, I do my research and philosophical activities on understanding the body without reducing it to thought. All bodily regimes must be cultivated in culture so that we can embrace our bodies, which is an affirmation of life on earth, the only life we have. Dance, and especially modern dance, is such an artistic affirmation.

Works Cited

—Blanchot, M. The Infinite Conversation. Trans. S. Hanson. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.
—LaMothe, K. Why We Dance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Print.
—Merlau-Ponty, M. The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. D. Landes. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.
—The Structure of Behaviour. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1983. Print.
—Nietzsche, F. On the Genealogy of Morals, Trans. W.Kaufmann, New York: Vintage Books, 1969. Print.
—The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.
—The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974, Print.
—The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.
—Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. by W.Kaufmann. New York: The Viking Press, 1954. Print.
—Twilight of Idols (in the TSZ edition listed above).
—Tuncel, Y. Towards a Genealogy of Spectacle. Copenhagen: Eye Corner Press, 2011. Print.
[1] See his The Structure of Behaviour.
[2] I address the question of simulacrum in a paper I presented at the Audiovisual Posthumanism International Conference in Lesbos, Mytilini, in September 2010.
[3] For an in-depth discussion of this problem in spectacle, see my book Towards a Genealogy of Spectacle.