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Chapter 2 Cont.:The Four Qualities of Dance

More From TOD: the Book


The rules of dance are not arbitrary. No one sat down, made up a bunch of rules and said “let’s call this waltz!” Instead they found that a certain kind of music, with 3/3 timing and flowing melodies was pleasing to the ear. Then they found that a certain set of movements matched up with the music and was beautiful, and when executed in the right way also felt very comfortable and even met deep psychological needs. Some of these needs are common to both men and women while others are unique to men or to women. It is because some needs are unique to men or to women that they have the natural roles This means that dance is based on our psychology and biology as well as theology. Dance has many wonderful qualities, but in the Theology of Dance I organize them into four main qualities: beautiful, musical, comfortable and loving.


The Greek philosophers saw a relationship between the true, the good and the beautiful. I like to say that beauty is when something good is being true to (used or arranged in) the way God intended. The human body is good. What dancers must learn is how to order the body so that it is beautiful, so that grabs the attention of others and inspires them. To look beautiful in dance takes a lot of training. We learn to move our bodies in certain ways, to make certain poses, to move through patterns using very specific muscles. We also learn the avoid moving in the wrong way. To do this takes a lot of thought, instruction and training.

Sometimes people argue over whether or not something is beautiful; and a common saying is that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." But I've not seen this very often at all in dance. Several years ago I was working hard at improving the look of my dancing, and I was taking lessons from many different pros from all around the country. Every single one was giving me the same criticisms on my style and every single one was telling me to do the same thing to look beautiful!

Not only did dancing increase my desire to look beautiful, it also helped me recognize it as well. Here's an example: One night, before I had begun dancing, I was at a party watching two friends dance. Neither was trained, but in watching the gent I was very impressed with his dancing, and wished I could dance as well as he could. Fast forward a few years and I had been dancing about three months. I saw this same friend and his girlfriend dance. As I watched him I thought to myself that he couldn't really dance, but he could fake it well. After another year of dancing I saw him dance again, and this time his dancing looked bad. I was watching with another dance friend and she was wondering if he knew Judo, because that what his leads looked like to her. And. as it turned out, he was indeed trained in judo!

In this case of my friend it was not his dancing that had changed- rather it was my understanding of what was beautiful in dance. In other words, my conscience in regards to dance had developed and improved. Before dancing I could not recognize the beautiful, so my friend’s dancing impressed me. Afterwards I could recognize good dancing, and in discovering what made dancing beautiful his dancing stopped impressing me. Having discovered true beauty, I desired more of it, while turning away from the not so beautiful.

Dance in this sense has echoed a Christian teaching- that if we have a well formed conscience then we will recognize true beauty. When we have a poorly formed conscience we will find the wrong things beautiful. This does not mean that everyone styles a dance the exact same way, or that everyone agrees who is most beautiful. What we get is though is a solid agreement on what is beautiful, while each person will have a particular expression of beauty that they find most appealing. This experience is the relationship between the objective and the subjective, which St. John Paul II talks about at length in his talks on the Theology of the Body, and which we'll come back to later in the book.

Musical Music is the delightful meeting of two opposites, order and spontaneity. It is both mathematical and artistic; it simultaneously engages the intellect and moves the emotions. A composer does not just throw notes together and hope for the right result; rather he chooses specific notes and chord progressions that he knows will convey certain ideas and move us emotionally in certain way. He then adds the specific details that he wants to make the song unique, to convey his specific message. If he wants joyful music he’ll use major chords, while minor chords add an eerie feeling to the piece. Music has many different elements- it has a meter or beat, plus chord progressions as well as lyrics, melodies, harmonies and dynamics (changes in the speed or volume of the music). Musical means that the dancers and the music are in harmony- that they complement one another.

The Three Levels of Music We can see how dancing is musical by looking at how it matches the music in three “layers.” In the most basic layer all music is the same. It’s made of sounds. It’s ordered by using beats and scales. Dancers must step on the beat, so he or she may be reliable for his or her partner. No one likes to dance with someone who is off beat!

The next step up is to move and pose consistent with the style, or genre, of the music. No one would dance a waltz to salsa music. Salsa music is staccato and defined, in 4/4 time, while waltz is smooth and flowing, in 3/3 time. The patterns and stylings of the dance match up with the music. Not only does the style tell the dancers how they are supposed to look, but it also tells them many of the finer points on how they communicate in the dance. The feel of a smooth frame is very different from that of a swing frame or an Argentine Tango frame.

The final layer is the dancers need to inform their dance with the unique elements of the song. The dancers do more than follow a steady beat that matches the music. They use movements and stylings that interpret the lyrics and the melody of the song. When the music gets loud the dancers expand their frame to make it bigger. When it quiets they contract their frame. When the music speeds up they speed up and when the music slows they slow down, and when it stops they stop. If they are really good they add little minor stylings that fit with little parts of the songs, such a spontaneous snap or ping

Comfortable When I watch an untrained couple dancing I often see the man whip the woman around like a rag doll. I will wince, because I feel the pain in my shoulder just watching them dance. If I later dance with that woman she is filled with joy and surprise. Often times she will tell me with wonder and amazement “I’ve never danced with someone so gentle!” They are genuinely surprised when the dance does not hurt. They are more surprised that they ever assumed it had to hurt.

Dancing is a language that is experienced and expressed through the body, so that means that it is physically comfortable- like riding in a luxury car. Dancing should feel both very powerful and very smooth. One of the things most people don’t realize is how comfortable good relationship is supposed to be. If I am sitting around doing nothing I may not be in pain, but I am also not feeling lots of goodness either. We sometimes refer to this as “OK.” OK is the relief that nothing bad has happened, but nothing good has happened either.

Now if I was in sunny Mexico, on the beach, with the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean lapping against my feet while I read a good book and drank a margarita, then I would be very comfortable. The sun, the water, the breeze, the book, the drink, all convey different kinds of goodness to me in what I see and hear and taste and feel. Comfort is both the absence of stress as well and the abundance of blessing.

In dance this comfort happens because both the leader and the follower faithfully do their part and trust their partner to do theirs as well. For example, In West Coast Swing there is a basic pattern called a side pass. In this pattern the man stays within a small area while the woman needs to move a good six feet down what is called the slot. There are four ways this can be done, three of which are wrong and only one which is right.

  1. If the woman does not move the full distance the man will need to force her down the slot by pushing against her. This adds stress into their relationship because he is now forcing her to move faster and farther than she needs to go. Even though he’s right, doing this doesn’t make the dance feel good or right.

  2. On the other hand, if the woman does her part but he man tries to compensate for her by moving in the opposite direction he will yank her arm. This adds even more stress and can even result in injury.

  3. If she under moves and he over compensates then there is the absence of pain, so it seems as if everything is right but there is also not the reception of the goodness.

This combination lacks an exchange of goodness, so it is not comfortable. For those who have not experienced the amazing feeling of comfort in dance, then this non-painful connection is OK. But for those who have tasted the comfort of good connection this lack of goodness is in fact a serious flaw. In a certain sense, when you have tasted comfort the lack of goodness is not good; it is merely tolerable. To obtain the blessing found in comfort the serious dancer become obsessed with all the details of good connection, because only in understanding and mastering these details can they achieve the comfort that they yearn for in perfect relationship. For this reason both partners do their parts faithfully and trust the other person to be faithful as well.

Loving I was at a dance lesson once where an Argentine Tango dancer told us his story. For eight years he was obsessed with making his Tango beautiful. He took lesson after lesson, practicing incessantly. He would video himself to check his progress, but when he looked at the video his Tango always lacked beauty. Then one day he realized that he was dancing only for himself- that for him Tango was about looking good, and his partner was only there to help him show off how great he was. He was using his partner for his own selfish ends! So he started to dance for his partner instead of himself, and his Tango instantly became beautiful! Merely by changing his heart he changed everything!

St. Thomas Aquinas has said that love is willing the good of the other as other. This virtue is manifested by the ability to make a perfect, complete and total gift of yourself in a given situation. For example, if you are at the supermarket buying groceries then a complete gift of yourself is to be able to be completely present to the cashier because your attention is completely on him. You show this through the way you talk, the words that you use, and the way you hold your body. If you are on a date then you will do much the same things, only with more intimate words and gestures and actions, and the amount of time that you spend in the relationship will be different. This quality of perfect giving is manifested in the phrase “free, total, faithful, and fruitful.” I’ve only seen this phrase used to describe sex, but in truth it is used to describe all love. It must be freely given, it must completely give all the attention and actions it is called to give, it must be true to its purpose , and it will bear fruit, that is good and beauty will result of it.

We do not express love telepathically; we cannot simply stand next to a person and expect them to read our mind or our heart, and understand how much we love them. Rather, we must show it through some sort of actions. For that reason we speak of love as the ethos, the interior disposition, the desire to carry out the act. Love is a desire, but a very deep one- one that is deeper than emotion. When we don’t feel like loving we still desire and will to love. Love is not the only ethos. There are many different kinds ethos, but only love is truly good.

Love is expressed through the other three qualities- beautiful, musical and comfortable. These are what’s called its praxis- the skills needed to express an ethos. These qualities are the exterior expression of the interior ethos. They are how we know that someone loves us. Not merely in the dance, but in all life. Every act of love consists of a person who initiates an act of love, a person who responds to the gift of love with their own gift of love, and the spirit of love in which it takes place. In dance the person who initiates the gift of love is usually the man (the leader), the one who responds is the woman (the follower) and the spirt is the music, which tells them how they are going to dance.

We find that if the couple truly loves in the dance then they will seek to express that love more perfectly and will actively seek to make the dance more beautiful, musical and comfortable. Conversely if the couple actively strives to make the dance beautiful, musical and comfortable, they will be developing the skills and even the interior mindset that makes them more loving. We find that the focus of each partner is on the other. They are focused on serving the needs and genuine desires of their partners, specifically the needs and desires that come from God. In the dance and in all good relationship these needs and desires are complimentary and are met only through love

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