A couple of years ago I was asked by the Portuguese magazine Electra to write a very short response to this quote from Nietzsche – ‘I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance‘. I’ve been meaning to post it for a while, but it seemed in pretty poor taste while the pandemic was going on and none of us could go out and dance. But I’ve been inspired by the simply extraordinary tele-cinematic event which has been the broadcast of Steve McQueen’s film Lover’s Rock: surely the greatest screen representation of social dance that’s been produced to date, and a powerful tribute to the radical creativity of black British culture.
Anyway, here’s the Nietzsche dancing God thing…
I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance.
The dancing god features in many mythologies. In the ‘Western’ tradition, Pan dances at the border between shamanic prehistory and classical paganism; and is said to have died with the advent of Christianity. But even Christ can take a dancing form, in the modern imagination. Sydney Carter’s 1963 song ‘Lord of the Dance’ – sung by generations of British schoolchildren – imagines Jesus as Nataraja: the dancing form of the Hindu god Shiva, whose dancing generates the energy that both creates and destroys the universe. Carter borrowed his melody from a Shaker song: the Shakers being a charismatic Christian sect that included ecstatic dances in their worship practices, when they believed themselves moved by the Holy Spirit. In the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is the manifestation of God’s immanence to the material universe.
It’s no surprise then, that Nietzsche – the great philosopher of immanence, the enemy of body-hating dualism and Christian transcendentalism – should be prepared to believe in a dancing God. Nietzsche loved dance and described his love of it in explicitly spiritual terms. Of course ‘dance’ for Nietzsche would not have conjured the kind of images that it might for us today. But all dancing -from the Waltz to the ballet to the rave – exists somewhere along the same continuum, between individual, gravity-defying gymnastics and the irreducibly collective physicality of a rhythmic, mobile crowd.
Dance as mystical practice – from shamanic rites to Sufism – erases two boundaries at the same time. It suspends or erases the distinction between matter and spirit: an elevated mental state induced by corporeal practice. It breaks down the boundary between self and other, between individual and group. The dancing crowd is unified and differentiated at the same time. It is in motion but in formation. It is one and many. The god who dances is an immanent force, a force of multiplicity and inherent creativity.
This is surely what makes the image such a potent one for Nietzsche – who is always a philosopher of multiplicity – and for other thinkers trying to express a reality that cannot be adequately defined by categories of enumeration and individuation, or by ordinary understandings of space and time. In his new age classic, The Tao of Physics, Fritoj Capra refers to the inherently mobile and creative nature of matter as ‘the cosmic dance’. He points out that the the entire thrust of theoretical physics since the end of the nineteenth century has been to develop an understanding of matter as dynamic, energetic, processual and strangely unpredictable (an understanding that traditions like Taoism have always shared). This stands in direct opposition to the classical theistic and dualistic assumption that inert matter can only be animated by an immaterial force that is always distinct from it: God, spirit, mind or soul.
In the culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, all of these elements – secular spirituality, the erasure of dualism, the suspension of individualism – can be found where bodies congregate to dance. The late 60s / early 70s saw the birth of the rock concert and the disco as the key socio-cultural expressions of the counterculture: democratic and utopian spaces that would only be captured and colonised by capitalism with great difficulty, whose radical spirit has been carried into the twenty-first centuries by raves and festivals of many kinds.
The psychedelic godfather of Disco (and so of all modern dance cultures), David Mancuso, once said to me that he often felt that all parties are just local expression of the ‘one big party’ taking place everywhere, all the time, that occasionally we manage to tune into or express through our own bodies and gatherings. The profundity of this remark has stayed with me ever since. What David seemed to sum up in this single image was the fact that the joy of dancing in groups is an intense expression of the inherently creative capacity of the social relations that always constitute all of our being: what I call the ‘infinite relationality’ of existence. The cosmic dance of matter, the multiplicity of the multitude, the creative power of complex groups: to acknowledge the god who dances is to acknowledge them all.