Dancing the Eternal Image:
Visual And Narrative Archetypes


Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.

Dance, Archetype and the Body

A dancer conveys feeling through her body: the dynamism and character of her movement, variations of intensity, clarity of line, and any number of subtle rhythms and gestures that neither she nor her audience can consciously process.  When a dancer is fully present in her body,  none of her gestures are empty or meaningless.  They seem to come from a deeper source, and reach into a deeper place in her audience's perception.  What the eyes perceive as movement on a stage resonates through the soul in other forms: a subtle play of emotions or visual images, feelings of yearning or release, the memory of cool water or a child's touch, or a lover's. 

Each dance, whether Oriental, European, or anything else, reflects realities we share simply by being human.   While each culture has its own gesture language -- subtleties an ethnic dancer must come to understand -there is far more that we share simply by being human.  We are all located within a body, and we are all aware of physical limitations: that we cannot fly, that we cannot breathe underwater, that we are subject to illness and finally to death. 

Our dreams often concern succumbing to or overcoming these limitations.  Equally, our dance, physical and bodily as it is, must work with and around them.  Dancers of all cultures train their bodies to overcome the limits of the flesh: ballerinas by gravity-defying leaps, oriental dancers by emulating the quivering pulse of the geological and astrophysical worlds, and all dancers by putting the whole of life's meanings into gestures made by flesh, bone and blood.

We also share physical attributes and joys.  Our sexual pleasures, the vast energies that can energize and save us when we are endangered, the life force that enables us to work and assuage our hungers -- all of these vitally inspire any dance.  As Judith Hanna says, "Dance appears to be the result of processes that have been selected for in human evolution: exploratory behavior, a sense of rhythm, symbolic capability, and the ability of the brain to make fine distinctions."[i]  Whatever cultural differences arise, similarities of impulse and experience remain.

Carl Jung coined two terms which help define this universality of feeling and experience within the human race.  One, "The Collective Unconscious," refers to the subconscious expectations and experiences we all share beneath the surface simply because of our common human biology.  The other, "Archetype," refers more specifically to the images and story patterns that arise in similar ways in all human societies.  Archetypes may be visual images such as the tree of life, the mandala, and the labyrinth; characters  such as the wise and ambiguous serpent, the trickster, and the crone; story patterns such as the quest and the dangerous marriage.

There are also universal archetypes of movement: the hands raised in prayer or invocation, the body curved around deep feeling, or arms reaching in an unclosed embrace.  As a dancer, I am often aware of coming into archetypal movements, or attitudes that have a significance beyond my immediate circumstances.  I imagine a great many feeling dancers are aware of this phenomenon as well.

Since archetypes exist in and arise from the deepest level of human consciousness, they have powerful, gut-level appeal.  Some of the most successful new stories get their power from their resonance with archetypal patterns -- for example, George Lucas modeled Star Wars on the quest archetype as detailed by mythologist Joseph Campbell.[ii]  It follows that in dance as well, archetypes -- whether they are stories or visual images -- are potentially some of the most powerful tools the dancer has in expressing complex ideas and feelings.

Many Meanings at Once

Archetypes seem to have their power from the simplicity of their images: the evocatively whithered crone, for example, or the universal tale of leaving home, conquering a terrible enemy, and returning.  But when you look more closely, you see that archetypes are really powerful because  immensely complex and delicate ideas are caught up in a single resonant vision.  Their complexity seems simple -- the way an egg seems simple, but encompasses the remarkable transformation of embryo into living thing.

My favorite example of a simple image involving complexities is the labyrinth.  The labyrinth is a maze, and such mazes appear in the myth and art of many cultures.  The visual images are evocative, whatever their variations: spiral or blockish, wild or urban.  Associated with these images are stories.  In the Greek story of the labyrinth, the maze is the home of the monstrous Minotaur, half man, half bull -- a dark, violent, unformed but partly human soul, who devours anyone trapped there.  The labyrinth's initial meaning is therefore: a place of hopelessness, confusion, and death at the hands of something bestial.  But in the story, the heroine Ariadne and her lover Theseus conquer the labyrinth.  She gives him a ball of string to  lead him out again, and holds onto the other end as he descends, and she gives him a sword so that he can kill the Minotaur and emerge unharmed.  Masculine and feminine virtues -- planning and attacking, weaving plots and stabbing enemies -- combine to defeat the peril.  Thus the labyrinth can also represent the maze unraveling itself, and the soul defeating the terror at its core. 

As an archetypal image, the labyrinth can have either of these opposite meanings, or both at the same time.  Furthermore, its visual nature calls in other patterns and images as well: the spider's web, the spiral, the arabesque, all of which evoke different journeys and different ranges of meaning.  This is the power of the archetype.

Likewise, in dance, a simple gesture, such as the raising of the arms from a centered position, can evoke a range of meaning: joyful affirming prayer, the goddess offering bounty, the acceptance of a burden, a plea for universal understanding, or any number of complex and indefinable feelings.

Dance is an ideal medium to express such complexity.  Words sometimes define ideas too closely, but movement perceived visually can have many meanings, and in fact, it must.  Dance has only a limited capacity to say things specifically, with no room for doubt.  When it does, those meanings are often comic and/or directed to communicating with the audience about the dance: for example, winks and socially meaningful gestures (such as the index finger pointed for "stop" or "no"). 

In most cases, and especially when the meaning is deeply felt, dance is interpreted differently by different members of the audience.  Its emotional power comes precisely from its ability to incorporate the observer's preexisting feelings and attitudes into the experience of the dance as it occurs at the moment.  In this strange intersection between the universal and the momentary, each audience member has a mandate to follow her own feelings about what she sees in the dance.  Each one will read the archetypes differently.  And this is how archetypes are meant to be read.

Dance and Story

Dance has the dimensions of space and time.  Other visual arts -- painting, sculpture, etc. -- exist only in physical space, and the viewer sets the pace of her observation.  She can glance briefly at a painting and walk away, return for a thorough study, or spend as much or as little time as she chooses.  Dance is more demanding.  Whatever the dancer shows must be done in a sequence, and bound to the music.  Time may seem to speed up or slow down, move in pulses or smoothly -- but the sequence is unavoidable.  What is seen is seen, and what is missed is missed.  The viewer is carried along in this unavoidably passing sequence of time.

Because of this dimension of time, dance is somehow narrative in its nature.  Not that all dances tell a story -- but all dances are in a sequence, they move from one stage to another.  Consequently, the processes by which they unfold reveal mythic and archetypal narrative structures.  Whether the dance is formed as a story or as a series of impressions, the experience of the dance is essentially a journey.  Traditional forms like the Egyptian baladi or the American 5-part routine have their own essential, unverbalized, deeply felt stories behind them.

For the Orientale, a story will often creep in, whether it is "told" as a narrative or a series of vignettes, or sequentially explores different aspects of something eternal.  In an interview with Glenna Batson, Nadia Gamal spoke of the importance of narrative in both folklore and orientale performances.  In Batson's paraphrase, "Each dance tells a story, such as a dancing slave who begs the sultan not to kill her. . . a narrative is woven throughout the dance. . These narratives can be taken from everyday life, or in the case of the annual folklore festivals, taken from historic events and legends."[iii]  I myself saw Ms. Gamal perform a narrative dance in a 1984 Beirut New Year's telecast, in which she portrayed a bride who, on the eve of her wedding, was possessed by a demon, exorcised it, and returned to real life.  You could see the very moment in which the demon took possession in her expression and body language.  It was very effective drama.

Yet the relationship between oriental dance and plot is still problematic for most dancers -- and for most audiences.  For one thing, oriental dance is primarily expressive; its theatrical and social forms are still very close together.  Oriental dance is largely removed from any sacred narrative traditions which may have originally been associated with it.  By contrast, a form like Balinese dance involves the performance of stories from sacred literature well known to the audience, and over time many stories have developed exact, traditional choreographies.  The audience already knows the stories that will be danced, and often how they will be danced.  In secular forms like ballet, stories are told only with the help of full casts, elaborate sets, a pantomime language, and extensive program notes.  None of these things are present in oriental dance in its most common performance manifestation: the solo orientale.

This is not to say that they cannot be added.  Beata Zadou and Horacio Cifuentes, the Caracalla Dance Company of Lebanon and many other performance companies in both the Middle East and the Western world, have performed oriental ballets with complex plots and a large cast.  But for the solo dancer, plot remains a problem.

In fact, the kinds of plots Ms. Gamal adopted -- a slave begging for her life, or a possessed bride -- are not particularly subtle or profound in their narrative.  What they are is archetypal.  Archetypal stories, when stripped to their bare bones, often do seem simplistic, or melodramatic, or even dead.  As Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty comments, "[The archetypal plot]  itself is so trivial as to seem trite or obvious when we try to isolate it. . . The archetype, like the coral reef, consists almost entirely of the bones of once-living coral, of which only the thin edge of the surface is still alive."[iv] 

The dancer is the living rim of an ancient reef.  Her story may be simplistic, but her dance complex and full.  For the dancer, the enlivening of her art comes from her comprehension of specific stories and cultures, and from awareness of her own personal resonances with the stories she dances.  Thus the dances Nadia Gamal performed were vibrant and alive within the structures of their  archetypal plots.  I thought when I watched the Beirut New Year's telecast that I would have appreciated the dance just as much if I hadn't known the story.  Whatever my conscious understanding, the archetypes would have been humming in my deeper spirit.

Simple, archetypal stories have the potential to be the most powerful.  They have "strong bones."  The story of death, mourning, and symbolically transformative ressurection, for example, is very simple -- we all experience it, when a loved one dies, we mourn, and then learn to feel her presence in our continuing lives.  This story's bones, when fleshed with the spiritual feelings of different cultures, have supported the world-renowned mysteries at Eleusis, thousands of years of worship of Inanna in the ancient Near East, and Christianity up to the present day. 

Archetypal stories are so powerful, and so innate, that when danced, they do not even need to achieve the level of plot.  The plot can remain "bone" that the audience never sees.  A friend of mine once told me that when I dance she sometimes senses me as an organic being, seeing even how the bones move beneath my flesh.  This is what happens metaphorically when a dancer moves with the archetypes.  The plot need never become overt, as long as it is there.

At times what might sometimes seem "plot" transforms into "theme": a set of related symbols and ideas that shape themselves into a story in movement.  Shakira says of her sword dance,


Every time I do it I go into "that place" that is appropriate for it.  Consider . . . the dance is about initiation and sacrifice, acceptance of trials and of sacrifice -- and of mastery.  The sword is beautiful, it is craftsmanship, it requires mastery -- it can aslo hurt you.  Same for the dance.  So when I dance it, I take another look at where I am at the time.  What hurts recently?  Where am I now in terms of mastery?[v]


Just as every culture fleshes the bones of its stories differently,  every dancer fleshes the ancient archetypes with her own body and spirit.  And just as the dance exists in time, and passes by us in an unstoppable sequence, we also live in time, and tell each ancient story from where we are now.  Our dance takes shape on the bones of millenia of dancers, storytellers, and lovers, but finds its transitory power in our own unique lives. 

[i]Judith Lynne Hanna, Dance, Sex and Gender. University of Chicago Press, 1988, p 4.

[ii]Joseph Campbell, The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Princeton 1979.  See also Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988, pp. 143-7.

[iii]Glenna Batson, "Nadia Gamal: An Interview with the Artist, part II," Arabesque I. 6 (March-April 1976), p. 16.

[iv]Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Other People's Myths.  New York: Macmillan, 1988, p. 34.

[v]Personal communication, 8/18/1994.

 This article was originally published in Habibi

Andrea Deagon received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke Unviersity in 1984.  Since then she has taught at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) and at her undergraduate alma mater, Guilford College (Greensboro, NC) before coming to UNC-Wilmington, where she coordinates the Classical Studies Program and teaches in the Women's Studies Program.  She has studied oriental dance since age 17, and has had a wide range of performing experiences in the US and (opportunistically) overseas.  She periodically teaches local classes and regional seminars.  One of her goals over the past ten years has been the integration of her academic research and writing, with her goals and perceptions as a dancer.  These articles are a part of that process.

Copyright restrictions: This article is copyrighted material.  It is made available on the Internet for anyone who wants to read it.  If you want to copy it, please abide by the following conditions:

Thank you for complying with these rules.  I make them because I want to make sure my articles keep the form I worked so hard to finalize, and because I want people who are doing their own reading and research in the field to know the individual voices behind the words.  Best wishes and joy in dance.