They all rose and then fell at different beats of the drum. As the intensity of the music increased they moved their feet in perfect time; they pumped their arms to yet another line of rhythm in the same song. Their hips swayed up and down. The young men bent to the ground and then seemingly effortlessly would launch themselves into the air. Men and women alike wore blue and green fabric that matched the vibrancy of their dance. The dance itself, as it relates to the music, is never rehearsed. The steps and the movements are a heritage passed down in the Beninois culture. It is as though a current passes through the dancers and strings them together: in time with the song, the rhythm, and one another. Every performance is natural and synchronized as though they practiced for hours on end.
I was a young kid when I had one of my truest encounters with art. I dwelt with it and felt myself change. Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” ( Matthew 19:14). I think Jesus said this because children seem to be able to receive truth more easily. They are more humble, open, receptive, and willing to change in response to that encounter. In the same way with art, as a child, my encounters seemed more real. As an adult, allowing myself to encounter truth in beauty has become more of a practice and as Gadamer defines it, cultivation of taste.
My encounter with a beautiful piece of art took place in a little four-walled open-air church with no glass windows. The roof was made out of grass and the ground was red dirt. I was in a West African village in Benin. The Beninois people in the choir stood in matching cloth and they performed the Kpanouhoun. The Kpanouhoun is a traditional, ancient dance that involves extremely rhythmic movements to drum beats. The dance was done as a part of the worship service. Over the years it has been adapted to the Christian context. It has evolved into an expression of freedom, strength, happiness, and discipline. A profound aspect of childlike wonder is instilled into the free burdenless movements that are all offered over to God as a sacrifice. It is not a slow or gentle dance, it is violent in its expression. Although the movements themselves are made to look effortless the sweat of the participants indicates the truth.
Gadamer says that play is both movement and reason combined, that it is an activity done for its own sake. Dance is like this; it is movement with no productive purpose and yet it is dominated with “reason” by its disciplined movements that follow the rhythm and require deep control over the human body. I was a sticky, frizzy, hot foreigner in Benin. In the moments of the dance, as Gadamer says of play, I felt deeply involved in the performance. I was a newcomer and the dance was woven into them from beyond birth, yet, somehow I was participating. The room had an aisle separating us but I was strung along by every aspect of their movement. As the beat would suddenly change they perfectly anticipated it- I was left breathless. I was invited to “play the game” and I felt in those moments called to seek the reason that their movements embodied.
The word “symbol” is a Greek term for a token of remembrance (tessera hospitalis). The token could be broken in half so that if a former guest joined the two halves it would kindle recognition (Gadamer 31). Gadamer further says of the symbol it, “…in turn alludes to beauty and the potentially whole and holy order of things” (Gadamer 32). It is hard to specifically describe the feeling that welled up within me in those moments of watching the dance. I felt powerful, unified, and connected in a deep sense. At the end of the dance, any shyness or awkwardness that may have existed between my neighbors and I vanished; we felt utterly unified. I remember being astounded by the sense of community and connectedness that welled up. The dance itself is a vivid and raw expression of that same unity, of the need for individuals coming together and subjecting their raw power to isolated movements. The dance was, as Gadamer defines a symbol, an opportunity to recognize truths in a way beyond the conceptua. I was shocked by the deep unity I felt despite a lack of perfect communication.
Although I grew up in Benin from the time I was seven, in many ways I was still a foreigner: my french forever tainted by my American midwestern accent, my mannerisms still more reminiscent of a Nigerian or an American than Beninois. Yet, in those moments of worship, I participated in the community. We all were participating in something far beyond ourselves. We all met one another’s eyes and laughed as they performed the dance and we shared in a form of fellowship deeper than any differences in our cultural backgrounds, accent, or mannerisms. As Gadamer says, “… it is a community in which we are gathered together for something, although no one can say exactly for what it is that we have come together” (Gadamer 40). I was a youthful student who lived 30 minutes from this village church. The villagers worked their fields each day and normally I had no part in their day-to-day. In the suspended moments marked by the dance, the separate lives of varying work we normally lived were called to halt, and we were brought into a surreal moment of connection marked out in time by their graceful steps, swaying and rhythmic movements. It was festive because we were participating in something that happened in its own time, at the proper time and it was not subject to abstract calculation of temporal duration (Gadamer 41).
In the church, the ritual of dancing meant that each Sunday the walls reverberated with celebration. It was festive. As Pieper says “…the arts, like pleasure itself, are derivative and secondary; they are a contribution, the adornment, and medium of the festival, but not its substance”(Pieper 53). The festivity was carried within the beautiful Kpanouhoun dance and by their brightly colored and expressive outfits. The moment felt transcendent because I truly found myself in a state of contemplation. The people- my neighbors and friends who made less than a dollar twenty-five each day- led me in my ability to affirm the goodness of life, God, and existence. Our response to God of Joy brought us to a state of real worship. It was captured in the rhythmic, beautiful, synchronized movements of freedom, strength, and praise. In their deeply ancient and ritualistic movements of worship and power, all distance fell away. Although there were barriers between villages, differences between clans, and foreigners to the ancient tradition, those who watched the performance partook of the transcendent unity evoked from encountering the beautiful Kpanouhoun dance.