Janet L. Factor was born in the soot-showered industrial city of Barberton, Ohio, where as a girl she kept her head down and counted toads, turtles and snakes in the grass. She graduated magna cum laude from Hiram College, Phi Beta Kappa, having devoured a degree in biology, imbibed a minor in history, and nibbled on delectable side dishes of art and literature.
Janet has expanded on that liberal arts tradition by studying and teaching dance, martial arts, and yoga. A devotee of Jacob Bronowski, Janet was convinced by him of the deep connection between art and science. At home she pursues the art of garden design while creating backyard wildlife habitat, and has recently acquired the courage to play at painting.
After nineteen years in the Finger Lakes paradise of upstate New York, Janet now resides in the prairie home of Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, where in 2006 her first act was to found Springfield Area Freethinkers as a haven from the heavy red fog of faith that permeates the region. Here she began writing, first for Free Inquiry and then Secular Humanist Bulletin, where she is a contributing editor and for five years has authored the column “Heart & Mind,” which seeks to reconcile the demands of reason and emotion to construct a wise approach to life.
This is a four part series by Janet L. Factor that was originally published via the Secular Humanist Bulletin.
Dance is the only art in which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.
When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that.
There are times when the simple dignity of movement can fulfill the function of a volume of
The turning sun wraps itself in a cloak of flame that flares and subsides according to its shifting mood. The earth circles serenely about this angry giant, tirelessly keeping to a stately pace. Above the earth, the moon revolves in turn, coquettishly showing and then hiding her silver face to lure the sea. The spinning earth turns first to the blazing light and then to the cold, hard silence of space. Night follows day, tide follows moon, summer follows winter, and the sun roars and sulks in turn. This world is ruled by rhythms, and all life must dance to them or die.
Rhythm is the soul of dance. Most of us are captivated by melody or lyrics, but “obey the drum” is the iron rule for the dancer. Elaborate music is not required: one can dance to an accompaniment as simple as snapping fingers, so long as rhythm is there. Why is this the case? The answer lies in one word: entrainment. Heartbeat, breath, movement, even the rise and fall of brain waves, must become synchronized to create that unity between music and dancer that is the goal of this art. And not only in the dancer: thanks to our mirror neurons, the lucky audience at such a performance will also be swept along on the moving tide of feeling, and will breathe as one, their many hearts beating as one, until the magic ends. The body of the dancer acts as an amplifier of musical experience, spreading it to all who witness her performance.
What she does builds on the normal functions of the human body. Entrainment is a perfectly natural process, indeed, a vital one. Without coordination of our basic physiological rhythms, we cannot survive. Normally it happens without our ever being aware of it. But just try to walk down the street without maintaining a rhythm to your steps, and you will quickly see its importance. The discomfort quickly becomes overwhelming and forces you to stop. The impossibility of maintaining entrainment is part of what makes combat, even in practice form, so exhausting: randomly switching between sprinting, crawling, tip-toeing, and every other possible pace prevents the body from finding and maintaining a unified rhythm. This is likely one reason that, now such things are possible, soldiers become addicted to particular “soundtracks” and play them incessantly when on patrol; the music cues their bodies back to a coordinated state.
The dancer’s experience is the polar opposite of the distressing, disordered one. A fully entrained state is strongly associated with positive emotion: it is the essence of peak experience. This may explain why we can actually enjoy a tragic opera or ballet. In them, we can experience the terrible in a wonderful way. Were the situation real, there would be no coherence to our body rhythms; think of how, when the worst happens, you become conscious of your heart pounding, or feel as though you are gasping for breath. But in these arts, the deliberately induced entrainment creates a paradoxical feeling of transcendence.
Likewise, singing the blues when sad can allow one to fully experience the emotion, and yet feel oneself rise above it at the same time: it creates a visceral sense of mastery over the negative experience that is unlikely to be obtained in any other way. In contrast, depictions of violence and horror that are purely visual, such paintings or film, are more likely to leave us feeling disturbed than transported.
Other arts use rhythm as well. Meter is part of the definition of poetry—or used to be. Despite modern disdain for it, it is a powerful tool. It has been shown that, when spoken aloud, poetry with a strong, repetitive metrical structure can entrain heart rate and breathing just as music can. An actor delivering such lines will resonate to them, and if he is a gifted performer, he will create sympathetic vibrations in his audience; the whole room will ring to the note he strikes.
The ancient Greeks wrote their dramas in verse, and one can argue that the enduring power of Shakespeare’s plays is in part due to his use of blank verse, whose unrhymed rhythm consists of repeated iambs—soft/hards—that uncannily echo the lub-dubs of the human heart. In fact, one can go further: for each line of blank verse contains five iambs, five heartbeats, which is just the number that normally fall within the space of a single breath of an adult human being. One line equalling one breath, five heartbeats, together the fundamental rhythm of the human body. It is hard to believe that this is coincidental. It would work practically as well as artistically, for in Shakespeare’s time, long before the advent of effective sound amplification or lighting, even basic acting required serious physical endurance.
The anthologist Louis Untermeyer wrote: “Much of Shakespeare’s power is achieved not only by the flexibility of his language but by the suppleness of the form in which it was cast. There is something odd, almost magical, about the form of blank verse. Those weighted unrhymed lines have an extraordinary carrying power. The gravely moving ten syllables seem to carry a thought through the ages with particular authority, an authority never quite achieved by a more rapid line of eight syllables or a more ponderously burdened line of twelve.”
It is us those lines are carrying. A thought expressed in a form that perfectly dovetails with our normal internal rhythms cannot help but seem, well, natural. Right. Fitting! Whether Shakespeare knew precisely what he was doing, or only knew that it felt right, he did it. He knew it worked. Now, perhaps, we know why.