The Nyanja people of Zambia have a proverb Byrne would have loved: If you are ugly, know how to dance. How telling, when dance is so much a part of a culture that to be able to dance is celebrated almost as much as beauty.
I like to think that dance is on an upsurge again in our own culture, if only as evidenced by popular TV contests like “So You Think You Can Dance.” I’m not sure that dance was ever as central to the North American culture as it is in other places. Maybe the very number of distinct cultural traditions that “blended” here meant no one dance form became as prevalent as, say, Folklorico in Mexico or Ring dancing in African countries.
Native Americans had their own, complex, relationship with dance. Byrne’s “son” Benjamin Barney of the Navajo People explained to me that dance for his people is spiritual, not meant for entertainment. It took him almost a lifetime to convince his real mother to accept his choice to dance for the love of it. He found a way to blend both worlds by forgoing a career on stage, performing and dancing just for the joy it gave him.
Byrne was so proud of Ben’s dancing that she didn’t see the balance he was trying to achieve, at least until much later in her life. By the time I met her, I think she understood. Taped to her refrigerator was the cartoon where Snoopy says something like this: If you can’t dance, everyone at least can do a happy hop 🙂