Open Country by Erica Hume Niven

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AS I walked through a deeply frozen landscape on a Monday morning, I could not have predicted that I would be standing there at the end of the week talking about the definition of dance.

I parked beneath the pines at Cauldshiels Loch, near Melrose. There was a hurry of small songbirds flitting between the trees around the bank. Ice had formed at the edge of the water, gripping rushes and grasses. A tree had fallen over the narrow earth path. I walked around it and on to an old track once used by drovers.

The Borders Abbeys Way heads south over Faldonside Moor from the loch; as I followed it, the frosted fields, hills and dykes were a pale mirage. I stared at the gate I had opened, encrusted with ice crystals that dusted my gloves. I saw no-one until I reached Selkirk Hill. No mammal or bird of prey stirred near me.

Some days later, I was leading a walk from Abbotsford to Selkirk. The hard hummocky hoof-trodden mud on the track had softened. This unfortunately meant that at points our boots had a thick edge of mud and leaves, but it did not dampen the spirits of my happy group.

A joke I made about lunchtime entertainment as we sat on boulders by a dyke turned into a discussion about dance. Elizabeth, ever the woman who finds le mot juste (“the right word” in French, a phrase coined by 19th-century novelist Gustave Flaubert, who often spent weeks looking for the right word) said that dance was a form of expression. Most of the group felt that they could not dance and so disliked it as a form of movement.

As an ancient expression and an activity fundamental to many rites and celebrations, it is undeniably a pervading reality in human and animal life. Does a philosophy of dance exist, I wondered. Matthew Farmer, an American dancer and student of dance theory describes the philosophy of dance.

“Like any art form, dance is a representation of human emotion, conflict, representation itself, and overall life. And like the rest of the art world, it should be accessible to all humanity. Dance is any movement, created by man, beast, or otherwise, that shares the innermost thoughts, feelings, emotions, characters, and ideals created by its choreographer. Dance shares no boundaries with regards to culture, race, sex, or social status, and is neither better than any other art form nor better than itself. It is in its purest form the movement of humanity, and therefore should – no, must – be accessible to all peoples.”

Deciding whether animals can dance depends on your definition of what dance is. The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego conducted studies that seemed to demonstrate that only birds who can imitate sound (other than other bird calls, I presume) could dance to a rhythm. These animals, they summaris ed, had the vital neuron receptors to achieve an understanding of different tempos.

This theory seems to assume that dance is an activity that is done to music. We already know that animals have mating dances – or are these just mating displays. Even the choice of word shows a predisposition to one definition or another. Dance that is not accompanied by music is said to dance to its own rhythm.

Even on frosty mornings this month, the winter gnats have been dancing in the wan sunlight. They are like fairy ice crystals moving about in the twinkling landscape. Hunter Stockton Thompson was an American journalist who asked whether his country was raising a generation of dancers. This comment influenced the Killers’ song that posed the question, “Are we human or are we dancers?”

Thompson’s comment was considered disparaging but is it possible we are all animals who dance. Perhaps dance is a part of being human. With little archaeological evidence, historians have ventured the claim that dance was used as a form of communication before we had language.