As a son of Polish and Austrian immigrants I grew up among several languages, but was always looking for a common language. English was the language my parents spoke at home, a compromise between their native tongues. English had the tremendous task of trying to bridge two cultures and hold a family together. Somehow, with help it worked. Recognizing at an early age that English could not adequately serve as an authentic common language, I made learning the languages and cultures of my parents a life priority. Although I don’t claim fluency in all of them, I got pretty close to my goal. Consequently, I gained a unique perspective on how languages play an important role in peacemaking and how they serve as bridges between cultures that are either ignorant of or afraid of one another. And although English was useful, I believed in the study of many languages and cultures. And so, in an effort to find some sort of common language, I kept moving out over the world in waves: one language, dance, or song at a time. I even saw a little of myself in my interpretation of Rilke’s poem “Growing Orbits:” “I live my life in growing orbits / which move out over the things of the world …I am circling… around the ancient tower… and I still don’t know if I am a (German) falcon or a (waltzing) storm or a (Polish) song.”
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Rainer Maria Rilke, From The Book of Hours
I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower
and have been circling for a thousand years
and I still do not know if I am a falcon, a storm
or a great song.
Translation: Robert Bly, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke,
A Translation from the German and Commentary by Robert Bly
1981 Perennial Library, Harper & Row, New York
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Circling around like this for years, I eventually found and joined Kairos Alive!, an organization that seeks to empower elders and their communities through dance, music, story, and research. To me, the work that Kairos Alive! did, seemed like looking for common ground and using language and culture to circle an ancient tower. This looked like a good match, a place where I could contribute the falcons, storms, and songs that I knew so well. What I quickly discovered was that my orbits not only matched the organization’s, but the many other community members that Kairos was partnering with, as well. For perhaps the first time in my life, I experienced incredibly diversity. Some orbits were new to me, and others I had never been so close to before. There were Motown planes, Scandinavian balloons, and gospel kites to name just a few.
Lord Shiva dancing on the back of Ignorance
I’ve always been curious about different cultures, but to be perfectly honest, these first sessions were challenging. Despite my own intercultural background, I found that I held certain prejudices and judgments about certain orbits—sometimes discovering how hard it was to live up to my own pluralistic ideals. Although rationally I understood that we all have different tastes and backgrounds, it was difficult for me to be fully open and comfortable with what I did not understand. I knew that if I was going to circle happily in this work, I had to find a new attitudes and change how I was looking for common language.
It was Mona, a joyful 101 year-old woman in a wheel chair who showed me one of the first glimpses of how to participate in this intercultural experience. Although Mona told me that dancing was the one thing that made her happiest, it was her excitement and joy expressed through her eyes, hands, and smile that spoke even louder. Mona didn’t worry about much, least of all the right steps. What she really wanted though, was to be seen and to be together with other people in a meaningful way.
Jamal, a young man with physical and mental disabilities, expressed similar feelings of joy through his vibrant face when I would drum next to him.
Ms. Smith, an elder from the south said how “Dance brings everybody in the community together. I just hear the music and I start to move and feel good. I can’t help it!”
These individuals taught me that another language existed beyond the spoken ones I’d focused on. There was the subtle, body language of dance. Dance was big enough to hold huge amounts of joy, grief, and so much more. It seemed to me that dance was a sophisticated vehicle, a tool that could receive and transmit complicated human emotions. Coupled with music, dance served as a powerful mediator that facilitated empathetic communication. And, it was fun!
A complicated exchange was beautifully demonstrated to me last year at one of the Kairos Alive! public Intergenerational Dance Halls™ by José from Cuba. Rather than teach me traditional salsa steps, (which he may have known I was not yet comfortable with) he just invited me to dance by modeling how to move independently as a man sure of himself. Though he didn’t speak English, and my Spanish was limited, he demonstrated that the absence of common words was not a barrier to relating to one another. Without exchanging a single word, we listened to each other and had a meaningful experience. Although I was a guest on his turf, his body language communicated that I could be myself, that I didn’t have to feel self-conscious, and that I was safe. José’s dance intersected both our orbits as he used the music’s beat to establish common ground.
Over and over again, I have learned from our most vulnerable community members that dance is a common language that is already accessible to all of us. Because research shows that over 80% of our total communication is nonverbal, the messages communicated through dance can be central to how we build personal relationships and communities.
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Hubert H Humphrey once stated that a society can be judged by how it “treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” Because dance is a common language that people of all ages, abilities, and cultures intuitively understand, it also has a prescriptive quality for how to address Humphrey’s challenging social questions. Dance is both the simplest and the most sophisticated model of how to respectfully, honorably, kindly, resourcefully, and supportively treat our most vulnerable community members.
So, after years of circling around Rilke’s ancient tower looking for common language, I finally found it through the joy and the freedom of dancing with Mona, Jamal, Ms. Smith, and José. Their fearlessness gives me permission to take greater creative risks and their sheer beauty beckons me to bring dance back to its rightful place at the center of our communities. It is clear that if we wish to thrive in an increasingly multicultural society, a greater commitment to communication skills is necessary. While we all continue to orbit in our own way, each of us, from dawn to twilight, can transform our differences into diversity and be in solidarity with people of all ages and abilities through a common language of dance.
~ Nicholas Pawlowski
Come Dance with Me
Bemidji Dance Hall
Dancing Veterans Project