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Natalie Angier Dances The Hora

Natalie Angier is a writer who can get me interested in just about any subject, but today’s article in the Science Times section of the New York Times was easy. If you haven’t read it, check out her essay on recent theories about the evolutionary basis of art. As always, she catches our interest with a terrific opening paragraph (especially for those of us who’ve ever stumbled through a hora with a frozen smile on our faces). But what really makes the piece worth reading is her account of how theorists studying the evolutionary role played by art have moved away from the long-standing claim that art serves simply as a sexual display, arguing instead that art functions as a communal adaptation, summoning total strangers into social bonds that resemble those of close family. She cites the work of Ellen Dissanayake, an independent scholar affiliated with the University of Washington, who suggests that the basic parts of any art ??? “the stylistic conventions and tonal patterns, the mental clay, staples and pauses with which even the loftiest creative works are constructed” ??? have their origin in the “visual, gestural, and vocal cues“the repetitions and variations” that characterize the play between a mother and an infant child.

It’s a moving idea, if only because it shifts the focus away from the idea of writing, dance, theater, or music as simply the strutting peacocks of our selfish natures, replacing it with a perception of how these arts can draw us closer than any social bond except love. We’ve all seen plenty of peacocks in writing workshops or on Inside the Actor’s Studio, but if you care about writing or dance or music, it’s probably because you’ve had an experience of being drawn out of yourself by a work of art into some shared moment of grace. I suspect that if we’re thinking in evolutionary terms, both theories make sense, but it’s nice to think that, at some unconscious level, art is the mother of us all.

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