The case for tried-and-true

A few months ago I went to a dance at my university and experienced, for the first (and last) time in a while, the way our generation dances — that is, grinding. The experience has haunted me enough to inspire this post.

I couldn’t look at any couple without being strongly reminded of the way a dog or an insect would mount another. In any other setting, most guys wouldn’t be caught dead swinging their hips the way they do on the dance floor, in order to accommodate the girls situated neatly on their crotches (sorry, I’m trying to avoid as many gory details as possible). Faces are slack, expressionless, concentrated on matching the rhythm of the partner’s hips. It’s instinctual, repetitive, easy — and it feels damn good.

But I think we can agree that this kind of dancing is also intrinsically artless. There’s nothing to memorize, no sequence of movements to practice at home or learn under someone’s instruction. While the dancing of 50 or 100 years ago had elements of performance and procedure in it, grinding exists only in the moment and there are no rules.

Ritual is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.” (Side note: Instinct had directed me to Dictionary.com, but my higher brain function, which has been co-opted by my unpaid editor jobs, took over.) I actually like the Dictionary.com definition better because it includes the words “pattern of behavior” rather than just “series of acts.”

Compared to the past, I think that our behavior (as a culture, as individuals) is perhaps losing some of its association with patterns. The silliest evidence is the evolution of “random” into a catchall reaction or descriptor (“That’s so random!”). But more generally, our daily choices and actions are influenced by technology that offers us unlimited choices. Commercials for smartphones flash city streets, lavish living rooms, the interior of a bar or just eye candy of the device itself, in just a few frames each. Why spend time and effort doing something you’ve done before, when your “intelligent, maybe even genius” device (Verizon’s words, not mine) can always lead you to a new experience?

Personally, I see a connection between our growing impatience with routine and the increasing secularism of the first world (and of American society in particular). While there are many more factors to this than the abandonment of ritual, as a Christian I know that a major turnoff to religion for many of my friends and peers is its reliance on repeated rites, singing or speaking in unison. Even within the religious population, many communities of worshippers are employing a more “contemporary” approach that eschews the centuries-old hymns and books in favor of guitars and PowerPoint sermons.

As for me, I love the simple hymns and the prayers we say week after week. I eat that stuff up. I find that having something stay constant in my life makes it easier to examine what’s different today, this week, this year. I have studied karate and yoga, and the challenge of learning to do something in a set way, and to replicate it, is a valuable experience.

So I think ritual and routine are underrated. You can take this with a grain of salt because I happen to be a very plan- and routine-oriented person; I love waking up at the same time every day and fixing my Cream of Wheat and cup of tea the way I did the day before, and the day before that. But the point is, I think ballroom dancing, yoga, karate and religious rites exist because people are programmed to imitate, learn and reproduce (sequences of actions as well as DNA) — and in a culture that prizes originality and individuality, we’ve lost sight of that.

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