Thursday, 29 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 6 ― Terpsichore

This is my favorite example of
Hellenistic art. There is grace in the
movement not-quite frozen in time, and
you can almost hear the music.
Last night, I watched the season premiere of So You Think You Can Dance. I think it is the best show on TV. There are many other talent shows, of course, and there is another popular show on dancing that features celebrities. I care less about those, and whether celebrities can or cannot dance is of little concern to me. After all, they have other things that they can fall back on ― figuratively speaking.

Now, I used to be a pretty good dancer myself, back in the days of disco, and the girls thought so too, but this was only dancing in the clubs and could not even begin to compare with what I was watching last night. Still, it was fun and a boost to my ego at the time. One girl used to bring her dance costume to an Italian restaurant I used to frequent and whenever I arrived she would go to the washroom to change into it. The macho Italian guys at the restaurant would scowl at me, and that was an added bonus. But the restaurant had a very small dance floor and I much preferred an after-hours club, in a rather seedy part of town, which had a huge floor and very few patrons at 2 a.m.

Nigel Lythgoe
Creator and executive producer of
So You Think You Can Dance
photo: Greg Hernandez

I cannot think of a more demanding art form than dance. One could be in rough shape and still be a great actor, singer, writer or painter, but dance demands the best in body, mind and spirit and the medium is the message. All of this is reflected in the shows judging as well, and while many of the technical details sail right over my head, I appreciate hearing them and getting a glimpse into what lies behind the performance.

What impresses me the most is the spirit. I see these young people with such dedication and drive who often have had to overcome tragedies in their lives to get where they are. And they do not give up. Again and again, you see someone who, after failing to make the grade in one season, returns after more instruction and practice, to succeed in another.

I suppose that my own life has given me something of that appreciation: my own dancing activities came to a dramatic end as a passenger in a car that sailed off the edge of a hill one night. I felt a dull but heavy crunch in my lower spine. Over the following years it got much much worse and I was prescribed ever more powerful painkillers ending up with a highly addictive synthetic heroin. It all became too much and after becoming virtually bedridden with one leg twisted outward and my spine bent forward, I saw a type of operation on TV that seemed to be what I needed.  My GP told me that I would have a 50/50 chance of being paralyzed from the waist down, though. That did not dissuade me and I went "cold turkey" on the painkillers and experienced three days of pure hell, not sleeping at all and just watching videos day and night.

My luck kicked in. I got an appointment to see a neurosurgeon  to whom I explained that I had seen this operation on TV. and... . He said "Yes, I taught that doctor" and he booked me in for surgery within days. He was Dr. Bruce Tranmer, and the operation went very well, of course. Despite urgings from the nurses afterward, I refused all opiates and took only regular Tylenol. After about a year's exercising, my spine straightened and I was able to walk properly again. Now I like to hike. I still have to be careful, mind you. I alternate sitting, lying down and walking, I'm on a disability pension and if I do the wrong thing, I can end up in bed for a few days in pain. I lost most of one disc in my spine and even a wrong movement can be very bad. One learns, though, and it is mostly automatic now. Winters are hard on me because it's no fun going for a 5- 10km walk when it's minus 30. Of course, I don't dance anymore. I could never play golf, so at least that's a bonus.

History seems mostly about kings and generals and archaeology seems to focus on the common man, downtrodden then as now. Civilization, though, progresses because of that tiny percentage of people who have that spirit to advance, just like those kids on So You Think You Can Dance. Sadly, their names rarely appear in history texts, and archaeologists frequently forget, completely, that there is such a thing as human agency ― things just change and the individual is lost. But it is the individual we have to thank for everything good in the world, and for every advance that we make. No organization has ever discovered anything, they just use those who have.

Making a virtue out of necessity, the laziest of archaeologists still study just the remains of people and what has been discarded or lost. The voices of those with such spirit seem silent now. Many archaeologists ignore art or criticize art-historical analyses, some even deny the existence of art in the distant past. A few have even denied the ancient existence of the individual. But that spirit still exists as it has existed for tens of thousands of years. You can watch it on TV in dance, and tomorrow, I'll talk about methods of finding it in the distant past too.

Terpsichore is more than just the ancient Greek Muse of dancing. She is still with us and symbolizes something else, too. Her name comes from two words: "delight" and "dance". When I asked an individualistic professor of history why we do what we do, he replied "To exercise the mind, and to delight the senses". Everything else is of little matter.


  1. John;

    I've read literally hundreds of things you have written and very much enjoyed the ones that weren't over my head :-) This piece, however, touched me deeply and revealed a personal side of John Hooker that I had not seen in all those years. Thank you so much my friend.

    1. Sniff,.. gulp,... now you are bringing a tear to my eyes. A heartfelt thanks, but you are no stranger to the struggle yourself, friend.