Last week I wrote an article about the roots of tap dance. After posting the note, I began contemplating the article, and in particular this pull quote. Something didn’t sit right with me, and I haven’t been able to shake it. In thinking at the intersections – what we believe, how we express ourselves, and who we become – there is a great danger. The danger is in applying an idea that functions in one area to another one (in which it doesn’t function). This week I’m working out this thinking.
Tap dance is a human expression. It is something that humans have found and developed. It is a way of expressing our thoughts and feelings in a language of movement and sound. For some, it has also been a vehicle of economic survival, even thriving, in an otherwise challenging market. For others, it feels more like a way of life – so immersed are they in the ways of tap dancing that their personality, thoughts and feelings, even desires, have dramatically conformed. This shouldn’t be so surprising. The things that we do on a regular basis have the power to form us. If the activities require a lot of choice-making, the way we think about those choices (within the context of that particular activity) can have a larger effect on the way we make choices in general. How we do one thing can affect how we do other things. We are trainable, formable, beings.
In Tap Dance Land I have at times experienced an undercurrent of exclusivity. This idea that there is a single approach to the craft that is right. This is not unique to tap dance, and I can see good reason for it. Many artists have committed their life to a particular approach to the craft they are in. That commitment and consequential investment make for a significant attachment to their own approach. Even if they were to change, experiment, or even stop for a moment, on their own accord, there could be some internal strife. Artists can be stubborn with regards to their practice. They almost need to be in order for the work to happen. Hence, each artist needs to believe that what they are doing is “the right way,” so that they can show up completely and reap what they have sown. Doubt is a horrible friend in the practice of an artist.
Oral traditions often double down on this idea. As mentors from older generations raise up younger practitioners, the language of right and wrong is tied to the love and care experienced in the relationship – both personal and communal. If something is done wrong in the practice, it is easily expanded to the someone doing it being wrong. The language of, “if you really loved me you would…(fill in the blank),” can also be found. When individual and communal identity are on the line, the intensity brought to bear here is also not surprising.
However, Tap Dance, and other arts are still just what they are, heightened expressions of the inner world of a person. It is the inner world of the person that can be filled with good and evil, right and wrong. It is the inner world of the person that bursts forth in the arts. With all its complexity, interconnectedness with the world around it, and plasticity, it is the inner world of the person that requires a formation. Notably every person gets formed whether we are engaged in the process or not.
Tap dance and other oral traditions are mechanisms that can assist in this formation. However, they are all external. Embodied practices – things we can do with our body – that then affect the formation of our inner world. These are not to be dismissed, and also not to be overstated.
If and only if an oral tradition like Tap dance is the way toward holiness, goodness, and life, should we worry about the kind of tap dancing we engage in. Otherwise, the dancing is a mere outcome of a much deeper thing that is happening. It is important that I am explicit here.
Jesus Christ positioned himself plainly in saying that he was the way, the truth and the life (the Book of John, Chapter 14, verse 6). That in following him (entrusting him), anyone would be able to enter the Kingdom of God, a life wrapped up in what God was doing in the world. Those who did, Jesus proposes, would experience a new kind of life, never lacking for anything, and saved from the momentum of a world organized in many ways against God.
Herein lies a distinct difference between the propositions of Jesus and other spiritual leaders that I’ve encountered. Jesus does not present a series of ideas, disciplines, or feelings, to say, “follow these.” He presents himself, his life and personality (and his actions as proof) and says, “follow me.” Many have, for good reason, concentrated on Jesus’ actions, in order to learn what it means to follow him. However, Jesus’ own words (as recorded) speak to a deeper focus and transformation. Key recordings of Jesus’s words in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 5, speak to the kind of inner change in a person. Notably the standard Jesus sets regarding loving one’s enemies, if often thought to be impossible and sometimes rejected outright as an achievable goal.
This is where the connection to spiritual practices comes in. Spiritual practices, or disciplines, are described as things that we can do to facilitate things we can’t do through direct effort. For example, the vanity that underpins requiring to have the last word may begin to be worked on by giving up the need to have the last word. Giving up this need, combined with the more intense physical practice of not talking (silence) when we have been in the habit of it, may begin to loosen the grip of vanity on our inner person. Alternatively, one trying to will the loosening of vanity on their person through some kind of direct effort, maybe the repetition of the statement, “I am not vain,” for example, will likely find themselves no further along in achieving their goal than when they began.
Spiritual disciplines have a danger imbedded in them. They can become an achievement-oriented practice. Something that we do to earn a particular position, feeling of importance, even identity. This is detrimental to their purpose. The disciplines are not the end. As Dallas Willard has said, “The disciplines are not righteousness. They are wisdom.” It is in seeing a particular discipline as a good thing to do for the sake of an even greater end that the disciplines are set in their rightful place.
Coming up in Tap Dance Land with the mentors and teachers that I had, I now realize that I was introduced to Tap Dance as a spiritual practice very early on. It was something that I could do to connect with the depths of myself, others, and the world around me, and maybe even work some things out. But no single spiritual practice can make a person holy. In the context of the propositions of Jesus, asking, “What spiritual practice can I do to make myself holy?” isn’t even a foundational question for the journey. Questions like, “Who are you following?” and “What do you believe is real?” are much more foundational and consequential. To be wrapped up in a conversation, debate, or all out battle, as to the proper way to Tap Dance belittles these more important questions. It can, at an extreme, disorder our lives. In the midst of such debates we may become sidetracked to such an extent that we actually think that our practices are the things that define us; that our ability to achieve within the context of these practices is the measure of our person; that there is no other way to solve the deeper questions of life but to prove to ourselves and others that we are good by the quality of what we do.
If the propositions of Jesus are true, however, there is only one way towards the kind of life that brings about fundamental transformation and an experience of God’s Kingdom. It is not in the accomplishing of any one particular activity. It is in the following of Jesus. Only then may the inner person be transformed to the extent that the world in turn would be changed. The outcomes are just that, consequences of the activity of following. The focus is singular (follow Jesus) and the purpose is clear (transformation into his likeness ). Anything else is an opportunity to practice from wherever we may be on the journey.