I love museums! When I first graduated from college, I applied for a PR job at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology (and didn’t get the job). Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if I had gotten that job instead of my first publishing job, which led to many years of copy editing, production editing, and writing before I went back to grad school to become a psychologist. In any case, I have long enjoyed visiting museums of many sorts–art, culture, crafts, natural history … One of the things I most enjoy about them is that it’s a chance to step outside the usual routine and get immersed in a different and carefully curated reality for a while.
I recently learned that some museums have become involved in physical and mental health. This was both surprising to me (as I hadn’t heard about museum-based wellness programs before) and also not surprising, as I have long been aware of the therapeutic benefits of the arts on health and well-being. A report by the American Alliance of Museums provides some interesting information about how museums can be partners in health. As a psychologist, I was particularly intrigued by some of the programs related to mental health issues. Some museums provide programming as a form of therapy. For example, in Wausau, Wisconsin, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum’s Treasuring Memories program, in collaboration with Aspirus Comfort Care and Hospice Services, helps community members of all ages who are coping with the death of a loved one by encouraging them to create memorial art. The Tucson Museum of Art offers programs for critically ill children at the University of Arizona Medical Center to help them explore and express their difficult feelings and interact with others through art-making.
Other museums have curated exhibits or offered educational programs about mental health topics. One example is the Otter Tail County Museum in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, which held an exhibit on the history of the Fergus Falls State Hospital, a facility for patients with concerns such as mental illness, epilepsy, and addiction. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, created the “Stigmas, Stereotypes, and Solutions” program to help the community explore the prevalence and treatment of mental health issues and provide support for those struggling with such concerns.
According to Elisabeth Ioannides, the Assistant Curator at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, who wrote her dissertation and a number of articles on the application of art therapy in museums, there are a variety of ways in which galleries and museums play a role in mental health, both formally through programming and exhibits and informally, as she notes that simply being in a museum or gallery can contribute to feeling positive and inspired. In an article she wrote for Museum International, she goes into detail about the ways that these institutions can benefit people’s mental health.
I don’t get the chance to partner with any art institutions in my current work as a psychologist, but I do get to fulfill my creative side by integrating the arts into my work when possible, reading about the arts and culture, and writing this blog. Perhaps one day I will get the chance to work in a museum, but for the time being, I will continue to enjoy being a museum patron and art and culture lover.
OK, I am cheating this time with my blog post, as I didn’t write it. This post focuses on the research of Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, with co-author Grant Packard, a marketing professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. The article I am sharing here is an edited transcript of a podcast in which Knowledge@Wharton staff interviewed Jonah Berger. The research Berger and Packard conducted looked at the language in hundreds of songs so they could try to determine what made a song more popular. The psychology of what makes us like a particular song, movie, TV show, etc., is fascinating to me. I hope you’ll find this research interesting as well! Click on the link to go to the original article, which includes a podcast, or read the transcript below.
Knowledge@Wharton: A lot of your past research focuses on virality or why certain things catch on while others don’t. What inspired you to focus on songs this time?
Jonah Berger: We hear songs all the time. We’re in our car on the way to work, or we’re at home listening to YouTube. We like some songs and don’t like others. Some climb the Billboard charts and some fail. One question I wondered was why. Obviously, songs are tough to study. There are a lot of different factors that shape song success, from who sings the songs to what sort of melodies they have. We thought it would be interesting to look at a slightly more unexplored place, and that is the lyrics. Just by looking at the lyrics alone, could we pick up some traction on why songs succeed and fail?
Knowledge@Wharton: You examined songs within their particular genres — country songs with other country songs, R&B songs with other R&B songs. Why did you decide on this format?
Berger: We had a simple, and I think interesting, hypothesis, which is that the success of songs doesn’t just depend on their lyrics in general, it depends on how similar that song is from other songs that are popular recently. Take a country song, for example. A country song could be very like most country songs that are out there already. The lyrics could be very similar to what people usually sing about in country music, or the lyrics could be more different, more novel, more new for a country song. We wondered whether songs that sound more new, because their lyrics are different than most songs in the space, could be more popular with listeners.
Knowledge@Wharton: You found some interesting patterns among these song lyrics. For example, if somebody thinks that all country songs are about girls and trucks, they are not too far off, based on this research.
Berger: We used natural language processing, which is a way to analyze text using software. We did something called LDA (latent Dirichlet allocation), which helps us figure out the underlying themes or topics in the songs. It can take a whole bunch of different songs with all of their different lyrics and find general themes. We found that there were 10 themes across all songs that tended to pop. Some songs talk about love, others talk about girls and cars, some talk about dancing. We asked, what part of each song is in each of these themes? And we found, like you mentioned, that country songs don’t only sing about girls and cars, but they sing a good bit about that theme.
Knowledge@Wharton: What were your key findings about how lyrical differentiation impacted song popularity?
Berger: We found that even though many things affect song popularity, like who sings it and the melody, we could understand what songs become successful just by looking at the lyrics alone and just by looking at how different a song is from its genre. We found that, on average, the more different a song was from its genre, the more atypical a country song was for country music, the more successful it was on the Billboard chart, the higher ranked it was. Even controlling for things like who sang the song, when it was released, etc., the mere fact that it was different from most other songs in its genre was connected to it being more successful.
Knowledge@Wharton: Is there a particular song that is an especially good example of these overall findings?
Berger: What is interesting is it is hard to tell the difference between songs just by listening to them. I bet if you were listening to a radio and I asked you how different this country song is from country songs that usually come on, you wouldn’t be very good at telling me, and I wouldn’t be very good at telling you. We often don’t consciously pay attention to all of the lyrics or even recognize all of the lyrics, but natural language processing allows us to find these implicit or underlying themes that drive success. So, it wasn’t driven by one song in particular; it was looking at it across all of these songs. Lyrics shaped whether they were successful or not.
Knowledge@Wharton: There were a couple of outliers here, and one of those was pop songs. Can you talk to us about that?
Berger: One thing we wanted to try to do is say whether this effect is causal. It is neat that successful songs tend to have more different lyrics, but are the different lyrics causing the songs to be successful, or might it be something else? We did a lot of work to show a causal effect, and one thing we tried to do was see whether it varies by genre. There is this notion out there, if you think about songs, that certain genres care more about lyrics than others.
You might imagine, for example, that lyrics don’t matter so much in dance songs because there aren’t many lyrics, if there are any at all. If we think about pop songs compared with country or rock, success in pop is often more about being the same rather than being different. We wondered whether in those two genres — pop and dance — we might see different effects, and indeed we did.
We found that lyrics didn’t matter much at all in dance songs, and similarity was better than difference in pop songs. It suggested it is not just about the lyrics themselves, it is about how the lyrics relate to difference and how that matters in the specific genre being examined.
Knowledge@Wharton: Could this technique also be used to predict a summer blockbuster or most popular beach read, for example?
Berger: That is exactly right, and that is what we are trying to do now. We are looking at thousands of movies to see whether we can predict how successful movies are going to be, in terms of box office sales as well as ratings online, based on their scripts. We’re looking at emotional trajectories, for example, in the scripts. We’re doing more work with music lyrics, we’re doing some work with content and text of books, and we’re also doing work with customer service calls.
Imagine you call an airline or an online retailer. How do the words the customer service representative uses, as well as how they use those words, affect how satisfied the customers are? Across a bunch of different domains, we are interested in words even though we don’t always pay attention to them. How might those words affect success or failure?
Knowledge@Wharton: How does this research demonstrate the value of natural language processing, and how do you see that helping to develop this area of research?
Berger: There is a lot of attention these days around artificial intelligence and machine learning, though most people in the general population don’t necessarily understand what that means. But one way that these tools are being used is to pull behavioral insight from text. There are all sorts of textual data out there from online reviews to things like song lyrics and movie scripts. Textual analysis or natural language processing allows us to pull behavioral insights from those reams of data, not just to predict what is going to succeed and fail, but also to use it to understand human and customer behavior. That is really the power of these tools — using them to understand things we might not have been able to understand before.
People may tell you they liked a song or a movie, but they may not know why. What this allows us to do is actually quantify what makes a song or a book or a movie successful, even if it is hard to study otherwise.
Knowledge@Wharton: Do you have a prediction for what is going to be the song of this summer?
Berger: I don’t have a specific prediction, but I bet it will be atypical. I bet it will be something unusual rather than normal.
Why is it that some forms of art can make us get all verklempt and others are less likely to do so? According to art expert and author Philip Hook, paintings and sculptures are less likely to cause someone to weep than music, film, or books. Hook theorizes that this may be because these art forms are more dynamic than static visual arts and thus are more powerful in touching our emotions. That said, many paintings and other visual artworks do cause people to cry. According to Hook, “Spectators of works by Mark Rothko, the American Abstract Expressionist, are often moved to tears.” Apparently, there are on-staff counselors at the Rothko Chapel in Texas, which is exclusively decorated with large abstract Rothko paintings, to provide support to art lovers who become overwhelmed with emotion in the chapel. Why would Rothko’s work stimulate tears more often than the work of some other painters? Hook believes that “There is something about the large expanses of colour which [Rothko] deploys with such subtlety that puts the viewer in touch with the absolute.” Is it a sense of tapping into something unconscious, spiritual, profound, and sensory when viewing a Rothko that causes people to start crying?
Hook notes that Vincent van Gogh’s works are also among those most likely to make someone tear up. This may be for different reasons than with Rothko’s paintings: Most art lovers are aware of the poverty, emotional suffering, mental illness, and lack of success van Gogh experienced during his life (as well as his early death by suicide). Thus, people looking at van Gogh’s paintings may consciously or unconsciously project poignant and even tragic meanings onto them.
Many viewers cried when visiting Marina Abramović’s performance piece “The Artist Is Present,” in which Abramović silently stared at each stranger who sat in front of her. (In fact, I cried watching the short video about “The Artist Is Present” to which I have linked here.) Participants in this piece have said that the experience felt deeply intimate, even religious. Perhaps one reason that viewers reacted in this way is that in our day-to-day lives, we typically have very few opportunities to make sustained and sanctioned eye contact with another person, particularly a stranger. Many of the ways in which we interact with others–and with ourselves–are superficial and avoidant. Our connections are mediated by technology, and we often stay busy or distracted in ways that prevent us from sitting with ourselves. As an exercise during my psychology graduate program, we were paired with a fellow student and had to sit quietly while making unbroken eye contact for 15 minutes. It was very challenging not to look away and indeed felt extremely intimate and moving.
The reasons for art triggering tears are varied, as are the types of reactions people have. In some cases, people experience more extreme emotional and physical reactions to art than just crying. Stendhal syndrome, named for 19th-century French author Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pseudonym, Stendhal), is a psychosomatic disorder with the symptoms of rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, fainting, and sometimes hallucinations that occurs when a person has an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art. In other words, people may become overcome and overwhelmed by an artwork. Stendhal had these reactions when visiting the beautiful Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where several iconic Renaissance artists and scientists, such as Michelangelo and Galileo, are buried and the walls are adorned by Giotto frescoes. Stendhal wrote:
I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call “nerves.” Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.
Although Stendhal syndrome is not considered an actual psychiatric disorder, there is scientific evidence that the same cerebral areas involved in emotional reactions are activated during the exposure to artworks. I feel that those cerebral areas must be particularly sensitive for me, as I find myself crying pretty often when reading a moving novel, watching an emotional TV or movie scene, watching amazing dancers, and even at some commercials. That said, I have never fainted in front of a painting or had heart palpitations at the theater.
Last month, I saw the comic book-based Afrofuturist film Black Panther, which got me to thinking about how much representation matters: Seeing positive images of people who share your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. makes a difference in how you feel about yourself and see the world. Black Panther, a black superhero movie, got raves from viewers and critics alike for its exciting action, beautiful costumes and scenery, and fine acting, but more importantly, it broke new ground in Hollywood by featuring a black superhero. Black Panther tells the story of the first black superhero in mainstream American comics.
The emotional responses many black viewers had to the film show how powerful and necessary it is to put black heroes front and center. Since the 1960s, researchers of television and film have noted that what is shown–or not shown–in mainstream media shapes how we see the world and what we believe to be “normal.” The absence or underrepresentation of certain groups, such as African-Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos results in what media scholars call “symbolic annihilation.” George Gerbner coined this term in the 1970s to explain how the underrepresentation of certain groups in mainstream media perpetuates social inequality and undermines the legitimacy of their identities. Misrepresentation, or stereotyping, is also a sadly frequent and prevalent phenomenon in the mainstream media. Lack of representation, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation skew viewers’ understanding of the world, perpetuate racism and other -isms, and can damage the self-esteem of those who are not depicted or depicted poorly.
Previous filmmakers, with few exceptions (such as Stephen Norrington, who directed Blade, with the tituar character played by Wesley Snipes), made the black superhero a secondary character alongside white ones (such as Storm in the X-Men movies and War Machine in the Iron Man series). In contrast, Black Panther‘s director, Ryan Coogler, brought to life the story of T’Challa, a modern black superhero who is respectable, imaginative, powerful. According to Coogler, “I think the question that I’m trying to ask and answer in Black Panther is, ‘What does it truly mean to be African?'” This is a question that has long gone unexplored in mainstream film.
I’m not even a fan of comic books, and I thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther, both because it was a really well-done movie, but also because I recognized the cultural power and importance of the film. Hearing the voices of black directors, writers, and actors and seeing them take a central role in Hollywood is long overdue, and I hope there will be more and more movies like Black Panther being made. I also hope to see growing (positive) representation of other groups whose voices have been absent, underrepresented, or misrepresented for too long.
It’s spring, and I’ve been thinking about the myth of Persephone and Demeter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the myth, I’ll tell it here.
According to Greek mythology, Persephone (also called Kore, “the maiden”) was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of harvest and fertility. Persephone was a beautiful young girl with many suitors, including Hades, the god of the underworld (and Zeus’ brother–her own uncle!). Demeter was very protective of Persephone and refused to consider Hades’ desire to have her for his bride. Demeter didn’t want her lovely young daughter married off to a middle-aged man surrounded by death. Hades was determined to get his way, so one day while the maiden was playing and picking flowers with her friends, he caused the earth to suddenly open up under Persephone’s feet when she stopped to admire a beautiful narcissus flower. Hades grabbed the maiden before she could call for help and took her with him into his underworld kingdom. Although Zeus and Helios, the sun god, saw the abduction happen, they decided not to tell Demeter, as Zeus didn’t want to cause problems with his brother, Hades.
Demeter was overcome with grief when her daughter went missing and asked her friend Hecate, goddess of the wilderness and childbirth, for help; Hecate advised Demeter to ask Helios if he’d seen anything, and Demeter convinced Helios to tell her what he’d witnessed. Helios revealed that Hades has abducted Persephone, causing Demeter to become enraged with Hades and with Zeus for not telling her he knew what had happened to their daughter. To punish the gods and express her grief, Demeter refused to continue with her duties as the goddess of harvest and fertility, causing great devastation to the earth: The ground dried up, crops withered, animals starved, and famine and death spread across the world.
Zeus heard the cries of the suffering people and decided to do something to appease Demeter and save humanity. He told Demeter that he would ask Persephone if she preferred to stay in the underworld with her “husband,” Hades, or return to Olympus with her mother: If Persephone said she wanted to remain with Hades, Demeter would have to accept this and go back to her duties as the harvest and fertility goddess. Demeter agreed. However, Hades tricked Persephone, who was distraught at having been kidnapped and forced to remain with him. Persephone was lured into eating a pomegranate seed–anyone who ate any food of the underworld would be cursed to miss the underworld if they ever left it. When Persephone was brought to Olympus to tell her father what her wishes were, she said that she wanted to return to be with Hades. Demeter was infuriated by this response, assuming that Hades had somehow deceived Persephone into answering this way. Demeter declared she would never bring life back to the earth. Zeus proposed a compromise in which Persephone would spend 6 months a year with Hades and 6 months with Demeter, a plan that pleased no one; however, all had to adhere to Zeus’ will.
The Greeks used this myth to explain the seasons: In the fall and winter when Persephone is with her husband, Hades, ruling as queen of the underworld, Demeter mourns and allows life on earth to die and decay. In the spring and summer, Demeter rejoices at having her daughter return to her and makes the world fertile, then fruitful again.
There are other version of this myth in older and later cultures, as well as similar stories of death and rebirth. One could surmise that such stories are related to celebrations of spring (such as Easter, in which Christians honor Jesus’ resurrection after death and secular people celebrate new life in spring through symbols like eggs, baby chicks, and rabbits; and Ostara, a pagan celebration of the season’s change from dark winter to brightening spring).
With my view rooted in the contemporary world, it’s hard to remember to consider the Persephone story from within the context of antiquity and how people in that time viewed family, marriage, the rights of women, and freedom. From a modern perspective, the story evokes thoughts of rape, trauma, pedophilia, and incest. It’s hard to see it as anything but a terrible tragedy and difficult not to focus on the story being about a young girl whose freedom and innocence were taken by her uncle. From a more psychological view, one can also interpret the myth as exploring the struggle of a mother to allow her daughter to grow up and leave home, or a mother’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth and budding sexuality (thus, Demeter’s hiding Persephone away from her suitors and not allowing Hades to marry her). Along the same lines, one could interpret the story as depicting the struggle of the old (embodied by Demeter) to pass on the torch to the young (Persephone)–the nostalgia and pain of growing older, seeing the world change, and coming to terms with one’s own mortality.
I choose to focus on the hopeful and affirming part of the story–the fact that growth and rebirth are a natural part of the cycle. Acknowledging that death and decay are also a part of life, we can use the reminder of spring and the myth of Persephone to spur us on to appreciate the life we have and to take advantage of renewed energy, new beginnings, and second chances during this time of the year.
A lot of people believe that it’s just a given that artists are “crazy,” that being mentally ill makes you more creative and able to “think outside of the box.” Is this true? It’s something I have wondered about many times. The short answer is probably not, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
There have certainly been a lot of high-profile artists with mental health issues (including substance use issues): comedian Margaret Cho (who had an eating disorder, depression, and drug and alcohol addiction), painter Edvard Munch (who had depression and agoraphobia, as well as hallucinations), painter Georgia O’Keeffe (who dealt with anxiety and depression), poet Sylvia Plath (who had depression and ultimately killed herself), Vincent van Gogh (who probably had depression or bipolar disorder and, like Plath, killed himself), novelist David Foster Wallace (who dealt with depression and also killed himself), street and neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (who suffered from heroin addiction and paranoia), actress and writer Carrie Fisher (who had bipolar disorder and also was addicted to drugs and alcohol) … The list could go on and on. But, does having a mental illness or addiction play a direct role in being creative?
In a 2013 study, Kyaga and colleagues looked at a huge sample of Swedes–more than 1 million–and found that people with a mental health issue (including psychosis, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa, and completed suicide) were no more likely to work in a creative profession (defined as artistic or scientific careers) than those without a mental disorder. However, in this and previous studies, these authors did find that people with psychotic disorders or bipolar disorder were more likely to work creatively and that authors were more likely to have certain mental health problems. Interestingly, Kyaga and associates also found that the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa were significantly overrepresented in creative professions. Scott Barry Kaufman, in a blog post for Scientific American, postulates: “Could it be that the relatives inherited a watered-down version of the mental illness conducive to creativity while avoiding the aspects that are debilitating?” This makes some sense, since a number of traits associated with some mental health conditions may be more conducive to creativity, whereas full-blown mental illness typically would make a person too dysfunctional to succeed in their profession or creative pursuit.
Some researchers have found that a few of the traits associated with schizotypal personality (specifically, unusual perceptual experiences, such as “magical thinking,” visual or physical illusions, and superstitions, and impulsive nonconformity–a tendency toward unstable mood and behavior, especially around rules and social norms), often found in first-degree relatives of people with schizophrenia, fit with a creative personality. Similarly, people with an “overinclusive” way of thinking (trouble thinking precisely and selectively), who thus allow many thoughts and stimuli to enter their consciousness–a trait associated with schizotypy but also with psychosis–but who are also intelligent, with good executive functioning skills (e.g., organization, memory, and direction–traits typically absent or impaired in those with psychosis) tend to think more creatively and also have the ability to succeed in their work.
It’s a fascinating and complicated topic. I leave you with some examples of work by artists who had a mental illness. Given some of the research, one might consider these artists to be the exceptions–whether their mental illness contributed to their creative thought process or not, they were able to overcome the struggles and challenges that come with mental illness to produce amazing work.
Weapons have been on my mind lately. That may seem strange to people who know me, as I am not a weapons fanatic. I’ve never had any particular interest in guns, hunting, warfare, knives, swords, or other related subjects. I associate weapons with violence, and consider myself a pacifist; yet, as a psychologist, I am aware that violence (and thus, weaponry) is a part of human nature. I don’t pretend to believe that I don’t have some violent impulses–I just choose not to act on and cultivate them.
One of the triggers for my thoughts about violence and weaponry is the most recent school shooting on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida (and, how horrible is it that I must define it as “the most recent” one!?). I have been pondering some questions: To what degree is violence an adaptive instinct? To what degree is it a dangerous aspect of human nature to be controlled and regulated? When is violence useful, and when is it destructive? There is not always a clear answer to these questions. And, thinking in particular about school shootings and other horrific acts of violence perpetrated against innocent victims, I have been pondering the role of weapons in our world. Although the main focus of this post is not political or ideological, I will clearly state that my view is that weapons, like any tool that human beings have created that may cause harm, need to be regulated. I believe that the rights of the individual must be balanced against the common good–it’s not an either/or but a both/and. All this thinking about violence and weaponry has also got me thinking more about the psychological aspects of weapons. What impact do weapons have on how we think, feel, and behave? What do weapons symbolize to us?
I was reading an interesting article today about the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon discovered in the late 1960s by researchers Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage. They determined that the mere presence of a weapon stimulates more aggressive behavior. Additional studies on this phenomenon confirmed that it was true; for example, drivers who have a gun in their car are more likely to drive aggressively than those without one in the vehicle, and the sight of weapons increases aggression in both angry and non-angry individuals. This research obviously has some implications for individual and group behavior in the United States, where weapons, particularly guns, are plentiful.
Reading about this research also led to thoughts about what weapons symbolize. One thing that seems clear from all the recent media coverage around gun control and gun rights is that for many people, guns represent safety, individual autonomy, and control over the environment. According to Freudian psychology, guns symbolize the penis and male sexual drive. Carl Jung considered symbolism to be more contextual, rather than simply related to one’s individual psychology, and looked at collective or “universal” meanings, stating that all of humanity shares “a collective unconscious.” I don’t share this belief, as different cultures may attribute different meanings to symbols. Jung, although interested in many cultures, had a white, male, Euro-centric bias that is not universal. However, there is truth to the idea that a group of people who have grown up in a particular culture will be shaped by that culture’s values, beliefs, ideas, and imagery. Looking at guns (and weapons in general) from a Jungian perspective, one can say that they represent certain personality types, characters, or “archetypes,” such as the hero, the savior, the victor. The United States certainly embraces these archetypes as part of our collective identity.
Another reason that these ideas have been in my thoughts lately is that I have begun learning how to use a sword in belly dance. I have been dancing for a few years and recently started incorporating a sword into my dance repertoire. As I began dancing with a blade, I became curious to know more about the history of the use of swords in dance and also what unconscious meanings impact an audience watching dancers brandishing sabers. I found a fascinating history of “Oriental dance,” or belly dance, by a Mexican journalist, belly dancer, and dance teacher named Giselle Rodríguez Sánchez (the site is in Spanish with English translation available), which includes information about the use of swords. She states that while the widespread use of swords in belly dance is a relatively recent phenomenon, there are depictions of dancers using swords dating to the 1800s. For example, a work by the French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme entitled “Sabre Dance in a Café,” depicts a female dancer holding one scimitar and balancing another on her head. Rodríguez Sánchez goes on to cite a passage in the book Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton that describes an Israeli dancer named Rahlo Jammele, who performed with a sword at the Moorish Palace at the Chicago international exhibition of 1893. According to the book, Jammele was the inspiration for the painting by Gérôme. Another painting of a sword dancer from the Orientalist period is “Sword Dancer,” by Austrian artist Rudolf Ernst.
Orientalism is fascinating but also problematic, in that much of the imagery and writing on “the East” comes from a Western perspective that romanticizes and stereotypes various cultures in ways that support prejudices and cast people of these cultures as “other.” Sadly, this tendency to “other-ise” Eastern cultures, while not as overt and stereotypical as in the 19th century, continues today. This raises questions about whether Western cultures embracing, adopting, and adapting traditional dance forms and costuming from the Middle East, Africa, India, and other cultures is cultural appropriation. As a belly dancer myself (who is a white woman born in the United States), I struggle with these questions at times. I love belly dance, particularly American Tribal Style (ATS) dance, a style that was created in San Francisco in the 1980s as a fusion of many traditions from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Spain, Africa, and India and strongly influenced by Sicilian-American dancer Jamila Salimpour, who was born in New York and lived in San Francisco. Salimpour, who was influenced by her father’s memories of living in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia while he was in the Sicilian navy, was largely responsible for making belly dance popular in the United States in the 1970s and beyond. She also codified and named many traditional steps and movements, allowing belly dance to be taught as an art form. I often feel there is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, and I hope that I appropriately demonstrate my respect for the cultures that influence my dance, but I recognize that there are widely varying perspectives on this.
All that being said, what images and feelings do the use of blades in belly dance evoke? One could argue that incorporating a sword, a symbol of masculinity (the penis, battle, aggression) presents either a merging of or a conflict between (depending on one’s perspective) masculine and feminine energies. One must also recognize that belly dance, with or without the use of swords, is often associated with sensuality (relating to or consisting of the gratification of the senses, often used in a sexual context but also referring to pleasure derived from various senses in a non-sexual context). I have sometimes wondered if subconsciously, the use of a saber by a belly dancer conjures up images of overt sexuality–a woman (as the majority of belly dancers are women) manipulating a phallus. Although the majority of the belly dancers I know, including myself, embrace sensuality (including both non-sexual and sexual elements) in dance, most of us don’t intend our performances to be overtly sexual. We are typically not aiming to simulate sexual acts or invite male audience members to see us as purely sexual objects. (These issues become further complicated by the acknowledgement that gender is non-binary, a concept that is just beginning to gain some acceptance in American culture, but that is a larger discussion for another time.)
Belly dancers using swords may also be seen as powerful and heroic women–female warriors who have strength and bravery. Another association may be danger: There is a long history of women, particularly sensual or seductive women, being seen as femme fatales, sirens, witches, and enchantresses who may destroy or seduce men. In fact, this association has tragically led to many laws and customs that support the demonization of and criminalization of women. For instance, in some cultures, women who have sex outside of marriage, even in cases of rape, are punished (sometimes by death), whereas the men involved in these acts may not be punished.
Belly dance is not the only form of dance to incorporate swords. There is a long tradition of the use of sabers in dance, typically by men as solo dancers or in groups in mock battle. These dances have been a part of the history of numerous cultures around the world. However, I will not get into detail on these other forms of dance in this post.
To sum up, I have had a lot of deep and complicated thoughts about violence, weapons, dance, and culture running through my mind lately. Dance (and recently, learning how to use a blade in my dance) has been a healing practice for me that helps me deal with the stresses of my job and the anxieties of living in an often violent and unfair world. I try to bring reverence and respect for the cultures that form the foundation of the dance forms I enjoy, as well as for my teachers and fellow dancers (including those who went before me and with whom I have not personally studied, such as Jamila Salimpour and many others). I try to examine my own prejudices and associations around dance and the cultures from which I am borrowing. I also strive to examine my views on violence and my own violent impulses. Mostly, I aim to continue to learn and grow as both a dancer and a person as I ponder these questions.
Art is part of the human experience. For all of recorded history, people have engaged in making and valuing art, from cave drawings to body and face ornamentation to sculpture to dance to portraiture to music. There is something magical about creating, and also about witnessing, art. Mental health practitioners and other healers recognize that there are many ways for people to get help, connect with others, cope, and heal. The arts provide many tools for mental health and wellness. They often provide paths to understanding and expressing emotions and experiences that may be harder to reach through healing modalities like talk therapy. Creating or seeing art can also be fun, exciting, and profound, enriching our lives and putting us in touch with experiences that make us feel good; positive experiences can combat depression and anxiety and make our lives feel more meaningful. Many people also feel a healing spiritual connection through the arts: Just think of the feeling of awe and ecstasy that can come from hearing soaring classical music, being inside a breathtaking building, or viewing a painting that captures a religious or spiritual experience.
Another benefit of engaging in the arts is that many artistic practices promote neuroplasticity (the growth and/or rewiring of the brain’s neuronal pathways, which gives us the ability to adapt to new habits, develop new skills, and absorb new information). Scientists used to believe that the brain stopped growing and creating new pathways early in life; however, more recent research has shown that brain growth and rewiring take place throughout the lifespan (although as we get older, this growth occurs at a slower pace).
Some studies have shown that drawing and painting can improve various brain functions, such as memory. Research also shows that people who learn to play a musical instrument (and especially those who become proficient at it) develop stronger connections among the various regions of the brain (Wan & Schlaug, 2010) and new and stronger neural pathways. Teaching patients to make music can aid in the treatment of developmental and neurological disorders, as well as the cognitive decline that comes with normal aging.
The fact that engaging in the arts can stimulate brain growth also means that anyone can learn to be creative–you don’t have to be “born with it.” A psychologist at Dartmouth College, Alexander Schlegel, and his fellow researchers published a study showing that taking an introductory class in painting or drawing literally alters students’ brains, allowing them not only to learn the technicalities of the art form but also to think more creatively.
Art forms like dance also have a positive and healing impact on the brain. Many studies have proven that dance can make a difference in people who have undergone trauma, those with Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders, and the elderly. How so? First off, dance is a stimulating activity that connects mind and the movement of the body, as well as other senses such as vision, hearing, and touch. Many forms of dance also reduce isolation–connection with other people is healing.
If you’d like some ideas about how to explore your creative side and learn a little about expressive art therapy, check out the following websites.
This past summer, I read a book that touched me deeply: Home by Marilynne Robinson. I was surprised how emotional I felt reading it and especially finishing it. I completed the book on a flight home from a summer vacation, and I literally cried for a half an hour. It’s a little hard to explain why this story hit me so hard, since I can’t say I strongly related to any of the main characters. For those who haven’t read the book (and I highly recommend it!), it’s the story of a family in a small Iowa town in the 1950s that is shaken by several events. First, the patriarch of the family, a retired minister, is failing in his health. Because of this and a broken relationship, his youngest daughter, Glory, returns home to help care for him. Soon after, the “prodigal son” of the family, Jack, a son who, despite his checkered past and estrangement from the family, is the most beloved by the father, also returns home and stays with his sister and father. The tale of his life gradually unfolds as his sister (the narrator of the story) observes his attempts to come to terms with himself, his past, and his shaky relationships with his family and close family friends (including another minister, his father’s best friend). Jack also attempts to see if his past would preclude him from returning home to live a new life and whether his home has evolved into a place that would be safe for him and his loved ones. While Jack does receive grace and sometimes forgiveness from others, he remains a profoundly lonely and estranged man stuck between a past that he is unsure he can overcome and a present that may not allow Jack to live the sort of life he feels is right. Themes of family duty, religion, spirituality, race relations, and morality permeate the stories, with forgiveness and people’s ability to change and transform being central.
Home is a retelling of some of the same story told in Robinson’s Gilead (another amazing novel) from a different perspective. One of the reasons both novels, and especially Home, are so poignant to me is Robinson’s mastery of writing. I’ve read few authors who have such a quiet and subtle power. I think that the themes Robinson tackles are the other reason these stories struck a chord: At midlife, the idea of change is more fraught than it was in my younger days. There are seemingly fewer doors open because of the choices I have made; habits I have formed; and the limits of time, money, and energy. Yet, as a therapist, the possibility that people can change is central to my work and my ability to hold hope for my clients and for myself as I live through my own ups and downs. While the doubts and regrets of my life are not the same as those of the prodigal son, Jack, in Home and by most standards are not as troubling, they still cross (and at times haunt) my mind. I found Jack’s question in Home “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?” rather heartbreaking. It brought to mind all the times I’ve struggled with things about myself that I wish were different and times I’ve tried to help and counsel others who were up against some very difficult circumstances, including their own entrenched patterns that make it hard for them to move forward. Without spoiling the end of Home for those of you who might read it, I’ll just say that for me, it was unclear at the end of the book to what degree individuals and their world were able to change, and some of the characters certainly suffered for the uncertainties of their own transformation, the transformation of others, and that of society.
Surprisingly, some of the same feelings stirred in me by Home and Gilead (which I just read in December) came up when I was recently watching Manhunt: Unabomber, an eight-episode series on the FBI’s search for the Unabomber. Manhunt is entertaining and fairly well done, but it’s no masterpiece of writing or (with the exception of Paul Bettany, who played Kaczynski) acting. Still, I felt a stab of emotion when the series took the point of view of Ted Kaczynski in his tortured struggle to live both in and apart from a world he saw as destroying people’s basic freedom and humanity. Tragically, Kaczynski chose to act on these struggles by killing innocent people. However, in the TV show when Kaczynski plaintively speculated about whether he could stop killing if he wanted to but ultimately could not, it triggered some of the same emotion I felt pondering the souls of the characters in Gilead and Home. Granted, it was hard to feel much empathy for Kaczynski given the terror and destruction he caused, but the writers of the series slyly made it easy for the viewer to identify at least to some degree with Kaczynski’s alienation and used this theme to critique our confusing and dehumanizing world.
So, where does all this pondering and emotion leave me today? It leaves me with a great deal of admiration for Marilynne Robinson’s talent and gratitude that I have the chance to be touched by these and other stories. It also leaves me continuing to ponder the ideas of morality and change. Really, these are themes that will take a lifetime to explore. Some days, I feel OK with where I’m at in my pondering. Other days, not so much. In the end, it’s the journey and the questions that make us human.