Is He Human, or Is He Dancer?

by Jason Tougaw

Ed Macfarlane can move. The Friendly Fires frontman can do things with his body most humans cannot. Surely Ed was the muse who inspired The Killers to write, “Are we human, or are we dancer?” And, yes, I’m on a first-name basis with Ed–ever since that first time his sweat danced off him and onto me.

Exhibit A: the Friendly Fires video for “Kiss of Life.” 

There’s something about Ed’s moves that seems hardly human and more like a new species. Dancer sapiens? (Translation: “the dancer who knows.”) His body feels something I don’t. And feeling is a kind of knowing. When I watch him dance, I’m sure he knows something I don’t about a way of being a body in the world. I’d like to know, but I’m no Dancer sapiens, just an occasional human dancer who can’t know what it feels like for Ed.

Why are some people such good dancers? How did this pasty Brit become one of them? Was he born that way? Did he practice a lot? Does he feel rhythm in a way I’ll never understand? What are the cells in his body doing when he curls and swivels like animated rubber? Is he made of different stuff from the rest of us–something he shares with Michael Jackson, Martha Graham, and Bill T. Jones? It sure seems that way. What do really great dancers know about human bodies that the rest of us can’t quite ascertain? I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot. (I’ve only begun to think about these questions, so I’d love it if readers who know something about dance would post responses in the comments section; or, if you have something more elaborate to contribute, to contact me about writing a guest post.)

Exhibit B: Fan footage I took my own self, with my iPhone, at a Friendly Fires show in Central Park last summer, of Ed dancing to “Hurting” (his favorite song)

I’ve seen Friendly Fires three times now. In the moment, I’m all sweat, beats, and joy. My only problem is deciding from moment to moment whether I should just keep dancing or watch what’s happening on stage. What if I’m so inspired by Ed’s moves that I miss a great one because I’m dancing rather than watching? I had to stop dancing to take this footage. I had to stop watching the show with my eyes and watch through my twenty-first-century device instead. After the show, I felt elated, but also philosophical. I started wanting to understand the physiology of dance. I wanted to understand the collective mind-body experience Ed and the boys catalyze in their audiences. So I did a little research.

In 1903, modern dance matriarch Isidora Duncan delivered a speech about her cosmopolitan and spiritual philosophy of dance to an audience in Berlin. Her words soon became a famous manifesto for twentieth-century dance:

“There will always be movements which are the perfect expression of that individual body and that individual soul: so we must not force it to make movements which are not natural to it but which belong to a school. The dancer of the future will be one whose body and soul have grown so harmoniously together that the natural language of that soul will have become the movement of the body. The dancer will not belong to a nation but to all humanity.”

The dancer of the future is now, and he is Ed Macfarlane. Watching him is sort of like reading a really engrosssing book. His body hijacks your consciousness and you feel what it’s like to be something or somebody other than what you are most of the time. Ed moves so well that everybody else wants to move too, and when everybody moves, everybody is changed a little. The music is fuel: shimmering guitar, African-style rhythms, bubbly electronica powering Ed’s body as he grooves through the crowd, channeling the souls who have gathered to be turned into dancers through the visible energy of his swiveling hips and sweat-soaked clothes.

Surrender is a constant topic in the lyrics of Friendly Fires songs, and it’s surely also key to Ed’s performance. “I close my eyes on the dance floor,” Ed sings in “Skeleton Boy” (an homage to the physiology of dancing, with a really great video that illustrates the point): “I forget about you / I lose myself in flashing colors / I’ve gotta see it through.” Ed imagines himself reduced to pure bone, a skeleton boy losing himself in flashing colors, forgetting all about you. In “Helpless,” he sings, “The sea won’t stop returning / At your precious core / As it overpowers / And pulls you to the ocean floor.” This sounds scary, and the fear may be another crucial element in the performance. It’s scary to surrender, but the payoff can be profound when we loosen our hold on the illusion of agency and let our bodies ride unconscious waves, overpowered at our precious cores, letting the sea return. As in Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, the payoff can be better work, new ideas, a more powerful performance. When a crowd of people is moved to this kind of surrender, everybody in it becomes more susceptible to the sway of each other’s unconscious surging. In “Pala,” a song that takes its title from Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel Island, Ed sings, “As we float from a wealth that is breathless / No one’s frightened any more / And we couldn’t care / If we die here.” We couldn’t care; we’ve surrendered. The third-person plural indicates an awareness of the collective surrender involved in Friendly Fires shows. Ed’s not going it alone; he wants us to ride the wave with him. Like Eminem, he wants us to lose ourselves in the music, the moment, you own it.

Of course, Ed doesn’t do this on his own. He and bandmates Edd Gibson (guitar) and Jack Savidge (drums) have been playing together since they were kids–first as a hardcore band, calling themselves First Day Back. Of course, hardcore is also about losing yourself, in the mosh. But it doesn’t afford the languid dance moves Ed busts with Friendly Fires funky pop, which involves a decent dose of electronica but is in fact mostly guitars and drums arranged and played so they sound electronic. Gibson and Savidge are party to the frenzy of surrender on stage. As Ed swivels his way through the audience and across the stage, they manage to play intricate and energetic riffs and beats while their bodies ride the wave, as if to set an example for the audience: Follow Ed’s lead. Go ahead. We’re doing it. 

Exhibit C: One of many, many pieces of fan footage documenting Ed’s dances through the crowd (this one at Webster Hall)

What is Ed Macfarlane doing when he dances into the audience? When he turns the crowd into a shared physical space where the rest of us get to sample what it feels like for Dancer sapiens? Alva Noë has made an argument about the biology of this kind of shared physical space in his book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness:

“A case can be made that joint presence in an actual shared physical space is the best kind of presence. We are embodied biological creatures and evolution has conditioned us perfectly to fit into actual physical niches. We are naturally attuned to our physical environment and to each other. Physical contact is polymodal: we hear the words and see the facial expressions and feel the heat of each other’s breath and jointly attend to what is going on around us.”

Noë is arguing that our brains alone do not create consciousness–what Antonio Damasio calls the feeling of knowing you are an organism inhabiting a particular environment. Our whole bodies are involved, and the input of our environments is crucial in creating the particular form of awareness we experience at any given moment. It’s worth reminding ourselves that other humans are an important part of this environment, shaping each other through our mutual presence. Ed distills this truth of human existence into an essential kernel when he dances with fans, using his body to focus and hone crowd consciousness for a little while. We may be human, he seems to be saying, but why not not try out what it feels like to be dancer?

In other words: If Friendly Fires play a show near you, do yourself the favor of losing yourself a little in flashing colors. Follow Ed’s lead. Become a skeleton boy. Face the night and see it through.


Acknowledgments: Thanks to Vanessa Justice for pointing me in Isidora Duncan’s direction (and for helping me think about dance and consciousness); to Alva Noë for helping me rethink my ideas about the biology of consciousness and dance “as a way of knowing”; and to the students in my graduate course, “Consciousness and Literary Experiment,” for week after week of inspiring discussion of these topics and many more.

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