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“A God Dances through Me”: Isadora

Duncan on Friedrich Nietzsche’s

Revaluation of Values
Kimerer L. LaMothe / Arlington, Massachusetts

Par la danse, le corps cesse d’être une chose pour devenir une
question. (In dance a body ceases being a thing and becomes a
question.) (Roger Garaudy, Danser Sa Vie)

In Danser Sa Vie, the cultural critic Roger Garaudy comments that the
United States has philosophers whom it has not recognized—the pio-
neers and founders of modern dance.1 These dancers, by his account,
do their most important philosophical work when they generate kinetic
images of bodily being as a medium for religious experience and ex-
pression. Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) was one of those dancers. While
my intent in this article is not to argue that Duncan was a theologian
or philosopher of religion, I take up Garaudy’s challenge by interpret-
ing Duncan’s dancing, and her writing about dance, as representing
her critical participation in Friedrich Nietzsche’s project of revaluing
Christian values concerning “the body.”2 To accounts of Nietzsche’s
project as involving a double movement—a reversing and displacing of

Garaudy distinguishes between “pioneers” who cultivated the visions, movement principles,
and audiences for modern dance, such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, and the
“founders” such as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey who built on this work in codifying
enduring techniques of dance training. As I argue in Sec. IV, however, Duncan’s reasons for
not developing a system of dance training were integral to her vision for dance. See Roger
Garaudy, Danser Sa Vie (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972).
While Nietzsche develops the term “revaluation” of “all values” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
(hereafter cited in the text as Z), his commitment to a project of revaluing Christian values
toward bodies is evident from beginning to end of his corpus. Nietzsche planned one of his
last books, “The Antichrist” (1888), to be the first of an unfinished four-book Revaluation of
All Values. “Zarathustra” and “The Antichrist” both appear in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and
trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1959).
䉷 2005 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

The Journal of Religion

dualistic terms—Duncan suggests the presence of a third, which I call

“incarnating” values.3
In the first decades of the twentieth century, Isadora Duncan won
international acclaim, commanding attention from artists, scholars,
and intellectuals on her tours through major cities of Europe, Russia,
and the Unites States.4 Rejecting the toe shoes, corsets, lavish sets, and
gender stereotypes of ballet, she sought to clear the way for a “dance
of the future”—one which would be “not a diversion but a religion, an
expression of life” (AD, 142). While there were other modern dance
pioneers—Maud Allen, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis—who garnered
similar audiences, Duncan went farther than all but St. Denis in her
claims for the religious potency of dancing.5 Not only did Duncan con-
sider it her mission to revive an art lost to the Christian West for nearly
two thousand years (AD, 132), she insisted that dancing should catalyze
a renewal or “renaissance” of “religion”—that is, of Christianity and its
ideals concerning the body in general, and women’s bodies in partic-
ular.6 She would dance “the freedom of woman” from “the hide-bound

In “Signature, Event, Context,” Jacques Derrida summarizes his reading and application
of Nietzsche’s method of revaluation: “Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed imme-
diately to a neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double
writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the
system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with
which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes, which is also a field of nondis-
cursive forces” (Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass [Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1982], 329). Derrida fleshes out this definition of deconstruction across numerous works; see
most notably Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), and Of
Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976). Others,
such as Luce Irigaray and Elizabeth Grosz, make use of Derrida’s “double science,” adapting
it to their own critical projects. See Grosz, Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of
Bodies (New York: Routledge, 1995); Luce Irigaray, Amante Marine: De Friedrich Nietzsche (Paris:
Minuit, 1980), and Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Gillian C. Gill (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1991).
Biographical information for Duncan is drawn from biographies by Ann Daly, Done into
Dance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Frederika Blair, Isadora: Portrait of the
Artist as a Woman (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986); and Victor Seroff, The Real Isadora (New
York: Dial, 1971); as well as from Duncan’s autobiography, My Life (New York: Liveright, 1928),
hereafter cited in the text as ML, and two collections of her essays, Art of the Dance (New York:
Theatre Arts Books, 1928), hereafter cited in the text as AD, and Isadora Speaks, ed. Franklin
Rosemont (San Francisco: City Lights, 1981), hereafter cited in the text as IS. See also Daly,
“Isadora Duncan’s Dance Theory,” Dance Research Journal 26 (Fall 1994): 24–31.
St. Denis described her dancing as a “mighty ritual of beauty” and was more explicit than
Duncan in borrowing themes, symbols, and characters from religious traditions. She danced
Radha, Isis, Ishtar, a yogi, Kwan-Yin, Miriam, Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of God, and
others. St. Denis always considered herself as a Christian. See Kimerer L. LaMothe, “Passionate
Madonna: The Christian Turn of American Dancer Ruth St. Denis,” Journal of the American
Academy of Religion 66, no. 4 (1998): 747–69. See also St. Denis’s autobiography, An Unfinished
Life (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939); and the biography by Suzanne Shelton, Divine
Dancer (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981).
While there are myriad references to dance in the Hebrew Bible, they have largely been

“A God Dances through Me”

conventions that are the warp and woof of New England Puritanism”
(IS, 48).7 Across Europe, Russia, and the United States, women (and
men) and girls (and boys) from a range of social and economic back-
grounds shed their shoes and restrictive clothing and followed her.
Few scholars follow Garaudy, however, in arguing for the philosoph-
ical and theological import of Duncan’s dancing. More commonly,
scholars disregard her religious language. They interpret her refer-
ences to “soul,” for example, as a “rhetorical strategy” aimed at gaining
credibility for dance, as a “cultural habit” for naming certain kinds of
deep emotional experiences, or as poetic “flowering.”8 Stripping away
this religious veneer, scholars find evidence of essentialism in Duncan’s
verbal appeals to the “natural movements of woman’s body,” “the fe-
male sex,” the “ideal form of woman,” and “perfect mothers.” Scholars
find further evidence in dances such as “Mother,” and in Duncan’s
flowing, floating movement aesthetic. To many it seems that Duncan,
despite claims to dance “the freedom of woman,” recuperates and re-
inforces an association of woman with (a maternal) body that Christians
and others have used to justify the exclusion of women from realms of
reason, ritual, and public life.9

interpreted by Christians throughout Christian history in metaphorical terms, as pertaining

to an inner or heavenly—and not earthly—life. Even so, there are other Christians in the
modern West for whom dancing has been integral to religious life, such as the Shakers or
practitioners of the African American shout. The nexus of relations among dance, gender,
attitudes toward the body, and dualistic thinking embedded in such movements cannot be
generalized and deserves scholarly attention. See Dance as Religious Studies, ed. Doug Adams
and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroad, 1990), for discussion and bibliog-
raphy. For further discussion of dance as an object and resource for religious studies, see
Kimerer L. LaMothe, Between Dancing and Writing: The Practice of Religious Studies (New York:
Fordham University Press, 2004).
Duncan does not claim that all “men” escape from such determination by convention or
that all “women” have been thereby denied access to the realms of art and ideas. Rather she
acknowledges that the male-female axis is one of the primary categories by which humans
learn to experience themselves, their bodies, and their value as contributors to culture. While
she taught girls and boys, she taught more girls than boys and acknowledged that those who
must wrest their identity through the category of “woman” have more to gain from what
dancing offers.
For example, Daly, Done into Dance, 31–32; Walter Terry, Isadora Duncan: Her Life, Her Art,
Her Legacy (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963), 9. Scholars find evidence for this reading in the
fact that Duncan did not profess allegiance to any religious tradition (as did St. Denis); she
referred to “gods” and not “God” and then to gods as human inventions. She chose as her
gods Beauty and Love. However, Duncan’s use of the term “religion” is consistent with a
number of philosophers and theologians in the nineteenth century who used it to represent
the defining core of Christianity and, thus, a standard for evaluating and critiquing other
aspects of Christian and other traditions. As Duncan acknowledges, her understanding of
religion was deeply influenced by the mystical currents coursing through her dual Puritan
(father’s side) and Catholic (mother’s side) heritage. Hence, her call for a renewal or renais-
sance of religion represents both a continuity and break with her sense of Christian values.
Sallie Banes, in Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (London: Routledge, 1998), contrasts
Duncan’s writings, which insisted on “women’s emancipation,” with her dances, in which she

The Journal of Religion

An alternative reading of Duncan appears when her appeals to the

female body and her visions for dance as religion are read together as
the fruits of Duncan’s critical engagement with Nietzsche’s project of
revaluing values. Duncan read and was “ravished” by Nietzsche. In her
reading of him, moreover, she paid attention to what few Nietzsche
commentators do: the images of dance scattered throughout his cor-
pus.10 Interpreting these images, Duncan believed she had found an
ally in her mission to renew religion by dancing the freedom of woman.
She carried Nietzsche’s books with her when she traveled and cited
from them in speeches and essays. She referred to The Birth of Tragedy
as “my Bible” (AD, 108) and described Thus Spoke Zarathustra as “filled
with phrases about man in his dancing being” (AD, 123).11 In short,
Duncan embraced as her own a vision for dance she attributes to Zar-
athustra: a dance that would help persons overcome their faith in an
otherworldly God by educating them into an awareness of their own

“remained in thrall choreographically to a determinist conception of female essence, ex-

pressed through the anarchic rebellion of the passionate, reproductive body” (92). Susan
Manning, alternately, distinguishes between “the kinesthetic dimension” of Duncan’s dancing,
which “introduced a new image of the female body in motion that was without precedent”
and served as a potent metaphor for women’s sense of subjective possibility, on the one hand,
and the “representational frames” of those dances, which “reiterated and updated preexistent
images of gender and ethnicity,” on the other (Meaning and Motion, ed. Jane Desmond [Dur-
ham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997], 164). For further discussion see also Mark Franko,
Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), chap. 1.
Images of dance appear across Nietzsche’s published works, and their meaning is not uni-
form. Nietzsche refers to dancing in Greek religions (Attic tragedies and Dionysian festivals),
in Christian religion (the St. John and St. Vitus dancers of German middle ages), as a social
fashion, and in general as something that women do. The influences shaping his understanding
and use of dance are varied as well, ranging from his studies in philology and theology to his
interest in dance motifs in poetry (as in Heinrich Heine) and in music (as in Johann Sebastian
Bach and Wagner). For the purposes of this article, I focus on the images of dance that appear
in the texts of Nietzsche with which Duncan was most familiar, namely, The Birth of Tragedy, ed.
and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967), hereafter cited in the text as BT, and
Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In Birth the “dancing” refers primarily to the rhythmic bodily movement
of the chorus in ancient Greek Attic tragedy; it is a Dionysian art. See Stephen Lonsdale, Dance
and Ritual Play in Greek Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), for a sense
of the dancing that Nietzsche, as a philologist, may have encountered in his study of Greek
texts. See also John Atwell, “The Significance of Dance in Nietzsche’s Thought,” in Illuminating
Dance: Philosophical Explorations, ed. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (Cranbury, NJ: Associated Uni-
versity Press, 1984). For further discussion of Nietzsche’s dance images, their sources and
referents, see Kimerer L. LaMothe, Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and
the Revaluation of Christian Values (New York: Palgrave, 2005), chap. 1.
Most of Duncan’s references are to these two books—both described by Richard Schacht
as exercises in aesthetic education. See his essay, “Zarathustra/Zarathustra as Educator,” in
Nietzsche: A Critical Reader, ed. Peter R. Sedgwick (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995). Among Nietzsche’s
books, these two are also the least misogynist, especially as compared with Gay Science, trans.
Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), and Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann
(New York: Vintage, 1966).

“A God Dances through Me”

bodily being as holy, as the source of their highest ideals—god, beauty,

love, . . . and woman.12
By reading Duncan’s work in the context of her relationship to Nietz-
sche, this article demonstrates the importance of her work for debates
in philosophy and theology over the role played by the body in the
process by which persons become subjects.13 To this end, Section I in-
troduces Duncan as a reader of Nietzsche. Section II demonstrates how
Duncan’s rhetoric—that is, her vision for dance as a religious art sym-
bolizing the freedom of woman—represents a critical engagement with
Nietzsche’s analysis of the tragic chorus in The Birth of Tragedy. Section
III offers a Duncan-inspired reading of dance images in Thus Spoke
Zarathustra, and Section IV demonstrates how Duncan’s principles of
dance training and composition cultivate faith in the body as a “great
reason” along the lines Zarathustra teaches. Section V concludes that
Duncan’s work opens up a reading of Nietzsche’s dance images in
these two books, which suggests that revaluing Christian attitudes to-
ward the body requires that people discover and engage in practices—
extratextual work—that incarnate new values. People must develop
new ways of relating to their own bodily being; they must cultivate the
physical consciousness needed both to generate values that affirm hu-
man embodiment and to know those values as true for themselves.
Duncan shows how dancing, in contrast to writing, has the potential
to serve as such an incarnating practice.

i. introducing isadora
Duncan’s vulnerability to what she calls the “seduction of Nietzsche’s
philosophy” (ML, 141) had roots in her eclectic religious education
In her autobiography Duncan quotes from the fourth part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, from
the speech “On the Higher Man,” when commenting on a 1914 performance of her students.
She crows, “These were indeed the gestures of the Vision of Nietzsche” (ML, 301, with a
quotation from Z, 406).
This debate is raging in many contexts and is most often structured by a sense of op-
position between an essentialist or naturalist view of the body as biologically or morphologically
determined and determining, on the one hand, and a social constructivist view, on the other,
in which the meaning of “the body” is inscribed or performed. Most scholars posit these two
extremes and endeavor to find some way of conceiving identity or subjectivity that incorporates
the advantages of each pole: honoring differences between “women” and “men”—and thus,
some platform for making political demands—without providing justification for inequities
of any kind. For expressions of this debate in the feminist philosophy of religion, see Grace
Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Toward a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana Uni-
versity Press, 1999); Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands
of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). For one summary of these debates
from a feminist perspective, see Linda Alcoff, “Cultural Feminism versus Post-structuralism:
The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory,” in The Second Wave, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York:
Routledge, 1997), 330–55.

The Journal of Religion

and in her experiences of dancing. Born in San Francisco in 1877,

Duncan was raised by a single mother who impressed upon her four
children a passion for the arts and a disdain for the patriarchal bent
of institutional Christianity.14 Mary Duncan played piano (Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, and Felix
Mendelssohn) for her four children; she read them poetry and litera-
ture from the classical and romantic enlightenments, as well as works
by William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and the lectures of atheist
Robert Ingersoll. Ending her formal schooling by age twelve, Isadora
continued her education reading books under the guidance of the lo-
cal librarian; by age fifteen she had rejected available forms of dance
training and was spending hours on the beaches and in nature teach-
ing herself to move with the wind and the water.15 By the time that
Duncan, the youngest of the four children, was age sixteen, the family
had formed a theater troupe, touring the California coast with mother
on piano and Duncan performing what she called “my religious dance”
(ML, 10). With her family’s support Duncan cultivated a sense of her-
self as the kind of artist heralded by the romantic poets she loved—
one who would give birth to new religious ideals.
In 1899, frustrated with a lack of opportunities in the United States,
the Duncans left for London in search of audiences and inspiration.
By 1902 Isadora was performing before crowds of thousands. She
danced alone, dressed simply in a loose Greek-style tunic, to classical
music. She preferred to perform in concert halls with orchestral ac-
companiment, rather than in the music halls more typical of dance
entertainment. She often concluded her performances with a speech,
proclaiming how her free-flowing dances were ushering in a time when
dance would reclaim its heritage as a “high religious art” (AD, 62). As
she recalls: “I had come to Europe to bring about a great renaissance

Months after Isadora’s birth, Mary Duncan divorced her husband, renounced the insti-
tution of marriage, and rejected her Catholicism. For a discussion of the influence of Duncan’s
mother on the development of her art, and the role of mothers in early American modern
dance generally, see Elizabeth Kendall, Where She Danced: The Birth of American Art-Dance (Berke-
ley: University of California Press, 1979).
Scholars debate the degree of Duncan’s formal dance training. She would have learned
social dances and folk dancing from others in her family; she may have taken a year of ballet.
She may have been influenced by the craze for the Delsarte System of Expression sweeping
the country. According to most critics, Duncan denied her own training in order promote
an image of her dancing as natural, spontaneous, and free—as taught to her by “Nature”
(Daly, Done into Dance, 88–89). Regardless, her training was sporadic and eclectic at best. In
my reading Duncan’s claims that she learned to dance “from Nature” and from studying the
figures on artifacts from ancient Greece are not too far afield. For her, these experiences
loomed over others as representing the most important lessons, positive or negative, she had
learned from her engagement with each form. See “The Natural Body,” in Daly, Done into
Dance, for discussion.

“A God Dances through Me”

of religion through the Dance, to bring the knowledge of the Beauty

and Holiness of the human body through its expression of movements”
(ML, 85). In pursuit of this mission, she sought out the company of
artists and intellectuals, provoking philosophical discussions concern-
ing the nature and relationship of religion and art wherever she went.
Duncan’s interest in German philosophy dates to her early tours
through Europe. During these years, Nietzsche’s star was also ascend-
ing within the circles Duncan frequented, soon to attain an “extraor-
dinary dominance in European intellectual life.”16 While performing
in Munich and Berlin in 1902, Duncan began to study German so that
she could read German philosophy and engage in conversation with
other artists and scholars at the Kunstler Haus.17 Returning to Berlin
in 1903 after a trip to Greece, Duncan began her Nietzsche studies in
earnest. She met a German scholar, Karl Federn (1868–1943), who
agreed to help her. Federn read Also Sprach Zarathustra aloud to her
in German; they discussed as they went.18
Later in 1903 Duncan delivered and then published, in English and
German, her first essay, “The Dance of the Future,” which bears traces
of her reading.19 In ringing Nietzschean tones, Duncan heralds the
dancer of the future as a “free spirit . . . the highest intelligence in
the freest body” (AD, 63). She also identifies this free spirit as a woman
and labels her dance “a religion, an expression of life” (AD, 142). The
appeals to the female body Duncan makes in this essay are the passages
most frequently cited as evidence of her essentialist ideal of “woman.”
From that time on, Nietzsche’s influence pervaded Duncan’s speaking
and writing. The essays of hers gathered in Art of the Dance span over
twenty years (ca. 1902–27), and nearly every one of them includes al-
lusions to his work. She paraphrases his arguments (from Birth of Tragedy
in particular), engages his themes (Dionysian emotion, religion, and
art), cites him directly, and refers to him by name as a “great Master”
of the dance. In fact, his name appears more frequently than any of her
other teachers, a list that includes Beethoven, Whitman, Richard Wag-
ner, Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Taken together Duncan’s references to Nietzsche trace a critical en-
gagement with at least two of his works that both illuminates the role
of dance images in his critique of Christian morality and provides a

For a discussion of Nietzsche’s reception in England, France, and Germany during the
opening decades of the twentieth century, see Ernst Behler, “Nietzsche in the Twentieth
Century,” in Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, ed. Bernd Magnus and Kathleen Higgins (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 281–322, especially 292–307, quote on 282.
Seroff, The Real Isadora, 53.
Ibid., 63.
Federn translated this essay for Duncan. It was reprinted in AD.

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justifying context for her dancing. Unlike many of Nietzsche’s readers,

Duncan interprets Nietzsche’s dance images literally, as a call to de-
velop, practice, and teach kinetic forms capable of fulfilling Nietzsche’s
vision for dance as enacting an affirmation of life.20 Her perspective,
as we shall see, allows her to tease out from Nietzsche’s texts a strand
of argument he may not have grasped: that revaluing Christian atti-
tudes toward embodiment requires revaluing “woman” as only dancing

ii. duncan’s birth

The primary link that Duncan identifies between Nietzsche’s project
and hers is one she makes in reading his first book, The Birth of Tragedy.
Most notably, in several essays as well as in her autobiography, Duncan
aligns her dancing with the dancing of the chorus Nietzsche describes
in his analysis of the Attic tragedies from ancient Greece, fifth century
BCE. Duncan intends her dancing to deliver the kind of experience,
both aesthetic and religious, that Nietzsche uses Attic tragedy to elu-
cidate: an encounter with Dionysian energies of nature from which a
person emerges with an affirmed sense of his or her bodily self as
participating in the creation of values, religious ideals in particular. As
Duncan avers: “To give back to the dance its place as the Chorus, that
is the ideal. When I have danced I have tried always to be the Chorus.
. . . I have never once danced a solo” (AD, 96). Where Christian values
express and foster hostility toward bodies, art, and the earth, according
to Nietzsche, Attic tragedies encourage an affirmation of life.21

Scholars tend to read Nietzsche’s bodily metaphors as stylistic devices whose meaning is
a function of a textual or linguistic economy. Eric Blondel, in Nietzsche: The Body and Culture
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), aims to resist the textualization of Nietzsche’s
writing (5) but still interprets Nietzsche’s stylistic play as an attempt to “write the body”—
that is, to represent the text as a body, as like a body. The text appears as “the signifying
process of the body and life, operating as the movement and labour of interpretation” (29).
The effect of Blondel’s analysis is to reduce references to dance to rhetorical strategies. Blondel
assumes that any body outside the text is “blank” and that the alternative to its linguistic
signification in the text is madness (31). By contrast, Alessandra Tanesini, distinguishing her
reading of Nietzsche’s metaphors with that of Richard Rorty, argues that our choices and
uses of metaphors exemplify our broader sensory immersion in the world, and not just the
webs of our language. As such Tanesini claims (against Rorty), as do I, that it makes sense
to evaluate why and how well metaphors work: they exist as responses to and supports for
our needs and interests (“The Spider’s Web,” in Sedgwick, ed., Nietzsche: A Critical Reader,
284). As Tanesini writes: “there is a kind of understanding which cognition, originated by
metaphorical processes, cannot produce” (282). As I argue in Sec. IV, Duncan’s dancing
provides us with resources for acknowledging this “kind of understanding”—what I will call
a “physical consciousness.”
While scholars debate the degree to which Nietzsche’s later work moves away from his
discussions of “primal being,” and the Apollinian and Dionysian couple, Nietzsche uses these

“A God Dances through Me”

What Duncan discerns, in contrast to many readers, is that the danc-

ing of the chorus plays a primary role in enabling Attic tragedies to
deliver this affirmation of life. That role is to facilitate a visceral and
visual link—to serve as “the intermediary between the tragedy and the
audience”—such that the spectators come to identify themselves with
the chorus of satyrs. She explains: “At the sublime moment . . . when
the sorrow and suffering were most acute, the Chorus would appear.
Then the soul of the audience, harrowed to the point of agony, was
restored to harmony by the elemental rhythms of song and movement.
The Chorus gave to the audience the fortitude to support those mo-
ments that otherwise would have been too terrible for human endur-
ance” (AD, 84). The “elemental rhythms” are stirring and comforting.
In response, audience members find themselves moving with the cho-
rus; they too become anonymous, viscerally bound with those onstage
(the chorus) who observe the tragedy acted out by the characters.
When the chorus succeeds in facilitating this physiological link with
the audience, Nietzsche avers, “The gulfs between man and man give
way to an overwhelming feeling of unity leading back to the very heart
of nature” (BT, 59). This feeling of unity, for Nietzsche, leaves spec-
tators with a “metaphysical comfort”: “that life is at the bottom of
things, despite all the changes of appearances, indestructibly powerful
and pleasurable—this comfort appears in incarnate clarity in the cho-
rus of satyrs” (BT, 59).
For the chorus to effect this “incarnate clarity,” however, the ele-
mental rhythms of song alone are not sufficient; bodily movement is
required because of the nature of the “sublime moment,” as Nietzsche
describes it. This moment involves a feeling of one’s self as dissolved
into conflicting, life-constituting forces, the “raging desire for exis-
tence and joy in existence” and “the struggle, the pain, the destruction
of phenomena” (BT, 104). While music symbolizes the “primordial
contradiction and primordial pain in the heart of the primal unity”
(BT, 55), it is the dancing that allows humans to experience most fully
their participation in the rhythms of creation and destruction. Nietz-
sche writes that to express this experience, “we need a new world of
symbols; and the entire symbolism of the body is called into play, not
the mere symbolism of the lips, face, and speech but the whole pan-
tomime of dancing, forcing every member into rhythmic movement”
(BT, 40). Dancing, in this instance, does not offer a pure or immediate
images in Birth to flesh out a critique that does remain consistent throughout his work: his
critique of Christian values as hostile to “life” and his call for values that affirm life. Moreover,
attention to the role of dance in Attic tragedy, as seen below, undercuts the apparent natu-
ralism or essentialism in this work.

The Journal of Religion

experience of nature’s essence. It offers kinetic images. Dance is rhyth-

mic bodily movement, patterned and coordinated even if spontaneous
and improvised. It represents a kind of symbolism through which a
spectator can come to know something that is otherwise unknowable,
namely, how his own bodily self participates in the ongoing flux of
nature. It is when every “member” is forced into action by the elemen-
tal rhythms that a person experiences her own bodily self—catches an
image of herself in her own movement—as completely caught up in
these conflicting life-constituting forces: “We are really for a brief mo-
ment primordial being itself” (BT, 104).
It is in this sense that Nietzsche describes the singing and dancing
of the chorus as effecting a kind of incarnation. As Nietzsche writes:
“In song and in dance man expresses himself as a member of a higher
community; he has forgotten how to walk and speak and is on the way
toward flying in the air, dancing. His very gestures express enchant-
ment . . . he feels himself a god, he himself now walks about en-
chanted, in ecstasy, like the gods he saw walking in his dreams” (BT,
36). The gestures “express enchantment”; they generate images in a
person of his self as resembling the divinities with which he is familiar.
This feeling of being (a) god is again symbolic—it occurs in and
through rhythmic bodily movement. Yet it is nevertheless real: it leaves
a spectator with a sense not only that the “life” out there is “powerful
and pleasurable,” but that “life” in her own individual body is as well.
Duncan concludes, then, that the chorus must dance in order to com-
municate what Nietzsche claims the tragedy represents—participation
in the intoxicating Dionysian currents that course through all nature,
including human bodies. The chorus must dance in order for members
of the audience to develop the visceral bond with the chorus members
that enables them to affirm the suffering and sorrow as powerful and
pleasurable.22 Effecting such metaphysical comfort, Duncan avers, is
“the highest aim and object of dancing” (AD, 84).
At the same time, however, as Nietzsche and then Duncan perceive,
the Dionysian experience is as horrifying as it is blissful: the kinetic
image of nature evoked is indifferent to the lives of the individuals it
is meant to comfort. The genius of tragedy, then, is that it not only

Nietzsche himself, in the latter sections of the book, focuses more on the singing of the
chorus rather than the dancing. However, this emphasis may be attributed to his then infat-
uation with Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Wagner’s music—influences he later
rejects in the “Attempt at a Self-Criticism” he wrote as a preface in 1886. In this “Attempt”
he criticizes German music as overly romantic, overly Christian, and calls for a Dionysian art.
The quotation with which he closes this “Attempt” is from the fourth part of Zarathustra where
Zarathustra, “the dancer,” urges his “brothers,” the “good dancers,” to raise up their legs and
hearts (BT, 26–77).

“A God Dances through Me”

provides spectators with kinetic, sonic images of their participation in

a primal contradiction, but that it does so in a way that helps spectators
appreciate these image as images and appreciate themselves as image
makers. In all moments of a tragedy, Nietzsche explains, the Apollinian
and Dionysian energies interpenetrate. While the otherwise Apollinian
character and plot tell a Dionysian tale of an individual lost to the
streams of fate (“the shattering of the individual and his fusion with
primal being” [BT, 65]), so too the Dionysian dancing and singing
provide spectators with an Apollinian image of their experience in the
shape of the satyr, a “Dionysian companion” (BT, 60). This chorus
member, Nietzsche explains, is “the image of nature and its strongest
urges, even their symbol, and at the same time the proclaimer of her
wisdom and art—musician, poet, dancer, and seer of spirits in one
person” (BT, 65–66).
Thus, drawn in by the dancing and singing to identify viscerally with
the members of the chorus, a spectator comes to recognize himself in
the image of the satyr they also represent. It is in the change effected
by this recognition that tragedy accomplishes its task: “In this magic
transformation the Dionysian reveler sees himself as a satyr, and as a
satyr, in turn, he sees the god, which means that in his metamorphosis he
beholds another vision outside himself, as the Apollinian complement
of his own state” (BT, 64). By identifying with the dancing satyrs, spec-
tators enjoy the visceral feeling of being (lost in) god, while coming
to recognize themselves at the same time as made in the image of god,
as image makers.
In short, while narrating a devastating story and provoking an an-
nihilating loss of individuality, Attic tragedy paradoxically leaves spec-
tators with an affirmed (if illusory) sense of their individual bodily
selves as creators: as capable of seeing god and as godlike, as works of
art, and as justified through (their own) aesthetic creations (BT, 52).
The dancing provides a visceral, visual link such that spectators are
able to know and affirm for themselves that “it is only as an aesthetic
phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” (BT,
52). Christian ideas and practices, by implication, fail to deliver this
affirmation insofar as they deny the enabling role of the singing and
dancing chorus; they teach people to assume that the meaning of the
tragedy lies in the moral of the story, in its text, as opposed to the
double experience catalyzed by the elemental rhythms of the singing
and dancing.
In being the chorus, Duncan intended for her dancing to renew re-
ligion not only by delivering these paradoxical affects but by doing so
in relation to an issue that Nietzsche leaves underdeveloped: the impli-

The Journal of Religion

cations for women. Nietzsche offers enticing morsels that Duncan seems
to have noticed. He speaks of ideals in the form of goddesses as well as
gods; he engages metaphors of conception, pregnancy, and birth to de-
scribe the emergence of Attic tragedy and its creative power; and he
refers to the chorus as a womb. He even describes the wisdom of Dio-
nysian art as speaking through the voice of a mother: “Be as I am! Amid
the ceaseless flux of phenomena I am the eternally creative primordial
mother, eternally impelling to existence, eternally finding satisfaction in
this change of phenomena!” (BT, 104). Such instances suggest, at the
very least, that when tragedy loses the dancing chorus, spectators lose
the ability to encounter an image of female power in whose life they
can affirm their own participation. While Nietzsche may be faulted
here for reinforcing an image of “woman” as “mother,” such a critique
misses the aesthetic, embodied dimension of Nietzsche’s metaphysics.
The “mother” spectators encounter in tragedy is neither a virginal fan-
tasy nor a consuming void. “She” appears as a symbol, and then as a
symbol of internal contradiction. She appears in the form of a kinetic
image, as a process of her own bodily becoming, a creative and destruc-
tive power alive within each human, within which every human lives.
Nietzsche’s account of tragedy as speaking the voice of “mother” then,
implies not only that all conceptions of “woman” are metaphors but
also that a culture without an aesthetic, religious equivalent of Attic
tragedy lacks the ability to affirm its conceptions of gender as aesthet-
ically justified.23
In her speeches and essays, Duncan elaborates her engagement with
Nietzsche’s interpretation of Attic tragedy and its maternal moments.
Without dancing, she insists, the arts and religions of the Christian West
are unable to provide women with the opportunity to affirm their bodily
selves either as holy and beautiful works of art, or as artists participating
in the generative energies of the universe. In response, Duncan insists
that dancing must return to the Christian West as a “high religious art
as it was with the Greeks” (AD, 62), and it will do so when women make
dances that recreate (not copy or imitate) the form and effects of the
chorus as Nietzsche describes them. As the chorus, Duncan intends to
catalyze an intoxicating experience of Dionysian energies—what she
calls the “rhythmic unity which runs through all the manifestations of

Nietzsche admits as much in an essay from this time, “We divide things according to
genders; we designate the tree as masculine, the plant as feminine: what arbitrary metaphors!
How far flown beyond the canon of certainty! . . . What one-sided preferences” (“On Truth
and Falsity in Their Ultramoral Sense,” in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Oscar
Levy [New York: Macmillan, 1914], 2:177–78, hereafter cited in the text as OTF ).

“A God Dances through Me”

Nature” (AD, 102)—and to present a dancing female body as the me-

dium through which such kinetic imagining is possible.
Repeatedly, Duncan’s descriptions of her vision echo Nietzsche’s art-
ist’s metaphysics. Her call for a “dancer of the future” echoes his call
for Dionysian artists who will provide alternatives to Christian antiaes-
thetic values. Her call for dancers who will “realize the mission of
woman’s body and the holiness of all its parts” takes the verb “realize”
seriously: it is up to dancers, in and through the act of dancing, to
create and bring into being a “mission” that will engage the entire
symbolism of the body (AD, 63). Duncan’s call for a return to the
“original strength and to natural movements of woman’s body” (AD,
61) is not an appeal to particular or untrained movements per se, but
a call to discover and practice movements that enact the kind of con-
nection to the natural forces symbolized by Dionysus.24 When Duncan
calls for a “dancing school” that will “develop and . . . show the ideal
form of woman” (AD, 61), she is not appealing to an eternally existing
essence but calling women to learn to appreciate dancing as a medium
in which they can generate their own ideals—ones that express and
affirm their bodily participation in the creation of religion. Finally—
though I could continue—when Duncan cries that a dancer shall bring
“to the world the message of the thoughts and aspirations of thousands
of women” (AD, 63), her point is not that there is only one message.
Rather a dancer brings “the” message of thousands when she enacts
her esteem for her own bodily movement as a medium for generating
thoughts and aspirations. It is such dancers, for Duncan, who will com-
municate participation in an energizing, comforting, and shattering
Dionysian intoxication while providing visions of “woman,” maternal
or not, as (in the image of) god.
In the context of her reading of Birth, Duncan’s appeals to the
beauty and holiness of “the” female body appear to represent her sense
of how dance can and should participate in the reform of Christian
thought and practice. Duncan intends her dancing not only to counter
antidance forces in Western history emanating from Christian sources
but also to challenge as false and harmful a host of hierarchical op-
positions on which that hostility is based—soul over body, belief over

For Duncan, the form of such movements was the wave (AD, 68). In many if not all of
her dances, she sought to recreate the wave forms she came to appreciate through her study
of Greek artifacts. As she writes: “One of the commonest figures in the Bacchic dances is
that with the head turned backward. In this movement one senses immediately the Bacchic
frenzy possessing the entire body. The motive underlying this gesture is in all nature. The
animals, in Bacchic movement, turn back the head. . . . It is the universal Dionysiac move-
ment. The waves of the ocean form this line under a storm, the trees in a tempest” (AD, 91).

The Journal of Religion

practice, male over female, and even God over human.25 By dancing
“woman,” Duncan intends her dancing to serve as an effective symbol
of her refusal to abide by “hide-bound conventions,” Christian or oth-
erwise, designed to determine her experience of embodiment (IS, 48).
She seeks to generate and communicate participation in the creation
of the highest ideals—god, beauty, love, and woman—that do as Nietz-
sche commends: affirm life. As she notes: “Nietzsche has said . . . ,
‘Let that day be considered lost on which we have not danced.’ But he
did not mean the execution of pirouettes. He meant the exaltation of
life in movement” (AD, 77).

iii. nietzsche’s dance

While Duncan’s vision for dance draws from and illuminates Nietz-
sche’s vision of the dancing chorus in Birth of Tragedy, the principles
of dance training and dance making she developed to realize that vi-
sion illuminate Nietzsche’s own attempt to write a modern tragedy—
his Thus Spoke Zarathustra.26 In particular, Duncan’s dancing sheds light
on the dance images scattered throughout this text. Scholars tend to
interpret these images in one of two ways: as referring to a natural
body, or as referring to bodily metaphors wielded by a consummate
stylist (to represent some inner state, to write the body, or to figure
“undecidability”).27 The Duncan-inspired reading of Birth directs us dif-

For an account of this antipathy in the American context, see Ann Wagner, Adversaries
of Dance: From the Puritans to the Present (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
Nietzsche ends bk. 4 of The Gay Science with an aphorism titled “The Tragedy Begins.”
The text of this aphorism closely resembles the first section of the prologue in Zarathustra.
See Ecce Homo (hereafter cited as EH; published with Nietzsche, GM ), 299 n. 5. The importance
of Zarathustra in Nietzschean scholarship is contested. For one, this book is unique among
his corpus: it is the only narrative with character and plot (if minimal). It recounts the exploits
of an individual, Zarathustra, who tries to love man by sharing with them his knowledge of
the Übermensch. The genre itself then poses the question of how we are to read whatever
statements appear within it—as philosophy or literature? Is Zarathustra Nietzsche? What are
we to learn from this work? Here I agree with Schacht, who describes this text as designed
to deliver an “aesthetic education,” a “twofold cultivation” involving both the training of
aesthetic sensibility and the exercise of artistic-creative powers (“Zarathustra/Zarathustra,”
225). I would add that the function of Nietzsche’s “concepts” is also to guide us to evaluate
critically the ways in which the acts of reading, writing, and thinking educate and exercise
our senses. For a recent discussion, see Robert Gooding-Williams, Zarathustra’s Dionysian Mod-
ernism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001). See also Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche:
Life as Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), for an interpretation of
Nietzsche’s stylistic diversity as integral to his project of creating “an artwork out of himself”
For an example of the first position, see, e.g., Daniel Conway, “”Returning to Nature,”
in Sedgwick, ed., Nietzsche: A Critical Reader: “To become a disciple of Dionysus thus requires
one to pursue a strict thoroughgoing naturalism. . . . To affirm life as strictly natural, one
must disperse with all those metaphysical comforts” (35). This dichotomy is false. For Nietz-

“A God Dances through Me”

ferently. Via Duncan, Nietzsche’s dance images appear to signal what

revaluation requires above and beyond the work of reversal and dis-
placement. As commentators note, Nietzsche is aware that the mere
reversal of dualistic terms functions to reinforce the hierarchy within
which their relative value is determined, and that revaluation thus re-
quires displacing the hierarchies within which dualistic values are es-
tablished. The dance images in Zarathustra step further: they appear as
signals for the extratextual work readers must do in order to come to
know for themselves, in relation to their own bodies, what Zarathustra
preaches: “faith” in “your body and its great reason” (Z, 146). Just as
the dancing of the chorus in Birth provided the enabling complement
to the dramatic text, so Nietzsche’s dance images gesture toward a
practice that will supplement a reader’s actions of reading and writing
about Zarathustra. As I show in Section IV, Duncan’s dance practices
appear as an example of such work.
As early as the first pages of the “Prologue,” Nietzsche identifies Zar-
athustra as a dancer; he is the chorus, the image of a Dionysian wor-
shipper and companion. As Zarathustra descends from his mountain to
share his love for “man,” a hermit-saint recognizes him: “Does he not
walk like a dancer?” (Z, 122–23). The hermit has faith in God; the danc-
er has faith in the earth and in the Übermensch as the “meaning of the
earth” (Z, 125). His ability to dance is a sign of this revalued faith. As
Zarathustra enters the marketplace, moreover, he sees a tightrope
walker—in German, “rope-dancer,” Seiltanzer. He compares this rope-
dancer to a man overcoming himself, dancing along the rope from
animal to Übermensch. From then on this nexus of images pervades the
book: dancing appears again and again as both the means and the
expression of overcoming belief in an otherworldly God. To dance is
to learn and to know that “God is dead”; to dance is to cultivate and
to have faith in the earth; to dance is to express and to give birth to
new values.28 Dancing appears as an effective symbol of Nietzsche’s
project—bringing into being the affirmation of life it represents.
That the revaluation of bodily values does not involve a simple re-
versal and displacement of dualistic terms is evident in Zarathustra’s
speeches time and again. A close reading of one example discloses a
common logic. In “On the Despisers of the Body,” Zarathustra insists
sche, the idea of nature itself emerges through a recreation of our ever-evolving experience
in and of the natural world—including our own bodily being. For examples of the second
position, see Gooding-Williams, Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism; Blondel, Nietzsche; and Der-
rida, Spurs/Eperons, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
For further discussion of Nietzsche’s maternal metaphors, see Kimerer L. LaMothe, “Giv-
ing Birth to a Dancing Star: Reading Nietzsche’s Maternal Rhetoric via Isadora Duncan’s
Dance,” Soundings 86, nos. 3–4 (2003): 501–23.

The Journal of Religion

that it is not enough to embrace “the body” as equal to or even greater

than the soul. The “awakened and knowing” go a step further and say
“body am I entirely, and nothing else; soul is only a word for something
about the body” (Z, 146). As Nietzsche confirms elsewhere, “nothing
can be explained, while everything may be confused, by the popular
and thoroughly false contrast of soul and body” (BT, 129). Rather than
reinforce this false contrast, Zarathustra displaces its binary logic. He
affirms that “the body” is an agent of its own becoming—“a great rea-
son.” The body “does not say ‘I,’ but does ‘I’” (Z, 146). With this move,
Zarathustra identifies bodily becoming as a nonoriginary movement of
differentiating between what appears as “body” and what appears as its
“instrument” or “little reason,” the “soul.”29 The significance of this
particular displacement, however, is that more is needed to dislodge
the body-soul binary than mere displacement. If any evaluation of the
body is an expression of bodily being, then having faith in the earth
will require a different kind of “doing ‘I’”—a kind of doing other than
the doing that produces an idea of me as a soul or reason existing in,
over, or under my body.
The criteria for this alternate doing appear in bits and pieces across
Nietzsche’s text, especially in his images of dance. Dance represents a
kind of doing that exercises great reason. It does so by enacting what
I call a rhythmic “logic of bodily becoming.” Dance represents a way
of relating to one’s own bodily becoming that can find expression in
values that affirm life. A brief discussion of this rhythmic logic sets the
stage for interpreting how Duncan’s dance technique critically ad-
vances Nietzsche’s project of revaluing bodily values.
In the string of descriptions that accompanies Zarathustra’s descrip-
tion of the body “and its great reason,” he explains that a body is “a
plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a shepherd”
(Z, 146). Here each pair poses a riddle (how can a body be both?)
whose answer lies in grasping a logic of bodily becoming that each pair
First, as “a plurality with one sense,” a body is always already (in) the
act of sensing. In every moment a body is a taking in of multiple inputs
that coexist as one in that instant; these nerve stimuli, for Nietzsche,
form the basis of all thought, language, and knowledge.30 To have faith

By contrast, for Derrida this nonoriginary production of differences is the movement of
différance, or “writing.” For a concentrated discussion, see Derrida’s essay “Différance,” in
Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). See also
Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1982), chap. 2.
See especially OTF. See also Gayatri Spivak’s discussion of language, metaphor, and em-
bodiment in Nietzsche in her introduction to Derrida, Of Grammatology. See also n. 10 above.

“A God Dances through Me”

in the body and its great reason, then, is not only to remember how
embedded in sensory experience our conceptions of truth are but to
take responsibility for our sensory education—for opening to the plu-
rality and being its unity. Zarathustra’s point is not the empirical one
that senses perceive truth. To the contrary: our senses play “hide and
seek” on the backs of things (OTF, 175). What people can sense and
how they respond will always be influenced by the stimuli they (con-
sciously or not) educate themselves to receive, and by the particular
form and shape of their bodies. The point, as Zarathustra emphasizes
it, is that “there is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom”
(Z, 146–47). If this is true, then we readers must cultivate our senses,
learn to listen to their wisdom, and learn to live in and through our
sensory experience, in order to both generate and support the life-
affirming values, metaphors, and meanings Zarathustra extols.31 His
call here resonates with Nietzsche’s description in Birth of “aesthetic
listeners” (BT, 133) who refuse to reduce tragedy (or life in general)
to a moral or a textual problem.
However, learning to sense and listen to this reason is not easy. Not
only are our bodies sick from years of neglect, what we hear through
our senses often sounds like cacophony. As Zarathustra relates, a body
is also a desiring—a scrum of conflicting passions, a war and a peace.
Because desires conflict, satisfaction is always partial, fleeting, fraught,
and achieved at a cost. Yet rather than deny, overwhelm, or smother
this inevitable conflict (as in Christian religion),32 Zarathustra urges
readers to embrace the conflict and allow certain desires to emerge
more strongly through the conflict. Out of our passions, he insists,
grow our virtues; our passions provide the potential energy for our own
creative becoming: “When your heart flows broad and full like a river,
a blessing and a danger to those living near: there is the origin of your
virtue” (Z, 188). Consequently, Zarathustra urges listeners to discipline
themselves to their hearts, the rhythms of their strongest desires—to
learn how to wait for a fruit to ripen, to enjoy its fullness, and to make
space for the hunger to return.33 It is in such rhythms that human

From beginning to end of his work, Nietzsche rejects techniques of thinking and acting
that dull, distract, or overwhelm our sensing. See in particular the “Third Essay” of The
Genealogy of Morals, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1989), hereafter
cited in the text as GM.
He develops these critiques across his work. See in particular, “Twilight of Idols” (hereafter
cited in the text as TI), in The Portable Nietzsche, and GM.
In contrast to those who associate desire with lack or with fullness, Nietzsche understands
desire as a constant oscillation between fullness and lack. For a discussion of these options,
see Kathleen R. Skerrett, “Desire and Anathema,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion
71, no. 4 (2003): 793–809.

The Journal of Religion

bodies find their “great health.” In Ecce Homo, when discussing Zara-
thustra, Nietzsche quotes from The Gay Science: “the great health—that
one does not merely have but also acquires continually, and must ac-
quire because one gives it up again and again, and must give it up.”34
As the movements of sensing and desiring, a body is also always al-
ready becoming in a third way: as an enacting—a herd and a shep-
herd—an ongoing process of bringing into being the conditions for
its own survival. As Nietzsche identifies reason as an instrument of the
body, so too is a shepherd an instrument of the herd. He is a leader
who leads by disciplining his own rhythms to those of the herd; he
values what they need. He finds ways for all members to coexist har-
moniously. In this reading the herd shapes the shepherd as the shep-
herd brings into being the conditions for his own continuing success,
namely, the health and creative reproduction of the herd. As Zarathu-
stra extols: “Thus the body goes through history, becoming and fight-
ing. And the spirit—what is that to the body? The herald of its fights
and victories, companion and echo” (Z, 187).
With this string of contrasting terms, then, Zarathustra identifies a
body as the activity of its own becoming. A body is (a) creating beyond
itself, a constant becoming in and through its own movement. As sens-
ing, a body is evolving its capacity to sense; as desiring a body is dis-
ciplining itself to its strongest desires, giving rise to new ones; and as
enacting, a body is ever bringing into being the conditions of its on-
going success. Further, these streams of sensing, desiring, and enacting
are not only engines of bodily becoming, but intelligences—modes of
evaluating and esteeming; they guide that becoming. When Nietzsche
encourages readers to “listen to the voice of a healthy body . . . that
is a more honest and purer voice . . . and it speaks of the meaning of
the earth” (Z, 145), he is acknowledging that a body is not always
healthy and its voice not always honest and pure. Yet through a process
of learning to listen and of disciplining one’s “shepherd” to what it
hears, a body can teach itself how to bring into being the conditions
for its own health. This is Nietzsche’s faith.35 The point is not that there
is a natural body or a set of general criteria for health. The point,

See EH, 298.
I would add that it also represents his own experience of sickness teaching him how to
be well. See discussion in Ecce Homo where he writes: “during the years of my lowest vitality,
I ceased to be a pessimist; the instinct of self-restoration forbade me a philosophy of poverty
and discouragement” (EH, 224). He attributes his philosophy to this experience: “Looking
from the perspective of the sick toward healthier concept and values . . . and vice versa—in
this I have had the longest training. . . . Now I know how, have the know-how, to reverse
perspectives: the first reason why a ‘revaluation of values’ is perhaps possible for me alone”
(EH, 223); “I turned my will to health, to life, into a philosophy” (EH, 224).

“A God Dances through Me”

rather, is that the doing capable of generating an “I” who has faith in
the body and its great reason is a doing that helps people cultivate
awareness of their bodily becoming—their sensing, desiring, and en-
acting—as the source, expression, and fruit of their highest ideals, self
and god.
Evidence that dance signals this kind of doing appears in many places.
Toward the end of the speech “On Reading and Writing,” to take one
example, Zarathustra utters a line Duncan repeats: “I would believe only
in a god who could dance” (Z, 153). For Duncan and Nietzsche a “god”
is an ideal, something humans invent to please themselves.36 It is an ideal
that provides a model for human life, an image of who we desire to be.
A god who can dance is an ideal that symbolizes affirmation of life. It is
an image of one engaged in rhythmic bodily movement, attuned to and
able to participate in the creative-destructive Dionysian currents of life
and energy flowing in and as his or her body. Zarathustra then narrates
the process of education that has brought him to believe in this idea.
He has learned to laugh at the “spirit of gravity.” He has learned to
walk, run, and fly, and “ever since, I do not want to be pushed before
moving along.” Then, in the present tense, the text proclaims: “Now I
am light, now I fly, now I see myself beneath myself, now a god dances
through me. Thus spoke Zarathustra” (Z, 153).
In these brief sentences Zarathustra encapsulates the significance of
dancing for his project of revaluing values. In order to have faith in the
body and the earth, it is necessary not only to believe in a god who
could dance (as an ideal encapsulating the reversal and displacement of
body-hostile values) but to learn to sense, desire, and enact that god (as)
dancing through me. In fact, without such learning we will not be able
to generate affirming ideals of bodily being. Dancing accomplishes this
feat insofar as it enacts an esteem for bodily becoming: in dance people
attend to their senses, discipline themselves to rhythms of desire, and
enact their ability to create. As Zarathustra intones: “To esteem is to
create: hear this, you creators! Esteeming itself is of all esteemed things
the most estimable treasure. Through esteeming alone there is value”
(Z, 171). Said otherwise, it is because there is no original, natural body
to which we can return that dancing—as Duncan and Nietzsche envision
it—is necessary. 37 “We,” his readers, must learn to be in our bodies

Terry quotes Duncan as saying: “People invent gods to please themselves” (Isadora Duncan,
91). She also affirms that humans need gods—they cannot not invent them. In line with
Nietzsche Duncan makes this claim to encourage humans to acknowledge their responsibility
and bodily participation in the creation of their religious ideals.
Susan Foster provides an excellent analysis of how dancing makes bodies in her Reading
Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance (Berkeley: California University
Press, 1986), chap. 1. Different techniques of dancing will express and encourage different

The Journal of Religion

differently, to esteem our bodily selves. Thus, to be “light” and “fly” as

Zarathustra describes is not to seek escape from the earth mother, as
Irigaray suggests, but to have learned to know Her (as) movement
coursing in and through me.38 “To see myself beneath myself” is to
have learned to embrace the body as a rhythmic logic of becoming,
ever creating beyond itself. With such words Zarathustra is urging read-
ers to experience the kind of transformation Duncan and Nietzsche
associate with the dancing chorus of Attic tragedy. Dancing represents
the activity through which people come to know their revalued values
as true for themselves in (relation to) their own bodily being. Dancing
incarnates—and does not merely symbolize—affirmation of life, Nietz-
sche’s great health.

iv. exercising “great reason”

In her practice of dancing Duncan enacted the logic of bodily becom-
ing her reading of Birth helps us identify in Zarathustra. Duncan not
only held a Nietzsche-inspired vision for dancing as high religious art,
an effective symbol of the freedom of woman; she experimented, lis-
tened, and distilled for herself principles of dance training and com-
position intended to realize that vision. At every beat these principles
synchronize with the “dance” represented in Zarathustra. Her dance
practice is about learning to sense, desire, and enact the god/desses
dancing “through me.” As Duncan confirms, her goal in dancing was
never to become a professional dancer. Nor was dance one activity
among others she could take or leave. Dance, for Duncan, was the ac-
tivity capable of exercising and educating the medium through which
women and men live in ways that would help them develop the physical
consciousness needed to generate values that nourish and affirm life.
As she avers, “To dance is to live. What I want is a School of life” (AD,
141). Her dancing exercises faith in the body and its great reason.
Though criticized by many for not having a technique, Duncan was
unwavering in the principles that led her to reject any “system” for
dance training. Her guiding principles resonate with Nietzschean as-
pirations: to be dance, movement must flow through a body in ways
that harmonize with the particular form of that body. In her words,
dance is movement that flows from an “inspired” or “awakened soul.”
Given this principle, Duncan insists that the “first step” in learning
ideas about dance and different experiences of bodily being and will enable different pro-
duction values. The claims that Duncan and Nietzsche make for dance, then, apply to the
kind of dancing they envision and not necessarily to dance in general.
See Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche.

“A God Dances through Me”

to dance is to awaken “soul” (AD, 52). At first glance, it may seem that
Duncan is here subscribing to the dualistic sense of human being she
purports to reject. However, the discussion above suggests that, like the
“awakened and knowing” Zarathustra describes, Duncan is using “soul”
to say something about the body in such a way as to displace the hi-
erarchy of body versus soul. A closer look at Duncan’s practice reveals
that she uses “soul” to name a transformation in one’s sense of bodily
being in which a person comes to affirm her body as the ongoing
action of her own becoming.
Duncan is clear that such soul awakening requires physical training
and discipline. She provided her students with exercises for strength-
ening their bodies, insisting that, “the whole vital strength of the body
must be brought to its full expansion.” She continues: “Into a body
that has been harmoniously developed and brought to the highest de-
gree of energy, the spirit of dancing enters” such that the movements
of the body express “the thoughts and feelings of a soul” (AD, 83).
“Soul” then appears as a function of a body whose senses are trained
and tuned; people come to know “soul” in and through their own
bodily movements. Further, Duncan trains her dancers to sense “soul”
in a particular kind of movement—movement impulses arising in the
solar plexus, the soul’s “temporal home.” Duncan describes waiting for
long hours in the studio to find the source of the movement that could
be a “divine expression.” She believed that she found “the central
spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from
which all diversions of movements are born” in the solar plexus (ML,
75).39 Whether or not the solar plexus is the center of movement, Dun-
can’s point is that people can educate their senses to perceive it as
center. The movement qualities characteristic of Duncan’s dancing re-
sult. Thus a “soul” represents the fruit of a sensory education—an
awakening of physical consciousness. Duncan’s dancers learn to listen
to their solar plexus and to any change registered there in response
to music, nature, or art as an impetus for moving.
Further, as dancers learn to sense movement impulses arising in the
solar plexus, Duncan leads them to discipline themselves to the
rhythms, to follow the waves through their bodies, and to allow their
movements to express these impulses. Duncan’s exercises guide danc-
ers to align their mental and physical attention with a flow of move-
ment from the solar plexus. For example, standing tall and lifted, a
dancer follows his hands as they move up through the center of the

Duncan may have learned from the Delsarte System of Expression to appreciate the
spiritual significance of any movement in relation to its physiological source and to appreciate
the solar plexus in particular as the seat of emotion. See Daly, Done into Dance, chap. 4.

The Journal of Religion

body, open into the sky, and circle back to the sides of the body. As
dancers learn to recognize and move with the impulses they sense, they
come to know their bodies as “translucent,” as “luminous fluid” (AD,
51). Dancers can experience their bodies as capable of receiving and
transmitting these movement impulses—that is, as conducting currents
of energy that extend through and beyond their individual forms. In
this way their own movements provide them with kinetic images of the
“rhythmic unity which runs through all the manifestations of Nature,”
or what Duncan also calls “that divine continuity which gives to all of
Nature its beauty and life” (AD, 102–3). To awaken soul, then, for Dun-
can, involves training oneself to sense and desire an experience she
describes as Dionysian (AD, 91). Dancers must learn how to abandon
themselves to the rhythmic unity they train themselves to sense. Insofar
as they do, their movements will communicate participation in kinetic
images of (what appears to Duncan in her own movement as) a divine
Finally, in creating dances for performance, Duncan sought to re-
create in the forms of her dances what her trained physical conscious-
ness enabled her to imagine. She wanted to make dances that would
not only represent the individual form of her dancing body or the
divine continuity of which she perceives herself a moment. She wanted
to represent her ability as a dancing female body to be the medium in
which an image of divine continuity may come to life for herself and
for the audience as real. A dancer who moves from an “awakened soul”
is one who moves with a physical consciousness of his or her creative,
bodily participation in the ongoing manifestation of kinetic images of
“divine continuity.” When Duncan describes her dance as a “prayer” or
a “revelation,” or when she describes a dancer as a “priest,” she is
gesturing toward this function of dancing: its ability to exercise a cre-
ative capacity—not a capacity of our minds or even imaginations per
se, but a capacity of our bodily becoming that finds expression in think-
ing and imagining. As Sondra Horton Fraleigh explains, dancing ex-
ercises human freedom; it is a “sign for life.”40 Dancing is so by enact-
ing the inherent creativity of our bodily existence. As bodies we are
always already bringing into being (kinetic images of) our selves, world,
gods, and, thus, our relationships to what these images represent. Ac-
knowledging and exercising this creative capacity, for both Duncan and
Nietzsche, is a moral responsibility.
In sum, the hundreds of exercises Duncan developed for her stu-

See the discussion in Sondra Horton Fraleigh, Dance and the Lived Body: A Descriptive
Aesthetics (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987), xvii, see also pt. 3.

“A God Dances through Me”

dents were designed to help them each learn to sense movement im-
pulses, desire them, follow them through their particular bodies, and
recreate those sensations in kinetic images that would communicate
their unique sense of participation in the rhythmic unity they had de-
veloped the ability to sense. Duncan did so herself, creating myriad
dances designed to communicate participation in the movement im-
pulses her trained physical consciousness enabled her to receive and
recreate. In so doing, she called attention to her human body not only
as the movement of its own becoming, but as the medium through
which she was bringing into being the world in which she desired to
live. In her dances Duncan enacts—both represents and realizes—her
bodily self as engaged in a never-ending process of sensing and re-
sponding to movement impulses that arise for her as a function of her
bodily immersion in a nexus of social, cultural, and natural environ-
Paradoxically, then, Duncan’s religious language is the key to un-
derstanding her dance practice as enacting Zarathustra’s call to have
faith in the body and its great reason. It is the key to understanding
how Duncan conceives of her self, even when dancing solo, as being
the chorus. For Duncan, to dance as a female body from an awakened
soul is to revalue Christian values. It is to overcome belief in an abstract
God and cultivate awareness of our sensing, desiring, and enacting
bodies—female and/or male—as sites of value creation. It is through
dancing as she practices it, Duncan believes, that people can and will,
eventually, incarnate ideals of their genders and their gods that affirm
their ongoing bodily participation in the creative activity of the uni-

v. incarnating values
For those who read Nietzsche as preaching moral relativism or even
nihilism, the comparison with Duncan will offer little consolation. It
may seem that in enacting his vision for a revalued faith she simply
repeats his missteps. However, one argument against such a reading
follows.41 Reading Duncan’s art as critically participating in Nietzsche’s

One set of implications I do not explore concerns a way to read Nietzsche’s caustic
statements against “women.” Briefly, his dance images imply that his own overcoming of his
engagement with modes of Christian evaluation will require him to overcome his sense of
opposition in relation to “woman”—not through a mere reversal and displacement of a
dualistic conception of gender, but by discovering and engaging in practices of relationship
that incarnate different gender values. Nietzsche longed for such experience and the aesthetic
education it would provide—he sought it out in relation to several women—and (for reasons
which may be debated) was never able to find it. As others have noted, his harsh comments

The Journal of Religion

project of revaluing values provides scholars in religious studies—theo-

logians, theorists, and philosophers of religion in particular—with re-
sources for understanding how the practice of writing affects their
conceptions of “religion” and of the role played by bodily being in
religious life.
Duncan perceives that Nietzsche’s dance images are central to his
work in Birth and Zarathustra because they represent a kind of disci-
pline and creative process that exercises a different sense of self than
that provided by textual practices. Nietzsche’s well-known critiques of
“idle” readers and writers, who fiddle with words, support this view. In
“On Reading and Writing,” Zarathustra calls for readers who can
dance—readers with the “long legs” and the strength and agility to leap
from aphorism to aphorism. He calls for writers who dance—who write
with “blood” and discover that blood is “spirit” (Z, 152). What Duncan
develops out of Nietzsche’s work is the idea that acts of reading and
writing alone do not ensure the conditions for their own success.
Nietzsche’s discussion of Attic tragedy and Zarathustra’s exposition
of what faith in the earth entails suggest why. Reading and writing are
practices that educate people’s sensing, desiring, and enacting selves.
Persons educated to read and write must learn to direct their attention
away from bodily becoming and esteem their mental cavity as the
source of ideals and inspiration. They train themselves to ignore their
senses and attend to abstractions. In the process, they learn to believe
in the power of idea(l)s over and against the body. What they think as
“true” and as “knowledge” thus expresses the conditions required for
them to maintain this belief in ideas and in writing. In short, the
practices of reading and writing do not cultivate the kind of relation-
ship to embodiment—the physical consciousness—that can find ex-
pression in values that affirm life. They represent a doing that gener-
ates images of my self as an “I” ruling in and over a body, where that
“I” operates with a freedom defined over and against the limitations
of sex, gender, race, or class. Nietzsche laments the result: “We are
unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge—and with good reason.
We have never sought ourselves—how could it happen that we should
ever find ourselves? . . . Present experience has, I am afraid, always
found us ‘absent-minded’: we cannot give our hearts to it—not even
toward women often vent his own ressentiment—and thus model the need and trajectory of
an overcoming he did not have the resources to complete. For an example of this interpre-
tation, see Maudemarie Clark, “Nietzsche’s Misogyny,” in Feminist Interpretations of Nietzsche,
ed. Kelly Oliver and Marilyn Pearsall (University Park: Pennsylvania State Press, 1998). In
addition to other articles in this volume, see Nietzsche and the Feminine, ed. Peter J. Burgard
(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994); Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche;
and Kelly Oliver, Womanizing Nietzsche (New York: Routledge, 1995).

“A God Dances through Me”

our ears! . . . So we are necessarily strangers to ourselves” (GM, 16).

For Nietzsche and for Duncan, it is because we can learn to think about
ourselves as minds operating independently of our sensing, desiring,
and enacting that we must resist doing so. If we neglect our sensory
selves, we will not develop the visceral bond between self and text that
allows for the process of reading and writing to communicate partici-
pation in an affirmation of life.
This Duncan-inspired interpretation of some of Nietzsche’s dance im-
ages suggests that the project of revaluing—or theorizing—“the body”
in religion requires displacing a dualism that holds the edifice of Chris-
tian values and academic scholarship in place even in its most self-critical
moments: the relation between writing and bodily movement.42 This con-
ceptual edifice expresses and reinforces the education of the senses re-
quired to read and write and to believe in reading and writing as a
medium for transmitting truth with authority. Further, the nature of this
displacement is such that it can only occur through a change in practice.
Merely thinking the reversal and displacement of a body-soul dualism
reinforces it: dualistic logic remains fully in place if the lived sense of a
dichotomy between what I think and what I do—between my acts of
reading and writing and my bodily becoming—remains intact. Displac-
ing the hierarchies of belief within which Christian values toward the
body circulate requires discovering and engaging in practices that de-
velop physical consciousness—the ability to sense, interpret, and disci-
pline ourselves to the rhythms of bodily becoming.
In this context, Duncan’s claims for dancing “woman” assume a rad-
ical spin. By presenting dancing as a medium for representing the ideal
of “the female body,” Duncan wrests the power of ideal making away
from the act of writing and relocates it to the dynamic of an individual
body’s becoming. Duncan intends her dancing to communicate the
message that all ideals of beauty or holiness—including the ones she
extols—are a function of how a person learns to sense and respond to
movement impulses. Her ideals enact her cultivated sense of physical
consciousness. Moreover, Duncan’s principles of dance demand that
any person who experiences her danced ideals, her kinetic images of
divine continuity, is responsible for testing those forms in the labora-
tory of his or her own dance experience. All individuals must hold any

There are accounts, such as those by Derrida, that call attention to the materiality of
writing and its affects on our thinking, namely, the shape and placement of words, the
organization of the book, and the contrast of black and white. My analysis complements such
discussions by calling attention to writing as a practice, a means of aesthetic education. Here,
it is because writing is an embodied action exacting and expressing mental, emotional, and
physical discipline that writing cannot stand alone as a transparent medium for truth.

The Journal of Religion

ideals that they can think, speak, or write accountable to the ever-
evolving health and movement of their particular form.43 When Nietz-
sche insists that “the sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy
Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value” (TI, 471), he is
signaling this interdependence: our ability to think thoughts that af-
firm our “great health” is intertwined with our willingness to attend to
our senses, our bodily becoming, as a great reason.
In conclusion, this analysis affirms the work by feminist philosophers
of religion seeking to find a way beyond the polarized debate over the
place of “the female body” in attempts to theorize religion.44 While
there is no ground for argument in “the female body” or “woman” per
se, this analysis suggests that it is imperative to generate new imagery
capable of helping women and men value embodiment. Such a creative
task is our responsibility.
At the same time, this analysis suggests that the creation of new re-
ligious imagery cannot occur within the realms of reading and writing
alone. Such creation may require practices that enact or incarnate what
the need for such imagery purports: that who we are is a function of
our ongoing, self-reflexive bodily becoming. To be able to think bodily
becoming as source and site of subjective becoming, we must act in
ways that challenge the effects of our education as readers and writers
on our thinking.
“Dancing,” at least as envisioned by Nietzsche and Duncan, may rep-
resent an alternative sensory training that can guide scholars in incar-
nating appreciation for our bodies and bodies in general as movements
of their own becoming—as sensing, desiring, and enacting. As such,
dancing can provide an enabling complement to words—an essential
supplement—exercising the sensibility that can guide people in gen-
erating thoughts and ideals that both express and foster faith in the
“body and its great reason.” As Duncan insists: “Only that education is
right which includes the dance” (AD, 88).

Duncan decried her many imitators who copied the forms of her dancing without en-
gaging in the practice and discipline of awakening their own “souls.” She writes: “All kinds
and conditions of people have imitated my work. But they seem to think it consists in certain
stereotyped gestures. In reality, it has its virtue in certain soul-states which are, in a sense,
incommunicable” (IS, 47). Such “soul-states” are the fruit of a trained physical consciousness,
as explained above.
I am referring to the camps of difference theorists (or “essentialists”) and social con-
struction or performative theorists. See n. 13 above.