Seven Questions for Pico Iyer: Dance Is a Home … and a Sanctuary


This summer, we are greatly excited to have an amazing travel writer and philosopher at the Chicago conference. While Pico Iyer may not seem a typical choice for the dance field, over the next seven days, we will unveil a little about his thought process, and why he is exceptionally relevant to us as we move toward the next decade. Members of the Dance/USA Board formulated seven questions for Iyer to ruminate on. His responses over the next week are truly thought-provoking and inspiring. We hope you will join us in Chicago to continue this conversation.

In addition, we have asked several members of Dance/USA and the Board to provide their personal take on our four program envelopes at the conference: Management, Artistry, Technology and Audience Engagement. In coming weeks these articles will help get you ready for our conference.

Q. You have spoken about how dance offers spaciousness, clarity, and focus to lives that feel continually congested and rushed. What is your response when we live in an instantaneous and demanding world? One that requires us to stream video, tweet, fill in Facebook pages, etc., about our work. Is there a way to weave these two dichotomous visions together?

A. I feel that most of us have all the stimulation, date, speed, and connectedness that we could want; what we crave most of all these days—and we can feel our bodies and souls crying out for it—is silence, stillness, and spaciousness. The average American now spends eight hours a day before a TV screen; the average American teenager sends 70 text messages a day. Even computer companies, such as Intel, are now experimenting with enforced “no e-mail Fridays” and four hours of obligatory “Quiet Time”—no telephones, computers, or screens—every week. We have moved, rather quickly, from having too much information about the world to having too little.

So I am a great believer in carving out a little time in every day—and year—to do nothing at all: just to sit quietly in a room, to go for a walk (without the i-Phone, BlackBerry, or laptop), simply to return to that quiet space without which we can’t begin to make clear decisions, hear ourselves think, be humans with something to offer to those around us. We spend so much time working on our bodies—I go to the gym every day since my doctor recommended it to me—but so little on our minds. And our minds are much more essential to our well-being than our bodies are (since if we’re buff and toned, but our minds are weak, we’re in real trouble; whereas if our minds are clear and strong, we can often survive, even flourish, although our bodies may be  weak).

My own response to the bombardment of data so many of us face these days is to live in rural Japan without high-speed Internet, a television I can understand, magazines or newspapers, or car or bicycle. And after I noticed, many years ago, that I had accumulated 1.5 million miles on United Airlines alone, I started retreating four times a year to a Catholic monastery, even though I’m not a Catholic or a monk. I don’t recommend these particular measures to everyone, but I do think each of us has to find a way to keep ourselves steady, centered, and clear, and able to see the wood from the trees. It may be running every morning, or doing yoga or tai-chi, or in fact dancing; but without this anchoring discipline and exercise, we’ll be lost in a wilderness of flashing bytes.

So when I think of dance these days, I think of it as a kind of meditation as well as a kind of action; a way of collecting oneself and one’s feelings, or instincts or impulses (as much as one’s thoughts). So many people I know dance, as amateurs, as a way to ground themselves, to clear their heads, to begin their day (as a cousin to tai chi or yoga, say). It becomes the way we gather and collect ourselves for the often frenzied movement that will follow. For many a professional, dance is a home; but even for the rest of us it can be a sanctuary, the way we take stillness to ourselves, to prepare for the day’s many movements.

Born in Oxford, England, to parents from India, Pico Iyer was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard, while officially growing up in Southern California. He is the author of seven works of non-fiction, including Video Night in Kathmandu (cited on many lists of the best travel books ever), The Lady and the Monk (finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in the category of Current Interest) and The Global Soul (subject of websites and theatrical productions around the world). He has also written the novels Cuba and the Night and Abandon. For a quarter of a century, he has been an essayist for Time magazine, while also writing constantly on literature for The New York Review of Books, on globalism for Harper’s, and on many other topics for venues from The New York Times to National Geographic. His most recent book, The Open Road, describing more than 30 years of talking and traveling with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, came out in a dozen countries, and was a best-seller across the U.S. He has been based for the past 20 years near Nara, in rural Japan, though he is still often to be found making stops everywhere from North Korea to Ethiopia, and from Bolivia to Easter Island.
Photo: Pico Iyer at the Dalai Lama's temple in Dharamsala

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