Warning: This post contains spoilers.
"Are we human? Or are we dancer?"
If you pay much attention to lyrics, and you like to talk about music, you might have run across a bit of controversy about The Killers' song, "Human" - specifically, the grammar and meaning of the above line. Now, personally, it's a song. I don't much care how grammatical it is, or if it even makes sense. Art doesn't always make obvious sense, and if music isn't art, well, what is it?
However! Listening to "Human" the other day, it occurred to me that there is one book that puts the song into perfect context. Stardance, by Spider and Jeanne Robinson*, is about Shara Drummond, a woman who wants to be a dancer but who is just too tall and voluptuous to be taken seriously.
"Dance requires intense motivation at an extraordinarily early age—a blind devotion, a gamble on the as-yet-unrealized potentials of heredity and nutrition. You can begin, say, classical ballet training at age six—and at fourteen find yourself broad-shouldered, the years of total effort utterly wasted. Shara had set her sights on Modern dance—and found out too late that God had dealt her the body of a woman.
She was not fat—you have seen her. She was tall, big-boned tall, and on that great frame was built a rich, ripely female body ...
Modern dancers must sometimes work nude these days, and it is therefore meet that they have the body of a fourteen-year-old boy. We may have ladies dancing with few or no clothes on up here, but by God it is Art. An actress or a musician or a singer or a painter may be lushly endowed, deliciously rounded—but a dancer must be nearly as sexless as a high-fashion model."
Shara, however, can't stop dancing. Dance is as essential to her as breath.
"But Shara was one of the rare ones. She danced because she needed to. She needed to say things which could be said in no other way, and she needed to take her meaning and her living from the saying of them. Anything else would have demeaned and devalued the essential statement of her dance. I know this, from watching that one dance."
Determined, Shara finds a way to dance. She goes to space and learns to dance in zero gravity. The cost is high, both emotionally and physically, but she refuses to give up.
"The next twelve days were the toughest of my life. Shara worked twice as hard as I did. She spent half of every day working in the studio, half of the rest in exercise under two and a quarter gravities (the most Dr. Panzarella would permit), and half of the rest in Carrington's bed, trying to make him contented enough to let her stretch her time limit. Perhaps she slept in the few hours left over. I only know that she never looked tired, never lost her composure or her dogged determination. Stubbornly, reluctantly, her body lost its awkwardness, took on grace even in an environment where grace required enormous concentration. Like a child learning to walk, Shara learned how to fly."
Just before Shara's triumphant final dance performance, though, she collapses and is forced to return to earth. Rather, almost forced to return. Something amazing happens, that changes everything, and suddenly Shara's skill as a dancer is more important that anyone could have ever dreamed.
'"Come on, Shara," I barked. "Even if those things happen to be remotely like us, that's not true. Samurai, karate, kung fu— they're dance." I nodded to the screen. "All we know about these animated embers is that they travel interstellar space. That's enough to scare me."
"Charlie, look at them," she commanded.
By God, they didn't look threatening. They did, the more I watched, seem to move in a dancelike way, whirling in mad adagios just too fast for the eye to follow. Not like conventional dance—more analogous to what Shara had begun with Mass Is a Verb. I found myself wanting to switch to another camera for contrast of perspective, and that made my mind start to wake up at last."
Let's revisit the lyrics to "Human", again, shall we?
"Are we human?
Or are we dancer?
My sign is vital
My hands are cold
And I'm on my knees
Looking for the answer
Are we human?
Or are we dancer?
Will your system be alright
When you dream of home tonight?
There is no message we're receiving
Let me know is your heart still beating?"
*Sadly, Jeanne Robinson passed away May 30, 2010. She will be missed.
Book: Stardance by Spider Robinson and Jeanne Robinson
Music: Human, The Killers