When I was turning 50, I signed up for an African dance course in Boulder, Colorado. Some of the dances, the teacher said, were “social,” some “sacred” or “ritualistic.” One afternoon during class I shorted out. The feet and hips couldn’t remember their assigned movements. The ass wouldn’t shake, and the drummer’s fine rhythms refused to animate my untrained body. So I sat the session out, brooding. Wyoma, our African American teacher and participants, all female, snatched glances at me.

The next day I complained to colleagues, “You know, the white man can’t dance.’’ With voices in my head pronouncing judgment or offering false comfort, I accounted for my kinesthetic ignorance in several ways:

  • The man can’t dance ‘cause he’s white, and white folks got no rhythm.
  • The guy can’t dance because he’s male, and males are socialized to be rigid and controlling.
  • The old guy can’t dance because he’s middle-aged; at fifty-whatever the spine grows tired and the muscles, flabby.
  • Grimes can’t dance because he’s an academic, and we all know that scholars live in their heads, growing fat asses from excessive reading and writing.

For the next few days I desperately wanted to drop the course, but I persisted. By the end I had been dubbed Old Faithful. Despite my ineptitude I enjoyed being a student again, even if I was the oldest person in the class.

Foolishly, I enrolled in a second African dance course, this one on healing ritual. After my first two or three sessions I complained to Wyoma, “I am in kinesthetic culture shock.’’ She rolled her eyeballs at the high-flown rhetoric. Trying to explain, I went on, “The body is a little world. Cross its boundaries and you go into culture shock. You know, move it, shake it, and bake it in some way other than that to which it is habituated, and it goes into somatic culture shock. Learning African dance is like crossing an international frontier into a new territory where they speak another language, and the food, currency, and manners are different.’’

“Whatever,” she said. She didn’t pity me.

I finished the second course. My two kids and I began to dance at home. We dance African, country and western, Celtic, and the portions of Peter, Paul, and Mary that Bryn and Cailleah insist are rock and roll. We are unabashed. Still, I quip, “Nope, ‘the white man,’ he just can’t dance.’’

The refrain disturbs friends, particularly other white males. They find the self-parody demeaning. Why do I persist in it? Am I white-male bashing? Aren’t I one of them? If I don’t mean literally and absolutely that all white men, for genetic reasons, can’t dance and that all Black people can, what the hell do I mean?

In my ritual glossary “the white man’ can’t dance’’ has become a metaphoric way of speaking about ritual ignorance. By the “white man” I mean something like “the ritually inept.’’ We white, European-offspringed males are an apt symbol of the inability to do the dance.

I know I’m playing with a dangerous stereotype, “the white man,’’ which is why I put it in quotation marks and do not say, white men (without quotation marks). I readily admit that some white men can dance. There was one in my class who could. Built like Michelangelo’s “David,” with a bronze face resembling a raven on a Northwest Coast totem pole, he could shake his behind in a most astonishing way.

I am also aware that not all Black people dance so well, which is to say, “naturally.’’ Two African Americans, about my age, one male and one female, danced with as much difficulty as I did. The man was quiet, serious, grey-haired. He was unflappable; he persisted, no matter how stiff his limbs or confused his sense of direction. The woman, a grandmotherly, gourd-shaped social worker, laughed at her inabilities and teased me for fretting about mine. She too persisted, undaunted.

Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that certain kinds of performance are learned by certain kinds of people with enormous difficulty—perhaps not at all. Why? What factors inhibit ritual learning, especially if it is dance-based? I doubt that every culture successfully teaches all of its members to dance or to ritualize. Ritual knowledge sometimes fails to take root. Why is it so extraordinarily difficult, I wonder, for that peculiar class of humans, whom I stereotype “the white man,’’ to dance?

Claiming that black people dance naturally while whites can only do it unnaturally would be racist, but even if we argue that culture rather than genes is the ultimate cause of one’s dancing well or badly, we still have not said much. We need to be more specific about the circumstances of learning: What is it about European-American, male kinesthetic culture that renders it irreligious in face of the maxim, “Religion is danced out, not thought out?’’ What divides us into blacks and whites, natives and non-natives, perhaps even into women and men is not just economics, land, and politics but also The Dance. There is a rift between those who dance for reasons of recreation or health and those who do it as a way of embracing the creation.

When we enact The Dance, we are not merely illustrating knowledge that exists somewhere else, in a book or in someone’s head. Ritual is a kind of knowledge, somatic knowledge. Because ritual is a kind of knowledge, one can be ignorant of it—ritually illiterate, ritually disabled.

Ritual learning, like language learning, is probably most effective when it happens early and proceeds by immersion. But immersion is not always possible. Even some traditional people are now having to learn at a considerable distance from their cultural homelands. Increasingly, neither black folks nor white folks have the option to absorb ritual knowledge through the pores or dissolved in our mothers’ milk. However attractive it may seem not to have a choice among ritual practices, a growing number of the world’s population can participate only by choice. And choice often implies learning by overt instruction, in a classroom, in far-away place.

So the question is not merely, what is ritual knowledge, but, in what cultural spaces is ritual knowledge best cultivated? What are the difficulties of pursuing it cross-culturally or in classes rather than in villages among tribes? What is the epistemology governing ritual knowledge when the circumstances are fractured and the site, socially or geographically dislocated?

We need to be at once more specific and more general in answering these questions. We need to be more specific about the dances. My proverbial white man, for whom I am a clumsy stand-in, stumbles through the focodoba (a dance performed by children in Guinea). In any consideration of ritual ineptitude—we need to take into account specific choreographic sensibilities and the politics of learning. In addition to being more specific, we need to be more theoretical in identifying social, psychological, and bodily conditions that engender ritual ineptitude or facilitate ritual competence.

My clumsy attempts at learning African-inspired ritual dances helped me become aware of conditions that inhibit such learning. Self-consciousness is a major obstruction. Self-consciousness is not identical with self-awareness. Self-consciousness inhibits action. Self-awareness facilitates it. The Space for Dance in Boulder, the refurbished wing of a milk plant where we practiced what Wyoma called Healing Dance, had mirrors down one side. Their presence defined the south wall as front. No one ever faced the opposite wall. The mirror helped us see the teacher as well as ourselves, but we could have done without it. The dance space itself elicited considerable self-consciousness. In my view the mirrors militated against the ritual dimensions of the class by evoking a performative self-consciousness.

A mirror might have enabled us to become self-aware, but self-awareness lapses into self-conscious when a second inhibiting factor is at work: competitiveness and goal-orientation. Some of us didn’t merely see ourselves there in the mirror, we saw ourselves being awkward. I see so-and-so dancing with a lot more finesse than I can muster. I notice someone else dancing without effort. I want to do well. I want to learn something, not look like a klutz. Even when I am not being overtly competitive with others, I am competing with myself: I want to do better than I did last time.

In addition to self-consciousness and competitiveness there is a third reason the “white man’’ can’t dance: individualism and the lack of a supporting social context. Why was I looking at myself in the mirror and not at all of us? Why was I not worried about how we as a group were doing? The answer, I suspect, is that we were not a community. We did not depend on one another outside this hour and a half. We were merely bodies moving together in ninety minutes of “community.” We occasionally reached golden moments of attunement and rapport; the drums would pound us until we pulsed like the beat of a single heart. For a moment we cared. But the moment always evaporated, and we were a collection of individuals again, going our separate ways.

The “white man’s’’ dance is not very communal, so it is no dance at all but an exhibition or exercise. The “white man’’ can’t dance because he doesn’t have the right ethic. He doesn’t have the right ethic because he does not live in the right social circumstances. If this way of putting it sounds too normative, there is another way to say it: the “white man’’ cannot dance because he can only enact the social circumstances in which he dwells. And they define him as an individual over against—often above—other individuals. They teach him to imagine initiative as coming from inside, from the will, rather than as arising from the social and physical environment what surrounds him.

There is no clear separation between social and bodily reasons for ritual ignorance. Habituation is one way to name choreographic, or kinesthetic, reasons for ritual ineptitude. By habituation I mean the repetitive baselines of posture and gesture that constitute the framework of a person’s daily existence. For several hours a day I sit—writing, eating, talking. I cultivate an erect posture hoping to avoid curvature of the spine and rounding of the shoulders, staring at a computer screen in order to write.

One evening a week I bike to the Space for Dance hoping in vain to dance my way down out of my head. The way I choreograph my day and week is dualistic despite my anti-Cartesian theory of ritual that leads me to reject any ultimate separation of mind and body. My theory holds that they are one, but my lifestyle splits them in two. The “erectitude’’ of my work day predisposes me to choreographic and liturgical verticality. Sitting up straight and walking with my shoulders back are habits ill-suited to African dance. Kinesic dissonance arises because the “white man’s’’ kinesthetic habits predispose him against the circuitousness of ritualistic and choreographic movements characteristic of African and many other kinds of dance.

I discovered in myself what I came to call ritual resistance, a bodily, kinesthetic trajectory that runs counter to other ways of moving. Although I was a most willing participant in African dance—I had no conscious resistance to it—resistance arose. The body groaned and fought against other habits of being.

In African dance class we literally to stick our necks out. Simul­taneously, we had to stick out our butts—in the other direction. Having “erected’’ myself for eight hours prior to class, an hour and a half of undulation hurt. To make it all worse, I have practiced Zen meditation for fifteen years, learning to be still, keeping my spine straight, and making my attention one-pointed.

In African dance we became snakes and birds. The spine swayed this way and that, and your attention needed to be diffusely focused. African dance demands ambidexterity of all four limbs and the torso as well. My only habitually ambidextrous activity is typing. The aesthetic of African dance requires dancers to move with multiple rhythms in multiple vectors. I who can barely pat my head while rubbing my stomach had to practice polyrhythm. Polyrhythm: polytheism. I grew up a monotheist. At best the “white man’’ is monorhythmic; at worst, he suffers a-rhythmia.

Often I could not remember the African dance routines, either during a session or when I went home and tried to replicate there what I was supposed to have learned in class. The “white man” can’t dance because of his uncultivated kinesthetic memory. To put it in Cartesian fashion, my mind can remember the titles and authors of books (even where they are on the shelf), but my body cannot remember whether to lead with the right foot or left, whether to jump and then turn, or to turn and then jump. The movements were too complex, and they came too fast. There was too little repetition. Often I could not recognize repetitions because they were of patterns rather than of discreet, single movements.

The differences between religious traditions are as choreographic and kinesthetic as they are conceptual and doctrinal. In fact, kinesthetic knowledge is probably more fundamental and enduring. Religious competence in many traditions is fundamentally choreographic rather than verbal. To incarnate the values, to dance the attitudes, of any one tradition is to create psychosomatic structures that resist those of other traditions—no matter how open we aspire to be to them.

Learning ritual in classes rather than in more integral settings may be our only option, but it is a troubled path. The gulf between learning by immersion and learning by deliberate, formal instruction is enormous. Although ritual knowledge may arise in classes, ritual wisdom probably arises only in traditions. So even if I should stop claiming with such resounding hyperbole, “The ‘white man’ can’t dance,’’ I would still have a serious reservation. Sure, the “white man” can learn to dance—but only as a second language.