What Is Dance? Why Do We Dance? Why Do I Dance?

How I Learned to Dance

I was over 30 years old before I began to dance – that’s when I discovered folk dancing.  I’ve been enjoying folk dancing for nearly 40 years, and I’ve often wondered “what was it about folk dancing that made me a dancer?”  Decades of research have led to this conclusion:  Wrong question; I’ve always been a dancer, but it was trained out of me.

As a boy growing up in Middle America in the 1950’s, my role models were my dad, uncles, teachers; I’d never seen any of them dancing.  I did see movie & TV stars dancing – Fred Astaire, Gene Kelley, plus anonymous (to me) stage and ballet dancers on TV.  Occasionally in the Westerns some cowboy would end up at a dance, being awkward and out of his element.  Occasionally some show would depict a square dance – usually something funny involving country bumpkins.  Fred’s suave grace & Gene’s muscular storytelling made the girls swoon, but they never did anything I could envision myself doing.  They did teach me, however, that dancing was something a guy did to please and possibly seduce women by moving wonderfully, that it only worked if you were good at it, which required either natural talent and/or a lot of training, and that sometimes it was considered art.  Not by me.  I didn’t get why someone would want to WATCH someone else dance, especially a man.

Oh, and then there were the Indians and Natives of Dark and/or Exotic Places, who were always hepped up about something and leaped or shuffled with wild abandon, working themselves into a frenzy before doing something unspeakable to white people.  Though that looked like a lot of fun, none of my role models considered it dancing.  Teenagers somewhat older than myself were moving in a way that adults compared to these savages, and no respectable adult would condone their behaviour.  THAT kind of dancing was OUT OF CONTROL – something good boys and girls didn’t let happen – at least not in the presence of the opposite sex.

So by the time I became a teenager I had learned that dance was not something average guys did unless they aspired to be a playboy, a savage, an entertainer, or, worst of all, some kind of artist.  Dance was a means to some kind of end, and I couldn’t conceive of a goal I wanted to achieve by dancing.  I LOVED music, and tried moving to it sometimes, but I instinctively felt like a fraud.  Others looked cool – I felt and looked awkward, and no girl ever complimented me or even looked fondly at me because of my moves.  Any half-hearted attempts at learning to dance were doomed to failure.

When finally I was taken to my first folk dance event, I immediately liked the idea of dancing in a line, side by side – free from the conventions and anxieties of ritual courtship.  I liked the idea that you could learn a footwork formula, and that’s about all you had to do – repeat the formula along with everyone else, and you were DANCING with everyone.  We all moved as a unit, there was a sense of community – not competing for attention, or being self-absorbed in self-expression.  The point was to move together – become one.  I also liked the music – music not associated with previous bad experiences on dance floors.  I liked hearing about other cultures – leaving my own for a while – entering another world with my whole self – heart, mind and body.  For the first time, dancing was something I could ENJOY.

What Is Dance?

I started reading about dance – what is it?  Here’s a definition that’s technically correct, but it leaves me cold; “to move in a pattern, usually rhythmically and to music, as a form of self-expression, social interaction, or presented in a spiritual or performance setting”  What’s missing?  To me what’s missing is EMOTION!  I became a dancer when I began enjoying dancing.  We can walk or run across a room, do all sorts of exotic moves in a fitness class, march in formation in a band or military unit, but it isn’t dance.

I got to thinking about those ‘savages’.  Why did they dance?  Who were the first dancers?  Imagine a world before language.  I’ve read that moving to a steady rhythm is a prerequisite to language, that languages need rhythm to help decode speech.  Try saying sentences rapidly with no accents at all.  Say a couple of sentences to someone where every word has the accent on the wrong syllable.

So where did we get a sense of rhythm?  From the womb, of course.  Our mother’s heartbeat is the first thing we hear, and we feel it as well. It’s probably our first sensation of any kind.  I still get a thrill when I hear or feel someone else’s heartbeat.  We’re suddenly connected more intimately and intensely than we could possibly be with speech.  Same with drumming or stomping out a rhythm together.  Communication, connection, without language.

Why Do We Dance?

Gradually, scientists are coming to the conclusion that our thoughts are only a small part of what motivates us to act the way we do.  I may be consciously trying to achieve some goal, but my success depends as much on the state of my stomach, the bacteria in my intestines, the viruses in my lungs, my hunger, my allergies, blood sugar level, hormones, toxins in my system, sleep deprivation, comfort level, physical fitness, etc.  If my body isn’t happy, I’m not happy.  When I get a “gut feeling” about something, even a decision I’m about to make, I should listen.

My body tells me that it likes to move.  It responds to rhythm.  It likes to move to music.  It likes to move with other people to music, especially live music where the musicians are with us, urging us on.  If that music is a song that says something meaningful to me, so much the better, because then my mind is engaged.  If I can sense the song is speaking to others in the room the same way, even better!  The more elements that connect at the same time, the less room there is for distractions, insecurities, fears, the more room for the sense of community – that we’re all one. Now.  My body enjoys exercise – moving freely, but it also enjoys hugging (intimacy) and it also enjoys thinking (ideas) and it also enjoys feeling safe (among friends).  Dancing while physically connected to a friendly group is all of those things.  That’s when I feel greatest joy, when I’m most alive!

‘Savages’ didn’t need language to know that dancing together felt good, full stop.   As we acquired language our thoughts got more complex, and so did our ‘reasons’ for dancing.  As our society became more hierarchical, those more in control developed more ways to control dance. “We’re your religious/artistic/political leaders and we say dance means this – do it this way – that’s old fashioned, that’s crass, that’s sacred and should only be done at certain times under our direction, etc.” We now have many more ideas about dance, more nuanced definitions, more levels of training required, more critics, judges, professionals, but do we have more joy?

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