Movement and breath signify the start of life. They precede language and thought. Dance, which embodies movement and self-expressive gestures, can thus be traced back to our very entry into the world.
In a larger sense, dance is more than a physical manifestation, as in the expression “dance of life,” symbolizing a process by which we reach and celebrate self-realization. As Sherman Paul has noted: “To dance …is to enter into the motions of life. It is an action, a movement, a process …to dance is to know oneself alone and to celebrate it. – Sherman Paul.
To many artists and scientists, “dance” goes beyond this metaphorical sense; it is characterized as the heart and soul of one’s being:
“Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” — Martha Graham
“Dance is the movement of the universe concentrated in an individual. “ — Isadora Duncan
“We dance for laughter, we dance for tears, we dance for madness, we dance for fears, we dance for hopes, we dance for screams, we are the dancers, we create the dreams.” — Albert Einstein
As Einstein has suggested, even when we are raw, open, exposed, and vulnerable, we are not without recourse to the latent pulsating energy of our spirit; we release that spirit when we dare to dream and with confidence, ride the plethora of emotions to freedom, i.e., we dance metaphorically or literally to find harmony/balance within ourselves and to soar to higher plains.
From the holistic perspectives, therefore, dance, both literally and metaphorically, signifies freedom, self-exploration, self-expression, self-discovery, and self-actualization. Also, we do not have to be a dancer in the literal sense (e.g. a ballerina or a ballroom dancer) to “dance” our way through life and appreciate that as a value.
There is another side to the coin, however, in how we perceive dance. It is not all too distant a past when societies regarded dance as a marginal or primitive art. While film, television, and videos of great performances have dispelled much of that notion by showcasing the greats, prejudices toward the art form still linger to some degree. For instance, we may look up to great dancers of today or our recent past, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Margaret Fontaine, Michael Jackson, Cyd Charisse, or Gene Kelly and marvel but we do not necessarily see ourselves engaging in dance as a serious occupation. Herein lies the irony.
Most people agree that dance is visually and aesthetically pleasing as an entertainment to watch but, except for cultures that equate dance with spirituality, or building of discipline and social graces for the young (e.g. grace, gentility, poise, dignity, and posture), dancing is often relegated secondary importance as a social or individual endeavor. Furthermore, even in societies that esteem dance in a ceremonial sense, it is seen more as a fanfare or as a tool/mechanism for social good and not necessarily as something that merits intrinsic value as an individualistic art form.
Among Native Americans, for instance, dance is an offering to the Creator, a prayer, praise, to honor birth, for forgiveness, for a new beginning, or to experience interconnectedness through motion. When they gather to dance, the drum – its round form representing the shape of the sacred universe – emits strong, steady heartbeats that bring entrancement through repetition. Dancers put to rest the distraction of worries and cares of every day life so that they may become one with all. In essence, dance is a spiritual action done with dedication and devout sense of reverence. Similarly, dancers across the globe dance the spirituality of their cultures in splendorous regalia, paying homage to ancestral traditions.
In European cultures and in Asia as well, dance is often a part of the “coming out” ceremony for young adults. Debutante balls, still in practice in Europe since the Victorian era, are often venues for young ladies of the upper class to encounter possible suitors. In India, “arangetram” — debut on-stage performance of a classical art student after undertaking years of training – is also a means by which the talent, beauty, and artistic qualities of young ladies are brought to the attention of society — similar in intention to “Europe’s “coming out” tradition; the young ladies do not necessarily continue their dance career after the arangetram.
Even as dance lags behind other professions as a venture worth undertaking (except among the avid dance professionals and professional/amateur competitors throughout U.S. and the world), it is paradoxically gaining foothold as a serious academic discipline. Degree programs in dance now include both cross- and interdisciplinary modes of research that integrate dance with other artistic, humanities, and/or science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Subjects like kinesiology (scientific study of human movement) and dance therapy are gaining popularity and so also such research ventures as looking to find cures for diseases (like Parkinson’s) by analyzing the brain chemistry of dancers for practical application.
The underlying rationale for such enhanced interest is the health benefits (physical and mental) that dancers enjoy, proven in study after study. Health professionals, neuroscientists, and biomedical engineers are seeking ways to utilize what they learn about the coordination, timing, balance, space and body awareness, and psychological/emotional well being among dancers to help the physically and mentally impaired.
To an individual in pursuit of dance as an art form, all that ultimately matters is that dancing for enjoyment is well worth the undertaking for its own sake. While the ample benefits that come from dance are more than welcome, those factors are not necessarily the drawing cards. Passion for dance among dancers and would-be-dancers come from deep-rooted affinity toward music and rhythmic movements.
Music is known to stimulate pleasure and reward areas like the orbitofrontal cortex, located directly behind one’s eyes, as well as a midbrain region called the ventral striatum. The amount of activation in these areas matches up with how we enjoy the tunes. Also, music activates the cerebellum at the base of the brain, which is involved in the coordination and timing of movement.
Scientists aren’t sure why we like movement so much, but there’s certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest we get a pretty big kick out of it. Maybe synchronizing music, which many studies have shown is pleasing to both the ear and brain, and movement—in essence, dance—may constitute a pleasure double play.
Dancing is also a natural form of self-expression. It invites us to be lively, playful, and spontaneous with every cell of our bodies, to tell stories, to share our distinctive cultures, to even ease our individual suffering. To some of us avid dancers, dancing is for the most part entertainment, but to others it has become an integral part of a total way of life.
The film “Shall We Dance”(2004), although fictional, lends insight into the psyche of dancers. John Clark, played by Richard Gere, is a lawyer, happily married but feels that something is missing. When he chances upon a solitary woman standing by the window of Mitzi’s Dance studio on his way home from work, he is intrigued by her pensive figure. And so, getting off the train, he walks into the studio and signs up for ballroom dancing.
At first he is clearly interested in the woman Paulina, the dance teacher, played by Jennifer Lopez. Listening to Paulina talk about Rumba (while she danced the dance with him) with the freedom and sensuality she denies herself in real life association with her students, John is increasingly captivated. Paulina explains; “The rumba is the vertical expression of a horizontal wish” — a quote from Bernard Shaw. “You have to hold her like the skin on her thigh is your reason for living. Let her go, like your heart is being ripped from your chest. Throw her back like you are going to have your way with her right here on the dance floor, and then finish like she’s ruined your life.”
The fact that Paulina is uninterested in romance with John is indicative of the appropriate stance that dance teachers generally take with their students. John, the middle aged lawyer, although drawn to Paulina, also learns very quickly about the transformative effect of dance itself – how it has added a dramatic, daring, and artistically pleasing and rewarding dimension to his life.
The supporting characters also lend us further insights into reasons why people dance. Link, the mild mannered colleague in John’s law firm, for instance, has fun wearing a flamboyant hairpiece while on the dance floor and becomes a wild man. The dream of this manic dynamo: “I want to dance before the world in my own name.” He fears he would lose his job if he did that, but when John joins the class, he gains courage. He’s one of the reasons that John stays at Miss Mitzi’s even after it becomes clear that Paulina is not available.
Then there are the others, including the giant-sized Vern, played by Omar Benson Miller, the homophobic Chic (Bobby Cannavale), and the would-be bombshell Bobbie (Lisa Ann Walter). These were not the kind of people John had associated with in the past. But now, in the magical world of dance, their diversity and uniqueness bring out his own fire, enough to propel him to put caution and convention aside to aim for the competition floor. Herein lies the magic of dance. We all have this innate ability, albeit some more than others. Recent studies suggest that babies are born to dance with the ability to bop to the beat as young as five months old. As adults, we similarly enjoy moving our bodies to music that is joyfully Pavlovian. Whether we are professional dancers, amateur dancers, or people who love to “disco” or move or tap to rhythm, the activity seemingly sets us free, taking away our inhibitions and stirring in us youthful energy — a sense of adventure, spirit of romance, and even childish fantasies, e.g., being a princess, a prince, or a warrior, as in the fairy tales, i.e., being special.
Thanks to the advent of television programs such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” within the past decade, more and more of the general public are gaining interest in the dance phenomenon. Great Performances dance series on Public Television is bringing dance more and more to the forefront. Social media, particularly YouTube, is providing easy, inexpensive access to constantly emerging relatively simple popular club dances including line dances, zumba, Hip Hop, Hustle, Latin (e.g. bachata, merengue, and salsa). Bride and groom dances, based on simple choreography that even non-dancers are able to learn, are now part of many wedding ceremonies. Recent years have also brought to public attention reality series on television that follow professional dancers in their daily lives.
It is safe to say, therefore, that while dance is still in the back burner as a way of life among the general public, it is increasingly becoming a significant part of popular culture and gaining acceptance as a positive transformative influence – culturally, educationally, and health-wise. It is also worth noting that in every aspect of our lives we dance in one form or the other knowingly and unknowingly – it is our refuge, our originality, our wild escape, and yes, quite possibly our means of hooking up with our true potential.