Why Do Humans Dance?
Reflections on a quintessential human experience
Posted March 31, 2015
Why DO humans dance?
You might think it's an easy question to answer. It isn't. Not for me. It took a whole book! Seven chapters!
Yet it is also true that themes of those chapters spiral around one another, forming a thick cord that, I am hoping, different people can grasp in different places, wherever it comes closest to where they are.
So then, why do humans dance?
A good first step is to clarify the terms of the question. What is “dance” anyway? Why we do it depends on what “it” is.
I define dance as an emergent phenomenon, one that is rooted in the movement of our bodily selves.
We humans are movement. We are the movement that is making us able to think and feel and act at all. Sometimes the movement that we are erupts in a spontaneous burst and assumes a new pattern.
We may be walking down the street and a passing sensation streaks through our bodily selves, producing a small hop, a shift in weight, a skip forward. Or we are walking along the ocean’s edge, suddenly propelled by the felt force of the crashing waves to spin and stretch along with them.
In such moments, dance emerges. It is tossed up within the restive currents of movement that we are, taking shape as a new pattern of sensory awareness that changes us. We are now the person who made that move. When such an impulse courses through us, it relates us to ourselves and our worlds in a new way. It aligns. It touches. It frees. It is dance.
While such emergences may be spontaneous, we can also practice opening ourselves up to receiving them. We can practice noticing and recreating movement patterns that appear to us—movements organized into a technique, a style, a form—so as to heighten our vulnerability to such animating bursts. Whatever movements we practice--in any realm--will encourage us to make further movements in the directions they define.
In this case, the movement patterns that we are practicing serve as invitations to deepen our sensation of movement. The movements we practice invite us to move with greater ease, facility, and dynamic delivery in the patterns they represent. They invite us to receive sponteous bursts of energy in line with the trajectories they open. This too, is dance.
Returning to the initial question, this definition of dance points towards a circular answer. Humans dance because dance is human. Dance is not an accidental or supplemental activity in which humans choose to engage or not. Dance is essential to our survival as human beings.
Without the barest ability to notice, recreate, and become patterns of movement, without the ability to invite impulses to move, humans would not be able to learn how to sense and respond to the sources of their wellbeing—to people, to nourishment, to ideas, to environments. Dancing is essential to the rhythm of bodily becoming by which human persons become whomever they are.
The implications are many and far reaching.
For one, dance is in everyone. There is no escape from it. You can’t say that you can’t, don’t, didn’t or won’t. The only question is how. How are you dancing? How are you going to dance? Under what influences? With what inspiration? Beholden to what impediments? In response to what goals, goads, and gods? Or maybe there is a second question—why, as in: Why have you stopped?
A second implication is that “dance,” as a term, has no content. It is not inherently anything—neither good nor bad; helpful nor harmful. There is no paradigmatic technique or form. There is no “essence” of dance, and no one way in which dance appears as dance to everyone everywhere.
At the same time, however, this way of thinking about dance affords ample resources for understanding the significance and efficacy of any movement patterns that do appear to someone somewhere as “dance.”
Any dance tradition or technique, any set of exercises or training regimes, represents a collection of movement impulses that a given person or group of people have received, recreated, and remembered.
Any dance tradition or technique represents movement patterns that those persons have found useful for connecting them to something they perceive as having value—whether tribe or tradition, pleasure or skill, community or divinity, heaven or Earth. Dance as movement is inherently relational.
Moreover, this understanding of dance as human also provides us with ways of evaluating whether and how a given technique or tradition is helping people learn to move in life-enabling ways. As we create and become these patterns of prescribed movement, what ranges of thought, feeling, and action are we drawing into reality? What sensitivities and sensibilities are we honing? What kind of relationships are we manifesting with ourselves, with others, and with the earth?
Why do humans dance? We dance because we can. Because dance is who we are. Because dance is what our bodily selves do. Because dance is how we become who we have the potential or desire or need to be.
Must we dance? In so far as we have any life at all, we are moving. At some level, in some range, however narrow, we are creating and becoming the patterns of sensation and response that our movements require. Whether or not we practice is up to us. We need not cultivate an ability to receive impulses to move that align our bodily selves with the opportunities of the moment. But we can.
Should we dance? That is a question each person needs to ask his or her self. And the first step in forming an answer is to ask: what is dance to you? What is it that you do everyday that brings your senses to life? What is it that wakes you up to the sources of your creativity and compassion? Your new ideas? Your joy?
Whatever it is, there is a dance in it. Whatever it is there are patterns of movement—of sensing and responding—that open you to the enabling sources of your own bodily becoming. Whatever it is, do it.
Once you can see the dance in yourself and what you do, you may be inspired to do more—to seek out further opportunities to see and sense and be moved by patterns of movement that other humans have discovered. Go for it!
Humans can dance anywhere, for any reason, with whatever meaning we choose. The fact that humans can is what matters. The fact that we do is what enlivens us. The fact that we can do more is what gives me hope for this species and our planet.
Kimerer L LaMothe is the author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming