It is always fascinating watching hundreds of people dancing together in rhythmic coordination. Especially when there is no choreography or pre-defined steps. This is the essence of self-organisation in groups. Hundreds of dancers synchronising together by following simple dance and rhythmic patterns.
Rhythmic coordination in Cuban Salsa
Cuban salsa reflects the diverse roots and history of Cuban culture. It is a mix of dancing styles imported from West Africa which were later mixed with Spanish rhythms. As Cuban Salsa evolves, it keeps absorbing new styles and elements, traditional and modern. A fundamental principle in Salsa is the social element of the rotating partners. As such, it is not a ballroom or exhibition dance, but rathe an opportunity for people to come together and have fun.
Rueda de Casino – From partners dance to group coordination
In the mid-20th century, Cuba was full of community recreational centres called Casinos (not related to gambling). These became the perfect breeding ground for salsa to evolve from a partners dance to a group dance, called Rueda de Casino. The word Rueda means wheel and it reflects the fact that dancers would form big circles.
The fundamental building block in Rueda de Casino is the couple, with one partner leading and the other following. All couples are positioned next to each other in order to form a circle. Sometimes and depending on the number of dancers there might be a number of concentric circles formed. When the dance starts everyone is expected to frequently swap partners and gradually move through the circle. Eventually all followers will dance with all leaders.
Elements of rhythmic coordination
My first experience of dancing Rueda de Casino was incredible. From the moment I started dancing and changing partners, there was a continuous flow of energy and connection. I felt losing myself within the group as we all became one big dancing wheel.
There are two key elements of coordination. The Salsa rhythm and the “singer” or caller, who calls out the next step that the dancers need to make. The caller also calls out when the dancers need to switch partners. It is worth repeating that this is not a choreography but spontaneous patterns. The dancers do not know which steps are coming up next. In addition, the caller usually for fun may call the next step late or even try to confuse the dancers. However, the dancers need to be familiar with the key salsa patterns in order to self-organise as a response to the caller.
Similarly to a self-organising system, such as a sports team, this rhythmic coordination happens at a local level, where individuals coordinate only with those to the left or right of them, following the called out move (or tactic). However they don’t know what is happening further down the field or dance circle.
This is the beauty of rhythmic coordination.
The hidden benefits of rhythmic coordination
Dancing is a deeply social activity where we connect and synchronise with others through rhythm. In fact, the very nature of rhythmic coordination encourages us to feel closer to each other, and create an integrated whole.
Bronwyn Tarr, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford showed in her research that moving in synchronisation helps improve trust and closeness between people, encouraging social bonding. Specifically, she mentions that people who dance in rhythmic coordination report that they like each other more, are more willing to help their partner, and even feel that they have similar personalities. In essence, synchronisation enables people to transcend themselves and become an integral part of the group.
According to research, we have a natural tendency to synchronise and imitate each other through a system of mirror neurons. Even more interestingly, observing someone dance activates the same regions in our brain as if we were dancing. In other words, we feel the same way whether we are dancing our observing someone else dancing. Essentially, this is the definition of empathy.
In addition, Bronwyn Tarr showed that dancing raises our pain threshold and makes us feel euphoric due to the release of bonding hormones, such as endorphins. This is similar to other physical activities, like running. However, Bronwyn also showed that due to the element of synchronisation, dancing has accumulated personal and social benefits that cannot be found in physical activities which we perform alone. It is no wonder that we love coming together in groups to dance and party.
Our natural tendency to party and celebrate in groups
French sociologist and one of the founders of modern social science, Emile Durheim, introduced the concept of “collective effervescence” to describe a collective strongly felt emotion that communities and groups feel when they come together to perform a religious ritual or ceremony. This collective excitement transcends the individuals, who lose themselves and spiritually merge with the group.
Furthermore, author Barbara Ehrenreich writes in “Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy” that as humans we like to party and find emotional outlet in the form of collective excitement. From the ancient Greek Dionysian (religious festivals in honour of the God of wine), to modern day Mardi Gras and the Christian Carnivals that take place before the Lent, humans have always been seeking to come together, let off steam, and collectively celebrate.
However, despite this universal human need for collective joy, Victorians and 19th century European colonialists regarded ecstatic rituals, intense rhythm, and dancing the characteristic of savages and primitive people. In addition, the Christian Church in Europe associated African Drums and dancing with devil worshipping. The thinking of the time was that people demonstrating this ecstatic behaviour were suffering from some kind of mental disorder.
Nevertheless, many Europeans still would celebrate the Carnival where they would dress up in costumes, drink and dance all night.
Freeing ourselves from limiting beliefs
The need to dance is ubiquitous and has been part of every society and culture since ancient times. But dance wasn’t just an activity for couples as we may think today in the West. It was a wider social activity that brought families, groups, and tribes together. It was and in many parts of the world still is an integral part of religions, festivals, and social celebrations.
After the 1950’s there was an explosion of music and dancing in the Western world, starting with the American Blues and Rock’n’Roll, but also Cuban Mambo and then the swinging 60’s in Britain. It then evolved to the wild hippy parties and rock music festivals of the 1970’s to Disco, 80’s electronic music and the wild rave parties of the 90’s. Rueda de Casino followed a similar evolution and spread in popularity throughout the West.
It seems that after centuries of repression and limiting beliefs, somehow we have rediscovered something that we all had buried deep inside. The collective effervescence of rhythmic coordination, dancing, and celebrating in groups.