Table of Contents
- Dancing Across Cultures and Time
- The Pleasure and Health Benefits of Dancing
- Dance as a Universal Concept
It was 10pm and my wife and I had just finished our dinner at a nice restaurant right at the heart of Beijing in China. It was late November, and the weather was freezing cold. We left the restaurant and started walking back to our hotel. On our way, suddenly we’ve heard some loud Chinese-techno music coming from a small park right next to the street. Initially, we thought that it was probably some teenagers hanging out in the park.
But to our surprise, there were hundreds of people, of all ages, split into different large groups and dancing with energy to all kinds of music, from traditional Chinese songs to Waltz. This was an incredible sight to watch. It was as if the whole neighbourhood was out in the street dancing like there was no tomorrow.
We stood and watched, but then they invited us to dance with them. It was really fun and felt very inclusive, especially considering that we were foreigners. What a fantastic social, inclusive and recreational activity in the middle of a cold winter night.
Having grown up in Greece, I have done my share fair of dancing in weddings, celebrations and other social activities. Similarly with China, Greeks are keen to dance irrespective of age, gender, and skills. Dancing is one of the most inclusive social activities someone can experience.
I started wondering, is dancing more important to cultures with ancient traditions or is it a more universal social activity?
Dancing Across Cultures and Time
Dancing has been an integral part of all societies since ancient times. In fact, ever since humans have started living in groups and tribes there has been some form of dancing.
Dancing is essentially a home as well as a public amusement: father, mother, uncle, aunt, as well as the young folks, can take part in it. and under the merry influence of the music and the smiling faces around them, forget for the nonce their years.How to dance A complete ball-room and party guide – Tousey & Small, New York, 1878 (Accessed – Library of Congress)
Initially, dance was used as part of play and social interaction. Later it became part of religious rituals, festivals, celebrations, and daily group activities.
For example, in India, home to 1.5 billion people, dance is ingrained in all aspects of the culture, from religious rituals and festivals to movies and entertainment. According to Hindu Mythology, dance is believed to be a creation of Brahma. Its function was to give symbolic expression to abstract religious ideas.
Through dance, people could convey feelings and emotions, and express the actions of Gods, animals, and nature. Later, this evolved into what we know as pantomime and theatre. An experienced performer would often recreate the moves and emotions of animals and humans, or even dance like the falling rain.
For thousands of years dancing was intuitive, experimental, and part of personal expression and group bonding. The introduction of various primitive percussion instruments and later of the drum elevated the social, spiritual, and human role of dance.
The Talking Drum
The work of Ned Sublette on the origins of Cuban music is a phenomenal piece of work.
According to Sublette, it all started in Africa, where Homo Sapiens, our ancestor, first appeared. Although, there were other species of archaic humans, also living in Africa, they were all outcompeted by Homo Sapiens. Due to their survival edge, such as a fully formed language, Homo Sapiens were able to communicate with each other, form initially small groups and later larger tribes.
Many millennia later, in sub-Saharan Africa, a percussion instrument called the “talking drum” appeared, which was used to communicate across long distances. Musicologists also often refer to it as “surrogate speech” because its function is to carry linguistic messages by imitating the tone, accent and emotion of human speech. Although, there are not many audio recordings of it, in 1920’s Afro-Cuban music someone can still hear the drum talk.
Songs played using the talking drum, carried complex communication messages across long distances. Over the years, more and more tribes started using the talking drum to communicate.
As a result, the African family of drum languages is extremely extensive with hundreds of drum vocabularies representing hundreds of different dialects. However, this was not the only use. People also used the talking drum to pass down narratives of knowledge and memories across generations or even to communicate with the spirits in the world beyond.
Dancing as a Human Need
What we refer today as Dance Music, especially in Europe, is just an oversimplified music genre. This has nothing to do with African Music, which is very complex rhythmically, and has a plethora of personal and social functions. In reality, there is no genre called Dance Music, as all African music is music for dancing.
In fact, some Central African languages do not even have a word for music, as for them music was part of everything they did rather than a distinct activity.
Perhaps it is difficult to understand today, but dancing has always been a human need similar to walking, eating, laughing or loving. But with the passage of time, it seems that we forgot its significant role in our lives.
For thousands of years, dancing served also a crucial role in the survival of humans.
Due to the cruel reality of life in ancient times, Africa was underpopulated with both low fertility rates and high mortality rates. Fertility was of the outmost importance for any tribe. Through dancing rituals, including pelvic and other erotic movements, people used to attract the opposite sex. Although, these dances were pleasurable, they were essentially dances of survival.
Many centuries later, when Muslims and Christians first observed these rituals, they described them as Dirty Dances. Soon after, the Church in Europe considered the Black Drum to be an instrument of the Devil.
Surviving the Slave Ships
Between the 15th and 19th century millions of Africans were enslaved by European Colonialists, and transferred to the New World with slave ships. Drums and dance was the only way that African slaves often speaking different languages could relate to each other and socialise.
Unfortunately, slaves were treated like animals, and tens of thousands died along the way. Initially, many captains banned the drums, and did not allow for music and dancing on their ships. However, due to the low survival rates, they realised that it was crucial to allow the slaves to bring their drums aboard and dance on the deck. Dancing was the only chance they had to breathe fresh air, stretch and use all of their muscles, connect socially, and refresh their minds. They were literally dancing for survival.
In 19th century Cuba, hundreds of Black people were living in the Barracones (Baracks) while working in sugar mills. Behind closed doors, they would sing, drum and dance. However, these were not happy slaves singing and dancing but rather exhausted human beings trying to release their energy, connect with one another, and stay healthy. In fact, the plantation owners were encouraging dances, as they could visibly see a difference in their workers’s health and performance.
Today these complex African rhythms are the roots of much of modern Western and Latin music and dance. In a way, we are still enjoying the same rhythms with our ancestors many thousands of years ago, although evolved.
The Pleasure and Health Benefits of Dancing
According to Columbia University neurologist John Krakauer, dancing combined with music seems to be a “pleasure double play”. From one hand, music stimulates the pleasure and reward areas of our brains. From the other hand, dancing activates the motor areas responsible for the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements. As a result, we get a lot of pleasure from coordinated movement and through synchronising with music.
Even more interestingly, we enjoy watching others in motion, even if we don’t dance. There is a system of mirror neurons in our brains that fire when we observe others performing. This system helps us empathise and connect with others. Therefore, observing someone dance feels like we are dancing, which may give us similar mental pleasure. What is even more fascinating is how we build expectations in our minds of the upcoming moves, but then get pleasantly surprised, when the dancer executes something different.
How Dancing Benefits our Minds
However, dancing is not just about pleasure, and building our coordination, connection and empathy skills. It has been proven to have significant health benefits as well.
Many studies have shown that dance helps reduce stress, and improve long-term memory, and spatial recognition. Because of the neuroplasticity of our brains, dancing can physically alter our brains by creating new neural connections. This means that we can develop new skills, and improve our mental and cognitive capacity while having fun.
In addition, a 21-year comparative study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has shown that out of 11 cognitive and physical activities, dancing seems to offer the biggest protection against dementia. The activities included in the study were reading books, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing musical instruments, cards, swimming ,walking, cycling, tennis and golf.
Furthermore, dancing has been found in a number of studies to be therapeutic to people with Parkinson’s Disease, improving motor performance, gait function, mobility, and balance. Also, due to the social nature of dancing, people feel more motivated to practice regularly, thus improving their mental health and quality of life.
Freestyle Social Dancing over Choreography
As humans, we have an inner need for both physical and mental motion. Dancing fulfils both of these needs, while helping us improve our cognitive abilities, memory, decision making and other mental skills. In other words, dancing makes us smarter.
But the benefits will not be as important if we follow a choreography or memorised routines. The more there is room for improvisation, such as in freestyle social dance (Cuban Salsa), the more split-second decisions we make. This significantly improves our decision-making ability and sharpens our minds.
What is particularly great in Cuban Salsa is the constant rotation of partners. As every partner responds differently to our signals, we tend to have more focus, flexibility, creativity, heightened communication, and quick decision-making.
When we truly connect with our partners and the music, we complete the connection triangle, and we find our flow, elevating the experience to a higher level. During this process, we exchange multiple split-second signals with our partners, through non-verbal communication, while both connected to the complex rhythm of Cuban music.
The hidden ingredient behind freestyle dancing is creativity.
When a couple is dancing freestyle, neither the leader nor the follower know what will be the next move. Although some moves and patterns are familiar, there are endless variations and each partner executes them in their unique way. This element of continuous anticipation and surprise, heightens the senses and keeps the mind extremely active, always observing, expecting, reacting.
This is a true integration between our bodies, our minds and the music. This creative connection and flow doesn’t always happen, as it depends on the “chemistry” of the partners, and theirs experience. But when it does it is deeply fulfilling at so many different levels, mental, physical, social. This is the pinnacle of mindfulness with multiple benefits for our minds, hearts and souls.
Dancing can truly help us discover ourselves through others.
I’ve personally spent many years of my life being shy, and avoiding awkward social encounters. Until one day I discovered Cuban Salsa. For some reason that I will probably never be able to explain, it all started making sense again. I completely forgot my shyness and felt more complete both as a person and in my interactions with others.
I discovered a whole world that has been hiding in plain sight. It was like awakening a part of me that had been sleeping.
Dance as a Universal Concept
As mentioned earlier dancing has been a fundamental human need, since the beginning of time.
But unfortunately today many people regard dancing as an activity better left to professional performers or only related to entertainment. It seems that somewhere along the way we forgot the true meaning of dance and the role it plays in our lives.
Everything in nature is in an eternal dance.
There is a continuous motion, and a constant unpredictable change. There is a continuous flow of energy as we all move through time and space. Yet, our minds trick us into a sense of permanence and control, due to a mechanism that our prefrontal cortex of our brains uses to make life easier for us. Not only, we think we can be in control but also become blind to the true complexity of things.
Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, dynamic and chaotic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. The Universe self-organizes and evolves, it creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.Donella Meadows – Academy for Systems Change
Dance is a universal concept, and a way of thinking, which can help us understand and deal with the complexity both within and around us in a more effective way than the over-simplistic “cause and effect” models.
I believe that there are 3 fundamental levels of dancing.
1. Dancing with Ourselves
The first type of dance is a solo dance, and it takes place inside our minds.
Our brains are complex organs, comprising of very different areas, connected through approximately 86 billions neurons. These shape our everyday behaviours and thoughts. On any given moment, there is usually a sea of thoughts, worries, concerns, mixed information, and past memories that create noise within our minds.
The renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the term “Psychic Entropy” to describe this noise in our minds. Psychic Entropy refers to the state where negative emotions, like fear, anxiety, sadness, and stress distract us, create disorder, and turn our focus internally. By doing so, we cannot focus on external activities and connect with others. The less focus and awareness we have, the higher our psychic entropy becomes. As a result, the more our mind goes into a state of chaos. By learning how to focus on activities and goals that really matter to us, our energy begins to flow externally. Thus reducing the entropy in our minds.
The more self-aware we become the more we can master our focus, calibrate our flow of energy, and balance our minds. Learning how to dance with ourselves is the first step to help us dance better with others.
2. Dancing with Others
The second type of dance is the dance of communication that happens when we interact with others, whether on the dance floor, at the office, at home or anywhere else.
Usually, most communication between two people happens through non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and postures. These create emotional connection, even if unconsciously.
Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, talks about the vibrant dance of communication that takes place when we attune to the internal shifts in another person, as they attune to us, and our two worlds become linked as one.
This helps create a concept of “We”.
3. Dancing with Complexity
The third type of dance is our dance with complexity and risk.
Our world is a highly interconnected complex system, which can be extremely unpredictable. If anything, the year 2020 demonstrated this beyond any reasonable doubt.
Quite often, we fall into the predictability trap. We think not only that we can predict the future but also control it. The science of systems thinking has proven that we can never fully understand our complex world. In fact, that would be a futile exercise. Instead, when dealing with complex problems and have to make decisions that entail a lot of risks we are better off using the OODA loop. OODA stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. Established by the US Air Force, this is also the basis of the Agile philosophy.
The OODA loop for decision making says that first we need to observe with full awareness, filter information, and place it under the right context. Second we need to orient ourselves in using the right mental model based on reality, not theory. Third we make a decision and then we act on it. After this, the loop starts again based on the feedback we get. The information will always be incomplete but every time we adapt and move closer to our goal. This is similar to freestyle dancing, where there is a constant element of surprise, and we need to be fully focused, make split-second decisions and continuously adapt.
By embracing the concept of dancing and understanding its underlying principles, we can understand a bit better ourselves and how to interact with a constantly changing world around us. We can let go of control and accept change as the constant. We can become more open to new experiences, more creative, risk-taking, and ready for the unexpected.