Dance is one of the most powerful artistic mediums to either engage in or witness. It never fails to elicit strong visceral level reactions, in some exuberance and freedom in others intimidation. From our earliest infancy our bodies reflexively express our emotions and instinctively respond to music. We are all masters of the ‘toddler dance’ and then somewhere along the way far too many of us let it get adulted out of us transforming potential dance opportunities into the stuff of nightmares rather than of dreams.
And what do we mean by ‘dance’? There are certainly a great many approaches, dialects, styles, sub-styles, technicalities, and potential definitions. If we strip it all down to the barest core essence, however, dance is the deliberate emotionally expressive movement of the body to music. All physical movement is emotionally expressive, that’s why we call it ‘body language’, but a key element of what makes dance so impactful is the conscious intention behind it coupled with the emotional power of music.
Dance can be done without music, though this is more the exception than the rule, but even in those instances there is still a cadence, phrasing, and underlying rhythmic pacing which is tied to the intentional expressiveness. Those underlying rhythms can even be improvised in the moment but they are still there, improvisational jazz is still jazz.
The one important hair we don’t actually need to split is the difference between recreational dance and performative dance. Both are dance. One requires much more training and practice in technical and artistic craft because the emotional messages it seeks to convey are much more targeted, complex, and specific but both have the capacity to impact us very powerfully at a deep emotional level as the dancer or the audience.
It is also important to note the quality of the movement, the congruence of the musical accompaniment, and the quality of the choreography also play incredibly important factors in the level of impact dance can have. Great dancers with lousy music, perfect music with lousy choreography, great material with dancers who aren’t up to the task can all muffle or disable the potential impact but let’s proceed under the assumption all ingredients are right on target.
What Dance Does To Us When We Do It
There are countless studies out there illustrating the direct medical benefits of dancing. Lower blood pressure, improved cardio-vascular health and stamina, weight loss, increased flexibility and co-ordination, improved recovery from illness or injury, decreased risk of alzheimers and dementia or improved recovery there from, lowering of stress and anxiety by releasing endorphins…the evidence of dance’s medical benefits is clear and abundant.
What is a little harder to quantify in test data is the mental and emotional impact moving our bodies to music can have on us. Not only is there the rush of actively using our bodies and all the accompanying biological benefits but the ability to connect with, express, and release our inner emotions is something altogether priceless and potentially life changing.
Going out dancing on a Friday night holds the potential to be more than just ‘fun’, it can be one of the key things getting a person through their week. Sure the drinks and camaraderie can play a part in that scenario but talk to someone about simply going out drinking with their friends versus going out dancing with them and you get a vastly more enthused, even zealous, account from the dancer.
Even as we all struggle with the uncertainties and physical isolations of our current situation we see performers live-streaming shows and performances from their homes and images of people singing and dancing on balconies. Musical movement is cathartic, healing, and sustaining all of which we need now more than ever.
So much of our typical adult lives involves containing, controlling, moderating, or even suppressing our instinctive emotions. Pure unbridled emotion is fine for an infant but if we all operated that way our entire lives it would be complete and utter chaos. We learn control as a way of creating and participating in a functioning society. But this doesn’t mean those underlying emotions are no longer there. We still feel just as powerfully, we merely have fewer paths and outlets through which to explore and release them.
Our emotions always find a way. The more tightly we try to prevent it the more likely the eventual route they take may be a harmful or destructive one. Some of us seek out or receive training in effective ways to channel and redirect our emotions into constructive outlets but the vast majority of us function purely by instinct. Snide jokes aside the phenomenon of channeling sexual frustration into aggressive exercising is a perfect example of redirecting an unexpressed emotional build-up into an available and acceptable outlet.
By combining the biological benefits and euphorias of physical activity with the emotional enhancements of music even simple bopping around can provide us a life sustaining release for our emotions of all shapes and sizes. When that basic raw ambrosia is then shaped and crafted through artistic training into a medium for expressing specific emotional messages this is when the impact can become truly life changing.
We have seen it time and time again on shows like Dancing With The Stars wherein people suddenly start having transformative experiences as their bodies, and their relationships with them, become fashioned into an instrument of emotional communication. We see it on those kinds of shows and as a ballroom teacher of twenty plus years I have seen it countless times in my students and fellow dancers.
They reach a point where they are not only able to tap directly into their own emotions, to recognize and understand and direct them, but just as importantly they gain the ability to convey those emotions and meanings to other people in ways which they can tell are being seen and felt and understood.
To be seen and truly understood is one of our most powerful needs. Dance, empowering us with a language beyond words, enables us to do so in an instant and universal way.
To achieve this, to have a dance ‘moment’, does not require technical perfection and thus a lifetime of relentless study and training. The artistic and technical development simply needs to enable the dancer to clearly convey their intended emotional message. The perfectly pointed toe does not matter nearly as much as genuine emotional intention behind the movement. And to clearly express genuine emotion requires us to trust our instrument, in this case our bodies, which we gain from training in dance as a craft.
What Dance Does To Us When We See It
Watching others dance, whether recreational or performative, is always engaging particularly in person. Because they are expressing themselves physically our response fires at an instinctive level, we not only see what they are feeling we feel it. The dancing can even be quite ‘terrible’ from a technical standpoint but if the dancer is exuberantly enjoying themselves we enjoy watching them.
Dance speaks with a wordless, non-verbal language so no translation is required.
Our ability to recognize and respond to the emotional states of other is hard wired into our basest survival instincts. Our reptilian survival brain is programmed to be instantly aware of the proximity and attitudes of the bodies of others. It is part of the fight or flight reflex. Is the other person dangerous or not and how close are they are the two main metrics for instinctive threat assessment. It has been refined and nuanced through our societal development but even our most complex social interactions spark first from this fight or flight set of impulses.
Dance taps directly into this set of gears because of its key ingredient of intentional movement. Their body is moving, which we instinctively monitor, and they are displaying their emotional state and intentions, which we instinctively interpret. Our response to dance enters our awareness through this primal reflex then communicates to us at this core level. Music also connects to us directly at the emotional level so when the two are combined the result is extremely potent.
At a recreational level it inspires sympathetic euphoria, we get out own endorphin rush though not at the same level as the one doing the dancing. When the movement has been trained and crafted to express and evoke much more specific emotions that interplay has the potential to be immensely impactful, to the point of life changing. Bypassing language makes theatrical movement instantly understood and felt at an instinctive level. Combined with the power of music it can cram the emotional force of a three hour movie into a single instant.
Not all performative dance rises to such a level of impact. Sometimes it can be intensely narrative and targeted, sometimes it is a much broader mood painting aimed at creating a general ambient experience, sometimes it is just entertaining. But dance’s wordless language of pure emotion gives it the power to reach into us, affect us, enable us to experience something we never have before, see things in ways we never have.
Because we feel what the dancer feels we go through it with them without words getting in the way and often without words to fully explain it afterwards.
The Extra Level Of Partner Dancing
Whether actual partner style dancing as in Ballroom or Latin styles or simply partnered work as is often done in virtually all other styles the interplay of two or more dancers holds an intrigue all its own. It isn’t just a case of intentional and emotional movement but becomes an exchange of expression and response before our very eyes.
The experience of dancing with a partner, or partners, takes all the above impacts and benefits then doubles and redoubles them because we are now directly sharing them with others. Not as spectators but as participants and there are few things as intimate and bonding. We aren’t just sharing our physical body with them, though that can be plenty intimate enough, but we are also sharing the emotional expression and vulnerability. We are trusting each other our bodies and with our core emotional selves.
This is what makes partner dancing such an instantly bonding experience, even if that bond only lasts for a single song and couple of twirls. It is also what makes it so intimidating. To be in such a space of mutual trust and vulnerability but not be up to the task is a somewhat horrifying thought and traps far too many of us on couches and chairs off the dance floor.
At the performative level, two or more people dancing together increases the capacity for narrative and emotional impact exponentially. Not only are they literally able to do more physically than one dancer can alone but the joining and exchanging of intentions enables much more intensely focused and specific imagery and is a big part of why contestants on dance shows end up experiencing such powerful ‘moments’.
Dance is something innately inside us from the moment we are born. We use our bodies to express ourselves long before we have learned any verbal language and respond to music from the first instant we are exposed to it.
As someone with the privilege of spending two decades not only experiencing all levels of dance for myself but also helping others to do the same I can easily say without hesitation there is not a single life which cannot be lifted, enhance, and empowered by even the simplest exposure to dance.
From bobbing your head or shaking your shoulders to leaping up and twirling about, dance. Find music which speaks to you, a space where you can feel comfortable release the restrictions of the adult existence, and just let yourself move. You never know where it might take you and I can guarantee your soul with thank you for it.