Strictly speaking, dance is unnecessary. In a world driven by natural selection, dance doesn’t feed you or clothe you or shelter you. Depending on your skills or lake thereof, it might not even help you attract a mate. You can easily live your entire life without ever dancing. You can go to your friends’ weddings and stand in the corner. There’s no law against it. You’ll survive.
Dancing is an inherently unnecessary activity that we’ve chosen to imbue with great importance. We’ve catalogued countless different styles of dance and made spaces for its practice in communities around the world. We’ve incorporated it into traditional rites of passage, like the high school prom. We celebrate it on a global scale in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Clearly, dance has universally-recognized value.
Despite the ubiquity of dance, however, not everyone feels comfortable dancing. Some of us would rather admire from afar. If you’d rather stand than shuffle, it is not my place to convince you to do otherwise. But while you may survive without dancing, it is impossible to live to the fullest without it. Dance is an art form that celebrates life, helps us heal from trauma, strengthens relationships, and makes us more fully human.
Dance is an indicator of wellbeing, because of its apparent uselessness to human survival. To quote Robin Williams’ oft-repeated phrase from Dead Poets Society, “Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.” The same distinction can be made with the art of dance. It’s not what keeps us alive. Rather, it’s one of those high moments of condensed emotion that make life worth living, like fireworks on the Fourth of July or a first kiss. You don’t dance unless you are first safe, healthy, cared for, and surrounded by friends. Celebration is the natural response to life’s good gifts.
Dance also has remarkable healing benefits. In The Body Keeps the Score, a book that took the psychiatry community by storm, Bessel van der Kolk argues that trauma is stored in the human body over time. Dancing is one way to break free of it. He writes: “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” The practice of dancing invites desk-sitting laborers to enter back into their physical bodies and feel the emotions stored there. In my own practice, I have found that dancing can lead to tears or to joy, depending on the day. I am often unaware of the feelings I am carrying inside until I begin to dance. It combines all the health benefits of physical activity with the self-expression and release of art.
Dance creates space for community to form. On a good dance floor you’re able to be yourself without fear of judgement from others. In some sense, everyone is making fools of themselves, so why not do it together? Dance also creates opportunities for physical touch and the release of oxytocin, one of the main ways humans establish bonds with each other. There’s a reason why the slow dance is considered such a quintessential expression of intimacy. It is a celebration of life, a chance for two people to practice healing together.
Dance is a statement of hope for the future. Every tap of the foot and sway of the hips is a rebellion against the mindset that values survival at the cost of beauty. Singer-songwriter Roo Panes says it well in his song “A Year in a Garden”: “There will be dancing on my street, not long from now. / It shall be yet, it shall be yet. Oh I’m already off my feet.” Your blood already dances with each pulse of your heart. To be human is to hope that this life is not all there is, that someday our mourning will be turned into dancing once and for all. Till then, may we always be ready to dance.
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