We Are Made to Move

Dancing is a human behavior. It’s as old as our species and has served as a multi-tool of sociality and group cohesion in myriad places, ways, and times. We are built to dance. And anyone who’s ever minded a young child for longer than five minutes can see this. It builds spatial awareness, coordination, and even helps develop language skills in an indirect fashion.

But what does it do for those of us who come to it late? Quite a lot, it turns out.

The Crippling Perfection Effect

I don’t know about the rest of you, but somehow, I became the person who had to be perfect. Maybe it was the culture of the Gifted school program or just the general zeitgeist of our culture. Maybe it was being raised in a household ruled by a hypercritical, closed mindset parent. I think there are a lot of reasons. Because when I was young, I loved to dance. I took ballet for years, even though I easily made three of my peers as “the fat girl.”

Somehow, along the way, I internalized this idea that I couldn’t dance. I wasn’t allowed to. I shouldn’t make large movements as “the far girl,” which meant that I was no longer allowed to move my body in the ways that felt good to me. As well, I developed crippling anxiety about being less than perfect at anything, and of being seen to lack proficiency.

Long, long story short, I was a nominal adult for more than a decade before I realized I could give myself permission to dance, and to be terribly, stupidly bad at it no matter who was watching. At the center of this permission are the concepts that my body is mine to do with as I choose and I am allowed to be new at things. I know, it seems lame. But these ideas were new for me. They had never been verbalized, and their realization had an ultimately liberating effect that nothing else ever had.

It’s Not Just Good for the Body

There are a host of physical health benefits associated with regular dancing. Ranging from better cardiorespiratory health, musculoskeletal strength, and a reduced risk of osteoporosis, to heightened coordination and mental acuity, and core strength, the good things seem to just pile up on themselves.

But even beyond better mood and mood stability, which I lump in with physical benefits due to their neurotransmitter roots, there’s something more to the matter. Movement, even in the absence of formalized styles, is cathartic. It can help us release emotional and psychological weight or provide a healthy space in which we can bring old hurts or scars out into the light. It can allow us subtle emotional flexibility to reframe interpersonal problems.

So. Why don’t we dance more—with people and by ourselves, in a style or just to move our bodies in ways that feel good to us? Well, a good portion of the answer, although not all, has to do with American culture. We don’t really have a dance that we all learn to do in childhood, that forms a solid pillar of our community life and social identity. That is, not unless you count the Hokey Pokey.

What 2020 Did to the Damcefloor

While I could engage in an anthropological examination as to why that is and what it’s social impacts are, I think that’s an entry all its own. But I would make clear that it’s not that Americans don’t dance—it’s that we don’t have A Dance that all of us learn and regularly perform in communal gatherings.

We do, in fact, dance all the time. But not all of us, and not all in the same way. Or to the same sorts of music. There is little in the way of shared cultural history in our dancing. This, to me, is what an innate urge to move the body looks like when shaped by an individualistic culture. When the clubs shut their doors earlier this year, I think many people who did engage in public dancing suddenly stopped.

Perhaps they tried to continue their movement in the safety of their homes, listening to live-streams of their favorite genres. But with all the psycho-emotional pressures of the pandemic, I’m not sure many kept it up for long. We often don’t recognize what communal animals we really are until we can’t be. That cessation of ritual has a cost.

Spontaneous Batucada and Primal Movement

Samba and its child Batucada are Brazilian dances. You may have seen them in Carnival performances. The music is one of almost exclusively drums in the street context, and it is unmistakable. This morning, I woke with a need for the music, and, as I discovered, for the movement it inspires. So, naturally, I consulted the YouTube Oracle.

What began as a simple Samba dance interspersed with sips of coffee did not end when I paused to have a bath. Once I emerged from the bathroom with its fogged-over mirror and dense humidity, I went back to the music. It was my intention to listen a bit more while I dried my hair and dressed.

Good old YouTube had other plans. Thanks to my somewhat scattered tangle of music, the list suggestions soon strayed into the more primal and experimental tunes—the sort that draw deeply on indigenous rhythms and seem to imply some ritual significance.

I went with it, let my body move as it wished. And while I’m sure I looked ridiculous, that has little meaning in this context. The point was the movement itself, the sense and sensation of my body in 4D space-time.

There was something I can’t convey here, a feeling like a golden serpent running up through the core of my body as I moved in ways that seemed ugly or indelicate yet deeply satisfying. After 15 minutes, I had to stop, out of breath and slick with sweat. So much for that bath.

But I find that the benefit of my ungrateful and unskilled movement remains. Like the craving driven by a nutritional need, my body feels better for it, however strange it was. I feel better—lighter, clearer in the head, human. Not all medicine is ingested.

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