During this pandemic year, we’ve been living as individuals—isolated individuals, practicing personal responsibility, wearing our own masks, washing our own hands. We’ve done this for the good of the collective as well as to preserve our own health—but the “collective” has existed mostly as an abstract idea.
What we haven’t experienced in a while is the joy of losing our individual selves in a group. I thought wistfully of that joy while reading a recent article by Will Coldwell in The Financial Times. The article is about . . . dancing.
“Dance provides us with a universal language—one deeper and more emotional than words — that helps us to bond with other, often unfamiliar, people,” Coldwell writes. “Anthropologists suggest that danced rituals create a magic that language alone cannot muster.”
“In Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich says dancing, ‘particularly in lines or circles,’ has provided a way for people to be absorbed into something far bigger than themselves, and, crucially, for petty differences and rivalries to play out as ‘harmless competition over one’s prowess as a dancer, or forgotten.'”
For dance to serve this evolutionary function, Coldwell notes, “it has to feel great—and it does. Rhythmic movement and synchronicity activate the endogenous opioid system in our brain, so when we move together, a hit of endorphins makes sure we feel good about each other too.”
Coldwell quotes University of Oxford researcher (and dancer) Bronwyn Tarr: “When we watch someone else do the same thing at the same time as us, it feels like we ‘become one.'”
If dancing brings us together, Coldwell notes, then it is only natural that to be deprived of it makes us feel alienated.
And indeed, research by Tarr has shown that the endorphins released by dancing can help us cope better with pain. “It is a cruel trick of the current pandemic that at a time when we need its salving qualities more than ever, we are atomized,” Coldwell notes.
I’m planning on throwing a big dance party when this is all over.
Here’s Coldwell’s article:
“Covid will not squash our deep-seated need to dance”
Will Coldwell, in The Financial Times