Why do we dance? Although each person’s reasons might be different, many people admit that dancing gives them access to their hidden truths. One might enthusiastically welcome an invitation to a dance party as an opportunity for letting loose, releasing tension and discovering a joyous feeling, seemingly part of our natural selves, but lost to us in our daily hectic lives. Dance is also popularly used by dance therapists to navigate very deep trauma, in order to free the victim of it. Dance can help us hook up to the true genius lurking behind the cover-up of social convention that can sometimes prevent us from connecting to certain aspects of the self.
Though dance can be done in silence, it is typically done to a beat. Music gives a mood and vibration that we can feel in our bodies. Almost inevitably, we start moving. For most people, it is simply intuitive.
Socially, dancers and dances have become icons of freedom. Think of Josephine Baker in her Danse banane, a classic striptease she performed adorned in a skirt of bananas. Another iconographic figure is Martha Graham, a contemporary American who gave birth to modern dance. Many of her dances examined the emotional life of women, perhaps most notably her lengthy ballet Clytemnestra, about a queen who eventually kills her king. Her choreography was not initially reviewed as pretty or desirable; nonetheless, her pieces intensely reflected the inner landscape of women and critiqued or commented on the status quo.
What exactly is this connection between dance and a free feeling? Some common definitions of freedom refer to a person who is not in slavery, or those who enjoy personal liberty, as well as one’s will, thought, choice and action being independent and unrestricted. Freedom, whether it be social or personal, has been a common ultimate pursuit throughout history. It is the cause behind revolutions and the American counter-culture movement of the 1960s that found students abandoning their homes and religions to experiment with drugs and examine new thought and consciousness philosophies.
In theory, dance therapists practice on the premise that dance can free their clients from the repercussions of past trauma in their daily lives. In this way, the profession hinges on the idea that dance frees the spirit. In recent years, dance therapy has arisen as a method by which non-dancers can experience the physical and emotional therapeutic benefits of examining new ways of moving their bodies. The American Dance Therapy Association defines dance therapy as the “psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual.”
Feelings are generated through an intricate relationship between the functioning of the brain and body. Does dance generate a feeling of bliss and freedom commonly thought of as a state of ecstasy in the brain by meditators? Many practitioners of mindfulness seek a state of equanimity—a constant satisfaction undisturbed by gain or loss. Many studies have shown the benefits of meditation in lowering brainwaves, allowing the practitioner to achieve a more relaxed state of being. The consciousness community sometimes calls this feeling ecstasy. A 2009 article in The New York Times called “Learning His Body, Learning To Dance” talked about an actor with cerebral palsy who had had 12 years of physical therapy before finding therapeutic work with a choreographer which dramatically improved the way he walked and felt. Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder in which the brain does not send the proper signals to the muscles, affecting gait and other movements. Those with severe cases use wheelchairs.