Why We Dance: An Animated Video Explains the Science Behind Why We Bust a Move

Has any cul­ture, apart from that of the tiny Utah town in Foot­loose, done entire­ly with­out danc­ing? It would at first seem that any human need the rhyth­mic shak­ing of one’s limbs to orga­nized sound ful­fills must reside pret­ty low on the over­all pri­or­i­ty scale, but anthro­pol­o­gy tells us that var­i­ous human soci­eties start­ed danc­ing before they got into most every oth­er activ­i­ty that fills their time today. “Why is this osten­si­bly friv­o­lous act so fun­da­men­tal to being human?” asks the Aeon video above. “The answer, it seems, is in our need for social cohe­sion — that vital glue that keeps soci­eties from break­ing apart despite inter­per­son­al dif­fer­ences.”

Direct­ed and ani­mat­ed by Rosan­na Wan and Andrew Khos­ra­vani, the four-minute explain­er frames our deep, cul­ture-tran­scend­ing need to “bust a move” in terms of the work of both 19th- and ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry French soci­ol­o­gist Émile Durkheim and more recent research per­formed by Bron­wyn Tarr, an Oxford evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist who also hap­pens to be a dancer her­self.

Durkheim posit­ed the phe­nom­e­non of “col­lec­tive effer­ves­cence,” or “a sort of elec­tric­i­ty,” or “that exhil­a­ra­tion, almost eupho­ria, that over­takes groups of peo­ple unit­ed by a com­mon pur­pose, pur­su­ing an intense­ly involv­ing activ­i­ty togeth­er.” When you feel it, you feel “a flow, a sense that your self is meld­ing with the group as a whole.” And has any prac­tice gen­er­at­ed as much col­lec­tive effer­ves­cence through­out human his­to­ry as dance?

Mod­ern sci­ence has shed a bit of light on why: Tarr has found that “we humans have a nat­ur­al ten­den­cy to syn­chro­nize our move­ments with oth­er humans,” thanks to a region in the brain which helps us make the same move­ments we see oth­ers mak­ing. “When we mim­ic our part­ner’s move­ments, and they’re mim­ic­k­ing ours, sim­i­lar neur­al net­works in both net­works open up a rush of neu­ro­hor­mones, all of which make us feel good.” Lis­ten­ing to music “can cre­ate such a euphor­ic delight that it appears to acti­vate opi­oid recep­tors in the brain,” mak­ing it even hard­er to resist get­ting up and danc­ing. “They said he’d nev­er win,” Foot­loose’s tagline said of the movie’s big-city teen intent on get­ting the town danc­ing again, but “he knew he had to” — an assur­ance that turns out to have had a basis in neu­rol­o­gy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions to Three Soci­ol­o­gists: Durkheim, Weber & Adorno

The Strange Danc­ing Plague of 1518: When Hun­dreds of Peo­ple in France Could Not Stop Danc­ing for Months

The Addams Fam­i­ly Dance to The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Cate ~ Sacred Wanderings says:

    Yes — The Amish and many Men­non­ites do not dance. Some Amish com­mu­ni­ties do not allow the use of any musi­cal instru­ments nor record­ed music :) So — to answer the first ques­tion in the post — YES!

  • Dr Heather Blasdale Clarke says:

    A fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle. I have explored this aspect in my research on the cul­ture of con­victs trans­port­ed to colo­nial Aus­tralia. They danced to escape the bore­dom and drudgery of their lives, and also as a form of rebel­lion. It cer­tain­ly gave them a sense of belong­ing and com­mu­ni­ty, as the video explains beau­ti­ful­ly — the col­lec­tive effer­ves­cence.

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