Standing, I squint at the computer monitor while I try to curve my hip out as I tap my right foot. The dancers on the screen are holding plates of food, of course, as they execute perfect moves. This is “Jerusalema,” and I am a year late to the party. But I am having so much fun! The dog looks at me oddly, then tries to join in, leaping at me every time I change direction. I grab his collar and continue, loving the simple dance that is so joyful and sexy (except in a video from Rome, where young priests and nuns dancing in full black garb make it more of a gym-class romp). No wonder this music swept the world.
I need other people, though. The dog is even worse at the hip swivel than I am. When was the last time I danced in a group, rather than clinging to my husband and hoping our four left feet would move us across the dance floor? Memories flash: a conga line at a drunken corporate banquet. “Saturday Night Live” as a tween, dazzled by disco and blinking at every flash of the mirror ball. Square dancing, laughing and dizzy. The hokey-pokey, of course, at a happy, silly wedding. The grapevine at a Greek festival, my Greek friend urging me into the circle, an old woman clamping her hand at my waist and a little boy’s sticky hand criss-crossing to the other side of me.
We are meant for this kind of delight; meant to respond, together, to music. It is immediate, welling up from someplace inside us and shoving inhibition aside. The melody has to be simple, the beat strong. Big band swing music can pull me out of a chair. So can a Viennese waltz. My generation forgot about melody—maybe that is why I avoided dancing anytime anybody was looking? But when the music is good enough, it can take over, infusing grace into even my clumsy body.
When I was younger, I dreaded such abandon, convinced (accurately) that I would stumble all over myself. In a photo of my ballet class at age seven, I am the only one out of step. My guitar teacher fired me because I had no rhythm. But during three decades of undiagnosed pain from a screwed-on-wrong hip, something amazing happened: I relaxed and started to feel the music. Maybe because my movements were so constrained, and the pressure of moving correctly was gone. With dancing no longer an option, I wanted to dance.
For those who would take the magic away and clinicalize this joy, practical benefits are easy to find. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that dance not only improved the brain’s health, but it lowered the risk of dementia—by seventy-six percent. Cycling, golf, swimming, tennis—none of those lively activities reduced the risk so sharply. Dancing did the trick because of the way it integrates physical movement, mental concentration, complex coordination (that thing I never had), and social interaction. A Columbia University neuroscientist notes that by synchronizing music and movement, we double our pleasure: Music stimulates the brain’s reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits.
I do not think about any of this while I am dancing to “Jerusalema.” Yes, a steady, rhythmic beat helps people with Parkinson’s speak and walk more smoothly; helps soldiers march and athletes work out and kindergarteners transition from one activity to the next. Political campaigns pick peppy, danceable songs. Old Gene Kelly movies make you want to dance in the rain; Anna and the King makes me desperate to float around a ballroom, circling and circling. . . . But all I realize in the moment is: Dance loosens us.
I am happy. Then, beneath the music, I hear a news video from my husband’s office: A Trump supporter is announcing that Trump will reclaim the presidency in August—and that if he does not, there will be civil war. I stop dancing and listen, panting. “You’re going down,” the man finishes, presumably directing this to the reporter.
I blast the music again. When I am too tired to keep going, I sit down and read—about dance, not politics.
But some would say they are connected.
On International Dance Day 2020, Gregory Vuyani MAQOMA (he capitalizes the entire surname) was asked for a message that would circulate around the world. MAQOMA, a dancer, choreographer, and dance educator who, like the composer of “Jerusalema,” is from South Africa, said, “We are living through unimaginable tragedies, in a time that I could best describe as the post-human era. More than ever, we need to dance with purpose, to remind the world that humanity still exists.” He spoke of the world’s grief, of “the hard reality that continues to permeate the living confronted by death, rejection and poverty.” Dance could “give a strong signal to the world leaders and those entrusted with safeguarding and improving human conditions that we are an army of furious thinkers,” he continued, “and our purpose is one that strives to change the world one step at a time.”
That sounded beautiful but naive—especially compared to the news video I just overheard. How on earth could synchronized movement tell world leaders anything? But his next words caught me: “Dance is freedom, and through our found freedom, we must free others from the entrapments they face in different corners of the world. Dance is not political but becomes political because it carries in its fibre a human connection.”
This is what we keep forgetting. Freedom is not harum-scarum, an individual alone in a room waving arms and legs like a crazed spider. Freedom comes when we move together, synchronizing our steps, paying close attention, the way the “Jerusalema” dancers will glance up, check for the timing of the turn, shoot another dancer else a grin. The elation of moving in this way, each body adding different emphasis but the gestures lined up in perfect geometry, leaves you breathless, laughing, triumphant. Dance alone in some weird wiggly way and you might feel a little less tense, a little more awake afterward. But work at it, dance in unison, and you win the prize of paradox: freedom as a result of what you give, not what you take.
Dancing in groups can strengthen social bonds, researchers have found; it brings a feeling of connection and unity. Why? Because when we are all moving in the same way at the same time, swept up by rhythm and melody, the boundaries of our lonely little separate selves blur. It matters more to be part of the group than to be, that dangerous Sixties phrase, doing one’s own thing. Americans tend not to trust moments when the group takes precedence, but our bodies trust collaboration; they release endorphins, even increasing our pain tolerance. (Or perhaps our tolerance for difference?) At Oxford University, researchers found that children who danced in a similar way, in sync, felt closer and more connected—but zero bonding took place between children who performed different moves to different beats.
As our planet tumbles through space, we need to remember how to move as one. Maybe that could start to heal us.
Or at least keep us from growing even crazier?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.