I often get asked why I started dancing. That question is fairly easy: My good friend Jack dragged me out of my dorm room to an intro event for the University of Minnesota Ballroom Dance Club during freshman year with the promise that “There will be girls there!”
How could I say no? The rest is history.
A more interesting question now, however, is why I continue dancing. Why am I still obsessed with this activity? Why do I spend countless hours and dollars chasing that high?
I recently returned to Minnesota to help put one of my favorite events, Dance Fest, which I’ve been a part of for the past five years. It was a powerful experience for me, not only because I got to see friends I hadn’t seen in a while, but also because it reminded me of so many reasons that I love this form of self-expression. It was a refreshing drink of cool water after a long stint in the Southern California desert.
Why? Because, believe it or not, it can be easy to forget why you do the thing that you profess to love. As habits get set and routines entrench themselves, it’s necessary to reevaluate every so often to make sure that what was true before is still true now, and that what you’re doing with dance is bringing you closer to realizing those goals.
So, without further ado:
Why I Dance: an Incomplete List
Dance is how I find a state of total present-moment focus. Creating something with another person to the complex rhythms of a song usually takes every ounce of my attention and keeps me grounded in the details of what is happening around me as it is happening. Some call it being ‘in the zone.’
I have found this in other parts of my life (particularly meditation, writing, and running) but none are so consistent or accessible as dance. Some of my favorite dances I’ve had carry no particular memories in my mind. I couldn’t tell you what I lead, danced or did because I wasn’t trying to remember any of it. My mind was fully engaged with what was happening at the time, at that moment.
In a world filled with distractions, this kind of single-minded focus can be hard to cultivate, and dance’s ability to bring this out in me is one of my favorite aspects of it!
2. Human Touch
It is an amazing privilege that other people allow me (or any dancer for that matter) to touch their body. Sometimes I forget how incredible this is, but I’m always happy to make the realization again: human touch is a wonderful thing.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Positive touching has been linked to all sorts of health benefits, from reduced stress hormones to a reduction in aggressive behavior. It’s no accident that entire industries are built around providing positive human touch, like massage or chiropractics. Yes, these often have additional goals (alignment of body parts, muscular relaxation, etc.) but their mode of accomplishing these goals is overwhelmingly based on physical contact. I might even argue that the muscular relaxation and body alignment may even be the secondary effects of the touch experience.
Dance provides this kind of human interaction in spades. It’s one of the most intimate things you can do with another person and that intimacy necessitates large amounts of trust and responsibility on both sides of a dance partnership. When that trust and responsibility are established, the resulting intimate touch is incredibly fulfilling.
A pithy little story I tell myself about myself is ‘Mind by Minnesota, body by dance.’ I’m proud of what I’m able to create with the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones that I’ve got, and I’ve put a considerable amount of time and effort into improving my general mobility, nutrition, and strength so that I can keep pushing the boundaries of the sport for myself. Being physically fit also has benefits beyond dance in terms of confidence, self-reported well-being, dating, etc.
I do exercise outside of dance, most commonly in the form of running, yoga, pushups, and pull-ups, but most of this activity is actually intended to support my dancing. My primary form of exercise, to the tune of several hours a day usually, is dancing.
I’m a pretty competitive person, in case you’ve never met me. I like the rush of concentration and adrenaline that hits my system when I’m putting myself up against other talented competitors out on the dance floor. I want to win. Like most things, too much of this competitiveness ends up being more of a detractor than a benefit, as I’ve talked about here and here, but it remains a driving force in my dancing and something that keeps me coming back. I want to win, and I like the pursuit of this goal.
5. Artistic Expression
Combining the complexities of music, body, and partner create an infinite number of possibilities in terms of what shapes and movements are available. I love exploring this space. Each new song and new partner represents a new opportunity to create something that has never existed before and will never exist afterward. It’s really fun to challenge yourself to push beyond the boundaries of what you’ve already done into what you could do. I love it.
In routine dancing, you also get the opportunity to push yourself to perfect something artistically. You control most of the variables (partner, music, etc.) so you can focus on dialing in the finer points of the performance: lines, angles, styling… you get the point. The opportunity to put something on the floor that you have poured time and effort into is wonderful and rewarding in and of itself.
For many of the reasons listed above, there are a lot of like-minded, open-hearted people in dance! It is fantastic to meet and get to know so many of them. Everyone has their own specific reasons for dancing, but many of them overlap, and this provides for a vibrant culture. In addition, people from various backgrounds are drawn to dance, so much so that many people will have someone they recognize as a peer somewhere in the dance scene. Dancing cuts across generations: I am thrilled that I can dance with a seventeen-year-old right after dancing with a seventy-year-old. There are not many domains in which that is the active reality.
Dance is also a language in and of itself. I’ve had the privilege of dancing with many people with whom I did not share a spoken language. The fact that we can still interact and share our ideas, albeit in the limited scope of the dance floor, without a spoken word is amazing. That kind of cross-cultural exchange is incredibly rewarding to be a part of.
On a more personal note, one of the most rewarding things about moving to Los Angeles was instantly being able to plug into the dance scene here. When I arrived, I knew two or three people in the area. Within three months I knew well over a hundred people across LA and Orange County, with strong ties to a few, and weak ties to many more. That kind of social support structure can be quite difficult to build if you don’t have a community like dance to quickly build from. The fact that I’m one of the most privileged kinds of people in the world likely also had a large influence on my ability to make friends so quickly, but having an extant community of dancers was key as well.
7. Because it’s FUN
This one might seem a little trite, but to me, it’s incredibly important to acknowledge: dancing is just plain fun. Yes, all of the reasons I’ve listed above are important, and they all feed into this last concept, but there is something important to me about stating that the primary goal here is to have fun. This is also what my weekend in Minnesota drove home to me most distinctly. Seeing newcomers out on the floor, smiling their faces off and simply enjoying dancing in front of their peers and supporters was inspiring and uplifting.
When I get out on the floor and forget all of the things that I’m trying to be or do and just enjoy the act of dancing and performing, my life (and my dancing!) are better for it. This is the reason I come back to over and over. The joy of dancing is enough to keep me dancing on into the future. I’m going to try to be better about remembering that as I go forward.
Why do you dance?
Have you thought about it? Drop me a line and let me know your reasons for getting out on the floor and shaking a tail-feather!