Everyone should dance more

When was the last time you danced?

When was the last time you danced? Where were you, who were you with, what were you listening to?

When was the last time you danced passionately?

I've always been a big dancer. As in, I like to dance, not that I'm actually good at it. I was part of a dance group in high school – which thankfully I didn't have to audition for – and in college I had the pleasure of embarrassing myself at a few dance auditions. I could barely make it past the warm up.

I'm also not a particularly pleasing sight when I dance. I'm tall and skinny, so I kind of look like a big stick figure flailing his arms and legs around haphazardly. Are you cringing yet?

To make things weirder, I’ve actually been doing more of the above dancing during quarantine. Alone. In my room. And possibly with more passion than I’ve ever danced in my life.

Before this year, I would almost never spontaneously play loud music and start bopping to a tune. Only if I had a specific reason to celebrate. These days, I have a fairly intense dance session – I'm talking heart racing, lungs panting, sweat pouring for multiple songs in a row – more than once a week. But it's not a choreographed or really even a controlled sequence of movements. It's very much a release all control and let the body take over kind of dancing.

What most people think about when they imagine “dancing” – at least before quarantine – is something that takes place in large, dark venues, often in the presence of alcohol and plenty of strangers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with alcohol, dark rooms, or strangers, but it all combines to give this sense of dancing as an escape.

This approach to dance feels like a yearning for something – to be in another place, to be with another person, to be more like the famous rich people who wrote the lyrics you're screaming. It can also be a form of projection to others: look how many friends I have, how good-looking I am, how deftly I move. Worst of all, it is sometimes done merely out of obligation. You dance – you synchronize with the vibrations of others – to avoid standing out.

A lot of this circumstantial, a result of our culture or social expectations. In Persian culture, collective dance isn’t merely the purview of young adults drinking at night clubs or house parties. Pretty much every family gathering (called a mehmooni) can spontaneously erupt into a dance party. Grandmothers and uncles, husbands and nieces, one and all get on the floor and dance. The dance floor is just the host’s living room with the tables and chairs pushed out of the way. And all of this happens without anyone taking a sip of alcohol.

Above: dance party in Iran. Note the relatively chill vibe, absence of alcohol, co-mingling of different age groups, the voluntary nature of it (some people are sitting and they are perfectly comfortable), and the fact that all the goddamn lights are on.

Can our relationship with dance be closer to this? Dance is a form of expression. It's a way to be more deeply in tune with our body—existing at the interface between sound, the flow of time, the regularity of a beat, and the capacity for voluntary movement in space. It need not be something you only do while drunk, in dark rooms, or even only in the company of others.

But our social expectations dictate otherwise. Most of us don’t dance at small social gatherings. We don’t dance in broad daylight, or during Thanksgiving. We don’t dance during the workday or with our grandparents. It would seem weird if I started playing music and dancing to it on a Tuesday morning as I’m browsing through my inbox. All of this feels a little uptight if you ask me.

Why are we so concerned about looking silly? Why does dancing really passionately have to imply that you were either intoxicated or just being kinda erratic for a moment? You can “dance like no one’s watching”, but what about dancing like you don’t give a shit what all the people watching think?

There is no prerequisite for dance. No set of skills or people or substances. No cause for celebration. To dance is to meditate. You let go and allow the music to move through you. Rather than being consumed by ego – as we often are at clubs or when singing the lyrics of certain songs – we can loosen out of it. Rather than projecting towards others, we can shift deeper into existence itself.

I say all this as someone who’s not a “real dancer.” What the hell do I know about dance? But that’s the point – you don’t need to be a professional, you don’t need to be rhythmically talented, you don’t need to be nimble. You just need the capacity to move, and the capacity to hear.

If you say you like music but you don’t dance, you’re kidding yourself. Movement is core to our being. Some people even think that the main evolutionary function of consciousness was to direct voluntary musculoskeletal action – in other words, to dance the dance of life!

So try this out. Queue up a few of your favorite songs on Spotify; throwback playlists like Time Capsule or Summer Rewind are especially good for kindling intense emotions. Close the blinds or dim the lights if you have to. And just dance. Really pay attention to what it feels like.

If you’ve never found anything compelling about dancing, I’m not asking you to get into it now. But if you have – if you’ve ever had an experience of deep contentment or joy or bliss in the midst of music and movement – try thinking back to that experience. Put yourself in that moment, with all the attendant excitement and ease and love that it entailed. Maybe even play the songs you were hearing then. And ask yourself: what’s keeping you from experiencing and embodying that same joy, right now?