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Why do we dance to music?

The Rhythm of Life

Years ago, I saw an old couple performing in front of a live salsa band. Their youthful energy exploding like fireworks upon the night sky. Different percussion instruments fighting for attention, blaring horns, rapid footsteps, twirls, hands that join, separate and meet again—the couple were electric.

Yet, in this organized chaos that is Afro-Cuban salsa dancing, there was a tangible peace in how the couple moved. Quick. Quick. Slow. Quick, quick, slow. Way past the point of finding the beat. They were one with the music. Dancing with such grace and rhythm. They made time and space seem irrelevant. Yet, behind all this loud glamor and romanticized view, dance is more than a performance. It is a language: a means of communication to arrive at a place of understating.

Given salsa’s complex beat, it takes time to arrive at a place where listening to the beat is not just a matter of the ears, but the soul. It has to be felt. Felt to the point where the musicality transcends the technicality of the dance.

Whether by the virtue of age, or persistent practice, the old couple have arrived at that place. A place of understanding that words alone can’t express. We dance to a beat, because we too want to be a part of this collective understanding. Understanding of self and each other.

Daniel Levitin, a cognitive psychologist, states that our ability to synchronize our movements with others suggests that rhythm may have had some evolutionary advantages. Imagine building the pyramids, he says, lifting heavy objects requires “being able to band together with rhythmic movements.” Levitin’s perspective strips dance to its raw form. At the end of the day, dance is “a significant means of communication.” And importantly, it is not always linked with music.

Thus, what drives dance and rhythm is not the music, but our innate human desire to understand one another so that we can build the world one pyramid stone at a time. Together. I believe this is why rhythm has always existed: to teach us how to work in unison. After all, we are our shared human stories. We can only prevail together.

A psychologist named Steven Pinker famously described music as an “auditory cheesecake.” If that is so, seeking synchronicity through any means: foot tapping, head bobbing, moving to a beat, or being in the chaos itself is analogous to taking a bite of that cheesecake. One could not resist. Especially when it doesn’t result in any calorie gain.

That night, I just wanted to sit–to be still. Enjoying these moments of rhythmic connection in our human journey from afar. Well, I failed. Miserably of course. The desire to move and join the chaos eventually seeped in like air entering a sealed room. I wanted a bite of that cheesecake.

Memories of the salsa night always come roaring back whenever I hear a similar Afro-Cuban inspired beat. Maybe rhythmic patterns in music are time capsules. Breadcrumbs that lead us back to a light-soaked moment that keeps us young. Young like the old couple.

In practicality, dance has always been a part of our natural composition. Dance is “used to lure and keep mates; define and perpetuate gender roles; form and cultivate social and cultural bonds; and even express societal and political expectations and preferences.” It can also be used to express rebellion. In all of this, keeping the beat is a sign of understanding that we are in this together.

Even so, some argue that music “couldn’t have been an evolutionary adaptation, because it offered no survival advantage.” But evolution is a physical and neurological phenomenon. And rhythm is the bridge between both. It’s the ebb and flow—the communication between what our brain has processed and chosen to translate into a body movement. With or without music. It’s the connector that allows us to navigate this intricate dance we call life. Together.

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