Dance for Peace: The science of synchronous movement
by Maria Borghoff
Dancing as a form of self-expression crosses the bounds of culture and species, but the purpose of dance goes far beyond its aesthetic function. Psychology researchers recently conducted a social study at the University of Oxford where they discovered new health benefits of dancing.
In the study, volunteers were taught a series of dance moves. They were then placed in a room full of other volunteers, given a pair of headphones, and asked to dance. Some of the participants were taught the same dance moves to the same song, and so their movements became synchronized. Others were taught different dance moves, and so they found themselves moving alone and possibly even to a different rhythm. Afterwards, the participants’ pain tolerance was tested with a blood pressure cuff.
Researchers found that people who were dancing in synchrony were likely to have an increase in their pain threshold, whereas the people who were dancing by themselves saw no change or sometimes even a decrease in their pain tolerance. As a social species, humans associate being part of a group with our ability to survive, and therefore, we evolved to experience pleasure and a sense of reward when we partake in a group activity. But are some types of dance more effective than others?
Ballet’s defining characteristics are pointed toes, turnout of the leg, and extreme spinal and joint extensions. Although the tradition began as a form of entertainment in Renaissance courts, formal training for the art form developed a precise method of rigorous and acrobatic feats, deeming amateur dancers obsolete. But with techniques strictly focused on aesthetic, ballet largely overlooks the body’s natural functions. Rather than working with the laws of physics, biology, and human anatomy, the signature movements and unhealthy body mechanics, over an extended period, leave dancers suffering from acute or chronic injury.
Interestingly, 17th century French Gothic Cathedrals are distinguished by the pointed arch, ribbed vault, and flying buttress. During the peak of the European Witch Trials, a 400 year period of persecution that executed tens of thousands of people believed to be conducting witchcraft, the architecture strangely resembles the figure of a ballet dancer.
Observing the dance trends of indigenous cultures, we find a history of peaceful community gatherings and practical ways of experiencing joy and pleasure. In many African and Native American cultures, dance is used to communicate prayer, celebration, social commentary, and commemoration of the life cycle. Choreography is composed around rhythmic drums, and contrary to the ethereal nature of ballet, the earthbound movements in native dances emphasize a general downward motion with a slight bouncing quality that supports longevity through spinal and joint integrity.
Rather than imposing a narrow perception of beauty, the aesthetic is derived from the human body and natural landscape. This gentler approach embraces a healthier approach that allows people to continue dancing for a lifetime. Also, many native traditions incorporate dance into the life of every community member, using it as a vehicle for healing and creativity for all to enjoy.
If the biological purpose of dance is to decrease our pain tolerance and support social cohesion, then perhaps there are styles that more effectively cultivate a positive relationship with our own bodies and the earth. It may prove difficult to protest violence using intellect and language, but maybe it’s possible to end cycles of pain and suffering by connecting to our shared human experience and dancing for peace.