Do we dance simply for recreation? Or is there a primal urge that compels us to do it? Historian William McNeill claims it saved our species by creating community togetherness and transforming “me” into “we.”
“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
Why do we dance? To most, it might seem like a trivial topic. But if you contemplate the sheer pervasiveness of dance across all of human society, it becomes apparent that it is anything but.
It’s more useful to learn foundational principles that won’t go out of date than it is to go all in on the latest fad. When it comes to understanding people, we can learn a lot by studying human universals that exist across cultures and time. These universals give us insight into how to create connections in a way that fosters social cohesion and cooperation.
Once such universal is dance. At every point throughout history, all over the world, people from every walk of life have come together to dance; to move in unison alongside music, singing, and other rhythmic input, like drumming or stomping. The specifics and the names attached vary. But something akin to dance is an ever-present cultural feature throughout human history.
Soldiers perform military drills and march in time. People in rural communities carried out community dances at regular events, like harvests. Hunters in tribal communities dance before they go off to catch food and have likely done so for thousands of years. We dance during initiation rites, like coming-of-age ceremonies. We dance before going to war. We dance at weddings and religious festivals. Countercultural movements, like hippies in the United States, dance. Fanatical leaders force their followers to perform set movements together. Calisthenics and group exercise are popular worldwide, especially in parts of Asia.
The more you look for it, the more examples of dance-like activities appear everywhere. From a biological perspective, we know species-wide costly activities that are costly in terms of time, energy and other resources must have a worthwhile payoff. Thus, the energy expended in dance must aid our survival. In his 1995 book, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, historian William H. McNeill made a bold claim: he argued that we owe our success as a species to collective synchronized movements. In other words, we’re still here because we dance.
In the 1940s, the U.S. Army drafted William H. McNeill. With limited supplies, there was little to occupy him and his peers during training. So, whenever things got boring, they performed marching drills. For hours, they walked in circles under the hot Texas sun. On paper, it was dull and pointless. What were they even achieving? When McNeill reflected, it seemed strange that drills should be an integral part of training. It also seemed strange that he’d quite enjoyed it, as had most of his peers. McNeil writes:
Marching aimlessly about on the drill field, swaggering in conformity with prescribed military postures, conscious only of keeping in step so as to make the next move correctly and in time somehow felt good. Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved . . . marching became an end in itself.
Upon further thought and study, McNeill came to identify the indescribable feeling he experienced during army drills as something “far older than language and critically important in human history, because the emotion it arouses constitutes an indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time.”
What exactly did he experience? At the time, there was no term for it. But McNeill coined one: “muscular bonding.” This refers to a sense of euphoric connection that is sparked by performing rhythmic movements in unison to music or chanting. Few people are immune to the influence of muscular bonding. It played a role in the formation and maintenance of many of our key institutions, such as religion, the military, and politics. We can all relate to the endorphin hit that comes from strenuous dancing, as with other forms of exercise. If you’ve ever danced with a group of people, you may have also noticed a remarkable sense of connection and unity with them. This is the effect of muscular bonding.
Seeing as there has been little study into the phenomenon, McNeill puts forward a theory which is, by his own admission, unprovable. It nonetheless offers one perspective on muscular bonding. He argues that it works because “rhythmic input from muscles and voice, after gradually suffusing through the entire nervous system, may provoke echoes of the fetal condition when a major and perhaps principal external stimulus to the developing brain was the mother’s heartbeat.” In other words, through dancing and synchronized movement, we experience something akin to what we did at the earliest point of existence. While most likely impossible to prove or disprove, it’s an interesting proposition.
Since the publication of Keeping Together in Time, new research has lent greater support to McNeill’s theories about the effects of muscular bonding, although studies are still limited.
How exactly has muscular bonding aided us in more recent times? To explore the concept, let’s look at the type McNeill was closest acquainted with: the military drill. It enables collective organization through emotional connections facilitated by synchronous movement.
Drills have obvious, tangible benefits. They encourage obedience and compliance with orders, which are valuable attributes in the fog of war. They can fit in with maneuvers and similar group efforts on the battlefield. In ancient times, it helped units stay together on the field and work together cooperatively when communication was difficult, and all fighting took place on the ground.
But drills are also a powerful form of muscular bonding. According to McNeill’s theory, they assist in creating strong connections between soldiers, possibly because the physical movements promote the experience of being a small part of a large, cohesive unit.
While we cannot establish if it is causation or correlation, it is notable that many of the most successful armies throughout history emphasized drills. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans both incorporated drills into their military training. And around the sixteenth century, drills became the standard in European armies. McNeill explains how this helped soldiers develop intense ties to each other and their cause:
The emotional resonance of daily and prolonged close order drill created such a lively esprit de corps among the poverty-stricken peasant recruits and urban outcasts who came to constitute the rank and file of European armies that other social ties faded into insignificance beside them.
These armies were cohesive, despite the different backgrounds of members. What made this possible was the allegiance soldiers had to each other. Loyalty to the army replaced former loyalties, such as prior alignments with the church or their families. Many soldiers report experiencing the sense that they fought for their peers, not for their leaders or their country or ideology. And it was moving together that helped break down barriers and allowed the group to reconstruct itself as a single unit with a shared goal.
“You can’t dance and be sad. You can listen to music and cry, you can read and cry, you can draw and cry but you can’t dance and cry. The body wont let you.”
Today, a growing percentage of people find themselves alienated from any particular community, without strong bonds to any discernible group. Loneliness is on the rise. More people live alone, remain single or childless, move to new geographical locations on a regular basis, and otherwise fail to develop close ties. This is a shift that is unprecedented in human history.
What that means is that there is tremendous value in considering how we can bring connection back into our lives; we must figure out how to help alleviate the dangerous effects of isolation and alienation from each other. There is an incredible precedent in history for using dance to create a sense of community and intimacy. Physical movement helps us forge connections that can override our differences. For instance, countercultural movements of those people rejected by mainstream society have often danced to create their own distinct community, as was the case during the hippy movement in 1960s America.
Giving thought to what it takes to unify people is even more important now as we face problems that affect humanity as a whole and require wide-scale collaboration to resolve. Again and again, history has shown us that keeping together in time forms groups that have a power greater than the sum of their parts. The emergent properties of moving together can be achieved even if we are not physically in the same space. As long as we know we are moving in a way that is being done by others, the bonding effects happen.
McNeill writes: “It is and always has been a powerful force at work among humankind whether for good or ill. . . . Our future, like our past, depends on how we utilize these modes of coordinating common effort for agreed purposes.”
Muscular bonding is not a panacea. It cannot instantly heal deep rifts in society, nor can it save individuals from the effects of social isolation. But it will pay off for us to look at history and see the tools we have at our disposal for bringing people together. Dance is one such tool. Whether you’re able to attend a concert or club, or simply have a dance party in your living room with your kids or over video chat with loved ones you can’t be near, when we move together we have an experience that deepens our connection to one another and gives us the openings for unity and cooperation.