The dancing species: how moving together in time helped make us human

Aeon counter – do not remove
Dancing is a human universal, but why? It is present in human cultures old and new; central to those with the longest continuous histories; evident in the earliest visual art on rock walls from France to South Africa to the Americas, and enfolded in the DNA of every infant who invents movements in joyful response to rhythm and song, long before she can walk, talk or think of herself as an ‘I’. Dancing remains a vital, generative practice around the globe into the present in urban neighbourhoods, on concert stages, as part of healing rituals and in political revolutions. Despite efforts waged by Christian European and American colonists across six continents over 500 years to eradicate indigenous dance traditions and to marginalise dancing within their own societies, dancing continues wherever humans reside. Any answer to the question of why humans dance must explain its ubiquity and tenacity. In so doing, any answer will challenge Western notions of human being that privilege mind over body as the seat of agency and identity.

Current explanations for why humans dance tend to follow one of two approaches. The first, seen in psychological and some philosophical circles, begins with a human as an individual person who chooses to dance (or not) for entertainment, exercise, artistic expression or some other personal reason. Such approaches assume that dance is one activity among others offering benefits to an individual that may be desirable, but not necessary, for human well being. Alternatively, a raft of sociological and anthropological explanations focus on community, asserting that dancing is one of the first means by which the earliest humans solidified strong social bonds irrespective of blood lines. In these accounts, dancing is eventually replaced by more rational and effective means of social bonding that the dancing itself makes possible, such as language, morality and religion. While the first type of reasoning struggles to explain why so many humans choose to dance, the second struggles to explain why humans continue to dance. What is missing from these accounts?

What if humans are the primates whose capacity to dance (shared by some birds and mammals) was the signature strategy enabling the evolution of a distinctively large and interconnected brain, empathic heart and ecological adaptability? And what if dancing plays this role for humans not just in prehistoric times, but continuing into the present? What if humans are creatures who evolved to dance as the enabling condition of their own bodily becoming?

Recent evidence for such a thesis is gathering across scientific and scholarly disciplines. Time and again, researchers are discovering the vital role played by bodily movement not only in the evolution of the human species, but in the present-day social and psychological development of healthy individuals. Moreover, it is not just bodily movement itself that registers as vital in these cases, but a threefold capacity: to notice and recreate movement patterns; to remember and share movement patterns; and to mobilise these movement patterns as a means for sensing and responding to whatever appears. This threefold capacity is what every dance technique or tradition exercises and educates.

According to the New York University neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, writing in the book I of the Vortex (2001), bodily movement builds brains. A brain takes shape as it records patterns of neuromuscular coordination, and then remembers the outcomes in terms of pain or pleasure, emotional tags that help it assess whether to mobilise that movement again, and if so, how.

In so far as bodily movements build the brain, every movement a human makes matters. Each repetition of a movement deepens and strengthens the pattern of mind-body coordination that making that movement requires; and the repetition also defines avenues along which future attention and energy flow. Every movement made and remembered shapes how an organism grows – what it senses and how it responds. From this perspective, every aspect of a human bodily self – from chromosomal couplet to sense organ to limb shape – is a capacity for moving that develops through a process of its own movement making. An arm, for example, develops into an arm by virtue of the movements it makes, beginning in utero. These movements pull its bones and muscles into shape, as contracting cells build the physiological forms needed to meet the movements’ demands.

In this sense, a human being is what I call a rhythm of bodily becoming. A human is always creating patterns of bodily movement, where every new movement unfolds along an open-ended trajectory made possible by movements already made. Dancing can be seen as a means of participating in this rhythm of bodily becoming.

Further support for this thesis comes from anthropologists and developmental psychologists who have documented the importance of bodily movement to infant survival. As the American anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy affirms in her book Mothers and Others (2009), human infants are born premature, relative to their primate cousins: a human foetus intent on emerging from the womb with the neuromuscular maturity of an infant chimpanzee would need to stay there for 21 months. Instead, hopelessly dependent human infants must have a capacity to secure the loyalty of caregivers at a time when their sole means for doing so is by noticing, recreating and remembering those patterns of movement that succeed in connecting them to sources of nurture. In a view shared by Hrdy and others, this capacity for the responsive recreation of bodily movement forms the roots of human intersubjectivity. In other words, infants build their brains outside the womb in relation to mobile others by exercising a capacity to dance.

Recent research on mirror neurons further supports the idea that humans have a unique capacity to notice, recreate and remember patterns of movement. More abundant in the human brain than any other mammalian brain, mirror neurons fire when a person notices a movement, recreating the pattern of neuromuscular coordination needed to make that movement. In this way, humans can learn to recreate the movement of others – not only other humans, but also trees and giraffes, predators and prey, fire, rivers and the Sun. As the neuroscientist V S Ramachandran writes in his book The Tell-Tale Brain (2011), mirror neurons ‘appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full-fledged culture’ by allowing humans ‘to adopt each other’s point of view and empathise with one another’.

Nevertheless, the term ‘mirror’ is misleading; it hides the agency of bodily movement. A brain does not provide a passive reflection. As eyes register movement, what a person sees is informed by the sensory awareness that his previous movements have helped him develop. He responds along the trajectories of attention that these previous movements have created. From this perspective, dance is a human capacity, not just one possible activity among others. It is a capacity that must be exercised for a person to build a brain and body capable of creating relationships with the sources of sustenance available in a given cultural or environmental context. To dance is human.

In this light, every dance technique or tradition appears as a stream of knowledge – an ever-evolving collection of movement patterns discovered and remembered for how well they hone the human capacity for movement-making. Most of all, dancing provides humans with the opportunity to learn how their movements matter. They can become aware of how the movements they make are training them – or not – to cultivate the sensory awareness required to empathise across species and with the Earth itself. In this regard, dance remains a vital art. From the perspective of bodily becoming, humans cannot not dance.  Aeon counter – do not remove

Kimerer LaMothe

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Revolution We Didn’t Notice Is Over.

The brilliant son of Freeman Dyson wrote another of his spectacular essays, for Edge Magazine. Published on January 1st, it is well worth reading.

“Nature’s answer to those who sought to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build machines whose nature is beyond programmable control.”

Read it Here…

Open Sesame

As I was working my way through the rounds of posts and articles I usually read in the morning. Some of them are about natural healing, and others about things like Transpersonal and Jungian psychology, history, semiotics, philosophy, animism, science and other subjects. I ran across one of particular interest on the healing powers of sesame in the newsletter, which you can link to here and read. The article contains recent studies on the properties of what may be the world’s oldest condiment that can potentially heal liver damage, making Sesame an extremely valuable addition to anyone’s diet in these toxic times.

But what occurred to me as I was browsing through it was the story of Ali Baba who heard the mighty band of 40 thieves open their treasure cave by saying “Open Sesame”,  which is also translated as “Sesame Open.” Linguists sometimes say that the word Sesame is sometimes mistranslated; that it may have referred to a more mystical term from used in Kabbalah or other occult texts, and may not have referred to the grain itself. But if you remember, his brother found himself trapped inside the cave when he couldn’t remember which grain’s name was the password, but who knows.

What’s interesting is that sesame seeds grow in pods that break open when they reach maturity, releasing the seeds. That would have made this a very clever way to honor the healing power of this wonderful food and remember its life cycle.

And writing this just made me remember to put some Tahini on today’s shopping list.

The Goddess in Chicago

Astaroth has gone through many name changes and incarnations. At one time, hers was the constellation Virgo.  On another site (Rune Soup) where I am a member, we are picking cities for her. I choose Chicago, and this is why.

This is the illuminated statue of the goddess as Ceres, the goddess of grains and sometimes harvest. She had a Sumerian name as well, but had somewhat different attributes – just like most Roman Era Deities.

The view looking south through what’s called the LaSalle Canyon is spectacular, well, at least it is to me.


This is one of the most famous skyscrapers here in Chicago, and for a few years it was the tallest building. Some call Chicago the home of the skyscraper because of the architectural history of the city.

One more thing: Astaroth’s guardians have always been winged cats. They’re here in Chicago too, guarding the exchange that acts as a pedestal for the goddess:

Revised Article

Just finished revising the article “Thinking about Divination.” As the fixing on the website proceeds, the articles will become more common. In the meantime, enjoy this brief preview of what’s coming.

Anyway, divination is a powerful tool that can really expand the mind and tune one to a new form of reality; one full of revelation and knowing that is the “beat of a different drum” that is more like the heartbeat than the workweek. It helps us learn how to navigate the tides of change in a more elegant, purposeful, directed way.

Another of my favorite people

As science tries to explain away the consciousness as something that can be understood through physics or biochemistry, we have somehow been lucky enough to give the few luminaries and explorers of the inner world voice. Becca S. Tarnas is one of them.

I consider myself fortunate to live in a world where access to people who are philosophically strong enough to challenge the religion of materialism by actually exploring the topology of consciousness. Please check out her website, and also the journal Archai, for which she is an editor.  Both links can be found in my lists on the right, and I would encourage anyone who feels that there is more to life than hot dogs, TV and credit ratings to tune in. Continue reading “Another of my favorite people”

A Dinner at Roister

Roister may have served me one of my favorite meals ever on Thursday Night. It wasn’t what you’re seeing above – that’s the Chicken Dinner that’s only available on weekends. The food my friend and I had was so overwhelmingly sensuous that I wrote my first ever restaurant review for it.

I don’t do that often, because I’m not a food critic. I go for the experience of something that’s already a favorite of mine, or something that promises to be a fantastic, unforgettable taste treat. I almost couldn’t put what the food was like into sensible words at first, but labels like Alchemy and Synergy come to mind, because at first the flavors start as recognizable, then they pull together into something new, and then the entire dish takes on a flavor that I do not have the vocabulary to describe – every dish had a unique and delicious flavor entirely its own. Continue reading “A Dinner at Roister”

So what is this post for?

The purpose of this site is to try and keep people who read these posts in “the place where everybody’s coming from”, the place of coherence. It’s all about space/time/consciousness interactions that support the drives within every human being that could be summed up as “ecstasytropism” if there were such a word. Enjoy.

I’ve been busy

Outside of my regular, boring job where certain people are trying to get me into an MSU (making shit up) bag which doesn’t tell the truth about divination, I’ve been really busy.

I’ve fallen in love with the LeNormand methods and decks. There are several decks, but really the essence of reading them is in the method. Sensei has been guiding me in an almost miraculous way, and all who read this blog will see the results soon.

Anyway, I’ve gotten back to my restaurant adventures and thought I might share a few thoughts about fine dining in Chicago, which, along with New Orleans, has some of the best spots in the US to have an exciting, wonderful and to some degree impossible meal.

Reviews coming soon here and on Yelp.

I’m a little worried about pictures because of Article 13 in the EU, but I will have that figured out by next week and start posting on at least a bi-weekly, if not everyday basis, so keep watching, or check in with me on Twitter at – @fivesight23.

Another thing is the Magic of Thailand. Expect posts on the subject regularly, in that I will be doing a lot of stuff there in January.