An Essay about the Psychology of Dancing Part 1

Photo: Ahmad Odeh

This is an essay where I as a clinical psychologist venture into free form dance to shed some of my self awareness and to try to understand dancing.


“Express yourself!” – Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band


Dancing is Fun and Way More

I sometimes like dancing. My girlfriend is completely nuts about dancing. I like to try understand all things under the sun and dancing remains a mystery to me. That’s why I wrote this essay; to shed light on sth remarkably wonderful and mysterious

Dancing as a Language?

Dancing may actually be an ancient language?

A language that developed as a means to convey and digest emotional, bodily and cognitive experiences, not unlike a zebra shaking and kicking having escaped the lion to realign itself to grassing and doing peaceful zebra things again? 

A “language” that had the function of aligning yourself not only to yourself but also to your tribe. 

The Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burrough are almost entirely implausible except when he describes huge chimpanzees dancing in a clearing as a part of ritual. 


“..  the tribe [of chimpanzees], now a full hundred strong, trooped silently through the lower terrace of the jungle trees and dropped noiselessly upon the floor of the amphitheater. The rites of the Dum-Dum [drums and dance] marked important events in the life of the tribe—a victory” 

A proto language establishing what has passed in the collective consciousness of the tribe.

Tecumseh Fitch suggests that rhythmic communication came first for us and served as a building block for language itself. Language sidelined music and song, making them “‘living fossils’ of an earlier communicative stage of humanity,” No longer essential, music was free to become “a rich, unfettered playground for creative expression.” – Smithsonianmag 

Fast Forward Ten Million Years 

No matter how inebriated I often feel self conscious when dancing. It doesn’t help either when someone (typically a well meaning woman) tries to help me move my hips differently and by “hips” they often mean something just below my hips, which I really don’t understand. I can’t move the upper bit of my thigh bone separately from the lower parts of my thigh bone? This kind of help just makes me even more self conscious as it gets me thinking about how irrational dancing really is. You can’t build a house with it, you can’t eat with it, and you just can’t understand it in any rational way or so I’ve been thinking.  

I do however sometimes get into that strange dancing place – yes I see it as a “place”. I think that John Travolta would concur. 

john t
John Travolta in Grease being totally him in the “dancing place”

A place of happiness while shaking, twisting, rocking, skipping, playing air guitar, saxophone or drums while stretching, twirling and contorting and doing odd rhythmic things with my limbs.  

Our Dancing Need?

We are biologically geared to experience a need for sex and food – those needs make sense, but dancing? Are we geared for dancing? Yes. I am sure that we are geared for dancing. But why? The explanation would amongst other things be that the “dancing language” is important for our psyche and cooperation? 

Also: Obviously – it signals sexual fitness! We dance to become attractive. It’s an ancient CV? You enact symbolically all that you have experienced and all that you would want to to do. You also portray muscle and maturatity.  

All known cultures have had dancing rituals signifying the most important things. In our own contemporary western culture newlyweds dance as the last act before disappearing as individuals to become one. Sports fans dance to celebrate their victories and children will often dance spontaneously when happy. 

Photo by Duy Ho |
Mega Wedding Dance

While dancing is important to us individually, socially and culturally it is almost completely absent in the fields of sociology and psychology or religion for that matter. If dancing is so obviously ingrained and important to us why then don’t we teach it in schools on line with language and mathematics? Why isn’t dancing represented in needs and motivation theories? Why does it remain an obscure thing to us modern people? 

This may sound weird and it is anecdotal but whatever: During my 15 years working with clinical psychology I have noted that people who had been dancing as children or while young have a more robust sense of self worth whatever their circumstances. 

Perhaps dancing builds character: Overcome yourself as you follow the dance steps. More strange and interesting is the idea that dancing as mentioned has functioned as a primitive language in which the young person has been able to express his or her psychological entirety. Like in a catharsis way and thus becoming more integrated and “whole” and “emptied of tensions” and connected to the now simultaneously. 

Free Form Dance 

I wanted to know more about this so that was the reason why I found myself one Thursday morning in dance hall in an abandoned church in Copenhagen. I had called a professional dancer, Rikke Libak Grønkjær, to interview her about dancing and she had invited me to join a kind of free form dance session first. This was a good idea she thought.

The day arrived. We were about 40 people. We were asked to form a circle. We found our places close to each other, almost touching. The music was low. We hadn’t begun yet as it were. Some of my fellow dancers were warming up by moving snakelike. They were shedding more than just their socks to prepare for the dance? 

I was doing my best to look at ease. People around me seemed very content. Some were chatting. I had reluctantly removed my own socks. My white winter feet on the wooden floor.  

Rikke Libak Grønkjær (in the middle of the photo) facilitating a Free From Dance Session. Foto Morten Lundrup

Dancing is an art form that ranges from something that is almost impossible to master to something that really needs no skill at all. Free form dance in the form that I tried was refreshingly free. You could look like a moron and still feel happy. I guess that’s one of the points of dancing? 

Could I become a happy dancer and gain a better understanding of this deeply human thing? Dancing is a primordial human thing. Dogs don’t have rhythm. Other animals may or may not dance. Apparantly we don’t really know that yet. 

Inspired by the dance facilitator’s great personality and guidance I soon got into it shedding some of my self consciousness. Some of the guys there got so much into it that their flailing with their arms looked positively dangerous for people nearby, but there was no correcting anyone. “Letting go” as it were without actually being cognisant of their surroundings at all they were even more hapless than myself just in the opposite extreme. The women seemed to thrive or revel in their sensuality. It was somehow over powering.  

What does it mean to “let go”? 

Prior to this day one of my thoughts about dancing had been that it looks like the person dancing is expressing him- or herself in some sort of totality. 

“Dancing is surely the most basic and relevant of all forms of expression. Nothing else can so effectively give outward form to an inner experience” – Lyall Watson

In daily life we have to put a lid on all our impulses. It is a part of the social contract that we have to suppress ourselves. Like pushing down the left “mute pedal” on the piano we mute untold aspects of our being in order to coexist. Seen in this light dancing may be a release from pent up and repressed energies that would otherwise cause all kinds of disturbances of inner peace and relationships? That’s a theory at least.  

Perhaps the dance is a vehicle for our forbidden of otherwise censored ideas, uncomfortable thoughts and strange impulses. In the dance they find their way out “symbolically”, by means of dance moves. 

What can’t be said is spoken in the dance? 

Everything is allowed in symbolic forms carried securely as it were by the rhythms. 

What was irreconcilable and perhaps even incomprehensible aspects of your experiences join together in a larger and more coherent “you” in the dance? 

Transforming from broken glass to a diamond?  

Seen from a psychological perspective perhaps the mind and body with all its various hidden and known moods, memories, confusions, tensions and wavelengths states are somehow invited into being on the dance floor, they are validated, recognised, felt and somehow expressed through the music. 


Just Dance 

Perhaps that is why the philosopher preacher of full-on living Nietzsche, meant that a day without dancing was a day lost.

Perhaps the dancing is telling us not to fight it – but be it! An artform of nowness and totality and connection to yourself and others. 

“There is no feeling, except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music” – George Eliot (1819-1880)  

Ralph W. Emerson wrote some 150 years ago that spending time in nature would bring order into your senses. 

Perhaps dancing is an order that can bring sense into your nature? 


In the next essay about the psychology of dancing I will share interviews with dancers … Watch this space

Published by thomasmarkersen

Praktiserende psykolog og konsulent i erhvervslivet

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