The Human Solution of Dancing

A few weeks ago a group of my friends headed south to George, Washington to attend the Sasquatch Music Festival and enjoy five days of revelry set against the backdrop of the Gorge Amphitheatre, taking in such acts as Fleet Foxes, Kings of Leon, M. Ward, and others over the course of the weekend. One notable moment, though only partially witnessed by my friends, was this flash mob: 


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Somewhere Malcolm Gladwell is smiling, as just before the one minute mark of the video – as noted by Seth Godin – a third man joins the proceedings:

Before him, it was just a crazy dancing guy and then maybe one other crazy guy. But it’s guy #3 who made it a movement.

Undeniably, this got me thinking about the primal nature of the response illicited following “Guy #3’s” joining the group: watch the fury with which the later members of the mob come running. There is something more primal than the mere need to dance with the first guy, or even get on YouTube; if asked I doubt very many of the masses who make this mob what it was would be able to explain their actions much further than, I just had to be a part of that.

Indeed. There is something deep within us that responds to music – much as something we cannot locate within ourselves affects our behaviour in elevators – tied perhaps to Darwinian ideas of natural selection:

Just as unfit peacocks cannot grow splendid tails, so unfit people cannot sing well, dance well (for singing and dancing go together, as it were, like a horse and carriage) or play music well. All of these activities require physical fitness and dexterity. Composing music requires creativity and mental agility. Put all of these things together and you have a desirable mate. The Economist

But this is not the commonly agreed-upon reason that “all human societies of which we have knowledge appear to have music.” To follow Darwin, something ultimately this pervasive among a species cannot be “useless:” we must have evolves a passionate enjoyment of music to some end: 

Music (and probably also dance) as a cultural activity thus affords a basis for rehearsing processes of representational redescription. As an intra-individual phenomenon, it also affords the basis for exploratory behaviours that, by virtue of the “floating intentionality” of the underlying representations, are more-or-less consequence-free in terms of their implications for the individual’s relations with their environment (their impact on it and its reciprocal impact on them). This feature of proto-musical behaviours may also facilitate the exploration of social behaviours by affording a means for inter-individual interaction that is more-or-less consequence-free; although it may be possible to identify a consistent and single focus of the proto-musical behaviours of several interacting individuals, a unitary musical behaviour with multiple participants, the manifold meanings available to each participant permit engagement in co-ordinated interaction in time while minimising possible inter-individual conflict. In other words, music enables risk-free action and facilitates risky interaction.[28] Ian Cross | University of Camridge

In other words, music allows us to “practice” being in company with other humans without the risk of the potential violence. Which brings up another seemingly non-sensically vital piece of human behavior: play.

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