Dancing Past Boundaries

Traveling can lead you to unexpected places. So can dancing. As an avid traveler and sometimes dancer, I have, on a few occasions, found myself dancing in places where I obviously don't “belong”. Each time, I've seen cultural, racial and language barriers fall away with startling speed. I was reminded of this on New Year's Eve when my church hosted two parties – one thrown by my rather sedate Presbyterian congregation, the other by the West African congregation that shares the building. Guess which one had dancing?

Time travel back (since we're breaking barriers here) to when I lived in France, there was this concert by Algerian musician Idir. (Wonderful music – check him out here.) The audience in the small black-box venue was predominantly Algerian-French; my friend and I were the only two blonde heads in the room. The opening band set some feet tapping, but when Idir took the stage the room came to life.

Dancing in Mali
In Mali. The guy in the hat danced like Gumby and Beyoncé's love child.

Near where my friend and I were standing, a circle of young dancers formed and one of the girls began moving around the circle, dancing with each person in turn. Graceful and confident, she was clearly acknowledged as a leader. Being always a student of movement, I began watching and imitating her, making up with enthusiasm for what I lacked in grace. Immersed in my little exploration, I was surprised to see the girl suddenly turn outward and include me in her dance rotation. When she came around the second time I was sucked into the circle itself. It felt like I had just been through a spontaneous rite of passage. As I looked around, exchanging unsure glances and smiles, I realized that through her danced invitation, I had just been accepted into this group with whom I had nothing in common except the joy of the dance.

Fun was had by all at a party thrown by the Senegalese Navy. Winning hears and minds works best when it goes both ways.

Fast forward a decade or so (hear that whoosh?), I have had similar, though slightly less rite-of-passagey, experiences on two trips to Africa with the Navy. (West Africa has wicked dance clubs, btw). In both cases I was with members of our African partner nations' militaries, and there was a definite positive effect on our working relationship afterwards. You might think a woman going out club dancing is not a great way to earn respect. On the contrary, having fun together in an atmosphere without complicated protocols, where rank was unimportant, and where the histories, hopes and schemes of our respective countries could be forgotten, put us on equal footing, at least temporarily, and created a greater level of respect and friendship all around. This was true not only between the white girl and the Africans, but between the Algerians, Malians, Senegalese, Nigerians, etc. I should note here that in all these situations remaining sober was an important factor. Had I gotten drunk, the respect effect would have been smashed right along with me, not to mention the obvious safety hazards.

Back to the present, in the wake of my little adventure with the Ivory Coasters who braved a frigid Minnesotan NYE to party, I am thinking about this again. I am thinking of what my friends who were too embarassed to dance missed when they left early. I am thinking of the gift I was given by the wonderful, gracious people who let me crash their party. I still don't know what the dance with the white napkins was all about, but it was fun. I am immensely grateful to all these communities, from Paris to Mali to Senegal to Minnesota, for accepting me into their midst.

Part of why dance breaks down the walls is the lack of pretense involved. On my side, in none of these situations was I trying to have “an authentic cultural experience”. I just wanted to dance. And, on my dancing partners' side, they happily opened up the circle to outsiders. They just wanted to dance. Moving to a rhythm in a communal setting taps into something more primal – dare I say more important – than all the various identities we use to divide ourselves. It has the power, if we allow it, to transport us instantly beyond the barriers of nationality, ethnicity, religion and even two-left-feet syndrome, to remind us we are all part of the same human race.

Sometimes you gotta take a break, so you demonstrate owl eyes.

I'm not saying that dancing can magically overcome profound differences and painful grievences, but it has the ability to cross boundaries faster than talking, faster even than sharing food. There is no need for vocabulary and with global musical influences -not to mention drum machines – you don't have to know any fancy steps. It's a ready out-of-the-box common language. The only thing that can get in the way is being too self-conscious to join in. So next time you're in a strange place with music and a dance floor, get your groove on. There's no telling where it will take you.


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