(Hi. I talk about “addiction” in this post. I do most certainly recognize that a psycho-chemical relationship to some activity such as dancing or running is not as dangerous or psychologically damaging, usually, as true forms of addiction (eg, gambling), and especially potently chemical ones (eg, alcohol). I choose to use the phrase ‘addiction’ because there can most certainly be a compulsive set of behaviors and feelings around dance, as I do experience and observe in others. But this is addiction lite, to be very clear.)
I once wrote on this blog was called What happens when you dance for love.
In it, I talked all about my addiction to dance. I am–I have been–compelled to dance in part because it provides a space in which I feel cared for, adored, loved, and connected intimately to another human being.
This got me thinking about the wide variety of ways in which people can become or consider themselves addicts. Sure – this whole love thing I have going on is pretty powerful. But there is plenty else going on.
So this is what I’ve got – a list of 9 things that keep me (and many I know) coming obsessively back for more:
1) Physical activity
Physical exertion is known to secrete all sorts of addictive feel-good molecules.
Beta-endorphin and dopamine are both secreted in high amounts while exercising, leading to feelings of joy and even ecstasy. Beta-endorphin is in fact what accounts (by and large) for “runner’s high” – and why people develop somewhat real chemical addictions to running.
The same thing happens with dance, or at least with the dances which require exertion.
Interestingly, it is the phenomenon of emptying the lungs of air which accounts for the bulk of this chemical effect. So these ecstatic and addictive feelings are the greatest when the heart and lungs really get pumping — in the fast and furious sort of dancing. Yet it can also happen when you do not move at all — all you have to do is laugh.
Millions of years ago, our primate ancestors got most of their emotional highs from grooming.
As fire was invented and tribes developed into larger social systems, however, humans required ways to bond in larger groups. Thus the systems that had previously just worked for grooming began to develop for other activities. Specifically, singing and dancing.
Research has shown quite definitively that vocalizing or moving in synchrony creates powerful neurochemical effects–ones that simultaneously bond communities and foster feelings of joy.
All that being said, “grooming” is still an incredibly powerful high for us. One-on-one physical touching is still incredibly powerful. The impact of physical touch cannot go understated–and most people (especially single people) do not get enough in their regular lives.
Touch stimulates the release of oxytocin – the “love hormone.” This stimulates the release of beta-endorphin, dopamine, and serotonin. Touch is known to reduce stress levels, to lower blood pressure, and to improve camaraderie and even the success of sports teams.
Add the chemical effects of touch to those of physical activity and synchrony, and you are faced with something powerfully addictive.
Music is an extraordinary part of human experience that can also reduce stress, facilitate catharsis, take one on a journey, and create feelings of love and joy.
Dancing without music can be great. Certainly. But it is the submission to and submersion within music that makes it such a transcendent and even spiritual experience.
A lot of people who dance begin because they don’t have particularly strong social lives. I personally began dancing at a time in my life in which it was almost impossible to have friends, due to some mental health issues. So dance, in this way as in many others, really saved me.
Dance provides a way of immediately having a bunch of friends, even if it’s your first night and you’re technically a stranger to everyone there. Being a stranger doesn’t last long. Soon enough dance provides the sense of continuity and community that we all crave.
6) Love, Connection, Intimacy
The power of connection and romantic love while dancing is probably my own personal greatest addiction.
Dance is a world in which we connect. When you step onto the floor with someone, you are fully with each other. You are present with one another. Ideally, you are all that exists for each other. You take care of one another. You act as guardians, and even confidants, as you vulnerably open up to one another.
You can also experience a lot of intimate, romantic physical contact. You trace your fingers along your partner’s shoulder blades; you interlock your fingers with theirs; you accidentally bump noses; you inhale against one another’s chests.
For people who really value intimate connection – and especially those who are single – you really can hardly do better than dance.
Many dancers are addicted to betterment. I personally find that every single time I go out dancing I feel a tiny bit better than the time before. I cannot stop. I love getting better. Not only does it feel good to progressively master a craft (as if, hah, dance could ever be mastered), but it also feels good to see the ways in which your partners and the communities around you react to your dancing.
The better you get, the more people notice, and the more frequently people ask you to dance.
(I talk about improvement in the posts Should you care about technique and How to know how good you are.)
Which brings us to…
The validation you can get on the dance floor is truly like no other. Strangers ask you to dance – this is flattering. Partners ask your name after a dance – this is flattering. People watch you dance with wide eyes – this is flattering. Men or women express some sort of sexual attraction or interest in you – this is flattering. Partners connect with you romantically or flirtatiously while dancing – this is flattering. People assent to going home with you at the end of the night – this is flattering.
I don’t know if, as human beings, we enjoy anything more than we do getting positive feedback from the people around us.
In dance, we can receive that feedback in terms of our sexuality, our appearance, our skills as dancers, as party-goers, as sartorialists, as friends, as romantic partners. As so many things, in so many ways.
And then, as I mentioned, the better we get at dancing, the more potential we have to be validated by people who are themselves already talented dancers, or who are highly valued in terms of the social hierarchy. That is powerful stuff right there.
To cap it all off, the human psyche relates to dance like it relates to gambling.
Having a “great” night is pretty unpredictable. You never know when you’re going to stumble into a new favorite dancer, or connect really well with someone, or have a string of great dances, or be the only follower in the room and spend the whole night with leaders fighting over you.
Unpredictability is why gambling is so addictive to the human psyche. We feel compelled to invest our time and money in it on a regular basis just in case this is the big one.
So thus many of us find ourselves going dancing every single night, because we never know when that unpredictable and oh-so-juicy flood of dopamine is going to hit us.
These nine reasons – and I am sure many more – are by and large why I found myself dancing every single night for years. I was always well aware of it, but that wasn’t enough to stop me. These days, having been doing it for long enough (as often happens to people after a few years), the vice-like grip the gambling aspect of the dance has had over me has lessened.
Nowadays I function perfectly well only dancing about 4 nights a week.
For anyone who knows me, this is a vast improvement.
Have I missed anything? What do you think?