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Moving and vocalizing together in time creates feelings of camaraderie and a willingness to cooperate among the participants. For this reason, community dance and music making—uniquely human activities—have been used probably since the origin of the species; shared rhythmic movements have played a part in religion, war, politics, and many other social settings.
Engaging in community dance and/or military drill by moving rhythmically together for lengthy periods of time is a very effective way of arousing shared and friendly feelings among the participants. This effect is reinforced by music and voicing, all the way from band music and choral singing to drill sergeants’ shouts of “hut, hip, hip, four.” Somehow moving muscles together in time, with voices backing up the rhythmic beat, makes people feel good, wipes out old grudges, and smooths over personal rivalries. Even when the immediate excitement subsides, such exercises leave a residue of fellow feeling and readiness to cooperate. This had important effects in times past and still exhibits itself in religion, war, politics, and innumerable social settings where people dance, sing, and keep together in time.
Exactly how shared feelings are aroused when we dance, sing, and march is not accurately known. Hormones and the sympathetic nervous system are surely involved; so are parts of the brain. Suffice it to say that such behavior and their results are both unique to and universal among human beings. Only humans engage in community dancing and music making, and all known human societies do both. Only a few, however, harnessed this human response to keeping together in time for military purposes, though those that did so profited from the superior cooperation and morale of soldiers who drilled regularly for long periods of time.
When rhythmic dancing and music making first arose among humankind is unknown, but it must have been very early, perhaps before Homo sapiens emerged and before language developed among our ancestors to make us fully human. Whenever the habit established itself, the advantage of greater cooperation among large numbers that developed from dancing together must have been enormous, since only dancers survived. Observations of our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzees of Africa, suggests why this was so. In 1969, the band of fifteen adult males that Jane Goodall and her helpers were studying split into two rival groups, and in the next two years each of the seven seceding males was hunted down and killed by their rivals, who thus regained the whole of their original territory and the females who had seceded. Very slightly superior numbers (and perhaps stronger cohesion) among the core members of the old band thus prevailed. Obviously, if dancing together allowed our ancestors to overcome the sort of individual frictions that split that chimpanzee band apart, it is easy to imagine how larger numbers of more cooperative individuals could expand their territory against neighbors who had not yet learned to dance— thus making that form of behavior universal within a few generations.
Thereafter different human groups elaborated the possibilities of rhythmic movement in innumerable different ways. Until very recently, the principal historical importance of dancing was to knit local communities together. Participants were well aware of its emotional effect. In the twentieth century, for example, Greek villagers told an anthropologist that they felt light, calm, and joyful when they danced; and Kalahari hunters reported to another observer that dancing made their “hearts happy.” Such feelings made conflict like that which ravaged Goodall’s chimpanzees far less likely, and allowed larger numbers of persons to live together peacefully year after year. Although important emotional cohesion and cooperation, induced by dance, may have been among our ancestors, nothing like a history of community dancing can be written. Such behavior was simply taken for granted, and before anthropologists started work about 150 years ago, evidence for dancing among hunters, pastoralists, and farmers remained exceedingly sparse.
Spiritual and Religious Importance of Dance
Records are more substantial for a more specialized, eventually professionalized, kind of dancing intended to consult and/or please powerful spirits and gods. Around such rituals, organized religions eventually emerged. Later on, in urban settings, expert exhibitions of dancing (and song) honoring a god also became public entertainment for spectators, as surviving texts of Greek dramas attest. Simultaneously, excited, participatory dancing among believers remained a growing point for religions, as is clear from biblical references to how Saul and David danced before the Lord and founded the Hebrew kingdom, largely on the strength of enthusiastic bands of young men who danced with them, honoring Yahweh. Early Christianity also was hospitable to dancing, though the practice soon fell under suspicion when bishops and priests set out to restrain and ritualize public worship. Enthusiasts and heretics, who often (but not always) danced, continued to challenge church authorities from time to time; and in the sixteenth century, Protestants bound their congregations together by rhythmic movement while standing up and singing hymns and psalms. A long series of subsequent religious enthusiasts— Methodists, Quakers, Mormons, Shakers, Pentecostalists, Russian Old Believers, and others—used similar methods to arouse cohesion and commitment among their followers. African Christians (and a variety of heretical faiths) have been particularly successful in using song and dance, borrowed directly from village customs, to consolidate their converts.
Song and dance kept other world religions in ferment in much the same fashion. Among Jews, Hasidic enthusiasts sang and danced, attracting a large following in Poland and nearby lands, beginning in the eighteenth century.
Among Muslims, dervish associations of restless young men proliferated widely beginning about 1000 CE, chanting, dancing, and sometimes achieving ecstasy. Across the centuries, many Buddhist sects also engaged in rhythmic exercises, which appealed usually to poor and discontented groups.
Recent examples include the so-called Boxer rebels in China (1900–1901) and a similar Buddhist sect of dancers who began to attract official persecution in the 1990s. In Japan, the Soka Gakkai, founded in 1930, was persecuted by the imperial government until 1945, but burgeoned after that date through daily rhythmic exercises conducted outdoors in urban settings to become a significant factor in national politics.
Tension between enthusiasm generated by dance and song and the authority of established priesthoods and legally defined systems of belief was persistent throughout religious history. Whenever social strains were acute, enthusiastic sects arose to express and relieve popular discontents, and they nearly always relied on dance and song to keep their followers together. The process continues worldwide today, with diverse, sometimes angry, so-called fundamentalist movements vigorously challenging conservative religious authorities everywhere and sustaining themselves, more often than not, as much by communal rhythmic exercises as by words or ideas.
Bonding Communities and Combatants
The role of dance and song in disturbing established religious routine and ritual is second only to its importance in sustaining local village and migratory communities throughout human history. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that such sects flourished most vehemently when substantial numbers of persons found themselves unable to live satisfactory lives in traditional ways in local communities because of overpopulation or some other obstacle. Sometimes, as happened among the bands of prophets in ancient Israel and among sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants in parts of Europe and America, religious protest precipitated new and successful institutional adjustments. More often, sects decayed from within when expectations were disappointed, and/or forcible repression dispersed their followers.
Armies rivaled religious sects in relying on rhythmic exercises to influence human behavior. Infantry soldiers trained to march together in time and reinforce muscular bonding by shout and song were capable of maintaining a solid shield front in battle and could overwhelm less-organized enemies with comparative ease. The earliest known evidence of such tactics comes from Lagash in Sumer about 2450 BCE, in the form of a stone carving showing armored spearmen marching in step behind their commander. Early Chinese warfare also relied mainly on infantrymen who maneuvered in unison to drumbeat.
After about 750 BCE, however, when cavalrymen learned to shoot arrows from horseback, faster moving horsemen could outflank infantry and attack with arrows from a safe distance. Accordingly, wherever steppe cavalry raiders were the main threat, civilized armies of Eurasia de-emphasized infantry, put foot soldiers behind walls, and let military drill decay.
In Greece and Rome, however, where steppe raiders seldom penetrated, drill and dance became essential elements of military training after about 650 BCE; citizen armies, marching together and keeping time by shouting, dominated Europe’s Mediterranean battlefields for several hundred years thereafter. As a result, intense commitment by ordinary farmers to public affairs and war went along with citizenship in ancient Greece and republican Rome, providing a model for modern democracies when they arose in Europe and America in the eighteenth century. Emotional responses to keeping together in time undergirded and made such behavior possible.
Elsewhere in the world, war and dancing were intimately connected. Among Amerindians, Polynesians, Africans, and others, warriors prepared for battle by dancing together ahead of time. Such behavior presumably consolidated fellow feeling and assured better cooperation even when the combatants did not array themselves in fixed ranks or learn to maneuver together. Horses cannot keep time, of course, so cavalry was different. Drill was ineffective, and whatever control commanders were able to exert over attacking cavalrymen was more by personal example than through prearranged formations.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries both Chinese and European and generals discovered that pikes, crossbows, and handguns, wielded by well-drilled infantry units, could withstand and repel cavalry charges. This altered long-standing military balances within Eurasia, making the superior numbers of civilized armies effective against steppe horsemen as never before. China and Russia were the principal beneficiaries, and by 1757 the last steppe nomad confederacy was reduced to dependence as their expanding Imperial frontiers came together. Almost simultaneously British, French, and Dutch agents established extensive overseas empires in Asia and eventually in Africa as well, thanks to victories won by surprisingly small, well-drilled forces, fruited in large part among local populations, and obeying European commanders. The psychological effect of drill was never more clearly demonstrated than when Indian, African, and Indonesian recruits, moving together in unison, learned to obey European commanders. Older social ties were almost wholly superseded among them by a new collective solidarity that made men of diverse backgrounds into obedient instruments of utterly alien European intruders.
Meanwhile, similar armies, recruited from city slums and impoverished rural communities, strengthened European governments at home, sustaining the aristocratic and privileged urban classes of Europe’s old regime.
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars of 1789–1815 expanded the role of army drill among Europeans, creating citizen armies on the model of the Roman republic. The French example proved contagious, so by 1914 almost all European governments drafted young men for a year or more of military training and assigned them to reserve units throughout their active years. Such military training involved long hours of drill and patriotic exhortation that proved very effective in superseding village ties with new national identities. Accordingly, during World War I, national rivalries sustained mass armies, numbering in the millions, through four years of military stalemate, before ending with the sudden collapse of Germany and its allies when hastily trained American soldiers arrived on the Western Front to reinforce the flagging French and British. World War II (1939–1945) turned into an even more destructive disaster for Europe and transformed Asia and Africa by making European empires unsustainable. In every theater of war the power of drill to create obedient soldiers manifested itself, and as Asians, Africans, and Americans began to participate actively in the two World Wars, new national identities took hold among them, thus ending Europe’s temporary dominance. Economic and demographic changes worked along parallel lines; but military drill among Asians, Africans, and Americans was what triggered this worldwide shift of power.
A Tool for Society
Among many peoples, dance has never been restricted to religious and military affairs. Urban populations were too large and diverse to dance together, as villagers continued to do, but subgroups could and did dance privately among themselves. Dancing perhaps always played a role in selecting mates and continued to do so in urban settings. In Renaissance Italy, for example, dancing among the urban upper classes became a way of showing off fine clothes, good manners, and sexual attractiveness. This Italian style of ballroom dancing then spread across northern Europe in early modem times. In addition, dancing could express and exhibit the grandeur of a king, as Louis XIV of France (reigned 1643–1715) well knew. As a youth he participated personally in exhibitionistic dances; then he settled for watching as professional dancers developed the art that today is known as ballet.
As for public affairs, after the French Revolution, marching and rhythmic shouting became important ways of political mobilization. German and Czech nationalists used gymnastic exercises, for example, to foster new sentiments by coordinating muscular movements among hundreds or thousands of participants. Marxists soon followed suit, when the Viennese socialist Victor Adler modeled annual May Day parades on traditional Catholic Corpus Christi Day processions; other Marxists elsewhere imitated this event, as Stalin’s May Day parades in Moscow illustrated. Massive gymnastic exercises took especially strong root among Chinese and Korean Marxists, where Buddhist sects had prepared the way for muscular demonstration of their new, secular sort of religion. Meanwhile in Austria, the youthful Adolf Hitler, repelled and fascinated by watching the Marxists’ May Day parade, subsequently used marching, uniformed party members to reclaim the streets of Germany and Austria for the Nazi party that he created. Unquestionably, the popular, emotional support these and other political parties and revolutionary governments attained in the twentieth century rested largely on muscular bonding aroused by march, song, and dance. Restless and rootless young men were especially attracted to such behavior, and everywhere remain an especially volatile element in human society.
Political parties and movements in more stable civil societies, like the United States, also resort to marching and rhythmic chanting on occasions of unusual excitement, like election rallies. More surprising was the dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa, accomplished after 1990 by dancing urban crowds of Africans, who drew directly on village customs of community dancing. Less well coordinated rhythmic muscular protest also sustained the agitation in Teheran that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979; and the collapse of Communism in Russia in 1990–1991 also provoked improvised rhythmic crowd behavior in the streets and squares of Moscow. Sporadic and more or less spontaneous movement together in time may also be observed among crowds attending athletic events throughout the world.
Obviously, our capacity for arousing common feeling by dancing, shouting, and marching together is as varied and vigorous as ever. It is sure to persist, and seems likely to remain politically and religiously important in times of crisis, even though older, localized community-wide dancing on festival occasions is in general decay and may eventually vanish.
- Hanna, J. L. (1979). To dance is human: A theory of non-verbal communication. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Lange, R. (1975). The nature of dance: An anthropological perspective. New York: International Publication Service.
- McNeill, W. H. (1995). Keeping together in time: Dance and drill in human history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Sachs, C. (1937). World history of the dance. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
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