As our society becomes increasingly diverse, it’s challenging to find common ground. We are keenly aware of our differences; not only in opinions and ideas, but values. Often these differences create seemingly impenetrable barriers and we wonder, how can we ever overcome the obstacles and just get along. What can help us to put our egos aside and respect one another?
The answer may be dance.
Studies show that dancing in groups encourages social bonding. Researchers point out that when people dance in a group, they experience a blurring of the self into their groups due to the synchronization that occurs while dancing. Synchrony dissolves the separateness, bonds us, and expands our sense of self.
Janet Reineck, Executive Director of World Dance for Humanity in Santa Barbara, California, says “when we move together we’re suddenly not separate anymore. Our egos are silent and subdued. We share our consciousness. In anthropology, we call it communitas, which means elevating everybody beyond the individual to a collective sensibility.”
Personally, I have experienced this communitas since I started dancing with World Dance this year. The collective sensibility overrides the fact that we are a diverse group of women who represent different backgrounds, ethnicity, and age, and it unites us in the sheer joy of dancing together in synchrony. Beyond the class setting, we are bonded together to support the broader mission of the organization in our community and in the world.
Since its inception in 2010, World Dance for Humanity, under the guidance of Reineck, has turned an ordinary dance class into something extraordinary: a community of people reaching beyond themselves to make a real change in the world; a community bridging cultural gaps to bring people together with a common purpose. The non-profit has funded grassroots projects in Nepal, Guatemala, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, and Uganda. Since 2013, the focus has been on Rwanda, where the organization is helping 11,500 people in 28 rural cooperatives left divided and destitute by the 1994 genocide. The communities are led by genocide survivors who formed agricultural cooperatives in an effort to stay alive, and World Dance provides the co-ops with goats and cows, farmland, stipends for students, training in agriculture, business, and leadership, and seed money for community-run businesses. Their model is grounded in collaboration, trust, and transparency.
Trust is the necessary ingredient for collaboration and dance is the vehicle to knock down cultural walls. Dance facilitates the harmonious union of complete strangers.
Once a year, women from the World Dance group in California travel to Rwanda. Many have never been there before. They travel to help, teach, mentor, and support the communities there. Before this collaboration, many of the Rwandans had never seen a white person. Since the genocide in 1994, they didn’t think they were going to live much longer. They had no resources to create any kind of income. They had no reason to trust anyone.
“We don’t come to the Rwandan people as something different than they are. Dance makes us one. It’s a completely equalizing factor,” Reineck shared with me. “Here you have two cultures who are intimately related. How does that happen? One thing is we dance. We get out. We don’t talk. There’s no point. We just dance with them. We look each other in the eye and there’s no separation. There’s no us-them because there’s a beat.”
The very first meeting between the Rwandans and the World Dance women, demonstrated the power of dance to bring people together. As the dance group stepped off their bus in Rwanda, they didn’t know what to expect but they heard music, clapping, and dancing in the community room. Within minutes, they joined the Rwandans in dance; moving in sync to their beat without choreographed steps. Dancing together initiated the trust that provides the foundation of their strong ongoing relationship.
If two cultures, so different in history and traditions, can unite through dance, what can we learn from the power of moving together?
In a society that inspires individuality, we need to support our personal agenda and life pursuits. But there must also be dedicated time to push aside our ego and connect; connect with family and friends, connect with neighbors, connect with strangers, and move ourselves out of our comfort zone to find commonality.
Dancing inspires a kindred spirit. Endorphins flow. We feel good about ourselves and our fellow dancers. Differences of opinions and values melt away to the beat and for that moment in time, we are one.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed., is the president of Women’s Success Coaching and author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead. Marcus lives in Santa Barbara and dances with World Dance for Humanity.