Published: July 2006
Shall We Dance?
From ballet to break-dance, from the hora to hip-hop, this country stays moving on the dance floor.
By Cathy Newman
National Geographic Senior Writer

From the first kick of a baby's foot to the last "Anniversary Waltz," we dance—to internal rhythms and external sounds. Before the written word, humans spoke the language of dance. It's as ancient as the 3,400-year-old image of a man with a lute, dancing on a clay plaque discovered in northern Israel.

We dance, not just with our bodies, but from the heart. "Dance is bodies sounding off," says Judith Lynne Hanna, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland. We pour out love and hate, joy and sorrow; appeal to the spirits, gods, and nature; flirt, seduce, court; celebrate birth, death, and everything in between. We even presume to reorder the world, as if, in the Shaker song, by "turning, turning we come round right." Dance is so profane, some religions ban it; so sacred, others claim it.

Dance in America can hardly contain itself. We dance—from Florida to Alaska, from horizon to horizon and sea to sea, in the ballrooms of big cities and whistle-stop bars, in Great Plains Grange halls, underground kivas, church basements, barrio nightclubs, and high school auditoriums. We do the beguine, polka, waltz, fox-trot, tarantella, jitterbug, samba, salsa, rumba, mambo, tango, bomba, cha-cha, merengue, mazurka, conga, cakewalk, Charleston, two-step, jerk, swim, Watusi, twist, frug, monkey, electric slide, Harlem shake, shim sham shimmy, cabbage patch, fandango, garba, gourd dance, corn dance, hora, hopak—as if our lives depended on it. Some believed just that: A medieval superstition averred that dancing in front of Saint Vitus's statue ensured a year of good health.

We dance out of anguish, to attain solace, and, sometimes, in an attempt to heal. "I remember a couple," says Lester Hillier, owner of a dance studio in Davenport, Iowa. The husband was a retired farmer. His wife, a housewife, wore flat shoes and a floral housedress. "One of their sons had been killed," Hillier recalls. "He'd been in a love triangle and was shot in a club. The devastated parents had a dance lesson booked the day after it happened. They insisted on coming anyway."

They practiced the steps they'd learned—the rumba, the fox-trot, the exuberant movements of swing. As the hour drifted to a close, the couple asked for one last dance. They wanted a waltz. And when it ended, she rested her head on his chest; he wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Then they stood still, clinging to one another.

"If we just sat at home, what would we do?" he said quietly.

Dance, like the rhythm of a beating heart, is life. It is, also, the space between heartbeats. It is, said choreographer Alwin Nikolais, what happens between here and there, between the time you start and the time you stop. "It is," says Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, "as close to God as you are going to get without words."

To dance is human. To dance is divine.