Frank Browning on the Dancing Brain

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April 15, 2012

What happens in your brain when you dance?  It turns out neuroscientists have been investigating the question, and it would seem that we're born to dance.  Frank Browning talks with scientists and choreographers about the "dancing brain."

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Neurons as the source of artistic expression? Body chemistry and the desire to procreate dictating the impulse to dance, as proven by the fact that the tango is sensual?

I started dancing when I was four or five years old. Trust me, it had nothing to do with sex. Back then it was all about fantasy. Tina the Ballerina was my favorite record, where Tina saves the day when the prima dona can’t perform. Tina runs up from the back of the auditorium and says, “Wait! Wait! I can dance in her place!” The dancer was a heroine.

As I grew in the art form, I discovered that achieving competence in in dance gave me great pleasure and self respect. It also made my personal space huge. It was a sublime experience. I couldn’t articulate any of those concepts or begin to understand them, but as an adult, that is my assessment as to what was happening as a child.

When I began dancing with the opposite sex, the great affinity created between two people engaged in art together was a huge bonus. Dancing with a partner is all physics and math, calculated at genius speed, without thought. A combination of athletics and art. And just damn fun.

It had a lot in common with my experience accompanying my sister on the piano while she played the violin, and then again when I played in the flute in the symphony. It was as if we operated in the realm of spirits occupying the same space, so much in communication that we could anticipate each other’s movements to the nanosecond, and create aesthetics as one. Again, sublime.

As an older adult, I know now exactly what I experienced with dance. Dance is an ecstatic art form. It is spiritual. It is an out-of-body experience. And ultimately, like any great art form, it reminds us of who we really are – what our true nature is -- a creator. Great art inspires us to create further.

Your expert might say, aha! That can lead to sex! But then, so does too many beers. Saying that sex is what drives dance is to report that the world is black, white and shades of gray. My response is that those are merely the shadows cast by artists conceiving of and painting a full-color universe.

The performer is elevated into the stratosphere by the dance. The viewer resonates and is also elevated. And yes, this event no doubt lights up this or that part of the brain. But from my viewpoint, it is the spirit who creates; the neurons merely register and facilitate the creating. And by “spirit,” I mean “life force, separate from, but inhabiting and controlling the body and mind.” In other words, the being in the body.

A materialist will adamantly claim that this is all a graceful illusion created by the miracles of brain chemistry, that life force is all a product of matter. That is the great debate of the ages, which we won’t solve here. But your story presented only one side, and presented it as fact.

Your expert’s take on dance felt muddled and “stretched to fit,” like someone who stands on the sidelines trying to explain to himself what it is all about. I hope one day he is graced by the exhilarating, out-of-the-body experience possible with dance. I suspect it would not change his materialist dogma, but he might be pleasantly surprised at how much bigger his personal space will feel.

Maggy Graham, Dunedin, FL

Right on, Maggie.

to me is permission to move
any which way
without being labeled a nut

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