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Dancing in Culture and Biology

“With the creation of the universe, the dance too came into being, which signifies the union of the elements. The round dance of the stars, the constellation of planets in relation to the fixed stars, the beautiful order and harmony in all its movements, is a mirror of the original dance at the time of [...]

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“With the creation of the universe, the dance too came into being, which signifies the union of the elements. The round dance of the stars, the constellation of planets in relation to the fixed stars, the beautiful order and harmony in all its movements, is a mirror of the original dance at the time of creation.” -Lucian of Samosata (~125 to 180 A.D.)

CARTAGENA, Colombia- I was watching an Afro-Caribbean band playing in a bar one night in the Getsemani district of Cartagena. Four men played the drums, guitar, bass, and sang respectively, while a very fit, scantily clad, dark skinned Afro-Colombian woman busted a move before them on the dance floor.

The dancer’s hips moved in humping motions, her breasts bounced to the beat, her dark skin sparkled in the bar room lights, and her adequately stocked buttocks moved back and forth rhythmically with the ebbs and flows of the music — thumpthumpthumpthumpthump. I could only describe her movements as being akin to a flag shimmering in a heavy wind. Each snap of the snare dump, every thump of the bass produced a flush spasm of motion from the dancer. She neither moved with apparent premeditation nor with a lick of self-consciousness. The motions were overtly sexual:  hips gyrating, back arching, breast bouncing — ancient, basic human body movements. The crowd of mostly white backpackers watched, completely transfixed on the rhythmic spasms of the black woman wildly dancing.

The music was easy to move to, being Caribbean based dance music, and, to my dismay, a young caucasian female tourist — more than likely from the USA or Canada — erroneously though it a good idea to joined the dancer. Trying to copy the agile, shimmering, and shaking body of her model, the white novice made a complete fool of herself. I could not help but feel embarrassed for the poor girl — her concrete hips moved like heavy machinery at a building site, her feet pounded the dance floor with the grace of a Mac truck, and her face told of her insecurity. She would have been better of manning a jackhammer for all the grace she brought to the dance floor, she looked thoroughly out of context.

I couldn’t watch anymore, I felt too embarrased for the poor white poseur.

But this was not the fault of the backpacker: she comes from a culture that only slightly values dance as a prime aspect of courtship, a culture that does not inherently cultivate the bodily motions she tried to imitate, a population that has allowed many of the mental synapses and coordination necessary for matching bodily motions to music to wan.

Dance as culturally based

In Colombia and throughout the Caribbean and many other parts of Latin America, dance is an important element of a child’s upbringing. “All Colombians can salsa,” I was told multiple times, and it did not take me long before I learned why.

My two year old daughter, Petra, loves to dance. Whenever there is music within ear shot she dances to it. As a family, we often seek out music events so that she can enjoy this activity — which is not difficult on the Caribbean coast of Latin America. Often times, there will be other little kids dancing at these events as well. What is truly impressive is that these little kinds in Colombia can move.

Seriously, I’ve seen two year olds rocking their hips, grinding, and tootsie-rolling in imitation of their adult brethren. These small children do real dance moves without difficulty while my daughter Petra just kind of runs around in circles. From the time they can walk, Colombian children seem to be taught how to dance, and they learn from some very prolific teachers: the adults around them who were also born dancing.

Like this, dance is passed down culturally.

Unless specialists or overtly enthusiastic about dance, it is not my impression that Colombians have any idea where they learned to dance: they seem to just know how to do it, it is something that was ingrained in their acculturation.

Some of the people that we meet in Colombia would try to help Petra out, try to show her some dance moves. Sometimes they would set her up in front of them, grab her hips, and try to manipulate them into a swaying, salsa like motion. Most often, the people of Colombia seemed to think that my daughter was in grave danger of dancing like a white girl, and they would try to remedy the shortcomings of her culture.

“Like this,” they often tell Petra as they demonstrate how to shake the hips. “Dance!” they command. In Latin America, it isn’t dancing if you are not shaking your hips like a swinging lasso.

My daughter tries her best, but her waddles don’t often fool anyone: she dances like her parents. Even as children, people of my culture seem to lack the inherent ability to dance well — at least in comparison with our Latino, Caribbean, and African peers.

Dance is something that is perhaps being lost in American culture. My parents forced me to take social dance classes when I was an adolescent, so, as they put it, I could get a date. But this was old thinking even then, and by the time I reached courtship age dancing was long out of style. I never did get to impress the ladies with my ability to foxtrot.

But different cultures have different styles of dance. Part of the reason why us Caucasians in Latin America often look so foolish on the dance floor is because our culturally constructed concept of dance is different from that of the regions we travel in. If we look out of context, it is because we are.

Colombians dancing

Sociological studies have shown that dance, and the basic bodily movements that make up such, are different between societies in relation to how advanced and what type of agriculture they practice. The differences in dance movements are raw and basic: people from long term agriculture societies move differently than those whose ancestors began practicing agriculture more recently. If my white brethren appear stiff and rigid on the dance floor it is because we grow up into populations that practice “stiff and rigid” styles of dance  — like line dancing or square dancing . . .

Another aspect of how and why dance is passed down culturally is in the realm of courtship. The courtship process in developed, long term agricultural regions like the USA, Europe, and East Asia, courtship has become more complex, far more diluted, and, in the end, less primal. We no longer have to dance, be strong, or show our physical superiority to attract mates — even though these attributes still help.

In my travels through Latin America and the Caribbean, dance is often a prime activity associated with courtship. The monthly dances in the small villages here are often where people still find their mates, the clubs are were people go to check out the breeding stock. In these regions, dance and courtship go together, and the people are prepared: they can dance.

Also, some cultures demand the men to make more of a show, to put on a larger performance for their mates — read machismo — to attract women. Take this quote from one of the lead scientists of the U of Washington/ Rutgers University study on the biology of dance:

“In species where fathers invest less than mothers in their offspring, females tend to be more selective in mate choice and males therefore invest more in courtship display.”

Now insert the word “cultures” in place of species and you will easily be able to see what cultures of this planet have the best dancers. I attest from observation that the best dancing cultures are often the ones where the family bonds of the father are the weakest.

Dance as biologically based

It is easy for people to accept the fact that a person with a natural propensity for a certain art or activity can pass their adept skills down to their children, but when you credit certain propensities to populations (people of a broadly defined, though classifiable gene pool) some people tend to squirm. The culture is king view of human behavior is still popular, but its acceptance is beginning to wan.

Does culture reflect biology or does biology reflect culture?

This is the great chicken and egg question of human bio-cultural evolution. In truth, they work in tandem.

The main thesis behind the book, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, is that since the advent of agriculture humans have been on a track of super charged evolution, where the societies that farmed the longest experienced more biological change while those that picked up agriculture the latest experienced the least.

These may include tendencies towards (for example) reduced physical endurance, enhanced long-term planning, or increased docility, all of which may have been counter-productive in hunter-gatherer societies, but become favoured adaptations in a world of agriculture and its resulting trade, governments and urbanization. These adaptations are even more important in the modern world, and have helped shape today’s nation states. The authors speculate that the scientific and Industrial Revolutions came about in part due to genetic changes in Europe over the past millennium . .

The authors suggest we would expect to see fewer adaptive changes among the Amerindians and sub-Saharan Africans, who have farmed for the shortest times and were genetically isolated from older civilizations by geographical barriers. –10,000 year explosion Wikipedia

Even science is now backing up with fact what is readily observable in all racially pluralistic societies: certain cultures, biologically inter-related groups, and racial populations tend to have propensities for various skills and abilities.

Cochran and Harpending assert that the idea that race is no more than skin deep amounts to “perhaps little more than a fad.” There are subtle biological differences between cultures, races — human populations — that impact behavioral traits.

Dance is deeply rooted not only in culture but in biology as well.

Dancing, which is integrally related to music, likely has its origins close to the birth of Homo sapiens, and throughout our history, dancing has been universally practiced in all societies. We hypothesized that there are differences among individuals in aptitude, propensity, and need for dancing that may partially be based on differences in common genetic polymorphisms. Identifying such differences may lead to an understanding of the neurobiological basis of one of mankind’s most universal and appealing behavioral traits—dancing.

We suggest the notion that the “dance” phenotype is no more difficult to define than other complex human behavioral phenotypes (schizophrenia, attention deficit, personality, violence, and others) that have been shown to be both heritable and amenable to genetic analysis.

-AVPR1a and SLC6A4 Gene Polymorphisms Are Associated with Creative Dance Performance

What these studies did not do was to compare various cultural and racial groups for the criteria related to dancing ability, but it is my impression that this is only a slight jump away.

External resources

Buy The 10,000 Year Explosion from Amazon


Filed under: Colombia, Culture and Society, Dance, South America

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

2 comments… add one

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  • dad November 7, 2011, 7:56 pm

    Good article .What you say is true, different places in the world produce highly talented people that are superior to any other region.

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    • Wade Shepard November 8, 2011, 1:41 am

      It is funny that we now need science to prove to us what everyone already knew a hundred years ago.

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