Why do you dance?

Recently, someone asked me what the point of dancing is. We were sitting in her parents’ living room after a Ramayana performance. A part of me still kept seeing the red flashes of costumes, while the rest of me was looking forward to going to sleep. I absolutely did not know how to respond.

She answered herself, saying, “Performance,” and moving the conversation on to other things.

I sat back against the couch, glad that I didn’t have to answer. It’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time: why do I feel this need to dance?

Discipline is my standard answer. I like having rules. I like having a clear definition of right and wrong and knowing where I stand (usually on the wrong side). This is why I gravitate toward classical dance forms. If you start adding in freedom, I start getting uncomfortable. Modern dance classes are always terrifying experiences for me.

This, however, doesn’t really answer why people dance. A more obvious response would be the exact opposite: expression. As with any art form, people dance to express. For me, I suppose this is true to a small extent. One of the really great things about dance is that when I’m dancing, I don’t have to talk. We all know how much I hate talking. Dance gives me a safe outlet to communicate1 while remaining silent.

But, again, that’s only a small benefit that I gain from dancing. It’s not the reason. I would also say that the same is true for performing. I agree that the logical outcome of practicing dance is performance. Performances are a way to measure your progress. Onstage, what you know and what you don’t know immediately becomes clear. Performing is extremely important because it removes the crutches of the studio, but at least for me, I perform more because I should. It’s fun, of course. It’s gratifying to see hard work pay off. It’s also not the reason that I dance.

Which leaves, as far as I can tell, looking pretty. This is probably the reason that so many little girls want to become ballerinas. Pink tutus and rhinestones fit well into the growing-up-to-be-a-princess goal. Probably, this is also the reason that I started dancing. I’d steal sheets of hot pink and yellow paper from my elementary school art classroom. I was pretty into bright, shiny things.

I have since become a realist. As someone who likes the rules of dance so much, every time I step in the studio I am faced with the fact that I am not pretty. My shoulders need to push back further, my stomach needs to suck in, my knees need to actually straighten. There is always something that can be better, and you need it all to be better if you really want to be pretty.

So this is why I was sitting on the couch frantically searching for an answer. I’ve ruled out the obvious ones and I don’t know what the real one is. And when I try to figure it out, as I occasionally do when I’m thinking too hard about my future and about what I’m doing with my life right now, I get scared. If I can’t think of an answer, does that mean there isn’t one? And if there isn’t one, if there isn’t a reason, then what’s the point of any of it?

Then I remind myself that I’m getting too existential and go back to practicing my walking, a feat that I still haven’t quite mastered.

1Note that I don’t mean communication the way one can communicate through language. Arguments have been made on both sides, but I don’t think there’s any way to communicate very specific ideas through dance. Emotions and large ideas, sure. A bread recipe? Not so much.


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