The Nature of Things

I trained as a dancer for 15 years, but I never knew why dance was so important to me – until now

Making the documentary Why We Dance taught me that humans have to dance: it’s vital to our existence

Making the documentary Why We Dance taught me that humans have to dance: it’s vital to our existence

Why We Dance director Nathalie Bibeau trained as a dancer for 15 years. (Nathalie Bibeau)

By Nathalie Bibeau, Director, Why We Dance

It shouldn't surprise you to learn I am a dancer, given that I directed the documentary Why We Dance. But it may surprise you to learn that you are a dancer too. In fact, we are all dancers. 

Growing up, the dance studio was my second home — I trained as a dancer for 15 years. When I left my small town in Ontario's Niagara region and moved to Europe, then Toronto and eventually Montreal, I always looked for ways to dance: it felt like something I just had to do. 

Yet it wasn't until I started working on Why We Dance that I understood why. It was the work of philosopher, dancer and religious scholar Kimerer Lamothe that broke open the floodgates. 

Her bold thesis pushes past the conventional notion that humans choose to dance (or not to dance) depending on our interest, skill and background. 

Kimerer Lamothe dances on a rock in the documentary Why We Dance. (CBC / Why We Dance)

Lamothe writes:

"What if humans are the primates whose capacity to dance (shared by some birds and mammals) was the signature strategy enabling the evolution of a distinctively large and interconnected brain, empathic heart and ecological adaptability? And what if dancing plays this role for humans not just in prehistoric times, but continuing into the present? What if humans are creatures who evolved to dance as the enabling condition of their own bodily becoming?"

Put simply: what if dancing helped humans become human?

This idea became the lens through which I came to understand the incredible importance of dance.

We don't dance because we're human. We are human because we dance

To make this documentary, I met with scientists who are studying the evolutionary implications of dance in various species, and dancers who are exploring how movement can connect humans to others, the natural world and our deeper selves.

With Bronwyn Tarr — a social and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, dancer and expectant mother — I reflected on how a mother's heartbeat is the first rhythmic sound a baby hears as it moves and grows. From Tarr's experiments, I learned that we get that rush of joy and endorphins when we synchronize our movements with others: it makes us more likely to bond and work together to survive. 

At the MIT.nano Immersion Lab, Praneeth Namburi's biomechanics work with dance coach Armin Kappacher had me reeling at the implications of what can happen when you become keenly aware of your movements. I learned what it means to realign with yourself. 

Praneeth Namburi works with a dancer at the MIT.nano Immersion Lab. (CBC / Why We Dance)

I was charmed by neuroscientist Erich Jarvis and his dance partner and research associate Sadye Paez. We dove deep into convergent evolution; I learned why we have more in common with a cockatoo than with a chimpanzee when it comes to dance. And it certainly didn't hurt to dance along with Erich and Sadye behind the camera as they performed their salsa routine on the rooftop of The Rockefeller University in New York City! 

Closer to home, Laura Cirelli's work at the Tempo Lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough gave me new insight into how nearly all of us learn to move to a beat at an early point in our lives. We don't react to the beat — we predict it. And we start trying to do this even before we can walk. 

In fact, all the elements of dance are learned while we are still tiny beings. As Lamothe observes in the documentary, we imitate patterns of movement and synchronize our movements with our caregivers from infancy. We play with and practice those movements as we grow, and we become the movements we are making.

This suite of skills that finds expression in dance makes us who we are. We don't dance because we're human. We are human because we dance.

To dance is to exist and to thrive

In the end, one of the last scenes we filmed brought home my understanding of what dance truly is. 

We gathered on a beach in Toronto very early in the morning. As the sun rose, dancers from Red Sky Performance performed a stunning, moving dance on the sand. I was in awe of them.

'Our dances here in Canada were outlawed, illegal, banned. We could not dance.' | Why We Dance

1 year ago
Duration 1:40
In 1921, the head of the Department of Indian Affairs wrote a letter describing why Indigenous people should not be allowed to dance. Sandra Laronde, artistic and executive director at Red Sky Performance, says dance never went away. It just went underground.

Red Sky is a contemporary Indigenous performance group. Sandra Laronde, the executive and artistic director, was there with us that morning. 

She said, "We dance for people who cannot."

I was left speechless by the power of that moment.

As part of the systemic oppression of Indigenous people by the colonial powers in this country, Indigenous dances were outlawed completely between 1925 and 1951, with some ceremonies banned as early as 1884. For generations, Indigenous dance went underground until it was safe for it to resurface.

To dance is to exist and to thrive. If you take away dance, you take away an essential element of culture and the means of expression that defines that culture. 

As the dancers clawed their way out of the sand that foggy morning, all I had lived while making this film was transcended. Conscious of my rhythmic breath, as I watched the camera dance with them, I was captured by the moment and the generations of survival it took to get there. I was connecting to them, the sand, the water and the air, and to myself in a new way, as parts of a singular, fluid moment in the grand dance of evolution.

I set out to make a film where science, art, performance and culture were intertwined, a film in which my own daughter dances. But the experience went much deeper than that for me, in ways that can't quite be expressed in words — perhaps only in dance. 

Watch Why We Dance on The Nature of Things.

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