Is dance a form of communication?

“Tango is a language,” the energetic blonde said at my dance lesson. “I have been all over the world—Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia—and even though I might not speak their languages, I can communicate.”

I sat up straight and thought to myself, “Well, if tango is a language, I just started learning the alphabet!”

“Tango is emotion,” she continued. “When you dance with someone, there is a connection.”

I thought back to what another one of my teachers had said: “People dance because they have a story to tell.”

I think that dancing is a way of telling it. This begs the question: Is dancing a form of communication? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines communication as “the act or process of using words, sounds or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts and feelings to someone else.”

I’ve learned that partner dancing is about caring for other people; that when you are dancing with your partner, it is of the utmost importance that you focus all of your energy into that moment. Just like in conversation, if you are thinking about something else, or looking around the room at other people, your partner will notice—he or she will feel it.

In tango, the dance is usually performed in three circles. Usually, the innermost circle is for beginners, or people who are dancing slower. The middle and outer circles are for intermediate and advanced tango dancers, respectively. As the music plays, partners move around and around in circles. If you would like to join, you might ask a girl to dance by putting out your hand. If she accepts, perhaps by taking your hand, you may gently take her arm in yours and lead her into the circle.

In order to get into the circle, you might make eye contact with a dancer on the outer rim. He or she may ignore your eye contact, perhaps implying you should not enter in front of them. If however, that person connects with you, maybe giving you a smile or nod, you are free to move in.

Before the dance has even started, without a word being spoken, the communication has begun.

The music plays and perhaps you start taking small steps to feel the rhythm and find your groove. You are now a team, a partnership, with constant communication required to revel in the dance. It is extremely important that the follower listens, for if she doesn’t, the dancers might get out of sync and the dance may not work.

This is a perfect metaphor for human communication. If we don’t listen to our partner, rapport could be lost, we might slip out of sync, and the communication might not work effectively.

In tango, it is highly advisable that the leader make bold, confident and sweeping movements. If a tango leader is unsure of himself or steps weakly, the follower might not know exactly where he is going or what he is doing. The type of step the leader takes communicates volumes about who he is, the relationship he has with you, and how he is feeling in that moment.

If we look back at our definition of communication, we can see that expressing our feelings to someone else is inherent in the description. That is a big reason why we communicate—to share our feelings with another. A second reason is what communication experts call “social grooming.” Social grooming is the act of engaging in small talk or regular talk as a way of keeping our relationships strong and steady.

Researchers first observed this behavior in chimpanzees. They noticed that chimps often groom their friends and families by removing dirt and dead plants from their hair. Scientists believe that this grooming is incredibly important for social interaction. Physical grooming is how chimps maintain and build relationships; grooming one another signifies their friendship and allegiance.

The same goes with humans, except we have moved past pulling dirt out of each other’s hair. Now we communicate instead. It serves the same function: to build and maintain friendships and allegiances.

I think that dance is a form of social grooming and therefore a form of communication. When we dance with another human being, we are affirming that we are indeed their friend and that we value their presence enough to embrace and dance with them. I believe that if we went to another country and we couldn’t speak their language, that we could forge an incredibly strong connection with someone through dance.

Some people might argue that communication can only be expressed through words or intentional messages sent out through body language. They might argue that we can only truly share information and feelings by talking.

Dance, however, has also been seen as a form of nonverbal communication in other creatures. Take the bee dance, for example, commonly called the “waggle dance.” This dance, performed by the honey bee, follows a certain figure-eight pattern that is easily recognizable by other bees. Through the waggle dance, bees are able to share information with their friends about the location of flowers containing pollen. They can also share the direction of water and a wide variety of other messages as well.

So whether it’s the waggle dance, hip-hop or tango, communicating through dance can benefit us all.