Photograph by SAMEER AL-DOUMY, AFP/Getty Images
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From France to the French Caribbean, people stuck in lockdown around the world are finding ways to connect through dance.

Photograph by SAMEER AL-DOUMY, AFP/Getty Images

Virtual dance parties are popular. What’s behind their rise?

Creative dancers share genes with strong social communicators, suggesting that we evolved to overcome isolation.

Pandemic lockdowns might be pervasive, but not all our movements are restricted. This has led to a rise in dance, as people seek fitness, stress relief, healing—and connection. Live classes on Instagram and YouTube have proliferated, headed by the likes of dance legend Debbie Allen and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Living rooms are becoming rave scenes thanks to live-streaming dance parties by celebrity spinners Diplo and D-Nice. And mindfulness is taking center stage at dance therapy sessions on Zoom.

It’s all happening in time for International Dance Day on April 29. This annual UNESCO-supported event celebrates dance and encourages governments to recognize its social and educational significance. The day underscores UNESCO’s commitment to dance as a cultural expression; Spain’s flamenco and the Middle East’s dabke, along with many other dances, are inscribed on the organization’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

“More than ever, we need to dance with purpose to remind the world that humanity still exists,” says Gregory Vuyani Maqoma, an acclaimed dancer and educator from South Africa who wrote this year’s International Dance Day message. “Our purpose is one that strives to change the world one step at a time.”

Choreography is a conversation. Thanks to the recent uptick in virtual events, geographically separated groups of strangers are moving in the same direction to the same rhythm without speaking a word. Recent research has proven that even our earliest ancestors recognized the health and social benefits of dance.

Wired for dance

According to a recent study published in the Public Library of Science’s Genetics Journal, creative dancers share two similar genes with good social communicators. These researchers believe the simultaneous evolution of those genes dates back more than 1.5 million years, when group organization and communication were essential for survival. Our prehistoric ancestors who were good dancers used those skills for bonding, social interaction, and courtship. We dance to celebrate harvests, beckon much-needed rain, and bring healing.

In the Guadeloupe Islands, dance was once one of the only means of communication for an entire population. West Africans were brought over to the French Caribbean as slave labor for the sugarcane fields starting in the 17th century. Members from various ethnic groups speaking different languages began to find common ground in rhythms and dances. This improvisational art form became Gwoka, meaning “big drum” in Creole. Each Gwoka rhythm conveys a specific human experience, such as love, sadness, the hard work in the fields, and the celebration of Carnival. The dancer and the drummer in the Gwoka tradition communicate together, speaking through movements and rhythmic accents.

I learned to speak a bit of this language at Akadémiduka, a Guadeloupean folk dance and music school in Pointe-à-Pitre. Gwoka shared similarities to the bomba dance that I had tried in Puerto Rico. Bomba, in turn, had reminded me of the tambu and tumba in Aruba and Curaçao—the swish of skirts accentuating movements in a similar way.

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A couple emerges from social isolation to dance in a public square in Guangzhou, China, on April 2.

And the connections keep growing: Those Dutch Caribbean dances have roots in the Viennese waltz, which I’d once tried during Vienna’s ball season. As I swirled around the elegant ballroom, I drew on my childhood training in the French ballet’s balancé step of three-quarter time. As I continue to dance with more people, I forge more links in a global chain of movement and rhythm.

Brain boost

Maybe our obsession with dance shouldn’t come as a surprise—studies prove it’s good for the brain. Not only do endorphins kick in with the physical touch and the aerobic movement of dance, but frequent dancing increases neuroplasticity, the ability to form new neural connections, which help in recovering from injury and disease. In a 21-year study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City found that dancing reduces the risk of dementia by 76 percent.

I began traveling through dance almost 20 years ago, when I found myself kicking up my heels during a ceilidh at a traditional Scottish wedding on the outskirts of Edinburgh. This lively dance (closely related to American square dancing) is accompanied by boisterous fiddle tunes and Scottish reels. The connections I made on the dance floor with people I didn’t know left a deep imprint on me. I was laughing and sharing joy with someone whom I had met only minutes before.

Since then, I’ve roamed the world for my PBS series Bare Feet in search of that same feeling of connection, over and over again. My mission has been to make new friends by dancing with strangers, whether that’s in my own backyard in New York City or on the other side of the world. Dance is my way of digging deeper into a culture.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular experience from my travels in Malaysia. I had the honor of staying with members of the indigenous Bidayuh ethnic group in a long house in Sarawak. One evening, I was invited to a magnificent feast of traditional dishes, eating from bamboo bowls and palm leaf plates.

Mak Mi, the matron of the group, guided her students and led us in song and dance, one of which was the bamboo dance. I could only compare it to Philippine tinikling or even a version of American double-dutch—two people hold two bamboo sticks parallel and close to the ground, clapping them together and apart against the floor in rhythm while two dancers perform fancy footwork in order to avoid getting their ankles caught between the sticks.

“When do you usually perform this dance?” I asked, between songs. “At which holiday?”

“Oh, we do this at funerals,” said Mak Mi.

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Ballerina Valeriya Pobedinskaya practices in her home in Moscow, Russia, where all theaters have been closed in a citywide lockdown since March 30.

I was surprised. Funerals? But the dance was so fun and energetic. I quickly learned that was the point: to bring joy to mourning family members.

So, in this new era of COVID-19, when we are in a period of mourning, grieving the loss of the life we used to know and preparing ourselves for the grief that is still to come, I’m not surprised how dance has been not only my instinctual remedy, but the solution for hundreds of thousands of people around the world, lifting our spirits and connecting us with every single step.

Here are a few ways to groove virtually

Debbie Allen leads dance classes for people of all ages and levels every week, live from her Instagram account. Follow at #DanceWithDebbieAllen.

Daybreaker puts on a pre-work dance party that’s perfect for social distancers. Ridiculous onesies, out-of-this-world outfits, and kids are encouraged.

New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck, a principal dancer, hosts live daily ballet classes on Instagram. No barre necessary—just use a chair!

Kate Shela and Amber Ryan are movement teachers who offer joyful weekly guided dance sessions by Zoom. Previous dance experience isn’t necessary, since the focus is on the healing power of movement.

D-Nice started #ClubQuarantine from his kitchen with an eight-hour session posted on Instagram. More than 100,000 “party go-ers,” including Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Quincy Jones, tuned in, and now, the party continues weekly.

The Ailey Extension, the official dance studio of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Foundation, streams free daily classes via Instagram Live. Follow for schedules, then tune in to teachers’ accounts to join classes.

TodayTIX started the Intermission Mission in support of The Actors Fund and Broadway artists. Bop along to exclusive musical performances online while supporting the arts.

ClassPass offers live classes online via the company’s app. Stay in shape and help support the local studios and businesses hit hard from studio closures.

Mickela’s weekly #BareFeetLIVE series features interviews with musicians and dancers from around the world offering lessons on dances including the Irish sean nos, a Haitian folk dance, the Brazilian samba, and more. Tune in Tuesdays on Facebook Live and Thursdays on Instagram Live, both at 10 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Eastern.

Mickela Mallozzi is the host of Bare Feet on PBS and Amazon Prime globally. Check local listings or visit her website.