December 17, 2011, by Stephen Mumford


Why dance? A sociobiologist might say it’s a mating ritual. Many people indeed find partners at discotheques, we have to grant that. But is such an explanation all too reductionist? Children like to dance, happily married people and even your granny will have a go. I doubt that it is all about gaining a reproductive advantage.

Put on your favourite pop record. Get up and move your body in time to the music. Isn’t it fun? It’s a great feeling. And isn’t that why we do it? There is great joy in moving your body. We are embodied beings – we live – and it is such fun to celebrate our embodiment.

I have been working on a philosophical theory over the past few years which states that it is pleasurable to exercise our own causal powers as agents. By our causal powers I mean abilities, skills and such like. Dance seems to offer an exemplary illustration. We do it because we can. It’s fun. And the more skilled the dancer, the more pleasure they get in the dancing. They can gain satisfaction in mastery of their body, never missing the beat, never putting a foot wrong. When humans dance, it may have no point at all. Sure, the pulse may raise, and that may be healthy, but for the most part we are not dancing for the fitness. It is pleasurable to feel one’s heart beat faster through dance. And we also take pleasure in seeing others take pleasure in their embodied agency.

The thesis that it is pleasurable to exercise a causal power such as an ability may face objections. I seem to have the power to strangle someone, for instance, or to hammer a nail through my hand, but I wouldn’t find pleasure in doing so. I’ll just say that I’m working on the reply to that objection. I’ll get back to you. Now get up and dance!

Posted in Music