AT ESALEN, ONE of Earth’s most glorious spots perched on California’s Big Sur Coast, we sat wearing long faces. Our teacher, the graceful Cida Vieira of Brazil, had been in the United States long enough to know what the problem was.
This was February 2017, and the various people who had come to her Esalen dance workshop were apprehensive about the recently inaugurated president.
As a woman from the state of Goiás, the central state where many ethnicities coexist, and as a native of a country fraught with political tumult, Cida sought to comfort us.
“We have a lot of corruption in my country,” she said, “but we never forget to have fun.”
In other words, it’s almost Mardi Gras, the sun is up, we have this day — let’s dance. Not because everything is the way we want it, but because we’re together and we’re alive.
In the past decade I’ve pursued Mardi Gras/Carnevale/Carnival in places where people of divergent worlds come together in peace.
The Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Martinique dazzled me with their parades — joyous, shimmering, irresistible revelry in the public square.
Everybody joins in — all colors, all ages.
“Happy Carnival,” Trinidadians wish visitors in Port of Spain. And in Fort-de-France, Martinique, everyone dresses in red on Carnival’s ultimate day, so even a stranger like me, having bought a bright crimson T-shirt at the supermarket, felt a part of it all.
Turns out shaking one’s hips and clapping one’s hands in public isn’t only a silly thing.
To connect with that rhythm, be it from conga drums or a DJ’s turntables, is to step into something juicier than any verbal discourse.
In her book “Dancing in the Street: A History of Collective Joy,” Barbara Ehrenreich has researched this thoroughly. She quotes neuroscientist Marcel Kinsbourne, who observed that music helps us entrain with one another, moving as one into a shared rhythm. Music and dance can bathe us in a “sense of belonging and a shared mindset.”
Ehrenreich also cites the work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who’s written about early humans. For them, dance had the evolutionary function of forming and expanding communities. Dancing worked better than talking, Dunbar asserts.
“Just as we were acquiring the ability to argue … we needed a more primitive emotional mechanism to bond our large groups … something deeper and more emotional was needed to overpower the cold logic of verbal arguments.
“We needed music and physical touch.”
Let’s return now to Cida’s dance class at Esalen. Here is a luminous samba performer and teacher who makes it her mission to reunite people with their inner dancers. Cida’s workshop is titled “Discover Your Brazilian Soul,” and did we ever.
I admit it’s not practical to head for Esalen every February to prepare for Mardi Gras. Fortunately we have numerous classes and gatherings right here: Ballroom dances at various elks lodges, contra dances at grange halls, the Chimacum Dance Jam, Zumba, Jazzercise and Thursday night live music at 7 Cedars Casino’s Club Seven, to name a few opportunities.
Uncomfortable at first for the newcomer? Yes. Joyous when you move past the awkward stage? Yes.
To paraphrase another heroine named Martha Reeves: 2020 is here and the time is right for dancing in the street — or the grange hall, as the case may be.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.
Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be March 4.
Reach her at [email protected]