Would you like to dance?
As a song comes to an end and the six couples stop dancing, they are all smiling and laughing, They hug each other, thank each other, introduce themselves to each other. Overall these people seem extremely happy.
What has caused this moment of euphoria? Omni Dance.
Every Wednesday in the Pit, the outside area between a few buildings that has been the heart of campus at UNC, from 12-1, you can find a group of people dancing in the middle of the everyday chaos. These people are classmates, coworkers, and anyone else who wants to join in for a song. Some of them have known each other for years, and some have never met before, but all come together through Omni.
Omni is a dance group whose mission is “to foster healthy community and meaningful connection by popularizing social dance” (Omni Facbook group). Omni follows no one style of dance since it is based off a theory of partner improvisation and each person brings a different level and style of dance.
Omni is a very new group to UNC’s campus, having only been around since the end of September. Even so it seems to have found a home at UNC, having about 15 returning dancers per week and pulling more than 60 people into dancing any given Wednesday.
Omni’s popularity means it has found a role to play and now serves some purpose to the people. The effect I observed was that participating in Omni dance left people happier, satisfied, less self-conscious, and feeling as if they had connected with someone, and I became interested in how Omni was able to do all that. I believe that this effect has to do with how dance changes a person’s connection to themselves and their connections to others.
For this ethnography I went to the pit on two successive Wednesdays as an active observer of of Omni dance. Observations sessions averaged 45 minutes and I conducted personal interviews on the last day. During this time, I took notes on my computer sitting at the edge of the pit and wore regular attire so as to not stand out from the other people watching Omni. I participated in dancing when asked and followed the other member’s cues on asking other people to dance. At first I had tried to stay uninvolved but I was personally asked to dance and felt like I would be influencing the group by not participating.
Connection to Self
Drid Williams (2015) defined the difference between technique and style as technique being what you are doing and style being how you are doing it which means style is where someone’s personality comes out. At Omni I saw a plethora of different styles being danced, from hip hop to ballroom to modern to salsa. All of these styles interacted with each other, with partners from different backgrounds seamlessly blending the two styles into one dance. If Williams words are correct, then these differences in style were how people were expressing who they were to their partner and in return were responding to who their partner was.
This idea of dance being an effective form of self-expression was also shown in a recent study of how dance effected children, stating that while dancing they were seen “using their imaginations, making aesthetic decisions, problem solving and enacting their non-verbal communications within a social setting. “(Deans, 2016, p.51) Dance is such an effective form of self-expression because it asks you to share so many different parts of yourself- what you can physically do and what you can imagine, as well as what you find beautiful, how you think, and how you communicate with people.
All this personal expression, that could easily be terrifying, is done in a safe way though. As one Omni dancer said “in a crowded place like the pit normally you feel like you would be judged but I feel really open and safe here,” (personal communications, November 9th, 2016). This dual feeling of openness and comfort in a highly public space comes from dance being the form of communication. Unlike other mediums such as a play or a song where thoughts and emotions can be explicitly and clearly stated, all information is implied in dance. Every dance can be interpreted in many different ways, which means there is always some level of obscurity to self-expression in dance. This barrier that dance provides allows for a space of complete self-refection and honestly with another human in a public, but with security.
Connection to Others
One reason that these dancers felt happy and connected to their partner could be that improvising with a partner requires a certain amount of trust. Unlike other mediums where the artistic thought and planning and the action are separate, in improvisation those steps happen simultaneously. This means that neither partner knows what will happen next in the dance, and for anything to happen they must both work together, seeing and responding to each other’s physical cues. As one professional dancer said when being interviewed about a group improvisation, “There is a lot of trust between each other and on the process. The connection between the body and mind of dancers is inseparable, as well as connections between dancers in common improvisational space” (Wilson, 2015, p. 306)
This improvisational process also leaves no room for doubt or self-editing as once a move is made it cannot be taken back. This inability to change the dance means that the partners have to trust each other to move beyond any mistakes it order for the dance to happen at all.
The dancers at Omni also identified a feeling of connection that arose during the dance. When I asked one dancer how social dance ad benefited him personally he said that it “allows me to connect with people in a completely different way and that is so gorgeous,” (personal communications, November 9th, 2016). When asking another dancer about her experience she responded that “as a person who doesn’t dance I feel like is should be intimidated but we really break down those barriers here,” (personal communications, November 9th, 2016). Despite this participant initially feeling like she should be an outsider, which she showed by saying ‘I feel’ after dancing she felt connected to the group as she included herself as part of the ‘we’ that were breaking down barriers. This idea that every level of dancer feels comfortable speaks to both the connection and trust that is built almost instantaneously and also reflects the belief that in dance no work will be rejected, no person in this partnership with leave or judge the other, and that there is someone else there to help.
Dance, like all other forms of art, is a means of communication. One reason people choose to participate in Omni is that it is a chance to reach out and connect with other people while at the same time exploring and developing yourself. In 2002 Hoffman, Richmond, Morrow, and Salomone found that for students to stay in school they needed to find a place they fit in; a place that reflected their personal values and a place they felt they had a voice. Omni has succeeded at this. The group has very effectively created a safe space for collaboration and self-reflection in a public setting, a combination which is difficult to find. Omni dance has a permanent community of people who show up weekly, but within that hour of dance it expands its community to include everyone in the area, making everyone a person you can talk to. As college students we seem to gravitate towards places we find we can connect to each other, and Omni has created that for us.
Williams, D. (2015). Style in the Dance and Human Movement Studies. Visual Anthropology, 28(3), 199-207. doi:10.1080/08949468.2015.1014251
Deans, J. (2016). Thinking, feeling and relating: Young children learning through dance. Australasian Journal Of Early Childhood, 41(3), 46-57.
Lucznik, K. (2015). Between minds and bodies: Some insights about creativity from dance improvisation. Technoetic Arts: A Journal Of Speculative Research, 13(3), 301-308. doi:10.1386/tear.13.3.301_1
Hoffman, M., Richmond, J., Morrow, J., & Salomone, K. (2002). Investigating “sense of belonging” in first-year college students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 4(3), 227-256.
Omni Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/omniflashunc
The author is featured in the photograph, second in from the left.