The Evolutionary Case for Dancing as Exercise

Human history proves that communal movement to the beat (even done virtually) is a great form of fitness

Daniel E Lieberman
Elemental
Published in
4 min readJan 6, 2021

--

Photo: YakobchukOlena/Getty Images

In recent years, there has been a fad for taking cues from our early ancestors to improve our health today. We know that we didn’t evolve for our current sedentary lifestyles, and we understand the ways our bodies were optimized for endurance exercise like long-distance running. But one under-discussed element of our fitness evolution is the hours-long dance party.

Take, for instance, the San people of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. In the 1950s, anthropologist Laurence Marshall and his family spent months at a time with these indigenous people, who were then still hunter-gatherers. About once a week, they observed the San medicine dances, typically beginning after dusk when everyone would hang out by the fire. As both men and women sang joyously and clapped to ancient songs, a handful of men would start dancing in a winding, twisting line around the group, stomping out the song’s beat, often adding extra light steps. Men would do most of the dancing, but women would also dance a turn or two when the mood was upon them. As the night drew on and the fervor of the hypnotic dance steadily increased, more men joined in, and by dawn some begin to enter a trancelike state, which they call “half-death.” The San believed there was great power in this half-conscious state, which freed the medicine men’s spirits to communicate between this and other worlds, to draw out manifest sicknesses and as-yet-unrevealed ills, and to protect people from unseen but lurking dangers.

Like long-distance running, dancing can go on for hours, requiring stamina, skill, and strength.

The San didn’t dance to get fit, but dancing all night once a week requires and develops phenomenal endurance. Further, their dancing traditions are the rule in world history, not the exception. I know of no nonindustrial culture in which men and women didn’t dance for hours on a regular basis. The Hadza of northern Tanzania, for example, sometimes dance joyfully after dinner until the wee hours. On dark moonless nights, the Hadza also perform the sacred epeme dance to heal…

--

--

Daniel E Lieberman
Elemental

Daniel Lieberman is a Professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and the author of several books