Holding each other’s gaze, we twirl. Keeping his eye on mine, my dolphin partner swims in excited circles, leading me around and around and down. Never taking my eyes off his, I undulate, twist and corkscrew to show my enthusiasm for our interaction by mimicking him as best I can while adding a bit of my own ‘flair’. ‘Let’s twirl and twirl together some more!’ is what I mean. I have forgotten about breathing for a moment…but once I feel the urge to breathe, I realize I am already ascending, following my dolphin partner who is now spiraling around and up. Somehow, we ‘decided’ to turn up towards the surface at the same moment…how exactly is obvious in a way…we just started to ascend when we felt like it. At the same time it’s marvelously mysterious. It is as if he magically knew when I would need to breathe…and I magically sensed that we needed to finish our short dance so he could rejoin his family, who were doing twirls and swirls of their own as they traveled past beneath us.
This blog is about the power of dance to unite…to help us move together. In part, it is my response to ‘Why Dance Matters,’ a virtual celebration of World Dance Day.
But before I get into that…I want to thank the many of you who read my previous blog post on The Cove and who have added comments of your own. The protection of dolphins and their habitat is, of course, exceedingly important to me. So I’m really thrilled that some of the conversation about that is happening on my blog! This post doesn’t focus on the movie directly, but I hope the ideas I’ll discuss – synchrony and empathy – will have resonance – particularly with regard to improving communication between American and Japanese people about protecting dolphins.
It is a beautiful coincidence that dolphins and humans share the ability and inclination to communicate through synchrony – actions like mirroring and imitation.
Watch wild dolphins and their synchrony is stunning. Bonded pairs – whether mother/calf or life-long buddies – often swim together side by side – making the same arc, turning at the same time, even taking simultaneous breaths – as they express their close relationship with each other. Larger groups of dolphins are even more amazing, moving effortlessly in a kind of unison that is wonderfully fluid…at times absolute…but easily accommodating the youngster who needs to take a breath sooner than the rest…or a pair who twirl off for a ‘quickie’…a group who veer off momentarily for a swirling game of ‘chase’…but then return to a synchronously moving pod.
Humans also use synchronous movement to express relatedness. We are masters of imitation and this ability is related to our capacity for empathy. For example, when we are in agreement with each other, we often take on similar postures, gestures, facial expressions and speech cadences with our conversation partner (a tendency well-described by sociologists and psychologists). Often, we do not even realize that we are acting so similarly…yet if we don’t…if the other person doesn’t take on a similar tone or posture, we are likely to have the feeling that the other person just ‘didn’t get it,’ or that maybe they were just ‘going along’ with the conversation and really didn’t agree with us at all.
Some neurobiologists believe that the presence of ‘mirror neurons’ explains the connection between mimicry and the feeling of empathy (references at the end of the post). First discovered in monkeys, ‘mirror neurons’ are brain cells that fire both when we do an action as well as when we see someone else do an action. It is believed that when these ‘mirror neurons’ fire, we sense what it might be like for ourselves to act in the same way that the person we are watching is acting. In our minds, we ‘walk in the other person’s shoes’ – and through that experience, it is believed, we come to understand the other person’s point of view, motivation or feeling – we develop empathy.
There is evidence to suggest that humans and dolphins have ‘mirror neurons’ but science wasn’t the basis for me to approach wild dolphins through synchronous movement…rather, it was DANCE!
Most of you know that I’m an avid and long-time practitioner of Contact Improvisation, a form of dance that depends heavily on the kind same of ‘magical’ connection with one’s human dance partner as I describe in ‘twirling’ with a wild dolphin. In Contact Improvisation, dancers we connect through touch and sharing weight (partnering) as well as seeing or even hearing our partner move. The connection allows us to discover the dance between us – a ‘place’ where shared movement seems magically to occur – as if neither dancer were leading, but both are following some enchanted Dance that arises from and guides both dancers.
Synchrony is definitely one of the ways through which we develop a sense of connection in improvised dance. When someone approaches me at a dance jam moving in a manner similar or complimentary to me, I understand immediately that this person is interested in dancing with me. In the simple act of imitation, they not only say, ‘I want to join you,’ but also, ‘I understand what you are doing, and I like it!’ Having left some of his own ideas aside in order to bother to dance like me, he also communicates respect – even deference for my dancing. A measure of trust is generated. We are doing the same actions – our bodies must be experiencing similar sensations. I know he knows very viscerally how I feel.
So, I reply, ‘OK, let’s dance!’ – not in words, but in my movements. I might continue in an imitative mode – so now I’m imitating him imitating me. We might just actually laugh about the absurdity of that (there’s plenty of spontaneous laughter at Contact Improvisation jams). Or maybe I elaborate by adding new movement elements or even contrast – theme and variation. As we play back and forth, the lines between leader and follower blur…until we both become participants in a shared collaborative dance whose creation seems to come from both of us and neither of us. When we start in synchrony, on common ground, it often seems easy to get to such a ‘magical’ dance.
With Contact Improvisation jams as a reference, it was easy to recognize the synchronous motion that goes on during wild dolphin socialization as a kind of expression about their relatedness. And it was easy to sense that synchrony would be an appropriate way to approach wild dolphins – that wild dolphins would likely understand what I ‘meant’. It seemed obvious that wild dolphins and Contact Improvisers use synchronous motion to express similar things: I like you…I respect you…I understand you and want to join you…
My dance ‘investigations’ are completely (and delightfully!) unscientific…so it was great to find some ‘real’ research that corroborates my experiences. In a recent publication, Denise Herzing, PhD reported mirroring, imitation and synchrony in the interaction of wild Atlantic Spotted dolphins with human researchers in the waters around the Bahamas. Attempting to use a simple keyboard to try to establish communication with the wild dolphins, she found that cooperative use of the keyboard between humans and wild dolphins was most likely when there was synchronous movement (and eye contact) between human and dolphin.
I’ve danced with the very dolphins in Dr. Herzing’s report on several delightful past trips (including a very memorable one with friends last August). And…I’m excited to announce that I will be going on a research trip to this area with Dr. Herzing’s mentor, Diana Reiss, PhD in August this year! Dr. Reiss is a professor of Psychology at Hunter College, director of Marine Mammal Research at the National Aquarium. She is the researcher who used mirror recognition studies to show that dolphins express self awareness. As you can imagine, I’m very excited to be making the trip with her…stay tuned for some ‘real’ dolphin science coming your way on this blog soon!
Meantime, I am wondering…if we can use dance to reach across species – from human to dolphins…can we also use it to bridge a cultural gap?
Since I wrote my blog on The Cove, I’ve ‘met’ (mostly online) quite a few Japanese dolphin enthusiasts…and I’m beginning to understand that dolphins (and whales) raise difficult issues in the relationship between my two home countries – Japan and America. There is controversy and politics, strong emotions and unfortunately, lots of misunderstanding. How can we work together? How can we help American audiences understand that Japanese people are not ‘anti-cetacean’? That mostly, the antipathy to western pro-cetacean activism is less about dolphins and whales per se and more a retreat from potential embarrassment due to ‘outside pressure’? How can we help the many many Japanese people who love whales and dolphins to speak out and let the Japanese government know that holding on to whaling is not the way in which they want to assert Japanese sovereignty?
I am dreaming about working on Mikura Island…a place in Japan devoted to dolphin study, protection and eco-tourism. According to researcher Justin Gregg, PhD, who worked there for several years as part of the Dolphin Communications Project (DCP), ‘encounters with the dolphins there can be quite spectacular’. An American (DCP) and Japanese research group (formerly, the ICERC; now the Mikura tourism office) already work in collaboration there. I would love a chance to create a work of inter-species dance there through the collaboration of wild dolphins, Japanese and American people to inspire mutual understanding and cooperation in the efforts to protect dolphins and their environment in Japan and around the world. Are you an underwater-and-improvisational dancer, underwater cinematographer, composer, funder or cetacean-and-dance lover? Would you like to join in helping to realize a project like this? If so, please contact me!