26 September 2013
The other day our volunteer librarian, Sarah and I were talking about our respective generations. The question arose, what does it mean to be social? She was sharing how her generation sees the relationship between technology use and social ability; that the people who are perceived to be the most social are those who are posting on various sites, constantly responding on twitter, catching up on Facebook, and sharing their points of view on blogs. They are considered current and connected. From my vantage point, those activities seem unidirectional and I began to wonder about that word “social.” Has the meaning of social become hijacked by techies or the word simply redefined, leaving my generation behind? And what does it mean to be social anyway?
Social dancing emerged as an instrument of communication. An exhibition on the history of social dance, An Invitation to Dance by the American Antiquarian Society states “Early Americans were significantly restricted in their forms of communication. Because it was considerably inaccessible, communication was very valuable to eighteenth and nineteenth century American. Limited technology meant limited communication which in turn created an environment where people could not contact each other with the ease and comfort we enjoy in modern society. The social institution of dance provided an arena for people to communicate with each other through the use of non-verbal and culturally acceptable movements and gestures.”
Today technology seems limitless—so what does that suggest about the social role of dancing? When two people dance together, they navigate nuances of bodies in space. They become attuned to subtle shifts of weight, pressure and learn to co-construct a relationship to musicality. This requires such a different skill set than choosing what to retweet or responding to Facebook images and updates. Or does it? By today’s definition of social, some dancers with highly developed relationship skills may not be viewed as “social” because they do not engage with “social media.” Even on an institutional level, arts nonprofit leaders are flocking to seminars and webinars on “how to engage with your audience through social media.” Some larger nonprofits even have a Director of Social Media. What skills overlap? What is being put aside? Is this a march through progress? Is there value in putting down the Smart Phone and grabbing a dance partner or is it more social to stay at home on the weekend and watch YouTube videos made by individuals in their respective apartments?
Always flexible, dancers as a whole tend to try to adapt—at nearly every conference I’ve attended there seems to be a push to bring technology more and more into our work. At the funding level, too, technology sometimes is valued over live performance. So, I see a divide, each group defending their choices, but only to others on the same side—we aren’t necessarily talking to each other. Some feel that we need to move forward, technology is here, get with the program or you’ll be left behind. Others feel as if the entire population is losing its ability to have real relationships, to connect in meaningful ways. The Millennial generation defines connection and being social by the amount of time spent online. Many of my generation fear that if people lose the capacity to develop meaningful interpersonal skills chaos will reign—violence will increase and depression and other social ills. Humans by their nature are social animals. We need others to survive. Evolutionary adaptation will always move toward survival and thus toward communication and social connection. I am curious about the role dance will continue to play in this process.