Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life

How Moving in Unison Stirs the Awe of Ritual, Sport, Dance, Religion, and Public Life

Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and that quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of

exaltation. Probably because a collective emotion cannot be expressed

collectively without some order that permits harmony and unison of movement, these gestures and cries tend to fall into rhythm and regularity.


After graduating from college, Radha Agrawal led a hard-charging life in New York City as an investment banker, drinking cocktails she had no thirst for and having conversations that left her mind

wandering. Things changed at Burning Man, the annual celebration in the Nevada desert.

Like festivals throughout history, Burning Man weaves together the wonders of life in an experiment in collective awe. Money is not allowed (although the celebrants are usually wellheeled!), so people give to meet mundane needs, enjoying rushes of oxytocin and vagus nerve activation in their acts of food sharing, trade, and grateful embrace. Desert sunrises and sunsets begin and end each day to the whoas and aahs of appreciative observers. Music and dance move people into patterns of collaboration, openness, and curiosity throughout the day. Trippy, immersive art installations astonish throughout the pop-up city.

Radha was transformed in dance:

I couldn’t sleep and rode my bicycle out to deep playa (what they call the far ends of the grounds) by myself and found a giant art car (a converted bus that had the most epic sound system I had ever heard with the most incredible bass that I could feel deep into my bones) with a converted roof that was now the throne of a DJ and a hundred-plus people in the sexiest costumes dancing. I threw my bike on the ground and found a spot in the dusty dance floor and closed my eyes and felt the music and bass course through my body in a way that I had never fully allowed (I was sober too!) and let the beat move me the way my body was meant to move, probably for the very first time.

Wondering how to re-create this experience of moving her body the way it was meant to move, Radha later hosted a dance party in a basement of a New York City lounge. Bouncers at the door were replaced with huggers. Attendees drank wheat grass instead of alcohol. The celebration took place in the morning rather than at night. And then a couple hundred people danced, experiencing Durkheim’s “collective effervescence,” the electric exaltation of moving together. The new community called for more. So, Radha, along with her husband, Eli, and his friend from college Tim, created Daybreaker, which now hosts monthly dance parties for 500,000 people around the world. It is a sacred community of groove.

I first meet Radha in 2020 in a San Francisco hotel. Daybreaker is the opening act of Oprah’s 2020 Vision tour. When Radha exits the hotel elevator, she shimmies up to me in a sparkling silver jacket that resembles a bird’s feathers or fish scales (which she lets me know later she designed herself). Eli is right behind, carrying their daughter, Soleil. They all look weary, having been on the road for ten shows.

We hop into a black van and drive to the Chase Center in San Francisco. In transit, Radha tells me how the grind of working in finance disconnected her from a sense of deeper meaning and community, noting scientific findings as she speaks: Americans today enjoy half as many picnics as we

did two decades ago. We have one fewer dear friend in our circle of care than thirty years ago. Thirty-five to 40 percent of people report suffering from loneliness. This dissolving of our sense of community gets our brain’s social rejection center humming (in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which tracks the sense of loneliness, rejection, and isolation), which kicks into gear our inflammation response, heating up our bodies in that agitation of being alone. In our twenty-first-century life, we have lost occasions for collective awe.

Daybreaker’s act begins with a pulsating performance of three taiko drummers. Backed by dancers, Radha comes onstage and leads 14,500 people through an aerobics-style dance, directing our attention to chakra-like concepts: the forehead and the power of reason, the chest and the warmth of kindness, the stomach and intuition, the sexual regions and passion. Full-on embodiment. William James would have smiled, and perhaps even swayed his hips. Four high school hip-hop artists bound onstage and electrify the audience.

Standing to the side of the stage, I look into the purple light of the arena. Nearly 15,000 people are dancing. Tightening their lips as they dredge up moves from their past, like the Bump, now shaking more wiggly and wobbly middle-aged bodies. Waves of laughter, clapping, clasped hands, and embraces ripple through rows of people in the arena.

In his 1912 work, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Émile Durkheim proposed that this kind of “unison of movement” is the soul of religion. In moving in unison, he theorized, we shift to exalted feeling; we develop a shared awareness of what unites us; we represent this symbolically, often with supernatural and metaphorical ideation, and ritualize moving in unison into rites and ceremonies; and our sense of self transforms. Prior to the big God religions, people were finding the Divine in moving their bodies together the way they were meant to move.

Today, a new science of synchrony has figured out the methods and mathematics to chart the patterns in which people sync up their actions with others to reveal how Durkheim’s thesis works. We are quick to move in unison with others. In doing so, we feel what others feel, through empathic

processes in the brain we shall soon consider. As we become aware of folding into collective movement and feeling, we invoke symbols, images, and ideas to explain what unites us—vast experiences require vast explanations. We explain the pulsating feelings of dancing at a rave in terms of a spiritual principle, for example, or the waves of cheers of a hundred thousand fans at a game by invoking a kind of character, or spirit, that defines our team. We feel awe as our default self gives way to a sense of being part of an interdependent collective. We lose track of time, our goals, and, often, our social inhibitions. Free from the burdens of the self, we feel part of something larger, and inclined toward the “saintly tendencies” of awe.

This wonder of life can overtake us almost anytime we move in unison: In more obvious contexts honed by thousands of years of cultural evolution

—rituals, ceremonies, pilgrimages, weddings, folk dances, and funerals. In more spontaneous waves of movement at political protests, sports celebrations, concerts, and festivals. And in more subtle, barely perceptible ways in our mundane lives, such as when we’re simply out walking with others as part of the rhythm of our day.

Human Waves of Awe

As Daybreaker’s dance unfolds, the emcee, Elliot, pointed to the right side of the arena and announced it was time to do a wave. The waves of sound that were his words stirred a wave of human movement. Like ocean waves far out from shore, this human wave of arms rising began slowly. It picked up momentum as it circled the four curving sides of the arena. Coming into its homestretch, individual bodies became one undulating movement, exulting with woos, woo-hoos, and, for those caught off guard by the effervescence of it all, WHOAs.

Human waves now ritualistically arise at football games, political rallies, concerts, and graduations. They tend to move clockwise and travel

at a speed of twenty seats per second. They occur when nothing meaningful is happening; waves initiated during a keynote speech or the penalty kick will dissipate quickly in half-hearted movements. And they can be started by as few as 20 people in a stadium of 100,000. It takes just a handful of people to stir collective awe.

Moving in unison can also emerge in chaotic contexts. One group of scientists analyzed the movements of concertgoers at a heavy metal show. At the center of such a show is the mosh pit, a maelstrom of colliding bodies. This vortex of bodily chaos, the study found, is surrounded by a slow, undulating wave of tightly packed concertgoers protecting the crowd surfers on top of the mosh pit from truly dangerous falls. Mosh pits, a very symbol of social disorder, have an order that “permits harmony and some unison.” Little did those metalheads and punks know.

Our readiness to become part of human waves of different kinds speaks to how wired we are to move in unison. Studies find that four-month-olds mirror the tongue protrusions and smiles of adults, and older children imitate the postures and gestures of teachers, parents, coaches, hip-hop artists, and sports stars. As adults, we mirror others’ postures and hand movements; their tones of voice and grammatical tendencies; and their smiles, frowns, blushes, and furrowed brows, often without consciously realizing it. Through such mirroring, the boundaries between self and other dissolve, opening us up to the awe we feel in being part of a collective. Poet Ross Gay observes in his wonderful The Book of Delights how striking this “porosity” of human bodies is, “how so often, and mostly unbeknownst, our bodies are the bodies of others.” Moving the way our bodies were meant to move.

As our bodies become the bodies of others, our biological rhythms synchronize with those of others. Sports fans’ heart rhythms synchronize when they watch games together, their collective pulse tracking the agonies and ecstasies of the game. The same proved to be true of villagers in San Pedro Manrique, Spain, who gathered at night to watch a fire-walking ritual. Sources of collective effervescence—ceremonies, musical performances, sports, dances, rituals within churches—shift the rhythms of

our bodies to a shared biological rhythm, breaking down that most basic barrier between self and other, the idea that we are physically separated by the boundaries of our skin.

As our bodies and physiologies align with those of others, so too do our feelings. The study of emotional contagion finds that as individuals share spaces and daily living as roommates, neighbors, romantic partners, and work colleagues, their feelings come to resemble one another’s. The default self assumes our feelings are unique; the more likely truth is that we are nearly always feeling together.

Through moving in unison and convergence in feeling, a transformation in consciousness occurs: we shift from an egocentric view, seeing the world through our eyes only, to a shared attention to what is transpiring. In elegant and important work, psychologist Michael Tomasello has documented how synchronized social behaviors during childhood—play, pointing, exploring, working on tasks together—enable this capacity for shared attention. In these moments, we combine separate perspectives into a shared perspective, what you might call shared awareness, a collective consciousness, or extended mind.

This is the beginning, quite early in development, of how as adults we gravitate to shared representations of reality. For example, studies find that after traumatic events like terrorist attacks, people initially express unique perspectives, such as the fear of another attack or outrage at the innocent being killed. Over time, individuals’ emotions converge; people develop a shared and collective understanding of what has transpired. This convergence in mind leads to goodwill, cooperation, and a transformed sense of self as part of a community.

This process of moving in unison, contagious feeling, shared attention, collective representation, and transcendent self brings us awe in cultural practices when we realize our actions are part of a movement, a community, a culture. These feelings can arise during the rites of funerals, which our twenty-six-culture study found to be a human universal. Here is an experience of awe at a funeral in Sweden, during a moment in which the mourners gathered to collectively say goodbye:

It was at a funeral where my best friend was buried. I was very sad and it was time to go around the coffin to say the last goodbye. When I laid down my rose on the coffin and said some words to my friend, what she had meant to me for many years, I felt awe. After the ceremony I gave my friend’s daughter a hug and went down to the sea because that is the place where I feel calm.

Graduations are also organized around shared attention and moving in unison, as well as exalted feeling, collective representation, and ushering in new identities. Psychologist Belinda Campos experienced this at her graduation recognizing her PhD, at a time when only a handful of Mexican Americans received such an honor—all the more unlikely in her case given that her parents had to stop their educations in fifth grade to go to work. As Campos was leaving the ceremony, a Mexican grandmother told her how much it meant to see someone like her up onstage receiving a doctoral degree. Here is Campos’s story of awe:

The woman’s words jerked me out of myself. There were so many sacrifices, individual and collective, that made it possible for someone like me to be up on the stage that day. The chain of life, and sacrifice, suddenly seemed to stretch for generations and span countless people. . . . But the thought of the collective struggle, the people trying to rise, and the urgency of the need for a better, more equal, world fills me with fear-ish wonder and reminds me that anything anyone does is part of the grander human experience.

Ceremonies like graduations locate our individual selves within larger narratives, often occasioning awe and “fear-ish wonder” for historically marginalized people entering mainstream society.

The instinct to move in unison is deep, the transformative power of collective effervescence widespread.


Perhaps the simplest form of moving in unison is walking with others. Our evolutionary shift from arboreal life to bipedal walking paved the way for awe. As we began to walk upright, our perception of the world changed; we encountered vast vistas and mysteries of what lies beyond. We became a wandering species, timing our migrations and settlements to the cycles and patterns of the sun, weather, seasons, life cycles of flora and fauna, and migratory patterns of other mammals. The ways in which we defended ourselves from predators shifted from scampering individually into trees to fending off peril in synchronized movements together. Through the hunting of large mammals (and also with the emergence of agriculture), food sharing arose, enabled by ritualized ceremonies tied to seasons and harvests. We would eventually walk in small groups (perhaps as small as ten to thirty) to all the continents in the world, beginning in our second out-of-Africa meandering some fifty or sixty thousand years ago.

Today, in walking we routinely shift to moving in unison in ways as principled and predictable as our actions within a human wave. Consider the flow of pedestrians in cities. When sidewalks are exceptionally crowded, studies find, we fall into streams of pedestrians to cross streets, navigating tight spaces and time constraints with greater efficiency. At times this may feel alienating, when we sense we are simply a cog in a city’s machine; at other times, it’s awe-inspiring, when we feel part of a collective or cultural moment.

In one study of walking in unison, participants were brought to an unusual lab indeed: an enclosed stadium in New Zealand. There, for five minutes, in large groups, participants either walked around the stadium in sync with an experimenter, or they walked freely in their individual gaits and rhythms. Those people who walked together in synchrony, in particular, in arousing, fast movements, stayed closer to one another when asked to disperse, and worked harder on a subsequent task of picking up washers together. Walking in unison gives rise to goodwill and collaboration.

The transcendent feeling of moving in unison is at the heart of rituals and ceremonies. In a study of the narratives of Irish celebrants after St. Patrick’s Day parades and Hindu pilgrims to the Magh Mela festival in India (who engage in purification rituals in rivers), experiences of awe were an organizing theme. Celebrants spoke of being part of something much larger than themselves, of a spiritual community, and of being moved by a heightened sense of purpose. In Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, historian William McNeill observes the same, that walking in unison—military units marching, university bands at football games, protesters moving through the streets—activates our sense that we are serving a purpose larger than the self.

In her cultural history of walking, Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit details the revolution in walking that overtook Europe in the seventeenth century, when roads became safe and the outdoors more open to travel, wandering, and exploration. This opening of Europe to walking would give rise to forms of collective walking, from postprandial strolls in town and city squares to wandering with friends in the wild. These different kinds of walking, ranging from the more collective to the solitary, produce, in Solnit’s theorizing, an awe-like form of consciousness in which we extend the self into the environment. In walking, we may make connections, for example, between our actions and those of others with whom we are walking, between our thoughts and those of fellow human beings moving through their day, and between the contents of our minds and patterns in nature—the movements of wind through trees or the shifting clouds in the sky. In walking among others you may notice how your bodily actions are part of larger patterns that hold together human societies: schoolkids crossing a street in the early morning, office workers streaming out of buildings to get lunch, shoppers moving through a farmers market at the day’s end, young people playing pickup basketball.

Grounded in this idea that walking engages an awe-like form of consciousness, UC San Francisco neuroscientist Virginia Sturm and I developed an awe practice called the awe walk. We were simply naming what has been a universal tradition to seek awe in walking meditations,

pilgrimages, hiking, backpacking, and after-dinner strolls. Here were our instructions:

  1. Tap into your childlike sense of wonder. Young children are in an almost constant state of awe since everything is so new to them. During your walk, try to approach what you see with fresh eyes, imagining that you’re seeing it for the first time. Take a moment in each walk to take in the vastness of things, for example in looking at a panoramic view or up close at the detail of a leaf or flower.
  2. Go somewhere new. Each week, try to choose a new location. You’re more likely to feel awe in a novel environment where the sights and sounds are unexpected and unfamiliar to you. That said, some places never seem to get old, so there’s nothing wrong with revisiting your favorite spots if you find that they consistently fill you with awe. The key is to recognize new features of the same old place.

We suggested that participants take their regular awe walk near trees or bodies of water, under the night sky, or in a place where they could view a sunrise or sunset, and if in urban areas, near large buildings, a historic monument, a neighborhood they had never been to, a stadium, or in a museum or botanical garden. Or, we concluded, they could just wander the streets.

We assembled two groups of participants, all over the age of seventy-five. Why this age? Because starting in our midfifties, until about the age of seventy-five, people get happier. As we get older, we realize that what matters most in life is not money, status, title, or success, but meaningful social connections. At age seventy-five, though, things change. We become increasingly aware of our own mortality, and we see people we love die. After seventy-five, happiness drops a bit and depression and anxiety rise. It’s a great age to test the powers of the awe walk.

In our study, in the control condition participants were randomly assigned to engage in a vigorous walk once a week for eight weeks, with no mention of awe. In the awe walk condition, once a week our elderly participants followed the instructions to go on mini awe journeys. All participants reported on their happiness, anxiety, and depression and took selfies out on their walks.

Three findings are of note. First, as our elderly participants did their regular awe walk, with each passing week they felt more awe. You might have thought that when we more often experience awe in the wonders of life, those wonders lose their power. This is known as the law of hedonic adaptation, that certain pleasures—consumer purchases, drinking a savory beer, or eating chocolate, for example—diminish with their increased occurrence. Not so with awe. The more we practice awe, the richer it gets.

Second, we found evidence of Solnit’s notion of the self extending into the environment. Namely, compared to participants in the vigorous walk control condition, in the awe walk condition, people’s selfies increasingly included less of the self, which over time drifted off to the side, and more of the outside environment—the neighborhood they were strolling in, the street corner in San Francisco, the trees, the sunset, the cavorting children on a climbing structure. The two photos in the top row below come from a woman in our control condition who was gracious enough to share them, with the photo on the left coming from the start of the study and the one on the right taken when out for a walk; the two photos in the bottom row are from a woman in our awe walk condition (I can see in her second photo a slight laugh of real joy). Pictorial evidence of the vanishing self, and an awareness of being part of something larger.



And finally, over time the positive emotions generated by the awe walk led our elderly participants to feel less anxiety and depression, and to smile with greater joy.

The dour Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, known for his writings on anxiety and dread, found great peace in walking in public spaces. Walking gave him “chance contacts on the streets and alleys,” leading him to observe that “it is wonderful, it is the accidental and

insignificant things in life which are significant.” More everyday awe. And very likely, an awareness of everyday moral beauty in walking among others. Jane Jacobs’s thesis in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is much the same, that coming into regular contact on foot with neighbors reduces crime and increases well-being. We find community in syncing up our daily wanderings with others, and in the wonders such walking can bring.


I guess I’m the Forrest Gump of basketball.

That’s how Steve Kerr sums up his life in basketball on the phone to me, with the 2020 NBA season halted by COVID-19. What he means is that for a skinny, six-foot-three professor’s kid, Kerr has had a wonder-filled career playing with Michael Jordan, playing for “Zen master” Phil Jackson and legend Gregg Popovich, and now coaching the Golden State Warriors, who have won three championships under his guidance with some of the most awe-inspiring scoring in the game’s history.

I’m on the phone with Steve thanks to Nick U’Ren, director of basketball operations for the Warriors and a former special assistant to Kerr. Hearing of our science of awe, Nick invited me to drop by Warriors practices from time to time. Amid their championship seasons, he landed me tickets for games, where I watched 15,000 fans dance in sync, moved by waves of Warriors scoring. Over a beer one night I asked Nick what the team’s secret is. After some thought, his reply: Movement.

Seeking to unpack this mystery of movement, I first ask Steve about his early experiences of awe. He quickly recalls watching UCLA basketball as a kid. His dad—a professor of political science at UCLA—had three season tickets, hot items for Steve, his brother, and, on occasion, to their youthful consternation, their mom, who liked to attend but couldn’t really tell you

who won or lost the game. Steve tells me about a UCLA game from 1973, which he recalls with the precision of a historian. It was UCLA, ranked number one, against Maryland, ranked number two. Coached by John Wooden, UCLA was in an eighty-eight-game win streak, considered the greatest winning streak in sports history (sports analytics awe!). That night UCLA won by one point.

Steve recalls the visceral awe he felt at the game. The pulsing sound of the brass band. The cheerleaders moving in unison leading throngs of fans in waves of cheers. The astonishing size and grace of the UCLA players. The students and fans singing the school song, chanting, clapping, and roaring in harmony with the game. And amid this moving in unison, collective feeling, and shared attention, Steve saw a golden wave of light that moved across the tubas, trumpets, and trombones of the UCLA band.

I ask Steve about his philosophy of movement, expecting to hear about some basketball strategy, new sports analytic, or philosophy of coaching. Instead, he remembers his grandparents Elsa and Stanley Kerr, who built an orphanage for child survivors of the Armenian genocide while living in the Middle East. As Steve travels the world for basketball, Armenians make their way through waves of fans to express their appreciation.

Telling this to you gives me the chills . . . Steve reflects.

He continues: It’s so humbling to think how over one hundred years ago my ancestors and those of the Armenians I meet intersected in ways that changed their lives.

Steve Kerr’s philosophy of movement, of how to coordinate five big, fast bodies into patterns of synchronized collaboration, is found in the forms of moral beauty that moved him from his past, and the idea that different individuals, with their varying cultures and unique tendencies, can be brought together to produce something good. And that games unite people in the appreciation of this moving in unison.

Sports and games, like religion, ritualize our everyday moving in unison, and unite community in the effervescence of playing, watching, cheering, and celebrating (or consoling), as well as reflecting on human capacities, courage, and character. Historical studies find that the Olympics

began in 776 BCE in Olympia, Greece, when women and men regularly ran races to settle, playfully, who was fastest. The myth of the games’ origins holds that five brothers, gods of fertility, decided to have a running race in honor of the goddess Hera. These races brought communities together in the delights of playful competition and spectatorship, and over time combined with elements of funeral rituals, hymns, prayers, dance, and other physical contests to become the Olympics that inspire awe today.

Some one thousand years before the Olympics began, the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs of Mesoamerica were playing the oldest ball game known—ullamaliztlion courts throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Nicaragua. On the day of the game, priests would consecrate the field with prayers, songs, chanting, and rituals. In the competition, teams of two or three players from neighboring villages tried to push a ball with their hips and elbows through rings on a narrow court surrounded by paintings of Nahua warriors, monkey gods, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god. At the game’s conclusion, the villagers would gather for dance, music, song, laughter, and revelry. Cultural forms that ritualize moving in unison weave together many wonders of life.

Such movement matters. Flocks of flying birds, schools of fish, and herds of wildebeests fare better against predators when moving in harmony. This is true for humans as well. Cricket teammates whose laughter and joy spread to one another bat better in ensuing innings on the pitch. In one study, it was the shared feeling of success, above and beyond players’ skills, that predicted the likelihood of victory for teammates playing cricket, football, baseball, and a popular video game. And outside of sports, when musicians in string quartets sway their bodies more in unison, their performances are of higher quality.

As Steve Kerr’s Warriors won games thanks to waves of scoring rarely seen before, experts offered explanations. It was the result of certain kinds of passes, or trick plays that Steve had learned like a comedian picks up jokes on the road, such as “the cyclone play” of the Iowa State Cyclones basketball team. When I mention these possibilities, Kerr laughs.

Basketball is like music. . . . In a band, you don’t need five drummers or guitarists. . . . The question is how five players all fit together.

This is a deeper principle of our hypersocial evolution: successful groups move in unison and integrate different talents into a smoothly functioning, synchronized whole. One of the most successful species on the planet, the leafcutter ant, puts the varying skills of its different members to use in a coordinated whole: there are leaf cutters, haulers, builders—all cutting leaves, transporting them, building their home, tending to the queen. Evolution favors species that move their bodies in the ways they were meant to move. Our feelings of awe signal to us when we are integrated into these patterns of coordinated movement with others.

I ask Steve about the secret of collective movement. It is the fans, he tells me. When we are playing our best, they are joyfulThey get up off their feet, cheer, and dance.

Indeed, watching beloved teams brings us awe. Inspired by Durkheim, one sociologist immersed herself in the lives of Pittsburgh Steelers fans. At games on Sundays, fans fall into moving in unison in walking to the stadium and parking lot to enjoy pregame rituals, often involving beer and barbecued food. The collective feelings are effervescent, evident in embraces, crying, howling, arms thrust in the air, and, for some, devotional acts, “saintly tendencies” of physical sacrifice:

A man with a stern face in front of me, probably in his late twenties to early thirties, began to remove layers of clothing. Finally, he pulled his final shirt up over his head and stood cheering and screaming without a shirt in temperatures around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. After a second stellar play on behalf of the Steelers, the man beside him also took off his many layers of coats and shirts and the two clutched hands and screamed.

Steelers fans focus their attention on sacred objects representing their shared identity: Steelers-themed jerseys, coats, lawn chairs, and, during the game, the Terrible Towel, a black-and-gold towel that seventy thousand fans wave in unison to appreciate great plays. Devoted fans describe themselves as “family” and “Steeler Nation”—the default self giving way to something larger.

As we near the end of our conversation, Kerr’s former teammate Michael Jordan is on his mind. He recalls how Jordan would remind his teammates that “there are young fans in the stands, there perhaps for their only NBA game, who came to watch us play.”

When I ask Steve what his life in sports means to him, he ends our call with this:

It is a civic duty to give people joy.


When European colonialists first traveled to Africa, they were awestruck, and more often horrified, by the dances of the people they encountered. Dance’s pervasiveness, effervescence, and power unnerved these Westerners seeking fortunes and to “save souls.” In Africa, communities danced to appreciate childbirth, puberty, weddings, and death, moving people into a shared understanding of the cycle of life. Groups fell into rousing song with martial sounds and empowering dance when nearing war or when heading out for a hunt, whose success would lead to celebratory dance that paved the way for food sharing. Even forms of labor were symbolized in dances representing agricultural work, planting, digging and harvesting. Moving their bodies in the way they were meant to move.

And in Africa, and many Indigenous cultures worldwide, dance was and often still is a physical, symbolic language of awe. Dance symbolized experiences of being in the presence of the Divine. Specific dances told

stories about gods and goddesses. The origins of life and the afterlife. Battles between good and evil. People danced to symbolize feelings of awe for thunder, lightning, heavy rains, and overpowering winds, a tradition which, apparently, traces back to a distant predecessor of the chimpanzee waterfall dance.

The idea that dance symbolized the themes of our social living, including the wonders of life, may seem foreign nowadays. That is because in the West, religious powers and the upper classes of European societies extricated dance from our social lives. They did so to constrain and tame its symbolic power, aware of how dance could express passion, freedom, and desire, and not infrequently lead to waves of protest against the ruling classes. Today dance revolutionaries like Radha Agrawal are bringing back this wonder of life, enabling us to move our bodies the way they were meant to move.

How might dance allow us to express awe? A sophisticated answer to this question is found in the Natyashastra, a 2,300-year-old text thought to have been written by Hindu sage Bharata Muni in the second century BCE. With the precision you might find in a manual for putting together an IKEA shelving unit, the Natyashastra details how we are to move our feet, hands, fingers, arms, torsos, heads, facial muscles, knees, and hips to express rasas, or emotions, in dance.

Thus, the Natyashastra details that we express anger and rage in dance with a crouch, poised body, clenched hands and arms, tightened mouth and jaw, and fixed gaze (like the haka dance led by Upu of the men in blue).

For love, the Natyashastra recommends that we are to relax our bodies, tilt our heads, open our arms and hands, smile, and mirror the gaze of the beloved (think Gene Kelly in his iconic “Singin’ in the Rain” dance.)

For awe, we are to widen our eyes and mouth, look up, and open our arms, shoulders, chest, and hands, the very behaviors we found that express awe in different cultures from around the world. One can see such awe-filled dance today when Pentecostal Christians are moved by the holy spirit or revelers are rolling at a rave.

Dance transforms us in the ways of awe. In a study from Brazil, high school students engaged in dance-like movements, either in sync with others to the beat of a metronome or out of sync with those nearby. Those who “danced” with others, in particular when making more vigorous movements, felt more interconnected. They could also tolerate more pain, a sign of elevated natural opioids, which accompany feelings of merging. Even twelve-month-old babies will help an experimenter pick up dropped pens if the babies have bounced in synchronized rhythm to music with the experimenter.

Over the thousands of years of its evolution, dance, like sports, music, art, and religion, became a way to document awe. In dance, we recognize in a symbolic language what is wonderful (and horrifying) about life. In one relevant study, a classically trained dancer in the Hindu tradition made four-to ten-second videos of her Natyashastra-inspired performances of ten emotions, or rasas. Western Europeans had no trouble discerning the emotions expressed in these brief performances, including those of wonder. When moving in unison through dance, we communicate with others about the sublime.

When we watch the expression of rasas in dance, the Natyashastra continues, we as spectators feel aesthetic emotions known as bhavas. These aesthetic emotions are different from the emotions of our mundane lives, or rasas; we feel bhavas in the realm of the imagination, where we are momentarily and delightfully free of the concerns of our quotidian lives.

How does this work? Current thinking holds that when we see others dance, we instinctively start to mimic their actions, which you may sense in your foot tapping or body swaying. These bodily movements then lead our embodied minds to bring to consciousness ideas, images, or memories related to the actions expressed in the dance. A dancer’s portrayal of awe, for example, might lead you to open your body ever so slightly and shift your gaze upward. You may recall past encounters with a wonder of life or imagine possible wonders you might enjoy. All of this, it merits noting, takes place in the realm of the imagination, where we are free to consider what is possible.

When dancing together, we share the delights of moving our bodies. And we experience flights of our imagination in seeing others dance. This all can bring about a porous intermingling of bodies and minds we experience as collective effervescence. No wonder dance is so transporting, and so often borders, like the collective effervescence of sports, on the spiritual.

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