Written by Hannah Eaton, M.S., LMFTA
As children, many of us were encouraged to play and create as we took in the novel world around us with a sense of wonder and awe. Our playful and frolicsome spirits were often celebrated, delighting caregivers and strangers alike and bringing a bit more joy into their worlds.
As we grow older, more often than not, we are encouraged to subdue playful tendencies and to replace them with a more serious and professional air, as we strive to have it all figured out. We are discouraged from climbing trees, swinging on monkey bars, building sand castles, messily finger painting nonsensical artwork, or dancing freely when the music moves us. Our culture conditions us that publicly pursuing childlike activities may run the risk of appearing foolish or unprofessional. We are taught that you only dance when it is appropriate, like during dance classes, in a club, or at a wedding.
And yet, deep down, I believe we all yearn to experience that deep sense of joy and delight we often see on the faces of young children, when they are creatively playing, or dancing freely anywhere they hear music.
I can’t help but to think back to a conversation I had with my dad as a senior in high school, as I was preparing to leave for college the following year. “Life will be really difficult at times,” he said, “which is why it is so important to choose a partner who can be playful with you, and will make you laugh. This element of our marriage has brought your mother and me through some difficult seasons.” While my life had not been all that difficult up to that point, I was fully aware that my father had experienced many family tragedies, so I must have ingrained these words deep into my subconscious.
As an “adult,” I have been fortunate to find a partner who embraces this sense of playfulness in our relationship. Through the inevitable ups and downs of our relationship thus far, we have understood the value of pursuing some “childlike” characteristics. We seek to see the world with a beginner’s mind, delighting together in the novelties of everyday life. We pursue activities that are playful and nourishing to our minds, bodies, and spirits, deliberately encouraging one another that “it doesn’t matter if people give us weird looks.” We support one another by fostering the artists within each other, even if that involves exploring means of creative expression which don’t fit the traditional box of “art.”
Dancing together has been one such powerful means to help cultivate this culture of novelty, play, and creativity in our marriage.
Novelty, or the Beginner’s Mind
In going through the grinds of daily life and the inevitable high and low seasons, it is healthy and nourishing to find new, shared activities as a couple. As children, there is excitement in the abundant novelties we are surrounded by, but as we get older and may feel we have a better understanding of the world around us, we may lose some of our ability to see the world and our experiences from a beginner’s mind.
However, there is great power and potential in strengthening your beginner’s mind as you seek out novel experiences as a couple, or engage in familiar experiences with a fresh set of eyes. Dancing can do this naturally, as every step is a new, endless opportunity.
Research has shown that engaging in novel experiences as a couple activates the brain’s reward system, which can produce favorable benefits for couples. Dr. Arthur Aron and his colleagues conducted experiments and revealed that couples who go on “exciting” and novel date nights, or engage in fun and challenging activities, have higher relationship satisfaction. Such novel experiences release dopamine and norepinephrine, the same chemicals which are released during early romantic courtship.
As a couple, one of the beautiful and powerful elements of dancing with your partner is that you have the opportunity to continually experience novelty together as you learn more about dance in general, and your unique dance as partners. This process can help deepen your friendship and sense of shared meaning, both of which Drs. John and Julie Gottman indicate are key to happy and healthy relationships.
Play, or Twistin’ and Groovin’
As you engage in new experiences or forms of dance as a couple, it gives you abundant opportunities to play and explore with a sense of wonder. During our dance lessons at Flow Studios, we learn new techniques or concepts each week, and then we are given the freedom to play with the ideas and one another as we make the dance our own.
During a recent lesson, our dance teacher, Michael, encouraged us to bring out more of our playful sides. “I want to see you flirting with each other more!” he shouted over the music.
After a long, somewhat stressful day, this type of playful connection is just what I needed. As we began to “flirt” and playfully explore our movements together, I could feel any remaining stress and worries melt away.
Throughout our dance, we continued to make bids for this type of playful and joyful connection, and we had abundant opportunities to choose to turn toward one another in a spirit of childlike play. We may have looked somewhat foolish as we giggled and ruthlessly spun one another in circles, but these types of playful interactions are endlessly freeing.
In recognizing the joy and freedom that comes from dancing, we have been purposeful to take this type of playful connection outside of the dance studio and to move together wherever the music moves us. While our bodies may feel the urge to dance when we hear fun music, we have had to train our brains to let them know that it’s okay, and actually liberating, to dance like children in public at city parks or on the beach.
Creativity, or the Blank Canvas
Dancing as a couple also opens you to a world of endless creative possibilities. Your dance, like your relationship, is unique and an ever-unfolding artistic process. The dance floor is your blank canvas, and you, as a couple, are artists purposefully collaborating and creating something that has never been done before.
This creative process is one you can choose to explore and embrace as a couple. It does not have to be perfect, flashy, or entirely graceful like the dancers we see on “So You Think You Can Dance,” or “Dancing with the Stars.” In fact, your dance may never be so polished. But if you can let go of the notion that art is “over there” (in museums, on TV, on stages), you may begin to see yourself and your partner in this artistic light.
Instead, you can choose to recognize that moving together through space, moment by moment, is a continuously exploratory form of artistic expression as a couple. You can purposefully move across the dance floor or in public parks or, really, anywhere for the sake of creating and pursuing beauty together.
When we shift our perception of art, we have limitless opportunities to create together.
Since we have been taking dance lessons, it has provided us the weekly opportunity to pursue and strengthen a culture of novelty, play, and creativity in our marriage. We eagerly look forward to those evenings where we purposefully let go of the expectations and pressures, learn new tools to navigate life together with creative beauty, and literally alter our brain chemistry for the better.
And, as a bonus, we get to dance.
This article was originally published by The Gottman Institute and republished with permission.