Surface_waves_and_water_stridersWaves move all around us, rolling across oceans and breaking upon shores. They propagate through air as music and speech. They speed through rock during earthquakes.

My father was a professor of wave mechanics, so I grew up knowing waves are everywhere. Already tuned in to waves, during my formal education I paid special attention whenever coursework covered their action. High school physics taught me how waves ring outward concentrically when a pebble is tossed in a pond, and how the strings of a violin vibrate in harmonics. During one month I read about Isaac Newton, who demonstrated that light spreads in distributed waves. During another I discovered that Einstein proved the opposite: light travels in localized packets. This paradox hinges on experimental design: according to how you probe it, light energy may appear to be spread out in waves or bound up in particles. Despite this oddity in behavior, there is no doubt that light has wave properties. And I soon learned that matter does also. Electrons, protons, and neutrons exhibit measurable wavelengths and display canonical wave behaviors, such as interference.

So what is a wave? It is an energy pulse that propagates with rhythm.

On the ocean surface, a tsunami carries huge amounts of energy across hundreds of miles after a slab of water is agitated by an earthquake. The force of vibrating rock, imparted to water, drives a train of pulses that is barely detectable in mid-ocean but can devastate a distant shore. Note that it is the energy that travels forward, not the water (which simply moves up and down as waves pass).

In air, patterns of compression race from one place to another when something vibrates. The skin of a drum pushes rhythmically on the atmosphere, establishing acoustical waves we hear as sound.

Light is an unusual case, in that there is no medium of propagation, just alternating electric and magnetic fields that can zip through empty space.

Waves are all around us, and they share a common motif: motion with rhythm.

Why do I raise the topic of waves? A program I started about a year ago, called MindfulBiology, helps us feel more at home in our bodies by helping us understand what’s going on inside. It turns out our lives depend on rhythmic motion, on oscillation from birth to death. Hearts beat and lungs breath. Our intestines transport food in peristaltic undulations. Our senses detect waves in air (sound), space (light), and matter (vibration). Indeed, since all matter has wavelike properties, our bodies are actually constructed of waves. Waves are ubiquitous in biology, so they deserve a place in my writings.

But that’s not why I’m writing about them today.

I’m writing because my view of rhythmicity and motion is changing. I grew up understanding wave action as a material, inanimate phenomenon. My dad introduced me to the basic theory of waves (using a water table at the university’s museum) when I was barely four-years-old. He outlined concepts like frequency, amplitude, reflection, refraction, and diffraction. Mostly befuddled by his explanations, I was at least able to understand that he viewed all that jostling in the thin layer of water as simple physical motion. To me, however, it looked alive: the water seemed to be dancing! That memory, which takes me back to a time when I knew the world as dance, is what sets me writing today.

Just as naively at that age, I felt at ease prancing around a living room. But despite a natural childhood feel for dance, it soon dropped out of my life. My toddler gyrations made grownups laugh. I doubt they realized it, but I felt ridiculed; so I grew inhibited. In middle school I tried playing the guitar—a kind of dance of the hands—but gave it up because I found it hard to sustain a rhythm. High school parties left me feeling humiliated, since I had no idea how to move in smooth unison with girls. Hoping to improve, in college I took dance classes but always dropped out, because I couldn’t keep up with the instruction. It seemed natural to conclude: “I can’t dance.”

Dances grew threatening because of their sensual undertones, and because they involved close contact with other people—both of which, as a child of abuse, I found unsettling. I preferred the  simple, mechanical, impersonal physics of waves.

Happily, I’ve recently learned something new about rhythm, dance, and myself. Some weeks ago a friend invited me to a freeform dance program called Soul Motion™, a conscious movement practice designed by Arjuna Marti. The day’s class was taught by Jeremy Weichsel, who began with gentle warmup exercises that helped loosen and dissolve inhibitions. As Jeremy gently increased the pace of the activities, seamlessly moving from preparation to practice, my body responded with surprising enthusiasm. For the first time in my life, I felt my legs, arms, and torso swaying in harmony with both the music and the group. Soon, I found myself flowing easily with other people, often quite near them, in unplanned choreographies that lasted a few moments and then dissolved. More or less in time with the music, I would drift in and out of these dynamic ensembles, responding to the unique qualities of each impromptu group and each dancer. Sometimes the movements buzzed with vigor and speed, other times they thrummed with slow and subtle grace. That my body could dance with such different styles and pacings startled me. So did the energetic resonance that seemed to connect me with my fellow humans swaying nearby. It turns out I can dance!

I tried Soul Motion™ a second time, and I plan to continue. The experience is already changing me. I feel renewed confidence and joy, and a brighter sense of embodiment. Having settled for a world of impersonal waves, I’m now enjoying one of intimate dance.

What’s the difference between a wave and a dance? According to physics, a wave is an unconscious mechanical process. But a dance is a relationship. A bond develops between dancers and each other, between dancers and music, between dancers and space.

Since MindfulBiology aims to highlight our human relationship with Life, it seems obvious that dance is a better word than wave for all that oscillating flux that sustains the human animal. Molecules vibrate in cells; cells pulsate in organs; organs undulate in bodies. What’s more, bodies resonate with their environments, growing and consuming, mating and dying. The organic dance winds ever outward, weaving the vast veils of Life we call ecosystems.

Biology, in other words, is not simply growing and reproducing, not merely propagating; it’s dancing. And as I begin to dance more consciously within this rolling biosphere, I feel more connected with my body, other people, and Life itself.