A curious thing about humans, as a species, is we like to synchronise our movements with each other. We like to get in formation. It instinctively feels natural to clap our hands in time with other people. And yet it’s a relatively unusual thing for mammals to do.
When Aniruddh Patel, a neuroscientist who studies synchronisation, came across YouTube videos of a parrot called Snowball bopping its head in time to Queen's Another One Bites The Dust, he thought it so noteworthy he wrote a scientific paper about it. But while some parrots and elephants might be able to keep a beat, scientists are yet to find evidence of them synchronising with the same complexity as humans.
If getting in time with each other is instinctive, it's no surprise dancing makes us feels good – whether it’s wobbling along to the Macarena at a wedding or busting out to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies. Because R’n’B often plays with our expectations of when the music will synchronise, it can be especially satisfying to move in time to it.
"People want to feel the synchronicity with the music for themselves,” says dance teacher Amrita Hepi. “If they can hit a move with the beat or melody line, that moment of unity feels really good."
This instinct to synchronise might well be why it’s so satisfying to learn the complex choreography of someone like Beyoncé. There’s certainly a market for it: Hepi's Hollaback class focuses on learning the choreography of Beyoncé and Rihanna. The Bey Dance class, run by Liz Cahalan, focuses exclusively on Beyoncé.
To hear Hepi and Cahalan tell it, the big appeal of dancing to Beyoncé or Rihanna isn't just about being in sync. Both believe the core appeal of their classes is helping women be empowered by their own bodies.
Cahalan’s classes start with Beyoncé’s “power stance”. “It’s literally just standing like Beyoncé,” says Cahalan. “Feet nice and wide, hands on hips, shoulders back, head fiercely held high.” Cahalan says moving the body in certain ways causes people to think and feel differently. “Through dancing you can gain body confidence and self-confidence,” she says. “When you allow yourself to stand with confidence, to move as if you think you're important, people's confidence naturally follows. They start to feel it in themselves."
Hepi also thinks the power of dancing to Beyoncé and Rihanna encourages women to feel powerful. “I ask everyone to go down on the floor,” says Hepi of her class. “You take your knees wide and put your hands in front of you and do this butt-shaking movement. Everyone at the end of it is like, 'I never thought I'd do that. I've never done that before'. And I say, ‘Well, did you enjoy it? Would you do it again?’ They always say, 'Yeah!' Well, you can do it whenever you want."
These classes aren't just for women. Liz Cahalan’s classes include what she affectionately calls “Boy-oncés”. She says it's unfortunate that the idea of a man dancing like a woman is considered naff and silly - Beyonce proves that feminine is strong. "When a man dances like Beyoncé, he looks fierce,” she says. “I like the idea that Beyoncé’s movement is feminine but powerful."
In 2016 teaching Beyoncé choreography also has a political element. “When I taught Formation [Beyoncé’s #blacklivesmatter anthem], it almost became a history lesson,” says Hepi, who has Aboriginal and Maori heritage. "In terms of Beyoncé, I know heaps of people – heaps of mob – that see her and take her on as their own. A lot of Aboriginal girls I know, when that song came out, were saying, ‘I am so wild for it. She is speaking to me’.” In contrast Cahalan, a white woman, decided not to teach choreography for Formation. “Sometimes white people just need to shut up and listen,” she says.
Cahalan and Hepi both emphasise the importance of thinking about how we hold our bodies and how that affects our minds. If Beyoncé changes our brains during exercise, it’s because she’s changed our bodies first.
Melbourne only: Hepi’s next Beyoncé dance class in Melbourne will be a special one-off event on the roof of Curtin House dancing to "Crazy In Love", as part of the Broadsheet Feel-Good Festival. Go here for details and ticketing information.