By Published: April 29, 2024

On International Dance Day, Erika Randall, a CU Boulder professor of dance, reflects on the popular advice that can apply to both dance and life

The advice, it seems, is everywhere: Dance like nobody’s watching.

On T-shirts and journals, bumper stickers and wall art written in fancy script, the advice hints of living unselfconsciously and freely, of moving through the world without fear of an audience or its attendant judgment. And yes, of actually dancing however it feels good in the moment.

This is not always as easily done as the T-shirts advise, though. What seems as natural as breathing in toddlerhood—the bopping and booty shaking—can be gradually replaced by nerves and an awareness of appearances. Can this be unlearned? Is it ever too late to truly dance like nobody’s watching?

Erika Randall

Erika Randall, a CU Boulder professor of dance, notes that a key to dancing like nobody's watching can be asking, "What is the thing that liberates me from the constraints that sometimes even the body imposes?"

Today is International Dance Day, a UNESCO-sanctioned day founded by the International Theatre Institute in 1982 “to celebrate dance, revel in the universality of this art form, cross all political, cultural and ethnic barriers and bring people together with a common language—dance.”

In honor of the day, Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine talked with Erika Randall, a University of Colorado Boulder professor of dance, about the idea of dancing like nobody’s watching—what it means, how to do it and the value of letting go and just dancing.

Question: Do dancers actually dance like nobody’s watching?

Randall: It’s funny, because dancers don’t do this well. Dancers often do better when they’re being watched. In my class yesterday, we had 30 or so dancers and I’m in front, the mirrors are closed, and at first things were kind of lazy, a little lethargic. So, I have them find a partner, they get watched by one individual, and suddenly everybody lands their turns. Dancers are used to a mirror, to always being watched, particularly in classical, western European forms. Even in a cypher for hip hop, it kind of pumps you up when people are watching.

I don’t think a dancer made up (the saying “dance like nobody’s watching”) because as dancers, we love to watch each other, and we love to be watched. There are disciplines, contact improvisation particularly, that are not about what it looks like at all. It’s sensation-based, but then it would be more dance like the sensation that is being returned to you.

Question: As a dancer, have you ever danced like nobody’s watching?

Randall: Only once in my career, with Margie Gillis. I had seen her perform when I was at Juilliard—she had this long, streaming red hair, just this tiny little redhead, and I had seen her perform and I fell in love. So, I went to Vancouver to study with her and I just wanted her to know my name—I just wanted her to see me. And on day one she said, ‘Just know I’m not going to know any of your names.’ So, I dance so hard for two weeks, I’m living in my van in Stanley Park, and on the last day I just closed my eyes and went into the moment.

I don’t even remember doing it, but I fell to floor and there was Margie down by my head and she whispered, ‘Now Erika, that was beautiful.’ As soon as I stopped watching myself be watched, I did something improvisational and that’s what made her get down by my ear and whisper, ‘Now Erika, that was beautiful.’

Question: Even though the advice to dance like nobody’s watching isn’t necessarily about dancing, but about a mindset and an approach to living, why is it so hard to turn off that self-conscious idea that people are watching?

Woman dancing alone in a kitchen

"It’s like when people are alone in their cars or in their kitchens and they’re gettin’ it and it’s not on TikTok—it’s not for social—it’s just this head down and you don’t care. It’s this kind of abandon that is not embedded necessarily in much dance training," says Erika Randall.

Randall: It’s so interesting, it’s almost like we can’t turn off that Foucaultian panopticon of surveillance—there’s always the potential that we can be watched at any time, or we want attention, so we self-surveil. I think we forget a lot of times that others aren’t watching us nearly as much as we watch ourselves. As a teenager, I was a classical ballet dancer, and I felt hyper watched—watched by mirrors, watched by peers, watched by teachers.

I felt like I was always being watched, always being critiqued. And I remember one night taking a little cassette player out in the middle of a field, and I don’t know that I’d ever danced outside like that before, and at night. I played Mozart’s Requiem and I have no idea what I did, but I can still remember something about it. That tells me I was still self-conscious, that I remember the music, I remember the black, handheld cassette player, I remember walking out of my mother’s house and going to this field and dancing.

It felt rebellious, and I needed rebellion, both from a form of dance that was so beautifully supportive and incredibly confining, and I needed to have a body that was mine. Especially as a teenager, that’s huge when you’ve been attached to rules of home, rules of attitude, rules of body. For me, the thought of going someplace outside and dancing—and in other communities and cultures, dancing outside is completely part of ritual, it’s a part of the day—in my little suburban townhouse, in my ballet school, to go dance outside was liberation.

I think what we can ask ourselves is, ‘What is the thing that liberates me from the constraints that sometimes even the body imposes?’ And it’s different for everyone. For me, I needed to dance wildly to classical music outside, at night, having left my mother’s house.

Question: Is part of the reason that it can be so hard to dance like nobody’s watching maybe the self-defeating little inner voice that says dancing is for some bodies but not for others?

Randall: This makes me think of a time when I was backpacking in New Zealand by myself. I had been dancing with a company in Australia, and I’d been having a hard time in the company because as a woman who’s 5’8” and curvy, compared to other dancers who seemed so tiny—and I felt this often in dance, particularly any classical western European dance—I always felt huge, like this monstrous presence sometimes.

Man dancing in street

"Dancing is everywhere. And when you see these moments that feel like they’re sort of choreographed by the stars, it’s magic," Erika Randall notes.

So, I got off a plane in New Zealand and stayed to backpack, and on this one trail there was this amazing woman who ran the hostel there. She told me this story, she said, ‘When my father took me to the circus as a little girl, I saw the elephants and they were dancing, and I realized you are never too old or too big to dance’ and she just hugged me. She was like this little prophet that I needed to remind myself that dancing, as much as I love it as a discipline, it’s also part of the potential life force we can inhabit as humans, and maybe as animals, maybe as trees blowing in the wind. You’re never too big or too old to dance.

Question: Is it possible to get to that place of letting go and just dancing, even after years or decades of feeling self-conscious that people are watching?

Randall: I think it takes a ton of practice. It’s not just something that we can do on command, like, ‘Shut off all screens, now I’m dancing like no one’s watching.’ That is hard, and I think it’s so deeply personal. I think we have this interesting sort of dissonance in the human world. It’s like when people are alone in their cars or in their kitchens and they’re gettin’ it and it’s not on TikTok—it’s not for social—it’s just this head down and you don’t care. It’s this kind of abandon that is not embedded necessarily in much dance training. We seek to get to that level of flow, and I would say generally that happens for folks while they’re improvising and in that beautiful mind-brain-soul-body sensorial space.

I think about Sufis, who are not dancing to be watched—they’re dancing to connect with a deeper sense than the visual, material world and certainly not to be seen. The portal for that kind of connection is different for everyone. So, for me, rather than telling people to do this thing, to dance like no one’s watching, for me it’s more like, ‘How can we create environments where you can feel uninhibited?’

One of my favorite things to do with this notion of dance like nobody’s watching is to turn it around and to watch like everybody’s dancing. Like right now, when I watch the choreography right out my window, the people walking by, or to just watch in a bus station, say, it’s like everybody’s dancing. Dancing is everywhere. And when you see these moments that feel like they’re sort of choreographed by the stars, it’s magic.

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