Today I dance. It’s that day of the week. I think it’s been just over a year since I started teaching in this little whole foods café tucked away in a tiny suburb of an already tiny town. For 51 Tuesdays I have jiggled the key the owner’s gave me into the stubborn lock on the front doors, cleared the furniture from the café floor and turned it into a cozy swing dance hall. I have taught East Coast Swing, Lindy Hop, West Coast Swing, Charleston. My students have ranged from those who have claimed beauty to those who prefer wisdom. I have regulars who attend often and random groups from out of town who appear for one night, swelling the class until it almost spills out the doors.
I have been dancing for 11 years now, and teaching dance for 6 years. I started my freshman year of college. Swing and ballroom dance sounded like fun things to learn and I added them to my schedule, along with fencing. At the time the only opportunities for ballroom dancing were in the classes (beginner’s only), while a local club hosted a swing dance with an hour lesson and three hours of dancing once a week. So I took beginning ballroom four times from three different teachers and swing twice.
The fourth time I took ballroom it turned out the teacher was only teaching because they could find no one else to teach the class. This was clear because she was teaching out of an old dancing manual, referencing it regularly throughout any one session. I helped out on the sidelines, once even teaching an East Coast Swing class for her.
One day, after class, she came up to me, and said firmly, “This is my class.” In the pause that followed my mind raced with stuttering apologies. I thought, “Gah! I’m sorry. I’ll try to stay with the class.” My mental deference was unnecessary, however. Her next words were, “But I only teach this because they can’t find anyone else. You’re better at this than I am. Do you want to teach it?”
And that’s how I ended up teaching accredited courses for the University of Idaho. I taught three semesters of ballroom and one semester of Strictly Swing, as the course was called. My so-called supervisor, (who never attended any of my classes), was astounded by the quantity and quality of my student’s reviews of the class. The director of the department couldn’t believe it.
If someone were to ask why I thought I had such an excellent response, I would say, “Passion.” I loved what I was teaching and taught it mindfully. My passion kept me from be insecure or overly arrogant. I didn’t rush my students and taught them what I felt mattered: how to dance.
I taught them waltz, tango, salsa, cha cha, foxtrot. But more importantly, I taught them what was the same about them all. I gave them the foundation, and made them practice that foundation no matter what style they were being taught. By the end of the semester my students could learn everything I knew about foxtrot in a single class. It’s the foundation that made that possible that I am passionate about.
The foundation of social dance has very little to do with your feet. It isn’t about fancy moves, aerials, or costumes. Dance is about communication and connection. Connection with yourself; connection with your partner; and eventually, connection with the music. As I see it, your feet are for keeping time, and as anyone who has danced for a long time knows, as long as you can keep time, it doesn’t really matter what your feet are doing. The steps and timing define styles, to a degree, and serve as a tool to teach you to move with the music. At a certain point, you achieve a level where you can make that movement even if you’ve left the “rock-step” far behind.
Communication and connection are the two major reasons why people use dance for couple’s therapy. They may be the only reasons, any other is likely a sub-category of one or the other. Dancing is conversation. It has its own discourse, its own story and it changes between partners, style, individuals, songs. (I once wrote a 17 page graduate paper on the rhetoric of social dance.)
It is the two Cs of dance that I am truly passionate about. I love taking up a partner who knows herself well enough that she flies across the floor at my slightest touch, as if she could read my mind. Can she follow? Obviously, but the reason she can follow isn’t because she knows the steps. It’s because she’s connected to her partner and herself.
If we can’t connect the different parts of our own bodies, dancing (and communication) becomes impossible. If we are disconnected from ourselves, then the movement we’re seeking gets lost in translation. Toes get stepped on, a turn goes awry, a requested spin fails to happen. It doesn’t matter if you are lead or follow. If your movement isn’t centered and connected with in your own body, your partner will not move with you.
The reflection of that connection becomes a dance. I move and my partner moves seamlessly. We turn together, like a top released with such momentum that it is only through force of will that it comes to a stop. Connection becomes communication. I lift my arm up and away to suggest an outside turn and voila, my partner has performed an outside turn.
Through clarity of self, I have provided clarity in my request. I knew what I wanted and how to ask for it. My partner is prepared for our conversation and knows how to listen. Together we take an era of song and tell a story with two voices. In spite of lead and follow, there is no dominance in dance. At the end of the day, I can only suggest and she choose to listen. Anything else is a breakdown in communication.
In spite of the fact that I am teaching tonight, I miss dancing. I miss the atmosphere at a social dance. The strange faces that stand out in the crowd, the simplicity of the request and the eagerness to say yes. We go to these places to dance. There is no pressure, no meat market. A dance is at its purest, just a dance. When it is over, our two ships in the sea of bodies will part and go back to following the currents of our lives. There is no awkward rejection because there is no misunderstanding of why I am there. I want to dance. That is all.
My class doesn’t have that atmosphere because it is just that, a class. We don’t have the attendance (or space) to host a true dance each week. My dream is to recreate what I knew back in my college days, the four hours of dancing every Thursday night. It is hard to start things in this town. Harder still because there is such a slight population. (One would think a town of 7,000 would provide more interest, but no.) But I will continue to make the effort. I will give the gift of my passion to anyone who shows up to my class and I will give the world and their lives a chance to tell a better story because of it.
If you ever have a choice between dancing and not dancing, learn to dance. It has endless benefits.
And a thousand words, goodnight.