Based on a few of the comments I received on my last post, I decided to expand on some of the ideas I put forth. If you don’t know me, I’m a social dancer. I’ve been dancing for 12 years and I spend on average 6 hours a week dancing and/or teaching dance. My focus right now is a dance called West Coast Swing, which I enjoy due to its relevance in contemporary settings; Maroon 5, Matt Nathanson, John Mayer, Katy Perry, ZZ Ward, Rihanna, Daft Punk: all those and more have music I dance to. That being said, if we use language as a metaphor, I am at least conversational in waltz, American tango, foxtrot, swing from Lindy to East Coast, salsa, cha-cha, bachata, and can fake my way through many, many more. My experience is beside the point, however. I provide it merely as credentials.
For those of you who didn’t encounter the last post, it was entitled “Why Women Shouldn’t Date Men Who Can’t Dance”. While I think that is true to a degree, (nothing is absolute), I believe it is worth everyone’s time to learn to dance and the reasoning behind that opinion significantly informed the last, more playful piece. As I write today, I’m going to refer to leads as male and follows as women, which is the traditional form. Understand however, that I can both lead and follow (and have spent a lot of time recently improving the latter), and it is very clear to me that the best dancers can and arguably should learn how to do both. Furthermore, though I speak through a heterosexual lens, that doesn't mean my words don't have value if you mix the pronouns to whatever satisfies your tastes.
One of the points I made in my post was that men who dance tend to have better manners and more respect for women. An example of this can be found in the based-in-fact movie, Take the Lead. In the movie, Antonio Banderas’ character uses this information to convince a school board that ballroom dancing is important for their children. You see, in dance, men learn how to touch women without being sexual or violent. Dancing is about learning how to move your follow without force. It’s always very clear in a dance environment when a lead is new. Particularly when that lead can most accurately be described as yanking his partner around. Almost invariably however, such a the lead is truly interested in learning, what was once yanking his partner around settles into a subtler, more confident connection.
Of course, like any other environment, we are all human. There will always be those who think they know what they’re doing and refuse to change. But I think most good teachers care about their students and the health and well-being of the follows in their classes, and do their best to ensure that most learn to be considerate dancers. It's also perfectly ok for a woman to say no to a man with whom it hurts to dance.
One of the aspects I appreciate most is the culture of social dance scenes. Similar to men learning how to touch a woman with respect, the whole culture transcends the meat market attitude that rages through Western nightlife. I can ask a woman, -any- woman at a dance if she would like to dance with me and there’s a 98% chance she will say yes. She doesn’t assume I am trying to get in her pants. If she judges me based on my appearance, it doesn’t really matter. We’ll spend three minutes moving, spinning, playing, and creating a mostly silent conversation together and when its over, say thank you and move on to the next. If we both enjoyed it, we’ll probably do so again before the end of the night. If not, there are plenty of others to dance with.
Now, I’m not a prude. I appreciate sex, sexuality and sensuality in movement, and sexy women. West Coast Swing in particular is frequently a sensual expression of the self, in both movement and music. Between some dancers, tango can practically (or literally), be foreplay. It’s the context that bothers me in other venues, the assumption that men are nothing but horny dogs who are out to rut with any female they encounter. I’m passionate about dancing, I love it, and it’s disappointing to be out somewhere and want to dance with someone and be turned down with that look in the woman’s eye that suggests she thinks she knows what you’re after. That just doesn’t exist in my personal experience of social dance.
This is, to use a cliché, just the tip of the iceberg. Though the details vary from scene to scene, etiquette is an important part of social dance, one where supposedly old school manners are still alive. A request for a dance is supposed to be polite, and I’ll often offer my arm as I escort the woman I’m dancing with to the floor. Not everyone does the following, but I also tend to ask a woman’s date if he minds if I ask her to dance before doing so. I don’t do this with every couple, but you can develop a sense of where it’s most appropriate to do so. Of course, I do it with the full expectation he will say yes; the social dance scene is not one for the jealous. But then, if your partner can’t stand to give you up for a 3 minute spin around the floor, that may be a sign.
There are also personal physical benefits. Dancing teaches things like body awareness, improves balance, and since we’ll all be there someday, it’s worth mentioning that it has a 74% or so effectiveness in preventing memory loss due to aging. It’s also great exercise. I don’t really like to exercise, but when I’m dancing I don’t notice it happening. The exercise is a side effect and I do it 6 hours or more a week. Win-win.
Finally we get to the meat of it. My passion within my passion: Connection, the true language of dance - the ultimate body language. This where a man takes a woman in his arms and moves her. The aspect of dance that is truly conversation. While the traditional roles are comparably the man speaking and the woman listening, that image only touches the surface. The lead has to be aware of several facets all at once: the floor and the space available on it, his partner’s ability and connection, where her weight is placed, their relation to the beat of the music. If he isn’t paying attention, if he isn’t doing his share of listening to his partner the dance can become awkward, physically uncomfortable, make her trip over herself, etc. He also needs to be firm, clear, and decisive. If his side of connection is lax or he can’t make up his mind, the follow finds herself confused. It is always a lead’s job to dance to his follow, not to judge her on her ability or test it excessively.
The woman isn’t suddenly released from the responsibilities of awareness because she has decided to follow her partner for a few minutes. The lead has his back to half of the room, so she has to do her part to keep him from accidentally backing into other dancers. She also has the responsibility of controlling her movement and distance in order to not fling herself wildly out of control or risk breaking the connection. Her key duty, however, is to listen. Has his weight asked her to move? Has he stopped her movement or redirected her direction? Has he queued a turn or lead a pause matching a break in the music.
What we have, then, is essentially two people who are dedicated and focused on working together to create a three minute long project. They are concentrating on communicating to do it, not trading blame but each taking responsibility for their own part and performing it to the best of their ability. Most of this communication is silent. It is founded in mutual respect and conducted throughout with that respect in mind. Social dancers are basically individuals who regularly practice developing satisfying relationships with each other in ways that can translate into romantic relationships in a very healthy fashion.
I’d like to note, before I close, that I have seen many couples in my years of teaching and there have been those I would almost guarantee didn’t, or won’t, stand the test of time. The individual behaviors betray all kinds of details about their relationship and personalities. Sadly, most such couples never come twice. I won’t say that dance is some kind of panacea, but I do think that learning the kind of communication that dancing requires would have helped many of those relationships.
Also, let’s not forget that physical connections create endorphins. More frequent physical connections with lovers generally equates to a better sex life, and the kind of intimate connection that one can create through dancing with another person can only enhance such things. I’ve always been fond of saying that I can know a woman and her body better in three fully clothed minutes than most of her lovers ever will. Maybe it’s a little arrogant. My experience in both realms suggests otherwise.
So, in spite of feeling like I barely skimmed over the surface of the topic, it’s no wonder that I think everyone should learn to dance. And that women shouldn’t date men who can’t or worse, won’t, dance. (Not to mention that every female dancer I know finds immense joy in dance and I don’t understand why anyone would deny themselves that joy in a relationship.) As for women who can’t dance, as one commenter asked, the answer is the same for everyone: it’s worth your while to learn. You won’t regret it.