The Art and Practice of Social Dancing

[Note: This is the prepared text of a speech I gave as my final presentation in a public speaking class at Stanford in Winter 2011, after my first quarter of taking social dance with Richard Powers. The presentation included five thirty-second demonstrations of different dances.]

Demo: Cross Step Waltz
Strange and Beautiful (I’ll Put A Spell On You) by Aqualung

As one of my English teachers, Paige Price, once said, “Art is an attempt to make the ineffable effable,” to simply say what cannot simply be said. Tonight, with the help of my beautiful and talented partner, I want to demonstrate for you that social dancing, like that which you just saw, is truly an Art, as it so beautifully illuminates several otherwise ineffable facets of its subject, which I see as none other than life itself. Social dance gives us the opportunity to experience these facets of life in a concentrated form, allowing us to improve our skill not only on the dance floor, but in the greater ballroom we call life.

In this way, social dancing becomes not only an art, but also a practice, in the sense that word developed by the human potential and positive psychology movements, meaning something that we consciously engage in to more fully develop our potential as a human being. So what are the essential skills that the art and practice of social dancing teaches us about life? There are a multitude, about which I could talk for hours, but tonight I want to talk about three: mindfulness, acceptance, and connection. Before we talk, let’s see them once more in action.

Demo: Bugg/Street Swing/Rope Hustle/Four Count Swing
Till the World Ends by Britney Spears

The first life skill that social dancing teaches us is mindfulness, which we might alternatively call awareness, engagement, or presence. In order to dance the ten swing figures that my partner and I just danced in under twenty seconds, she and I needed to be constantly mindful, aware, engaged, present in the present moment, sensing the music, sensing ourselves, sensing each other, sensing the room, all at once, all the time. Social dancing is a kind of meditation in motion, in which our success and our satisfaction is directly proportional to the mindfulness, the presence we put into it. I would argue that the same is actually true of life itself, that our success and satisfaction in life is proportional to the mindfulness, the presence, we put into it. So in practicing this skill on the dance floor, we not only improve our dancing, but also our living.

During this next demonstration, I want you yourselves to be particularly mindful, because, as I’ll soon reveal, there’s something special about this one, which I hope will actually be quite difficult to notice.

Demo: Tango
Fire by Augustana

So what was so special about that particular dance? Although you wouldn’t know it from her beautiful interpretation of my lead, my partner had no idea what was coming. All I told her was that we would be dancing a mystery dance to a mystery song, in order to underscore my next point. So she was simply following me, beautifully, step by step without anticipating or fighting against my lead.* This is the second life skill that social dancing teaches us: acceptance of the world as it is. Or alternatively, we might say that it teaches us flexibility, improvisation, a willingness to say “yes,” openness to uncertainty, whichever of those phrases resonates for you. Social dance teaches us to accept with open arms the world as it is. This doesn’t mean that we need to accept a partner that stomps on our feet, but it does mean that we generally have more fun when we are open-minded and accepting in both dance and life, choosing to be at peace with and to enjoy the world, rather than constantly fighting against it.

Somewhat paradoxically, but also somewhat obviously, however, while dance teaches us flexibility and fluidity, it also demands a kind of strength and solidity, as you will see in this next dance.

Demo: Rotary Waltz
Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne

As you could probably see even from there, in order to survive the rotary waltz, there was a desperate need for a strong connection between the partners. It seems to me that one of the most important aspects of human life, if not the most important aspect of all, is connection, which we might alternatively refer to as accord, harmony, unity, cooperation, peace, it’s related to empathy, compassion, we might even say it’s related to love. Because it seems to me that most, if not all, of the problems we face, not just in dance, but also the personal, social, and environmental problems we face today stem from some form of disconnection, whether it is between what we want and what we have, between Us and Them, between Man and Nature, and that if we learn to harmonize and to heal these broken relationships, we will be much better equipped to face the challenges and opportunities of the future.

In my view, this is exactly what social dance teaches us to do, as it asks us to simultaneously be mindful of, to accept, to connect with and to harmonize a multitude of continuously changing variables: our desires, abilities, and actions, the desires, abilities, and actions of our partner and of the other couples on the dance floor, the meter, tempo, and quality of the music, and the characteristics of the environment in which we are dancing. If we can learn to practice this connection with and harmonizing of the variables of the dance floor, in the concentrated form of life that we call social dance, it seems to me that we could also learn to connect with and harmonize the continuously changing variables of life itself, and use the skills that social dance teaches us to make the world a better place, through mindfulness, acceptance, and connection. While I’m sure this sounds wildly idealistic and hopeful, I really think that social dancing can make the world a better place by teaching these skills, and I urge you join me, and to join my partner, in our quest to make the world a better place by dancing, and to have a whole lot of fun while we’re doing it.

Demo: Night Club Two Step
This Ain’t Goodbye by Train

[*I’ve been asked whether my second lesson is as true for the lead as it is for the follow (see Richard’s essay on these outdated terms here). I think it is. As I see it, the lead and follow are equals who pass the control (influence, really) back and forth as the dance progresses. In initiating a figure, the lead has control, and the follow learns to accept the lead’s lead (or doesn’t, but both partners are usually happier when the follow does). In interpreting that lead, however, the follow has control, and the lead learns to accept the follow’s interpretation (or doesn’t, but both partners are usually happier when the lead does). The lead influences the follow’s interpretation, which influences the following lead, which influences the following interpretation, etc. For a dance to flow, it is just as essential for the lead to be open to the follow’s interpretations as it is for the follow to be open to the lead’s leads.]

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