This was originally a guest blog at atomicballroom.com.
The other night, on a pleasant summer evening in Southern California, I was out social dancing at a Swing event. There was a wealth of lovely, willing leads. The band was exuberantly playing some loungey swing classics, like “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Mack the Knife,” and “Something’s Gotta Give”—then, suddenly, like an unexpected but welcome cool rain, there was a Waltz.
A male Swing lead, a long-time acquaintance of mine, looked at me and said, “What the heck is that?”
“That, kind sir, is a Waltz,” I replied with no little amount of enthusiasm. I waited expectantly, but he just looked discouraged, tinged with a trace of disgust, and he walked away. It was like when my grandmother used to shake her head in exasperation at what the world was coming to when Madonna pranced around in her steel-studded underwear.
Later in the evening, when a Cha Cha came on, that same lead was even more uncomfortable, and finally, when there was a Rumba, he was completely demoralized and left. Quite a few others followed him. Fortunately for me, my escort for the evening was a lead who can dance when a Waltz, a Cha Cha, or a Rumba is played. Except for the fact that probably 20 people bailed like vegetarians from a steak house just like my friend, it was a very satisfying night out. And, despite the sin of playing a variety of music, this Swing band did its job; the musicians played very well and created a fun atmosphere—and who wouldn’t appreciate that?
It is an unfortunate fact that many dancers cling desperately to their comfort zones like a sloth to a tree branch. They will only dance one kind of dance to one kind of music. As a bona fide Lindy Hopper who has been active in the Swing scene for going on 15 years, I am going to point my finger squarely at many of my fellow Swing dancers. (Remember the—ultimately—non-issue of Hollywood versus Savoy?) From what I have observed, West Coasters, Salsa enthusiasts, and Argentine Tango dancers may be just as guilty. Although they also have their issues, I would venture to say that ballroom dancers are a tiny bit more open minded, and here’s why.
When I was in graduate school, I liked a boy, and he was in the ballroom dance program at the university. And, then so was I. Funny how that works. Anyway, this is how those ballroom courses were conducted: From the very first class meeting of the very first semester, I was taught more than six different types of dances—all at once. Shocking, I know, but nevertheless, it is true. I was taught Swing, Foxtrot, Tango, Cha Cha, Rumba, Bolero, and Waltz all in one semester. At the time, I did not know any other way. Granted, my brain almost fried up like an egg on a Phoenix sidewalk, but I survived, and then I thrived. It made me forever open minded to dance experiences, and I have never regretted it.
About a year later, when I discovered Lindy Hop on the patio of the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel, I realized that I had been a Swing kid in my heart and soul all along. I have never looked back. However, it is still perfectly natural for me to react to the type of song played with the kind of dance that goes with it. I expect to dance Rumba to Rumba music, Cha Cha to Cha Cha music, Lindy Hop to Swing music, and so on. If you expect this, too, great! Keep fighting the good fight. Perhaps like you and like many ballroom dancers, I am not a prisoner of one musical style, beat, or tempo, and, in my oh-so-humble opinion, no one should be. Actually, this concept should not be foreign to Swing dancers. Within Swing there are many types of dancing—from Balboa to Shag—that are done to a variety of Swing music styles. And yet many dancers refuse to branch out.
But why, you ask? Why should you learn to dance more than one kind of dance? In an attempt to answer this question, let’s first be honest about why dancers get stuck in a rut. When I took an informal poll, the most prevalent response to this question is that dancers do not like to be beginners. Being a beginner is uncomfortable, embarrassing, frustrating, and constantly challenging. Unless you are a masochist, why put yourself through all of that again? Why would you invite continual humiliation? Okay, I get that. But, without challenging yourself and making yourself vulnerable, there is no growth, no pushing forward, and no flexibility, which leads to stagnation and death. Okay, perhaps that is a tad overly dramatic, but isn’t that what life is about? Change? I am nothing if not a student of life. I would simply pack it in for good if I didn’t have something new and fun to look forward to each and every day. One simply cannot afford to waste time on defensiveness and the narrow view.
There is scientific evidence to back me up on the benefits of lifelong learning. When you learn something new, it helps your brain to form new connections; this may prevent conditions like Alzheimer’s down the road, and it certainly combats garden-variety stupidity. I’m all for that. Mostly, I don’t want to have to sit out even one song at a dance.
Another reason that people do not want to be coaxed out of their comfort zones is that many dance events are geared towards only one kind of dance. When there is a deviation in music at those events, I have noticed that people are befuddled by it. In fact, I’ve seen this give some people fits. They act like the bandleader or DJ just dropped his pants or something. Others simply stare into space like a toddler contemplating whether or not he should cry after tripping over a speck of dust. But, isn’t dancing to the same style, beat, or tempo of music all night boring? Isn’t it like watching an endless loop of “Law and Order?” I’ve been to dances where the DJ or the band has played the same tempo and rhythm—all fast or all slow, or all jump blues, or all from the same decade, for example—for every song for the entire night. I say, in the spirit of Patrick Henry, give me variety or give me death.
Another objection some people may have to learning several types of dance is that they are simply there for the subculture; they like the clothes, the venues, the cars, the food, the like-minded people. Fair enough. I am not talking about abandoning your natural proclivity for Swing, Salsa, or Rockabilly culture. I am talking about being open to coloring your world with some variety. Knowing only one dance is like eating the same thing everyday. Eventually, it is not only deathly dull, it is unhealthy.
At the very least, venturing into other type of dances will lead to meeting new people, and that is (usually) a good thing in our sprawling and sometimes isolating urban/suburban society. Meeting new people alleviates loneliness and complacency. And, you might learn about a new culture or become friends with a type or age of person you’ve never engaged with before. This is also a force against prejudice, defensiveness, and stagnation.
You might also get more chances to collaborate with more people, and you might find yourself actually experiencing life in the moment and to its fullest—just like Oprah and Deepak Chopra want you to. Some of the very best nights of my life have been when a group of Swing dancers has Lindy bombed an alternative space, like the kind of nightclub that might play techno music and has Jean Claude Van Damme-looking bouncers at the door.
Okay, let’s face it. Learning to dance is like falling into a bottomless pit. Even the most accomplished professionals have to keep driving themselves to learn more, to practice more. There really is no getting around it, so why not revel in it? It can only do you good.
Is this a first-world problem? Yes. Am I saying that everybody should be an expert at everything? No. But, every dancer should know the basics well enough to have fun with a variety of dances. Our grandparents and great-grandparents could do it; why not us? Personally, I draw the line at the chicken dance, but everybody has his or her own breaking point.
The real truth of the matter is that I am a dance junkie. There, I said it. I will dance anywhere, anytime, and to just about any music. You want to whirl me around in the grocery store to The Eagles? Sure. I’m okay with that. In the middle of a restaurant to Santana? Bring it on. At the top of the Empire State Building to the soundtrack of “Sleepless in Seattle”? You bet. On a sandy beach to “Help Me Rhonda”? Great! In an elevator. Well, maybe not in an elevator—unless some Chick Webb or Ella Fitzgerald comes on. Okay, okay. You caught me out. I’m basically a hambone at heart, so I’ll show off for anybody, anytime. And, if I am going to debase myself, I might as well drag you down with me. So how about it? Won’t you join me in learning a new dance? I promise to say “yes” if you ask me to try it out with you.