The first time I tried my hand (and two left feet) at swing dancing during a summer at Yale, I was absolutely floored. Or at least I would literally have been, if not for my partner, an older Vietnamese gentleman and a regular at Yale Swing and Blues events who guided my first stumbling steps into the world of social dancing.
In the moments after I was launched headfirst into a swing dance, I struggled to force my body to obey two competing demands: mirroring the improvised, enviably fluid movements of my leading partner and following the basic six-count meter that I chanted doggedly in my head. Caught in the crossfire of signals to my thoroughly flummoxed feet, I could not appreciate the lilting rhythm of the jazz music, nor did I notice my partner’s efforts to communicate with me.
My partner immediately realized this and dropped my hands. “You are not listening,” he said, demonstrating how the subtle pressures he applied to my hands and lower back would convey the next step to me. We started again, but on the spot, my mind continued to cling to a panicked litany of triple-step, triple-step, rock-step. “You are not listening!” my partner chided me again. This time, he instructed me to focus my gaze on an abstract point in the distance rather than on my feet. Freed from my anxious notions of performing “correctly,” I allowed my hands, hips and shoulders to grasp and follow the dance for me. At last, I was caught up in the swing of things.
Once I had slipped more comfortably into the reciprocal tempo of swing dance, I immersed myself in its social aspect. As I exchanged hands and steps with different dancers, I exchanged words with them: They shared how they first became involved with social dancing as well as their experiences in various dance communities. Beyond that, I came to know their personal lives outside of the performance we shared. The swing and blues scene was occupied by just as many New Haven residents as Yale students, and social dancing became my way of acquainting myself with them that summer. I stumbled to keep up with a haughty professional male ballerina, laughed along with a spry old man who had loved swing dancing since his youth and befriended a competitive ballroom dancer from Tufts who taught me Lindy hop moves.
In each of these interactions, dance formed both the origin and the medium of conversation. Over the course of a dance, my partner and I would adapt to each other, familiarizing ourselves with each other’s idiosyncratic styles as we communicated through words. Dance was a joyfully dynamic discourse conducted through an attentive exchange of hands, a companionable stepping and kicking of feet; it pushed the extents of space to release the creative potential of music. By virtue of its natural give-and-take, social dancing taught me to listen more closely and trust more instinctively than I could ever have by sitting across a table in a coffee shop with any of the strangers I befriended that summer.
Unfortunately, the disappearance of instruction and occasion for social dancing from the mainstream represents a regrettable shift away from the conception of dance as conversation. We fall on exhausted, socially choreographed repetitions of grinding or jumping in clubs and suite parties; we disregard the importance of verbal conversation alongside physical connection in the haze of strobe lights and pounding music. We do not know how to care about the people whose bodies we are bonding with. Instead, we substitute one-sided thrusting for the lively, vulnerable communication of social dance.
To me, social dancing embodies the ideal social and sexual environment that we ought to cultivate among students at Yale. We create and revise scripts with our partners, rather than assuming or blindly obeying them. We take what makes us nervous about ourselves in stride, and we learn to listen to the nuances of others’ expressions. At its root, social dancing is constructive, spontaneous and perpetually adaptive, taking on the personalities and preferences of its participants. It is a language which expresses, respects and understands who people are. In this context of trust, which is often sadly absent from most dance environments at Yale, the physical connection becomes beautiful, fulfilling and meaningful.
Sherry Lee is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .