Dancing all over the World
photograph by Vaughn Perks
Last weekend Norwich hosted the Fine City Swing Dance Festival with over one hundred people, including international guests from Switzerland, Spain and France, as well as participants from all around the UK, coming together to dance Lindy Hop.
A Shared Language
It’s amazing how the knowledge of a few simple patterns of movement can bring together a room of strangers into a shared experience of joy. I meet a person from another part of the world, whom I have never met before, and with whom I am unable to talk because we don’t speak the same language, and yet on the dance floor we understand each other. We connect. We communicate. We laugh. We get to know each other’s moves and have a great time. That to me is the magic of dancing.
The Democracy of Dance
Dancing is such a democratic art form. You communicate with a person directly as a body in motion. When someone, whom I’ve never met before, asks me to dance and we take to the floor, I have no idea of their socio economic background. I don’t know what they do for a living. I don’t know whether they are rich or poor, how big their house is, whether they have a degree or left school at sixteen. What I know about is how their body feels in my arms. I know about the smile or frown on their face. I know about their smell, their energy, their feel. It’s a totally different way of meeting people.
To be in his arms was heaven
Looking around the room on Saturday night I saw young and old mixing in a way that is seldom seen in today’s segregated society. An older gentleman, a stranger, entered the room. I suspect he was in his mid-seventies. Rumour soon spread around the hall and women from ages nineteen to eighty were jostling for the chance to dance with him. To be in his arms was heaven. To dance with this man was to glide and twirl and flow from one shape into the next, to feel the music streaming through both partners’ bodies. His gift was his generosity, to dance with him was to become Ginger Rodgers to his Fred Astaire. He was an amazing dancer not because of his flash moves and show stopping talent but because he used his skills and experience to make sure that every one of his partners, whatever their level of ability, felt as if they were a beautiful and graceful dancer.
Mix and Match
Over the course of the weekend I saw young, old, black, white, Asian, men and women dancing, not with people just like them, not in narrow tribal groups of similarity, but meeting and mixing, trying each other out for size and shape and rhythm, looking for different kinds of matching. Even the conventional pairing of men and women is beginning to open up and it was common to see women dancing with women, and less so, but definitely happening, men with men.
When I was a teenager in the 1970’s there was no such thing as partner dancing. But now that I’ve learnt how to Lindy Hop I realise what my generation and those that followed have missed out on. I envy my parents their experience of socialising through partner dancing because it’s a unique way of making contact. To dance with someone for one song commits you to very little but by the end of that track you’ve learnt a lot about the person and how well you connect with them. This isn’t just about dancing skills; it’s deeper, more physical and more spiritual than that. To dance with someone is to get a sense of their essence.
Four Key Ingredients of Social Dancing
In one of the classes this weekend the dance teacher, Sarah Lewis, talked about the four elements that make for a good social dance. Presence, are you there with the person in front of you rather than looking over your shoulder for your next dance, or thinking about what you’re having for tea? Awareness, are you aware of being in your own body, aware of the body opposite you, of the other bodies around you. Playfulness, are you having fun, being spontaneous, living in this moment, responding to the music or just going through the motions. And finally and most importantly Contact – are you making contact with the other person, not just physically but with all of you, are you seeing them, feeling them, and responding to them.
Lessons from the Dance Floor
It seems to me that these four aspects of good social dancing are the secret to skillful interactions whenever two people come together, whether that be at work, in our families, or meeting new people. In every situation of communication we can learn to use these skills, of presence, awareness, playfulness and contact, not just on the dance floor.
Follow My Lead
In any partner dance there is a leader and a follower. Traditionally leaders are men and followers are women but nowadays the cool thing is to be able to do both and interchange.
The Challenge to Let Go of Control
As a naturally assertive person, who rather enjoys being in charge, learning to follow was both a challenge and a liberation. The art of following involves being responsive, waiting for the signal, and going where you’re sent. Basically you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s all about letting go, trusting your leader and keeping your balance. Scary? Absolutely, but so exciting! Imagine moving free from any planning, spontaneously reacting to the moment. The best dances are adventures where you are whirled into new territory, or conversations where you’re posed challenging questions and find your partner enjoying your answers. As a follow I love the freedom of not knowing and the discipline of dancing within a pattern that someone else is creating.
Learning to Lead
But the time has come for me to LEARN TO LEAD. I want to join the cool kids who switch effortlessly from lead to follow, untrammelled by conventional genre roles. How difficult can that be?
One beginners lesson in and I am amazed at just how difficult it is to lead. Essentially I’m still dancing the same steps, sure there is a little left hand right hand, left leg right leg confusion going on but the startling difference is in the role. I’m now in charge of directing the dance! Suddenly I’m counting the beat like crazy whereas, before as a follow, I simply ‘felt’ the music. But now it’s my job to start the move on the first beat of the bar so I need to know where that is.
I have so much responsibility. Everything that happens is created by me. This is terrifying. I am producing the dance, making it up step by step and I’m limited by my own capacity. At the moment I only know how to lead four moves!
I Love Good Leaders
I understand for the first time so much more about what leaders are up to; how generous and creative they are. The gift leaders give to me as a follow when they shape a lovely dance.
I try leading a beginner in a dance and together we stumble through a song using just the four moves I know. It’s fun. Emboldened I go for a big finish as the track climaxes, leading an improvised spin and my follow, taken by surprise, squeals in delight and gasps as I swing her round. I think – ah yes that’s your bacon – when it goes well leading is a big time thrill – this powerful sense of having ‘given’ your follow a good time.
So I begin to understand why it’s so liberating to experience both roles, lead and follow. And maybe there’s a deeper lesson here – that in any healthy relationship there should be a balance of leading and following. I’ve always envied same sex relationships for their freedom to choose the areas where each partner assumes the lead according to skill or desire rather than confirming to the traditional roles that heterosexual couples easily fall into.
Learning to move between leading and following is an important life skill that we should all develop. As children we followed our parents but as adults we will eventually take responsibility for leading our aging parents. In all such transitions we can find ourselves on the wrong foot, feeling oddly out of time and space.
Now that’s dancing
So not just on the dance floor but in all areas of my life I am trying to discover where I need to take the lead and be assertive and where I have to let go, trust and keep my balance. Now if I could get that right – I’d sure be dancing.
Dressed to Protest
Unable to make the Women’s March in London on Saturday, instead I joined the small crowd of protesters outside City Hall in Norwich on the evening of Trump’s inauguration. It was freezing and choosing an outfit to wear was easy; comfort and protection against the cold were paramount. Warm layers, bobble hat, thick socks, comfortable boots were the obvious choice. There were absolutely no ‘do I look fat in this’ issues.
The Pussy Hat Project
I didn’t know then about the Pussyhat Project (pussyhatproject.com), until I saw the sea of bright pink on the Washington DC March on TV the next day. Taking the ‘feminine’ colour pink and using it to demonstrate what girl power looked like, embracing the traditional ‘mumsy’ skills of knitting and crocheting and displaying them proudly on the world stage was a brilliant plan. I loved the concept and enjoyed the visual manifestation.
Dancing is a dangerous business as anyone who’s seen the Powell and Pressburger film The Red Shoes knows. (If you haven’t seen the film – download it immediately and treat yourself to a great classic movie.)
Watching Matthew Bourne’s mesmerising new ballet of The Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells last week I was reminded (spoiler alert) of the high cost dancing can have on your life.
The Red Shoes
Both the film and the ballet are inspired by the 1845 Hans Christian Anderson story of The Red Shoes in which the young heroine Karen refuses to take off her treasured red dance shoes when she goes to confession. As divine punishment the shoes take on a life of their own and she has to keep dancing night and day until she begs to have her feet chopped off so she can rest.
I just happen to have a beautiful new pair of red dancing shoes that I’m taking for a debut airing this Sunday. I’m hoping to avoid Karen’s gruesome fate but there is no doubt that dancing is addictive.
Each to their own addiction
I’ve tried Salsa, Flamenco, Samba and Egyptian dancing and enjoyed them all but never managed to stick with the classes for long enough to master the form. I think that as with colours everyone has a favourite dance style that suits them.
From my very first Lindy Hop class I was hooked. The moment I saw the experienced dancers swirling around in their flared skirts and saddle shoes I was determined to become one of them. I think it was the dynamism of the moves; there was such a joyful, exuberant flavour to the dance. I couldn’t wait to be flung out at high speed and tossed into the air.
Dancing is a wonderful, life enhancing activity but beware – it will change your life!
There are serious consequences to joining the cult!
Husbands arrive masquerading as ‘leads’ to mess up your ordered single life. Say Good bye to your non-dancing friends – you aren’t going to see them again because all your weekends and evenings are going to be spent dancing.
(But say hello to a wonderful crowd of lovely new dance friends.)
Get ready to dump your ‘going out’ clothes into a plastic bin liner and take them to a charity shop. You’re going to need a whole new wardrobe. Who thought two party outfits was enough to get you through the year? Barely enough for a week. Embrace the sheer joy of a rail of beautiful dresses that you get to wear all the time.
Forget about holidays lying on the beach from now on your vacations will be planned around dance festivals. Swing and Swim in Greece, dancing on the beach then diving into the ocean to cool down, what’s not to love? Gastro Swing in Northern Spain – eating, drinking and dancing – I call that heaven. The world is a swing dancers’ playground. And everywhere you go friends are waiting to swirl you around in their welcoming arms.
Blowing the budget
So new dancers beware of the quite literally ‘high cost’ of dancing as you add a fat new line to your budget.
But if your dance addiction is running out of hand and into overdraft this January – check out Matthew Bournes’ brilliant show at Sadler’s Wells until January 29th then touring the country and coming to Norwich at the end of February. And be warned.
New Year’s Eve
The first hour of this New Year found me dancing like it was 1977. Forget the intricate steps of Balboa, the tight eight beat framing of Lindy Hop, the complex patterns of Collegiate Shag – this was a forty year regression to being a teenager in Birmingham. I shimmied to soul classics, pogoed to punk, got down and dirty to the reggae beat, and skanked to the Ska rhythms.
It nearly killed me!