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.