Personal

Last night at a social, a bachata leader told me that he loved me.

I said, “I love you, too.”

While this isn’t altogether  too uncommon an experience, it is something I think about quite a lot. This is because I feel it quite a lot.

People tend to understand this, though usually they wouldn’t call it love. Most people – and especially non-dancers – when I tell them I experience love on the dancefloor, say that dance is too shallow for love. It’s superficial. It’s connected, sure, and maybe also intimate, but it’s not love. They tell me, often, that feeling something akin to love on the dance floor doesn’t mean anything in real life, because these leaders don’t know a damn thing about me, and I don’t know a damn thing about them. We don’t go shopping together. We don’t call each other when we’re sad. We don’t stare longing out the window and compose florid poetry about one another.

But I argue that dance love is perfectly real – just of a slightly differently flavor.

There are some smart metaphysicians out there who will tell you that separation is an illusion. As humans, we evolved to perceive the matter in the universe as discrete bits that manifest as things such as solids, liquids, and gasses. We see tables; we see trees; we see animals; we see other humans. To our limited senses, these are all very distinctive entities. To some degree, this is true. But to another, it is simply an illusion, as all matter is simply a super condensed form of energy, interlocking into different chemical and physical forms that are constantly in flux. To be clear, this is  science, not some form of new age spirituality. Humans perceive separateness, and do experience consciousness separately. But it’s not necessarily the most accurate depiction of reality.

By my account, to love is to see beyond this illusion.

To love, for me, is to collapse barriers. To love is to dissolve separateness. To love is to experience a sense of unity, or oneness. What this looks like in the practicalities of day-to-day life is something akin to empathy. It is coming to see someone for who they are, and accepting them. It is acknowledging what makes a person different from you – what constitutes the separation that has come to characterize their life – and embracing it wholeheartedly. It is offering yourself genuinely and openly to another person. It is coming together, despite all the things throughout your lives that have kept you apart.

We experience this kind of love to varying degrees with different people. For most people, the collapsing of barriers is most intense with a spouse. They become like one. But it also happens intensely with family members, with children, and with close friends with whom they experience a lot of resonance. It is also possible to experience it with complete strangers. When I meet people, I can quite literally feel their humanity pulsing around them. I don’t know much about them, but  I attempt to see them in this moment as clearly as I can. I attempt to experience the world through their feelings and their eyes, and to acknowledge our shared existential frailty. I feel a very real kind of love for them, even if its not the closely bonded type I have with close friends and lovers.

All of which is to say is this:

When I dance, I try to collapse barriers. 

I think, to some extent, we all do.

When we dance, we are very much ourselves. It’s pretty impossible, I think, to lie about who we are when we dance. And so therefore we are vulnerable with our partners. We meet each other rather existentially naked.

And then we communicate. We move. We feel. We connect. We make eye contact. We see into each other’s passion. We melt into each other’s current emotional state. We get swept up in the music. We get swept up in experiencing the moment through our partner’s feelings, through our partner’s bodies. We learn much about who they are, in these kinds of moments.

We also do incredibly romantic and loving things when we dance. We keep avid watch on the couples around us to protect each other from wayward elbows. We flirtatiously laugh as we stare into each other’s eyes. We hold each other gently. We press our foreheads against one another. We smile as we sway. We inhale as one on the count of eight, experiencing anticipation and suspension together.

This, to me, is entirely real. Sure, sometimes people just don’t really get the whole presence thing. Sometimes, people are distracted. Sometimes, people only dance with me only for the sake of trying to convince me to fuck them later. But I do generally find that most of the time, the people I dance with are there genuinely because they want to be present with me for those four minutes.

And yes, absolutely, I feel it with some people more than others. With some leaders I feel pretty lukewarm. I enjoy their presence but there isn’t all that much electrifying about it. But with others, with leaders who are present with me and with whom I feel both vulnerable and met, my heart beats relentlessly and joyfully, as though on ecstatic fire. If I dance with them a lot of over time I experience added feelings of safety, gratitude, softness, and warmth. I have intensely fond feelings for people with whom I lovingly connect week after week.

I think this is a real, and intensely beautiful thing. I suppose I could think of what I experience and feel on the dance floor as not love, but I don’t see any good reason to do so. Given how vanishingly short life is, I’d rather take every opportunity I can to feel more rather than less. Dance gives me that. And, especially, giving myself to dance gives me that. Love on the dance floor, in this way, is one of the most potent forces in my life that makes it feel beautiful, and exhilarative.

 

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DANCE ADDICTION

(Hi. I talk about “addiction” in this post. I do most certainly recognize that a psycho-chemical relationship to some activity such as dancing or running is not as dangerous or psychologically damaging, usually, as true forms of addiction (eg, gambling), and especially potently chemical ones (eg, alcohol). I choose to use the phrase ‘addiction’ because there can most certainly be a compulsive set of behaviors and feelings around dance, as I do experience and observe in others. But this is addiction lite, to be very clear.)

 

 

I once wrote on this blog was called What happens when you dance for love. 

In it, I talked all about my addiction to dance. I am–I have been–compelled to dance in part because it provides a space in which I feel cared for, adored, loved, and connected intimately to another human being.

This got me thinking about the wide variety of ways in which people can become or consider themselves addicts. Sure – this whole love thing I have going on is pretty powerful. But there is plenty else going on.

So this is what I’ve got – a list of 9 things that keep me (and many I know) coming obsessively back for more:

1) Physical activity

Physical exertion is known to secrete all sorts of addictive feel-good molecules.

Beta-endorphin and dopamine are both secreted in high amounts while exercising, leading to feelings of joy and even ecstasy. Beta-endorphin is in fact what accounts (by and large) for “runner’s high” – and why people develop somewhat real chemical addictions to running.

The same thing happens with dance, or at least with the dances which require exertion.

Interestingly, it is the phenomenon of emptying the lungs of air which accounts for the bulk of this chemical effect. So these ecstatic and addictive feelings are the greatest when the heart and lungs really get pumping — in the fast and furious sort of dancing. Yet it can also happen when you do not move at all — all you have to do is laugh.

2) Synchrony

Millions of years ago, our primate ancestors got most of their emotional highs from grooming.

As fire was invented and tribes developed into larger social systems, however, humans required ways to bond in larger groups. Thus the systems that had previously just worked for grooming began to develop for other activities. Specifically, singing and dancing.

Research has shown quite definitively that vocalizing or moving in synchrony creates powerful neurochemical effects–ones that simultaneously bond communities and foster feelings of joy.

3) Touch

All that being said, “grooming” is still an incredibly powerful high for us. One-on-one physical touching is still incredibly powerful. The impact of physical touch cannot go understated–and most people (especially single people) do not get enough in their regular lives.

Touch stimulates the release of oxytocin – the “love hormone.” This stimulates the release of beta-endorphin, dopamine, and serotonin. Touch is known to reduce stress levels, to lower blood pressure, and to improve camaraderie and even the success of sports teams

Add the chemical effects of touch to those of physical activity and synchrony, and you are faced with something powerfully addictive.

4) Music

Music is an extraordinary part of human experience that can also reduce stress, facilitate catharsis, take one on a journey, and create feelings of love and joy.

Dancing without music can be great. Certainly. But it is the submission to and submersion within music that makes it such a transcendent and even spiritual experience.

5) Community

A lot of people who dance begin because they don’t have particularly strong social lives. I personally began dancing at a time in my life in which it was almost impossible to have friends, due to some mental health issues. So dance, in this way as in many others, really saved me.

Dance provides a way of immediately having a bunch of friends, even if it’s your first night and you’re technically a stranger to everyone there. Being a stranger doesn’t last long. Soon enough dance provides the sense of continuity and community that we all crave.

6) Love, Connection, Intimacy

The  power of connection and romantic love while dancing is probably my own personal greatest addiction.

Dance is a world in which we connect. When you step onto the floor with someone, you are fully with each other. You are present with one another. Ideally, you are all that exists for each other. You take care of one another. You act as guardians, and even confidants, as you vulnerably open up to one another.

You can also experience a lot of intimate, romantic physical contact. You trace your fingers along your partner’s shoulder blades; you interlock your fingers with theirs; you accidentally bump noses; you inhale against one another’s chests.

For  people who really value intimate connection – and especially those who are single – you really can hardly do better than dance.

7) Improvement

Many dancers are addicted to betterment. I personally find that every single time I go out dancing I feel a tiny bit better than the time before. I cannot stop. I love getting better. Not only does it feel good to progressively master a craft (as if, hah, dance could ever be mastered), but it also feels good to see the ways in which your partners and the communities around you react to your dancing.

The better you get, the more people notice, and the more frequently people ask you to dance.

(I talk about improvement in the posts Should you care about technique and How to know how good you are.)

Which brings us to…

8) Validation

The validation you can get on the dance floor is truly like no other. Strangers ask you to dance – this is flattering. Partners ask your name after a dance – this is flattering. People watch you dance with wide eyes – this is flattering. Men or women express some sort of sexual attraction or interest in you – this is flattering. Partners connect with you romantically or flirtatiously while dancing – this is flattering. People assent to going home with you at the end of the night – this is flattering.

I don’t know if, as human beings, we enjoy anything more than we do getting positive feedback from the people around us.

In dance, we can receive that feedback in terms of our sexuality, our appearance, our skills as dancers, as party-goers, as sartorialists, as friends, as romantic partners. As so many things, in so many ways.

And then, as I mentioned, the better we get at dancing, the more potential we have to be validated by people who are themselves already talented dancers, or who are highly valued in terms of the social hierarchy. That is powerful stuff right there.

9) Gambling

To cap it all off, the human psyche relates to dance like it relates to gambling. 

Having a “great” night is pretty unpredictable. You never know when you’re going to stumble into a new favorite dancer, or connect really well with someone, or have a string of great dances, or be the only follower in the room and spend the whole night with leaders fighting over you.

Unpredictability is why gambling is so addictive to the human psyche. We feel compelled to invest our time and money in it on a regular basis just in case this is the big one. 

So thus many of us find ourselves going dancing every single night, because we never know when that unpredictable and oh-so-juicy flood of dopamine is going to hit us.

 

These nine reasons – and I am sure many more – are by and large why I found myself dancing every single night for years. I was always well aware of it, but that wasn’t enough to stop me. These days, having been doing it for long enough (as often happens to people after a few years), the vice-like grip the gambling aspect of the dance has had over me has lessened.

Nowadays I function perfectly well only dancing about 4 nights a week.

For anyone who knows me, this is a vast improvement.

Have I missed anything? What do you think?

 

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stefani and rafael by brazilian zouk photography in London

I have been dancing for longer than I have been capable of reading. Come to think of it, the same goes for walking. My mother tells me I danced my way out of the womb. Dancing is in my bones, and I have loved it since my very first plie. 

But it wasn’t until much, much later in my life that I discovered partner dancing. I was an adult, living on my own. I had already experienced decades of choreography and performing. I had done and seen many different kinds of dance. Dance was old hat to me.

But then, I participated in just one evening of salsa dance, and was hooked. I realized that what I had been up to in ballet, jazz, tap, and the like for the first two decades of my life was wildly inferior to partner dancing.

This was ironic, because my whole life, I had thought partner dancing was for wussies. It looked easy. And boring. You have to do a set of basics steps–the same ones over and over again–the whole time.  You couldn’t pirouette, or lunge, or leap. You were burdened with a partner.

But when I quite literally stumbled into into a salsa social at a community center in Boston in my early twenties, my world did a somersault. Up was down and left was right and all of the sudden everything in my life clicked, as though my ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ had been, if valiantly trying to do the correct thing, hanging out in the wrong places my entire life.

Being a follower wasn’t boring.

It was, in fact, heaven. 

Here’s why:

1. Submission

The Islamic faith is perhaps first and foremost focused on the concept of submission.

It is no small wonder, then, that the central tenants of Sufi mysticism revolve around love, and dance.

Rumi, the most famous of the great Sufi poets, writes

“Dance, when you’re broken open

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandages off

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance, when you’re perfectly free.”

You might think, like I did before starting partner dancing, that submission is a prison. You might think that it traps you. You might think that it yokes you to someone else’s will.

You would not be more wrong.

Submission is freedom, if of a different sort.

It’s freedom from concern. It’s freedom from initiative. It’s freedom from planning, thought, and will.

It’s the ability to shut off your brain and just be held and sway, and let your leader protect you, guide you, and take you along with the soul of the music. It carries you along. It puts you in the psychological state of flow.

As such, it suspends time. It unites you wholly with your partner, the music, the damp air, and the vibrating bodies around you.

It is thrilling, too. There is a particular sense of wild abandonment that comes from giving yourself over to another person.

Submission is an adventure. I don’t, of course, when I follow, sacrifice my will. If something is happening and I don’t like it, I either refuse to follow it, or I change it. I change moves and dodge undesire leads and shake a looser grip onto my hands all the time. But I am also invited to submit, to give myself over.

Nothing makes me feel more fully alive than the thrill of saying yes.

2. Presence

This first one goes for leading as well as for following. When you partner dance, you shut off the rest of the world.

I shut off my life. I shut off my work. I shut off my taxes and my errands and my hospital bills and my drama.

I used to shut off when I danced ballet, too. But I have since found that partner dancing is lightyears more effective. This is because, when I danced alone, the only person I had to get lost in was myself. Sometimes, if I was aching or anxious, this was problematic.

While partner dancing, I get lost in someone else. 

I squeeze his palm gently to let him know I’m with him. I watch the aorta beat rhythmically on the side of his neck. I feel him rise up on his toes and pause on the count of 8, waiting for the drop on 1, and I pause, too, suspended, with my breath stuck tumbling over itself in my in my lungs, waiting waiting waiting, to come down with him on 1.

I put my forehead on his forehead, and I close my eyes, and I sway.

3. Listening 

Leaders listen when they dance, too, but not in quite the same way as followers.

One of the most important aspects of our lives–I hesitate even to call it a “skill” because it’s so pervasive and important–is listening.

I am always trying to be a better listener. I want to hear what people say. Perhaps more importantly, I want to hear what they don’t say. I want to put on their shoes. I want to walk ten miles. I want to never have to take the shoes off permanently, but instead be able to slip them back on whenever I feel inclined.

Listening is an important skill for literally everybody in the world to cultivate. It fosters respect; it erodes borders; it unites us in mutual understanding and love.

Following is the art of listening, and then saying yes. It’s the art of saying

“I am here; I am with you; yes, I will be what you need me to be.”

4. Subtlety

The better I get at following, the better I get at picking up on subtle signals and changes in my partner.

This is seriously the most fun thing of all time. 

I love puzzles. I love the unkown. I love secrets. I love figuring things out.

When I dance with someone, and I read, for example, when they at the last second aborts one lead and goes for another, simply by the change of tension in their forearm that I feel echoing in my forearm, this is electrifying.

When I dance a bachata or kizomba and match the gentle rise and fall of my chest to my leader’s own breathing, and make them smile as they realize the synchrony, too, this is electrifying. 

Sometimes people (particularly westies, I’ve noticed) talk about “the invisible dance.” What is going on in your dance that we can’t see? What is invisible to everyone else? What tiny changes in the way that you’re touching the floor, that she’s balanced, that tension is coming from your partner’s hands, triceps, and lats, are making the dance happen? This makes partner dancing, in some delightful, exhibitionist sense, a secret. You and your partner are in on what’s going on, and no one else.

The better you get at listening–leaders and followers alike–the more subtle, and therefore electrifying, it becomes.

5. Validation

Ain’t nothing in the world like being validated.

For me, the absolute best kind of validation in life comes from when my partner gives me a lead, and I execute it well.

That’s it.

Even better is when the leader gives something complicated, or changes their mind at the last minute, and I still nail it.

I quite honestly live for that tiny smile that steals over a leader’s face when I pull something off they hadn’t necessarily expected.

Perhaps especially delicious is when you ask a new leader to dance, and they’re obviously hesitant. They  say “sure fine” and start off kind of bored, with their eyes darting around the room. But then they lead you and starts to realize that you are going to have a great dance. When the leader gives you progressively different and more complex moves, and you follow them with a subtlety they didn’t necessarily expect, and the leader starts tto smile just a little bit..

And then progressively over the course of the dance smiles more and more..

Mmm. This is the stuff of which addiction is made.

6. Being the artwork

I like to think of leaders and followers in terms of an analogy with another art:

The leader is the painter, and the follower is the paint. The dance is the painting.

Or, for the leader is the sculptor, and the follower, the block of marble. The dance is the statue.

When I dance with a leader, I give my body to them. I do. I come into the dance and agree to let the leader move me and manipulate my body in whichever way they think is best (of course, I can say ‘no’ whenever I want). Along with that body, I come equipped with a personality, and with a skill set.

With that body, that skill set, and that personality, my leader listens to the music, and makes art.

I love being the art. I love being able to come to a leader and say, this is what you have to work with. And I also maybe love saying, Can you handle it? And then, of course, do your worst. 

This is, of course, not a passive process. The leader holds the brush but the follower still has agency, and still has to do work. I follow the moves; I embellish here or there; I make suggestions for where we might go next with the positioning of my body. There is a delicious back and forth–though it requires precise communication and a whole lot of deference on the followers part–throughout this process.

And with it, a work of art has come and gone. In this way, dancing is definitely not like painting or sculpting. Those arts create permanent pieces of work that can be looked at and contemplated again at any point in time. Dance does not. With dance, the art doesn’t last. It is ephemeral. It winks out of being as quickly as it comes, and all we have are our memories and our new love for our partners to remember it by.

 

 

 

So that’s it for me! I’m sure I missed much. Have an opinion? Please share! 🙂

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Stefani Ruper

I have started so many web projects in my life that constructing a new wordpress platform feels like coming home.

But today… this blog. This blog. This blog is different. 

In this blog, more is stake than has ever been at stake.

I don’t mean to be dramatic. (Not today, anyway. I’ll save that for when I’m complaining about ladies styling.)  

But I do wish to be honest, and to let you know why this feels a little bit scary to me.

In all of my previous web ventures, I was either behind the scenes, or the thing about which I wrote was so far removed from my personal life that I never had to worry about blurring the line between the blog and my life. In a lot of ways, I was a blogger at work, and a person at home.

To this day, almost 100% of my friends have never seen my other websites.

I really like it that way.

But in this topic, I am sure not only to just blur the lines, but to take them and mash ’em together like two drunk kizomba dancers.

Dance is my life. Dance people are my life. I can’t remember the last time I befriended (or slept with, for that matter) a non-dancer. A full 98% of my ‘friend’ adds in the last 12 months has been dancers.

And now…

Now my heart and my skill and my terrible, awkward bumbling through these dances is all of yours for the taking, my darling, beautiful friends.

So ask your mercy, and most importantly, your forgiveness.

I am an amateur in dance, as in all things. This blog is about the few things I have learned. It’s about the problems I am troubleshooting. It’s about elevating the discussion of what it means to have quality dances, as both a leader and a follower.

I have no desire to ever declare myself an authority on dance, period. I will never, ever think that have all the answers, or stop listening to feedback, or leave my humble, student-oriented mindset behind.

So this means that I will probably say things that are pretty dumb from time to time. I will probably have ideas that are second-rate. I will probably piss people off because I’m getting things wrong. I know. I am well aware.

I am sorry.

Please, in all of these instances, just tell me. Or don’t tell me. But I am the world’s biggest fan of open, honest, empathetic communication. I want to learn from you. I want to become a better person and dancer through you.

I want to be friends.

😀

I will also probably look like an idiot. Hell, I certainly feel like one, approximately 100% of the time.

So I beg your forgiveness in that, too.

Or perhaps not – since feeling like an idiot and willing to go out and do the things anyway is precisely how I managed to fall in love with dance, and starting figuring out how it all works, in the first place.

I am excited, and I am nervous.

And sorry, and thanks.

Welcome to my blog…

Xx.

 

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