I have a friend who leads like I imagine the angels do.
I can just picture it: Gabriel, Peter, and this sweet guy from Jersey, all chilling in the back of the club with a queue of ladies and gents waiting to dance.
This leader, my friend, is angelic in the most real and important way. He once told me that he consciously tries to make every dance as amazing as possible for the followers he is with. I know this sounds simple, but a whole hell of a lot goes into it. For any given dance he takes note of the qualities of your initial connection, gauges your emotional state, and crafts each move of the dance in a way as to help you feel safe and happy. He is committed to not just your pleasure but your comfort and joy. This, he says, is the essence of a good leader.
What about a good follower? A good follower does much the same. A good follower listens. A good follower responds. A good follower tunes into your emotional energy, feels your interpretation of the music, gauges your type of connection, and provides the kind of response that is satisfying for you – the leader – on those levels. A good follower, like a good leader, meets her partner where she is at.
Dancing with these kinds of people can be heaven.
Being one of these people can also be heaven…
But you know what else it can be by the end of the night?
Being a caring dancer can be really fucking exhausting.
Partner dance is care
Partner dancing is an intimate act. It’s two people, moving together. It’s communicating. It’s being present. It’s relationship. It’s teamwork. It’s union. It’s sex, but better.
What distinguishes partner dancing from solo dancing is the relationship you have with your partner. Dancing is as rife with opportunities for mutual positivity or mutual negativity as any other time two people interact with one another.
Any time you interact with someone, from passing completely random strangers on public transit to making love to your own spouse, you have the opportunity to show them love and make them feel better, or not. You have the opportunity to smile at them, or not. You have the opportunity to be empathetic, and to listen, and to respond lovingly, or not. You have the opportunity to embrace a human being, and to make them feel at home in the world, or not.
Partner dancing – like any act between two people – is an opportunity to take care.
Taking care is giving energy
Yet the thing about taking care of people is that it’s hard work.
We all only have so much emotional energy.
Say you wake up in the morning feeling springy. The sun is bright, and the sky is blue. You bounce out the front door. “Life is beautiful,“ you think. You buy a few dozen roses, and you pass them out to all the strangers you pass on the way to the office. All of these people smile brilliantly at you… they’ll probably remember this moment all day. You put positive energy out into the world. You showed them love. You took care of them.
But what if you passed out roses all week, and no one expressed any care or even gratitude for you back? You might be able to get by feeling good about it for a while, bolstered by your sense of virtue and good ethics, but after some time of constantly putting all this energy out into the world, you will probably really start to yearn for some back. We are, unfortunately, limited human beings, who require as much nourishment from the world as we put into it.
At the end of a long, caring week without feeling cared for back, you might feel a little bit tired and a little bit sad. You might not feel like you could do much at all. You might not even feel much like you could buy one or two roses.
All you want to do is lay down and sleep.
Or better yet have someone come give you a rose of their own.
Emotional exhaustion on the dance floor
When I dance, I want to give 100%.
I want to be fully present with my partner, and I want them to be fully present with me.
I want to take care of my partner, and I want them to take care of me.
I want to love my partner, and I want them to love me.
I have noticed over the years however that if I cannot find a happy meeting ground – if I cannot find reciprocal energy of attention and care in a dance – I leave it feeling emotionally drained. If this goes on many times over the course of the night I go home feeling exhausted and sad.
This can happen for any number of reasons. My leader is indifferent. My leader doesn’t pay attention to me. My leader never makes eye contact with me. My leader is physically rough with me. My leader doesn’t seem to know or care how the quality of the lead affects me. My leader puts me through turn patterns without giving much thought to musicality or my experience. Perhaps most commonly – my leader is caught up in their own world.
It also happens when my leader doesn’t notice – or cannot appreciate – the kind of care that I can give or am giving.
I don’t care if it’s someone at their first lesson or a pro whose been at it for decades. Even though the ways in which people can be caring vary based on technique, anybody on the dance floor is capable of care. Anybody is capable of demonstrating appreciation for you as a dancer and as a human being, as well as connecting with you and trying to give you the best experience possible. They might not be particularly good at it, technically, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the love that counts.
Takers and givers
A friend of mine once told me that she thinks about people in the world in terms of givers and takers.
On the dance floor, the angels, the ones who care, are givers.
People who are oblivious to care are takers.
If you don’t go into each social and try to nourish and connect with your partners where they are at, you are a taker.
But if you go into each social with a big open heart and a desire to connect, support, and show appreciation to your partners, you are a giver.
Should you consent to dancing with a taker?
I don’t typically consent to dances that I think will be emotionally draining.
If I have boundless emotional energy to give, I’ll say yes to everybody (who appears to be respectful). If I think the leader who asks me to dance is well-intentioned but clueless about this sort of dynamic, I’ll still say yes. I don’t feel drained by people who are loving in whatever capacity they can be.
If I am not feeling particularly boundless, or simply having a rough day, I will say no to anyone who doesn’t make me feel cared for. Sometimes I literally cannot bear my emotional energy being drained any more. Sometimes I need to feel cared for more than I can summon the will to care for others.
But if I dance with a giver…
If I end up with a partner who connects with me, finds my strengths and weaknesses, supports me, smiles at me, enjoys the music with me, or attentively makes art with me, then I feel cared for. I feel loved. I feel safe. I feel happy. I feel energized. My energy increases.
This is just like if someone makes me dinner, or opens the door for me, or simply smiles at me when I pass them on the street. It is a gesture that sends a message of openness, intimacy, and love.
This is super cool – the energy we get from gestures of love – it’s one of the best things in the world. We all experience it every time we go dancing, or simply walk down the street, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.
Here’s what’s even cooler, though:
Dancing when both people are givers.
If I get into a situation in which not only does my partner care for me, but also in which I care for them back, my energy does not just grow, but grows exponentially.
I feel actively energized in being able to care for an angel – for someone who is a giver.
I give; they give. Then I give more; then they give more.
And this isn’t just me, this is everybody. It’s human nature. When we care for people, we feel needed. We feel important. We feel reciprocal and connected and alive. We actively want to do good.
Caring reciprocally magnifies itself.
This is exactly the stuff that magical dances are made of.
It’s each person doing everything they can, putting in 110%, to make the dance good not just for themselves but for each other.
You tune in to your leader; your leader tunes in to you. You settle into their frame, and they embrace yours. You figure out how to support their balance, and they support yours. You touch them lovingly just so, and they smile or touch you lovingly back. You wink, they smirk. You don’t just get comfortable with one another, but you transcend that. You become joyfully at home with one another.
There is nothing in the world more energizing than this: when you can dance for someone else, and it means that you are nourishing yourself at the same time.
There is no longer a push or pull, a him versus her, a fight for safety or peace.
There is, instead, only mutual love, and something I think of as genuinely healing.
So I recommend…
That when you go out dancing, you think about dancers not just in terms of their technique, or even their connection, but rather their attention to and appreciation of their partner.
Perhaps pay attention to your own heart and dances. Take note of when you feel the most drained, and when you feel the most enlivened.
Nourish yourself on the dance floor. If you’re feeling exhausted, let yourself be exhausted. Perhaps seek out a dance with one of your favorite angels, who could help restore you.
Nourish others on the dance floor. This means taking care of them while dancing with them, but then it also means providing space for them to care for themselves. This may mean letting them seek dances elsewhere.
And maybe most of all take note of the people who have really cared for you (and others) over time. Express your gratitude. Give back. Recognize that a good dance is never really just a good dance. It’s a relationship full of focus, attention, support, care, and love.
Be an angel. It’s what you, your partners, the community, the planet, need.