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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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! 🙂