I've always felt uncomfortable in couples dances: I must lead, make a move. It is almost like real life: you fear rejection, you fear you will make a mistake. But you must make a move -- or you will be dead on the dance floor.
You turn the woman under your arm. Great, you are no longer just rocking back and forth: you've made a decision. But that is not enough. The band plays on. Life is moving on. You must make another move -- preferably a different move. After all, it would be boring, and you would not make progress, if you just made the same moves over and over.
So you make another move: hold hands with her, rock toward each other, rock away from each other, rock toward each other, rock away from each other. Isn't that wonderful? Yes, but the band plays on.
Now what? Let's repeat our earlier move. You know. The Basic: Bodies close together, forward onto left foot, rock back in place onto right, rock back on the left foot, rock in place with the right. And then once again, rock forward onto your left foot, and....
My range is limited, severely limited, in swing dancing. A fellow dancer made it all clear to me. He said he saw the bored look on a lady's face when he danced with her. He could not help but bore her: he, too, was bored. Why was the band continuing to play on and on? He did not like to dance the swing (and I would venture to say he would not like rhumba, or merengue, or the fox trot). What is there to do but a few basic steps? Even ten or fifteen steps finally become a repeated pattern.
At a dance camp I attended recently one lunch table raised a crucial question, a question that made me understand my attitude towards swing dancing: "When does swing become fun"?
It never has been fun for me. I wanted to know more moves. I wanted to shine -- to look as good as those fluid few who mesmerized me with the dazzling way in which they combined a limited series of moves. But I didn't expect I would ever have fun. I would always feel the pressure to do well. The best I could hope for is that I could make my partner love to dance with me: I'd whirl her around, make her look good.
But that's not my kind of fun. Of course I love to look good, to make my partner look good. But I am out there to lose myself, to forget that I am being looked at -- or more properly, to assume that no one is looking at me. I am lost in the joy of the music, and it would be better for me if no one were to see me.
Such is the joy I experience in some folk dances, in all contra dances. The moves are set out for me; I do not need to think about what to do next. Someone has worked out a pleasing sequence, and after I've danced it a few times, my feet move to the pattern automatically. My brain is not asked to function: I am lost in the flow of my body, propelled by the music. Like the whirling dervishes, I repeat a pattern until I almost reach a trance-like state. I call Contra dancing Trance Dance. Swing dancing, to me, is pressure time: everyone's watching, and my partner is grading me.
That guy who wrote about swing dancing does not get it -- he's not with it. He missed the whole point of swing. Swing is sex. Swing is making this move fit this music at this moment. He doesn't get it. He's on another wave length.
In contras you get to flirt; in folk dances you get to posture. In swing you get it all.
Swing isn't just sex, but what swing does is give you prolonged contact, intimate contact, with one other. Forget that other couple. Forget being observed. You are moving with this girl to this band, this music, and no one but the two of you exists.
The joys of the accomplished swinger are far different than the pleasure of interweaving someone else's series of moves. The joy is close to the joy of creation on the dance floor. You interweave these steps with this partner to this music.
But I speak haltingly because I speak as one who has yet to arrive at the promised land. I am one of the incompetent majority, as many of you who read my previous column must have surmised.
There is also another truth: this is an old man talking. I do not want intimate contact with one partner on a dance floor. Recently, while Contra dancing at Brasstown, a woman asked me to swing dance with her after midnight. I said I was too tired and planned to retire. She was quietly furious. She took it as a sexual rebuff; she was right. I knew what late at night slow swing can lead to.
I do not want the intimate contact of swing, tango, merengue. I want safe sex, flirtatious sex: Contras, squares, folk dances. Truthfully, I am a divorced older man, and dancing is the Only time I get that close to any woman. The swing afforded by most contras will do: swing dancing is too intense, and leads to cross-gender complications.
My hatred of "couples" dancing is intense. I have just been subjected to a large dose of it this weekend.
I attended a weekend long dance camp, and by default--not that much that involved movement (my criteria for excellence in dance camps) was offered. So I ended up in waltz and swing and other such workshops. Mostly it caused paralysis.
Look, I am a good dancer--others have told me so. I don't trust myself--I can't judge myself. I half don't believe them when they say I dance well--and I don't, unless I lose myself, unless I let go. There are many levels of "letting go." Simply loosening up, not thinking hard, not worrying, is letting go. But that is one end of a wide spectrum. Only at certain divine moments do we enter the other end--in the zone, is what they call it in sports.
But I am always "out of the zone"--in the ozone, in a state that is closer to paralysis than ecstasy, when I try to learn new steps to the waltz, or new steps to swing--or any other couples dance. At one point I partnered Cathy Stephens (a superb tango dancer and teacher), and performed a routine before the critical eyes of a camp full of dancers (Tanglewood). But that was eons ago, and now, in a worshop on Tango, I move like a wooden toy soldier. I can't think and dance. I go to dance, to a dance camp, to not think.
How can you stop thinking when you are leading a partner in dance--you are the one "in charge." You must decide what the two of you will do next. Go forward? Swivel. Head in the line of direction? Good grief. This isn't dancing. This is worrying. This is pressure. This makes me feel tererible. I don't want this. I don't need this.
But before I get too carried away there is another truth I must utter. All "couple dances," but Tango in particular, can be arousing in a way this old man does not want to be aroused. Your leg must be pressed between her two legs, her legs are wrapped around yours--if you tango properly. During one particular class we switched partners, and my fifth partner was a lovely young lady who wore a, clinging, silk dress. The merest touch between us drove me half wild. She was my height, we were eye to eye, and in one move--with my arm across her chest, her body pressed to mine--I was excited in a way I had not been excited in many, many years. I live alone; I have tried to forget that part of life. My behavior, in that department, has not been totally honorable. When it comes to sex, not many men act honorably.
I dont know what I think until I hear what I say."
I told someone, six months ago, that I dont like couples dancing. I sensed the preceding - and yet I often dance with just one partner (couples dancing: Tango, Waltz, Cha-cha-cha...). The person I said this to said: "You do too like couples dancing. You do it all the time. What do you mean you dont like couples dancing?"
I was stumped. I could not answer. I had formed no reasons for my statement. I half 'startled myself' when I heard myself say; I dont like couples dancing. (What do you mean, Henry? What are your reasons? Durned if I know - and I said it. Deep down I feel I am right; I am expressing something I have sensed for a long time. I insisted to the person I was talking to, that much as I do it, something in me doesnt fully like doing it.
Why do I do it then? Why have I done it for thirty years - if I dont like it?
It seems to me (the party in question), it seems to me that as long as I could not label my reasons (This is what you dont like), my inarticulate sense (I dont like this), was not listened to.
My articulate self said: You like dancing. You like music. You like holding on to women. In Fact, many women praise your dancing. What do you mean you dont like couples dancing?
My mind worked on what my mouth uttered, and after six months and much dancing, the answer emeged! Couples dancing involves pressure on the man to start the moves; couples dancing has involved me in picky questions of style; couples is conflict, comparison... The reasons are not important. What is important is that once the reasons reached into words ("Thoughts need words - it runs on them like a long wire), once I had the words that explained my behavior, I changed my behavior.
I have cut down drastically on couples dancing. I will not practice it; I will not focus on it. I have by no means stopped doing it altogether, it is just that I throw my energies into other, more pleasurable to me, forms of dance.
I dont know what I think - I dont even think particularly well - until I try to say, or write, what I think.
One more example. I am writing, as is usual nowadays, about Contra dancing. In contras, the caller of the dance evntually shuts up. I wrote: Every pupil looks forward to the day his teacher will Shut Up.
I was startled by my own line. Is that true? Of course its true. And suddenly, I applied that to my own teaching. I have been talking too much in class. I sensed that and now I heard the answer: Shut up teacher. They will talk only when you shut up.
So I went to class and forced myself to be quiet that day, and more quiet the next few days. My own writing changed my behavior. I realized something when I put words on paper. Pupils do love it when the teacher finally shuts up and listens to them
Words are enormously powerful. The words I use reveal to me what I think. The words I use change my behavior. The words I use sometimes make me relive my life.
When you are writing to a Friend about your powerful passion (wonderful party...), you recreate the passion in words. Or, to paraphrase Wordsworth on poetry: prose is emotion recollected in tranquility, until the emotion is once again present.
A good writer makes a reader feel what he felt, see what he saw. They recreate the moment. I sometimes derive great pleasure from reading a piece I wrote long ago. I had forgotten I thought that, or felt that. I also forgot that wonderful evening, or that terrific afternoon of horsing around with my young children.
Writing, keeping a notebook, is the only way you get to keep yourself. Words are almost the only way we have to communicate with other people - and words, I suspect, play a large part in our communications with our selves. Writing is not the art of setting down what one thinks; writing is the art of discovering what one thinks.
Copyright © 2001 Henry Morgenstein