I remember when I saw my first neo-swing music video – Brian Setzer’s Jump, Jive & Wail feat. the great LA dancers Kim Clever and David Frutos – over 20 years ago, and I was immediately hooked on the idea of learning to swing dance. Now, there are many benefits to social dancing, from getting some exercise or listening to great music, or finding a community of people with which to socialize, to name but a few. Personally, I just wanted to learn how to throw a partner up in the air like I saw in that video, not knowing anything about the dance beyond the superficial aesthetics.
But after two decades of immersing myself into dancing and teaching Lindy Hop I’ve learned that there are great lessons about partnering that apply both on and off the dance floor, and today I’d like to share these with you.
If we think of partner dancing as a metaphor for language, then the first things we learn are words (a.k.a. moves). In order to converse with someone, we need a vocabulary. In Lindy Hop this includes steps like a swing out, a tuck turn, a pass, 6-count basics, etc., and the more moves you know, the more ideas you can express to your partner. With this in mind, our pursuit as dancers may be to acquire a big arsenal of moves so as to be more interesting to our partners. And while that idea may have some merit, the trap I fell into was ‘quantity over quality’. I had more moves than I knew what to do with, and on the dance floor I was trying to say as many things as I could in each dance with little regard for how eloquently my ideas were being expressed. How confusing (and exhausting) for my poor partners, who had not signed up to listen to a TEDtalk about what I (thought I) knew!
It wasn’t until a few years into my dancing that I began to understand the value of simplifying my ideas, and clearly articulating them to my partner. This holds as true for Leads who are learning how best to flow from one figure to the next, as it does for Follows who are learning how to respond to the lead while adding their voice (a.k.a. variations and personal style). Both sides of the partnership must work to clearly communicate their ideas to each other while not getting lost in the idea of simply expressing.
Compromise: Bend so as not to break
We all have thoughts and opinions about many a thing. When it comes to expressing those to others, how and how strongly we convey those ideas to others is very much about personal preference. Some people have a lot to say and are happy to tell you alllllllll about it. Others are shy or don’t say much for fear of interrupting. I think good conversations, like good dances, are possible when both people have ideas but are also ready to listen to the other person.
I definitely have ideas about how I like to dance with a partner, and I’ve developed my style as a way to support these ideas. And while I may think that my way of relating to dance partners is great, even though I try to account for what my partner’s needs and desires might be, my assumptions aren’t always correct. And they are also just that – assumptions. For example, I may hear a sweet, sweet break coming in the music, and I know that a Texas Tommy would be a perfect way to hit that break. But I’ve also noticed that my partner’s balance hasn’t been very good with simpler moves that require turning. I have a choice to make, and the “bend” I make in this moment is to choose something that allows my partner to shine versus breaking the partnership because of my other idea that prioritized my ‘flash’ over our shared success.
Maybe as a Follow, I’ve been working on this really cool forward swing out variation that I learned from Evita at a workshop, and now I’m ready to wow all of my Leads on the dance floor. Unfortunately for me, the Lead doesn’t give me any forward swing outs for the entire dance! I really want to try this variation out but doing so would break our connection (and potentially disrupt my partner). Is it worth it to shoehorn it in? I would suggest that the “bend” in this instance is to let go of my need to do this particular variation and have another variation in my arsenal more suited to my Lead’s proclivities instead.
In general, it’s in my best interest to compromise or be flexible when it comes to communicating with my partners. Knowing when and how often to do so takes time and experience, but being curious and listening to our partners is the first step to finding the right balance. Because, in the end, I want both my partner and I to feel successful in our dance together.
“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each individual member is the team” – Phil Jackson
I remember spending much of my early swing dancing journey focused on myself, which actually makes sense, because I needed to:
- acquire moves
- learn the timing of those moves
- find the best places to get wingtips/white socks/shorts (or chef’s pants) in my area
My brain and body were already at capacity trying to reconcile all of my needs to be a functional dancer. It took me time to develop enough base-layer skills such that I could then turn my attention to my partner. And while concepts like connection and the value of good partnering technique were talked about by many of my teachers, I hardly had any bandwidth to focus on my partner’s needs, nor begin to think about what our collective effort could create.
With time, I not only began to find my own voice in the dance, but I also discovered the magic of improvising with a partner, manifesting something far more powerful than what I, alone, could create. Some of my most enjoyable dances have that truly collaborative feel, where we’re both surprised by what happens next. It’s beyond satisfying when we are able to synthesize all of our individual skills within our body and then become a valuable partner to another human being.
As it is with interpersonal relationships off the dance floor, being a good partner takes constant attention and intention. Over time I’ve learned that developing a clearer communication style, knowing how and when to adjust my own ideas in service of the shared experience, and acknowledging that ‘we’ is better than ‘me’ have all helped make me a better partner. If you’ve made it this far (and wow, good on ya!) then I’d be interested to hear what you’ve learned about life from swing dancing in the comments below.