On One (…two-three…and five-six-seven…)

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As I mentioned in a recent post on salsa, social dancing and kickboxing have a lot in common, perhaps not at the level of technique (though we learned a move the other day in salsa partnering that I picked up right away because it was exactly like a block/trap/redirect move…) but more in terms of how you have to connect with your partner, read him, and respond to him. I can be in a jazz class in the front row, coordinated, graceful, totally focused on what to control and what to let go of—but in that case, I’m only experiencing the movement kinesthetically and spatially—just me, moving. Put another person in my space, whose movements and person I have to incorporate with my own, and I become completely discombobulated. When you dance with someone, you experience that other person’s embodied self—and, as with sparring, this elicits aspects of your own self in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re dancing on your own. And yes, I suppose that other people would work the more obvious parallels here to a romantic or sexual encounter; but while the libidinal is definitely, optimally, a part of social dancing—its raison d’être figuratively if not literally—what makes dancing comparable to sparring is that both occur within a framework of formalized technique, skill, and negotiation of the space, (including—though I don’t know about how you all manage your affairs—the dozens of other people around you). Like romance and sexuality, social dancing is an intensely focused, intimate, relationship; like sparring, it’s a performance of art and skill that is at once personal and public.

What this means for me, in practice, is that the skill part of social dancing is easy; it’s the relational part which gives me trouble (a theme which runs consistently through most of my pursuits, alas…). While I still have a lot to learn about the patterns and rhythms of salsa, and take full responsibility for the things that (literally) trip me up, how well I can dance with a partner depends mightily on 1) whether I’m attracted to him or feel some conflict with him; and 2) whether he knows what he’s doing (Sparring, romance, dancing—indeed, the parallels are striking…).

So—if I’m not attracted to my partner, if I can’t even muster neutrality toward him, I just can’t deal with him at all. And this has little to do with how he actually looks. Because social dancing requires that you have this person on you, it matters greatly how he feels and moves and appeals to all your senses. This should be obvious, but experience proves that it’s not: a man is a pleasure to dance with when he’s taken some self-conscious care of his person—he’s clean, he’s dressed for the occasion, (most important of all) he smells good. If a man’s hands are dirty, if I can feel rough things on there (what is that, a grubby bandage? a growth…??), if he smells bad (coffee, garlic), if he smells weird (sour milk—why why why??)—I can’t help recoiling from him, which undermines the whole premise of social dancing.

By contrast, the most unlikely-looking fellow can offer you his hand, and you take it, with reserve—and then if he proves to be a fluent and confident leader, for the duration of the dance, it’s a pleasure to follow him, to share in the courtship ritual, to let yourself be persuaded by his performance as though you are being courted, just for those few moments. Dancing is SO much easier with someone who knows what he’s doing—as I’ve said before, there’s a special pleasure to be had in putting yourself in the (clean) hands of an expert. I don’t need to become a world class salsa dancer, but I do aspire to a level of skill that will give me steady access to highly competent male partners—because, quite simply, they allow me to be a better, more-comfortable, less-self-conscious, dancer.

What pulls the sensory appeal and the biomechanical skills together in a way that really inspires trust is the partners’ touch, which in turn depends on his demeanor and level of confidence. I’ve got to believe that he knows what he’s doing (and he has to believe that I trust him). This is the tricky part—we have to establish some kind of rapport not only of technique, but of roles. Social dancing is definitely a partnership, but it’s not egalitarian in any modern sense (because we moderns have yet to figure out what “egalitarian” means). These dance forms depend on very traditional assumptions about masculinity and femininity; while enlightened dancers think in terms of “leader” and “follower” so that you can be of any gender and take any part, the default arrangement is that in a mixed class of men and women, boys lead, girls follow. You would think, given the amount of patriarchal angst that suffuses our culture, that straight guys would be over the moon to be given a chance to “act like a man” and lead, or that we women, still hopelessly brainwashed by every romantic fantasy every committed to print or film would experience nothing but relief and gratitude at being led. Nope. We live in an interesting cultural moment when both men and women have to self-consciously learn the difference between obnoxious aggression, unhelpful passivity, and appropriate assertiveness. I take it as a positive sign of progress toward sexual equality that when my dance partners are required to be assertive (you pull me here, which allows me to shift my weight there, so that you spin me there), they struggle and hesitate. What is difficult for both men and women to learn is that, social dancing is a context which authorizes a complementary dynamic of strength—because my role is to match the power in his movements with my own. If he’s hesitant, I’m hesitant, initiating a reverse-snowball effect of melty feebleness, which is neither sexy nor fun. This parallels with past experience sparring—another activity which authorizes and requires a respectful exchange of physical assertiveness: the partner who’s afraid to hit his or her opponent makes sparring quite useless for us both; the leader who can’t take a firm hand to direct his follower can’t take his part in the dance. (And of course, the opposite problem exists: the guy who has something to prove, and thinks he’s putting women in their place by being too forceful. That guy doesn’t show up too much in dance classes—he knows he’d never last a minute there; a good martial arts class would reject him too; the only place the aspiring bully can go is a nightclub where he tries to grind on women until the bouncers throw him out).

And finally, fundamentally, there’s the musicality, the difference between poorly-done grappling and fun, well-executed dancing. Because we live in a culture where little boys get sent to karate and little girls get sent to ballet (or used to, for the purposes of the partners I’m dancing with, who are from my generation)—by the time we’re adults, guys are out on the gym floor lifting weights, women are doing charleston in step class and mambo-cha-cha in zumba, and we’re as segregated by skill and sex as if the last couple hundred years of gender relations had never happened. This is no good for either of us, but where men are really at a disadvantage is the way their socialization avoids and stigmatizes music and dance. Too many straight guys in North American culture are taught that it’s masculine to stand around the edge of a dance floor with a beer in their hand, and to be suspicious of dancing as something feminine, and thus to be avoided lest the experience drain some of their masculinity away. Somehow. The logic of this…well, it’s not logical at all, is it?

Nevertheless, the upshot is that a lot of men have had almost zero opportunity to dance growing up, and little opportunity to become comfortable and skilled at it. So good for them when they gamely give it a try as adults! I have a lot of respect for them, because it isn’t easy to try new physical and social activities as an adult, and start from square one. Good job guys!

But man! is it ever hard to dance with someone who can’t count!! I’ve spent long moments dancing salsa, with a man staring at me meaningfully, right in the eyes—counting out loud at me. All through the dance. And yet they confuse counting to 8 as dancing to the beat within an 8 count phrase. You’d think that would be the same thing, but it’s really not. So we’re here on 3, and then there on 6, and he’s scolding me for not following properly because he had every move on its count—except he’s not actually listening to the organic layers of human-generated music, which doesn’t just tick like clockwork but moves like bodies move—and he’s too fast here, or too fast there, and he’s flinging me around to catch up to the downbeat and stepping on my toes. And then he smells funny and his hands are sticky and oddly lumpy and that’s when I just want to pack it in and go back to zumba class.

To be clear—I’m not putting all the responsibility on the man! On the contrary—as someone who’s used to being able to move her body around where and when she wants to, it’s been something of a surprise to find out how difficult it is to do those same moves with someone else. And that challenge has come to be one of the very things I love about learning this new skill, this new art, this new kind of relationship. Because when I’ve got a simpatico partner, and we’re moving it’s all fantastic (plus, I won’t lie: I hold out hope that I’ll meet Prince Charming this way).

When I first started to spar in kickboxing, I inevitably got hit in the face (because that’s how you learn to duck). Not only did it really hurt, but I found it oddly, instantly distressing on an emotional and social level (basically, I’d have irrational flashbacks to 6th grade social persecution and rejection, and would immediately burst into tears. You can’t duck if you can’t see through your tears. And that’s a little embarrassing for several reasons). I eventually had to take a break of a few months, to just sit on the side-lines and watch, to work on other things, to get into the culture and the mindset of the practice, before I was able to spar again, and encounter set-backs like being hit in the face, and keep going with equanimity. The point is that when you’re trying to do something new, you’re not going to just walk in and do it as an expert, you have to learn, the hard way, and take a few knocks for every gain you make. Fortunately, salsa and other forms of social dancing are much less likely to result in a bruised nose (though as with kickboxing, the bruised shins are an accident waiting to happen). One pleasant thing I’ve learned in this whole process is that I’m much more of an optimist than I used to think I was. I was once a fretful person who wouldn’t try new things for fear of failure, for fear of doing things wrongs and being judged (horrible, horrible 6th grade…)—now in addition to the loving the music, and the movement, and the mental challenge of learning the steps, and the social challenge of trying to dance (and not fight) with my partner, I’m proud of myself for being able to just accept the knocks, and happily keep going.

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