Reflections on a Ballroom Floor: What I Learned from Dance Class

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Slow. Slow. Quick-quick.

This formulation sticks in my head more than anything I’ve learned in the weeks of ballroom dance lessons my wife signed us up for. That’s good, since these four steps are the cornerstone of the dances we’ve studied.

We’ve learned to foxtrot. We’ve learned to waltz. We learned the meringue. All of which are easier than you’d think.

We’ve also learned the triple-time jitterbug, a dance no sane person would ever dance voluntarily since after about four minutes it begins to feel like a forced march in wartime.

Slipping around the gymnasium floor beneath the buzz of fluorescent lights provides lots of time to think. The inescapable conclusion I’ve come to is that ballroom dance is a unique symbol of the home we all long for, especially as it emphasizes order, union and transcendence.

ORDER

Our teachers are cool people in their 70’s. They make the class. Former competitive dancers, their skill and age make them seem like people from another world. In some ways they are. They’ve lived through a great change.

The last fifty years, at least, of American life have been times of increasing social disorder. The guidelines society once provided on how to live, what it meant to be a man or a woman, how to be moral, these have all been ripped up, thrown out, and replaced with a hodgepodge of feel-good platitudes and subjective pieties.

The sexual revolution, perhaps especially as it manifested itself in no-fault divorce, has led to chaos in the lives of millions. Changes in technology and the economy have added to the general social disarray.

Ballroom dance is a souvenir of a time before the collapse. We associate it with a more structured and pleasant era. But, there is more than mere association afoot. Structure is the essence of ballroom. The ordered nature of the movements is married in time to the ordered structure of the music, and the result is something that can’t but order the souls involved. In this sense, the dance makes the dancer.

UNION

The dance orders not just the souls and bodies of the individual dancers, but their relation to one another. Everybody knows the man leads, and ballroom gets a bad rap for this. All these formal, partnered dances, we’re told, reflect the patriarchal past all good people are now ashamed of. The woman in these dances, we are to believe, is a mere accessory, some passive thing whose job is to stay out the man’s way. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Though she is responding to her male partner’s lead, she is an equally necessary part of the dance. Without her, the whole thing would fall apart just as much as it would without him.

By dividing roles, the dance opens the door to union. When the roles are clear and both people are fulfilling them, the dance rolls on smoothly. Partners glide, separate, turn and come together and never miss a beat. The metaphor for the larger scope of the relations between the sexes is obvious. The result of living out our roles in the dance is an experience of moving in unity with another person that is rare in our chaotic culture.

TRANSCENDENCE

When the music plays and the man steps forward and the woman steps back, a kind of mystery is revealed. Like all mysteries, this one is hard to put into words. All I can do is describe the conditions under which it sometimes appears.

Moving smoothly in connection with another lifts you up in the presence of music, the most transcendent of all art forms. With a little practice and discipline, the dance leads to a fleeting moment of self-forgetting when everything is all speed, and togetherness and beauty.

Like all moments when we move out of ourselves enough to glimpse a different reality, one where we are more at home, this one doesn’t last. But, it may come again. In the meantime, you can chase it. All you have to do is submit yourself to the order, conform yourself to the structure, pay careful attention to your partner, and put your best foot forward.

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3 responses

  1. Interesting piece! The metaphor holds. Women from other countries and cultures allow themselves to be led with no shame. Women from the US fight and say, ahhh I just can’t not lead!

    How a woman dances is great indicator of who she is. Easily lead but able to still make it her own, thats the kind of woman I’m looking for.

    Come forward when I am and I know you’re gonna be trouble.

    • Thanks, Jack. I suppose I should have said that dance serves as a metaphor because it reflects reality rather than something that is simply designed to enact made up roles for people to play.

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