Ballroom dancing can be a school of virtues, as Lisa Fraser discovered.
Soho’s nightlife is buzzing again and nightclubs in London are as crowded as ever: the Roaring 20s are back. Dancing seems to offer a solution to the isolation and boredom that most of us have experienced during lockdown.
Yet, while nightclubs can hide loneliness, they can’t cure it. Encounters are usually ephemeral and superficial. Most of the time, people dance on their own or with partners they will never see again anyway.
Numbing loneliness for a few hours can be lifesaving and enjoyable while it lasts but it does not make life more fulfilling.
Modern dances have emerged in a world ruled by instantaneity and consumerism, and in their particular choreography they mirror our modern lifestyle: they’re individualistic; they’re accessible effortlessly to most people, as they don’t require effort to learn complex techniques; they come and go like fast-fashion clothes. On the other hand, partner dance (or ballroom dancing) is countercultural: it takes a few months of slog and commitment before we start reaping the rewards of our labour.
One of the reasons I did not explore partner dance before the pandemic was because I was nervous of commitment. I was anxious about blocking out time in my diary and potentially having to say no to more exciting invites. London had new trendy pop-up stores, exhibitions, or cocktail bars opening every week, and I wanted to be able to explore these options. I was hooked on instant gratification, seeking quick fixes to loneliness or boredom. Yet, social butterflying did not fix loneliness. Lockdown made me realise that if I ever really wanted to belong to a community, the best solution was to invest time and energy in being with the same group of people.
Partner dance gave me that because it creates a sense of safety and comfort, as we know we’ll gradually become a community. I am also grateful to my fellow dancers for their commitment to spend time together. Over time, our patience is rewarded by the creation of new friendships.
At first, being forced to be the follower was a cultural shock and a source of tension. My generation was brought up with the idea that being an independent, self-supporting woman was vital, and I’d mostly been in positions of leadership at work. When I started partner dancing, I thought it was outdated that women had to let a man, or more accurately, any man in the ballroom, lead us. Yet, gradually, I’ve learnt that the follower, far from being disempowered, is essential.
This role division made me rethink my understanding of leadership. From the very first lesson, our dance teacher said that ‘the role of the leader was to keep your partner smiling’. A man, regardless of how well he dances, will only be successful if he can convince a partner to accept his hand. If the partner stops enjoying it and walks away, the dance ends.
The follower, I realised, is someone who has the power to say yes, temporarily, and who can take back her consent at any time.
Therefore, the leader must create the conditions to obtain his partner’s consent, for instance by having appropriate physical boundaries. Leadership flourishes when there is mutual respect.
Ballroom dancing also made me reconsider what I call ‘power’. Initially, I felt disempowered when I realised I would not create my own choreography and would have to rely on someone to guide me. Soon, I realised I was wrong for several reasons.
First, my ability to implement the steps with precision and expertise is essential to the team’s success. As women often have more complex steps, this is not a menial task. Also I came to understand that success is not only about having a brilliant vision for the dance, it’s about bringing this vision to life successfully, together. Life lesson alert! Followers are not less valuable than leaders, and when leaders and followers work together, they build something greater than the sum of the parts.
For this reason, partner dance made me realise the importance of good communication. Sometimes I have to remind partners that I can’t read their minds – they must share their vision if they want me to do what they have in mind. The music goes fast, and I have no more than a split second to read my partner’s subtle movements and respond accordingly – without saying a word.
As dance students, we learn body language to communicate with our partners but this is just the tip of the iceberg. In practice, I’ve noticed that leaders interpret and use these signals quite differently. Therefore, meeting a new dance partner is like meeting a foreigner … as we’ve learnt a few words in high school, we can do small talk, but we have to learn how to speak the same language fluently to truly get things done.
Yet how little our modern world trains us to be good listeners. Our 21st century post-pandemic lives, paddling through the flood of information and social media, don’t require us to focus, so much as to skim and scan information very quickly. Partner dance is the opposite: it requires sustained, active attention. I remember my surprise during our first class, when I realised I had to concentrate on my partner’s body language every single second of our dance together. A split second of inattention and the choreography drops: there is no pretending.
It was exhausting at first, more exhausting than the physical activity itself.
With time, I’ve developed a new set of skills: I’ve learnt to be in the present moment with and for my partner, giving myself fully, brain and body.
Ballroom dance is based on the giving of oneself to someone else. The leader must have the generosity to offer his hand in the first place, and share his ideas trustfully with his partner. Conversely, the follower must have the generous desire to empower the leader, to bring life to his ideas. Both must be generous with their time, so that they can learn about each other, and grow together. Every dance is based on an initial act of generosity.
Strange though it may seem to say it, dancing is also an act of charity. Inevitably, we will meet partners at a different level from our own. If we want the ballroom to progress collectively, we’ll have to take the time to teach other people, and to let them learn from their mistakes. That requires patience and the desire to give some of our time to help others grow. This attitude often pays back, as it helps create a better community spirit and closer friendships. What a reward, what joy, when we finally achieve something together!
Looking back and noticing progress can help build self-confidence. Many of us noticed that Covid had blurred our sense of time: I have become more confused when I think about past events, and I’m not so sure of dates. Yet partner dance gives me the elements necessary to make comparisons: I remember how bad I was when I started dancing and now I see how I am able to do some complex moves. It’s a useful reminder that success is built over time. Unlike many modern activities (from fun fairs to nightclubs), gratification is delayed, but when it finally happens, it brings a deeper fulfilment.
I’m not good, but I’m certainly better: this brings joy. It also brings hope, as it reminds me that I am able to progress quickly and surely when I set my heart on it.
There are times when we will not achieve what we want to do – either because of lack of practice, skills, strength, or miscommunication. It is hard, because living without pretence and letting our vulnerabilities show is countercultural: social media does not teach us how to be vulnerable, especially in public.
On the dance floor, we are not a curated version of ourselves; there is no filter. We’ll surely fail at some point, and the rest of the class will see it. So what? With dance we always have a choice: we can either fail and give up or we can fail, and fail again, until we make it. In that regard, partner dance can help us accept that we’re fallible but that we should keep going regardless, without letting our limitations hinder us. It can teach us to do things just for the joy of doing them, without putting pressure on ourselves.
Ultimately, this detachment is paving the way to inner peace and happiness. Partner dancing teaches transferable, soft skills that can be counter-cultural: we discover a type of shared leadership; we let go of our image and of our temptation to be control freaks. These skills build on virtues such as patience, generosity and the ability to commit, which are not mainstream virtues nowadays. This ‘partner dance mindset’ is a solid basis to create better environments around us – whether it’s at work, with friends, or in our volunteering. This is the vibe I would like for our Roaring 2000s.
Now, care to dance anyone?
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