When I first started taking social dance classes a year ago, I thought that I was just taking a dance class. I knew that I was afraid of dancing, and I wanted to overcome that fear. I also knew that there were going to be other perks involved, like the scent of some of my dance partners’ shampoo.
What I encountered, though, was a philosophy.
You see, it turns out that in the term “social dance” – at least as it is interpreted by our teacher, Richard Powers – the two words must have equal weight, because as much social learning seems to take place as kinetic learning. One foremost example of this social learning is learning to be attentive to your partner, to take their perspective and understand how the steps feel to them.
But perhaps more interestingly, often the kinetic seems to serve as an analogy to the social; or put differently, the social learning becomes embodied. For instance, if you are naturally overly passive socially, that becomes embodied as flimsy posture and a kind of under-responsive sluggishness; if you’re naturally overly domineering socially, that becomes embodied as rough, inflexible leading. The right balance, in dancing as in social life, is to have an uprightness and confidence that allows for clarity, while being open and accommodating to the perspective of the other.
Richard Powers often talks about “noodle arms” – the dance floor syndrome in which your arm is merely dangling and not supporting its own weight, giving your partner nothing to push off against. By contrast, when you give your partner push-back pressure, he or she feels your presence more clearly, and the interaction is more fruitful. It has been occurring to me lately that this push-back pressure is really important to a good relationship.
I’ve recently met a wonderful girl with whom I really hit it off, and the way she pushes back at me is a big part of what makes our interactions so enjoyable. For instance, I tend to be naturally sarcastic much of the time – in a playful way – and one of the things I like about this girl is the way that she plays along. My sarcasm is met with more sarcasm, with the same playful energy. Often the content of the interaction is pretty silly, but the energetic feel of it is something special.
Push-back pressure also helps you to see (or rather, feel) yourself and what you’re doing more clearly. For instance, in the design of musical instruments there’s this concept of “haptic feedback”. This is the weight of the keys of the piano, the tension and feel of the string as you play the violin, the pressure of the air column as you play the oboe, and it turns out to be a crucial part of the feedback process of playing an instrument. The theramin was/is an early electronic instrument that has no haptic element – pitch and dynamics are controlled by waving your hand in the air relative to an antenna – and the result is that it is notoriously difficult to play in tune. However, if you attach the hand to a rubber band, the other end of which is attached to the wall, suddenly intonation improves dramatically; high notes, now, correspond to higher tension as the hand moves away from the wall and towards the antenna, while lower notes have lower tensions. This information helps so much in learning where to place the hand.
Similarly, in dancing, push-back pressure helps you to orient your body well in relation to your partner, and it helps you to understand better what you are doing. And in relationships, it helps you to learn your own boundaries and to gain a new perspective on yourself.
That said, of course, too much push-back is not such a good thing. In the case of the theramin, if you can’t move your hand more than 3 inches from the wall, probably a milder rubber band is in order. Likewise, an overbearing and pushy partner, whether in love or in dancing, becomes constrictive rather than clear. As always, it is a matter of balance, and with the right balance comes a wonderful vitality.