Updated: Sep 12
I started dancing the fall before I started college. Every Thursday I would meet a friend of mine at a gas station part-way to Youngstown, Ohio. We would carpool the rest of the way, dance until we were good and tired, and return home for some much needed-sleep. I'd appear at work the next day with giant sharpied X's on my hands, badges of honor from my under-drinking-age dive-bar dancing adventures. I felt very cool, spending my Thursdays completely sober, but in a bar nonetheless, dancing the night away.
I was nervous when Lacy first suggested I try partner dancing. For perspective, I had quit tap and ballet lessons when I was very little because the prospect of putting on itchy tights on weekend mornings insulted my sensibilities. And when I auditioned for a musical my first year of high school, I showed up in business casual (wanting to make a good, professional impression) when the rest of the girls walked around in spandex and Soffe shorts. I stuck out like a sore thumb, felt incredibly awkward, and smiled, prayed, and stumbled my way through the basic chorus dance audition choreography, while most other people skipped through jazz square after jazz square with apparent ease.
Luckily though, that nervousness turned into exhilaration. Though organized dance routines hadn't exactly been for me, from childhood I had loved flailing around in the living room to Prince and ABBA when my mom cranked up the stereo. That had turned into an adolescent tendency to spin around the kitchen, packing my lunch and mimicking whatever moves were happening on the latest episode of So You Think You Can Dance. When Lacy asked if I wanted to go dancing with her, I thought:
I am going to be like one of those people on Dancing with the Stars. But with fewer sequins and way less cleavage.
I still don't look like those people on Dancing with the Stars, but it turns out that the reality of social partner dancing can be way more fun than even the most glossy of dance-y stereotypes. All sorts of people show up to lessons and dances—all ages, all sizes, all genders, wearing everything from fancy vintage suits and intricate hairpieces to sweatpants and bedraggled graphic tees.
And they all make the shapes of the dances in their own ways—with swing, there's no perfect way to do things. It's a vernacular dance that has been added to and adapted for ages, since the development of swing music from its roots in blues and jazz music, primarily in black communities, in the 20's and 30's.
As long as no one gets hurt, and everyone is smiling, there are no such things as mistakes—there are only new moves.
I owe my delight at this art form to the courage and ingenuity of dancers like Willa Mae Ricker, Frankie Manning, Leon James, Al Minns, Ann Johnson, and Norma Miller. For a brilliant history of the dance (though it's only the tip of the iceberg, head here.)
From those first exciting lessons and dances grew an ongoing love of this family of dances. It has brought me joy in tough moments, brightness and warmth in cold Vermont winters, and a chance to enjoy the miracle of living in a world with music, in a body with rhythm. I have learned to lead and follow, have tried out variations and different families of dance, including West Coast Swing, Lindy Hop, Charleston, Balboa, and Blues, and have attended swing events in nearly a dozen different cities. I have gotten to teach the basics of East Coast Swing/Lindy Hop to dozens of people, and have had the joy of watching some become wonderful instructors and dance community leaders in their own rights. There have been many toes stepped on, many apologies for missed moves, many moments of looking stupid in the process of getting to cool (a wonderful phrase a favorite instructor of mine used to instill confidence in the process of looking goofy in lessons).
This is all to say, you are welcome on any dance floor I'm standing on. And even if I'm not standing nearby, you should welcome yourself into this wonderful world. You won't regret it.
Unless of course you manage to trip and concuss yourself. But the odds of that are slim.