How an Untrendy Partner Dance Made Me Less of a Jerk

I am not someone who will dance in public, unless that dance is the Sarcastic Robot (that's when you do the Robot but make a goofy face at someone while doing it so they know you're not serious), mostly because "dancing" to most people between the ages of 18 and 35, means going to a club and gyrating until some stranger comes up behind you and tries to mate with your belt loops. At my most spirited, I've been known to jump straight up and down and yell the lyrics of the song to my closest friend. If I'm throw-up-level drunk, I might try to do something rhythmic. My history of not-dancing combined with my neuroses with respect to touching strangers or giving people the wrong idea, romantically, would not have made me a good candidate to take a partner dancing class. But I did, and I'm glad I did. I think it made me better at paying attention to what other people are doing, and ultimately, it made me more cognizant of nonverbal communication, and it may have even made me a little nicer.

I registered for the class because a partner in crime had purchased a Groupon for it and asked me to attend with him. Fine, I said, because I couldn't, at that very second, think of an excuse not to go and I'm not very good at lying.

It was a swing dancing class (cue the jokes about how I would have been really cool in 1994/ did I go with a thinner, more attractive Vince Vaughn?, etc), and it met once a week for a month. On the last night, they explained on the first night of class, we were all going to go out dancing together! Won't that be fun? My stomach turned itself in a knot. This class full of strangers was one thing, but going out in public? To a dance floor? To meet more, drunker strangers who know more about this particular sort of dancing than I did? My flight reflex swelled.

Ultimately, I saw the class through, and I'm glad I did. As the weeks went on, I got to be friendly with most of the other members of the class, and, unlike ever other dance situation I'd experienced, no one got the wrong idea. We got together, we danced, we thanked each other, we parted ways. No funny business! No negging and weird pick up artistry and conflation between wanting to dance and wanting to screw. This kind of dancing wasn't like the type I was used to seeing on the vodka and ecstasy-soaked dance floors of the bars and clubs I'd been to; there was a politeness to it. A set of rules. A civil conversation.

On the last night of the class, we went out to the now-less-dreaded swing dancing night at a bar in the city, and I was dazzled by the fact that there's still a "scene" around swing dancing and also some people's commitment to 50's era costuming. It was like that scene in Dirty Dancing where Baby is shown the sexy, magical, grindey world of the resort staff's secret sexdance floor, minus the PG-13 rating, watermelons and abortion. The dancers who were in "the scene" were fantastic to watch and looked like they were having a ball. Nobody cared how anybody looked, just how everybody danced. People cut in left and right. Strangers were kind enough to bear with my amateurish steps. There were excuse me's and hand shaking and I didn't tell one person off that evening, which is an achievement.

I'm glad I went.

People who dance may have found the following things obvious, but, as someone who had never considered learning how to partner dance, I was surprised by how much I didn't hate it, for a few reasons.

First, dance is exercise. It's easy to forget that because , because once you're actually doing it, it's fun. While I am training for a marathon and have learned to love running, there's usually at least a moment or two during an interval workout where I wish running were a person so I could punch it right in the face. The dirty little not-so- secret of exercise is that often moments of exertion feel supremely unpleasant. I used to throw up after cross country races in high school and never have I ever felt worse than when I ran an 8K after being sick for two weeks earlier this year. If working out didn't sort of hurt and suck sometimes, we wouldn't need playlists to distract and motivate us during exercise. Not so with dance. The exercise is the distraction. It's fantastic. I'd wake up the morning after class with an unfamiliar ache in my calves, despite the fact that since it was only a beginning class, we weren't doing anything crazy.

But what really challenged me in learning how to dance (and what ultimately taught me to be nice) was learning how to follow my partner. The Tough Independent Lady Who Doesn't Need To Listen To Anybody in me took awhile to warm up to the idea of physically responding to a dude just because he's male. I wasn't used to having to pay attention to physical cues in another person, and I wasn't used to trusting someone I was dancing with not to get all inappropriate, and so for awhile I had difficulty reading what my partner wanted me to do and was hesitant to respond to where he was telling me to go. Even though the teachers had to correct me more than once, I eventually learned that, for someone in the follower role, dancing a partner dance is often an exercise in paying attention and trusting that you won't be led astray, and I wasn't someone who was used to paying attention, nor was I used to being unsuspicious.

Learning to do a very basic dance by paying attention to my partner didn't make me into a husband-obeying Bachmannite, but it did help make me less prickly and more forgiving of the mistakes of others. It also gave me some clarity and direction in how to approach situations that otherwise would have left me at a loss. In an ideal world, everyone would tell you exactly how they felt and how it would be appropriate for you to behave around them at all times, but in reality, a lot of communication is physical, and I'd been ignoring much of it. Paying attention to physical cues, as one is expected to do when dancing, helped me be better at reading the unsaid things people are communicating that had been obscured by years of living in a state of general urban paranoia and, by default, just assuming that everyone in the world wants to rob me or get me fired. That quiet coworker who I used to think was always giving me The Eye isn't standoffish and bitchy; she's shy, I realized. The overly friendly guy who works at the 7 11 near my house isn't being creepy when he tries to chat with me; he's just being friendly and also he's lonely. And my sports-disliking boyfriend, fidgeting in the seats at a baseball game, isn't hot; he's bored and wants to leave but doesn't want to disappoint me. Of course, it's worked the other way as well. The other day, for example, some guy trotted up next to me after I got off the train and asked if he could walk a few blocks with me. What he said wasn't threatening, but his physical presence was. After trying to shake him by going into a coffee shop only to find him waiting outside for me, I ended up pulling some evasive maneuvers and trying to shake him, and that's how I ended up breaking my sandal in an alley. Before my experience with dance, I'd probably have been creeped out by him and acted rudely in the hope that he'd get the hint, but I definitely wouldn't have fled.

The popularity of shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Leap Acrobatically Across The Stage Like Some Kind of Crazy Gazelle has brought attention to ballroom/partner dancing as a form of beneficial exercise, since in every single interview, The Stars can't shut up about how much dancing has made them hotter, but you don't have to don a tearaway gorilla costume in order to enjoy the benefits of elevating your heart rate for a few turns around the dance floor. And in spite of its retro sensibilities, there's benefit to be found in learning to "follow," because learning to "follow" is actually another form of learning how to listen. You don't have to surrender your independent ladycard to learn how to partner dance.

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