I hope this post won't offend any real philosophers out there. I just think about things. A lot. And I try to get to root causes.
I went dancing tonight. I knew it was a swing club. I wasn't sure what exactly to expect, as there are a lot of variants of swing. It turns out that it was a lindy hop club.
For those unfamiliar with dance and with my background, I've danced lots of different styles. I'm not bad at standard ballroom (waltz and foxtrot, for example) and I'm good at Latin (samba, cha cha, etc.) – I'm no pro, but I definitely get by. I'm mediocre at swing. Within swing, there are many variants. West coast swing is easily the one I'm best at. Lindy hop is easily the one I'm worst at (of the ones I've tried, which are several). West coast and lindy are similar rhythmically but their styles are worlds apart; west coast swing is smooth and lindy hop is grounded. So when I try to dance lindy hop, my west coast swing kicks in and I do it wrong – very wrong.
Not having gone dancing anywhere west of Salt Lake City – ever – I took a minute to observe what was going on around me. It was easy to see that there were lots of novices who still struggled with things like rhythm and leading. There were several people way more advanced than I. They dance the way some people play soccer or paint: they made something beautiful with the skill they've developed.
I went back and forth between observing from the edges (hoping to learn) and dancing. Everyone I danced with was nice, but some of them were clearly underwhelmed. As they always do when I'm faced with my own incompetence, the gears in my head started turning. Turning isn't the right word – fast enough; these gears were threatening to melt.
I realized that I'd never really gotten into self-expression through dance. After all, I use my words for self-expression. I like words because they can be used precisely. Dance, as is the case with many art forms, can express very effectively from the perspective of the expresser, but it is often ineffective at clearly communicating to observers. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this sort of expression; it's just that I feel no need for it.
Another reason people love swing is its low barrier of entry: relative to other dances, it's easy to show up and learn and have fun without much practice. I've often been frustrated with people who dance swing because they often don't learn the other styles that I love so much. I don't begrudge them swing, but it irks me to see that they are talented but that they don't use that talent for other dances. I feel like they're missing out and I feel like I'm missing out on the chance to dance with them – to really dance with them.
Another factor is that swing's culture is generally one of showing up and learning by experimentation and observation. I've found that I learn better when I'm being instructed precisely. I'd like very much to know where each toe is supposed to point and I learn it better when people just tell me. Such exacting technique certainly exists within the swing world, but many casual swing dancers love swing because they can get away without it.
Tonight, I realized that I enjoy dancing because the way I move is different. Waltz is smooth but surprisingly athletic and the spinning is fun. West coast swing requires control and finesse with some flair. Samba looks like it's all over the place but also requires precise control in every part of the body. I have fun when I dance them because of the challenge of being technically precise and because of the beautiful and distinct feeling that each one affords. I'm sure that the other variants of swing have their own feel – I know that lindy does – but I've never done enough of them or been interested enough in them to experience them in that way. And I don't know if I can really get into swing if I don't find a way to express myself as freely as swing dancers do. It's like I get to a dance hall and I don't know what to say.
Because I approach dance from such a different perspective, it's no small wonder that swing does little for me and that my own favorite dances aren't as widely known as I'd like. It's simply the end result of different motives.