The Dance

I have come to the conclusion I’m a kinesthetic learner. Feeling something in my body means I have integrated the information on a deep level. Most of the insights I’ve gotten in my adult years have pertained to how I operate in the world, how I respond to challenges that come my way. Both yoga and swimming have provided powerful metaphors for how I move through life.

mambo steps

Recently while reading a novel I was struck by the metaphor of partner dancing. I’ve been a reader all of my conscious life, but I didn’t start partner dancing until I was an adult. Reading was the way I escaped as a child. It was a place of refuge, where I could find more people like me, or be transported far away from the world I was living in, a world I felt I didn’t fit. Reading was also how I learned about the world.

Reading felt like a solitary affair, a thing I did alone. I entered the world and was there with my thoughts, but I didn’t see anyone else there with me. I would shut out the world around me to enter the one in the book. I’ve often heard that there is a dynamic between a reader and writer, and intellectually I understood this. But it wasn’t until I made the connection with dance that I really got it.

Partner dancing, conversely, is about connecting with another person in this world, and together creating an experience that can take both dancers out of this world.

The first partner dance I learned was country two-step, which I learned as a follow. When I first began learning, I had to consciously count the steps in my head, unable to converse with my lead until I had incorporated the rhythm in my body. Once I was comfortable with the basic step, I started learning more moves. A lead has many options they can take their follower through, from the basic step to a variety of moves beyond moving in a line. You’ve probably seen them on the popular dance competition shows.

After I’d gained a level of proficiency with following, I began to teach myself how to lead, reverse-engineering if you will. It was purely self-serving because I wanted to dance, and there were people who would only lead or only follow. Now I could dance as much as I wanted, as long as I could find a partner.

I have dabbled with writing for much of my life, but only started getting serious about learning craft in the last several years. As with anything, when we first start to learn a thing, we are highly conscious of all the things we have to do while we are doing them.
Since I’ve been dancing for over two decades, I have a level of comfort and ease that comes across to others. People have told me they feel intimidated to ask me to dance, because they believe I am more skilled than they are. For me, I have two requirements for a lead:

    1. keep the rhythm
    2. don’t run me into other dancers (or avoid the erratic dancers)

I’m perfectly content and satisfied to follow a lead who does these two things, without adding any extra moves. I’m not disappointed in the least. We can talk, or not, but just moving around the floor to music, entrusting myself to someone else, is fun! Just like writers, there are certain dancers who I find an ease and connection with more easily than others. Sometimes it can take a while to warm up to either, but the work is usually worth the effort.

I was talking to a friend who is also a dancer about the parallels between reading and dancing. I asked him what he felt the job of the lead was. He said, “To keep me safe.” I was startled by his answer, but I also loved it.

I’ve been playing a lot with this metaphor since I thought about it, overlaying it on my experience as both a reader and a writer. With partner dance there are many styles, from tango to waltz to salsa; in fiction, genres are like these different dances. They both have rules and patterns. The follower or reader understand there are basic rules, but the lead or writer can create endless variations on top of the set pattern.

As a lead in dancing, it’s my job to maintain the rhythm and send clear signals to let the follow know what I want her to do. As a writer, in telling a story I have the same responsibility. If I lead a move and stop in the middle to change it, my follow is going to lose her trust and end up confused.

As a writer, I need to lead my reader through the story as skillfully as I can. There are cues I can give, just as I would in dance, to let the reader know something is going to change. Basically, I want to manage expectations so the reader is not thrown for a complete loop. Just as in dancing, timing is everything. I can’t front load the story, because the reader will become overwhelmed and quit, but if I wait too long, the reader will become bored and walk away.

There are many reasons a reader or dancer will stay, even if the timing isn’t great. Making it fun and engaging is just as important. Your style is unique. It won’t speak to every reader, just as in dancing there are some people you connect with more easily than others.

As I think about the stories I want to tell, I want to remember this metaphor of the dance. Just as I moved from a follow to a lead, I can shift between reader and writer, thinking about the experience from both sides – a 360 degree view, rather than 180. There’s a partnership between the two, even if it’s not carried out in real time, but the dance of the writer and reader can span the distance of space and time.

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2 thoughts on “The Dance

  1. Colin

    Really enjoying this essay, your metaphor connecting dancing and reading is a shiny, interesting puzzle that feels tactile in my mind, that I can turn around, look at all sides, grasp and twist, try and explore the inner bits. It’s a piece of delicious candy that never gets my fingers sticky.

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