This article was written for archive405.com, an online arts and culture magazine. Vol. 1: We’re Doomed! An exploration of dystopia and utopia, August 2013.
There is so much to be afraid of—gun violence in the streets, impending hikes in interest rates, and rampant poisoning of the environment. If you live in Southern California, like I do, you also have to worry about earthquakes, wildfires, and—apparently—sharknadoes. According to the talking heads on television every morning, I shouldn’t even bother getting out of bed. Dystopia is here, it has been here, and it is here to stay. The nation is a big drama queen, and that is never going to change, no matter how much therapy it goes through.
With the nation addicted to fear, utopia doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Death Valley. But, not so fast, America! I have the antidote to dystopia: everyone needs to learn to dance. Rugby or basketball might not be for everybody, but I say that dance is THE sport for every last person on this planet. Just hear me out.
I have participated in sports all of my life. I have tried to keep moving; otherwise, I would get sucked into the vortex of my sofa watching television until my eyes bleed. In this way, I am no different from most other average Americans. It almost goes without saying that the downside of our prosperity as a nation has resulted in us becoming a bunch of lazy slobs—a sure-fire sign of dystopia. And like many Americans, I am also constantly doing battle with my sluggish metabolism. Let’s just say I have more of a slightly pudgy, curvy Marilyn Monroe situation going on rather than a waiflike Kate Moss one. But, enough has eventually got to be enough. My mother, who despised exercise but pretended that she didn’t, always insisted that I do some kind of sport. She made sure that I didn’t suffer the same fate she did—a very early death from diabetes and heart disease. I have tried to make sure that her efforts were not in vain, and so far, I’m hanging in here. Yay, for Mom!
Among other sports, I have done gymnastics, swimming, soccer, horseback riding, basketball, softball, long distance running, tennis, golf, skiing, and martial arts—you get the point. I can also throw a Frisbee pretty well, and I’ll die trying to beat anybody at ping-pong. But, of all the sports that I’ve done, dancing has been the one that has stuck with me—for 16 years now. Hopefully, I will still be a hoofer into my 90s, like my dance idol, Frankie Manning (1914-2009).
Here are 5 reasons that dance is for everyone.
Reason #1: Dance is a sport for everyone. If we must get America moving, dance gets my vote as the way to do it because most people are likely to stick with it. Yes, tough guy, dancing is a sport—if one defines a sport as a physical activity that requires skills and has some kind of governing rules or customs. Even walking and running have been elevated to the level of sports, but dancing is infinitely more interesting—and therefore easier to stick with—than plodding on a treadmill or down a road. (No, beloved nerds, being chased by zombies does not count as a sport because it does not really happen in the real world. Oh! Zombie walks, right. Well, okay then—fair enough: they count as exercise).
Like other sports, dance can involve teams of people and be competitive, or it can be a solo endeavor—I highly recommend cranking up the iPod and rocking out with your socks out whenever you get the chance. But unlike a lot of sports, dance is also accessible to everyone. The level of expertise can range from the chicken dance that any drunk at a wedding can stumble through to the sublime virtuoso performances of a prima ballerina.
From Zumba classes at the gym to crumpin’ it out in a club, there are a multitude of settings for dancing that are sure to satisfy everybody’s tastes and needs, and to keep people coming back for more. The YMCA offers extremely affordable membership rates for those who have less, while fancy Dancesport studios offer the high-end experience. One of the more amusing factoids that I found on the Internet was that, according to answers.com, there are 4,956 types of dance in the world. Huh. Anyway, I’m simply making the point that there are a lot of choices in a lot of places. As far as I know, there is only one way to play golf and basketball.
“Dancing is such a source of joy, creativity, and physical expression. It’s important that everyone feels welcomed and encouraged to try it. That is the core of why Bees’ Knees Dance exists: to make dancing accessible to anyone and everyone. It is never too late to take your first step…or second, or third!”
Reason #2: Dance is an art. If sports aren’t your thing, art surely is. Dance is essentially an artistic experience. Like all arts, dance has its specific forms and required skills; and, like all arts, it is also constantly in flux as people express themselves inside these forms in new and creative ways. Music and dance are inseparable art forms, which also makes dance an appealing sport. For example, swing dancing is an indigenous American dance, and it is an outgrowth of jazz. No jazz; no swing dancing. I’m sure this is true of dances from other countries as well: tango, for example.
In my practice of dance, which is mostly swing dancing, we strive for a lovely connection and collaboration between partners within the parameters of the dance. Ideally, this collaboration results in improvisation in tandem with the music. Dance partners make art in the moment with each other and with the musicians. As human interactions go, almost nothing beats it. I said almost nothing.
Reason #3: Dance is social. Everyone needs a social group. As the country has become more urban during the last fifty years and as technology has created more social isolation, finding a group to belong in has become a challenge for a lot of people. A social life is not simply waiting outside our front doors any more; most adult Americans have to seek one out.
For millennia, dancing was always the “go-to” social activity. Until just a few decades ago in America, being able to dance with a partner in a social setting was a normal life skill for every adult, just like being able to tie your shoes and hold a job. My grandparents could cut a mean rug, I’ll tell you. I used to watch in awe as they tore up the family room throwing down a wicked foxtrot. This has been going on in every culture and society since pre-historic humans emerged from the Olduvai Gorge.
Shesha Marvin, swing dance instructor and owner of Atomic Ballroom in Irvine, California, says, “Not only is partner dancing a hobby and a way for people to keep fit, it is also a social outlet. Partner dancing provides a safe place for people to meet. People can find friends and romantic relationships through partner dancing. At Atomic Ballroom, we encourage more of a social atmosphere than a competitive one. I think of my dance studio as more of a social club than anything else.”
Although briefly interrupted by wriggling hippies in the 1960s and 70s, partner dancing has been making a slow, but steady comeback. Although a few struggling ballroom studios carried on in the 1960s and 70s, the return of swing dancing in the 1980s and 90s contributed to the revival of partner dancing in general. There may not be the kind of public interest in current shows like “Dancing with the Stars” without the revival of partner dancing.
In the late 1980s, Erin Stevens of Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association (PBDA) and dancer Steven Mitchell persuaded Frankie Manning to come back to his first career, dance, after a 30-year hiatus. Frankie, who was a professional swing dancer in the 1930s and 40s and who invented the exciting aerial swing moves common in Lindy Hop, traveled around the world for the last 20-plus years of his life teaching swing dancing until his death in 2009. And, he slowed down just enough to win a Tony Award for choreography in 1989. It is largely because of him that swing dancing has been revived and that it is thriving today.
An advisor on the board of the Frankie Manning Foundation, Mandi Gould of Bees Knees Dance definitely sees swing dancing as a force for good in the world. She credits Frankie Manning for shaping the swing community with a strong value system and sense of social responsibility. In an interview for this article, she said:
“Perhaps the strongest reason for the very warm and welcoming Lindy Hop community, a true global community in every sense of the word, is the guiding light that Frankie Manning provided to the dance and to the people. We are very lucky that Lindy Hop had Frankie to shape our community so that it’s a wonderful and joyful dance. The dance, particularly in its contemporary form, might have turned into something quite different if it weren’t for Frankie’s value system. Since the dance revival, Lindy Hop has brought people together in a very special bond. When dancers see each other it’s more normal for them to hug than to shake hands. When people dance, they smile, they laugh, they speak with strangers.”
Swing not only provides a nurturing social community, it has broken racial barriers in the past, and it continues to do so. In fact, at the height of the swing era around 1940, ballrooms all across North America held thousands of people every Saturday night. The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem was especially known as a racism-free zone where whites and blacks danced together and nobody cared. Today, swing dancing still brings together people from every continent and racial group on the planet.
Reason #4: Dance increases self-confidence. You have no rhythm and two left feet, you say? You don’t know how to talk to the opposite sex? Dance can help with those problems. I have even seen dance save people from drug and alcohol addiction. Any 2-year-old at a wedding dance knows that dancing is a normal and natural activity; it is only socialized out of them later. It may be time to connect with your inner 2-year-old.
At Atomic Ballroom, Shesha Marvin encourages everybody of all ages to participate from 85-year-olds to children—even kids with physical disabilities like autism and MS. Partner dancing helps them to develop social skills and to keep their bodies moving. On the topic of self-confidence, Shesha declared his mission:
“My goal as a dance teacher is to help people with their self-confidence, and to help them feel successful through learning steps and meeting new friends. I feel really good about that. In many cases, it gives people something to live for. Swing dancing becomes part of a person’s identity. He or she can tell friends and family, ‘I am a swing dancer.’ As a dance teacher, I truly help people in their lives.”
Reason #5: Dance is a prescription for joy. Dancing releases endorphins that increase happiness and promote good health, a natural high. Oh, screw it! I’m tired of coming up with reasons you should dance. Just do it. Dancing is just so much fun! No justification needed. Some of the best nights of my life have been when the lights were low, the band was good, and my partner was fun and kind. Sometimes, when I feel comfortable enough to lean my head on my partner’s shoulder and sigh, I am the most content I could possibly be. I say to myself: “This is my life, and it’s pretty darned good.” In those moments I can forget the dystopian forces outside in the big, scary world and just be in the moment. That’s all anyone could ever ask for.