For a staff retreat day at work last week, we had different staff people give short talks about something that they are passionate about that in some ways relates to our work as science educators. I decided to give a talk on "social dancing and embodied learning" since dance is such a big part of my life.
I thought that other dancers might be interested in how I talked about social dancing for a group of my work peers. So here is a summary of what I talked about that you might find helpful as you talk about dancing with your friends, family and work colleagues.
Social Dancing and Embodied Learning
“If I could say with words what my dances express, I wouldn’t have a reason to dance”
– Modern Dance Legend Mary Wigman
Dancing is one of those things that I have always wanted to do, even as a small child. My father recalls that as a toddler I would go crazy when the tap dancer would appear on the "Lawrence Welk Show." I would apparently jump around and stomp my feet in imitation of what I was seeing. Through adolescence and my teen years, I was inspired by Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and a series of terrible "breakdancing" movies that came out in the 1980s. But I didn't do much dancing of my own.
That changed 15 years ago when I discovered the dance that would slowly take over large parts of my life: Lindy Hop. Lindy hop is the granddaddy of all the flavors of swing dancing that exist today, from west coast swing to east coast, hand dancing, blues, carolina shag, and many, many more that you probably haven't heard of.
Here's a little video that my production crew at Yehoodi.com produced that explains better than I could what lindy hop is.
My goal today is to share with you what dance has taught me about how people learn. This isn’t a dance lesson. This talk is about how dance is a pathway to a certain kind of learning that is quite different from how we think about how knowledge is imparted and spread.
So What is Social Dance?
There are of course many kinds of dance in the world. For today, I am reserving myself to social or partnered dancing, which I believe has special characteristics that set it apart as worthy of consideration for educators.
There are many types of partner dance that you probably know about, including the ballroom dances like the waltz and the foxtrot, the Latin dances like salsa and tango, the different flavors of swing dancing like west coast swing and east coast swing.
Despite the diversity in how these different dances may appear, there are certain fundamental characteristics that they share.
1. Requires Cooperation
Acquiring knowledge and expertise in social dancing requires a partner. It is at its heart a cooperative endeavor. You can not learn to social dance in isolation. Someone can't just watch a bunch of YouTube videos of "Dancing with the Stars," practice steps alone in their bedroom, and then emerge as a ballroom star.
2. Done in Community
Expertise in social dance comes from being involved with a community of dancers all sharing knowledge and ideas on the dance floor.
The legendary lindy hopper Frankie Manning talked about how back at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1940s that dance knowledge was acquired through a combination of competition and cooperation. He recalled that you would observe someone else do something on the dance floor. Then, wanting to one-up them, you would try and figure out the step, but add your own twist to it, perhaps transforming it into your own unique step or something completely different. The best moves got passed around this way, given names, and codified as moves that needed to be mastered to be part of the community.
3. Requires Coordination
Successful execution of social dance moves requires precise coordination. Timing is literally everything.
This step, for example, you could imagine going horribly wrong if either dancer is not coordinated with the other one.
4. “Leading and Following”
One of the most obvious, but also most confusing, aspects of social dancing is that it has a "leader" and a "follower" role. These roles have historically been gender defined, with the men playing the lead role and women in the follow role. That said, in modern social dance scenes there are many men who enjoy following and women who are excellent leads, or people who enjoy both roles equally.
It is useful to unpack what kind of "leading" the leader is engaging in. In social dancing, the leader can not force his or her follow to do anything. He can seen as more of a "facilitator" or "initiator" of movement, which the follow can choose to follow in any number of ways.
Similarly, the follower role is not simple one of passive receiving and execution of orders from the leader. In fact, the follower has a significant amount of freedom and agency on his or her own part.
I prefer the analogy of leading and following as a "dance conversation." A leader might initiate a movement like a tuck turn, and the follower might respond with a spin but add a little twist at the end. The leader might observe this and imitate her by twisting himself. She might then pause to catch a change in the music. And he might respond to a horn solo. This kind of back-and-forth between the two dancers is like a chat two people are having without any words being said.
And other way of looking at leading and following is as a series of micro-decisions that both dancers are engaging in together. In the course of one song, two might make hundreds of incremental decisions about how to move in relation to each other. This requires a high level of concentration, listening to your partner, responding to the music, and understanding where you are in space in relation to everything and everyone else around you. It's a very complex and little studied phenomenon.
But enough talking about dance. I and my volunteer Sonia will show you a little of what it looks like when two people are using their bodies to share and exchange information on the social dance floor. Note that Sonia and I have not choreographed anything together prior to this dance, and in fact we have only danced together socially under ten times, and never to this particular song. So everything you see is being created on the fly.
[Short Lindy Hop Demonstration]
As you hopefully observed, Sonia and I were passing back and a forth a high bandwidth of kinesthetic information through our dancing. While some of social dancing involves visually seeing what your partner is doing, most of the communication happens haptically through how our bodies are connected to each other.
The hand hold and our entire upper bodies are used to exchange data back and forth about where we are in space, where we are moving, at what speed, and in what fashion. This is made possible by us having an engaged frame with our arms , shoulders and backs that helps us to communicate.
At the same time, we are relying on our shared understanding of certain codified steps to be able to anticipate each other's movements and act accordingly. That said, there are any number of potential reactions and responses to any codified movement. In this way, a set number of codified steps can be employed in an infinite variety of combinations. Constraints breed creativity.
But now that we have shown you what social dancing looks like, and talked way too much about it, let's all grab a partner and practice these ideas ourselves.
[Quick and easy partnering exercise]