DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional. These are just my personal views and experiences as a “veteran” dancer. If you are experiencing intense feelings of depression or anxiety, please see a mental health provider in your area.
I’m a “social dancer.” Which means that I dance a style (lindy hop) that requires two people to execute successfully. And … that’s really it. The rest is just marketing.
I can go to a “social dance” and not socialize at all. I can enter, dance to every song with a partner, and leave, without having made any other honest human connection. I’ve actually done this.
I think we perhaps conflate being a “social dancer” with meaning that everyone who practices our dance is connected to each other in some kind of “community.” Heck, I’ve made this assertion in the past. But it falls apart with the most superficial examination.
Are there people who come to our dances regularly who don’t have any significant social connections or friendships in that space? Almost certainly.
Are there people who participate in our dances who still experience feelings of loneliness and separation — perhaps even when they are physically in the room? Absolutely (points to self.)
On the other hand, there are certainly many, many examples of lindy hop facilitating powerful social bonds — lifelong friendships, strong peer groups, passionate pairings.
So given these two extremes of intimate connections and social disconnection that can exist in the same dance, what can we conclude? I can say as someone who has practiced lindy hop for a couple of decades that the dance offers an extremely useful catalyst for human connection. But it is not sufficient on its own to support actual meaningful relationships.
To put it differently, you don’t just show up at a dance and magically have dozens of friends.
I know that might sound silly as an statement. But I think it’s easy to buy into the illusion that all those people you meet when social dancing are somehow your friends. You might know each other’s names, you might be Facebook “friends,” or “❤️” each other’s pics on Instagram. But the large majority of dancers in your scene are at best casual acquaintances.
Which is not to say there is anything wrong with that. Most of us require a variety of human connections, from casual to very intimate. But what we really crave are people in our lives who understand us, who support us, who care for us — real friends.
What lindy hop (and other social dances) offer is many opportunities to build real friendships with people. You get to have a momentary artistic connection to dozens, or hundreds, of people you would have never had an opportunity to meet before.
But you still have to do the work. You have to be the one who takes that first step — shares a drink with someone at the bar, invites people to your home to play board games, creates a book club or a knitting circle. You need to put in the emotional labor and endure the risk of rejection that all new relationships require.
I’m so fortunate to have people I’ve met through lindy hop who have made that effort with me. And I have carefully cultivated friends through the scene, despite having my own sometimes intense feelings of loneliness, disconnection and self-doubt.
So I’m writing this for lindy hoppers who have ever felt intensely alone on a crowded dance floor, who have gone home from a dance feeling physically tired but still craving real human connection, who have wondered why everyone else seems to have their own cliques and crews but you. You aren’t alone in feeling those feelings. I suspect they are more universally felt than might be apparent from the sea of smiling faces you encounter at a dance.
There are a lot ways to confront those negative emotions and thought processes. One is to make a more conscious effort to make meaningful connections in the scene. Express appreciation for someone beyond just their dance ability or their physical appearance. Ask someone in your scene who is going through a tough time if you can help out in anyway. Other good strategies are volunteering, joining a performance team, or being part of an associated interest group.
Or you can simply acknowledge that lindy hop is not going to be your avenue for making strong friendships, and just use it for casual recreation and exercise. Find your emotional support and your tribe elsewhere.
Most importantly, get what you need emotionally and spiritually. That’s much more important than learning the Tranky Doo or going to the next “can’t miss” dance event. It all starts with expressing kindness and compassion for those around you, starting with yourself.
UPDATE 10/19: I wrote a “Part II to this post, after seeing many people’s responses: What it’s like coming back to lindy hop after a hiatus.
23 thoughts on “On Lindy Hop and Loneliness”
This was such perfect timing. I recently had gotten home from an event, and was grabbing dinner with a friend, who is also a dancer. We ended up crying over sushi as we talked about the loneliness we both sometimes feel in the swing scene, and how it was currently overwhelming me. We talked about the difference between swing friends, and friend friends. We have both made some of our strongest friendships because of swing dancing, and discussed how it is to feel lonely in a room where people think you are close, because you see them once a month. We shared our differences in expectations for friends and friendships, vs the fast friendships swing dancing can easily encourage. Thank you for sharing your experiences and reminding me to look for the human connection <3
Yeah my circle uses the term “swing friend” and “friend friend” as well. I suppose it’s the same as “work friend”.
I definitely felt this way. After a dance or a weekend exchange going home alone. Enjoying the dancing but still feeling alone without any close friendships.
I experience this often, so often that I anticipate it now. So I make sure and have already organized time with friends and family right after a big dance weekend, to get my meter recharged.
Great insight, Rik. Even being the leader of a scene in Dallas. I can feel this way quite often. I ‘know’ everyone in the room but may not have that connection with them. There are truly very few ‘dancers’ who make it into the handful of close friends category.
But what you say is very correct. You have to make the effort to create bounds with the sea of smiling faces and at the same time do it in a way doesn’t ‘creep’ someone out. Sometimes difficult if you are an social introvert.
yeah, sometimes its even BECAUSE you are the leader of the scene you can feel isolated. You are often busy taking care of other people, but no one is really attending to you and your needs.
Thank you for writing this article. Thank you for saying that people are lonely in a crowded room. So many people think they are the only one. I used to deal with so many people who were part of the scene and so lonely but they refused to make any effort to make the connections. Make an effort, chances are you will be greatly rewarded for that small effort. Most humans want connections, smile, say hi, ask how their day was. It’s not that hard. And the next time it will be easier. And after a few efforts you probably won’t be so lonely. And you just might be in a room full of friends. The choice is yours.
You are most welcome. I’m so happy that it spoke to your situation, and so many others.
It seems like you’re saying that only words are “real human connection”. What about dancing? It’s not just a catalyst, it’s also a connection of its own, and it’s very real. Even when I don’t say a word to them and don’t know their name: perfect for introverts, by the way.
Yes, sometimes I feel lonely on the dancefloor. Usually when I’m in an unfamiliar place and I don’t get to dance enough. That’s the connection I’m lacking, not the talking and hanging out with someone. I believe that’s the “socialness” hidden behind the “social” in “social dance”. Not necessarily friendships and discussions (which are nice, but aren’t always the goal).
Yep, I do know what you mean Tilda. I was saying to someone just the other day I think partner dancing attracts a lot of people that are perhaps more on the introverted side but with a good level of self awareness of their need to connect with others and who are quite sensitive to making that energectic connection in a predominantly physical rather than verbal way. An interesting subset if you will. And quite frankly I’m proud of myself (and anyone else like this) for getting ourselves out the door and taking the sometimes scary risk of turning up and being open to potential experiences of both connection and lonliness. I’ve certainly known both. I often feel overwhelming affection for fellow dancers just on this level whether I know them well personally or not. I also experience (and aspire to extend to others) a lot of kindness and acceptance within the scene and am very gateful for that too.
When I was starting out in lindy hop, I was overwhelmed by all the social contacts I was making. I made the same mistake a lot of beginning dancers make — thinking the people you meet on the dance floor, even dance with regularly, are your friends. They’re not. They’re no more your friends than your co-workers are. Just because you share a love for dance doesn’t mean you have a lot in common. I found that out through trial and error. Like you said, lindy hop is an introduction to a lot of people, but if you think they’ll become your actual friends without further effort, you’re deluding yourself and setting yourself up for disappointment. Take it for what it is: a way to enjoy a hobby. It can be more, but it doesn’t have to be. Ratchet down your expectations and hopefully nobody will get too depressed when they go home alone.
I will also add that having danced a lot in Europe, the European scenes are much tighter and more friendly/supportive. That probably has more to do with the warmth and genuineness of Europeans in general, at least in my experience.
Thank you for this beautiful well-written article!!
I have made a photo project at Herräng Dancecamp in 2016; “Vulnerable”. It seems like what you are talking about is something recognizable for manu dancers!!!
If you are interested:
I was looking for this, thank you!
I will always be eternally grateful to the experienced dancer who gave me a flyer (hey…it was 2004…we did that) inviting me to her birthday party because I was out at a dance and part of her “dance circle” although not one of her friends. It was the moment I felt that I was going to make it, socially, and be able to find friends in the community. Good idea about the kouign amann group! I’m married now, so I don’t crave socialization outside the dance as often as I used to, but again, still so grateful to the organizers of outside connecting opportunities today. I suppose I should pay it forward and come up with something off the floor myself. 🙂
Definitely pay it forward. I think you will be glad you did.
Nicely written and definitely true. I’ve felt lower leaving a dance than arriving, because the “weak” connections made while dancing made me more conscious of the strong bonds I wasn’t making.
That said, I disagree that “swing friends” go in the same category as colleagues; I’ve much more respect for fellow Lindy hoppers (hey, they have great taste in music/clothes) than the selfish, passive-aggressive people I’m forced to work with.
I’m now married to someone I met on the dance floor, so it’s certainly a catalyst. But the frisson I feel when enjoying a really good dance – even with a stranger – still recharges my batteries, when I’m ‘In The Mood’…
Beautifully written article, Rik! Thank you for your courage in sharing this important perspective, which just about everyone experiences at some point. Many of us who began swing dancing in the mid 1980s got to know each other by volunteering as well as dancing together. You mention this option. I have such fond memories of a getting together with 6-10 people to stuff envelopes with flyers about New York Swing Dance Society events, then all of us going out to dinner. Most of those people remained in the acquaintance category, which is fine, but some became real friends. So, although envelope-stuffing days are over, I recommend volunteering as a way to contribute to one’s local swing dance and to get to know people a little better.
When I teach, particularly in beginner classes, I often say “If you don’t know the person you’re with, introduce yourself. Remembering someone’s name is far more important than anything I’m going to teach you tonight.”
Just seeing this article so definitely out of the loop. This article very closely characterizes my feelings about the Swing Dance scene. However, my expectations have always been much lower so I may not be disappointed as much. Looking forward to reading Part II
Thanks! I’m glad it speaks to you.