If I’m totally honest, I have to admit that I spend an awful lot of time pondering the intricacies of communication. So, if you will, imagine with me for a second that we live in a world where communication is paramount. Not only that, but wordless communication is something that people actually take note of instead of taking for granted. You know those moments: you and a friend are sitting across from each other at dinner and the loud guy next to you makes an especially awkward comment. You and the friend both look up abruptly at the same time, and nothing needs to be said to appreciate that cringe you just shared. Probably better that you don’t say anything; there could be another set of dangerous people-watchers lurking in the background, scrutinizing you in the very same way.
That’s right, I said “dangerous people-watchers.” You know the type: usually fairly quiet, intensely fascinated by other people’s mannerisms, keen social observers and often not-so-keen social participants. Innocent, right? Ohhhhh no, my friend. For the people-watcher is internalizing your every move, your words, your accent, the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea. They are silently constructing every detail of your life based on a five-second snapshot. And if they’re good, it’s a pretty accurate replica. How do I know this about people-watchers? I am one.
Before you start picturing me as some skulking menace sitting in the corner of the bookstore shooting shifty glances over the magazine I’m definitely not reading, hear me out. I’m a musician. It’s practically in my job description to observe, process and interpret, and reproduce what I observed. That’s what I was taught to do in all those piano lessons, and that’s what I try to instill in others now as I teach. But if you think about it abstractly, there are loads of things that we do in everyday life that require those same skills of observation and application: learning to read, learning any language, learning almost any kind of physical activity. And it’s that last category that includes one of my more recent fascinations: swing dancing.
Let me first assure you that I am not a dancer. My brief, ill-fated stint in ballet classes when I was six and seven (a story for another time) remained more or less the extent of my dance experience until I was 22 and took some swing dance classes for the first time. As much as being a pianist necessitates physical awareness and facility, that hasn’t always bled over into an ability not to trip over my own feet; this is why I’m profoundly thankful to play an instrument that requires that I sit. But that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the movement and exercise I get from a good dance, whether with a partner or solo. What I enjoy exercising most of all when dancing though, is – surprise! – communication.
I’d like to take that a step further (har, har) and posit that dance-communication is just as much about putting forth your own intentions as it is about perception; actually, “intuition” is the word I keep coming back to in thinking about this. As a follow in swing dance, unless you’re doing some routine, you have virtually no idea what your lead is going to do next. Turn? Go back? Go forward? And if he (or she) is any good at leading, there won’t be any verbal communication signaling what’s coming up. If you’re a planner-bordering-on-occasional-control-freak like me, this is scary. But that’s precisely why I love swing dancing. It forces me to shut up and stop worrying about what I want to or need to do, and instead just to respond to someone else’s unspoken request. That’s communication right there. The aforementioned intuition comes into play when you’re able to tune into the same mental channel and know that a change in stance might mean something’s coming up…now! Or, as I’ve recently experienced in one specific case, that a slight crouching down and a tiny unconscious half-smile from your dance partner means you need to get ready for a swing-out. It’s the same intuition that you tap into when you wordlessly share a moment with that friend over dinner, or you finish someone’s sentence or suggest the very word they couldn’t think of. You’ve observed, processed, and applied.
And while my experience as a lead is anything but vast, I can imagine there are other components of intuition required for that side of the deal. First of all, there’s the response to the music: not only keeping in time with the rhythm, but eventually anticipating musical pauses or cool riffs that can be accented with dance moves. You also (hopefully) wouldn’t dance in the same manner to a song like “Zoot Suit Riot” as you would to, say, “Mood Indigo.” But in addition to worrying about the music, there’s the issue of that other person you’re attached to. Are they picking up what you’re laying down, so to speak? Can they handle this move? Ok…can they handle this one? Oh wait, there’s a space on the dance floor that just opened up, let’s send them out for a turn. C’mon, who says that men can’t multi-task?
So even if the only thing you might say out loud to a dance partner for two and a half minutes is your name and a couple banal pleasantries, there are volumes of complex interactions going on every second of the dance. And those range from the practical (being on the same beat, responding to physical guidances) to the more trivial but still useful (boy, does he look bored; guess I won’t be dancing with this one again tonight). I won’t even get started on the cat-and-mouse game of asking someone to dance/waiting to be asked to dance; that’s some of the most captivating people-watching I’ve done in a looooong time. But through all this silent back-and-forthing, it boils down to the simple fact that you’ve got to be paying attention. You’ve got to be “in the moment” and aware of everything that’s happening. When I’ve danced with someone and we’ve been on the same wavelength, it’s inexplicable, bordering on sublime (never mind that I just spent a thousand words attempting to explain that very phenomenon). We’re both listening to each other and processing and responding. We’re using that good ol’…what’s the word? Shoot, I just had it on the tip of my tongue.
Oh, right. Intuition.
But I bet you knew I was going to say that.