I am beginning to think my previous stabs at partnered dancing failed because I started with the wrong strata.

Casual dance classes are full of people who are mainly in social dance for the social aspect. I never managed to learn much of anything in what I tried. I'm super uncomfortable being pawed by random strangers. Technically, they teach you that you can turn down any dance for any reason, but in a class setting... yeah, not really so much. Your time is limited and everyone has to practice with someone. Flailing around with someone else who is just flailing around also doesn't do anything to tell me what I'm supposed to be working towards. Overall F- as an experience.

Dance events, where people go after they've had a few classes to practice, have got much the same sort of crowd, just less apt to lurch around at random. I was aware that the whole process of leading and following involved a lot of non-verbal signals. I'm wicked good at languages, and I'm apparently pretty uncanny with visual non-verbals, so there's no reason I can't learn to do it physically. I'm worse at judging space, but I'll get it. There are some standard gestures -- lifting the follow's hand, for example, means 'turn under that arm' -- and a lot of semi-standard implications. 'We seem to be veering right, let's go that way,' and 'maybe swerve away from the drinks table'. That sort of thing.

And that seems to be about as far as it goes, most of the time. The unspoken equivalent of cocktail party chit-chat. A little light back and forth with a bunch of people, fun at the time but ultimately not of much import. Not really my cup of tea. Pretty much the only thing I get out of dancing with strangers is practice. I can't follow worth a damn, but I can lead in the basic sense of not steering us into a pole. I understand why other people enjoy it, but being sociable like that takes a lot of energy for me, and I tire quickly. Being able to sit out a dance whenever I need to is an improvement, though.

None of that bears any resemblance to dancing with either of the pros. They do not chit-chat. They want a conversation. I'm bad at this -- like, thumbing through a phrasebook and mispronouncing things with a terrible American accent equivalent sort of bad -- and it's still a conversation. There is a pattern in there, and their patterns are different. I'm actually at a frustrating point right now, not because I can't grasp any of it, but because I can't quite grasp all of it yet, and what I do get vastly outstrips my ability to reflect any of it back. It's that stage of language learning where I caught about 75% of the question but don't have the vocabulary I need to give them a relevant answer.

They are both also like that off of the dance floor, where I have a much better grip on the context. I have no idea if they're good at ballroom dance because they started this way, or whether they learned all the non-verbal stuff in order to improve their dancing. And I wonder if me being good at some of that is why they both started sort of "dancing" with me before they offered to literally dance with me.

When you first start a dance, you have about the first eight count to figure out how well you're going to get along for the next four minutes. It's a very rapid assessment. What's your style? How do you move? Do we have a common rhythm? Communicate with me! The casual dancers try to independently sync up with the music; the professionals both try to sync up with me. It's not so different from the thing I do, that I colloquially refer to as 'poking [someone] in the brain with a stick'. I go much more slowly; I'm not usually time-limited, and in a general setting it can be harder for the other person to contextualize what I'm up to. I ask a lot of questions and make observations I think they're likely to comment on. I'm not just looking for a reaction. There are easier ways to get those, mainly being an irritating fuck. I'm trying to figure out how they work, how they process the world, so I can figure out how best to communicate.

Some people never quite understand what all of that is in aid of, even if I try to explain. Some people are anxious/wary, or even weirdly offended by the idea that I am intentionally trying to figure out what goes on in their heads. The strangest look I have yet gotten out of Ye Ballroom Instructor was the time I pointed out that I was doing exactly this, and he was not giving me the strange looks I normally get for it. My actual thought process with the Eccentric was, 'He handles personal space interestingly. Huh. Wonder what would happen if I quit standing so far away,' and apparently what happened is he decided that made me interesting friend material and started chattering about hoop lessons with his wife.

The one thing that makes me very nervous is that not one of the social dance blogs I have been going through has said word one about what happens if you 'connect' with your dance partners even when the music isn't playing. For all they seem enchanted with the notion of 'connection', none of them ever say anything about the actual dancers they 'connect' with, or even describe a single actual dance where it happened. It makes me wonder if they are more enamored of the idea of magic than with the reality of having to involve another human in it.

The ringing silence on the topic means I can't tell if I'm supposed to take it as read that you bond with other people doing this, or that enlightened dancers aren't supposed to do that. I mean, yes, you can decline dances, but on the other hand, being picky about partners seems to be considered rude. I've seen the odd advice column asking what to do when That One Guy keeps asking you to dance, suggesting that there is some pressure to 'give everyone a chance', which is just going to make my hair stand on end. There's also standard advice about glomming onto one partner for the entire event ("Don't."), but it's aimed at people who think they're going to spend the entire evening dancing only with their date/friend/crush, or people who are getting snippy and competitive over the chance to dance with someone highly-skilled or high-status. Nothing about having a fairly limited (but non-possessive) list of people that you, you know, actually enjoy dancing with, and would continue to talk to even if they somehow lost both feet overnight.

Following actually, literally does not seem to work for me unless I click with my lead in a way that would probably make us friends even if dance were never involved. I'm going to get attached to these people. I'm already attached to these people. They're nice! They're fun! Et cetera! And I kind of wonder if the whole thing is making sense to me now that I'm learning from people who think this is okay, because they perform and compete and recognize the difference that chemistry makes. My near-total inability to do fuck-all without it may be weird, but at least they get that not having that click makes it much harder to do well.


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