I let the Eccentric talk me into going out dancing a couple of weeks ago. I don't like big loud rooms full of strangers trying to touch me, which is fundamentally what a dance club is, but I like him and I need practice, so I went.

He says I do a pretty creditable job following strangers. He has no reason to be bullshitting me, so I believe him; he does generally mean what he says, although I have a policy of dialing whatever falls out of his mouth back by about 50% to account for the overflowing enthusiasm. In an absolute sense, I'm probably fine. I don't feel like a success with most people, though -- I feel laggy and uncomfortable, like I'm bluffing my way through the song and only getting away with it because I look confident and can sell whatever I'm doing as intentional. It's not so bad I won't keep at it for the practice, but it's not an experience I'd go seeking for its own sake.

For the record, if I'm successfully following someone, it feels like nothing. It's not the presence of some sort of epiphanic state, it's the absence of having to think about the process. I know there's this idea of ballroom dance as a romantic, or at least heavily-romanticized, connection, but that's only true if you're dancing with someone you're already stupid in love with, in which case staying at home and doing the dishes together would get you the same thing. It's more like those cooperative jump rope games kids play. The idea is to get everyone going in the same rhythm, so that you can complete the sequence. If you're really good at it, and also good together, you get to show off. If you're bad at it, or just a really bad fit with the other players, you get your double-dutch ropes all tangled and smack the jumper in the side of the head by accident.

Learning to follow is a slow slope with a sudden inflection point, like learning to read a new language. You start out piecing letters together into words and checking the dictionary after every one; then you progress to reconstructing phrases and translating those in your head; and finally the process becomes transparent, and you're absorbing the content directly without having to think about which language you're reading it in. Having to go through the translation step with most people delays things enough that I always feel like I'm scrambling to catch up.

It's never absolutely perfect, but the absence of moments where my brain pops up and goes shit, what's that supposed to mean? is notable and welcome. I hate feeling like I'm wobbling all over the place, and I hate it worse when I'm pressured to pretend I don't. I was asking Ye Ballroom Instructor the other day about how to change lead in the middle of the dance, and we were having a perfectly reasonable verbal conversation about the new things while he was non-verbally directing me around the room doing the old things. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of leads I can both talk to and dance with at the same time. It just... doesn't work with anyone outside of that small group.

I have the same issue with changing partners that I do with transposing music. If I've learned a piece in one key, I have learned to sing it in that key. Change the key and it's not unrecognizable, but I have to learn it as new. My notes have absolute positions in music-space, not relative; I can't just start on a different one and move three steps up, then half a step down, etc. I have to do it all over again.

There is a standard basic foot pattern to ballroom dances, and I can learn those fine, but every different partner speaks a different dialect of lead. I have a basic knowledge of how it works, in the same way I have a basic knowledge of how that song went before or of how the grammar of related languages is structured. But I have to start more or less all over again with the vocabulary, and you know what? I just don't care about most people that much. It's work. It is tedious practice homework required for a grade and I also have to smile while I'm doing it. I have a hard limit on that, and it's a low one.

It is, in fact, as I told Ye Ballroom Instructor when he first brought this up a year ago: My ability to  pass as a decent ballroom dancer is extremely person-specific, and it's a hundred-fold worse if I'm trying to follow instead of lead. Not only do I not know where we're going, I also don't know what the lead expects me to be able to do, beyond a sneaking suspicion that they probably want me to be much better than I am.

I've no idea what my dance partners think of me, mainly because I've no idea what anyone ever thinks of me. I only pretend to read minds. (I have a deeply over-developed sense of Holmesian drama. And I'm pretty good at cold reading. Works best on strangers who don't hang around to think about it too long.) The impression I get is that they think I'm fun, mostly independent of whether I feel I'm doing well or not. People I've danced with tend to come back and ask me again and again, which at least suggests I'm not awful. It is apparently also easy/fun to cram things into my head. Both instructors tend to go, 'I need to mingle with other people at the event, but nnnnnoooooo let me just teach you this one last thing before I take off.'

Comments