The Idler: A Dancer’s Manifesto

There is no more obvious sign of modernity’s decay than what now passes for social dancing. Not so long ago, it would have been called stomping, wiggling, and shuffling — anything but dancing. It has no established form, no predictability. The partners in this free-form dance have no contact with one another. They gyrate to loud, primitive music in general proximity to one another, often without even making eye contact. The dancers are standing so far apart that conversation is made impossible, even if the music’s volume would allow it. Yet it is called dancing. Popular culture places many embarrassing demands on its unsuspecting followers, but here it has gone too far. It is time to relearn what it really means to dance.

Ballroom dancing, the old-fashioned sort, is a wonderful convention that should be restored. Free-form dancing, popular since the 1950s, is easier to be sure. It is individualistic and anarchistic. The dancer has only to make his own body do vaguely rhythmic things. Forget romance, forget courtship; solipsism is the governing principle. There is no difference between what is required of women and of men.

In this sense, modern social dancing is an apt symbol for post-sexual revolution relations between men and women. By making the sexes interchangeable, the radical equality takes sex out of romance.

A feminist might say that the older dancing was a symptom of patriarchy that forced women into an acquiescent role. And it is true that for a woman to dance well she cannot lead. She must allow herself to feel the man’s cues — a tightening around the small of her back or a slight pressure to her hand. As a dancer, her strength is her ability to follow. She is at the mercy of her partner. My dance instructor admonishes, to feminist horror, “remember who’s in charge.” If the man has trouble with rhythm, or if his foxtrot leaves marks on the tops of her shoes, there is little she can do. No amount of henpecking can help.

Yet the feminist critique of social dancing misses a critical point. It is women, not men who insist on real dancing. For example, I recently coaxed an unwilling young man into taking dancing lessons. The class promised to teach the basics of foxtrot, waltz, swing, and some of the Latin dances. Together, we took them in a high school gym through a community program, with about 20 other couples of all ages. Judging from the other pairs of eager-looking women and their rather sheepish partners on the first day of class, it was clear that ballroom dance is an activity that men are coerced into by women — mothers, girlfriends, or wives. I would wager that not one of the men in the room had asked his girlfriend or wife to spend an evening a week learning ballroom dancing. The women insisted they learn. A form of patriarchy, this is not.

“I don’t like to dance,” is the refrain often heard from grown men when something other than free-form is called for. They mean they don’t know how to and are not about to learn. In the old days, such men would be shunned, and rightly. In fact, all able-bodied men can learn to dance properly, provided they care enough to overcome nature, which has inclined them to boorishness. It is women’s job to impress upon them the importance of doing so. As in much else, the woman must serve as the civilizing agent.

Many women have abdicated this pedagogic role — their failure may be the main reason for Western civilization’s crisis — but my mother has not. My 12-year-old brother will have to attend mother-imposed dance lessons soon. He will have to hang up his Nike high-tops for a shoe with a smoother sole. He will be forced by this matriarchal system to spend leisure hours, normally spent practicing foul shots and Super Mario II, mixing with girls in gloves and party dresses. How will he and his male cohorts handle anxiety? The boys will, of course, adopt the posture and visage of martyrs about to be thrown to the lions. My brother will practice air slam dunks while pretending to believe no one is watching. The boys will make comments among themselves about the horrifying flaws of this girl or that girl.

Boys worry about dancing lessons for good reason. No one likes to look ridiculous in front of the other sex. Before dancing with girls, they will be asked to practice with an air partner. How silly they will feel standing alone in a line with arms outstretched. When the instructor chooses a guinea pig foxtrotter the rest of the class will snicker. But each of these boys will experience a moment of joy, at some point with a gloved young lady at his side, even if the sentiment is fleeting.

Boys aside, neither will a man undertake the skill willingly, but if he masters it, he will be the first to see the benefit. Women, quite simply, will value him more highly. Knowing how to dance at weddings, for example, can transform the most ordinary fellow into a prince charming. These days, when social dancing has become uncommon in so many circles, even the most limited ability can catapult a man to immediate fame. If he knows so much as a simple triple-time boxstep, he sets himself apart on the dance floor as the one who does not look and feel silly when the band plays a waltz. He can turn to the nearest female, tell her humbly that he knows a few steps, and ask her for the dance. He immediately wins her admiration. No need for him to be a great dancer; he has proven himself a man with initiative, someone likely to be a success in life. He is wheat and not chaff. (Learning to dance, I should think, is also more pleasant than spending hours pumping iron — and more productive.)

The point of dancing is not only the respect it inspires; it is downright fun. There are few pursuits in which one expends that much energy for romantic leisure. Jitterbugging to a big band tune like “Sing, Sing, Sing” is exhilarating. Once you pick up the basic step, fancy footwork becomes as natural as tapping your feet. The Latin dances — rumba, samba, meringue, cha-cha, and tango — are joyous. Dancing to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema” makes the Latin culture’s sense of the goodness of life contagious.

A man may resist the trappings of dance, but as the old songs show, his resistance can and must be overcome. As Frank Sinatra once sang in the persona of a well-trained man, undoubtedly civilized, “Heaven, I’m in heaven. And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak. And I seem to find the happiness I seek, when we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek…. I love to climb a mountain, and reach the highest peak… I love to go out fishin’ in a river or a creek. But it doesn’t boot me half as much as dancing cheek to cheek.”

And the women swooned.

Ballroom dancing glorifies true femininity and masculinity. Think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gliding across a parquet floor. Then imagine that degree of romance pictured apart from dancing. It’s not possible. Dancing, the old forms and styles, is the perfect metaphor for falling in love.

That was then. These days, there is confusion about sex roles: femininity is sadly mischaracterized as weakness and masculinity as beastliness (which should nonetheless be emulated by women). Since women compete with men on “equal” terms in public life, private life can be awkward. Ballroom dance is the prescription for this malaise because of its specific and separate demands on the sexes. Even as mass culture promotes unisex expectations and behavior, real dancing offers guidelines for life: it is a public display of a man’s ability to lead a woman, and it also shows that he holds her in high esteem. He has learned an art that complements her femininity. The man leads the woman to display her at her best, to make her stand out from the crowd.

The steps require a discipline over mind and body for both partners, but especially for men. His posture must be perfect. He must be surefooted and firm, yet he must have a sense of frivolity. These are the attributes of a skilled, happy, and attentive dancer. And so he should be in life.

I do not intend to suggest that men can be perfected through the dance. Note that when two or more men who can dance are on the floor together with their respective partners, a competitive spirit develops between them that can only be compared to a prize fight. They think: that jerk can’t fox-trot as smoothly as I. Or, his steps don’t mean a thing ’cause he ain’t got that swing. Even the most civilized of men are, well, men.

My point is simply this. Modernity has offered men an easy way out for too long, especially in dancing. It’s long past due that older forms should make a comeback. But as tradition mandates, if this is to be true, it is up to the women to insist upon it. I may be overly hopeful, but my guess is that the foxtrot will eventually bury its undertakers.


  • Hilary Ryan

    At the time this article was written, Hilary Ryan was an editorial assistant at Crisis.

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