It all began when a persuasively-written advertisement caught my eye.
It read, “Swing Dance Lessons! Men, come learn an awesome skill to make yourself a rare and valuable commodity.”
I have to admit I was pretty skeptical when I saw this ad. I had tried learning to dance several times before, but to no avail. Naturally, I was unconvinced that additional lessons would do me much good at all.
Still, I knew the teachers were in need of more men, so I decided to give it another shot. I attended the eight-week beginner’s series and had a blast! The lessons gave me the basic foundation I needed to get out on the dance floor at social dances and parties. Before I knew it, I was taking advanced lessons, learning aerials (those cool flip things), and even dancing in airport flash mobs. To this day, swing dancing remains one of my favorite activities.
As I’ve gained experience on the dance floor, I’ve realized that many of the principles of swing dance can be applied to relationships between men and women. Granted, I’m no pro at either, as I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in both dance and romance. Nevertheless, here are three tips I’ve picked up over the past few years.
Lesson 1: There’s only so much you can learn from the opposite sex.
As I mentioned above, the eight-week series wasn’t my first attempt to learn how to dance. So what was different this time?
In my early endeavors, the primary instructors were always the follows (the part usually filled by women).
Now don’t get me wrong. These teachers were professional dancers, and were extremely knowledgeable about their subject. But when these follows tried to teach the leads (the part usually filled by men) how to dance, the result was a lot of confusion.
There’s only so much you can learn from the opposite sex.
Of course, the female teachers could explain how the moves were supposed to look, how they should feel from the follow’s perspective when done properly, and whether or not I was giving clear signals.
While this was helpful feedback, I needed someone to show me how to actually do the moves. I needed a man to explain how the heck dancing was supposed to work, from the man’s perspective. It wasn’t until I attended the eight-week series, led by a lead, that things finally clicked. I came away from these lessons with a strong conviction: leads need to teach other leads how to lead.
And the same is true in our broader culture, in relations between men and women.
Men, we need to listen to the feedback of the women in our lives. We should pay close attention to the needs of our moms, sisters, girlfriends, and wives, and when they give us constructive criticism, we should take it. It will help us become better men.
But while women can inspire us to become better men, they cannot teach us how to be men. The art of being a man must be passed down from men to men. This is why it is so critical for men to share time in fellowship with the Lord and with our brothers, sharpening one another as iron sharpens iron.
The same goes for women, by the way. Ladies, don’t be afraid to seek out a strong female mentor to teach you the ways of womanliness (whatever those are!).
Lesson 2: Ladies, be available. Men, be bold.
One evening, I noticed a breathtakingly beautiful girl on the other side of the dance floor. I wanted to ask her to dance, but the length of the floor seemed insurmountable, and I just couldn’t get up the nerve to cross it! Ultimately, I chickened out and decided on the wallflower’s best friend: the water station.
But as I arrived at the bar, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There she was, standing right there by the water! She looked right at me, smiled, and in that moment, I had nothing to say but, “Hey! Want to dance?”
The next two hours were the most fun I’ve ever had swing dancing. As it turned out, this gal had quite intentionally walked over to where I was standing in order to subtly encourage the invitation. It wasn’t until she physically entered my space bubble that I mustered up the courage to ask her.
Men: don’t be this guy. Be courageous, be bold!
There are lessons here for both the ladies and then gentlemen.
Men, be bold! Whether you’re looking for a dance partner or a date, don’t be afraid to make the ask. I waited far too long that night out of fear of rejection. Don’t listen to the voice in your head that says things like, “She’s out of my league,” or “There’s no way she’d go out with a guy like me.” Even if she says no, you’ve still succeeded in taking a risk and honoring a woman.
Ladies, all I can say is, “stand by the water.” I’ve heard a number of virtuous, eligible Catholic women express frustration that not enough men are stepping up and asking girls out.
While this is a valid complaint, remember that you are woman, the crown of God’s creation! Your beauty can render us – even the best of us – bumbling idiots. Find subtle ways to encourage the guy and show you’re interested. Be creative. When in doubt, you can always do what this gal did and burst his personal space bubble.
Lesson 3: Lead with intentionality, follow with receptivity (aka be like Manly and Belle).
In swing dance, as in relationships, there are three types of leads. Please allow me to introduce you.
Measly: Has no idea what he’s doing. Every gesture and cue comes off as tentative and hesitant.
Macho: Pulls so hard, his partner feels like her arms are gonna get ripped out of their sockets.
Manly: Sends clear, intentional signals, and is assertive and firm, yet gentle.
Ladies: which gentleman would you rather dance with?
There are way too many men out there who take a Measly or Macho approach to dating. Men: when you are pursuing a woman, does she know you’re pursuing her? Are you clear with your intentions? Are you asking women on dates, or simply “hanging out” with them? For me, learning to dance taught me that I needed to step it up and be more direct and assertive with both my dance moves and my dating life. If you’re unsure about either, find a good, solid man you look up to and ask him to teach you.
Similarly (you knew it was coming), there are three types of follows:
Bland: Also known as “namby pamby.” Tentative, unsure, passive.
Bossy: Usurps the lead’s role in the dance, directing herself, and effectively killing any fun that might’ve been had by anyone.
Belle: Receives the lead’s cues and, with elegance and grace, responds accordingly.
Ladies: are you taking a Bland or Bossy approach to dating? If so, it may be time to pick up a copy of Verily magazine (I mean, I’ve never actually read it, but it seems to be what all the cool Catholic women are reading these days).
Authentic receptivity (note: different from passivity) is just about the most captivating trait in a woman. It’s truly what the Blessed Mother embodies when she says, “Let it be done unto me according to thy word” (Lk 2:38). Of course, it’s easiest to be a Belle when you’re dating – or dancing with – a Manly, which is why virtuous dating, like marriage, is always a joint effort.
So, there you have it: three lessons from the wonderful art of swing dancing.
Follow these tips, and you may indeed become a “rare and valuable commodity” on and off the dance floor.
Illustrations by Meg Whalen
A recent graduate of the Augustine Institute, Meg has found her little corner of the New Evangelization in illustrating (and sometimes writing) children’s books. She lives with her husband, Danny, in Denver and skis the Rockies as much as she can. Her drawings can be found at www.illustrationsbymeg.com.