Why don’t we dance?
Cecelia Swartz | Wednesday, October 4, 2023
Imagine this: You are at a formal, an SYR or a wedding and the DJ is amazing. A song comes on that you just have to dance to, so you get up, get on the floor and … jump up and down. Maybe your hands go in the air; maybe you sing along.
We call this dancing. This is not dancing. This is jumping enthusiastically to music. Is it fun? Yes. Is it dancing? No.
I, too, thought this was all dancing at parties could be until I discovered the world of social dancing. What is social dancing, you may ask? Social dancing is an umbrella term for a set of improvised partner dances done at parties or social gatherings. There are many different types. A non-exhaustive list of the ones I know how to do include the 19 ballroom and Latin dances like the Waltz, Tango, Cha Cha and Rumba; several styles of swing dance like Lindy Hop and Charleston; the “club” (i.e. non-ballroom) Latin dances like the Salsa and Bachata and Argentine tango. There are more, but you get the gist.
The dances are all centered on skills called leading and following where one partner, the leader, improvises and initiates the moves of the dance, and the other partner, the follower, responds to the lead’s nonverbal signals through their connection and executes the asked-for move. Each style of dance is characterized by the music it is danced to, the way the dance is counted and the unique steps and patterns of the dance. Some dances, if they are in the same family, like the cha-cha and the rumba, which are both ballroom-style Latin dances, might have the same patterns with different timings, which makes it easy to learn them together.
I started social dancing sort of on impulse. It was fall 2021, my sophomore year when things were just starting to open up after covid, and the swing dance club was active again. I thought swing dancing looked fun and chill, and so I joined. Then, later that semester, the swing dance club had a joint event with the ballroom dance club, and I saw 18 other styles of partner dancing I could learn, so I joined ballroom. By this point, I was too far down the rabbit hole. Ballroom competitions soon followed, and now I spend arguably too much time per week in a dance studio.
I have always been a dancer, but I grew up Irish dancing, which is a highly technical style designed for the stage and for competition. Ballroom and swing, while I do perform for both and compete for ballroom, are at their heart social dances. They are designed in such a way that once you know how to do them, you can dance with someone you have just met even if you don’t speak the same language, and that level of connection and communication between two strangers as they create art is what makes the social dances so beautiful.
Then, I went abroad to Dublin. I could not find a social ballroom in Dublin, but I did find social swing, and céilís (social Irish dance), and then salsa, and then Argentine tango. Yes, I learned Argentine tango in Dublin and had a great time. It was one of the most immersive parts of my study abroad. I would go to a social, alone or with friends, and meet people of all ages from all over Ireland and Europe. I’d have one partner who had lived in Dublin their whole life and then another one from Poland. I even managed to go swing dancing while on a weekend trip to Edinburgh. The céilís in particular held a special place in my heart because it was one of the first times in a while I had been able to Irish dance purely for the joy of it and not worry about being perfect for an audience or judges (I do still love to perform and compete though, but dancing for dancing’s sake is different).
At the same time, I got to participate in the active creation of an art form that I have loved since I was little. I was that little girl who wanted to be a Disney princess and do the waltz. Now, I have options for what type of waltz I want to do for a given song, and if a waltz doesn’t fit, then a foxtrot, tango, rumba, cha cha, swing or one of the other styles I know probably will. To be able to meet someone totally random and then dance a full song with them as you actively participate in the creation of art for nothing more than the love of it is one of the purest forms of human connection I have ever experienced and can sometimes feel magical.
What happened to me in Dublin holds true at home, both in Maryland, where I am from, and at Notre Dame. Dancing at Notre Dame with the ballroom and swing dance clubs has helped me make some of my best friends on campus and helped me engage with the greater South Bend community. There are weekly ballroom socials that the club sometimes attends on Fridays at Forever Dance, and even though I haven’t made it yet, I want to try the weekly Latin nights at Ironhand Wine Bar. When I am home in Maryland, there are several places I like to go dancing that have introduced me to people I never would have met otherwise.
The best part? It’s a lifelong skill. Every time I go out dancing, my partners range from my age to people in their sixties and seventies. I have also met upper-level dancers at competitions who started competing in college and continued for the next decade. Once you learn how to dance, you have that knowledge forever.
Social dancing is not something I ever thought I would do, but now that I do it, I could never imagine living without it. It has enriched my life in so many ways from helping me meet new people anywhere I travel to allowing me to actively engage in a gorgeous art form while I am simply doing something for fun. Also, now, when I am at a party, I know what to actually do on the dance floor for any song beyond just enthusiastically jumping to music. It is so much better.
So, I ask, why don’t we dance?
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.