Monday, April 30, 2012

Partners at the dance

Less Cajun, more surrender.
More years ago than I want to count, when I was single and still living in California, Cajun & Zydeco dancing briefly became a mainstay of my nightlife. I wasn't looking for love on the dance floor -- in fact, I made it a rule not to date, kiss, or otherwise entangle myself with anyone I met there, and I broke that rule only once (to my ensuing regret). I didn't have any firm ideas about what I was looking for when I first attended a lesson at Berkeley's Ashkenaz Community Center (still going strong, I'm happy to see), but I found a lot more than I could have guessed I would.

For any gal raised proudly tomboy and feminist, partner dancing presents a bit of a quandary (at least when practiced conventionally with a male partner). The whole notion of following a man's lead had been anathema to me for most of my conscious life, so I really wasn't prepared to enjoy it so much. Once I'd achieved some rudimentary competence in the two-step and waltz, I was enchanted to discover how much a good partner could buoy my sense of my own skill and grace, as if I were borne up by the depth of his experience for the duration of the dance.

"Surrender" had always been a dirty word in my book, its uncounted pleasures all guilty and corrosive to self-respect. So I thought. But I felt undeniably that I became stronger, more wakeful, and more alive when I left a precious scrap of my will draped with my sweater over a metal folding chair at the edge of the dance floor. I also became a better dancer, as I floated from waltz to waltz until a clumsy partner grounded me again.

It's an old story, I know, often told in more explicitly erotic terms. Or religious ones. But I'm interested in it here as a story of education, a story of how learning often happens independently of (or even in conflict with) reasoning, of how it often happens in the relationship between bodies, of how touch can carry a current and a lesson at once. I'm interested in what separates leadership from brute coercion and domination -- I want to identify or at least to explore the circumstances that encourage and honor the free choice of one creature to follow another, particularly in the absence of language.

What separated the good partners from the bad wasn't a simple matter of skill, though that obviously played a critical part. A leader can't lead unless she's got some idea of where she's going and how to get there. But some of the most technically skilled dancers I encountered were also some of the most painfully obtuse: they had ideal dances mapped out in their heads, and if I failed to trace the Cartesian coordinates they'd laid out, they communicated their resentment clearly in the unforgiving stiffness of their carriage and the hard masks they made of their faces.

The best leaders were the most supple, in their bodies and their minds. Their strength had great give to it: they responded intuitively to my limitations and made inspired use of my heretofore untapped ability. Fundamentally, what made their guidance so generous was their native or learned respect for the creative power of resistance. Their respect for my resistance in the moment was precisely what allowed me to place myself willingly in their capable hands. My favorite partners were attuned to the quality and timing of my hesitations, and these shaped the dance as surely as the quality and timing of their pressure. They knew and led me to understand that some forms of surrender -- negotiated and conditional -- can be quite literally uplifting.

If you've ever seen a couple dance without resistance, you'll know it's an ugly mess at best. The follower either falls into the leader or keeps a careful, mechanical distance from him, the better to avoid getting manhandled. (I don't mean to push the gendered element in this too hard -- I'm guessing it's no fun getting "womanhandled" either... but maybe I better stop there.) As much potential influence as a follower has on the dance, the terms of its unfolding are set by the leader: like 'em or lump 'em. It doesn't take too many dances before you can sense at the first touch whether you've signed on for three minutes' duty carrying your partner's spun-glass ego -- or for sailing into waters unknown with a game and ready companion. One who knows what it means to "give good weight."

So what does all this have to do with training? Or with the serious limitations of behaviorist vocabulary in helping us to rethink and refine our practices? Forget the science for a moment, and tell me from your own experience: can we use literal and/or figurative pressure in respectful, creative, mutually life-affirming ways? My own governing assumption is that learning simply doesn't happen in the absence of all pressure (as Jean Donaldson puts it, no motivation, no training), but that may not be your governing assumption. Pray tell, et vive la résistance!