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!


  1. Great post!

    If you’ve ever seen the film Strictly Ballroom, the art of partner dancing also embodies improvisation – in this case a hilarious and profound exploration of combining personal expression with conventional leadership. It’s worth a watch, if you haven’t already seen it.

    I’m not a big fan of today’s over-use of the word leadership. This stems from my deep and abiding respect for partnership and the interdependence of all life. Most of the positive traits that are prized in a good leader are truly the qualities of solid, working partnerships. We want our leaders to treat us fairly, act with integrity, listen to us and respond respectfully, inspire others and pull varied skills together in order to forge ahead toward mutually held goals. How are these traits any different than what a partner would do? A leader doesn’t work alone but in tandem with others. More often than not, teamwork is what gets the job done.

    The reality is that we, as a society, seem bent on having someone in charge. Someone has to lead, right? Putting someone else completely in charge, be it a president or a dance partner, accomplishes a couple of not-so-healthy things. It absolves us of personal responsibility and provides us with a scape goat when things don’t go well. After all, it’s easy to blame the other guy in a rigid leader/follower scenario.

    But as you noted, there’s an energy (which you called resistance) that keeps both dance partners from tripping over each other. In a larger context, I’d call that personal responsibility. Each person accepts his part, which is neither greater nor less than the other part. What you might call surrender, I’d call cooperation.

    A man cannot waltz alone. (Well, he could, but he’d look kind of silly.) A willing partner who can understand the subtle shifts in body, rhythm, and intent brings out the beauty of the dance. Otherwise, as you mentioned, it’s just an ugly mess.

    But what about leading? It’s not as if leading never happens, but in my mind it’s less rigid and more transient than what I think of as a traditional (patriarchal?) model of leadership. The way I see it, life is not one dance style but a series of alternating dance variations. There are times when I allow myself to be led, because I trust the other person. My husband drives with me in the passenger seat. I simply have to trust that he knows what he’s doing and that we won’t get in an accident. I am the primary caregiver of the family. My husband has neither the time nor the temperament to handle these responsibilities. He has to trust me. Fortunately, his trust is well placed.

    Partnership is a shifting dynamic. Top-down leadership feels static to me.

    In terms of working with our animal friends, I allow for the shifting dynamic. My horses trust me to feed and provide for their physical and emotional needs. I trust them to work with me, to help keep me safe, and to provide a grounding energy that I need very much in my daily life. They give as much to me as I do to them, albeit in different ways. That’s partnership and interdependence. Is it resistance or cooperation?

  2. Lovely comment, Nora! Thanks for reminding me about Strictly Ballroom, which I haven't seen since it first came out. I loved it at the time, and it would be interesting to revisit it with some of these questions in mind.

    I'm also impressed that you trust your husband when he's driving - I'm a terrible passenger seat driver when my own fella has the wheel (and vice-versa). I admire your commitment to partnership in part because it comes very hard to me! And I think it's an excellent corrective to that reflexive, "because I said so" impulse that gives "leadership" a bad name.

    Before I discovered marker training, my strong mistrust of top-down authority was a lot of what made me ineffective with my dogs. I didn't *want* to be effective at the cost of their trust. I was loathe to embrace a "do it or else" ethos, but without the power of verbal persuasion (to which I've been addicted since I first learned to read), I was at a loss as to how to bring our often conflicting desires into better alignment. I didn't have a compelling or timely answer for Barley when she'd pause (if she paused!) to ask, "Why exactly should I return to you now instead of scarfing up this delectable horse poop?" (Truth be told, that's still a hard one to answer.) So my "training" took the really productive form of periodic outbursts of frustration. My message was basically: I don't want to *make* you do anything, I just want you to act like *I* know you should. Bless her soul, she just didn't buy into the notion that my ideas about what was good should take precedence over hers.

    She was going on eight when I read Karen Pryor's Reaching the Animal Mind and the light went on for both of us. Suddenly I possessed both the means of communicating precisely what I wanted *and* what was in it for her. Cheese proved to be a most satisfying answer to many of the questions she had for me. But beyond this literal set of solutions, we began to expand on the intrinsic pleasures of working and learning together, the pleasures of cooperation, partnership, the dance.

    If I remain interested in the concept of leadership and badly want to reclaim it from those who use it as a synonym for domination, it's because I cannot escape the recognition that, for all that Barley continues to teach and guide me, for all the appreciation and respect I have for her indomitable will (we've determined that her Latin species name is canis contraricus, and vulgarly she's a Golden Hussy), I'm generally the one who sets our common agenda. I'm sure Barley would love to take up a clicker and teach me to dig deep holes, chase coyotes up ravines, or savor the taste of kitty roca - it just ain't gonna happen, and we both need to make our peace with that.

    Of course, the things that *have* to happen to keep our common life relatively safe and harmonious are few. (Particularly with Barley, who's a much more resilient and easy going pup than our other two.) The rest is a glorious game - Barley loves training better than almost anything, and free-shaping best of all.