I started my partner-dance journey about 8 months ago; started with Salsa, then Bachata 2 months after, then experimented with Zouk about 4 months after that. I was curious to see where I would be with the partner-dance after 100 hours of classes + socials.
Dance and movement have always been in my life one way or another. Although dancing and movement weren’t foreign to me, this time what I was getting into was very special. Unlike belly dancing, pole dancing, jazz ballet or contemporary, which I have experience with, partner-dances for me were different: bigger. It took a larger part of my life than other forms of dances. I was not doing it to prepare for a performance or competition. Also, I was not just attending classes once a week to forget about it for the rest of the days. No. Partner dancing was to go out and enjoy, to have fun, to connect, and it quickly became a very important part of my life. It brought a tremendous amount of joy, positivity, laughter, happiness, friendships and growth.
It became a lifestyle, and my opposite world.
The Opposite World (and Burnout)
I was part of Nick Petrie’s burnout study in 2022. When they shared some of the results, what piqued my interest was the concept of the “opposite world”. Many of us burn out not because of long hours or amount of work or relationship issues. Rather, we burn out because we don’t have an activity built in our lives that puts us in the state of mind that is opposite to the work-mind. It was especially difficult during the pandemic. My office was in my living space. After work, I studied psychology at a university (of course, it was online). Still in the same physical space at home, same mind-set of working, learning, producing, and performing.
Even when I was working out or walking my dog, my mind would easily drift back to what occupied my mind at work and school all day.
However, when I am dancing with a partner, I have to be fully present and focused, and I would even say I have to be fully immersed - with the music, my body & movement, the intentions of the partner, and the moment. When I am dancing, I rarely think about anything but embody dancing and being there in that moment. I’m truly in a whole different world. Out of my mind. In my body.
Moreover, I got to enjoy dancing regularly and frequently. It became a routine that I incorporated in my life a few times a week, a few hours at a time. Something that I look forward to. Something that makes the hours go by (too) quickly. Thanks to dancing, I was able to regularly pull myself out of the working-mind, and into the fun/joyful-mind; out of my head and into my heart and body (cheesy, I know!).
See some examples of other forms of opposite worlds that people found helpful in this post.
Rhythm as an Emotional Regulator
“As we grow up, we find our own set of regulating rhythms and activities. For some of us, it is walking, for others it is doing needlework or riding a bike. Everyone has their go-to options when they feel out of sync, anxious or frustrated. The common element is rhythm. Rhythm is regulating.” - Dr. Bruce D. Perry from the book What happened to you
Every one of us is familiar with beats. We all were once in our mothers’ bellies, close to her heartbeat. 60-80 bpm of average resting heart rate is soothing for most of us, as that’s when our mothers felt most at ease. So we were born knowing what rhythm is comforting to us. That’s why when we rock a crying or distressed baby, depending on their innate rhythm, they will either stop crying or keep crying until the care-giver adjusts the rhythm that soothes the baby-individual.
“Regulation is also about being in Balance…When we are regulated, [our] systems have what they need. Stress is what occurs when a demand or challenge takes us out of balance, away from our regulated set points…We feel pleasure when we get back into balance…Balance is the core of health…” Dr. Bruce D. Perry
A deregulated body and mind that is out of balance feel stressed. It informs us that something needs to change so that we are regulated and back to being balanced. What helps us achieve that is rhythm. We all have our own rhythm that is soothing for us. Maybe this explains why we gravitate towards certain types or genres of music, are interested in different movements (whether that is walking, running, playing ball or dancing), and may exhibit some rhythmic habits such as biting nails or shaking legs. When we move in our own rhythm, it soothes us, it helps us find our balance, be regulated, be less stressed, and calmer.
For me, it happens to be the rhythm of Bachata. Salsa is fun and all; I would dance 2-3 Salsa a night. However, I discovered that it is not the rhythm that I am most drawn to. Bachata seems to hit home for me, and it is the rhythm that I constantly seek as it feels amazing to me, and just the thought of it excites me. I crave it. I can dance it all night; well, mostly until 10pm, which is my curfew ;)
In the book What Happened To You? Dr. Perry talks about the 4 pillars of traditional healing from trauma, which he learned from various indigenous communities. They are:
Connection to clan and the natural world
Regulating rhythm through dance, drumming and song
A set of beliefs, values, stories that brought meaning to trauma
On occasion, natural hallucinogens or other plant-derived substances used to facilitate healing with the guidance of a healer or an elder
We are familiar with numbers 1, 3 and 4. The healing powers of connection to the people around us (1), healing through talk-therapy (3) and using medicine (4) are often discussed. What surprised me was that healing from trauma also includes dancing, singing and playing instruments. Bringing regulating rhythm to our being. Whereas numbers 3 and 4 directly look at the trauma, numbers 1 and 2 seem to involve developing a lifestyle or activities that can be incorporated in our daily lives to improve the baseline of regulation.
For me, without a doubt dancing has been healing. As I mentioned just above, not directly like therapy or medicines would. But rather helping me be more regulated on a day to day basis, which acted as a protective component in my life to help me cope (and thrive). Also, I believe that when I started partner-dancing, it started opening my soul to looking at situations and life (past or present) through a different lens, hence helping me reframe and rethink. I was no longer just in one single mind. I was tapping into different minds (maybe the opposite mind to the working/producing mind, perhaps a more creative mind). This helped me broaden the ways I see the world. I was able to reflect on my life and situations differently, which in turn had a potent healing power.
“Almost all cultures have deep histories and traditions of dance…that’s very human to move in unison like that…it’s life-giving” - Dacher Keltner on On Being
How to enjoy Social Dancing to the fullest
You might be wondering where to start your own partner-dance journey. You might also be wondering how to summon the confidence to get out there. I have not been doing it for a long time myself, but as someone who has started not so long ago and still remembers the feelings, fears, doubts when I started, I can share some pointers that helped me at the beginning. I hope the following would be helpful for you too.
Focus on the moment. It is much more enjoyable if you are one with the moment. Focus only on the person that you are dancing with, be one with the music, one with the moment and the dance. Forget about how you look to others, who is filming you (which sometimes does happen), don’t pay attention to saying hi or bye to your friends. Just focus on the now.
Connection. Say hi and make eye contact with the partner you will dance with. It is all about the connection and communication. Make sure to treat your partner as someone that you are having a conversation with. More with movements than words, but it is still a form of conversation. It is a human to human interaction. We are all here to connect, learn, improve and have fun. Which leads me to my next point.
Have fun! Smile! Laugh! Be a pleasant person to dance with! Mistakes do happen. Perfection isn’t what you are going for. FUN TIMES is the goal of social dancing. Be a fun partner.
Misunderstanding is part of it, and it’s OK. Dancing is a conversation using movements, rather than words. Nevertheless it is a conversation between two people. It means it is prone to misunderstanding which can lead to stepping on each other (literally) and/or getting lost (literally). It is like learning a new language. Sometimes they will communicate with expressions or moves that you don’t yet understand. If you ask, most people would be happy to clarify. Some might even thank you for helping them make their indications clearer!
When you are not dancing, watch and observe others. You can learn a lot from watching people. It broadens your horizons, it gives you more ideas on how to style a move, fill in the gap, and how one might interpret the music, etc. Everyone dances differently, which means you can learn, endlessly.
Listen to music at home. Music is the common ground that connects you and your partner. Listening to music at home will help you get used to the rhythm and familiarize yourself with the songs that are often played at socials. Don’t you just love it when your favourite song comes out at a bar or a club? When you familiarize yourself with the music, it makes the dance that much more enjoyable. Developing musicality will serve you well.
Take some lessons before going to a social. It will be much more fun for you (and for your partners too), if you at least know the basic steps and how to do some turns.
Let go of control. In socials, you don’t know what will happen in a dance with someone. For me, that is what makes it beautiful; being comfortable with the unknown; connection in imperfection. Being OK with what IS and how it may turn out.
Focus on learning. You will have good days and bad days. Chances are that on bad days, there might be just as much for you to learn as on good days. So don’t be discouraged. As long as you have learned something and tried something new that day, you are still progressing.
Here are some tips for beginner followers (until I learn to lead!)
It is counterproductive trying to guess what the leader wants. Sometimes I find it helpful to shut my eyes (in waves) and just let it flow, and follow. Wait for their indication, rather than anticipating the next move. I tell myself often: calm down.
In Bachata, sometimes slow is more. Move slowly and majestically, rather than fast and restlessly. Use your breath as a tool that enhances the movement.
In Salsa, keep your frame (especially if you are dancing Caleña); meaning keep your arms up, not dangling dead or doing too much styling. This was a tip from a friend. Apparently, it makes it easier for the leaders to find your hands when they need them.
In Salsa, as long as you can keep up with your 123, 456 (basic counts) and land on the right foot, you will be fine. Mostly :)
When turning/spinning (giros), hold your own. Don’t rely on the leaders to turn you or carry all your weight by holding onto their hand(s) like your life depended on it. Keep your shoulders back and down, keep your frame and posture, turn on your own like you’re independent, while using your hand(s) only as means of connection to your partner.
Your partner’s hands carry a lot of information. So do their body language and energy. Pay attention, and listen with all your senses.
Remember your WHY
In my short partner-dancing journey so far, I noticed some ups and downs and changes in my relationships to different rhythms. I started it to learn Salsa as it is probably the most commonly known Latin dance out there. When I found Bachata, I gradually lost interest in Salsa, and fell more and more in love with Bachata. Then I flirted with Zouk a little, which made my relationship with Bachata even stronger, and discovered my true love for it.
Many times, I absolutely love dancing at socials, but sometimes I would leave the social feeling unsatisfied. Remembering why I started is an important component to keep the fire going. When I don't, I start going into my head. But dancing lives in your body and soul, not in your head.
You gotta remember why you started. For me, it is because it was for fun and joy. At times it became about something else, like tracking hours to reach 100 hours (for the purpose of this article and sharing my experience, wink wink). Then the experience would be different. It wouldn't hit the right spot for me. So I need to constantly remind myself why I started, and check with my ego; am I on the dance floor today because I enjoy it, or for another reason?
Also, don’t force your development. Let your development come naturally as a result of you enjoying the activity, which makes it easier for you to consistently put in the hours and effort, effortlessly. When you force your development, you are focused on another objective, rather than on your enjoyment. When this happens, you might lose interest and it may no longer be sustainable for you.There was a week where I felt that my intentions were not pure. I was going out dancing even when I was tired, needed rest, and my gut and body were telling me to stay home. My intentions were not focused on having fun but to fill the 100 hours quickly. So I took a week off to reevaluate, which helped me get back in tune with myself. When the feeling is there, go and enjoy it fully! If not, it is OK to stay at home and rest. In the long run, doing it for the joy and fun with the purest intentions would serve you much better and take your process much further.
Also, remember that we are only human. There is no shame in having different motives sometimes. But for your development and growth as a human, I encourage you to do your best to quickly notice it, keep evaluating your motives and intentions, and course-correct when necessary.
Coaching and dance
Some months into partner-dancing I realized that dancing creates the “opposite world” for me. When I’m dancing (especially because I am dancing as the follower until now), I need to let go of control; not knowing what will happen but knowing that all will be OK. Actually, knowing that all will be better if I don’t anticipate and clash with the leader. It is paradoxical, because it puts me into the opposite mind to my working mind, and at the same time it helps me practice the mindset necessary for my line of work. I let my dance-leaders lead me, and practicing this on the dance floor helps me do the same in my coaching practice: letting my clients lead the sessions/conversations and being comfortable with the unknown.
Coaching for me is like a partner-dance with my clients. It is a connection, communication, conversation, and it brings me tremendous meaning, purpose and joy. I am happy to be a follower in dance as well as in coaching.
“Dancing puts me into contact with the Significance of insignificant things” - Philosopher Kierkegaard
I started partner-dancing, because I liked it; because I enjoyed it; because it was just so fun. What made it so fun for me? Because I love moving my body in a rhythmic way, and I also love the friends and connection and the community that came with it as such a huge bonus and a positive side effect. There is always something more to learn and improve. There is always something to smile and laugh about. There is always connection; connection with the music, with the dance partners, with the friends and community that are passionate about the same thing as you are. Most of all, connection to my body. It brings me back to myself. It brings me home.
With lots of love, S