Like many I have spoken with over years of my social dancing lifespan, I’ve found that swing dancing can serve as a metaphor for language and communication. Below, I’ve broken down the parallels that I see with dancing and language, and I’m continually fascinated by how people relate to each other on and off the dance floor.

    • The Topic of ConversationMichael-Jagger

This is the dance style two partners engage in, and that is most likely determined by the music.  Sure you could choose to do tango to waltz music, but it would be like talking about oranges when the topic of conversation is apples. For swing dancers, it is usually jazz music in the styles of traditional jazz, swing, rockabilly, standards, blues, ballads, etc. that we’ll use as our entry point into the movement base that we have in our repertoire.

  • Vocabulary

The steps that we learn, the moves that become our foundation… these are the things upon which great tales are told.  I believe that despite what other teachers may say, we need a baseline vocabulary before we can really communicate. Just going out social dancing without having learned any moves can make for a very frustrating experience for you and any of your dance partners for the evening.  You could go over to a group of rocket scientists and try to join their conversation, but without any knowledge of astrophysics, not only will you not comprehend much of what is going on, but you’ll probably frustrate them with your ignorant interjections.  Learning just a few basic moves, like words, allows us to connect thematically with others on the dance floor almost instantly, and how well you learn the jargon can determine how well you communicate.

  • Sentences

When we string moves together that fit into the phrasing of the music, the beginnings of an idea happen. We begin to create a flow of movements that connect well together, and we are finding pathways between steps that make sense and are repeatable.

  • Paragraphs

This is where the magic truly begins, as longer ideas are formed from our sentences, and we see a connection not only from one idea to the next, but how those ideas relate to the music.  Sometimes the music influences us and other times our partner inspires our choices, but hopefully as a partnership we’ll make choices based on musical phrasing in the song, which has a built-in ebb and flow.

  • Dialogue and Stories

This is certainly what I strive for in my dancing, and I can say that it doesn’t happen as often as I would like.  But I know that I’ve approached storytelling with my partner in a dance when I feel we’ve transcended getting the moves “right,” and moved into a place where I’m not sure who initiated what.  Did I lead that idea or was I responding to my partner?  Did we just hit that break because that’s what I always do after a pass, or did the song guide us to that moment, almost instinctively?

In these stories, each dancer is a player with their own role and each is reliant on the other to support their ideas.  A flow of movement springs forth from a well of practice, experience, a then a relenting to something greater than that of the individuals contributing to the thing, and it culminates in an arc that feels like it had a beginning, middle and end, with peaks and valleys in between.

When I reflect upon those dances where I feel we have shared a story, I have a strong sense of satisfaction for several reasons.  It’s not surprising or earth-shattering to state that humans enjoy communication, but I think it’s worth noting that having a good conversation/dance with someone makes us feel heard and/or that we are understood. In listening to our partner and responding in kind, we can experience a different viewpoint or way of thinking/being.  We can also learn something new about ourselves when we exchange ideas versus just talking at each other and we might be surprised by making a new choice.

These are the building blocks of our dance language, and from here we can develop a way in which we begin to use these tools to communicate through social dance.  The next aspect of this analogy relates to the volume of our voice and the amount of physical connection we offer and seek. As a lead, I think about the strength of my lead like the volume of my voice. A hard pull or sudden yank can feel like snapping at someone unexpectedly, and constantly moving a follow in a rough fashion can feel like shouting or hearkens to that person who has voice modulation issues. Conversely, like a low talker or someone who whispers, a light lead or follow can either be hard to understand amid the cacophony of various stimuli on the dance floor or a soothing respite from the previous partner who was a social dance “loud talker.”  Often, teachers talk about matching one’s partner in energy or “tone,” and I find that to be true in conversations, as well. If someone starts shouting at you, your response might be to shout back at them, and whispering can elicit others to whisper or at least take note that a heightened awareness is needed. And in any engaging conversation, there are highs and lows, crescendos and decrescendos that make a dance dynamic and interesting, and our character begins to shine through.

Now, admittedly I don’t have a degree in psychology, but I do believe that how we dance, while not an unequivocal assessment of one’s personality, is often a good reflection of our world view and for how we relate (or would like to relate) to others. For instance, I wonder sometimes when a lead is strong or forceful if maybe they hold a position of power at work and are therefore used to hierarchical structure where their word is final. Or conversely, they may feel powerless in all other aspects of their life, and the dance floor is their only opportunity to exert power. Light leading can often be indicative of a lack of confidence. Those who don’t know what they think or don’t believe that their ideas are worthy of being heard are probably less inclined to share with others, so in the dance they seem unclear in asking for or stating what they want. A more positive iteration of light leading is someone who is completely cognizant of the person they’re holding onto, and they don’t want to be overbearing. Their sensitivity to changes of weight and pressure elicits an immediate listening response, even deferring to the follow’s ideas. There is a difference, however, between being a light lead, and not leading at all.  I don’t believe it is enough to just hold a partner’s hand and let them move around.  When leads don’t clearly indicate weight shifts for their partner, that can be quite frustrating for a follow who is trying to patiently listen for information.  It is a delicate balance to strike in asking a follow to respond and then giving them the space to respond.  Leads must constantly adjust how, when and how much to affect their partner’s energy as they grow towards being a more clear, effective communicator.

There is the case of what I call the incessant talker, and I think it can occur on both sides of the partnership.  It is the lead who takes the follower from move to move constantly, without ever taking stock of the follow’s response. Perhaps they have been taught only to lead moves and have subsequently devoted their efforts to acquiring steps so as to feel prepared when inviting a follow to dance. In their mind perhaps not having anything to “say” equates to failure in their job to uphold their end of the conversation, therefore they will say something, anything to not be boring, and in doing so, they miss the point about what good communication should be.

For a follow, incessant talking could arise out of nervousness or because they don’t feel heard. They’ll fight to be heard, regardless of what their partner is asking for or offering.  Maybe they’ve listened long enough, waiting to feel (“hear”) anything from their lead, and at this point they’ll say anything just to feel like a conversation is actually happening. A variant of this situation is that they have never been moved so they don’t realize that they could be talking over a lead’s idea.

Often times when I’m working with follows in privates or in class, I’ll ask them to “breathe” or slow down.  It’s usually because they’re ahead of the beat and my lead.  I think with many follows, anticipatory responses might come from the fear of missing a cue, being late or being “wrong.”  Other times, follows are eager to demonstrate an understanding of the “conversation,” and they dance through patterns too quickly, as if to show how clued-in they are, or because they think they know what the lead is about to ask for. But again, the downside is that they’re ahead of the lead and/or music, and it doesn’t allow a leader to finish a thought.  Like that person in a conversation who finishes the other person’s sentence, it can be disruptive and off-putting, and can be quite discouraging to the lead. To me, it seems to be a sign of impatience, possibly born out of frustration from not getting anything from the lead, so I get it, but the behavior still creates more problems than it solves.

To me, a great conversationalist isn’t someone who always has something to say, but rather it is a person who can offer up an idea and then listen well to the other person’s response, finding opportunities to “yes, and…” the dialogue. Like improvising a sketch scene, saying “yes and…” to another person’s idea or suggestion can make for an exciting journey, where structure (vocabulary and technique) provides a stable platform from which dancers can improvise and play. There is no perfect or right way to converse with another person, but as I said before, it is interesting to me to think about partner dancing as a metaphor for how we relate to each other in a bigger sense. If then dancing is a metaphor for communication, what are the analogues between the two? Can one activity teach us anything about the other?  I would encourage us all to take a closer look at what we say and how we say it.  What are our goals with this person we’ve just agreed to dance with, and does that shed any light on our goals in communication with each other in general.

To quote psychologist Rollo May, “Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.” I believe that when we strive to become better dancers, we strengthen our dance scene and create a community of articulate, thoughtful people. While breakdowns in communication happen all the time on the dance floor, some of the best experiences have come from the mistakes we make with each other; learning how to turn those mistakes into positives is a great skill to hone. Ultimately, when I look out onto the social floor, I see smiling faces and a room full of happy people. Swing and Jazz give us this opportunity to express ourselves, and to have that conversation is why we chose this dance in the first place. When we think of dance as another way to communicate with each other we then have the ability to become better for ourselves, for each other, and for the community.


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