I’ve always professed a certain moral gratitude to Phil Collins for two things: 1) making it respectable for a man to walk around with 3 or 4 days of unshaved growth on his face and 2) writing a hit song about an inability to dance. The former has done quite a lot to save my face in a literal sense; the latter has done me immense good in terms of saving face more figuratively.
My father has sometimes commented that if he were to have his childhood to do over again, the one thing that he would make a point of doing differently is that he would learn to dance. Among Dutch Calvinist farm boys in western Michigan in the 1950s dancing just wasn’t considered to be an important or respectable thing to do, and he feels sort of sorry to have missed out now that he understands it better. By the time I came along the family culture had changed and loosened up quite a bit, but I too was raised in an environment that considered anything that encouraged “youthful lusts” to be inherently dangerous, and nothing encourages youthful lusts like certain forms of dancing. Thus, somewhat by design, I never really had a chance to learn to dance so well.
Frankly though, I can’t really blame my upbringing entirely; maybe not even primarily. My sense of rhythm has always been a bit shaky at best, and in terms of Howard Gardiner’s multiple intelligence theory, the kinesthetic has always been my weakest point. One of my mother’s moral priorities for her children was to make sure we all learned to swim properly, so I had more swimming lessons than I ever wanted, and I still suck at swimming. Dance probably would have gone the same direction for me. So when it comes to basic physical fitness routines, exercises in charm and attempts to develop romantic attractions, I’ve just had to use other means.
This hasn’t kept me from “messing around” with dance every once in a while though. There are certain forms of dance where, as in karaoke when it comes to singing, it is somewhat taken for granted that those taking part don’t really know what they are doing; where I can thus feel entirely at home. This has included the odd square dance parties I’ve been invited to, school discos, employee Christmas parties and live band performances at restaurants for the middle-aged set. Places where I’ve felt less at home are those where people take their dancing quite seriously. In Finland this would potentially include the “lavatanssi” pavilions scattered around the country. Spilling over from there, some of the dance floors on cruise ships to Sweden or Estonia can be a bit too intimidating for someone of my caliber. Other times, however, these same places too can be strictly for clumsy amateurs, enabling me to fit right in.
One of the places where the serious and clumsy elements of dance get most thoroughly mixed is in the continuously evolving tradition of the “elders’ dance” in Finnish high schools. The idea of this event, held every February, is that it marks the point at which the high school seniors in practice finish taking lessons and focus purely on their national final exams, leaving the juniors effectively as the eldest students in the school. The tradition is thus designed to make these juniors feel accomplished and mature, by giving them the opportunity to do a very grown-up set of formal dances together. In the past couple decades this has become THE event for Finnish young people to prove that they have reached their full potential for physical beauty and coordination. Their families often spend thousands to buy or rent the most glamorous possible outfits, cars, grooming services and follow-up party locations for that weekend. They spend months in advance learning and practicing the waltzes, tangos, boogies, line dances and structured partner swap dances that they end up giving a series of two-hour performances of. Yet another part of the tradition involves an audience participation round, where parents, younger siblings, aunt and uncles, younger class members, etc. are invited out onto the dance floor to pretend to know how to do some of the simpler dances that the “elders” have so elegantly performed. The secret there, as in many forms of dance, is to have no fear of making an idiot of yourself; and the structure of the event provides a fair amount of safety in that respect.
For me, however, this year’s school elders’ dance, which my younger son was involved in, took on a rather different aspect for me, because I invited a date along: my partner in a budding long-distance, on-line romance. I sent her some links to Youtube video clips of previous years’ dances, which seem to have caused here to take the event far more seriously than I had intended. She too had grown up with a fair amount of religious and cultural prohibition against learning to dance “properly,” and she too, in adult life, has had some fun just playing with dance. So on seeing the polonaises and cicapos and the like that these young people were doing so well, she became inspired to start taking intensive dance lessons, which she has subsequently kept going with over the course of the spring. This in turn has become an important new hobby for a person who is becoming increasingly important in my life… so guess what I have to do.
Last week I was introduced to the famous dance instructor, Tony. I had prepped myself slightly on line on the most basic theories involved, but I had not taken the effort to pull the blinds and clear the floor in my office or living room to do any physically practice. So as I began the basic moves with my partner I managed to avoid giving either of us any serious bruises, but I never advanced to the point where Tony could stop calling out the cadence: “Left… right… left-right… left…” Then once in a while, “Slow… slow… fast-fast… slow…” until I’d lead with my right instead of my left, bringing the chant back to, “left… right…”
All the time in the back of my head I could hear my father’s voice: “It’s to your left. No, your OTHER left!”
These are the sorts of things that one does not do without very deep personal motivation. Contemplating the matter, however, I’ve found that it actually provides a very useful metaphor for many other aspects of life: questions of individuality vs. conformity, the need for personal discipline as a structural foundation for all of our later improvisations, and choices concerning where we want to focus our energies.
Dancing is one of many areas of life where the basic purpose is to learn to do things the same as everyone else, only different. Dance actually helps clarify this paradox. Once one has found the 4/4 groove, locked into a few basic routine moves and established a basic line of physical communication with one’s partner, there are all sorts of twirls, dips, spins and other variations to be tossed in to enable a couple to stand out from the crowd. That does not mean you can use such improvisations as a substitute for knowing what you’re doing; but then again, sometimes only a trained eye can tell the difference, and if such a trained eye becomes a thing of the past, or a sign of pure snobbery, who is to say what the value of the “proper” system is?
But it’s not really that simple either. In order to find satisfying and interesting moves to make to the music, and to make these moves in a way that partners are able to fall into sync with each other, and where these moves can be repeated at will, there really needs to be some form of standardized movement involved. One needs to have a clear idea of what is generally expected and accepted as the norm before random variations really work. The same actually applies in writing, in expressionistic painting, in home decorating and in teaching: Breaking the rules is what makes any given example of greatness great, but that only works when the writer/artist/stylist/instructor has a clear grasp of the rules she/he is breaking. Ultimately greatness in most human endeavors has little to do with how closely one follows the rules; but everything to do with understanding what the rules are, why they became rules in the first place and what sort of purpose the rules serve, before setting out bend and break them.
Sunday school teachers love to give examples of classical musicians, whose solos appear to be so free, soaring, flowing and uplifting, but who must spend hour after hour practicing basic routine scales and mind-numbingly repetitive finger exercises to get to that point. Behind the seeming freedom is always a tremendous level of restraint and pressure. The moral of the story is always to encourage young people to forego playfulness and immediate gratification in favor of long-term development. In some ways that makes sense; in others it doesn’t. As I’ve said, there is a certain understanding of underlying order and structure required for creativity to function, yet on the other hand the whole point of that structure is to enable and enrich playful creativity. Those who are stuck in a fixation on order and discipline quite frequently cannot see the forest for the trees. In stressing the means necessary to accomplish wonderful things, they often forget what it is that is worth accomplishing in life. Structure and discipline are never ends unto themselves; they are means of getting to where we want to be in terms of realizing the unique potential and value that lies within each of us. And a lot of that has to do with wild and crazy playfulness.
So how do we find a proper balance between these factors of disciplined striving for technical mastery and wild and crazy playfulness? For advice on that one might want to turn to someone more “successful” than myself. Near as I can tell though, the best guideline to go by is passion. The great musician playing those mind numbingly repetitive scales isn’t doing so out of fear of discipline from some authority figure, or out of a need to impress his mother or something. He does so because he has a deep internal drive to pursue excellence at his craft. Rather than discipline for its own sake, I believe what we each need to find is some purpose to relate our efforts to… passionately. Going back to the dance analogy, we need to have some sort of music that moves us, and from there we can develop more skillful, sensual and syncopated ways of moving to that music. But without the passion for the music and the motion, the mastery of the discipline can be fundamentally useless, or worse.
At various points in my life I have developed passions for 35mm photography, bicycling, religious thought, cross-cultural interaction, making foods of various sorts and pleasing members of the opposite sex. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I’ve put into each of those hobbies/passions, but in each of those cases I did what I did because of a deep sense of connection that I felt with the endeavor itself, as though it was something that I could be uniquely good at, or that would provide a certain sense of purpose and direction for my life. Obviously in some of those areas I’ve since discovered that my talents are not so formidable or unique, and the efforts I was putting into them were unlikely to yield much in return, but that gave me no sense of regret for the efforts I had already put into them. In other senses I’ve been left with a feeling of longing –– wishing that I could have had the luxury of focusing my life’s on things I could feel passionate about, rather than routine things like writing reports and cleaning up after myself. Sometimes I wish I would have had just a little more discipline, so maybe I could have hit that threshold of greatness. And then sometimes I just settle into a reasonable level of contentment with life as I’ve known it, recognizing that in some respects I’ve been damned lucky to experience the variety of passions that I have.
Shifting to another analogy, one game that I never became much of a master at is Monopoly. It has been pointed out to me by those more skilled at this particular game than myself that I had a tendency to spread my assets around the board too broadly, not focusing enough on particular areas of earning potential. I always told myself that the purpose of my strategy was to allow for variations in luck, where if no one happened to hit the properties where I had my largest resource concentrations, I could still get them on the lesser properties. But if I didn’t have enough on those alternative properties to do much damage and improve my position, my diversification strategy really didn’t do me much good. I suppose the same should be said for my life’s passions. On the one hand I haven’t wanted to risk everything on just one or two endeavors that may or may not succeed; on the other hand I’ve probably put too little of my personal energies into any particular passion to have significant chances of success.
So along comes the possibility of learning to dance. On one level it seems to be something that my personal aptitudes are still not ideally suited for, and which is unlikely to pay for itself in terms of personal benefits that justify the efforts I put into it. On an entirely different level dancing could be as good a later middle age physical hobby for me as any: taking me beyond my old set of limitations and opening up new worlds of experience to be passionate about. In fact, however, the only real motivation for me here is caring personally about someone who, partially because of my own inadvertent actions, has started caring about dancing. So that being the case, I’m planning to make some effort to learn to do it “right,” even if I do cling to my own ridiculous levels of playfulness in the process. So… wish me luck.