[Part three of the Love & Swing series, concerning the complex triangle of love, swing, and our love for swing. This installment deals specifically with combining romance and dance partnership.]
This is my story, and many others’.
Every couple that Fred & Ginger ever played on film epitomizes perhaps the greatest possibility of partnership dancing: that the chemistry two people share on the dance floor is the chemistry two people could share off the dance floor.
Basically, that the two are linked, that they correlate, that they could possibly be one and the same.
In fact, perhaps the very reason why Fred & Ginger were as powerful as they were, on top of all the incredible technical and artistic talent, was because Fred was so good at being likeable and witty, and Ginger was so good at being sassy and strong. That he was so good at charming that force of a woman, and she, well… that she was incredible at showing how much she adored dancing with him, I think. (Something his other partners, thought they might have been better technical dancers, were never near as good as Ginger at pulling off.) It was one of the greatest feats she ever achieved as an actress, because that look on her face when they danced — the joyful laughs in the comedy numbers, the pursed-lips on the fight-and-make-up numbers, and the slightly-open-mouthed look of awe on the romantic numbers — that was, we all knew, the expression of what it was like to be in love with someone. Fred & Ginger’s power doesn’t lie in the dancing, but in dancing AND romance, the inseparable ideal.
You can call Fred & Ginger (as in Fred & Ginger the icon) a fantastical product of the Depression, or the artistic use of partnership dance as a symbol for romantic relationships, or perhaps even the simple capitalization of the instinctual erotic connection made when viewers saw two humans touching each other so fondly for so long. No matter what the cause, it seems to be in our nature to easily connect dance partnership and romance.[*]
[Dear readers, the footnote symbols are now links to the actual footnotes. Just click on it and it will take you to the footnote. Once you read the footnote, simply hit the back button on your browser or click on the footnote's symbol to return to where you were in the text. (I recommend the back button.)]
While Fred & Ginger’s characters were reinforcing promises about dancing and partnership on screen in the late 1930s, a man named Herbert Whitey was forming a group of professional Lindy Hoppers in Harlem. Not being a fictional character in an escapist musical, but a living street hustler in Depression-ridden New York, he had a different take on romance and partnership: None of his Lindy Hoppers were allowed to partner with their significant others. Dance legend Norma Miller danced in Hellzapoppin’, and almost always after, with Billy Ricker. Billy’s wife, Willa Mae, was also a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper, but they were not allowed to partner with each other because of their romantic connection. When a Whitey’s partnership did have a relationship behind his back, the others generally looked down upon it.
In a personal taped interview with Norma, I asked her about, among many things, William Downes and Mickey Jones, the first couple in Hellzapoppin’. They had always intrigued me on account of their style and grace at such a high tempo. But what Norma had to say was not about their dancing: “Their problem was they were boyfriend and girlfriend and that’s always a problem… When you get a relationship, don’t bring them in the act. No way. A couple that’s a boy and girl dancing together, I don’t care what, it gets into a problem, they get into arguments and shit — and arguments will come — and about nothing. And so, we had a policy that relationships were not allowed… We worked hard… It’s hard enough trying to hold an act together, and then with this relationship shit…”
The hard work Norma Miller mentions is the reality behind the Fred & Ginger promise. Fred & Ginger on screen meet and have an improvisational dance that looks elegant, fun, and effortless. So effortless, in fact, it’s easy to overlook how rhythmically sophisticated and physically difficult it is.**
The amount of hard work that went into making it so is legendary. Fred Astaire was a workaholic by every definition of the word, often times spending sixteen-hour days perfecting routines and then doing dozens of long takes in long underwear and wool tuxedos under sun-hot lights. Ginger wasn’t even a part of the process until a few weeks before the film, when she was taught her part. She often rehearsed and filmed until her feet bled. For the number “Never Gonna Dance” in Swing Time, 48 takes were required. “I remember watching with horror,” witness Pippa Scott said. “She would take her shoes off, and her feet were covered with blood. I not only saw that, I also saw the doctor come in and inject her feet.” The director told her they should call it a day and return the next. “Absolutely not,” Ginger replied. Fred would later mention that, of all the partners he ever worked with and pushed to achieve what he felt they were capable of, she was the only one who never cried. So, the reality is, getting good at partnership dancing is very, very hard and requires a lot of dedication, time, sweat, blood, and more, and more, and more. ***
It should also be mentioned that another reality behind the Fred & Ginger fantasy is that Fred & Ginger were not actually a romantic couple (except for a few dates in their Broadway days, which Ginger remembered by saying they shared some kisses that never would have gotten past the censors). They were simply two professional colleagues who worked incredibly hard for their goals, and after reading about their lives, it’s fairly obvious they never would have retained their sanity during their work together if they had been a couple. But this is because of their personality differences. As many people have proven, and as this article will show, being in a partnership with your romantic partner can be done. ****
My dance partner Kate Hedin and I were in a committed romantic relationship for six years while we built up our partnership and began our professional dance careers. An incredible dance chemistry first led us to be partners. A six-hour car ride to an event and another one home proved that that chemistry was more than simply dance-related.
Almost immediately I began seeing all the advantages to partnering with your significant other.
“It’s totally awesome and fantastically convenient,” said Laura Glaess, dance partner and wife of Mike Roberts of Austin, Texas. “We understand each other’s philosophy in the dance and respect each other. When we’re on the road, we still get to make out. There is total trust, so if we teach with anyone else, no one is panicked, or if we have a bad dance, it doesn’t last very long. It’s fantastic, and makes me feel very lucky.”
“You have a trusted friend to discuss anything bothering you in the dance or otherwise,” said Joel Plys, who toured the world for many years with his partner and then-wife, and who now, divorced, continues to teach internationally.
“You automatically spend a great deal of quality time with your significant other (though quality time can quickly be dominated and sometimes completely overrun by dancing if you’re not careful),” said someone, probably me. It was written in my notes, but I can’t find anyone who said it in all my interviews, but also can’t remember when I wrote it or why I would have put quotation marks around it. “You have someone to share a hotel room with and split costs on every trip, you have someone you can always talk to about dance, no matter what time of day or night, and if you become a professional teaching couple, you are with someone who understands your lifestyle and is a part of it.”
“It’s much more fun spending time together with your romantic and dance partner doing something you both like and want to do, as opposed to cleaning the house and taking out the garbage,” said Melanie Myers, partner and wife of Joel Damoe. “Dance is a form of artistic and social expression. It provides another avenue of communication and creation with your romantic partner.”
“Dating and marrying each other has meant much more time together and we have really become efficient with how we work together,” said Joel Damoe, partner and husband of Melanie Myers.
Overall, it’s understandable that, the Fred & Ginger fantasy aside, many dancers have faith in the idea that, in the perfect romance, our significant other can also be our dance partner. If you can compromise and work things out in your relationship, then doing so in a dance practice should not be a big deal. If you love spending time together in your free time, then doing so in a business setting could be easy.
In fact, Paul Overton, one of the most well-respected Lindy Hop teachers of the recent era of Lindy Hop, says that for him and his wife (and dance partner), it is a false question to ask how they juggle a dance partnership and a romantic one.
“For us there is no difference between the two. It’s all partnership. We are business partners, romantic partners, dance partners, etc. There is no ‘juggling’ to be done. We treat each facet with equal importance and are constantly aware of how they all work together to create a ‘life.’”
I want to mention that Paul is unique in this response out of all the people I interviewed for this essay or have talked to about romantic partnership (which is a lot). Everyone else — those with successful or non-successful relationships, those who are married or only dating, those who are just starting out or professional level — all answered the question naturally as if their swing lives together are in some way different than their romantic life together, that there is a “juggling” of the two. Why is that? Have Paul and Sharon found a way of looking at the two so that there is no competing or juggling to be done — a more harmonious mental perspective than those who imagine romantic partnership and dance partnership coexisting, sometimes supportive, sometimes conflicting? Do their personality types and personal history (i.e., that when they were dancing it was a much less competition-focused scene, that they have never partnered with anyone else, that they were married before they were dance partners) help influence that way of looking at it, whereas other partnerships won’t necessarily find it natural to work that way or look at it that way? Or, do more people think of it the way Paul and Sharon do, and it was just that the phrasing of the question made them think of it in those terms?
At the very least, I think it’s still reasonable to say that many romantic partners who are also dance partners face difficulties, some big, some small, in balancing the two. *****
In contrast to the Fred & Ginger screen fantasy, there is the reality that there are many different types of people, and the exponentially more types of relationships those produce create dynamics that may or may not gibe with that utopian idea. And it’s not a bad thing. It’s simply a fact. It’s a fact that just because you are intimately compatible with someone, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be good dance partners. It’s a fact that even though you may have a healthy, supportive relationship, it doesn’t mean you and your significant other have the types of personalities that work well sharing a serious hobby to the extent that your success in said hobby becomes dependent on each other. And it’s a fact that some people can devotedly love each other till death do them part, presuming that they never go into business together.
(Because of the ideal, I think some people beat themselves up, or would beat themselves up, if a romantic partnership didn’t also work as a dance partnership. To these people, I want to assure them that they should not feel they have failed at romance if their romantic relationships don’t work as dance partnerships.)
Differences in Investment & Priorities
After all, just because you and your significant other have the same investment in romance doesn’t mean you have the same investment in swing. Your romantic relationship could be ideal, in that both partners have the same end goal and desires (grow old together, house in the countryside, own a Volvo, etc.), yet, when it comes to their swing dance partnership, one person could be a “we really need to practice five times this week if we’re going to do well in that competition” type while the other partner could be a “I really can only stand five minutes of practice a week without feeling like too much of my life is based around swing dancing” type. One’s goal could be to win all the national competitions while the other’s, to mostly just be a good social dancer and local teacher. [*]
“I think that we should all think about what ‘partnership’ means to us,” said Paul Overton. “A clear definition of that is like a road map for navigating the tough stretches that we all have. If you take, say, the teaching aspect of your life and figure out what your priorities are in that area, you have much less of a chance of getting bogged down in whatever distracting minutiae is arising in the moment.”
“For instance,” he continued, “[my wife and I have] always been very clear that the reason we teach is to empower people…to gently guide them on a trip outside of their comfort zone and to let them know that our class (their life, really) is a safe place to experiment and make mistakes in service to becoming a better dancer and a better person.”
It can be complicated when people have different priorities, especially since people are often perfectly justified in having their priorities the way they wish them. Think again of the example couple above, with one person who desires to work as hard as it takes to compete at a national level, and the other who wants to be a good social dancer and local teacher — those are both perfectly fine goals to have. But if such a pair wants to remain a dance couple and is honest about their priorities, there is no answer for both that doesn’t involve some kind of compromise.
In my few years as a traveling swing dance instructor, I’ve seen a wide variety of desires in dance couples around the world. I’ve seen some couples where I suspect one partner is caring as much about swing as the other simply to support their loved one — in a way, trying to convince themselves they care about swing dancing as much as their partner does. I’ve seen couples in my private lessons who, when asked individually what their goals were with dancing, surprised their partners by what they said — they obviously had never mentioned them before. I’ve seen some couples take every vacation day from their job for swing dancing purposes, and felt the decision wasn’t unanimous. I’ve seen some couples who actually want the same thing, but don’t agree on how to get it; some who want the same thing and yet don’t want to work for it; and some who simply don’t know what they want.
According to Marge Takier, priorities were probably one of the major reasons why original jitterbug Hal Takier and his first wife, Betty, divorced. Dancing was one of the most important things to Hal, but Betty apparently “hated” it. (We can only assume she grew to hate it, as it’s hard to imagine going through the almost decade of constant practicing, contests, films, and nightly dances if you felt that passionately about it the entire time.)
The question of priorities especially resonates with modern international instructor Joel Plys.
“In 2009, I lost the person I thought I would be committed to romantically for the rest of my life and that was a very difficult time,” he said. Joel Plys traveled the world with his dance partner and wife for seven years before they decided it was best to separate. “This was a bittersweet time due to her lack of joy for where we went and what we did. Once a new passion took over for her it was ‘time to move on,’ I guess, and I was left hanging on to my original love.”
But that hasn’t stopped Joel from continuing on with his own passion: “I truly love what I do. I feel good about my choice to do what I do and stay committed to it. I am one of the luckiest people in the world and hope to continue it for the rest of my life.”
Differences in Practice & Learning Styles
Even if you do have the same investment in swing as your partner does, it doesn’t mean you both work on things in the same way.
When asked what guidelines or rules they had developed in their practicing, Laura Glaess of Mike & Laura mentioned, among several things, understanding each other’s own needs.
“For example, Mike needs to try things a few times before I can give him new feedback. It used to be that I would get frustrated because I’d give him feedback — he wouldn’t incorporate it because he wasn’t ready yet. I thought he wasn’t trying, and he thought I was picking on him. Now he tells me ‘I need three more times.’ He has to tell me out loud, because I get excitable and forget.”
Some people need repetition ad nauseam (me) in a practice room to change something in their dancing, whereas others simply need social dancing (it’s okay to hate these people). Some people need to come up with their own answers to a problem, even while their partner, who is pretty sure they have the answer, has to stand there patiently and start to smoke at the ears, etc. Some people need to feel things in order to understand them, whereas their partner might need to see it, and this subtle difference in learning, if the partners don’t understand it, can cause a lot more frustration than you would expect. These types of people can still build an incredible life together; they just may be surprised at how hard it is to keep a swing dance partnership fun and with low Kleenex costs.
Differences in Confidence
I think one very important aspect to all of this is the idea that relationships with significant others are based, at least in some part, on confidence, stature, and self-image — we love someone not only for who they are, but for who we are to them. A person instinctively wants to be attractive to their significant other because it helps them reinforce that idea in themselves and cement it into reality. For many people that means being self-assured, competent, and, basically, not looking like an idiot. Unfortunately, a good portion of getting better at dancing means looking like an idiot. And feeling like one. Now, let’s say, like many of us, you’re prone to self-esteem issues. Now, all of a sudden, an hour-long practice with our loved one is an hour where we feel we can’t do anything right and we often look and/or feel like an idiot. And it certainly doesn’t help that dancing is so personal — meaning, a lot of how your dancing operates is directly linked to the specific way your body is and how you want to broadcast yourself.
People with healthy self-esteem can look realistically at the world around them, and that’s a very helpful tool for developing skills and working successfully with another person. But, very few people in the world have healthy self-esteem all the time, and therefore that realistic view. I know it’s been one of my battles. And, among professional teachers, I’m not alone.
“At one point I had convinced myself that Laura loved Lindy Hop more than me, and that she’d leave me for a better dancer if I didn’t keep up,” said Mike Roberts. “Ridiculous, but it made me act really lame a lot. When I got that sorted out, it gave me a lot more confidence in us, and that made dancing way better too. We’ve found that the more we put into each half (dance/us) the more it helps the other. The confidence bleeds over.”
I want to steer us into a side alley at this point to talk about why we often feel incompetent in a dance practice. Modern middle-class people (which comprise almost the entire modern swing scene), simply put, are not good at body movement because most of us pretty much checked off walking, running, sitting, standing, and throwing a ball and then decided to take a break. Until a decade or two later when we suddenly discover swing dancing and all of a sudden we curse ourselves for not having those types of parents who shoved us into dance classes as soon as we got cocky with all the walking. We now have the incredibly infuriating process of trying to do things that are often simple in concept but incredibly hard to carry out. And as adults who’ve mastered so many aspects to life, we’re not used to that. It’s like if you’re right-handed and suddenly try to write an entire paragraph with your left hand — you feel confused and incompetent. So, in the dancing sense, because you haven’t daily trained your body to respond to complicated movements with finesse since you were young, your entire body is now a left hand.
Differences in Skill
What can certainly play a role in confidence is if one romantic partner is more advanced than the other, or at least better at understanding how to fix things than the other. When such a thing happens, we now have a teacher-student relationship in a place where, romantically, there is probably more equality. This can shake things up for some relationships because it can create imbalances in power. If a teacher-student dance partnership isn’t kept track of, it can go awry in subtle ways. The student can feel like it isn’t their place to give criticism to the teacher; the teacher can feel like they always have to fix the student’s problems. The student can begin to depend on the teacher for every answer and stop working on solving their own problems. The teacher can reinforce this by never letting the student figure out anything for themselves. The student can lose confidence because they feel they aren’t good enough to do it on their own. The teacher can become over-confident and assume they have all the answers already, and so not listen to their partner’s feedback. The student can take up most of the practice time and might tend to focus on their own problems, never giving the teacher any feedback on the teacher’s dancing because they don’t feel they have the authority. The teacher can focus so much on the student that they neglect their own dancing. Though it’s possible to have a healthy student-teacher partnership, it’s important to know where the spirals begin, because it’s often downhill from there. **
There are differences in dance philosophy (one partner might want counterbalance as a default in their Lindy, the other might not want it at all in their default Lindy; one partner might think showmanship is the ultimate goal of Lindy, the other, social partnership). Differences in how exciting practice is supposed to be (one might think practice is a necessary boredom, another might think it’s supposed to be fun). Differences in how you handle bad competitions (one person may need to talk about it afterwards or brood, another may need to not think about it and go off and dance). Differences in how you show frustration (bottling it in, needing to take breaks, needing to push through, throwing things).
When we bring all these pieces together into a whole, it’s easy to see how working on dancing is a great deal of problem solving often very difficult tasks that make us often feel confused and incompetent, and that, on top of it all, are dependent on humans who are never going to be 100% consistent. (For instance, every dance partner in existence has had something go wrong, have had it pointed out that it’s their fault, and can’t completely convince themselves that it is.) When you’re romantically involved with your dance partner, that only exacerbates the emotions felt in these situations. After all, one could say that a loved one is someone around whom you can’t help but be truly yourself — both good and bad.
When all of this comes together, it’s understandable that working on dancing can sometimes be very frustrating, and frustration alters one’s personality almost as much as low blood sugar. (I’d like to take an opportunity to give a shout-out to all those dance partners out there who keep a candy bar in their dance bag specifically for when their partner starts foaming at the mouth over something tiny like a misled tuck-turn. I recently heard this reaction is called being “hangry.”)
And all of these things are exacerbated when competition comes into the mix.
Humans instinctually have the will to win. After all, our ancestors spent millions of years in a world where winning meant eating, reproducing, and not getting mauled by various things — far, far longer than we’ve spent living in a world of abundance and where dying at an old age is the norm. The result of all those years is that even our bodies support winning: winning releases endorphins and dopamine, a “natural high,” and stops pain signals from getting to the brain. Even simply getting close to winning increases mental focus and drive, further supporting the goal of success.***
It’s a drive that feels natural to us, and therefore once a dance partnership enters the realm of competing together, it tends to involve more drive on the part of one or both partners, more emotional dedication, and the capacity for more stress and anxiety. In either small or big ways, competing can make it harder for people to compromise, or be patient, or communicate healthily with each other. It can make people more frustrated or greatly affect their self-esteem.
It can be managed, of course, but it’s yet another factor involved.
The other side of all of this equation, and a huge one, is what’s happening in the romantic relationship.
“It was hard to practice at times because we would carry over issues that we were having in our personal relationship into our dancing,” said international swing dance instructor Laura Keat, speaking of the period in her life when she and her dance partner Jeremy Otth were in a romantic relationship. “If I was feeling insecure as his girlfriend, I would naturally feel more insecure about practicing, or the way he spoke to me in practice. Or if he was frustrated with me in the relationship, then he would have less patience with me on the dance floor. On the other hand, when we were having a healthy supportive relationship, our practice sessions and social dancing with each other would be much more functional and positive.”
Chelsea Lee, dance partner and wife of David Lee, feels that “Your issues are your issues no matter the situation. We’ve built a great, supportive marriage, but if we are having problems in our dance partnership, the key to addressing them has not been to treat them as new problems that need new solutions but to connect the dots to the same issues that have arisen in our marriage and apply those solutions more universally.”
I’m fairly certain that every marriage counselor, priest, and rabbi would agree that if a relationship doesn’t occasionally have some conflict, issue, or at least honest confrontation, then there’s something wrong. The problem with swing and romance is that the one can all too easily bleed into the other. In fact, the swing dance relationship can suddenly become the symbolic expression of all romantic woes.
Out of the dozen or so wedding sermons I’ve heard in my life, I was occasionally happy to hear one where the preacher started off talking about how great love was, then would suddenly lay down the reality of how much work and time and fighting and patience and forgiveness and compromise went into every successful marriage. Looking around, I’d notice the obviously happiest, longest-together couples I knew would have knowing smirks on their faces, or nod slightly. From behind, the postures of the bride and groom, however, were suddenly slightly tense.
What do you fight about in dance practice? Like in a marriage, that knock-down, drag-out fight is not actually about the proper way to load the dishwasher. Sometimes it’s about dependency. Sometimes it’s about respect. Sometimes it’s about listening. Sometimes it’s about fear. Sometimes it’s about something totally and completely unrelated.
“You will always fight. Always,” said Laura Glaess. “Things will get tense. Always. It doesn’t mean you suck and it doesn’t mean you’re bad for each other. Just take a moment to breathe, hug each other, remember that the two of you are more important than whatever dance thing you have to get through, and try again.”
“Conflict will happen,” said Mike Roberts. “You just have to keep getting better at resolving it. We have to constantly work on us. If you don’t, things fester and eventually it all falls apart. In both dance and life, we never let ourselves go to bed still mad, even if its late, we try to come to some sort of resolution. It’s only happened once or twice for us and, man those nights sucked.”
“A good night’s sleep will work wonders,” agreed Chelsea Lee. “I always feel this urge to go over problems in painstaking detail to make sure every last minute detail is fixed before we go to sleep, but I’ve learned that this puts a huge emotional burden on David, because my urge is more about addressing my insecurities and discomfort with conflict than resolving actual issues. The trick for us has been to just get things resolved as well as you can and then to get some sleep. A night’s rest makes many of the quibbles I would have wanted to hash out in the heat of the moment seem insignificant.”
The thing that makes life more complicated with romantic dance partnerships is the topic of this Venn Diagram:
Basically, let’s say your swing dance partner is different from your romantic partner. If things are tricky with your romantic life, you can go to swing dancing for a brief escape to get a change in perspective or de-stress. Or, if things aren’t working with your swing dancing, you can retreat to your romantic partner for escape. But if your romantic partner is the same as your swing dance partner, then there’s nowhere to go when you have problems. However, some would argue the benefit to this is that no escape means you are always forced to confront your problems.
Since conflict and confrontation are a natural part of both romance and swing partnerships, I think in this case knowing is at least a third of the battle. Those who are embarking on combining their romantic partnership and dance partnership should probably just realize that (1) there will come a time, perhaps many times, when it is not going to be easy, especially if you are very competitive by nature, or desire to compete and make a name for yourself (which adds tons of stress and possibly mismatched priorities if your partner isn’t as competitive). It’s good for both partners to know this is perfectly normal. And, (2) it is both healthy and realistic to realize that there may come a time when the swing relationship or the romantic relationship will have to change in some way for everyone’s betterment.
This could mean many different things.
I’ve seen a few couples who have decided that they needed to take a break from competing, or traveling so much, in order to be happier. I’ve seen others who decided to stop partnering all together. Occasionally, people decide that it is the romantic part of the relationship that needs to change.
“Jeremy and I chose our dance partnership over our romantic relationship,” said Laura Keat. “After four years of dating and dancing, we realized that we were much more successful as dance partners than as boyfriend and girlfriend. I don’t think of that as a sacrifice, however. I think both our relationship and dancing flourished due to that choice. We are now better friends than we ever were while dating.”
For dance couples who are only dating, this is, as Laura mentioned, a possibly healthy option. Other couples, especially those with the level of commitment found in marriage, might look at it differently.
“We didn’t really start partnering until after we got married,” said Laura Glaess. “We definitely weren’t going to break up, and I didn’t really want to partner with anyone else, so I think there was a mentality that we were GOING to work it out.”
Their steadfast dedication has served Mike and Laura well. But even these partnerships are not absolved from change. Paul Overton and his partner Sharon, for instance, were one of the most influential international couples in Lindy Hop in the early 2000s. However, as popular dancing styles changed, they soon found themselves with less work and had to confront what it would mean to continue making a living as swing dance instructors.
“So, rather than sacrifice our integrity,” said Paul, “we decided to reinvent ourselves (again) and retire from the dance world.”
Based on what we’ve discussed here, the ideal dance & romantic partnership occurs when both dancers are invested the same amount in their romantic relationship and swing, both people work on dancing in complementary ways, and both people have incredible confidence. As you can imagine, this is pretty rare. And yet, there are still many very happy, flourishing dance romantic couples. How do these people make it work?
MAKING IT WORK
Almost every partnership I’ve ever talked to (even the ones that ultimately didn’t work out) has mentioned communication as one of the most important parts of a successful partnership, romantic or swing, and especially both. (For instance, one of the best things you can do for your partnership is, when you recognize one of the differences mentioned above, talk about it with your partner.) But saying “communication” is the answer is still vague and doesn’t help much. It’s not only that you communicate, but what you communicate.
“Finding others that have common interests is always a challenge,” said Joel Plys. “Finding others that are willing to talk to you about issues in an honest, open, non-judgmental way is an amazing gift.”
Another importance is when you communicate.
“There is a time in every problem when it is big enough to see, yet small enough to solve,” said Joel Plys. “If you talk about things early you can usually work things out. If you let any resentment or negative feeling grow, it can become unmanageable and lead to the loss of a romance or even the loss of a friend all together.”
And briefly remember how Laura Glaess knows that it’s best to wait until her partner has tried something a few times before starting a discussion about how it’s going, or how Chelsea Lee has learned to resolve problems only generally before bed, and wait until the morning after to see what’s still lingering.
Then there’s how you say it.
“While you are attuned to each other and know each other well, you know each other too well,” said David Lee, husband and dance partner of Chelsea Lee, who together are competitors and instructors of Balboa, Shag, and Lindy Hop. “The smallest facial expression can be interpreted to mean ‘ugh you think my dancing is horrible and therefore think I am horrible’ and a fight ensues. So when we practice I have to be more attuned to put comments in context so feelings aren’t hurt. It is a work in progress. I think the key here is when posed with the decision to give the cold hard truth of dance analysis or to hold back a little and phrase it in a more caring way, I try to choose Chelsea every time.”
Finally, there’s where you say it. Mainly, not loudly in the middle of a crowded dance floor. [*]
Communication can be strange among people who know each other so intimately. It’s easy sometimes to actually stop listening, and not even realize it. For instance, I’ve encountered in private lessons often, and in myself, this scenario: Your partner has a small issue in their dancing. You’ve told them the answer, something like “Just take a smaller step on 5,” a hundred times. Then suddenly, your partner takes a private from Skye, or gets advice from Jo Hoffberg. They tell your partner “Yeah, the problem is 5. You need to step smaller.” And for some reason this seems like it’s the first time they’ve heard it. “That’s brilliant! Of course! A smaller step on 5! I knew it! Honey, did you hear? I fixed it! … Honey, you’re digging your fingers into my arm.”
If this has happened to you, on either side of the story, you are not alone. At all.
The subject of why this happens and what this means is a fascinating and big topic that we sadly can’t get into much further here, but suffice it to say that for some reason (or some pretty complex ones, I imagine) we all sometimes need to hear things said in different ways, and occasionally by different people, in order to fully grasp them. It reminds me that sometimes healthy communication between two people is simply healthy communication among more than two people. It can help to have someone you can talk to about your partnership who is not your partner — if done in a healthy way, it allows partners the chance to hear a different perspective, or, sometimes simply having another face staring at you allows you to think out loud and come to your own conclusions. And, occasionally, it’s simply a way of confirming whether or not you are crazy. **
“Dancing taught me as much about what a true partnership is off the floor as it ever did on,” said Paul Overton. “You have to be very patient, you know? You have to be able to quickly come up with and, just as quickly, discard ideas, no matter their merit, in the interest of compromise and flow. Did we drive each other bonkers sometimes? No doubt. But the underlying respect that we have for each other always kept the wheels from coming off.”
Here Paul touches upon two other common answers to the question of how romantic dance partnerships keep things happy and productive: patience and compromise.
Patience is not easy for some people. For instance, recall that Laura Glaess had to learn to be patient when working with her husband and dance partner to give him time to work through some things on his own. Impatience is a battle common among followers, I think, when leaders are working on the technique of a move and require them to simply follow. In these situations, the leader is very mentally active trying to execute all the proper leads to accomplish the task — he probably doesn’t have much of a problem with patience. Whereas the follower’s goal is simply responding. The followers, therefore, first, don’t have a whole lot of mental things to keep them busy, and, second, are in a position to know relatively well where problems are arising and what feels “wrong” about the move, as they are the object the move is being acted upon.
Patience takes many forms. Patience in the short term to let your partner have a few more tries of searching for answers themselves (partners don’t even have to come up with the answer; often it’s just enough that they are given a chance to search for the answer themselves). Patience in the long run that it takes a lot of hard work for many years to get very good at swing dancing. Patience not only with your partner, but with yourself, to allow yourself the time to process and implement the things you’re working on.
Then, there is for some, the trickiest one of all.
“When your life partner is also your dance partner there’s a lot of negotiating that has to go on to keep both people happy,” said Chelsea Lee.
Compromise is tricky because there are certain things people don’t want to compromise, and/or shouldn’t, and there are other things people should and perhaps may have to compromise in order to work together with someone, and figuring out what those things are isn’t always easy. To do it in a healthy way, it takes a lot of self-awareness, self-reflection, communication, and, unavoidably, trial and error.
“We all have ideas about how things ‘should’ be done, and that’s fine,” said Paul Overton. “But if you can’t change gears and let go of some of those ideas in service to the health of your relationship/partnership, you’re sunk.”
Bethany Powell has formed a powerful dance and personal relationship with her partner Stefan Durham, and together they have created a series of unique and powerful routines that always inspire. “I think the main thing I would encourage couples to do as they pursue dancing is to accept themselves and their partners right now as they are,” said Bethany. “In my experience, cultivating enjoyment of the feeling of dancing and the process of learning carries you along like a wicked ride. Focusing too much on future plans and achievements, inversely, causes fear and frustration to multiply. Goals are definitely useful as an organizing tool, but when the goal eclipses the process of reaching the goal I think you are sacrificing the only thing that you ever really have in the universe which is this moment right now.”
In a recent class Kate and I did on this very subject of partnering, Kate mentioned her own simple rule for compromise: “If it will be beneficial to yourself, your partner, or the partnership, and is not detrimental to you, then it’s a worthy compromise.”
In fact, this is something that non-romantic partners can learn from this essay. Even without the romance, dance partnerships can be hard enough, and require exactly the same skills a long-term romantic relationship does. *** The common line through all healthy partnerships I’ve been a part of or witnessed is respect. Two people have to have enough respect for each other and themselves to get through the frustrating moments, to work through their difficulties, and to look towards the end goal. They have to show that respect in communication, compromise, and patience, and, occasionally, improvising. If they do that, they’ll be able to express themselves, support each other, build something great together, and have a ton of fun doing it. Sounds a lot like swing dancing.
Going Off Script
Aside from the large areas of communication, patience, and compromise, there are some other interesting ways partners have learned to balance their swing dance partnerships and romantic partnerships.
To maintain perspective, Joel Plys recommends always having interests and friends outside of dancing. “Work to nurture these friendships as they can be crucial in times when dance seems overwhelming. Non-dance friends can always help put things in perspective. Nurturing the other hobbies will help keep some balance.”
For handling practice frustration, Laura Keat and Jeremy Otth would take a break and go get coffee. Laura said, “I think maybe that was the most valuable skill. Knowing when to take a time out.”
In modern swing dance it is also easy to work with multiple partners. This was advice often given to me about how to overcome plateaus or build my individual dancing style, or to simply switch things up a bit. Doing so every so often helps me remember I am an individual dancer, and could help make the dance partnership stronger, just as individualistic awareness helps keep codependency at bay in a romantic relationship. But, as with everything, try to be aware of other issues this causes. If not handled delicately, this can open many new cans of worms, as anyone will soon realize when they utter the sentence “But, honey, when I do it with my other partner, it works fine.”
Megan Damon of Boston partners and teaches with her fiancé, Alex. “Alex and I often have difficultly planning lessons and teaching together,” she said. “Instead of treating each other like dance partners, we often fall into some of the same bickering patterns we get into as romantic partners. This often interrupts our productivity or leaves us looking unprofessional in class.”
In order to change the nature of how they work together, Megan observes the way Alex interacts with other partners or dancers he works with. She then makes mental notes of how his other partners react to situations that would be potentially inflammatory. She then makes an attempt to react the way his other partners react.
It’s a fascinating way of confronting this problem, that sometimes our comfort in such close relationships can in some ways keep them from being productive. It also reminds me of, personally, one of the reasons I think my partner Kate is one of the greatest I could have for my personality type.
The only reason my partner and I survived in a relationship that combined business, romance, and dancing is because I happened to have been very lucky in my partner. Because I certainly wouldn’t have done it if left to my own devices.
We White men (by which I mean, the men of the White family, my ancestors) are emotionally powerful men. We’re passionate. Filled with smoldering fires. We yearn. We brood. We’re known to do quite a lot of brooding, in fact. For instance I’ve spent entire years of my life listening to depressing music and looking out of windows. So, even though I’m out of college now and a lot more positive about things, there were still times in years past when, if a move didn’t go well in practice, I’d become all tumultuous and do everything short of ripping my ascot off and throwing things at mirrors. This kind of environment was not the most conducive to productivity, not to mention rather rough on the furniture.
However, Kate comes from Swedish stock; she’s even a close relative of that great explorer, Sven Hedin. The Hedin side of her family is full of the stolid, silent, svelte type of people Swedes are known to be. The type that thousands of years ago got all that Viking raping and pillaging out of their system and decided instead to concentrate on being well-composed and fashionable. Also, Kate went through a little form of hell known as music conservatory. She doesn’t think of it as hell, but from her description, it sure sounds close. In conservatory, they rarely concentrated on mentioning the good, only on fixing the bad. The only good thing I could tell about the place was that you get to hear Beethoven a lot. Unfortunately, I imagine you get to hear bad Beethoven a whole lot more than good Beethoven, because once they get good Beethoven they play it once in a concert and then get back to some bad Beethoven that needs work. (Though Kate is very focused on fixing problems in rehearsal, she does mention the successful things that happen in practice. I highly recommend it to all partnerships.)
Joking aside, Kate enjoyed it greatly, and there were many good things about her learning experience there — which I have benefited greatly from. At this cutthroat music conservatory, Kate learned a very important phrase: “You can’t be enemies and play music together. At least, as long as the music lasts.” A string quartet is comprised of four people who must support each other. Imagine having one incredible dance partner and doing a dance together. Now imagine if Lindy Hop somehow involved partnerships of four people connected to each other. You know how rare yet incredible it is to find the one partner you love to dance with, let alone two more who feel the same way about you and each other.
So, throughout her music career so far, Kate has witnessed several quartets of four incredible people break apart because of romantic relationship problems making their way into practice. For this reason and others, Kate and I decided from the beginning that we would try to separate our romantic relationship and our practicing one. This meant that when practice time started, there would be no kissing. No pet names. No existence of our life together the other 22 hours of the day. When practice ended, we could get back to dating.
Easier said than done, as you can imagine. Especially for me (the White passion and whatnot). Before I realized it, strange things would creep up. What would begin as a simple “I don’t think you’re matching my compression on that turn” would end up including such additional evidence as “And you NEVER vacuum.” (Original complaint substitutions have been added to protect the privacy of all parties involved.) But, Kate was very professional about it, and I began to take after her.
Overtime, it became not only easier, but less stressful overall for me, personally. I soon got used to the idea that my dance partner was a slightly different person than my romantic partner, and it made me appreciate both aspects of her more. Is this the answer for everyone? I doubt it. But there are probably a few out there who might find it highly beneficial to give it a try. And, I know this method, without a doubt, made things a lot easier for me last year.
In March 2011, after six years of dating and dance partnering, and two years of full-time swing dancing work, Kate and I decided to go our separate ways, romantically. It wasn’t because anything happened; it was because nothing was happening: We weren’t ready to take the relationship further, and figured that was a sign. Though we decided to end the relationship, we both admired each other and liked what we did together so much that we wanted to continue teaching, dancing, and building our dance partnership together.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy for many reasons. The obvious one was the personal difficulty of transitioning from a romantic relationship to a platonic one and still seeing each other all the time and working together. Kate’s idea to divide our romantic relationship and our dance partnership from the beginning made this infinitely more easy. Aside from a few rough ones during the transition phase, practices hardly changed at all; in fact, we had already gotten years of practice in keeping the relationship professional, so I’m certain it actually helped the transition.
Now, more than a year later, we are both in a very good place both in our personal relationship and our partner relationship. And we both have a new challenge in our lives: dating in the world of international swing dance instructing. Next in this series, we’ll discuss that challenge.
But before we do, take one last look at the Fred & Ginger picture at the beginning of this article. In the picture above, Fred and Ginger have had a snapshot taken at a moment during a scene in Roberta. They look miserable and pissed off at each other. See this moment in the context of the actual film, however, and you realize it’s merely a shot taken in transition — the scene itself is overall full of life, joy, and the two, though they give each other a hard time, are actually quite fond of each other and of course, share that Fred and Ginger chemistry on the dance floor. If you just stared at the picture for minutes on end, you’d get a very skewed look at the relationship they have in the scene. This article itself concentrates a lot on the hardships of romantic dance partnerships and ways of coping with those hardships. It would do well, though, to remember that such things are just a snapshot in a much greater, joyful scene.
I would like to extend great thanks to those who helped contribute to this article: Kate Hedin, Paul Overton, Chelsea Lee, David Lee, Laura Glaess, Mike Roberts, Joel Plys, Laura Keat, Joel Damoe, Melanie Myers, Bethany Powell, and Megan Damon .
UPDATE: 2:07 p.m. 7/11/2012 — Just as Chelsea Lee found that problems look quite different the morning after, so have I realized this article does. I’ve gone back and carved a few clunky edges off, sanded down some bumps, and applied a little lacquer. Nothing of substance has changed, only some word choices (which, to us writers is everything of substance, but you know what I mean). If you, for some reason, want the original published version, just email me and I’ll send it to you.
Also, an apology to my editor, Chelsea; I tried out a new way of fixing the corrections in Word, and realized on re-reading that some of them didn’t stick.
[*] — Which is not helped by every dance movie ever.
** — In fact, it’s hard to concentrate on how sophisticated and difficult it is, because their effortlessness and carefree acting keeps sucking you back into the fantasy that it’s all a skip in the park to them. It’s one of the most important traits of their dancing and increases the sophistication and difficulty even more.
*** — It’s still up in the air how often he wore long underwear; possibly not very often, possibly his entire filmed dancing career: being a knobby, lanky man, the long underwear helped give him some bulk and soften the points of his elbows and knees. He was very conscious of how he looked.
**** — Also, I think it’s important that the characters Fred & Ginger played, though often two-dimensional and contradictory in nature (for instance, Fred creating such a likable and smart character in look and delivery, but his dialogue being often mean and/or not very intelligent) still seem much more normal than the actual Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. From what I’ve read about them, Fred could be incredibly distant, and Ginger was what could only be described as the kind of girl who grew into adulthood with her stage mother as her best friend, a person who for religious reasons never saw a doctor or visited a hospital (even after suffering a stroke in her old age), and who had five husbands, most of whom lasted only a few years, none of whom lasted longer than 10. So, being such unique people (each of whom, many people mentioned, were difficult to work with in their own way), they should not be held up as a normal example of partnership and romance. For this essay, I would prefer instead to concentrate simply on the contrast between how hard they worked to get the dancing that looked so carefree in the scenes of their films. Which is symbolically important here.
***** — There’s even the converse situation: People who start off as dance partners, and because that goes so well, decide they must be perfect for romantic partners. It makes sense. You and your dance partner work hard together and have fun doing so. While doing so, you probably achieve both some success and some failure, both of which help bring you closer to another person. Then there’s all the time spent together. Not just in practice rooms, but at events, before and after contests — times spent calming each other down, or hyping each other up — or, after that one competition, finding someplace private to talk about (or not talk about, but knowing still as if it were spoken) each other’s hopes, dreads, and frustrations with this passion we call swing. It’s no wonder partners can confuse that with love since it shares so many things in common with it. It’s also no wonder that some people have realized that what they are actually feeling for their partner is love.
Remember freshman psychology, when we heard about the “love bridge” experiment ? This part of the article made me think of it. The bizarre experiment went like this: The experiment was held with men walking across two different bridges. One was a rickety suspension bridge, swaying hundreds of feet above the rocks and rapids, and had low hand rails. The other was a stable, wide bridge with high railings that ran only a few feet above a stream. When walking on the bridge, the men were approached by an attractive woman who asked them to fill out a survey. The woman then gave the men her number “to follow up if they wanted to.” The actual experiment had nothing to do with the survey, but with the phone number. Half of the guys on the shaky bridge called the woman back. Only a small fraction of the guys on the sturdy bridge did. The experimenters concluded by theorizing that the feelings of anxiety turned up by the suspension bridge either led them to relabel their feelings as sexual attraction, or they allowed them to act on preexisting sexual attraction more easily. I think swing dance partnerships often offer a similar possibility to the suspension bridge: Since they can bring out so many emotions and dynamics that are similar to what you would experience in a romantic relationship, it’s understandable that those feelings can cross over to romance at some point in the partner relationship, or make it easier for partners to act on underlying feelings of attraction.
[*] — And that’s not counting the sway one person will have on another. For instance, the “we must practice every day this week” type of person might make the other person feel like swing is dominating their life, and make them into an “I can only stand one hour of practice” type of person after a few weeks. And vice versa. A partner who doesn’t want to practice as much can cause stress on a person who feels they need to practice in order to get better.
** — Chelsea Lee had this to add concerning the teacher-student relationship: “A teacher-student relationship can also persist long past its expiration date if the partners aren’t careful. If both the teacher and the student are putting in the time and effort, eventually their abilities should equalize such that the student can ‘graduate’ from that role and the partnership can take on more of a dynamic of equals. However, old habits can die hard. If the partners don’t acknowledge this growth, they can continue to enact the teacher-student relationship even though it is no longer valid. This can create blind spots and resentment, which left unchecked can undermine the romantic relationship as well as the dance partnership. This is not to say that even equal partners will not have their respective strengths (such as that ability to understand why a move went wrong) — just that it is dangerous to mistake one strength for a global superiority in ability.”
*** — Our bodies even try to make losing feel as bad as possible, just to keep us focused on winning; all pleasure secretions are stopped, so you feel the full impact of your exhaustion and pain. And blood leaves the stomach, giving that “sinking feeling.” Can you tell I’ve been watching the Human Instinct documentary on BBC?
MAKING IT WORK
* — I once heard this advice: In a romantic relationship, leave the bedroom alone. Don’t fight in it, don’t put a TV in it, don’t do anything in it except for two things, one of which is sleeping. It’s interesting to think about the social dance floor holding a similar place of reverence for a dance partnership – it’s made for celebrating what you have together.
** — Captain Obvious would like to mention that where things go badly is when it’s done in an unhealthy way. Basically, if you’re talking to others to bash your partner or stir up your personal drama, then you’re probably not being productive. Find a friend whose opinion you trust, who listens just as well as they talk, and who is both supportive of you as well as honest about when they disagree with you. And once you’ve found friends like this, don’t ever let them go. (By the way, those are fantastic things to look for in a dance partner.)
*** — After having discussed the importance of communication, patience, and compromise, it makes sense that a few couples have told me that being swing dance partners has made them more successful in their romantic relationships. Mainly because working together on swing dancing often puts into tangible form the issues romantic partners have with themselves and one another. And thus, the dance partnership becomes a training ground for solving bigger life problems.