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On Having Fun

April 13, 2012
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Dear Readers; I’m currently working at The Balboa Experiment, which leaves very little time for writing, so I’m afraid the Love & Swing series will be on hold for a few weeks. I have a few things up my sleeve, however, like this:

If I had to think this much about dancing….I would quit.
How about just having fun???

–A Swungover reader, in response to a post and its discussion

First off, an answer to the reader: Yes, certainly. You are totally allowed to have fun your way. And I’ll have fun my way.

Now, a little venting. I often hear (or overhear) the sentiment above expressed in various ways. Almost always, though, the message is the same. It’s the idea that intellectually analyzing dance to such a great extent takes the fun out of it, which I deduce the speaker of the comment above believes.

And yes, I’m about to do the same thing to this reader’s comment. And you know what? I’m going to have a shitload of fun doing it.

Statements like this…

First off, the thing that frustrates me the most with statements like this is the implication that the speaker’s idea of “fun” is what fun universally means. Fun means different things to different people, and every human has the inalienable right to have fun in their own way provided it doesn’t force harm upon other people.

But this isn’t the only “just have fun” statement I hear thrown around. So, in common Swungover style, I wanted to explore the many ways in which people think we should be having fun in Lindy Hop and discuss different opinions on the matter. Mainly because I don’t want people to be bullied into accepting someone else’s idea of fun.

I want to start with a slightly different statement than the above comment, but we’ll come back to it.

“Why work and slave so hard to be good? Just have fun.”

I have more fun dancing when I’m better at it. This is me, personally. I can express myself more, I can share better experiences with partners, I have better quality joy when things work out well. (I should also mention that, indirectly, we all usually have more fun when our partners are better.)

Some people believe this approach misses the point “of having fun”, at least in their definition of the word. However, I think there is somewhat of a situational dilemma with this: Since we’re involved in dancing with other people, our idea of fun directly affects someone else. For instance, let’s say I’m a follower and I’m dancing with a leader who decides they “should just have fun,” and for them specifically, that means caring less about leading well and instead just really showing their passion for the music and “letting go.” Now, all of a sudden, I’m having my arm yanked around, I’m having to guess where I have to go, and I’m not able to express myself as much because of my partner. Now the leader’s decision to have fun has screwed over my having fun. Followers may do the same by suddenly deciding “to have fun” and “just dance” and not worry about following at all, at which point they might very well be simply solo dancing while holding onto a leader’s hand, and thus very possibly keeping him from having fun. So, in one sense, I bet a lot of dancers would wish their partners would equate having fun with getting better, or at least dancing as well as they are capable of.

This happens across entire scenes when it comes to floor craft. On some dance floors, I get kicked or have partners sent into me all night, because obviously most people’s idea of fun on that dance floor is dancing as carefree as they wish without concern about people around them. And because of it, I spend most of my night pulling my partner out of harm’s way rather than expressing my innermost emotions through the art of the Lindy Hop. And you know what? That is not fun.

Anyway, this also helps me answer why I get frustrated when people say…

“Why think so much about things? Just have fun.”

I actually have a ton of fun analyzing the things I’m interested in, but that’s just my personality. If I wasn’t a swing dancer, this blog would probably be about the craft of fiction writing. Or music. Or psychology. Or 1600s rapier fencing. (I have a little leftover ADD). That’s because I naturally enjoy thinking about things. I mean, my recent response to Rebecca Brightly’s post intellectually deconstructed the writing of the post almost just as much as the dancing advice.

Specifically for swing dancing, one of the ways I get better is by thinking about the dance intellectually off of the social dance floor (I try not to get too “inside my head” when I’m on the dance floor). I mean, I could leave it to chance, and hope I just get better subconsciously, or by sheer repetition, (the way many perfectly fine dancers get good in the dance), but I personally choose the route of thinking about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it in hopes of coming up with answers that will make me better. And I do this a lot, because I still have a lot further I want to go before I get to where I want to be.

Besides me enjoying it, it’s also part of my job. One of the main expectations of my job as a professional dance instructor is for me to think about the dance so I can offer the information to others (though, contrastingly, if that’s a word, another part of my job is to help coach dancers to come to conclusions on their own, if that’s what seems to be the most empowering for them). So I’d be a worse teacher if I didn’t think about the dance as much as I do. It’s a good thing I find it so fun.

There are certainly philosophies some people hold about the arts (or, for different reasons, casual hobbies) and how “thinking about it a lot” is a negative compared to “organically feeling it out” or living with a “just do it” kind of mentality. Now, I don’t recommend that people *just* think about the dance. You do have to do it, and (in my opinion) allow for organic growth and emotion and gut feelings to help drive your growth. But that doesn’t mean intellectualizing the dance, even to a near-obsessive amount, is bad — on the contrary, it can help you keep track of your organic growth, or help lead you down paths you wouldn’t have explored otherwise, which would allow you to grow organically in new areas. I’d even argue that thinking about the dance is a way to fine-tune your emotions and feelings about the dance, so you can reach for more emotional pleasure out of it. (For instance, this post. Upon hearing the comments like the one above, I felt a gut reaction of frustration. That feeling of frustration lead me to explore why I was frustrated, which is an intellectual task. Having done so, I will emotionally — not just intellectually — remember what this post taught me, and that will affect my dancing life from now on. When I tie up my dance shoes the next few times I practice, I might be more motivated, because in thinking about this I’ve reminded myself that I’m doing it to get better, to enjoy myself more.)

Answer to a comment below I thought I should share:
I think part of thinking about the dance is realizing when maybe you ARE over-thinking the dance. So, if your friends suspect you of doing so, it’s not a bad idea to explore the possibility.

For instance, we have some private lessons where a student will talk talk talk talk talk — try it once — and then talk talk talk talk again. Dancing isn’t only a thinking act. You have to do it.

However, spending so much energy on swing dancing means I often feel I am one of the targets of the line…

“Why do you take this so seriously? Just have fun.”

Having fun doesn’t mean the same thing as “not taking things too seriously.” I think that’s a dangerous illusion to fall for (just ask anyone who’s a spouse, or parent, or bow & arrow specialist). I take the art of expressing oneself, whether through fiction, or swing dance, or acting, or playing music, or sculpture, or any other art form, very seriously, because it does give one so much pleasure. For me, I’m having *more fun* doing so than I would if I didn’t take it seriously. (I know this isn’t the same for everyone.)

Unfortunately, this means a high level of emotional involvement, and I often berate myself, saying…

“Why get yourself bent out of shape over swing dancing? Just have fun.”

I have to be careful, because sometimes I get frustrated when I hit a plateau, or I do a choreography and I’m thinking too much about what comes next rather than just showing people I’m actually having fun doing it, or I worry too much about job security, and suddenly I realize I haven’t had any fun.

Or sometimes I will dance and can’t turn my mind off, and “thinking” so much while I’m dancing keeps me from having fun. Or sometimes I worry too much about not being better than I am and that frustrates me and stops me from having fun. But that’s not the fault of being intellectual, or of caring.

That’s simply my fault for not keeping things in their right place. It’s me missing the forest for the trees, or forgetting that enjoying what I’m doing is one of the most important reasons to do it. It doesn’t mean I have to care less, or think less, or stop trying to get better; it simply means I have to find a way to enjoy myself again, in order to remind myself why I do it.

Now, just because I think this way…

It Doesn’t Mean You Have To Be The Same Way

I totally understand why some people come to swing dancing and have an escape from worrying about things. I understand it because that’s a lot of how I feel about video games. I mean, I still know I’ll have more fun if I’m better (anyone who’s ever played first person shooters online against 15-year-olds truly understands this). But since I put a lot of my energies into other things, I know I don’t have a whole lot of time to spare in getting better at video games. I also know getting great at something is an investment of time, money, emotions, and intellect, one I can’t afford for everything. So, I try to be just good enough to hang with my friends (and provide a little comic relief with my playing), but otherwise prefer to just kick back and enjoy making a bloodbath of the zombie apocalypse. I know many people have the same attitude toward swing dancing, and that’s totally fine. You will never hear a criticism from me or Swungover. You’re just enjoying the zombie bloodbath.

(Going back to thinking about the dance as part of my job, one of the most vital services we swing dance instructors provide is thinking about the dance so that those who can’t afford to invest in all that thinking can still get that technique & cool moves & dance philosophy from us without having to spend all that time and labor working it out themselves.) So, not only do I understand the position, I love it that many people feel that way because then I get to do it for a job.

Now, I know that many people devote themselves to exploring video game strategy and design and user interface the way I love thinking about swing dancing or writing fiction. (I also know that many people think of things like video games as not a serious form of intellectual pursuit, a point with which I disagree. It’s not really something for this discussion, but if you’re interested in a short argument, simply play Portal 2.) I get inspired listening to them talk and show both their intellectual and their emotional passion (which are often one and the same with people trying to master something). Occasionally a serious gamer, just like a serious dancer, will get bent out of shape about things, which is part of any emotional investment, and it might be good for someone to mention that they didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves much — but I would never tell them “Why are you guys taking this so seriously? Just have fun.”

Now…

It Won’t Necessarily Always Work This Way

Currently, as my readers know, I’m in a phase in my dancing where I’m really enjoying thinking about the dance and its culture. But I have certainly been in a mindset before where I need to not think about the dance too in-depth in order to progress or “enjoy myself.” And it’s totally possible that six months from now I will come to a new place where I will naturally take a break from thinking about the dance so intellectually (at which point, Swungover posts may be few and far between. Or just involve pictures of cats). And I’m sure there will be times where what I will need most is to simply go out and move my body and a partner’s to music and leave it at that. And yet again six months later I may be back to writing longer Swungover posts than ever. [Oh, please no. — ed.] But that’s all part of the process, and all part of the fun.

(This discussion became Bug’s Question of the Day on Facebook:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bugs-Question-of-the-Day/406783441288)

I’d like to give a shout-out to Peter Strom, who I’ve had several great conversations with about some of the aspects of this topic, and he’s definitely been a big source of inspiration for me. (By coincidence, we’ve also had some fun times playing Portal 2.)

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Thom permalink
    April 13, 2012 7:49 am

    Excellent stuff Bobby. I share your frustrations, which I experience both with dance (many friends think I over-think and/or over-analyse the dance), and my own professional life (I’m an academic, so my job is to think and analyse, often about things that many people would think of as esoteric).

    So good job for speaking out. See you soon (woop!).

    • Bobby permalink*
      April 13, 2012 3:00 pm

      Yeah, though, I think part of thinking about the dance is realizing when maybe you ARE over-thinking the dance. So, if your friends suspect you of doing so, it’s not a bad idea to explore the possibility.

      For instance, we have some private lessons where a student will talk talk talk talk talk — try it once — and then talk talk talk talk again. Dancing isn’t only a thinking act.

      Bobby

      • Thom permalink
        April 13, 2012 3:55 pm

        Oh, entirely – and there’s no question that in my own development I’ve often done more thinking than might be necessary. But: (i) I like it, and it’s an end in itself; and (ii) It’s how I work and learn best – I’m not a natural artist, but analysis helps me find another way in to the dance.

        But don’t worry – I’m well aware of the perils of over-thinking.

  2. Michael Varney permalink
    April 13, 2012 9:37 am

    Here here.

    Check out Richard Feynman’s thoughts about a similar comment that physicists cannot appreciate the beauty of a rainbow, or a flower, because understanding how things work takes the “beauty and mystery” out of the object.

    Understanding does not diminish appreciation of beauty, but instead enhances it.
    Same for dancing.
    Similar to your statements, understanding and thinking about dance is one more dimension with which to appreciate dance, to enhance its beauty. One more aspect and avenue for fun. Another layer on the layer cake.

    Thinking about things critically is HARD work. And unfortunately, people often equate hard work with “not being fun.”
    But that is a common issue in our culture. That one wants the reward without the hard work.
    I am 100% certain Yo-Yo Ma has a hell of a lot of fun playing his Cello. But to play at his level, he had to put in the hard work, and much of that hard work was intellectual.

    I guess quite a few people do not see the similarity between playing an instrument and dancing. One is very likely to call a musician a genius… a quantity associated with the mind and thinking.
    Very few dancers are considers to be “geniuses”. Or athletes, or martial artists etc.

    Perhaps it is the physicality of dance that creates the cognitive dissonance for so many people in separating the aspects of the mind from the body in dance?
    But in playing an instrument, the physicality overlooked, and thus it becomes more of an intellectual and “feeling” exercise.

    Dancing is playing the instrument that is your body, often with other “instrument players.”
    But the physicality of the movement perhaps obscures the intellectual aspects for many people who never get to the point of seriously understanding or learning their instrument.

    But, try explaining that to those telling you to “lighten up and just have fun”.

    =(

    On a related note… intensity may be the issue here.
    Many people who like to intellectualize things are very intense. They focus, they dissect, they try and understand. They beat on a problem or an idea with various blunt and sharp instruments of the mind until it breaks apart so they can study its pieces before rebuilding it and integrating it into their cognitive worldview. Some take this into the physical by working on minutia of the dance, striving to perfect form, connection, aesthetic.
    This intensity can make people highly uncomfortable. It can mentally wear on them, and can decrease their enjoyment. To them, it is obsession and nit-picking.

    So, likewise perhaps our intellectual analysis is impinging on their fun, and they are feeling similar frustration that we do when they impinge on our fun through half-assed technique?

    ;)

    • Bobby permalink*
      April 13, 2012 3:08 pm

      I think equating it to the hard work and technique required to play and improvise on an instrument is a fantastic comparrison. Well done.

  3. Christina permalink
    April 13, 2012 12:04 pm

    Oh, Bobby, you’re so good at making thoughts come out…

  4. April 13, 2012 1:22 pm

    Great essay! I think that it’s almost like a sport in this aspect. I can certainly go out and have a good time playing softball and just have fun, but if I actually work at the game and better at it, I’m probably going to have a lot more fun actually competing then just getting creamed every time by the other team. Additionally if I hit my teammates with the ball repeatedly they’ll probably stop playing with me, and then I won’t be having much fun at all.

    Also, I’m in spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace…

  5. April 13, 2012 2:08 pm

    I think writing fiction is a great analogy! Lots of people can write for fun, but don’t expect a lot of readers to enjoy it if the writer has never thought about grammar, craft, technique and good storytelling. All these elements enhance ones abilty to write a good story and gives more pleasure to the reader, just as enhancing ones dance skill enhances ones ability to enjoy a good dance and give more pleasure to your partner.

  6. April 13, 2012 4:24 pm

    Bravo!! I shall be linking to this post wantonly.

  7. April 13, 2012 4:31 pm

    I love this post!! I agree one hundred percent. I have always been frustrated by that “no brain, no pain” approach to swing dancing, and to life in general. I also appreciate that, as baffling as it may seem, some people feel about swing dancing the way you feel about video games and the way I feel about crossword puzzles. So thanks for offering a balanced view.

  8. April 13, 2012 4:36 pm

    Think I’ll direct my http://www.thedancingbug.com readers to this post, by the way :)

  9. April 13, 2012 5:58 pm

    I agree 110% with what you say, Bobby! But I think a lot of this reaction comes from his diction which I sure hope he didn’t mean to be so absolute. “If I *had* to think this much…”? He doesn’t *have* to do anything! You, Bobby, don’t *have* to write these posts merely in order to dance! As we’ve all said, it’s the analysis that heightens the dance for us. *This level* of thought and discourse is not necessary to be able to dance. To dance at the top — probably. That being said, I hope he has thought *some* about mechanics and style and not crashing, etc. Also his “just” is problematic, as you consider in your paragraphs. I don’t think we would be taking it this hard if he had said something like, don’t forget to have fun, which I frequently come back to when I’m hitting a wall (figuratively) in a class, or beating myself up (also figuratively) about missing leads etc.

    • Bobby permalink*
      April 13, 2012 6:43 pm

      Good points.

      The classic Swungover argument (Old Timers didn’t do this at all) applies here as well…many of the best (but not all) got good without hyper-intellectualizing the dance on a conscious level. They, of course, had live swing bands almost every night and plenty of time to learn and shape their dancing by repetition and trail & error. They also had their own share of problems by taking such an approach (for instance, most couldn’t lead or follow near as intricately as we can today, which I think is a product of breaking down the dance intellectually.) Every single one of the best, though, practiced a lot, which requires at least some intellectualizing, I’d think. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it only makes permanent. You have to practice smart to progress.

      These are a few random thoughts I’m just throwing out there, I’ll have to think them out more when I have some time.

  10. Amanda permalink
    April 13, 2012 6:49 pm

    A page full of thank yous would not be enough to express my gratitude for this post.

  11. Jon permalink
    April 13, 2012 9:23 pm

    For myself, I lean strongly toward the theory that having more fun means putting more work into something and getting good at it. Dancing included. However, I do sometimes get frustrated by how seriously some dancers seem to take themselves. It feels like they think their dancing is somehow important to the world, and that less “serious” dancers are obviously inferior to them, or owe them some sort of special admiration and awe. I think when people detect that sort of attitude they say things like “Don’t take it so seriously, just have fun.”

    • Greg permalink
      October 31, 2014 9:37 pm

      Yes, there is a big difference between taking oneself seriously and taking one’s dancing seriously. Lots of very well respected people take what they do seriously but don’t take themselves so seriously. I think Jimmy Buffet and Warren Buffet are good examples of this.

  12. David Rodgers permalink
    April 13, 2012 11:00 pm

    The core of the divide, in my evaluation, is that different people have fun in different ways. This seems to be your evaluation as well, based on the second through fourth paragraphs. Some find fun in mastery (which is the perspective you seem to be writing from), others from socialization, others from experimentation. I’m sure there are many more that could be enumerated, but a complete taxonomy of fun is unnecessary to write this comment. It’s unlikely anyone is exclusively dedicated to any one category, but one category might greatly outweigh the others.

    Each type of fun has its own intrinsic prerequisites. Fun by experimentation requires having new ideas. Fun by socialization requires other people and the ability to interact with them. Fun by mastery requires learning, which is where the thinking and analysis comes in. Lindy hop is incidental to any of these, it’s only the art form that we share that causes us to be interested in reading this particular blog.

    Part of the reason for fun by mastery being more controversial than the other approaches is that we’re regularly evaluated on mastery but not on the others. Every audition or competition results in a statement about how the judges evaluate your mastery compared to the other participants. These evaluations practically never happen for the other categories, so fun by mastery feels more serious than fun by other means.

  13. April 14, 2012 3:19 pm

    I call this nerdry. Or geeking-out. Or nerdgasming. Going crazy thinking about, researching and reading around something. Some of us like to do it about our dancing :)

  14. Gilles permalink
    April 20, 2012 10:08 am

    I thought your argument could be well illustrated by a simple diagram : http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/259/venntwiceasmuch.jpg

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