A tall, smartly dressed man with slicked-back hair and gray suspenders slides up to me, hand outstretched. I smile and place my hand in his, accepting his silent offer. He walks me out to the middle of the dance floor, and we connect, his arm around my back, my hand on his shoulder. The music pulses playfully as a familiar Duke tune begins, and we start rocking in place to get a sense of one another. Then the saxes gear up for the A section, he spins me out, and suddenly I’m dancing.
Three years ago, when I walked in the Forum South Lounge, my gait was that of a timid first-year. Rain streamed down the tinted windows, and all around students were shaking off the heavy drops of the late summer shower. Driven inside by the rain, the Student Activities Fair was a hubbub of activity in a space far too small for its demands. Tables were lined up with military efficiency, and students pushed through the crush to place their names on e-mail lists.
It was not until the very end at one of the last tables that I saw them. Two people danced to the fast beat of a song played on a tiny stereo. The man, a few inches shorter than his partner, quick-stepped the rhythm as he spun her around. The pair laughed at what I could only assume was a mistake, but I couldn’t tell. My naïve eye only knew this was amazing to watch.
I have secretly wanted to dance my entire life. However, I never told my parents I wanted to take swing-dancing lessons, and I had never had the opportunity until I left home for Grinnell. That day at the Student Activities Fair, I finally found my chance. The next Monday I showed up for class in Loose Lounge, where the floor space was packed with eager first-years all waiting for the teachers to unlock the secret to looking amazing on the dance floor. Yet the swing lesson confirmed only that I had never danced before, and I was pitiful at it.
For some reason, though, I decided to come back again the next week. Slowly I improved, practicing in the hallway of my dorm with Matt Scharr ’08 from upstairs, who was as excited to learn as I was. The two of us rapidly progressed, fueled by our enthusiasm. After a few months, I became more and more comfortable with calling myself a dancer.
Along the way that first year, my teacher taught me the most important lesson I have learned while dancing: in order to dance well, you need to dance with your partner. It was a puzzling statement to me at the time. I turned it over and over in my mind, trying to understand what I recognized was wisdom, but yet could not fully comprehend.
It wasn’t until I was at a workshop in Chicago that I finally came to understand the idea of dancing with someone. Swing dancing is a reactionary dance, one that can’t be learned simply by going through the steps. It has an organic quality that makes each dance as individual as the people who dance it. Famously, dancers at the grand Savoy Ballroom during swing’s golden years wanted to know one thing only: can you dance? They didn’t care about what people on the outside saw — things like race, status, or income were (and are) all irrelevant to dancing.
The founders of swing had it right. Nothing external matters. Instead, it’s about how you and your partner build mutual respect for one another in those first few bars of music, and how you come to understand the individuality of one another’s dancing, that really matters.
Recently Grinnell hosted its first Swing Exchange, where dancers from all over the Midwest came to campus to enjoy a weekend of dancing to live swing and blues bands. The participants represented a wide range of skill levels, from the very basic beginner to competition winners. Dancers from various backgrounds came, as well with people dancing Lindy, East Coast, Charleston, Blues, or Balboa. A few people even grooved in the back of the room to their own made-up steps. Regardless of their level or style, people standing up together and dancing with one another filled the floor.
The last bars of “Take the A Train” fade from the speakers and my partner with the slicked-back hair dips me almost to the floor one last time. Then he lifts me upright, and we walk off the floor together, knowing we share a mutual respect because, at least while dancing, we understand each other.
Julia Bottles '08 is a History major from San Marino, California.