Partner Dance is Magic
on connection, improvisation, and transcendance
Imagine walking into a large room with an empty floor, surrounded by speakers.
From the speakers pour music, and this music makes you want to move your body.
Around the room are kind-looking strangers who also want to move their bodies.
You approach one stranger, smile, and tilt your head toward the middle. They respond with a smile and a nod. You take each other’s hand and walk onto the floor.
One will lead, the other will follow. You establish these roles with a quick question, or you make an assumption.
Now you find your embrace.
Maybe one hand softly holds another, tensioned by backward lean, a full meter between your bodies.
Maybe hands find shoulders and backs, a bit closer, yet still offering space.
And maybe—yes please maybe—chests meet chests, stomachs meet stomachs, temples rest upon temples, and arms wrap around torsos. You are ancient friends, you are starstruck lovers, you are family.
You have known this person for exactly 10 seconds.
A new song begins, and it compels you to move.
There is no choreography here. Established patterns of steps, yes. A small library of “moves,” yes. But your master is always the music. You listen, deeply. You accept its commandments, blindly. You submit, wholeheartedly. When the music tells you to move, you move. When it tells you to pause, you pause. When it tells you to be serious, to be playful, to be wild, to be quiet, you have only one answer: yes, yes, yes, yes.
If you are leading, you have responsibilities: to establish the embrace, to initiate the movements, to define the mood, to navigate the floor, to stay on the beat. To pay attention to your partner, to what they are telling you, forever.
If you are following, you have responsibilities: to say yes, to suggest, to embellish, to deepen, to stay on the beat. To pay attention to your partner, to what they are telling you, forever.
You don’t always fulfill your responsibilities. This is hard work. An entire song may pass in quiet struggle. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s them, maybe it’s the music, maybe it’s nothing. You smile, say thank you, and go your separate ways.
But when you do fulfill your responsibilities—when you do strike gold with the confluence of mood and music—when you do move as one, even for just a few of seconds—you are rewarded immeasurably.
For now, you are not alone.
For now, your pain and boredom and anxiety and confusion are forgotten, washed away, banished to the hinterlands.
For now, light pours through the clouds, striking your face, making you squint and smile and laugh and quietly remark, “Oh that’s right, this is why I’m here.”
Your feet roll from ball to toe to heel.
Your knees bend, bounce, spring, bound.
Your legs project across the floor in long, sweeping arcs, only to return home seconds later, tiny straight-legged balance shifts.
Your hips move sideways, forward, up, down, around, pivoting, snaking, contouring along x-axis, y-axis, z-axis. You finally understand geometry.
Your abdomen tenses, relaxes, rolls, and shudders, speaking its own secret language. Sometimes you have entire dances with just your stomach.
Your arms hold the frame and do the talking: push, pull, twirl, rotate, come hither, go away, stop right there, don’t do that, do that more, hold me tighter, give me space.
Your hands grip tight one moment, loose the next. Sometimes they are magisterial orchestra conductors, other times they’re on smoke break while the forearms do the work.
When you dance close, your head finds its resting spot, a different geography with every partner: chest, jaw, cheek, hair, air. Every now and then, eyes closed, you feel a smile erupt on your partner’s face. Your day is made.
You are teleported, as if by magic, into a timeless realm, a flow state, your own little Narnia.
For a fraction of a second you glance at the other couples on the floor and see them inhabiting their own realms, interpreting the music so differently, living such parallel yet distinct lives. You smile, return to your partner, and resume your four-minute journey.
The song is ending, and with it, your fleeting relationship with this almost-stranger. You’ve struggled and succeeded, fought and celebrated, found harmony and dissonance. The music commands you to be still, and you are still.
You have traveled to a foreign land together, and this land has changed you.
Goodbye, you say, with or without words.
Goodbye—and thank you.
Originally written on a train from Krakow to Berlin in Dec 2021, just after a fusion dance weekend. Reposted after another fusion weekend in Krakow, Nov 2022.
Top photo: Toulouse Fusion Festival (2022). Middle photo: New Year’s eve dance weekend in Paris (2017). Bottom photo: dance + river rafting trip in Utah (2019).
Also see: The Dance Lesson from The Art of Self-Directed Learning.