For me, learning how to dance means a lot more than just gaining some skills in moving around the hardwood to music. After all, life is a dance. And dancing is part of life.
Last night Laurel and I had a private Hustle lesson with Lora at Salem's RJ Dance Studio. Lora has an impressive background in dance and music. At this stage in our dancing lessons, her central critique of me -- which is entirely accurate -- is that often I don't follow the beat or rhythm of a dance.
I'm pretty good at getting steps down, though. With all the katas/forms I've learned in twenty years or so of martial arts training, I can visualize patterns pretty well, and hook them together fairly smoothly and spontaneously.
My downfall is rhythm, because unlike Lora, I'm musically handicapped. Early on in our lesson Lora pointed out how I wasn't making each of the two "quick" steps in Hustle dancing twice as fast as the two "slow" steps.
She said that this is the most important thing in dancing: respecting the character of a particular dance. A waltz and a foxtrot share many of the same patterns, but the rhythm is different. They shouldn't look the same (though when I dance them, sometimes they do).
It got a little irritating when Lora agreed with Laurel's suggestion: "I should count out the rhythm aloud until Brian gets it." So for quite a while I had to listen to sloooow, sloooow, quick, quick, sloooow, sloooow, quick, quick.
(Obviously it doesn't work to just say "slow, slow, quick, quick" if each of those words is uttered at the same speed, which is another problem I'm prone to.)
Here's a connection between dance and life as a whole: Lora told us that if you keep to the rhythm of a song, it doesn't matter a whole lot what steps you take. I notice this on "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance."
Sometimes a Cha-Cha, or whatever, will hardly have any moves that are traditional in the dance. At least, I don't see ones I'm familiar with. But the performers are so skilled, they make the dance look great by sticking with the rhythm while doing some wild and crazy (to a traditionalist) steps.
On the dance floor, I get focused on steps, just as in life, I get focused on the activities that I'm doing. I often lose my focus on simply moving to the rhythm -- of a song, or of my inner drummer, as Thoreau put it.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
Sure, sticking to patterns is important. Movement with either a dance partner or what life requires of us each day would be difficult, if not impossible, without habits, repeated steps, familiar routines.
But what makes dancing, and living, genuinely pleasurable isn't what we're doing, but how we're doing it. Once Laurel and I took a dance lesson from a woman who looked like she was dancing even when she walked "normally."
Actually, the way she walked wasn't normal at all, in the sense of average. Every step she took was with a dancer's style. Assured, confident, balanced, sensuous. Just walking across the floor at the start of the class screamed Dancer!!
She didn't need to introduce herself as the instructor. One look at one step of hers told me, "This woman knows how to move."
We all can do this, just as Thoreau said, by stepping to the music that we hear. Even, or especially, if it is different from what everyone around us is moving to. Now, this may seem at odds with what I said before about sticking to the rhythm of a dance. But it really isn't.
Lora had me fill in a blank last night. She said, "The reason it is really important for the man to keep the rhythm of a dance is because..."? I knew the answer: "He's the leader!"
"Right," she told me. "So, do it."
When you're moving with another person on the dance floor, or in life, there has to be common ground between you.
Harmony. Mutually acceptable patterns. When I raise Laurel's hand, that's a signal for her to turn. I know that; she knows that. We move to the beat of the same music, following steps familiar to both of us.
However, in life as a whole there is much more opportunity for individualism. Writing this blog post while drinking a glass of red wine, I'm dancing with myself, with my own thoughts. My wife is in another room, doing her own thing.
I never really know what I'm going to write when I start writing, just as I don't really know what I'm going to do when I start on my day's to-do list.
What matters -- or rather, should matter -- is how well I'm able to flow from one moment to another, maintaining at least a semblance of the harmony, energy, passion, and centeredness I saw in every step the aforementioned dance instructor took.
By the end of last night's lesson I was feeling much more comfortable with the Hustle than when I walked in the door of the RJ Dance Studio. I'd only learned a few new moves, but my improved ability to move to the disco'ish music was what made our dancing more fun.
I drove home listening to Generation Disco 2, an inexpensive iTunes album that I'd downloaded to my iPhone for Hustle practicing. It was happy music, and I was in a happy mood.
Sticking to the beat will do that -- bring happiness. Listen to the music, whether it is playing through speakers or your own mind. Focus on the essential rhythm and don't worry too much about what specific steps you're taking.
Just dance. The steps will take care of themselves.