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Lifelong Learning

Notes From a Life-Long Learner: Social Dance


Social Dancing, which consists of various forms of dance, such as square dancing, is a communal tradition brought to the American continent by its earliest immigrants. Big in centuries past, social dancing is still practiced today, even in New York City. I know because I attended my first dance very recently: a barn dance.

For the beginner, social dancing, which in my case included free-wheeling square dances and contra dances, can seem like aerobics, physics, and geometry all rolled up into one.  

Like aerobics, the dances rely on repetitive motions that work your muscles, burn fat, and make you sweat. Like physics, direction and speed are factors. Like Geometry, the dances involve lines, squares, and circles. And, you're golden if you can quickly tell your left hand from your right.

Is it fun? Sure. But, unless you do these dances regularly, you have to learn the steps. And the way you learn is by listening to someone call the directions over the loud strains of guitar, bango, bass, and fiddle.  Not easy at first. I can’t tell you how many keystone kop moments I observed in the various dancing squares that moved across the expansive hardwood floor, or the number in which I was personally involved.

But, the human tangles made everyone experiencing them laugh, and the repetition of dances and moves dramatically lowered the learning curve as the night wore on.

And then there’s the other physical aspect of all this: actually touching other people.

Even if you show up to one of these dances with a partner, the dances require that you bow to, hold hands and swing arm-in-arm with several people you’ve never met. Awkward? Yes. At least at first. But, after the endorphins kick in from the continual swinging, doh-see-doh-ing, and promenading, it doesn’t seem to matter much anymore.

If we lived in the 1800s and the local paper published a blurb about any social dance event, the last line might read: “Acquaintances were made and a good time was had by all.”

And that’s the point of the social dance. In an age where communicating with others was extremely difficult, social dancing provided a means of finding friends and companions while offering an evening of exhilarating fun.  

Folks took the dances seriously, especially the more formal ones—not only the steps but the subtle ways in which participants could communicate with one another to indicate interest beyond the dance.

In this modern age, at this particular barn dance, I saw some of this subtlety, mainly in the form of folks making quiet connections at the periphery of the floor. Seeing a long-skirted woman coquettishly smile and nod to a tall, well-groomed gent made me feel as though I had travelled back in time.

But then I’d see someone sitting alone with the light of her cell phone shining up on her face as she electronically touched someone, somewhere. Who needs a social dance when you have unlimited texting?

Nevertheless, it might be interesting to explore the history of Social Dancing in America. Read all about it.


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Touching someone electronically:)

Hello, Jyna, I lived in the West Village for so many years, and I had never been to a barn dance. Your take on connections made at the dance does really take us back to another time. Thank you for sharing.

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