A stranger stands before you, eyes on your eyes, hand outstretched to your hand, awaiting your response: Will you go with me? “May I have this dance?” the stranger asks. And you sweep off together to the swinging strains of Benny Goodman’s clarinet.
In New York City, the swing dance scene is one of the few places where this kind of intimate connection between strangers is possible. Born a hundred years ago in Harlem’s Savoy Theater to Cab Calloway’s innovative “jitterbug” beat, swing dance remains popular in New York—and the community is growing. Lincoln Center's annual Midsummer Night Swing series was attended by 35,000 dancers in 2019; this summer, 54,000 participated.
I got involved in New York's swing world this summer, and the “scenesters” I've met have been surprisingly varied: elderly couples who have danced together since youth, math teachers, artists, a great many Chinese immigrants, engineers and physicists, a Ukrainian refugee, FANG programmers, political conservatives, socialists, and progressives. The same faces appear on the pier at South Street Seaport for the Danny Lipschitz Quartet on Sunday and Tuesday nights, at Riverside Park on Saturday, at the Gotham Jazz Club on Wednesdays, and at the Frim Fram on Thursdays, beckoned by the siren of swing. And as you dance, you get to talking.
Yìchén, a young crypto trader who moved from China to Queens five years ago, told me: “Swing saved me after COVID. It was really alienating, living alone and working alone in the same space all day. I started to go dancing every single day.” Yìchén even risked dancing during the latter days of the pandemic. I've heard similar stories from many others. Some have told me they have no family in the states and live alone; they take five dance classes a week after work because dancing has helped them feel connected to something; they can’t stop. . . . Whirling across the floor, packed in a throng of couples, turning and bouncing in tandem with the band, people feel kinship that beats back their loneliness.
The sad reality is that human touch and even close relationships have become scarce commodities. Not just in the age of Covid-19, Zoom, and social distancing, but because we live in an era of anomie: 15 percent of people in America live alone, half of Manhattan residents live alone, 40 percent of Americans age 25–34 are single, and more than 20 percent of millennials say they neither have friends nor know any of their neighbors. But we need companionship to survive, and touch—which builds our immune systems, calms stress, releases human bonding hormones, and helps us develop a capacity for compassion—is just as much a physiological necessity as food or water. We are living through a famine. Happily, some have found a secret store of plenty in partner dance.
In an essay praising social dance, Roger Scruton writes that to dance in the modern club manner is to dance “at” someone, to pitch yourself against them. These raves create an exercise high, but often leave people feeling more isolated than ever—hence the attendant alcohol culture. But to partner dance is to dance “with” someone, to enjoy physical closeness without sexual overtones, and to communicate physically, musically, and beyond the level of contrived self-presentation. It is the sort of dancing that unites whole communities, as partners rotate and reunite, and restores mutual goodwill despite differences that would ordinarily spark division—and all this without a drink.
Scruton favored more formal dances, but swing offers a distinctive appeal to those craving connection. To swing, each partner must stand pitched back, with feet slanted forward. In this precarious position, the partners, connected by hand, counterbalance each other. If your partner leans back, you must lean back too, to prevent him from falling and pulling you over with him. Arms must remain flexible but firm, so as to perceive through the hands the motion of the partner’s legs and feet. With a perfect frame, couples can orchestrate complex turns, lifts, kicks, and twists, all spontaneous and telegraphed with the twitch of an arm—a miracle of human communication.
As an embodied art form, social dance naturally asserts the reality that we were created male and female. I dance at both Catholic and secular swing events, and have been surprised to find that even in secular groups, men mostly dance with women. What’s more, they follow a shockingly traditional social code: A man approaches a woman and requests a dance. If she accepts, he proffers a hand, guides her onto the dance floor, and then leads the choreography. He has a chance to demonstrate his strength, creativity, leadership, responsiveness, and vigilance (he must ensure his partner doesn’t clip heels with other dancers). And yet he doesn’t lead by brute force. Rather, he must follow the energy and motion of his female partner. The swing scene features a code for interaction between the sexes—something increasingly rare today. Might this be a way to rekindle romance in our genderless and awkward age?
Beyond the social benefits, swing dancing heals something in us metaphysically. Modern philosophers love dance. Nietzsche said, “I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer.” Alain Badiou used dance as a metaphor for thought. Giorgio Agamben writes that dance, like philosophy, is a communication of communicability—an affirmation, in our fractured, postmodern world, that the deepest parts of ourselves can still be understood, even by a stranger. Fulton Sheen once said that you can love a song the first time you hear it because it expresses some truth lurking in your heart already. When you hear the expression of that truth in a song, you are moved by it. To dance, then, is to join in that truth, to express the transcendent with your whole being in space. There is a reason that dance is described in Scripture and poetry as a means of expressing uncontainable joy before the divine. And to dance in this manner with another person, to find yourselves moved together, is a beautiful way to satisfy our God-given desire for union.
Elizabeth Bachmann is assistant editor at First Things.
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