Warning: Long Post Ahead. Dress appropriately.
A lot of times, when I tell people that I’m a swing dancer, I get one of a small number of stock responses. People say they’ve done it before. They’ve always wanted to do it. They’ve seen it on TV. Oh, is that the one with the flips? While I think I do a good job of communicating how strongly I feel about it – the breathless quality of my voice; the distant look in my eyes as though, in my mind, I’m caressing a lover; and of course the cursing – I don’t think I do so well communicating how important it is. There’s a lot of “Oh, that sounds like fun.” While I never get the sense that people are openly disrespectful, there often seems to be an undercurrent of dismissal. Like I just told someone that I spend ten to twenty hours a week playing on a rocking horse. A unicorn rocking horse. The words they use are on the theme of “I wish I could do that,” but the meaning underneath it is more along the lines of “I wish I had the luxury of wasting so much time on something stupid.”
I’ve heard lindy hoppers express similar sentiments themselves. At some point everybody who’s interested in dancing and pursuing dance in any kind of meaningful way must decide their level of commitment. Naturally, this comes up in conversations between dancers from time to time, and I’ve often heard people justify their lack of involvement by noting how unimportant it is (as though a decision so personal and so crucial needs justification). A friend of mine illustrated this beautifully by saying, “I don’t make nearly as much money as I could, but I got a good swing out!” It’s playful, it’s bitter, and it expresses a concern that all lindy hoppers feel to some extent: That the thing we’ve chosen to spend so much time, effort, and money trying to do better perhaps ought not be done at all.
Those of us (I arrogantly include myself) who choose to devote ourselves more than might seem practical have to find a way to conceive of the dance as more than just “fun.” I think few of us have the desire or the courage to live a purely hedonistic lifestyle, and in order not to torture ourselves about our choices (too much), we have to convince ourselves beyond reasonable doubt that what we’re doing is “important.” Here are a few of my thoughts on why lindy hop is important. This list, while long, is by no means exhaustive.
First, in order to retain any sense of integrity, I have to admit that probably the most compelling reason that I think lindy hop is important in an objective sense is that I want it to be. I’m passionate about it. I’m invested in the need to think it’s important. I think it’s objectively important because it’s so subjectively important. To put it one more way: I think it’s important to the world because of how important it is to me.
Second, there are the much touted health benefits. These are significant (to an extent; doing any physical activity a whole whole lot can result in overuse injuries), but they’re also well established, so I needn’t explore most of them here. I will say, however, that there are health benefits not often mentioned when promoting lindy hop. One of the most exciting to me, because I’ll be involved in it, is a study being conducted this coming February in which researchers will explore the use of lindy hop as an aid to recovery in people with neurological damage following a physical trauma. Basically, can learning to dance help people with brain injuries get better? I kind of expect that it will.
Another personal benefit of social dancing is that in a world where individuals are increasingly isolated from each other, social dancing provides a safe, low pressure environment in which to interact with others. Significantly, it provides an environment that has rules. In dealing with people, there can be a lot of comfort in rules. It’s like talking about the weather: it gives us a script so that we can begin talking to someone, and from which we can move to a more organic and meaningful conversation. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the negative effect of things like Facebook and texting on one-to-one interactions between people. I recently read a study where two people had a conversation in a room, and the mere presence of a cell phone on a table nearby made a noticeable difference in the comfort of the participants. Dancing gives us a way to interact with people, and it removes us from the digital cocoon that we’ve built around ourselves so that we can really enjoy it.
Dance is not just good for individuals; it’s also good for society. Schools and clubs in high-risk areas have long used extracurricular social activities to make drugs and crime less appealing. Sports, arts, academic clubs, and many other activities are valuable in this pursuit. Dance, especially social dance, and extra especially lindy hop, seems particularly suited to this. It combines athleticism, art, and analysis. The Three A’s of a useful member of society, which I just made up. Lindy hop also requires people, if they want to get any good, to see things from another person’s perspective. Leads have to understand what it’s like to be a follow in order to lead well. Follows have to know what it’s like to really lead in order to understand how backleading hurts the dance. A lindy hop program at a high-risk school would provide – for a student – a handy social group engaged in a healthy activity, a sense of belonging, a reason to be interested in history, and an esoteric-ness that satisfies the desire to stand out as unique. Such a program would provide for society a host of well balanced children whose boundless energies would be devoted to something other than drugs and crime.
The historical connection mentioned above is one of the things that sets lindy hop apart from other social dances. That’s not to say that there isn’t a rich history associated with every social dance, but I think the nature of lindy hop’s history is different. Lindy hop is part of a portion of America’s cultural history that is often neglected or reduced to cartoonish exaggerations. Giant zoot suits, bold colors, racism, mobsters with funny accents, moonshine. When people think of jazz, they usually think of Sinatra; turtlenecks; berets; dimly lit, smoke filled rooms; bad wedding bands. Elevators. Being on hold. Lindy hop gives people an opportunity and a good reason to explore this part of America’s cultural history. In particular, it’s important not just as part of the cultural history of America, but specifically of black America. American education traditionally focuses on the experience of the European in America, which is why things like Black History Month exist. Even with Black History Month, so much attention is (and should be) paid to the history of racial inequality that many aspects of black contributions to American culture are ignored. The living, growing lindy hop scene provides an opportunity to make up for some of that imbalance.
Finally, lindy hop is globally important. It can be nothing but a boon to mankind that the lindy hop community is spread all over the world. A lindy hopper can travel to almost any country and find a group of like-minded people. There are dance camps and competitions that bring hundreds of dancers from radically different backgrounds together to work and play and get to know each other. As a lindy hopper I have a good reason to visit places I’d never otherwise consider going, and I know that if I went I could easily find a place to stay. I don’t mean to suggest that lindy hop can cure the world’s ills – though that claim has been made – but I do feel strongly that it can do some important work in helping us to look past those differences that might keep us apart.
To be perfectly honest, none of these things really represent why I’m a lindy hopper. I love lindy hop because it’s fun, it offers a way to let go and a fiddly technical system at the same time. Because I like the people I’ve met doing it. Because it makes me feel good that I’m good at it. Because it gives me an opportunity to teach, which I like doing. However, the things I mention above convince me that lindy hop is worth loving. I love eating breakfast tacos, but I’d feel bad if I devoted all my time and energy to eating them. These things make me feel good about loving lindy hop the way I do. That what I do is more than just fun; it’s important.
Do you disagree with some or all of my points? Do you have other reasons for thinking that lindy hop (or swing dance more generally) is important? Please comment and let me know!