Screen-Free Week starts on May 2, so if you and your family are hunting for something that will entertain, exercise, and educate you, look no further than social dancing.
I grew up in Texas hill country, which means I grew up going to “kicker” (a.k.a. country-western) dances. It wasn’t Friday night unless my high school friends and I were out doing the Texas two-step, the Cotton-Eyed Joe, the Schottische, the polka, and the waltz. There were usually a few rock-and-roll classics thrown in, too, but the bulk of the dancing was social dancing, where you touch your partner and move your feet in an established pattern.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was learning a skill many young people — in fact, many people, period — are never exposed to. My son, a recent high school graduate, reports that his school dances involve more group and line than partner dancing. Often the kids just get in a big circle and take turns freestyling.
There’s nothing wrong with that kind of dancing, but if that’s all you’re doing, you’re missing out on something that will make your life richer. Here are five reasons to learn to social dance and to teach your children.
1. It’s Civilized
Social dancing is not about freestyling, showing off your own moves, or making yourself the center of attention. It’s about coming together with another human being to create something of beauty, form, and order.
In social or ballroom dancing, there are clear roles, with the man and woman each having a part to play, and designated steps, requiring a leader and a follower. Things don’t work properly if the steps aren’t performed correctly or if someone doesn’t play his or her part.
To those who say such a setup is sexist because the man is traditionally the leader/determiner of moves, I hasten to point out that historically it is the woman who gets to decide whether she’s even going to dance with the man in question. He puts himself out on a limb, risking the pain of rejection, to ask the lady to honor him with her attention for the duration of a song. Who’s in control? It all depends on your point of view.
2. There’s Always Something New to Learn
When I went to college, the dancing changed from country-western to club dancing (no comparison on the civilized scale). When I got married, had children, and moved to the Midwest, dance all but disappeared from my life.
But about 10 years ago, my husband and I decided to take a class where we learned West Coast Swing, the foxtrot, and even a little rumba. We had the time of our lives, then dropped the lessons for another 10 years.
We recently took them up again and are again having a blast. We are still beginners, still mostly terrible, with much to learn. But that’s part of what’s wonderful about social dance: There’s always a new step, a more advanced move, a way to get better, look better, and interact with one another more gracefully.
3. It Encourages Intimacy
You can’t dance with your significant other without touching each other, looking at each other, and talking to each other. You can’t dance with someone you’re mad at. You can’t dance with a partner while sitting with headphones on, staring at a screen, listening to your own playlist.
By its very nature, social dance makes you share yourself with another, interact with another, and make room for another. If that “other” is your own beloved and romance ensues, all the better.
4. It’s Good for Your Physical, Emotional, and Psychological Health
For many of us, nothing chases away the blues like a favorite song. I can be leaving the office at the end of an absolutely dreadful, mind-numbing day, but if a bouncy, joyful, toe-tapping song comes on the radio (I’m one of those dinosaurs who still listens to the car radio), the ugly starts to fade away almost immediately.
Various studies have recorded the physical, emotional, and psychological benefits of dance, but you don’t really need a study to tell you that dancing to your favorite music is a fun way to get some exercise and elevate your mood (especially for those of us who have trouble sticking to an exercise program). Dance with a partner, and you add the advantage of meaningful social interaction.
5. It Keeps You off Screens, During Screen-Free Week and Beyond
True confession: In the waning months of the Covid-19 lockdown, my husband and I ended our dance lesson hiatus by way of an online program called “Show Her Off.” I unreservedly recommend it. The man behind the program, Hunter Masters, is an excellent, encouraging teacher who doesn’t try to turn you into professionals but offers helpful principles, easily learned moves, and a lighthearted, fun approach to teaching couples to dance.
In his teaching, Masters regularly refers to what he calls “the dance effect,” whereby a fun dip or twirl invariably puts a big smile on the dancing lady’s face. He counsels men to remember that their primary role is to provide a “frame” whereby the lady can shine (because that’s who everyone is looking at) and to be gentle and subtle with cues (because ladies have “power steering” and don’t need to be thrown this way and that).
Throughout, the subtext is that ladies are to be cherished and that men are to do the cherishing. In a time when good manners, traditional gender roles, and old-fashioned chivalry are on the decline, the message of “Show Her Off” and of social dance in general is sorely needed.
It’s ideal if you can pursue it without a screen. But if an in-person dance class is not readily available to you, an online program is the next best thing — and ultimately, you have to put the screen aside, get off your rear, and move. Perhaps just wait until after Screen-Free Week.