Below is a guest post – written by my wife! – on dancing. Please read and consider prayerfully what she says here.
“But the Pope likes tango.”
It wasn’t the first time I heard that phrase. I was having a discussion with someone about why I didn’t dance anymore, after six years of being involved with the swing dance scene. It didn’t make sense to anyone why I would choose not to swing dance anymore, especially because swing dancing was “such a traditional form of dance.” But I thought more about it and wanted to challenge the person with whom I was conversing: just because you consider it traditional since it came about before the 1960s, can you really consider it beautiful as well?
I still remember teaching my first swing dance class, an “Introduction to the Lindy Hop” to be more specific; I began by first giving a brief introduction of the dance and its conception which took place in the 1920s. I even remember treating Frankie Manning, a founding Father of the Lindy Hop, as some sort of hero. After this introduction, I recall asking my students to listen to and “get a feel for” the music.
That’s how I always started class. I would explain that getting a feel for the music was important as it would give everyone an idea of the beat, or rhythm, of the music. I stressed to each of the students that they really should be familiar with the music’s timing before partnering up. The person I would be teaching with would demonstrate along with me the best ways to “feel the rhythm” and listen for the first beat of the eight count song, counting out the rhythm through clapping out the timing. We’d then have couples pair up and my fellow instructor and I would describe to our class the dynamics of the dance, never forgetting to include explanations of Newton’s Laws of Physics (i.e. “an object in motion (the follower) stays in motion unless acted upon by an outside force (the leader)”), the basic 6 and 8 count patterns of footwork for both leader and follower, as well as the proper techniques for connection of the leader and follower in the dance. We would then have them rotate partners until they had a chance to get a feel for the dance with several different people. It was fine if spouses wanted to dance with each other all class, but we were always sure to say that the best way to learn was by dancing with as many partners as possible, especially the more experienced ones. Next- well, they were pretty much good to go and begin their first experience of dancing the Lindy Hop.
I recall these days with anything but enthusiasm and joy. It’s quite the contrary, in fact. A weight feels as if it is pressing on my heart when I think of this part of my past. I recall even early on having a sense of discomfort with the moves or styling techniques that I would often see being done, but I also remember justifying so much of my former way of thinking about dance, because, after all, it was “traditional,” right? A sense of tradition always meant so much to me, and I would constantly become excited when seeing a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film showing many beautiful and elegant waltzes, or a Jane Austen film adaptation portraying delightful and traditional contra dancing. And I would become lost in the true beauty of it all. I would always tell myself in the end that all swing dancing was fine as well (aside from the types of swing dancing which were beyond inappropriate such as “Blues Dancing,” which my dad once described as “having sex with your clothes on”), and would remind myself of my first dance instructor’s words: “Remember that if you’re uncomfortable with a move that someone wants to do with you, you can always set the boundaries.”
This seemed fair, and so I continued with classes and teaching and competing, always ready to share my instructor’s words of wisdom with my own students. Furthermore, I felt that because I was living a chaste life and because I was always ready to share my Faith (showing up unabashedly at my own dance classes sporting a shirt with an image of Our Lady or the words, “The Rosary: a Weapon of Mass Destruction” and “Former Embryo”), and the fact that I was always ready and proud to explain why I wore a purity ring, I was safe and thus able to have the best of both worlds.
All of that was great to me and I thought, in pride, that my soul could not be damaged in any way by participating in the “traditional” dance of the swing era. At age seventeen, I thought I had it all: my Faith, my family, and fame as a swing dance instructor, student, as well as competitor and winner in both national and international, as well as statewide, competitions. I taught for the state’s swing dance society, as well as the Yale University Swing Club. To me, my resume looked great.
But it would only be a matter of time before all of that would change. While an important sense of purity remained (I didn’t even kiss anyone until my husband) and while I never let go of my Faith and always remained close with my family, I began to become less on my guard when it came to dancing. Sure, I would always make it clear to those around me that I never wanted dancing to “become my life,” and would make a point of not going to every single dance I could have attended. I would continuously refuse to attend swing dance after-parties where I knew there would be drinking and where I assumed both guys and girls would be sleeping under the same roof. But one thing I would always justify was letting myself be a part of an atmosphere which was filled with immodesty and impurity, inappropriate behavior, and very little focus on God. Mentioning God for most of the people who surrounded themselves in all things swing was usually done with anything but a sense of reverence or respect for His Holy Name. This would bother me as would many things I encountered in my days of teaching and competing, but I never did much about it other than complain to my parents and one of my sisters. I would still attend some dances, and I continued with classes as I could, telling myself that in order to become a better dancer, I had to learn more advanced moves, immerse myself in the understanding of more Lindy Hop songs, and learn and practice new styling techniques (many of which I cringe at thinking about as I now realize they were not in the least bit pure).
And so I did all of these things. I danced with countless guys in one night of dancing, I prided myself in often being able to find a really excellent connection with my dance partner, and I began to perform more experienced moves which entailed more hip movement, more rotation of the lower body, and more shameless boldness than ever before. And life was good.
Or so I thought.
I am happy to say that while all of this took place in my life, God was there the entire time looking out for me in His Fatherly goodness. I have no doubts that He put on my heart a desire to slowly remove myself from the swing dance scene, only occasionally teaching or attending a dance. I don’t know if I could say that I felt it was God who was bringing me away from this environment, but I see now that it was. And perhaps it was also the prayers of my future husband who was praying to find a pure and chaste spouse that helped me to move further and further away from this part of my life.
When I began dating my now husband at age 20, I remember thinking to myself So, would you really be okay if he were to dance with a bunch of different women in one night and lead them into moves which you perform with other guys? At first, I told myself I would be fine with it. I thought Sure, he can do that. It’s not like swing dancing is more intimate than, say, contra dancing. But then I became honest with myself; my stomach would be in knots when I would think of my future husband participating in a type of dance in which he would be encouraged to dance with multiple women, and, quite unlike contra dancing in fact, a dance in which he would be told to connect with his partner and “feel how she moves and sways to the music” (and if you feel that this sounds a bit intimate, don’t doubt yourself). A dance in which he would be leading women into moves which would make their hips swivel in a particular manner or would encourage them to shimmy their shoulders or flirt on the dance floor… Who was I kidding? I wasn’t okay with that at all. So why was I doing it?
So once upon a time I may have been some semi-decent swing dancer and great Lindy Hop enthusiast. But now, well, all of that has changed. I am no longer connected with swing dancing in any way, and for that I am truly grateful. I am certainly thankful for having met many wonderful people through the swing dance scene, and I am grateful to God that He taught me many lessons in the importance of not judging others through it as well. I am grateful for having been given opportunities to stand up for my Faith and for being able to see myself grow in self-confidence. Although I may not swing dance any longer, my love for real tradition remains; I realize now, however, what exactly is beautiful tradition and what is not. Take any traditional Celtic or classical song and you’ll know what I mean. Watch any traditional contra dancing video instead of a Lindy Hop one and you’ll have a sense of what I’m talking about. Even look at any photo of a couple dancing traditional waltz (an upright, beautiful, and respectful form of dance) and then compare that to virtually any photo of a couple dancing the Lindy Hop (down into the ground, full of bounce, and let’s just say not exactly the most reverent form of dance) and you’ll really know where I am coming from.
Our world underwent a lot of changes in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Pope Pius XII said in a 1946 address to the United States Catechetical Congress that “the greatest sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” Now I am not saying that swing dancing is a sin, and in fact I am sure that there are many people out there who truly do perform this type of dancing by maintaining their dignity on the dance floor, but I am saying that the Pope had a point. And a good one at that.
As my husband and I begin to bring children into this world, we are realizing more and more that we have to constantly ask ourselves the following question: “Is this the best music I could be listening to?” We always want to consider this question and have that thought in the back of our minds regarding other things, such as movies we watch, events we attend, people we spend time with, and endeavors we tackle. We also realize that there is a difference between beautiful or transcendent traditional music and music that is merely enjoyable or light-hearted. Not all swing-era music is bad, but I encourage people who may be fans of swing to find some jazz songs which don’t scream “Lindy-Hop” or “Show Off” or something of that nature. Likewise, I encourage them to hold onto their love for tradition, if they have it, and attend a contra dance. The music alone fills one’s soul with such a sense of peace and contentment rather than a sense of indecency, immaturity, or disorder. It is truly beautiful and good.
In closing, I would like to encourage all who read this to really think about these things I mention. Perhaps you can ask yourself the very questions I asked myself in my discernment of whether or not the type of dancing I once did was good for me. I encourage you to use prudence in your own discernment of dance and music and to ask yourself always “Does this give greater glory to God?” God will help you to see the truth. Just ask Him for that help and always keep an open heart. He wants to guide you and lead you always. Don’t be afraid to follow Him.