Learning to Swing (+ Lessons in Love) at Bend Dance

Learning to Swing (+ Lessons in Love) at Bend Dance

Last night I found myself in Southwest Bend, with eight strangers, in someone’s converted garage, standing on a temporary dance floor, staring at myself in mirrors (repurposed mirrors leaning against the newly painted sheetrock: they were formerly sliding closet doors).

This is Bend Dance. A one-woman show led by Victoria Tolonen, the owner of the garage attached to a new-build house. Judging from her posture, the open-toed low-heeled dance shoes and the Lladro-esque trophies perched atop a bookshelf, she’s an award-winning dancer. 

I was in Victoria’s garage, er, home studio, to learn the West Coast Swing, but I picked up a few tips on love along the way.

First we went over the basic West Coast Swing steps. Step, Step, Triple Step, Triple Step. Okay, pretty easy.

Then we faced our partner and joined hands on one side (my right, his left). 

This is were it got interesting. 

No grasping, no thumbs, just enough so you can create tension. Tension was key.

The man’s job is to create momentum with this tension, or as Victoria said “To get her going.” The woman’s job is to keep the tension present, like a rubber band, so the guy can lead her. 

Victoria explained that if the guy doesn’t lead, we women don’t go anywhere. We get all of our momentum from him. And if we’re not right there, responsive and ready, keeping the tension, he can’t spin us around the dance floor.

Then she said something that will probably stick with me for the rest of my life:

“Ladies, you only move when he pulls you in. DO NOT MOVE TOWARDS HIM ON YOUR OWN. Your only job is to be available and to keep the tension. If you move towards him on your own, you basically snip snip him” 

Here she made little scissor motions with her hands. So colorful, that Victoria. For further clarification, she continued:

“If you move without his lead, you emasculate him. You want your partner to feel like the hero on the dance floor…”

The hero. 

I want my man to feel like the hero! And I want to be led. 

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m not just talking about swing dancing.

Feminists everywhere would be horrified, I know, but fuck it. It’s my life. I’m not saying anyone else should follow suit. All I know is the dance floor is one of the places I’m happiest in the world, and I’d like to feel the same in my love life.

You might think being at the mercy of a man on the dance floor would be limiting, stifling, or degrading, but it’s not at all. I feel totally free, and I’m a bad dancer. A good leader can make me look like I actually know what I’m doing. And a great leader makes it fun. I never know exactly what’s coming until a split second before it happens, and I’m guided through every step so that I can actually relax and just feel the music. It puts me squarely in the moment. No other thoughts, just floating, twirling and laughing. It’s pretty glorious. 

Now, if the guy can’t lead, well, then it’s the opposite of free. You’re kind of his captive for 3-plus minutes until the song is over. Trying to figure out what he wants and how to enjoy yourself in a little micro-climate of uncertainty and confusion is not fun or freeing. Eventually you’ll probably just take the lead and boss him around to alleviate the awkwardness.

Sounds an awful lot like my last relationship.

To be a good follower in swing and two-step (and probably other styles, I just don’t know any others), you have to be available and you have to trust your partner. 

Specifically, when your partner drops your hand for a spin or whatever, you keep your hands available and trust that he’ll catch you. If you don’t trust that he’ll catch you, you’ll accidentally become the leader, trying to anticipate the next move, and will inevitably grasp at the wrong time, throwing it all off. If you go all slack and/or drop your hands where he can’t reach them, he can’t catch you or lead you and you’ll probably careen into another body on the dance floor. 

For the record, the follower isn’t totally at the mercy of her partner. A good leader is responive too. He makes every move an invitation, gives you just enough warning that if you aren’t prepared to do a certain move, you can signal back. It’s a conversation with bodies and hands… You are not a mindless participant. You have a say. A great partner leads with YOU in mind. A good partner wants to keep you safe, and wants you to have fun.

To be a good follower, keep the tension between you, stay available and present and in the “conversation” and only dance with partners you trust. 

If you dance with someone who stops leading and disappears unexpectedly, well, don’t dance with him again. You’ll get hurt. Believe me, I know this from real life. You have to trust that your partner is consistent and reliable, wants to keep you safe and is committed to the same dance. 

If you dance with someone who won’t actually lead, and you have to take the lead, that’s fine, as long as you want to lead, and you want to dance with a follower. Just don’t lead and be bitter that he’s a follower. Call it what it is and be okay with it, or find another dance partner who wants what you want. You can’t have it both ways.

On the dance floor, I’m focused on a few things. I’m available (meaning my hands are reachable), responsive (when he pulls, if I’m game, I respond by moving in the direction he wants, with zero resistance), I give him my complete trust (I know he’ll keep me safe and collision-free and stop my momentum and bring me back to him at just the right moment) and I give a certain amount of pressure or tension between our hands/bodies, so he can lead me (you can’t lead a wet noodle). These things become second nature and then I’m free to feel the music, enjoy my partner, enjoy the flow and the joy that comes with freedom and letting go.

This all seems revelatory to me on the love front. I’ve always wanted to feel “led” in a relationship… But I chose bad leaders, or I broke the “follower” rules (with great gusto — all in the name of equality and being a modern woman).

I am a modern woman… who just happens to want a more traditional relationship. So shoot me. I’m ready to stop trying to lead, and choose more carefully who I trust.

I have a new little romance on my hands in real life, not on the dance floor. He knows how to lead, and I trust his judgment… ahhhh. But do I know how to follow?

So, I’m thinking about Victoria’s words a lot today. Be responsive, keep the tension, let him create the momentum, but be present and available and let him know what I want. 

I’m paying attention to the signals, always receptive to the invitation, only accepting the invite when it feels right to me, communicating what I want and need, letting him guide us. I am committed to the dance. And I’ve chosen a partner who is equally committed…  

Sometimes I forget that I’m with a man I trust and respect and I get nervous and take the reins. He is gracious and never rigid, but listens and picks up the lead as soon as I stop panicking…adjusting our course in ways that help me feel safe and trust that he’ll be there to catch me.

It all sounds so 1950s, but when I’m with someone I trust who cares about my happiness, there is no better feeling in the world than when I relax, let go and follow along. And it makes me wonder why I settled for so much less for so long.

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