Partner dancing offers a simple, profound opportunity to practice kindness & generosity: make your partner's happiness more important than your own. Dance for your partner instead of yourself. Partner dancing also offers a surprisingly effective concrete step dancers can take in that direction: learn the other part. At least a little. Try it out to see what it feels like to be on the other side.
To get any good at anything - including kindness & generosity - you have to practice. Practice, in this case, means being intentionally kind & generous. Why be kind & generous? Because that's what makes us happy. Happiness comes from giving away rather than holding on. Selfishness isolates, kindness connects. And it feels better to be connected than isolated. You can use partner dancing as a way to practice and get better at that.
Being intentionally kind & generous makes partner dancing (or anything else) a way to evolve as a human, to move closer to happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment. The work involved in becoming more human, which in this case is being intentionally kind & generous, is hard; it requires dedication and internal sacrifice. I have to choose to make my partner's happiness more important than my own, and act on that, over and over again. I have to keep at it. They say it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated work to master anything. What's more worth mastering than kindness & generosity?
Dancing for myself is dancing to get something for me:
Dancing for myself - even as artistic expression - is self absorption. Self absorption is pretty shallow: hey look at me (including "look at the cool art I made"). Partner dancing offers a possibility that goes much deeper: setting my own needs and wants aside and dancing for my partner. When I dance for my partner I'm not trying to get anything, I'm just trying to make my partner happy. I'm not concerned about my own happiness; I trust that'll take care of itself.
Dancing for my partner is a simple preference: I prefer my partner above anything else in dance. I may want to dance a certain dance, in a certain style, and a certain level of expertise, executing certain moves and not others, but I set all that aside to dance with my partner, the person who is actually there in my arms. All those ideas & preferences about dancing are just mental fantasies; they're nothing compared to this living breathing human I'm holding in my arms. Whatever my partner can do, whatever he or she actually does - I dance with that. Not with some idea of what I want to accomplish and how I want to look, but with my partner. I prefer my partner above anything else in dance.
Self absorption is the most pervasive and intractable barrier to human evolution; it's the foundation of selfishness & aggression, the source of misery. Self absorption is the opposite of love, of connection with my fellow humans. We dancers tend to get self absorbed about our dancing: Oh this feels so wonderful to me! or Look how cool I am! or Damn I really blew that. To whatever extent I'm dwelling on me, positively or negatively, I'm self absorbed, and thus not connecting. Being intentionally kind & generous disrupts self absorption by taking the focus off me and putting it on my partner. Focusing on myself while I dance, no matter what form it takes - working on my excellence, being embarrassed by my mistakes, developing my skills, being concerned about how I look or how much fun I'm having, thinking people are admiring me or laughing at me behind my back - is self absorption, and self absorption sucks.
It's natural for children to be self absorbed, but ugly in adults; it's infantile. Politicians and celebrities seem to vie with each other to provide the ugliest examples of self absorption. Self absorption is considered normal, which makes it invisible; most of us have no idea we're self absorbed. But we are, all of us. If we partner dancers weren't self absorbed, we'd all focus on making our partners happy, unconcerned about ourselves, paying no attention to anyone but our partners, except for the attention needed to avoid collisions & such. If the rest of the world weren't self absorbed, it'd be full of kindness & generosity rather than the misery we see on the news.
Partner dancing with intentional kindness & generosity is a way of disrupting self absorption: focus off me & my concerns, onto making my partner happy. Disrupting self absorption is the first step toward getting out from under it to a richer, fuller life, a life lit up by love. Partner dancing with intentional kindness & generosity is a way of working toward that goal, of making spiritual progress, of evolving as a human.
Intentional kindness & generosity is an act of surrender, a conscious choice to take the focus off me and put it on my partner. I consciously choose to stop looking out for #1 and instead devote my dancing to making my partner happy; I make my partner #1. Like everyone, I have the misguided but compelling fear that I mustn't surrender, that I must always watch out for myself and guard what I have or I will be diminished; people will take advantage of me. In some circumstances I do need to watch out for myself. Watching out for myself becomes a problem when it's habitual, when I do it all the time. Habitual suspicious guarding cuts me off from the richness of life all around me; it has the opposite effect of what's intended. Distrust can be a sensible precaution at times, but if it becomes a ruling principle it creates misery & isolation.
Partner dancing is an opportunity to surrender, a safe place where I can set all my self-importance aside and be unselfish, devoted to my partner. Surrender is what it takes to be deeply happy, to be connected with my fellow humans. Selfishness is intrinsically unhappy; generosity is intrinsically happy. Selfish is isolated; generous is connected to the human family.
In partner dance, creativity has to include both partners. If I'm being creative and leaving my partner out, we're no longer partners. Creativity in partner dancing is based on deep connection and profound generosity. Concern with myself, even with my own creativity, prevents that and dams up the creative juices. Putting all my attention on making my partner happy opens the floodgates of creativity by making creative collaboration possible. My partner and I welcome each other's creative contributions regardless of lead/follow roles; we playfully draw creativity out of each other, we inspire each other.
To be creative, dance as equals: equally powerful, equally creative, equally receptive. No one's in charge, we write the script together; we create every aspect of the dance together as equals, with mutual respect. Before I take a step I listen to my partner, with my whole body. All through the dance we both listen, and respond while continuing to listen. We both favor listening over speaking, careful not to drown out anything the other has to say.
And if there's silence, nobody speaking, both listening intently? That can be the sweetest and most creative moment of all. Because when we move together from that silence, both listening intently - who's leading? We dance together without knowing the answer.
Human relationship is founded on respect. Respect can't be bought, sold, bartered or coerced; it can only be given freely, from the heart: I recognize a person as my equal, my fellow human, and so I naturally treat that person with kindness & generosity. Respect has nothing to do with fear, and it's nothing I can earn, because I don't deserve it. No one "deserves" respect; respect can only be given freely, as a gift. I may make someone fear me, but I have absolutely no influence over whether they respect me, i.e. acknowledge me directly from the heart; that's up to them, though respect invites respect.
Respect takes root in me when I recognize that everyone - and my partner in particular - is my equal, in every regard. This is not some flimsy intellectual idea about equality, it's a recognition that shocks me, and I feel that shock all the way down to my bones: I look in that person's eyes and suddenly see there's no difference; I recognize myself in that person. In that shock of recognition my misconceptions vanish. I suddenly know in my heart that my partner - and everyone else - is utterly my equal. Until that happens respect is just an idea, a mental fantasy.
Dance teachers often talk about connection; creating & maintaining a good connection with your partner is a hot topic in dance classes. But in my experience they're usually talking about an essentially anonymous connection based on skill, trained reflexes, and shared vocabulary: a dance connection. And while that's important, it's only part of the connection story, and not the most important part. Human connection with my partner - which has nothing to do with dance classes, skills, technique etcetera - is what gives my dancing depth. Connection based on skills & technique alone may be satisfying on a shallow egotistical level, but for deep satisfaction I need human connection. Only within human connection can I be intentionally kind & generous. Creative collaboration is dance connection happening within deep human connection. Human connection is friendship; it's very difficult if not impossible to connect with someone who's not your friend.
Human connection starts with wanting to connect, and for dancers, wanting to connect includes wanting to hold this person in my arms; I can't begin to connect if I don't feel that. To make a human connection I have to choose my partner, and be chosen back. "Would you like to dance?" means, among other things, "Would you like to hold me in your arms?" With someone new, I can't know the answer to that in advance. It's impossible to know what it's going to feel like to dance with someone until I do it, so I just have to take a chance. Appearances aren't helpful; attractiveness isn't a reliable indicator. My impression of someone's skill is also unreliable. Someone may indeed be a fabulous dancer, but then when we try dancing together it just doesn't click; there's no friendship beginning to develop here. We're dancing together politely rather than warmly, happy to be in each other's arms.
Of course it's almost always awkward when I first dance with someone. It takes a lot of dancing together to relax into dancing with a new partner, to find your way to a dance friendship. And dancing a lot with one partner is generally frowned on in partner dance circles. But that's what it takes to cultivate a new dance friendship. A dance friendship is an opening toward really going deep, toward being intentionally kind & generous, toward making each other's happiness more important than your own.
Self absorption makes human connection impossible. I have to get past that to some degree; I have to acknowledge my partner directly, with respect, as a fellow human, my equal in every regard; friends are equals. They don't usually teach that kind of connection in dance class, but dancing is a wonderful opportunity to practice it. Partner dancing relies on skill, to be sure, but there's absolutely no question which kind of connection is more important: kindness & generosity are more important than dance skill, duh. Hell, just keeping a sense of humor and not taking this dance business too seriously is more important than skill.
Dance contests & performances are institutionalized showing off, all about image: how the dancing looks and what other people think. Putting on a show. Contests & performances foster and encourage self absorption. Sure, a lot of us dancers show off a bit from time to time; it's hard to resist, and a little showing off does no harm as long as I don't take it seriously. But if my focus is on how my dancing looks and what people think, I'm trapped in self absorption.
Performances & contests are lousy for all concerned. If you're out there showing off, it's feeding ego, vanity, self absorption and other related low-rent districts in your psyche. If you're sitting there watching other people perform or compete, you're just a schlub in a chair. Don't watch, dance. Go somewhere where there's room for you to dance, where you're not expected to sit & watch. Leave them to their spectacles and go have fun.
'Smatterofact, I recommend going the opposite direction of showing off: be perfectly happy to goof up in public. Don't goof up on purpose as a stunt; that's just more showing off. But everyone goofs up at times, especially when dancing creatively, trying new things. I suggest that when you goof up, laugh openly at the goof rather than trying to hide it or pretend it didn't happen. And don't just laugh at your goofs, go out of your way to make fun of your own silliness. Mock whatever image you like to project: smooth & suave, elegant & world-weary, wise & experienced, bemused & sophisticated; the genial host, the wild & crazy guy/gal, the smoky siren, the passionate aficionado, the perfect gentleman; the beginner, the earnest student, the expert. Make fun of your persona! We all suffer from this silly-ass stuff; attitudes & personas are just spasms of self absorption. Genial self-mockery is a wonderful antidote. Puncture your own hot air balloon.