Swing dancing as a language: why Swing dancing is for geeks

Presented as a four-minute flash talk at Automattic’s 2013 Grand Meetup in California.

I want to talk to you about a language that is likely little known to many of you, which is dancing. Indeed, I dance something called the Lindy Hop. Probably the most iconic of Swing dances, reminiscent of the Thirties and such lively venues as the Savoy in New York City’s Harlem, Lindy is a fast-paced, spectacular and fun dance.

Lindy Hop

The Lindy Hop is powered by Swing music. Swing music takes roots in Jazz and is a very well structured kind of music: it gives you 8-count bars, usually 4-bar phrases, and you have progressions such as Blues or Dixieland Jazz progressions. This all means that it has a sense of order and predictability.

Now, the fact that the structure is, at its core, minimal and immutable means that it gets out of your way, and this allows a lot of freedom for improvisation, for bending the rhythm, etc., for musicians and dancers alike. In fact, even if they don’t know the music, dancers can follow it just because of that very structure, and even mess around with it.

Also—erm, this is geeky, but bear with me—the combination of those few core principles and the freedom, that semi-chaotic behavior that ensues is, I believe, akin to our own understanding of Physics (cf. gravitation and so on).

Stretch

What’s more, Physics is a huge part of dancing. You know, vectors and shit. You can view Swing dancing as a mechanical sandbox where, tuned to the same song, two partners—lead and follow—share forces and interact as two bodies with inertia and elastic movements. This all comes into play when dancing, and indeed two of my close friends actually mention vectors and centers of gravity when teaching.

In Swing dancing, just as in Swing music, there are a few simple core principles. Namely the bounce, which obviously is the part where you bounce to the sound of the music. However, there is a special technique to it, and indeed it is shared between both partners. There is also the notion of action and reaction, as well as the momentum which is carried by the dancers. Another vital component is stretch and compression, based on a buildup of tension in both partners which lies in their bodies’ elasticity, so long as they keep a proper frame. Now, the fact that bounce and body tension are shared effectively means that there is a channel of communication open between both partners—ergo, we have a language, which we refer to as the connection.

Back under the geek’s lens, if you look at the connection as a controller bus and the core principles of dancing as the rules of a game, you get an awesome flesh & bones simulator. In short: freedom and ideas on top of a fixed, minimal ruleset lead to a rich environment for experimenting. That is, instead of learning steps by heart just because that’s how they’re “supposed to be”, you can play around: “What happens if I do this? Or ir we do that instead? What forces are at play right now?”. And this is so much more fun than merely learning steps.

In the end, why do I dance? I don’t know, maybe because it’s fucking exciting and fun. There’s nothing better than having a packed venue with a live band playing and people sweeping across the dance floor. But it’s also about the learning. (I mean, how cool is it?!) The learning curve is something of a roller coaster; and the learning process, which I think is what it all comes down to:

Learning process

Basically, more progress means more possibilities as a dancer, which also leads to more frustration as you realize how little you know or how much polishing you need, which drives you to work harder, thus pushing for more progress. This keeps going on, and in the end, fun is what you keep reaping. And I believe this is the essence of geekiness; this is the part that appeals to all of us here. Each one of us knows exactly about this process.

Therefore, this is me inciting you to pursue your geeky interests—and, also… try the Lindy Hop!

Author: Miguel Fonseca

Engineer at Automattic. Linguist, cyclist, Lindy Hopper, tree climber, and headbanger.

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