I went out to a local bar with a friend of mine that I know from the Swing Scene here in Chicago. As we stood to the side of the room, watching the band, waiting for a song that we wanted to dance to, I marveled over how isolated we were in this room full of people, who presumably go to a bar to socialize. Yet rarely do I actually meet people when I’m in a bar. If I do, it’s because I’m making a tremendous effort.
A few weeks prior to this, I was in Texas at the wedding of someone I didn’t know very well. Throughout the week we attended a number of social events where once again, aside from the hand full of people we knew, I felt socially isolated from the group. While I have no problem with walking up to strangers and striking up a conversation, a lot of other people seem to experience discomfort in this situation, which makes me feel a little bit like I’m imposing on them. Only one other person at the wedding actually made an effort to walk up to me, a complete stranger, and make conversation. He was an interesting person and I was glad to have met him, but amazed that in this crowd of artists and writers, how hard it was to connect with anyone.
I found myself jonseing for the dance week-end I had scheduled for the following week-end in Dallas, purely for the social comfort I experience in a scene of like-minded folks.
If you don’t social dance, imagine walking into your local bar or café and instantly being able to strike up a conversation with anyone in the room. Imagine landing in any city, finding the local pub, walking in, introducing yourself to the first person you see, telling them you’re an out of town and having the bar buy you a round of drinks at some point in the evening.
This metaphor might seem a little unlikely, and even in the social dance scene people feel varying levels of comfort and welcomeness, but the pure act of walking up to a stranger and asking for a dance opens you up to a conversation, potential future dances (if you like dancing with them) and possibly a friendship. That said… there’s no pressure for conversation and when we run out of things to say with words, we dance!
The fact that the social dance scene makes it OK for strangers to come into physical contact for 3-5 minute at a time makes a conversation with a stranger an easy feat by comparison.
If you do social dance, you don’t need me to preach to you of the many benefits. But imagine if you could have that kind of social ease every where you went? I don’t have a solution for this problem, other than for everyone to learn to dance.
I’ve circulated in a number of different social scenes since I struck out on my own and as I approached my seventh anniversary of Swing Dancing this fall, I’ve contemplated what has retained me. Aside from the fact that I love dancing, it’s the welcoming nature of the dancers that has retained me for so long. Even if I’m all alone at a dance event, I don’t feel lonely or awkward. I don’t have to have a friend with me when I go out dancing. In fact, I often go out on my own, knowing that I’ll either run into someone I know or make a new connection.
And traveling is made easier by dance. There’s an unspoken code in the dance scene that we open our homes to out of towners, or at the very least, offer to point them in the direction of a good night of dancing while they’re passing through. When I drove across country in 2005, in my souped up Ford Camper Van, I found it hard to actually camp in it. Every time I cruised into a new town and connected with the dancers there, people insisted I come inside and stay with them.
I’m grateful for the sense of welcoming community that the Swing and Blues Scene has created on a national and international level. And as the Emerald City Blues Festival nears, I grow more and more eager to re-connect with friends I’ve made across the country over the years.