Swing dancing was not on my bucket list. I’d vaguely pondered ballroom dance lessons but tended to avoid dancing in public after being teased about it on several occasions as a teenager.
However, in 2009, an old friend came to town for a year to study at the local university, and she’d made it her mission to eke as much fun out of that year as possible. One of the things on her list? Go either salsa or swing dancing. She dragged me out with her, despite my protests, and so there I was, on my way to dance, in public, with strangers.
At the time, I was on an upswing after my first major battle with depression, and I’d lost 20 pounds towards my approximately 50 pound weight loss goal, but I’d always been relatively shy, except among a few close friends; this was out of my comfort zone in more ways than one.
The lesson before the dance itself was geared towards beginners, and the teachers, Kevin and Christabel, abounded with infectious energy, and they did an incredible job of passing on their passion for the dance to their students. I left that evening with a few new dance steps under my belt, a new experience to add to my scrapbook, and one thing on my mind: I want to do this again.
The biggest step forward for me was not going that first weekend but the next one: I, the shy young woman who felt clumsy walking down the street, let alone on the dance floor, went to the dance by myself. I didn’t stay long, about an hour after the lesson, but I danced with a few of the regulars and some of the leads I met during the lesson, and I walked away feeling even more entranced.
In the weeks that followed, I spent every spare moment practicing the basic steps until they were stuck in my muscle memory, and then I started to build on it. Also? I got a lot bouncier. (Having a consistent ‘pulse’ is crucial in swing dancing.)
As time went by, I not only became a better dancer but a stronger conversationalist. I’d always been a good listener but small talk wasn’t something that came easily to me. When you’re dancing with someone for a four or five minute song, though, and filling the spaces between songs when you’re too tired to get out on the floor, knowing how to talk to someone you’ve just met or only known for a little while is a sure-fire way to keep things interesting and engage with your fellow dancers.
[Suggested for you: Small Talk 101]
I put my all into this and over time developed somewhat of a reputation for remembering names and random details to bring up in later conversation. Dance communities tend to be both close-knit and welcoming to newcomers (the good ones, anyway), so being a part of one on an ongoing basis has a tendency to develop your conflict resolution skills and your ability to let go of petty jealousies.
Society is still a little funny sometimes when it comes to friendships between heterosexual members of opposing genders; swing is one community where these social norms go out the window.
Unlike some dance scenes, a dance really is just a dance, and over time I developed connections that I was able to enjoy outside of dance, as well. That’s not to say romance can’t bloom on the dance floor; I went on my first date with someone from swing, and later met the guy who I embarked on my first adult relationship with. Several years later, we’re no longer dating but still enjoy each other’s company as friends.
The list of gains and incredible experiences I’ve had thanks to swing is too extensive to lay out here in full, but suffice to say that, like many decisions in life, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if I hadn’t taken the leap to go dancing in the first place, particularly that second time when I went on my own.
It was a turning point for me, socially, physically, and mentally.
While my fitness level still isn’t where I’d like it to be, I’m so much further ahead – the more dancing I did, the more I wanted to be able to do, so I started adding extra workouts into my week for greater strength and flexibility, and I started riding my bike more often, as well. Had I taken a different path, I’d like to think I still would have accomplished these things, but it’s impossible to know what paths not taken might have held, so I live in the present and with gratitude for how my life has turned out, and the choices I’ve made.
Swing dance isn’t just a hobby to me, it’s the key that unlocked the door to a journey – a journey that brought ever greater fitness, friendship, and romance into my life, as well as a constant physical and mental challenge.
Over the last year, it even encouraged me to embark on my first solo travel adventures. As I continue to participate in and give back to the community in years to come, I can’t wait to see what comes next.