Monday, July 31, 2006


Round dancing

I hadn't done any round dancing in about seven years, until yesterday.

"Round dancing" is, basically, choreographed ballroom dancing. For each musical number there's a specific dance that goes with it. One can memorize it, or one can listen to the "cuer", who tells you, during the dance, what step comes next — and so everyone is doing the same dance to that music. It makes ballroom dancing more accessible to some, because it puts less emphasis on "leading" (you're both hearing the cues, so both of you know what step you're doing), and because it expands the "vocabulary" you have available.

I think of natural language as having three vocabularies, here in increasing levels of richness: a speaking vocabulary, a writing vocabulary, and a reading vocabulary. When I write, I'll use more words than I'd likely use in speaking, and I can read and understand many more words than I'd ever use myself in writing or speaking. With ballroom dancing, my "speaking vocabulary" comprises the set of steps I might use on the dance floor with no effort, those steps that come easily and that I can lead without thinking about them. The equivalent of a "writing vocabulary" includes more steps, which I might lead only after thinking more, digging them out and reminding myself of how to convey them to my partner nonverbally. Or they might be steps that I think of after the dance, in an "Ah, I should have done that step," way.

Round dancing lets me use a "reading vocabulary" of steps that I would never think of unless someone told me about them, but, once directed to do them, I can do, and so can my partner. Still, dancing is best when you're moving as a unit, not when you're both doing your own dance to the same cues, and so even with cued round dancing it's best to "lead" and "follow" — it's just easier for my partner to follow when she already knows what's coming. (It is, though, an odd mix of American social style and International style, along with some steps that are made up for a particular dance — that's usually reserved for phase VI dances, and yesterday was phase II thru V.)

A long-time friend asked me to join her at a round dance that was held yesterday, because her regular partner wasn't available. I accepted, but wondered how I'd do. How much of this stuff would I remember? Would it all sound like gibberish to me? By the time I pulled the vocabulary out of the mental storage room, would we be five measures behind?

But it was, as they say, like riding a bicycle. There were a few steps whose names made me blink blankly at first, but most of it came readily, and we danced together well and had a very nice time. And this despite the perspiration — we're having a heat wave here, and it was a hot dance. The most comical moment, probably, was on a step where we started with just fingertips connected, and I was supposed to lead her in toward me... but our fingers just slipped apart because they were too wet.

It was a nice afternoon of three hours of waltz and foxtrot, two-step, rumba, and cha-cha, a little swing/jive, and one tango. No bolero or samba or west-coast swing at this dance (I'd have liked to have seen how much west-coast swing I remember).

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