Nov 11, 2014

The Chicken Dance of Individualism

By Heather Judd

Have you been to a wedding reception lately? The dancing is painful to behold. Admittedly, a few uninhibited extroverts generally seem to enjoy themselves, perhaps more so as the hours pass and consumption of fortifying beverages increases. The children delight in moving with energy. A few older couples may demonstrate with verve how properly to cut a rug.

But the vast majority of the dancing involves amoeba-like groups of mostly women, awkwardly jiving to the music; couples who shuffle an approximate total of four square inches during the entirety of a slow song; and an alarming number of people who seem not to grasp the concept that dancing requires the movement of the feet. Not to mention the wide swath of guests who publicly attempt to imitate the movements of the notoriously ungraceful chicken.

My recollections of college dances place them on roughly the same level (I deftly escaped what I can only imagine is the even more painful scene of high school proms by virtue of being homeschooled). At these events I always felt an odd sense of being a cultural anthropologist, observing the peculiar behaviors of the foreign creatures who, in other contexts, were my normal friends. Pride and Prejudice aficionados will understand if I confess that I was utterly a Mary Bennet, seeing greater pleasure in observation than in dancing. It became something of a running joke that I would turn down any request for a couple’s dance on principle. My anthropological skills were not honed enough to crack that cultural code, so I skeptically viewed each request for a three-minute dance as roughly on par with a marriage proposal and avoided the problem by sitting out every slow dance.

I would sometimes be induced by friends to join a group of the amoeba-jiving type, but inevitably I returned to pondering how everything felt skewed. How could one possibly wear a floor-length chiffon creation and attempt to “dance” to “Who Let the Dogs Out”? To me, the disconnect between the visual beauty of frothy decorations and dresses and the awkward lack of elegance inherent in dancing to pop music was too great to be bridged. I would remain a bemused observer.

So when I moved to a larger urban area and my dance-enthusiast roommate began practically dragging me to some of the many social dance options in the area, I carried with me strong qualms. However, when we began attending a weekly English Country Dancing class, my loathing underwent a fantastic transformation into love of dance.

This dancing was elegant but simple (as the dancing master’s wife was fond of assuring new dancers, “If you can walk and count to four, you can do this”). It required no measure of the undirected creative expression so terrifying to introverts like myself. Each piece of music had its set dance, and each dance had its set steps. Furthermore, it was all partner dancing, which actually eliminated the paralyzing terror of the slow dance phenomenon. You need a partner for every dance, but you also get a new partner for every dance. The social stakes are much lower, and the rules much simpler: If he requests, you accept. (The corollary is: If you turn him down, you sit out. But I wouldn’t recommend this. Don’t be a Mary Bennet.) You accept even if it is Mr. Darcy in his unabashedly prideful incarnation. Even if it is—heaven forefend—Mr. Collins!

You will end up dancing with the 90-some-year-old gentleman who tells you about the new love of his life, with the garrulous know-it-all who spins you until you are quite dizzy, and with the new gentleman who has not yet mastered the useful distinction between left and right. But you will also end up dancing with the jovially charming gentleman, the genteelly elegant veteran dancer, and the dancing master who can make any partner appear to be a waltzing princess.

Moreover, you will find that the dance can be enjoyable regardless of an awkward partner because—and here is the material point—the dance itself is more important than the dancers.

True dancing reflects a worldview that perceives order in all of the universe and life; it orients us within a determined pattern beyond ourselves, which nevertheless allows almost infinite room for creativity. But instead of marveling at this truth, we have rejected the strictures of formal dancing and proclaimed that the dancers are greater than the dance. It is a lie. Without the dancers there can be no dance, but the dancers best achieve their potential when they submit themselves to an ordered pattern.

Yet, our culture has not gone awry because we have forgotten how to dance; rather, the state of our dancing reflects our cultural decline. How can we expect to have ordered and beautiful dancing where the relationships between men and women are no longer ordered or beautiful? Based on the premise that established rules, patterns, and norms are inherently constraining and detrimental, we have removed all such order from society, and particularly from the relationships between the sexes. Revolutionary social forces have lifted us little fish out of our ponds and thrown us on dry ground, gleefully exclaiming, “Be free!” We men and women end up dancing around each other both literally and figuratively like—well, like fish out of water.

Whereas children often used to be sent to sessions of dancing school before they debuted into the social world of adults, dance (like visual arts, acting, or writing) is now assumed to be best guided by the vague pulses of internal feeling. Skill and knowledge are unnecessary as long as you get out on the dance floor and “express yourself.” Yet that doesn’t work. Let me clarify for the world at large that anything I have ever attempted on the dance floor of a wedding or similar event almost certainly did not express myself.

By contrast, the longer I practiced English Country Dancing, the more I became genuinely expressive. I could articulate elegance and energy, demureness and delight, introversion and intelligence all through the length of a turn or the quickness of a step or the duration of a hand hold. And all within the rigidly set figures of the dance. No rendition of YMCA has ever provided as much opportunity. (No, not even the improvised conversion of said song into L-C-M-S at the entirely Lutheran wedding reception I attended.)

Wedding dances are so terribly awkward because they attempt both to preserve the order of time-tried cultural ritual and to make themselves completely at home in modern cultural norms. Is it any wonder that men are hesitant to claim partners at such events? They cannot predict how an offer may be interpreted (not helped in the least by the likes of younger-me who turned down all those well-meaning potential partners) and then they are expected to lead (sort of . . . but without being all male-dominatey, right?), which is intimidatingly unfair when there is really no social institution that teaches them this skill. And besides, all the women seem to be doing okay hanging out in that inviolable amoeba of gyrations, so . . . .

We have lost the contained and ordered elegance of true dancing. We have forgotten that every interaction between human beings, and particularly between the sexes, is a dance. Every move by one party requires a countermove by the other, lest we end up stepping on each other’s toes. We can try to feel our way along sans guidance, but it will be much more pleasing all around if we know what to expect and how to react. In formal dance, every dancer stands in relationship to every other dancer. Each has a partner, and these partners have their neighbors, and the partners and neighbors have proper times and places as they move through the figures. From beginning to end, the dance allows a tranquil interaction of man and woman that once set the standard for all such relations:
Men initiate. Women hold the power to decline, but should generally accept. Men acknowledge the graciousness of women in accepting. Men lead. Women follow. Women graciously cover their partners’ mistakes. The one man and one woman together interact with those around them while still remaining uniquely paired. The whole of the little social world moves in an orchestrated symmetry that is great enough to guide and support all its members through their stumbles and missteps.

The alienation of postmodern culture has deconstructed each of these standards, replacing them only with a vacuous individualism. In a quest to protect our own rights, we sacrifice the joy of interaction. We dance together in isolation. Yet sometimes, sometimes, a counter-movement sets in. Let there be rejoicing where we see small revivals of ordered dance. Sir William Lucas is quite right—dancing is a pastime of “every civilized society.” And while Mr. Darcy’s rebuttal that dance is also a ritual in every uncivilized society may be correct, that is no reason we ought to give ourselves up to dancing like savages. Those who dance like savages are bound to live like savages, too. Let us be civilized. Let us dance to an order greater than ourselves.


Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming.  The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up,  and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call.  When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.  

Chicken image source.

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