Finishing a dance gives me the feeling of waking from a dream.
The world spins, ever so slightly; the surrounding people gradually come into focus; the light-headedness slowly fades. And I smile, savoring the moments of delicious triumph as the song completes its last few measures.
I shake my partner’s hand. “That was fun.” Fun is a rather inadequate word to describe the experience, but there’s very little that can appropriately break the peaceful post-dance silence without, in a way, spoiling the magic a little bit.
When I stumbled into social dance as a college student, one thing struck me: the beauty of having no strings attached. When I attended Viennese Ball for the first time, I had been to exactly three Austria Fortnight classes—totaling about an hour of cross-step waltz, an hour of four-count swing, and an hour of salsa. I knew none of the complicated figures that I observed from the sidelines. Instead, I just marveled at the experience, feasting my eyes on the glittering, spinning, world as my partner and I glided about the ballroo—
—ouch. And then I tripped, having very little experience, and a long mermaid gown that was not at all suitable for dancing.
But one thing became certain. Dance opened a new world for me. It taught me to love something as an end in itself; it taught me self-reflection; it gave me an awareness of the connection between my body and my mind. Like many Stanford students, I’m sure, I had always been a bit of a perfectionist. I enjoyed checking the boxes just right, and to some extent, I still do.
It is just that, in dance, I find a rare reprieve from the demands to finish tasks to exacting standards. In dance, joy comes not so much from the outcome than it does from the process. It is one of the few things in my life that has that particular quality: learning is fun, for instance, but in the end, classes come down to a letter grade. Job searches come down to a yes or no. Debates come down to a win or loss.
The world enjoys categories, and it delights in ranked lists. Dancing is a rare escape. It erases social lines—I danced with the elderly. I danced with the young. I danced with PhD students in fields that I could never begin to understand. I danced with doctors and befriended lawyers and held fascinating conversations with students from around the world.
I even danced with my own TA’s, our statuses as teacher and student suddenly leveled. I even met the president of Stanford, though, sadly, we did not have the opportunity to dance.
I am no sociologist, but I theorize that, when humans shift their focus away from competitions and labels, when they focus instead on the experience of connecting with each other, something shifts in our view of the world. We no longer see people as the sum of their past experiences. We no longer seek the crisp lines of perfection. Instead, we focus on the now—allowing the beat of the music to carry us to an uncertain destination.
And there is far less judgement. At times, I feel that labels have stood in the way of my ability to connect with others; nearly everyone, I’m sure, can think of a time in which they were too shy to approach someone they thought of as particularly accomplished or important. Or, perhaps, where they had felt socially awkward in general.
The social dance culture at Stanford has a warm egalitarianism. Anyone can ask just about anyone to dance. The classes have forced rotations, where, indeed, you must dance with everyone.
I began to recognize people that I had danced with when walking around campus. It gave me something to ask about when we’d greet each other—“are you going to the next Friday Night Waltz?”
If the rest of the world were a period, dance is a semicolon; a yet unfinished sentence, an open-ended phrase. It is a story that gets written and re-written and re-interpreted every minute. It is captured in the moments when I can close my eyes, lean back, and feel the guidance of my lead.
Then the song ends, my eyes open, and I’m ready to do it all over again.