[Note: This post was coauthored by our sister Rachel Sabey, a professional ballroom dancer and dance instructor in New York City, shown dancing with her partner in the YouTube video. It is written in her voice. David’s dance qualifications are similarly impressive, as he is the proud recipient of an A and a bronze certification in the beginning ballroom dance class he took at BYU. Despite this auspicious early dance career, he set aside the glory and glamor of the ballroom to devote his time to the public service.]
When an engaged couple comes to me for lessons, they come onto the floor smiling at each other, holding hands. And just before we start, he leans over and kisses her on the forehead. It’s an adorable picture, one for a newspaper, until they start to dance. That’s when the fighting begins. Sooner or later (and usually sooner) nearly all engaged couples will fight while learning their first dance. Romantic images of waltzing across clouds with your new spouse quickly fade when you realize dancing isn’t as easy as it looks. As a dance instructor, I feel funny asking these adult students to stop fighting and listen to what I am saying. At times, I want to remind them that they are planning to spend the rest of their lives with this person and it’s not a good sign if they can’t even make it through a dance lesson. Of course that might be an untimely thing to say to an engaged couple, but the impulse can be hard to resist.
I think this kind of fighting is common because dancing physicalizes the patterns of communication in a relationship, and it magnifies the partners’ ways of responding to challenges. I am not a relationship coach or a therapist, but I can guess with impressive accuracy how my engaged clients will communicate while preparing for their special day. In my observations, I see three general ways of relating: blaming, self-incrimination, and collaboration. I believe the third is best for both dancing and relationships, and that the first two are far less productive in both areas.
The typical first lesson goes something like this: The engaged couple walks into the dance studio with one or two ideas of their own. They either think they have two left feet and will be lucky to not look silly, or they have visions of grandeur involving sequins, lights, and a complex set of lifts and dips, their confidence presumably stemming from their experience with the “high school sway.” (Both are unlikely. In general, those who think they will embarrass themselves tend to do just fine, and those who think they will blow everyone’s minds also tend to do just fine.) Usually right as the dancing starts, somebody makes a mistake and the blaming begins. Blaming is by far the most common pattern of interaction I see in my clients. The leader likes to blame the follower and the follower likes to blame the leader. This is understandable because of the physicality of each individual’s experience. The follower felt yanked in one direction, while the leader felt the follower’s unresponsiveness to more subtle movements–both know, and experienced physically, that the other messed up. I can guarantee that both parties could have done something better to create the desired outcome, but they are usually intent on blaming each other. I try to explain what I saw and what will help. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in both partners internalizing what only one of them needs to improve–one blaming the other, and the other self-incriminating. I think self-incrimination is generally better than blaming, and I encourage my clients to focus on what they can do to both improve individually and support their partner, however both patterns are problematic.
Fundamentally, both blame and self-incrimination suggest that an individual member of the partnership is at fault. A blamer might say something like, “You’re not following my lead!” or “You didn’t lead me well enough.” Any flaw in a dance performance is traced back to a mistake made by the other person. A characteristic utterance of self-incrimination, on the other hand, is something like, “I’m so sorry, I totally messed that up.” It can be softened in the form of a question (“How did my leading make that hard for you?”), but remains self-incriminatory while seeming to presume perfection in the partner. The truth is that, in a ballroom dance partnership, no single individual is ever entirely responsible for any success or failure. Partners are interdependent to the extent that one’s partner cannot be factored out of one’s own performance–an individual’s movement and behavior cannot be disentangled from the partnership itself.
This complicates my instruction because each person can obviously only control their own limbs, yet for a dance to be truly beautiful, the separate pieces have to work as one unit. I usually tell my clients that it is better to try to fix something that they have control of (i.e. their own body), which seems self-incriminatory, than it is to focus on something they cannot control (i.e. your partner’s body), which is more aligned with blaming. And still, a partnership will ultimately fail if the partners only focus on themselves. Two individually flawless dancers would not necessarily perform a dance perfectly. Truly successful partnerships function not as two separate individuals dependent on the other’s cooperation, but as one interdependent unit.
I believe this is applicable to non-dance relationships. We are always irreducibly interrelated with our partners. This seems to contradict platitudes like, “You do you” or “Just focus on yourself.” That self-referential attitude is entirely insufficient for what, like ballroom dance, is ultimately a “couple’s sport.” This is not to say that people should shrug off personal responsibility and not consider their own or their partner’s accomplishments and shortcomings. It’s okay to be unsatisfied with how something went. It’s okay to realize that something was not ideal. That does not necessarily represent a lack of humility or a personal failure. When the fundamental unit of analysis is a partnership and not an individual, the way we approach problem-solving is fundamentally different. When we assume interdependence, rather than either dependence or independence, we are less interested in figuring out who messed up or simply fixing ourselves, and more interested in working together to find a mutually agreeable solution. Instead of talking about individual people and problems, we talk about synergies and solutions. Collaborative dancers are comfortable discussing mistakes they made or concerns they have about their partner’s dancing because finding fault is not an issue–an individual is never implicated in any given mistake. Open and honest conversation between two people is much easier when fault is not used as a bargaining chip.
This doesn’t mean that everything in an interdependent, collaborative partnership is always flowers, rainbows, and dancing on clouds. Most of the time, perfecting a dance is a bit of a grind, even with the best partners. There is something poetic about the way a beautiful dance looks effortless, as if the dancers had no weight (hence the clouds). But that specious effortlessness is the result of hours of often painful effort. The movement of exceptional dancers can seem almost supernatural, and in a way it is–it is not natural. At its best, dance allows a partnership to rise above their natures: They move their bodies in ways that do not come naturally, and they relate to their partner in a way that is not natural to our self-centric species. It’s not easy, but it allows for moments of incredible beauty and joy.
I’m just a ballroom dancer, but I believe what I’ve learned about partnerships from dancing transcends the dance floor. And I believe our partnerships would improve with less blaming, less self-incrimination, and more collaboration; and that this would make our dancing–both literal and figurative–more beautiful. No matter how their first dance goes, I hope my engaged clients pick up something about that.