This week Chris and I learned the shim sham. Without getting technical, I’d describe it as a social line dance combining tap-style stomping, gliding, kicking, wiggle-walking, and swagger. The shim sham is what our instructors Mark and Katie K. call the seventh evening stretch of every social dance—at least on swing nights at the Century Ballroom. It’s the one time we shed our roles as leader or follower and synchronize instead with the whole room full of other individual dancers.
You can feel the difference. Your mind shifts from honing in on your partner to honing in on both yourself and the entire group, from “couple” to “individual + collective.” So, though I adore partner dancing, I was excited to finally also participate in the shim sham, for the same reason that I love participating in a choir or a theatre chorus or a flash mob. It’s magical when individuals come together and the resulting organism is greater than the sum of its parts—like a flock of birds.
I’m not talking about mob mentality. I feel claustrophobic in a crowd. Just a few weeks ago, Chris and I went to see Run the Jewels at the Showbox in SoDo. We stood towards the back, but even so, by the time RTJ hit the stage, the crowd was pressing in on us from all sides. Chris liked it. He said that losing himself amidst the jostling pressure of so many bodies made him feel safe and snug, and that he drew from everyone’s compressed energy. Not me. I felt like the encroaching crowd was treating me like an object, an obstacle even. I couldn’t breathe—not so much from being squeezed as from my rising panic.
My anxiety was grounded in the fact that, in the mob, I was just another body. For the other people in the crowd it was okay to block my view and push me around without concern for how their actions were affecting my experience. And they weren’t wrong—the show and the venue were meant to be appreciated that way. I was the one who couldn’t feel the high of the hive mind, of losing yourself in the spirit of many, of socializing by being collectively antisocial.
The shim sham—and all social dancing—is very different. These are activities which can only function if everyone acknowledges everyone else’s agency.
In the first place, the dance floor belongs to everyone. A big part of the role of the leader is scanning the dance floor so you don’t end up throwing your follower into another couple’s space. And sure, on a busy night, it’s not uncommon for dancers to accidentally bump into each other, but you always try to avoid run-ins, and you always acknowledge them when they occur.
Secondly, just as the dance floor belongs to everyone, so do the dancers themselves belong to everyone. By that I mean that anyone can dance with anyone else. Sure, you can decide that you’d rather stick to dancing with just your date—something rookies often do out of shyness or skill-level insecurity—but the spirit of the party is that you switch partners song to song, and in so doing, socialize.
It’s this second aspect of social dancing that some people find particularly challenging, and I understand why. By entering the ballroom, you’re inviting physical contact with strangers. And not the impersonal pressure of jostling bodies kind of physical contact, but eye-contact, personal attention, and touch communication. In order to dance, leaders and followers must radiate towards each other a purposeful, collaborative glow that’s at the very least playful, and often even a little bit flirtatious.
I get why that can be intimidating and anxiety-producing in people, but not for me! I love how personal it is, how I can learn a lot about a dance partner without exchanging more words than, “Care to dance?” When I dance with Wiley, for instance, I know our unique combination is going to be a little funky and playfully improvisational. When I dance with Derek, he’s going to be super fluid and I’m going to slip around him like the floor’s made of butter. When I dance with Chris, our moves are going to be crisp and precise, and we’ll always be gazing into each other’s eyes like the rest of the world isn’t there.
Social dance—whether partnered or in line—is interpersonal awareness at its most playful, which suits me just fine.
Published by the West Seattle Herald 02/20/2017.