Dance is an illusion. That back-breaking dip isn’t so back-breaking as it is knee-bending and core-crunching. That light and lithe follow being lifted over her lead’s head is really a compact case of pure muscle. I once told a pro friend of mine how jealous I was that all her steps were always so clean and effortless. She laughed at me and said she felt like she was dancing through mud.
Of course, there is plenty of dance that is real—all the hard work we put into it and the reward we get out it. But as time passes and the more we learn, much like magicians we are less in wonder and awe of the illusion itself and more in the work and skill behind it. We know how the “trick” is done, but appreciate it all the same. Or perhaps the more for it, because now we know how mastering that trick was no easy feat. But, at the risk of sounding overdramatic, like those who have died trying to catch the bullet between their teeth, falling for the illusion can be a dangerous thing.
Like many of the highly social dances—swing (coast to coast), salsa, zouk, kizomba—bachata is a great example of this, and it was in a bachata lesson that my teacher supplied me with the word I needed for today’s theme. Illusion. Bachata holds a special place in my teacher’s heart, a love he long ago infected me with, and because of that there is a lot he sees in the social scene he really hates because of the bad reputation it gives bachata. I found this out secondhand when in For the Love of Dance I named bachata one of my favorite dances, and another dancer replied she “wasn’t a fan” because, to paraphrase, she only saw it as an excuse for lead’s to be inappropriate with her. Several months and several Latin dance nights later, I learned this firsthand, unfortunately encountering such leads. Not just inappropriate leads, but dangerous ones—wrenching my arm or shoulder, shoving me into a dip, or shaking me like a ragdoll and claiming it’s a “body isolation.”
But why? Why would anyone want to dance like that? While I acknowledge there will always be the bad few, I continue to believe in the goodness of people. Just like I believe most leads don’t want to be seen as bad dancers, or that crazy creeper all the girls are warning their friends to stay far, far away from. This goes back to bachata being a highly social dance. I could go to a different Latin dance night within a half hour radius of my home at least four times a week if I chose. And many of the people I dance with have never taken a lesson. They “learned in the wild.” And at its base that isn’t a bad or harmful thing when you’re just going out for casual dancing and some socializing. It goes wrong when someone tries to replicate a move that they’ve seen, but they don’t understand. They know the illusion. Not the trick behind it.
Getting back to my teacher, especially in his bachata classes (or any dance you’ll find in a club), his lessons are littered with “what not to dos”—demonstrations you really don’t want to be his partner for as he mimes the dangerous, uncomfortable, or just plain wrong things other dancers will do so that we can learn why not to do it and how to protect ourselves from it. It was during one of these that he said the quote that inspired this whole piece: “We just want to create the illusion of sexy. The problem is other dancers will see it and not know that, so when they try to do it they make it raunchy instead.” And I think that’s the core problem of the bad experiences I’ve had with certain leads. They fell for the illusion, thinking that dip has to be done this way, not understanding why they’re overbalancing or their follow is panicking. Or they think that “grinding” is just how the dance is done and those follows are “just being prudish” when they put a stop to it. And they know they’re right because they saw “that’s just how the pros did it” not realizing there’s so much more than what they see.
But falling for the illusion isn’t just about the physicality of dance. It also happens in the emotionality of it. This was something I had tried to convey in Ballroom Relationships but I think I lacked the experience to find the words I really wanted. Just like above, when my teacher was emphasizing we just wanted the illusion of sexy, so do in a dance we can create this grand image of intimacy and chemistry that dissipates when the dance is over. In that, people confuse the motives of dancers because all they see is that illusion we create. It will even happen to dancers, convincing ourselves that there are feelings beyond the dance floor. If you have read The Dance Crush, you know it’s happened to me. I confused the feelings of the dance to the feelings of a person, and it took me some time to work out the truth (and fortunately without making too much of an idiot of myself).
So before you try to catch the bullet, make sure you know the trick behind it first.