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16 November 2022

In partner dancing, the man leads: I should be aggrieved, but instead I feel liberated

“Relax, relax,” my partner says, and once I stop thinking about what foot I’m putting where, my body falls into rhythm.

By Pravina Rudra

Over the past month, I have started going to salsa and swing classes. My salsa sessions take place in a club-dancehall where six groups dance simultaneously to loud, pumping reggaeton music, while all the different instructors call out their steps over one another. It is chaotic, ridiculous and exactly the kind of environment I want to learn in. It takes me back to the nights I spent in Cali, the Colombian capital of salsa.

I have danced solo and Bollywood style before, but this is my first attempt at partner dancing. “Relax, relax,” my partner says; having to sync with someone else’s movements makes me realise how much tension I am carrying from my working day, in knotted joints and tight muscles. I start off with my limbs tangling into my partner’s, but when I stop thinking about what foot I’m putting where, my body falls into rhythm as if by magic.

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Being hurled around the room by someone feels very similar to being pushed out of the aeroplane by a skydiving instructor – I no longer have a choice, my senses have been hijacked. My mind is distracted, and has ceased to have the capacity to run at 100mph. I know I should be aggrieved by the fact that in a pair, the man always leads. But I feel liberated – the one aspect of dancing that I’ve always hated is remembering routines. For once in my life I’m happy to just fall into the arms of a man and do what he tells me.

If salsa involves hunky brawny men, swing dancing attracts the weedy wallflower type (who, predictably, transforms into someone else on the dancefloor). I feel like I’m in the 1950s as I stand on the side anxiously awaiting a man to offer his hand for a dance – it’s a long way from clubbing.

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During my first couple of socials, I felt awkward having my body so close to another person’s – but now I find myself giggling helplessly. Sometimes it’s because my lead pushes and pulls me around so deftly I feel as though I’m on a playground swing; sometimes it’s because we are such an ungainly duo that it makes for a comedy sketch. I meet an eighty-something lady who took up swing at age 60; she tells me if I do anything with my life, it should be to spend more of it dancing.

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That said, some dances proved a little too comical. There is a type of swing dancing called “shag” that I’ve decided is not for me. While the instructor talked about slow shag, fast shag, and how exhausted two people could get from shag, I completely failed to maintain a straight face.

I’ve always thought it sad that in Britain we live in an age where partner dances are often seen as uncool, particularly for men, whereas attitudes are different in Asia, Africa or South America. It’s such a British sensibility to feel embarrassed to dance unless we’re drunk, or flinging our limbs around during a cèilidh. But when we do dance – as with karaoke – we Brits have remarkable stamina: we keep at it, arguably for far longer than we should.

A strange consequence of online dating is matchmaking on the basis of characteristics that algorithms can work with – ie attributes that don’t mean much. One evening recently, I went to an in-person speed-dating event – but I still had to create a profile online beforehand, where I was instructed to give myself “tags”. Options the app suggested included “short”, “bisexual” and “privately educated”, as though such labels, if true, might help someone be attracted to me. When I scroll through the dating app Hinge, I find it odd how many of people’s bios focus on hobbies; a lot of men my age seem primarily to want a companion for hiking trips.

My personal experience is that having values in common creates chemistry, but having the same personality traits can kill it. I need to have the same view as a partner on what’s important in life – but having the same taste in movies, while helpful on a Saturday night, is not what makes or breaks a relationship.

“Opposites attract” is a facile cliché, but I have often found myself drawn to someone who complements me, or who makes up for deficiencies I perceive in myself. What a dull world we will live in if computers only allow us to breed with people like ourselves.

[See also: Queen Elizabeth made us feel less embarrassed about Britishness and empire]

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This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in