“Dancing isn’t creative.”

What. I’m sorry, what??

Last night, as has become my Wednesday habit, I went out swing dancing at a studio in Rochester. There’s a good scene here, nice people, lots of beginners, and a solid contingent of experienced teachers. There’s also a dearth of male leads, which means it’s very common for girls to ask guys to dance (and/or snatch them away from the 20 other girls also looking for a partner…which is fine, it hasn’t become cutthroat yet…).

So I went up and asked a guy to dance that I hadn’t seen before. Wearing a nametag, so probably a beginner from the earlier lesson, and looked like he had a good head on his shoulders. He agreed readily. And as he was leading me out onto the dance floor, he said:

“I really don’t get this dancing thing.”

Sorry? What do you mean?

“Well, it’s not creative at all.”


“You’re not creating anything, you’re just doing the same steps everybody else is. I’m a musician.”

Oh. Wait, what?

“Every time I sit down to play, I’m creating something. There’s something new.”

And I just let my mouth hang open in flabbergasted astonishment for a few moments.

But wait! I have rebuttals! I dabble in both dance and music. And just last month, I was lucky enough to attend a day-long workshop put on by the current International Lindy Hop champions, Todd and Ramona, where they talked at great length about how every dance is different, because everyone dances with their own style, and putting two people together as partners will create something wonderful and fresh. I hunkered down and started probing deeper. Mostly out of morbid curiosity. And probably a little masochism.

He plays guitar. Okay. Chords. There are basic chords to playing guitar. Everything builds off of those. Everything that is “creative” is created upon that foundation. Yes?

“But nobody leaves the foundation here. Look around. Everyone’s doing exactly the same steps.”

BUT NOT IN THE SAME WAY! I don’t actually scream that, though. Instead, I continue that sure, many of them are, but they’re just learning. Lots of beginners in this scene. Here, let me point out the more advanced dancers, who are doing their own thing with their partners, more “creatively,” as you say.

“Yeah, but it’s still all the same steps. They have to know what steps they’re going to do ahead of time.”

GAH. No. That’s the difference between social dancing and choreography. New tack. “Okay, you’ve been playing guitar for how long?”

“Ten years.”

“And how many years of those ten have you been done with the basics, creating something new every time you sit down to play?” (As a side note, I know most musicians — and dancers — are never really “done with the basics.” It was for the sake of the argument.)


What. Fine. But dude. All those chords have been played before, and they will all be played again.

No real point in trying to explain to him that there are people like that in the dance world, too, even in the world of partner dances.

Why are you even here? Being a really good friend with a car to his buddy with a girl. Who now owes him big time. Seriously? Dude, go to the bar, there’s a nice one across the street. Which he likes. Fine. I’d suggest not sharing your opinions, your vitriol, with any of the other dancers here. You may incur their ire. Their wrath. Don’t do that.

In conclusion…yep. Good (read: solid) head on his shoulders. Actually, just solid. Solid, rock-hard, and stubborn. I wish him all the best at his bar. Because his friends, the lovebirds, were adorable, and really interested in dancing.

He better not have driven them home drunk.


But look. There’s another story in this. These are the same arguments that people use to support the theory that translation isn’t creative (albeit in different clothing).

“It isn’t writing, you’re just copying what other people have said.”

“It’s all the same words, found by flipping through the dictionary. You don’t create anything.”

“Maybe literary translation is kinda creative, but those boring legal documents and medical texts aren’t.” (Don’t ever tell me this. I’ll grant that literary translation can be more creative than pharmaceutical reports, but writing is still writing. There’s an element of creation in all of it.)

Sure, think they’re wrong. But what would you tell people who express such opinions? More ideas are always welcome.


Tidbits, Vol. III — The Grenoble Swing Issue

(a.k.a. In Which a Weekend Occurs in Grenoble Where Allison Dances More Than She Sleeps)

Swing dancing is exactly the same all over the world.  The social scene, the friends you can superimpose onto the people you meet in another country, the dancers who never tire, the dances that never end, the laughter after funny mistakes, the music that makes your soul swing.

Swing dancing is completely different depending on what city you’re in.  In Grenoble, there’s very little blues, no one dips at the end of a dance, they start learning an 8-count basic I’ve never seen before, and they speak French.  (Huh.  Fancy that.)  But it doesn’t matter in the end, once you actually start dancing.

It is possible to get high on baby powder, presuming that about a cup of it is shaken all over a dance studio floor to practice slides.  This state is also aided by dehydration and fatigue.

At home, I can usually tell who smokes and who does not, just by looking at them or spending a little time with them.  In France, you pretty much have to assume that everyone smokes, or just quit very recently, until proven otherwise.  I cannot figure out how dancers smoke.  (Or singers, for that matter.)

Riding a bike through a quiet city at 3am is quite relaxing.  Especially if you’re following someone else home, as opposed to trying to find your own way through the winding streets that change names every two blocks.  It’s not the grid of NYC.  It’s easier just to follow the tram.

Non-mint-flavored toothpaste does exist, but you have to go to the pharmacie and get a special brand that’s homeopathic or some such nonsense.  But hey — lemon.  Yay.

White boys who swing dance can rap, but badly: “Dance, dance, dance, dance, lead…and follow…and dance, dance, keep on dancing, just keep on dancing, and don’t stop dancing, you just gotta dance…”

When the Algerian football (that’s soccer for you American types) team plays, and especially if they win, the riot police have to be called out in Grenoble to make sure the people driving around on motorcycles with lit firecrackers and sparklers don’t cause too much trouble.  But such a scene is possible to bike through.  Just barely.

If, in dance class, you volunteer to translate one sentence from the English teachers to the few students who only speak French, be prepared to continue to interpret for every other class in the series.  Except for the one where the follow is French.  And also be prepared to realize that you have absolutely no dancing vocabulary in French, but it works.  The students understand, and the instructors are grateful.  On a very related note, I have a much bigger appreciation of interpreters than I did before.  And that’s saying a lot.

Lightbulb moments are great, but they have to come two, three, four, fifteen times before the lessons stick.  (a.k.a. How long have I been rock-stepping so poorly??)

Hearing a familiar song is enough to make everything okay.  Especially if that familiar song is one of the best from one of your favorite bands that you’ve danced to twice in the city where you learned how to dance.  I’m so happy that the Boilermakers are now internationally loved.  (And for those who don’t know the Boilermaker Jazz Band: if you like jazz or swing or clarinets even a little bit, check them out.)

The human body is pretty cool.  You can be more exhausted than you’ve ever felt in your life, you can be almost as sore as you believe possible, and you can still give just a little more.  Well, sometimes you have to give more.  That would be like the time that I went to an evening dance during an exchange weekend, danced until I dropped (very close to literally), and then had to bike home.  Hills suck.  But when there’s a soft bed waiting at the destination…it’s a little easier.  ‘Course, you can always just dance one more song, too.

Hi, my name is Allison, and I’m a swing dancer

I am a big advocate of hobbies — fly fishing, needlepoint, stamp collecting, ultimate frisbee, whatever floats your boat.  Everyone needs something to enrich their lives, to make them a bit happier and more relaxed, to take their mind off of stress and work.  For me, swing dancing falls somewhere between a healthy hobby and an unhealthy addiction.  It’s definitely good for me, but if I don’t dance for a couple of weeks, I start developing withdrawal symptoms.  Which is usually just a general pining and frustration in the lack of dancing in my life.

But here’s what happens when I go to cities.  Apparently.  At least starting now.  Within four days, I find their swing scene and join it.  And slip right in as naturally as I do in my home scene of NYC.  So swing dancing here is not an addiction, but a way to meet new people, to fit in and belong in a place you are completely unfamiliar with, to feel welcomed as soon as you enter the city.  Swing dancing is a special hobby that is internationally practiced and provides the best network of anything I know, besides perhaps college fraternities.  It also helps that the grand majority of swing dancers are decent, honest, down-to-earth people who will offer warm friendship and good advice and perhaps even a couch to crash on if you need it.  (Yes, there’s the 5% who are creepy, or socially awkward, or think that they are God’s gift to women — or men — on the dance floor, but they’re the distinct minority.)  So, long story short, I walked into a room I had never seen before to dance with people I had never met…and it felt like home.  It felt like a slightly toned-down version of Fram (weekly DJ’d NYC dance): a bit cooler, a bit less crowded, a bit less variety in the level of dancers, a lot fewer dancers, but it was Edinburgh’s version of Fram.  Thus, it’s home.  In…Scotland.  Why not?