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All the ills of mankind have arisen from a lack of skill at dancing

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Monday, July 25th, 2005 — Dancing is hot in Palo Alto this summer.

Movies like "Mad Hot Ballroom" and "Raze" make the case that dancing is a way of moving beyond the limits of one's life. But the 1th century French playwright, Jean-Baptist Moliere, takes the prize when he credits "skill at dancing" with being the lynchpin of social advancement, as in the headline above.

In a town like Palo Alto, where we can measure the health of the community by the number of political signs posted in front yards and fliers delivered to doorsteps, this news about dancing is useful information. Those times we put down our personal agenda and listen to another's tune can be moments when toe-to-toe gives way to a dance, of sorts.

Dancing has been around for about as long as people. Remember the kids on American Bandstand? They weren't thinking about "the ills of humankind," but they did have skill. They danced their hearts out while some of us followed along in our living rooms.

If nothing else, we learned that dancing is a team sport, not a free-for-all. My husband, Pat, and I love to dance. We do a wicked Watussi. But what we can dancing bears no heing of the so-called "skill at dancing" molierre talks about. In a crowd of thirty-somethings we embarrass even ourselves.

Then I discovered a well-kept Palo Alto secret: swing dancing lessongs with Kevin and Monica Lynch. I signes us up, uy unsuspecting husband and myself, and we have not missed a class.

We are on our way to becoming swingers—as in swing dancers!

Along with about 40 other would-be swingers, we gather one night each week in the JLS Middle School gym. Grey hairs and body tattoos, the eager and the reserved, we are all in this together.

Kevin explained the first lesson: "In couples dancing, the other follows." Pat and I were both wearing jeans, but it was clear who would be the leader and who the follower.

As i was wondering how much Kevin knew about couple's counseling, he added lesson number two: "If anything goes wrong, it's always the leader's fault!" Now we followers wore big grins, while the leaders wondered what was so funny.

Those were the ground rules, but that's not all there is to couples dancing. The leading and following don't happen independently. The trick is for the couple to move as a unit.

Lesson number three is the key to the whole thing, and the most difficult to learn: "In closed position, the leader pushes against the hand of the follower and the follower pushes with equal pressure against the hand of the leader."

Without this firm—and ballanced—connection, the leader cannot lead, and the follower will feel, well, pushed around. This might lead to more serious counseling, but not to good dancing.

We maneuvered inside turns, the sweetheart, tuck turns, and the wall turn—which is much more fun than wall sits, but takes just as much energy and concentration. Turns are executed toward and open space, so that one does not collide with nearby dancers.

"And," we were cautioned, "do not 'throw' your partner into a crowded space." Right!

"Rock step, triple step, triple step." Some count it out, others experiment and do it their way. Regardless, we are having a great time. Let those thrty-somethings laugh at us now!

At our last lesson we leared about style points. Simply stated, this means taht a couple not only gets the dance right, but also that they look good—as a couple. To make your partner look good is dancing at its best.

We signed up for dance lessons, but we got much more. Dancing, as Moliere suggested, is an apt metaphor for life. Leading and following are complementary arts, Chivalry is not dead ("My fault, dear.") and much appreciated. Applying pressure equally maintains balance and keeps momentum going. Being sure you have a place to land safely before venturing into risky territory, allows for a graceful finish. Making your partner (or the other side) look good is just plain smart.

On top of all that, dancing is good fun. My creaking bones are my witness.

Were we humans born to dance, to live withing that seamless exchange of leading and following? Or are we naturally inclined to be out of balance, a bit clumsy, even "pushy"? If so, dancing qualifies as training ground for more considerate, less brutish behavior.

At the very least, an evening of swing dance is a convenient way of sitting out the occasional Watussi, public or private.