What swing dance taught me about the presence of God
We began shoulders inches apart. I shut my eyes. His hand on the small of my back contained all the instruction I would need over the next three minutes—when, where, and how to move through our corner of the studio. I danced at his whim.
A few years ago I wouldn’t have volunteered for this, but that was before I discovered swing dancing. My body had never known such elation—the emancipating release of the swing out, the mirth-filled torque of a tuck turn, the playful sass of the swivel—in eras past, such four-footed happiness was scandalous.
A Class in Following
After a few months, I registered for a class in which leads would learn to lead and follows to follow. We would cover no new footwork; rather, we would focus on honing the skills on which all others hinged: the giving and receiving of guidance. As a follow, I hoped to remedy my counterproductive tendency to lead.
I doubted the methods: dancing blind seemed like an invitation for disaster. When we could keep our eyes open, we experimented with music outside the traditional swing repertoire. Other times we would practice in silence, pantomiming our partner’s gestures. These exercises kept me from anticipating command, pushed me to relinquish control, and bound me to honor the sacred split-second delay I was supposed to maintain. My partner transformed—before my closed eyes—from an accessory of my footwork to a force drawing it out.
Our instructor assured us our comfort with uncertainty would grow. We would mature from self-willed dancers into trusting and responsive partners able to be spun and dipped on short notice. He reiterated this promise: when each person performs their role most faithfully, both shine.
So we stood with shoulders tense and baited breath, my lead and I, waiting for the music to start, poised to hold each other accountable. To help my partner learn if his hand and momentum were acting as the guide, I wouldn’t move unless he moved. How could I affirm my belief that his hand could lead unless I let it? I would travel whatever trajectory he set for me, trusting that even a misstep on my part could be repurposed to advance the dance. After all, I alone was in the dark; his eyes were open.
The downbeat found me hesitant. We jockeyed, shifting our weight from side to side for a few measures before I felt him step back for the rock step. I followed, not quite in sync but close enough not to disrupt. Anxious, I awaited clues as to my next move.
Eyes closed, these rhythms hardly pulsed with joy as I remembered. In the beginning of the class, every step landed noncommittal and my partner found me difficult to guide. My mind filled with questions only the dance itself could answer. What if I got it wrong? What if I went left when he wanted me to go right? How would I find his hand if he let go for me to spin or if I simply lost my grip? Eyes open, my confidence abounded. But blindness transformed my spinning, hopping feet into staggering, shuffling ones. It felt like learning to dance all over again.
Darkness taught me dance was about trust. It corrected some of my worst impulses that had been hidden in the light. I’d seen many women, new to swing, who could dance beyond their experience because they naturally followed well. A lack of presumption enabled them to move in ways the follower who clung to control couldn’t. But also, as a partner dance, choreography and music came second to connection. When present, it freed two bodies to move as one.
In Faith As in Dance
In faith as in dancing, the unknown feels threatening. Darkness whispers: What if you get it wrong? What if you go left when God wants you to go right? How will you ever find his hand again if you lose your grip? What’s next? Is this working? Although in faith I had the perfect partner, I sought deliverance in the steps I knew—spiritual disciplines I performed as I had my footwork. But without that connection to my partner, they were empty, a handicap, even.
In the midst of my own darkness, the Lord’s hand on the small of my back was often indiscernible. Words that once felt alive on the pages of his book fell silent. Faith once stout became anemic. Prayers turned from dialogue to monologue to months of simply “How long, O Lord?” He busied himself with others but, for reasons unknown, seemed to be done with me. This went on for three years.
Years later, a friend likened those three years to the “dark night of the soul,” of which the sixteenth-century mystic St. John of the Cross spoke. He describes God’s bringing rule-bound and zealous beginners in the faith into a maturity where they understand “the Divine union of the soul with God” to be the chief end of their obedience. God’s desire for them is that “realizing the weakness of the state wherein they are, they may take courage, and may desire that God will bring them into this night, wherein the soul is strengthened and confirmed in the virtues, and made ready for the inestimable delights of the love of God.” A skeptic till the end, I did not foresee that the night itself could be a form of rescue. But disorientation made the best kind of fool of me, the sure-footed in twilight kind.
Surrendering to Guidance
I came to see important realities in the light of the dark. I found many of the same tactics at work in wrestling with a God I could no longer see. I resisted the darkness. I grappled with it. Then I surrendered, letting God use it to do some of his best work. With practice, I learned exuberance. Fighting only stifled the splendor of the dance, drowning out the message of my partner: Wait. Trust. Relax. Let this unfold. I will be your guide.
Emily Dickinson traces this readjustment. Confusion subsides and, eventually, the dark strengthens us. This is the magic of dancing blind—a process of bravely groping our way to beauty.
We Grow Accustomed to the Dark
We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —
A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —
And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —
The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —
Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.
Years later, I took a beginner’s class as a lead. I appreciated afresh the gift of the follow’s freedom, to take each moment as it comes. As a lead, constantly two moves ahead in my mind with my focus split between my own body and keeping my partner’s in motion, fatigue came quickly. I missed the dark.