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Why Try Swing?



I’d like to talk to you about swing dancing for a minute. But before I can talk to you about that, I need to talk to you about bowling. (I realize this sounds like a weird association, but just trust me.)

You’ve gone bowling before, right? And even if you haven’t, you probably have a good idea of how the game works, and you know that lots of people do it from time to time.

Ok, good. Now lets do a little experiment.


Imagine that you’ve invited me to go bowling, but strangely I have some reservations about the idea.

“I don’t bowl,” I tell you, “I just don’t bowl.”

That statement doesn’t make much sense, does it?

How can someone “just not” do something? It seems like, even if I’ve never been bowling before, I could come out and try it one time, if only to see what it’s about. So you inquire further.

“Well I’m just not good at that kind of thing,” I say. “I don’t have the inborn skill you need to bowl.”

But that argument is even more confusing, isn’t it? No one is born knowing how to bowl. You go out and try it, and if it’s fun you bowl more and get better. Any skills you need, you learn. So let’s say you explain all of that and get me interested in bowling.

“Don’t I need a partner?” I ask, “Otherwise who would I bowl with? Wouldn’t it be weird to bowl with someone that I’m not dating?”

And now I sound really strange. Yes, you usually bowl with other people, and you could even go bowling as part of a date, but it’s a communal activity. Bowling is a way to spend time with a group of friends, not just a significant other.

“Okay,” I say, “but I think I’ll go take some bowling lessons first, and then when I’m good enough I’ll go bowling with you.”

Good enough? Good enough to go have fun with friends? This isn’t a competition, it’s people getting together socially. And even if a few of those people are particularly good bowlers, they probably aren’t there to show off. Plus no one needs formal lessons to try bowling for the first time. Most everyone in the group knows how to bowl, and they don’t mind showing someone else how. Teaching someone new to bowl means one more person for them to bowl with, so it benefits everyone.

“But if I don’t know what I’m doing,” I complain, “I’ll look stupid in front of everyone!”

And that argument makes the least sense of all. Lots of people who go bowling are there for the first time, or have never done it enough to be particularly good at it. But they don’t feel stupid and they don’t worry that they’re somehow on display. Again, this is a social event. The people there want everyone to learn, want everyone to succeed, and they remember all too well what it was like to be a beginner.

“Well,” I say finally, “I . . . I just don’t bowl.”


So now that our experiment is over, please go back and read it all again, subsituting swing dancing (or salsa, or any other social dance) for bowling.

This is the frustration of telling people about swing dance. Social dancing isn’t a big part of our culture, so people have a lot of misconceptions about it. They think partnered dance is reserved for couples, that it requires special inborn skills, or that it takes lessons to become “good enough,” and none of those things are true.

So what is social swing dance?

Swing dancing fills a similar role that bowling or board games (and increasingly, Wii Sports/Rockband) have in society. It is an activity that people do together, largely as an excuse to spend time with one another. If you have a boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife, swing dancing is something fun for the two of you to do together. But most people who attend a swing dance aren’t there with a significant other, and even the ones who are don’t dance with that person most of the time.

Skill level simply isn’t an issue. Some people go dancing every once in a while to have fun and meet people, but don’t aspire to be incredible dancers. Other people find that they really enjoy learning more swing moves and technique, so they take lessons to get better. A very small few go on to dance professionally or in formal competition. But all of those people enjoy dancing as a simple pleasure, as a way to spend time with their friends and meet new people.

You know, kinda like bowling.

Sam Cook
Swing Night Organizer, 2007-present