Voices
Associated Press/Photo by Jim McKnight

Shall we ...?

In the ballroom it's all about leading and following

It seems an ingrained part of culture to us, with a history stretching back to the recesses of time. From Dancing with the Stars, to Fred-and-Ginger, to Johann Strauss, to . . . hmm.

Actually the pedigree of what we call "ballroom dancing" isn't that long, and it began in scandal. The waltz outraged traditionalists when it first appeared around the turn of the 19th century. Such public intimacy had never been permitted, when any young man could approach any young lady-even one he didn't know-and spin away with her in his arms. But apparently the scandalized got over it, or else the appeal of the new style overwhelmed all opposition. "May I have the pleasure of this dance?" was here to stay, the bane of little boys forced to dress up and propel icky girls around a polished wood floor in charm school.

I grew up in a church that frowned on dancing-not without reason, especially considering some Latin varieties that leave little to the imagination. The "slow dancing" popular when I was a teenager consisted of fusing as much body surface as possible while swaying more or less in place. However, since ballroom has boomed again and Arthur Murray classes have surged, it's occurred to me that paired dancing is not necessarily a trap door to perdition.

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Men and women have danced from the beginning of time, of course-but not with each other. They've danced for all kinds of reasons: religious ecstasy, warlike fervor, to attract a mate, to impress the gods. But not for love. To my knowledge, it's only in Christian cultures that men and women came together to dance, in elaborate figures that blossomed, flowered, varied, and finally broke off in individual couples.

"Oh, how the sexes incline to each other!" Jonathan Edwards wrote. He rejoiced in the fact, though of course he knew that the inclination is fraught with danger. Christianity puts the attraction in context, gives it structure and purpose. Ballroom dancing, in its own flawed way, reflects the Christian ideal of marriage.

In 1994, the City of New York instituted a ballroom dancing program for sixth-graders in the public school. The documentary Mad Hot Ballroom follows the dance teams of two elementary schools all the way to a recent city competition. Some of the kids are from broken homes, some have already been in trouble, some drop out; others find something to strive for and eventually triumph. It's a great success story, but the movie also demonstrates how ballroom declares a truce in the battle of the sexes-even combatants as young as 11.

At the beginning of the semester, girls and boys are at odds; in their conversations we pick up echoes of future spousal complaints. The boys agree that girls are bossy, and the girls concur that boys are lazy. Girls talk too much; boys are always showing off.

Dance class is the civil introduction of one sex to the other. The children are addressed as ladies and gentlemen and expected to behave that way: "All you boys, tuck in your shirt tails." As they learn the basics of foxtrot, tango, and swing, we listen in on further conversations. They're thinking about relationships, about falling in love, even about marriage. The boys are working out their responsibility to lead, the girls are practicing ways to follow.

The dance steps lay down a pattern, and the dance position enforces a proper distance. They learn to treat each other with respect and to trust each other's motives, for they're working together to create something beautiful.

In Christian teaching, the ideal of marriage is exactly this: respect and trust, leading and following, matching one's steps to a larger pattern and reflecting a larger love. Bossy girls, show-offy boys grow up and merge to be more than the sum of their parts. It can be a beautiful thing. Let's dance.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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