Every time I go home, my parents ask me the same question: “Have your grades dropped yet because you swing dance too much?” In their eyes, I wasted much of my college time at swing club. They see my Facebook page filled swing photos, and I spend many weekends away at swing exchanges. So as I finish my last semester, I think it is a good time to explain myself. Why do I swing dance instead of using that time to pursue more academic disciplines?
Swing dancing reflects the good, the true, and the beautiful. Wait, don’t leave. I know it’s cliché, especially here at Hillsdale College. I can hear it now, “Couldn’t you argue that everything reflects those ends? Doesn’t our very existence points to those ends?” Yeah, sure. But my experience has taught me that the good (and the true and the beautiful) is a really hard concept to wrap my head around. Even as senior, I still wonder how to cultivate it in my day to day life.
Because the good is so difficult to define, we must turn to other mediums to express it. One such expression is art. By art, I do not mean just painting or sculpting, though those certainly utilize this medium. Just as an observer may find the good in a masterful painting, he may also see the good through a runner who wins a race, through a ballerina on a stage, or through a well-delivered speech.
Each of these arts require ability on the part of the artist. These abilities are performance-based, and the artist’s skill directly corresponds with the effectiveness of his art. To express art well, the artist must be competent. The best painter creates the best painting; the fastest runner wins the race; the most graceful ballerina dances the lead roles; the most logical speaker delivers the best argument. To become a successful artist, we must achieve mastery, either through natural endowment or through rigorous training. This mastery requires work, which is generally difficult, but delivers rewarding results in our art. A successful artist communicates the good to everyone else.
Like these other artforms, swing dancing requires work, through practice and lessons. Learning a new dance is like learning a new language. When I first learned how to swing dance, it was challenging. At the beginning, it felt like there was a lot to keep track of, such as how to move my body, how to communicate with my partner, and how to listen to the music. But after dancing every week for a semester, I felt more comfortable and confident in myself. The lessons stopped feeling overwhelming and started to be enjoyable. Now I travel to other states to take weekend-long lessons because I think they are fun.
But there are other mediums that express the good without requiring work. One such medium is play. Play is different from art because it is an expression of the good that cannot be judged. When we look at a group of children playing together, we do not say, “This child is playing better than the rest.” That would be ridiculous. Even if one child is better at tag or catch than the others, the act of playing is an end unto itself, and one child cannot play better than all the others.
And this is where swing dancing differs from the previously mentioned artistic disciplines. Though it requires some work, swing dancing is also a leisurely activity. Swing is play. And because of this, social dances differ from other dance forms like ballet. Ballet, especially on the professional level, is not play; it is a Fine Art, and to do well it requires many years of rigorous training before going on to performances. But social dance is not about the training or the performing aspects. To only partake in lessons is to miss the point of social dance entirely. Social dancing requires frivolity and abandonment. When a person grabs a partner and starts dancing, the level of his aptitude becomes irrelevant, so long as he dances. He becomes fully emerged in the art, and the dance becomes an end unto itself.
It is between work and play that the swing dancer must find balance. If he leans too far in the direction of work, he will focus only on improving his technique, and he will lose the joy of the dance. If he leans to far in the direction of play, he will dance carelessly, and he will lose the art. When I dance with too much thought on my technique, I start to worry about messing up or looking silly. The motions become more like exercising, and maybe I should have gone to the gym instead. When I dance carelessly, I lose the form and beauty of what I am doing. Through the connections between my body, my partner, and the music, I express art. Through the frivolity of dance, I play.
As college students, our lives are so focused on academic work. We have chosen to pursue more schooling with the expectation that, if we focus and work hard enough, we will become better athletes, writers, artists, etc. These pursuits are fueled by our passions, and they point to the good just as art does. But we need to learn how to moderate our academic work. When we spend so much time drowning in this academic work, we become mentally and physically unhealthy. We become unhappy.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that the highest good is the actuality of eudaimonia, or living well, which is achieved through activities that bring us happiness. I could justify my love for swing dancing solely because it brings me happiness. But Aristotle goes on to explain that certain virtues align our souls to happiness, and he identifies one of the main virtues as temperance, or moderation. Swing dance is my break from school work, where I spend time to relaxing with other people and having fun. Through swing, I have cultivated a lifestyle of moderation and found the yin to my yang of school work. Through swing I have learned how to play; I have learned how to dance my dance.
Taylor Kemmeter is a senior studying English.