I started ballroom dance lessons for poise, aerobic exercise, and gross motor skills. After three or four months, as I gained confidence, I was shocked that I was picking up an entirely different vibe. Something spiritual, something visceral, primordial. Something unexplainable.
I spent my summer talking to people, listening to their stories, especially people that went through divorces. Often, the person talks of “their ex-” as lacking a certain skill, or preference, and how that thing took over the entire relationship. It becomes the elephant in the room.
If you are a football fan, and choose a mate who cannot stand football; who makes a big dramatic scene every time you turn the channel to the big game, it becomes haunting. “My next spouse”, you will say, “will love football” (or tolerate it). Of some divorces the person I met said their ex- didn’t like to travel, so they were thrilled that their second spouse loved seeing the world. Yet the next person hated that their ex- was always pushing them to travel, happy that their 2nd loved to stay home and rest. There is no right answer, only finding a right match. Otherwise, its a living hell for both, and ends in a lifetime of misery or divorce.
I’ve personally said any new partner will need to ride a motorcycle, or be willing to ride on the back seat of mine. If not, she certainly must tolerate me being away, without worrying about my “getting hit by a car”. But in the end, even such toleration probably won’t work. Its got to be a shared pleasure.
Football, and travel, and motorcycles make sense … but today’s lesson was a lot harder for me to understand.
For the three minutes of ballroom dancing, the lead (that’s me) is responsible and the follow (my partner) has no particular control. However, the follow then is expected to focus on her performance; spins, twirls, grapevines and even throws. They trust me to steer, and they allow themselves to shine. It is my job, as lead, to carry the beat, pilot us about the floor, avoid obstacles and other couples, and decide when to switch between patterns. The lead decides and invokes all the moves through hand, shoulder, and torso movements.
The follow ignores everything else in the world, focusing only on my signals, and dances her heart out. A good lead makes his follow dance beyond her own expectation, and a weak lead leaves the team in confusion, slapstick, and failure. A good lead disappears from everyone’s view, pulling the levers to make the machine run. He beams with pride vicariously, not from showing off but from having his follow explode in fun. The follow trusts their lead explicitly, without question … and they shine. THAT is the essence of my analysis: extrapolating ballroom as a microcosm for relationships. And its why I was thunderstruck about six weeks into my dance lessons.
There is a primeval instinct, an urge within most men, to provide. Men hunt and fight and protect. Women nurture and feed. It is only recently we have evolved to the point that individuals can override those gender instincts and follow the role they most identify with or enjoy. I have certainly felt my gender urge. Back when I was earning money, I used it to purchase a house, provide food and shelter and safety, to save for my family’s future. In retrospect such urges were instinctive and positively motivated (not the fears of eviction, starvation, or neglect).
While “providing” feels good to me, it is not so to all men. Some prefer to be provided for. Some are self-absorbed and oblivious to the needs of others. But to me it is a source endorphins and intellectual satisfaction. In the language of a current fad, my “love language” is gifts.
So I seek a life partner that will accept my gift. On the dance floor and in life. In ballroom, a bad follow will try to “steal the lead”, and a strong lead must “take back the lead”. When I learned how to do this, six weeks into my lessons, I was so filled with positive hormonal feedback that I was astounded. It was my first understanding of how ballroom is an analogy for relationships.
A perfect test is when the lead is missing the beat. A submissive follow will concentrate only on her lead, and dance a quarter beat early or late, “feeling” his movement, his hands, and perform her moves flawlessly, undaunted, despite not matching the music. I’ve seen expert follows dance with very novice (or simply bad) leads where there may as well have been no music playing at all. She simply followed his lead, as bad as it was … and they danced beautifully.
A distrustful follow will nominally track to her lead, but keeps one ear open to the music, and one eye open to the floor. She will “correct” her lead to get him back on the beat. She will “steer” him toward the open spaces that she sees. She will keep him guessing and undermine his leadership. She will not spend her energy on HER part of job, performing HER movements to her best ability.
There is also no embarrassment for me, or for any novice lead, to ask a strong follow to “back lead” him. My dance card quickly filled up once my classmates knew I was aware of my own weakness. Over time, I could feel my skilled follows seamlessly passing me back the lead, then later taking it again. If all else fails, a lead simply does not dance with a particular follow. I know at least three or four woman across the summer would not dance with me. No hard feelings.
Finally, a woman who cannot show enough trust to follow, might choose to be lead instead. In this modern age there is no longer hard gender roles on the dance floor, thank goodness!
In my recently ended marriage, I was astounded again and again how in life “the lead” was taken from me. I saw it happen, but didn’t comprehend it intellectually at the time, only emotionally. Simple things like grabbing a grocery cart, or stepping between two cars, or asking a stranger for directions. About five years before the divorce and after years of conflict I simply stopped any effort to “take back the lead”. Instead I would immediately surrender it, appearing childish, to highlight the lack of trust and relaxation. I should have filed for divorce back then, instead of wasting years “teaching” about relationships. But I didn’t understand how ballroom dance, trust, and life all tied together back then. I do now.
If she grabbed a shopping cart during my trip to the store I would stop and say “Go Ahead, you know what you are doing”. She might reply, “No, this is your trip” and I would reply “Then why did you grab a cart and head for the produce? I don’t need anything from there, and we only have 20 minutes”. And the fight would begin. In the end, we wouldn’t make it to the next event.
If she asked a stranger for directions, I would make myself helpless, and only go where she told me until such time we arrived where she wanted. Yes, this was childish. But I was driving, I was deciding how to get there. Maybe I was lost, but I have a long history of asking for help, of sharing responsibilities. My point is the proper process is to say “Do you need help” or “Can I give you some help” but not to head off and ask directions. At that point, 20 years into this dance, I would say “Well, you now know where we are going, and I don’t (since you got directions), do you want to drive?” She’s usually reply “No, quit being an ass”. But I would be done. I would not be a submissive to satisfy her quick to panic level of discomfort and urgency, only my own. This was our dance, the dance of “distrust”. It was one reason (very low on the list) that eventually led to divorce.
When thinking about a new idealized relationship, I am obsessed with finding an independent woman. A woman that doesn’t need a man, a woman that lives her own life and takes responsibility for her own actions. How on earth can these two opposite ideas merge: an independent, sassy yet submissive woman?
Today the answer was revealed to me: Trust.
It is of no particular satisfaction to have a submissive partner submit to you. Its their nature. Where would you like to go for dinner? You decide honey. Is it ok that that I’m late without calling? Of course, only your time is important. Who should I vote for in the election? Jee-sus, just kill me. For me, a 24/7 submissive partner would be hell on earth.
But the gift I want to give that strong, independent, “Sassy” woman is for her to relax, to bathe in the moment, to turn over her worries … to me. To let me “provide” her with relaxation and comfort. Whether that be for 3 minutes on the dance floor, 30 minutes of therapeutic massage, or 4 hours of cuddling. I want to provide her the gift of turning off her crazy, noisy, overloaded world and trusting me. If she can’t do that, if she has to sleep “with one eye open”, then I already know I will lose interest. It may take a couple days, or a couple weeks, or maybe a couple months; but if I cannot receive the positive emotional feedback of providing her the “ocean of calm in a busy world”, then I will eventually tell myself to “go find someone where I can”.
That explains the joy of imagining her riding on the backseat of my scooter. Can she relax, close her eyes, and trust she will arrive at the same time in the same condition as me? Or does she look over my shoulder pointing out potholes and barking directions. Or worse, does she stiffen every few seconds at a perceived danger (yet, amazingly, arrive safely under my driving skill). Or, in the end, does she simply say “There is no way I am getting up on that death machine”.
Its true I assume I will get killed on my motorcycle some day. Some day in the future. That represents trust. So will you get on the back? Are you going to die living or live dying?
But I also understand giving trust. I want to turn off my brain and trust her. If she rides a bike, I want to ride the back of her motorcycle, closing MY eyes and feeling the wind in MY face. If she doesn’t, then I want to sleep in the passenger seat while she drives, trusting her ability to deliver us safely. If she’s planning a vacation, or a party, or a project; I’ll do everything I can to help her (in whatever way she wants), but I’ll show that I trust her judgment, her planning, because I do.
Trust me and relax. I will trust you and relax. Or “we” are never going to be “we”.