The Slow Dance by Mark Janka (The Lesser Birds of Paradise)

The Semiotics of the Slow Dance: Reflections on the Dance within the Non-Dance

I began thinking about the dance within the non-dance when I had to learn how to dance “for real” for my wedding. The Wife and I took lessons at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. It was fun, and learning how to waltz and box step made me feel smarter and more sophisticated — more cunning, even. It felt as though I might one day use these skills to get myself out of a tight jam, or perhaps solve a crime. Despite these pleasant, if unreasonable fantasies, I found the experience left me dissatisfied.

Learning to dance — counting beats, leading, adjusting my posture, and whatnot — made me nostalgic for the omnipresent Slow Dance, the ritual practiced in middle and high school gymnasiums and multi-purpose rooms everywhere. The one I’ve heard referred to as “The Sway”. The Sway was such a thrilling thing. Yet, since the Sway lacks any of the real elements of dance — physical rhythm, graceful movement, displays of strength and control — it can hardly be considered a dance. That the Sway happens while music is playing and in a public space seems to be about the only characteristics that it shares with actual dancing. More accurately, it is a non-dance.

In order to look at the language of this non-dance, we should first look at basic mechanics of the Sway. For the most part, it is a couples-only dance with no changing of partners or “cutting in” mid-song, as one might with square dancing, for instance. Generally, the girl rests her hands on the shoulders of the boy, and the boy places his hands on the waist of the girl. The couple shifts their weight from one leg to another and, with slight, almost undetectable movements of the feet, rotates in a circle. If one were to look down on the couple from above (from the wrestling balcony, for instance), one might notice that the couples usually rotate clockwise and around a single point. When the song is over, the non-dancers are on the same piece of floor they started on. Additionally, as is pointed out by the author(s) of the Wikipedia entry for “Slow Dancing”: “Because the dance requires little physical concentration, participants often talk to each other while they dance.”

The Lesser Birds of Paradise
Space Between [sampler player (multiple songs)]
Unreleased Will Oldham cover “Take However Long You Want” [MP3] “A Magnet in You” from String of Bees [MP3]

The Dance within the Non-Dance

If the Sway has little value as a dance, what gives this non-dance value? What makes it enjoyable — thrilling, even? What is the semiotic language of this non-dance?

The most important feature of the Sway is that it takes no talent. If you can stand, you can dance the Sway. And if you can not stand, some approximation of the Sway can probably be arranged without much fuss. Since anyone can non-dance the Sway, it is not the skill of the performers that gives a great slow dance its greatness. Like with punk rock, the feeling that is more important than the skill. That feeling is derived from the chemistry between the dancers. It has little to do with how much you like the song you’re dancing to or how much you want to impress the person you’re dancing with (or the other people in the dancehall). It is, in its purest form, about the mutually symbiotic vibe between you and your partner.

Though the Sway is a physical and public expression of the unique chemistry between the two people dancing, it has a common language of movement — or more precisely, of touch. This is what makes the Sway interesting. As the Sway is about the unique chemistry between two people, there are surely variations of the semiotic language of the Sway that are unique to a given non-dancer. As with all semiotic studies, context is everything. However, there are some generalities worth exploring.

I Kept My Promise, You Keep Your Distance: The non-dance at its most basic (and least intimate) is an expression of friendliness. I’d even say closeness, but true intimacy either has not yet developed or has no hope of developing. Indeed, sometimes the basic Sway is used as a device to communicate that the closeness between partners is merely a friendship and will always remain a friendship. The basic Sway looks like this: boy with hands on girl’s hips and girl with hands on boy’s shoulders, at least 12 inches between bodies — talking. The talk is very important here. It is the lubricant of this dance. The conversation will also indicate what type of chemistry is happening. It gets really tricky here, though. Two similar couples, at two similar dances, both dancing the same basic Sway, and both talking about how “gay this school is” or how “Mr. Miller, the algebra teacher, is such a crackhead,” may have two very different chemistries. One may be small talk to pass the time until the end of the song offers a pleasant escape; the other might be small talk with the hope of moving to the next stage of intimacy. The difference, of course, is in how things are said and how the comments are issued and received non-verbally. Are the eyebrows up? Is the chin turned down? Does she lean in to hear if the music is loud, or does she just uninterestedly say, “What?”

You Really Got a Hold on Me: The next stage of Sway intimacy is the slow and subtle closing of the gap between dancers. If the boy’s hands move from the hips to the small of his partner’s back, this indicates a stronger bond between the dancers. If his fingertips meet, that’s an even stronger bond. His fingers may interlock, then overlap, and so on. A similar series of events hold true for the girl assuming her hands have moved from her partner’s shoulders to his neck. In this stage, there is still talking, but the talk is not bound to the familiarity of the locale (usually a school), as it is in the basic Sway. The couples might say things like: “That new Will Ferrell movie looks pretty funny.” “You mean the one where he’s running around like a crazy idiot with his ass cheeks hanging out of his shorts…?” “Yeah, that’s the one.” Note how the conversation moves beyond the walls of the school setting and hints at a future rendezvous, in this case a movie date.

Just Like Me, They Long to Be, Close to You: This stage of the Sway indicates clearly to the dancing couple and the others in the room that there is serious chemistry and a physical attraction. Here, the bodies are closer — hovering between a couple of inches apart and actual torso and pelvis contact. The girl’s elbows are bent, pointed down, and are at the sides of the boy’s ribcage; her hands are usually arranged on the boy’s back or neck. Her right hand might be on or near his left shoulder, or vise versa, in order to take up the extra arm slack that accumulates with the closeness of bodies. The boy often moves his hands up so that they are near the girl’s shoulder blades. The stroking of backs and necks may be observable. Conversation will have declined greatly as, at this point, most of the communication will be via touch. When there is conversation, much of it will not include eye-contact. This is because the close proximity of the couple makes it easier, and more magical, to speak softly and directly into the partner’s ear. Direct eye-contact will be reserved for poignant sentiments, such as, “Damn, you look fine tonight,” or “A bunch of us are going to hang out behind the Walgreens after the dance. I’d like to be there with you.” When eye-contact is made, partners will tilt their heads back in an unnatural posture in an effort to make eye-contact without relinquishing any of the physical closeness that was negotiated over the course of the song or the evening.

You’re the One That I Want, Ooh, Ooh, Ooh: The next stage generally involves personal fetishes of the non-dancers. This might include stroking of ears or cheeks, running fingers through hair, breathing on necks or shoulders, and etc. Conversation at this stage is done as a whisper directly into the ear of the partner. Generally, this verbiage is limited to “sweet nothings” and has no clear narrative or philosophical direction. Such conversations might include statements such as, “Shhhh, yeah,” or “Ha-sauooo, mama.”

I Think I’m Ready, Let’s Do the Hug-and-Sway: As described at Wikipedia, “Some couples who have a close relationship may dance very closely together, in a ‘hug-and-sway’ fashion.” The Hug-and-Sway involves constant bodily contact. There is no talking. (At this stage, it is assumed that the couple will hang out behind the Walgreens together — there is no need to ask.) The couples’ eyes are closed most of the time. They are thinking about stars or sex — or sex under the stars, and probably on an island, especially if the theme of the dance is “Cruisin’ the Caribbean” or something along those lines, as it often is. The girl might put a hand on the chest of the boy and rest her head on his shoulder. The couple might engage in kissing or even severe necking depending on the diligence of the dances’ chaperons.

The Dancehall as Theater

The above analysis emphasizes the interpersonal communication between the two people engaged in the non-dance. Let us not forget, however, that the couples are also communicating to other people in the dancehall. Most of the details of the non-dance are for the benefit of the partner as well as for public notice. I would suggest that the theater of the non-dance is truer to the interpersonal message than the theater of actual dance. That is, partners engaged in the Sway are using the non-dance to signify to one another the type of chemistry they have between them, and, generally, this is also what they are communicating to the room. On the other hand, a couple engaged in a swing dance or a cha-cha may or may not have a positive interpersonal relationship, yet, in the interest of the theater of dance, this is what they must communicate to the room. This illusion is part of what makes them good dancers. With the Sway, there is really no such thing as a “good” non-dancer, outside of the correct reading of one’s partner’s interpersonal communiqué, therefore there is no need to create an illusion. What the couples communicate to each other via the non-dance is what they communicate to their “audience”, thus the purity of spirit embodied in the Sway. Like all things of pure spirit, this purity can be faked, commoditized, and used in pursuit of personal gain or revenge.

The Sway as Psych-Ops

The defilement of the Sway usually occurs when the theater of the non-dance is not in sync with the interpersonal communication of the non-dancers. For instance, a cruel popular boy might pretend to like an unpopular girl and non-dance with her for the entertainment of his friends (who are probably assholes). Or, a girl might pretend to be attracted a boy that she does not really like, and she may non-dance with him in an effort to make a rival (who actually likes the boy) jealous, perhaps as payback for some other psychological injury previously suffered by the pretending girl at the hands of her rival.

Let’s Give the Swingers a Fair Shake

As a dancer, I am a novice at best. I’ve learned enough to make it through the first dance at my wedding with the illusion that I might possess small amounts class and/or dignity. I am more comfortable in the realm of the non-dance. It occurs to me, however, that for a true dancer, someone who does not have to think about the mechanics of dancing (where to put their feet and when, what their arms and hips supposed to be doing and when), the thrill of the non-dance may exist in subtle ways that are registered only by the dancers and not by the observers of the dance. In this way, the dancers communicate the intimacy of the non-dance while executing the theater of the dance. This intimacy, and the coloring of the interpersonal chemistry, may or may not jive with the theater of the dance. Swing dancers communicate joy and playfulness to the observers, but interpersonally, perhaps with a sly, quick stroke of the shoulder or a curl of the lip, the dancers may communicate to each other a serious infatuation. Tango dancers, who communicate to observers a smoldering and complicated physical passion, may, perhaps with a strangely raised eyebrow or a sarcastic flick of a wrist, communicate to one another a goofy playfulness that embodies the chemistry of the relationship.

The Secret Life of a Non-Dancer and a Call to Arms

I worry that these thoughts about dancing and non-dancing are wasted on a guy like me. I’m too old to dance the Sway anymore (certainly not in public, anyway), and I’m too talentless to dance real dances without feeling self-conscious and awkward, which renders the experience lame (emotionally and physically). I find this to be true except at weddings. I don’t think this is just me, either. There seems to be just enough “magic” (read: booze, pretty lights, and general matrimonial insanity) to allow the dancers to shed the self-awareness normally caught up in the mechanics of dancing in favor of chasing those interpersonal chemistry vibrations shooting about: a party vibe, a silly vibe, a serious-attraction vibe masquerading as a goofy-as-hell vibe, and a sincerely romantic I-just-plain-like-being-this-close-to-you vibe.

It’s unfortunate that these moments exist so infrequently. And I admit to being part of the problem here. I pretty much only dance at weddings or if a room is very, very dark and the music is just right (read: I’m drunk). I would like to be the type of guy who dances with his wife to a song on the jukebox in a bar or, maybe, in a parking lot, to a song on the car radio. This type of behavior is just not part of the culture of my generation. Even if we did these types of things, we’d have to spoil them by half coating them in sarcasm — an easy way out if it turns out to feel ridiculous instead of pure, like the way it felt dancing the Sway in the multi-purpose room in middle school: nerve-racking and strange, yes, but, more than anything else, true and exciting.

The secret me, the better me, hopes that, as a result of these reflections on dancing and non-dancing, I will start to try to be the type of guy who dances with his wife in bars. I remember that my dance teacher at Old Town School of Folk Music tried to instill in his students a kind of casual laziness for some of the dances. I believe he even called one of them the Barroom Box Step. With the Barroom Box Step, you held your partner very close, your elbows were down and relaxed, your movements were slurred and understated. To me, this seemed to honor the important elements of the Sway, but it was organized enough that an adult could do it and not feel absurd.

The secret me hopes that all of this thinking about dancing and non-dancing will result in a tiny revolution — a call to arms. This call to arms will be answered when my arms, or your arms, push aside the tables at the neighborhood bar. And with the jukebox playing, my arms, or your arms, will call to somebody else’s arms by pulling that somebody up (by the arms) and out of their seat. My arms, or your arms, will then wrap themselves around that somebody, and that body’s arms will do the same. Then, easily and with confidence, or stupidly and with trepidation — one way or another — these bodies will dance some form of dance (or non-dance). And it will be thrilling.

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Mark Janka is the singer-singwriter core of the Lesser Birds of Paradise, a Chicago-based indie folk band that’s just released their third full-length disc, Space Between, which “opens up secret passageways of sound, where melodies aren’t so much played as naturally grown, where single notes, pump organs, xylophones, muted drums, and echoing voices, layer in a warm, seductive embrace” (from band website). In reviewing their last release, PopMatters noted: ” It’ll take just one listen… for you to wonder why you’ve never heard of Lesser Birds of Paradise before.” [multiple songs]
PopMatters review of String of Bees

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