Photo: Illustration from Dąbrowska, Grażyna. Taniec ludowy na Mazowszu

The Importance of the Embrace

I found myself not too long ago in the basement of a old, Krakowian palace, today turned into a bar and venue. The place smelled of age and stories. As I got a drink, the bartender told me that much history had passed through the place, it being a gathering spot for political dissidents and patriots during the long years of foreign occupation.

But I wasn’t there for politics. No, I was attending a Polish folk dance, complete with traditional instruments and steps.

The music at this dance was a repetitive, atmospheric type, and I quickly found myself drifting off into imagination land. I imagined what it would be like to be a Polish peasant during the high middle ages. When knights on horseback could ride through your fields on a whim, destroying your crops and bringing famine to your family. When wars called in far away kingdoms enlisted your sons, stealing away able hands in the prime of their lives. Or when plagues flowed out from central Asia, bringing with them years of decay and death.

I imagined what it must be like to attend a peasant dance during these times. Maybe the harvest had been good this year. Perhaps the summer had been without war. Or maybe not. Regardless, in my mind’s eye I found myself in a barn, lit by candles and powered by fiddles, hurley gurlies, and drinks. People gathering together in line dances, children alternating with elders, the entire community coming together to dance to the songs they all knew. Then I imagined the music changing. The tune sliding higher to become a bright little number, full of life, but with a slight apprehension clinging to its edges. As in the way the calm, long days of Summer can sometimes portend the darker days of Autumn soon approaching. I see this tune call to the dancers and they answer by partnering up. Many couples form on the dance floor, and they move as a group in a circle around the floor. Each a tiny paired orbit in motion, whirling along tracks that time and tradition have laid down before them. The pattern continues without pause, only triple steps followed by triple steps, followed by more, never ending triple steps. As they turn around each other, the edges of the barn loose focus. The other dancers too begin to blur. Finally, it is only the other partner that remains, they are lost together amongst the chaotic, ever changing world of uncertainty, fear, hope and prayers.

In my mind’s eye, the couple’s embrace becomes the sole focus of their dance. No matter what storms might pass over their fields, no matter what armies might ravage their villages, until death do them part, they must hold each other in their arms. They are asking their partner to hold them tight and to never… let… go.

The spinning of the partnered couple in my imagination became too dizzy for me and I snapped myself back to reality. The Krakowian basement bar came back into focus. Taking a drink from my beer, I thought about what the partnered embrace means today. I looked out on the dance floor, and I was pleased to see that the patterns of the past were still reverberating through the couples of today. They were still holding each other tight, turning their way around the floor in partnered embrace.

This partnership embrace that I am describing is the one that we all know of today. It’s what is taught as the basic partnership connection across the entire spectrum of partner dances. You know the one I’m talking about: lead offers their right arm and shoulder, and extends their left hand. The follow connects on the lead’s arm and shoulder, and takes the lead’s hand with their own. With slight variations, this connection is the basic connection in all of the social dances we dance today.

For all of the dance researchers out there, I want to ask a question. Have you ever found evidence of this partnership embrace in any cultures predating European contact? Put another way, is the partnership embrace a uniquely European contribution to the global history of dance?