The Why We Dance Project

Note from the Editor – Please everyone give a warm welcome to Rebecca from New Zealand! Intrepid explorer, dancer, and creator of the “Why We Dance Project.” She is documenting her dream dancing summer, and interviewing people along the way. What a fantastic opportunity to ask people why they dance.

Another day, another airport…

Two months ago, I left everything behind. Well…not everything. A sizeable bag followed me onto the plane holding all I needed for over four months of dancing and globetrotting. My dream was to attend Swing and Blues dance events throughout the USA and Europe – to learn everything I could from some of the most influential scenes in the world, and most importantly, from the place where it all began.

Due to a happy coincidence I was able to leave my old job with enough funds to support my ambitious plans. Well, probably enough funds…in any case, I was ready for a change and the opportunity was too good to miss. This would be my first trip to North America, and the third to Europe. I was no stranger to travel but it was going to be my longest trip traveling solo, a whole four and a half months. In the States, my biggest fear was crime. In Europe, I was worried about communication. I bundled these concerns into my suitcase and hopped on the plane, excited and nervous to see what experiences this adventure would bring.

Two months later and I’m now at the halfway point. Since beginning the Big Trip, I’ve crossed two continents, visited 7 countries, and navigated 15 cities! My major concerns have just about disappeared. It turns out that looking out for yourself in places like New York, is pretty much the same as in any other big city, and Europeans are very generous and patient when communicating with foreigners.

I’ve managed to attend 5 massive events so far: bluesSHOUT!, The Blues Experiment, NY Bal Week, The Chase & Bluesology. I’ve also been to many other local Swing and Blues dances in different cities. My brain is so full of things to understand, integrate, practice and explore. It’s been intense. But it’s also been amazing. Every time I break through the language barrier and ask someone to dance (thanks Google translate!) I experience the wonder of communication through movement. I’m constantly in awe of the fact that I can travel to the other side of the world, turn up to an event, and just start dancing with someone I’ve never met. I reckon it’s as close as I’ll ever get to any kind of superpower.

This might seem a little obvious in hindsight, but it turns out that the hardest thing so far has been the fact that I’m always “the new person”. Back home, I knew that I could travel to any local dance event and find familiar faces. But once I started travelling outside New Zealand and Australia, that changed dramatically. If I was lucky, I might know my host, or by rare chance another kiwi. Travelling to small, local scenes has been a bit easier as often there’s a welcome jam or friendly people looking out for new faces, but at bigger events and in bigger scenes it’s a real challenge. I love meeting new people, but it took about a month for me to build up the stamina to relentlessly ask different people to dance all night wherever I went. The very few times I get asked to dance are a real treat.

One thing that’s helped quite a bit with meeting new people has been the Why We Dance Project. For this project I interview local dancers of Lindy Hop, Blues and Balboa. I then post snippets of our conversations, with their portrait, on a dedicated Facebook page. It takes a bit of courage to ask strangers if they want to be interviewed, but luckily most people have said yes! I ask each dancer a series of questions about how they started dancing, what they love most about dancing, and why they continue to dance. Number 5 will surprise you! (jokes, jokes).

What’s so wonderful about this project are the connections I get to see and share between dancers who come from such different places. Similar threads run through different stories, for example, these responses are about why people started to dance:

“Classic. I was in grad school and there was this really cute guy. He mentioned one day there’s this Lindy Hop and Swing dance club. Do you want to come? Oh yes , yes I do…maybe we can car pool.” Elspeth

“Funny story. My cousins birthday last year, I got a little drunk and I met a girl who was also a little drunk. We ended up dancing together, having a good time, staying right until the end. She said you’re a really good dancer you should come to this dance class. I was like sure. I thought this was a date. So, I went to this bar, the whitest one I’d ever been too. I was the only Black person in the house that night. I go and see her and find out its not a date, she’s teaching a dance class.” Jalen

But as well as similarities, there’s this fantastic glimpse into the diversity of dancers’ experiences:

“I started Lindy Hop when introduced by a friend/colleague who took me to Grappa’s – the regular Wednesday night social in Hong Kong. Best. Place. Ever. Very big Italian bar and restaurant with a huge dance floor and two levels where you could chill, or eat, or participate in a beginner class or actually dance. I was captivated.” Rachel

“I came to dance because I wanted something good for my body and my mind. I didn’t know what to expect. It turns out it was very important to me. As a new way to communicate, chill out and not think about your problems.” Elisa

I’ve also discovered that every dancer has something to share which others can connect to or be inspired by. For instance, how many people can actually say they met Louis Armstrong in person? Or that they’ve played blues for over 50 years?

Then there are the actual joys and struggles of the dance journey itself:

“In Blues dance you have to face yourself. From the outside it seems really easy, but then there’s so many things in Blues dance and a part of them are quite comfortable to you (in your nature already) and a part of them are not and you really struggle to get that. You have to really face yourself and go out of your comfort zone to try that.” Elisa

“Joy is definitely the right word. I love love love love love love love the conversational aspect of the dance and how playful that can be. And then also what that playfulness looks like in the context of the song. So that every single dance I have had and will have is completely unique to the song being played and the person I’m dancing with, and whether or not I’m leading and following with it. Yeah, I find a lot of joy in those things.”  Virginia

“I struggle with the money, the finance. I tried to find a way to learn different styles of dance to save money. Entry is really easy for beginners in dance – $5 for an hour sometimes. But when you become an experienced dancer you spend more money to join an advanced class and for instruction from professional teachers out there. Money issues really limit the potential capability for students to learn more and grow. My strategy was to learn something new, for example, in Seoul I studied Balboa, in the UK it was Lindy Hop, Collegiate Shag, joining the university dance team, in the end, learning different styles helped in my other dances. You can use techniques from different styles – it’s all connected.” Hongbae

My intention with this project is to provide a positive boost to the online dance community. However, I wasn’t quite sure how go about this until early on in my adventure. One day, I overheard a conversation about the infectious joy and enthusiam of new dancers. It got me thinking about how inspiring it is to hear personal dance stories. Suddenly, I realised I had a unique opportunity to collect and share insights from all the people I would meet in different places as I travel. After having the initial idea, I started planning out a format and figuring out what sort of questions to ask. Finally, I began interviewing people. I’ll always be grateful to those first interviewees who answered my nervous questions!

So far, the Project has been publishing for just over a month. I think it’s been so well received because of the rich and honest experiences individual dancers have generously shared for the project. I’ve now interviewed over 50 people and my short-term goal is to collect a year’s worth of stories to share on social media. Usually each person gets ~2-3 posts, published once per day.

The adventure is halfway through, but the project has just begun. As my fears about crime and communication pass away with more and more experience, my main concern is becoming how to survive constant cultural change. There are new people and new places every few days. It’s wonderful but utterly exhuasting, especially for two months…and I have two more to go! Anyway, I’ll be writing again soon with another update. In the meantime, check out the Why We Dance Project and if you have any questions feel free to get in touch through the page.

A bit about me

Selfie face at Grand Central Station, NY

Although I’m a kiwi through and through, I started dancing in 2013 in Cambridge, UK. I was on a working holiday visa and just by chance came across Lindy Hop one summer. A group of us went to see a big band play at the common one afternoon and after watching so many joyful dancers, we left that evening with plans to try it ourselves! I got back to New Zealand 6 months later and found a small and welcoming dance community where I could keep learning in Dunedin. Over time I continued with Swing and learned to dance the Blues. This hobby became a passion…some might say, obsession…and I became involved with all aspects of teaching and running a local dance scene. I became so connected that in the end, the hardest thing about this new adventure was leaving that community behind.

Yours, Rebecca.