Is Your Dance Partner Dangerous?: Swing Dancing and the Fight or Flight Response
Remember the first time you held hands with a boy or girl you were interested in? The moment of tension when you first make contact, waiting to see if he or she will pull away, holding your breath, the fear of having made the wrong move, and then finally relaxing into the contact. A variation of this sequence happens every time you make contact to start a dance with someone. But many of us miss the relaxing phase and get stuck somewhere in the “eek” territory.
Whether you call it nerves, intimidation, needing to relax, etc., that moment of tension is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This activation is also referred to as the fight or flight response and can involve a number of physiological reactions including increased heart rate, sweating, and increased muscle tension. When we view something in a dance (or elsewhere for that matter) as a potential threat, we often resort to a form of the sympathetic nervous system response, mitigating our anxiety by shunting the emotional reaction into physical tension.
When you first contact another object, whether it’s an inanimate object or another human being, your body goes through what is essentially a threat assessment. This is a very primal reaction seen in even simple organisms and is a very important survival instant throughout the animal kingdom. You can think of this like the bouncer at the door of a club. Situations that the brain deems safe get past and the body relaxes; threatening situations are tagged “not on the list” and the body reacts to prevent them getting in. Because this reaction needs to be a very rapid response, in survival situations most of this assessment is based on past experiences. Like the bouncer’s list, situations are either on the list (safe) or not on the list (potentially dangerous).
In it’s origins, this threat assessment related primarily to physical danger. As organisms became more complex and eventually developed social groups, potential threats to survival became more complex as well. While they do not pose immediate physical threats, things like judgement and rejection have become very real fears that can elevate stress levels and activate the sympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, a number of physical effects are kicked off that can interfere with dancing.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
Each time you start a dance with someone, your body goes through this threat assessment. If you are well accustomed to dancing and the contact that goes with it, relatively sure of your partner’s skill to not injure you, etc. then dancing makes the “list” and you can relax into the experience. For most advanced dancers, this assessment often happens so quickly that it can be easy to forget that it even happens. However, if any of a number of factors are unfamiliar, the situation may be deemed “not on the list” and the body will respond by elevating stress levels and activating the sympathetic nervous system.
While we typically know the sympathetic response as “fight or flight” there is a third option to the response, the “freeze” response described in the book Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. The freeze response can be useful in nature as a “play dead” reaction or going limp in the face of overwhelming trauma can sometimes help minimize otherwise catastrophic injuries. In the dance world, I think the freeze response is highly prevalent in the form of reactions like the “deer in headlights” look or the “oh crap, someone better asked me to dance and I don’t want to screw up their cool moves” sorts of thinking. I believe the freeze response is what many instructors are seeing when they ask students to relax.
The involvement of the sympathetic nervous system is one of the reasons that the oft-given “just relax” advice can be difficult to put into practice (more on that in another post). If your mind/body views a situation as dangerous, it would be essentially an illogical move to relax into a dangerous situation. Rather, the goal the I find works better is to find ways to rewrite the “list” so that the situation is no longer viewed as potentially threatening. Simply being aware that you have the “freeze” reaction in dancing can help to calm it. Bringing attention to the threat assessment stage helps you complete it rather than becoming stuck in a tense state.
Where I think many dancers find it difficult to relax is because they actually fail to recognize that they see a threat in the first place. In the non-dancing world, the level of contact you have with the average dance partner (holding hands, 3+ minute extended contact, inside normal conversational range) would be reserved for extremely close friends or often exclusive to someone you are in a romantic relationship with. Because a new or even experienced dancer may be unfamiliar with a partner or not used to the closeness, the nervous system may treat this extended close contact as a potential threat. Or even if you are familiar with your dance partner and close contact, anxieties about potential judgement, rejection, or imperfection can easily cause the same subtle assumption of threat.
So how does one handle these assumed threats? Simply put, by redefining how you think about them so that you can view them as safe rather than threatening. The rules of contact, that may work in the social world, operate differently in the context of dance. Where a stranger touching your back could be a danger signal on the street, dance (and respectful dance partners) provide a space you can use to redefine that contact as a safe form of touch. When someone approaches or touches you in a dance and you notice yourself tensing, take a second and remind yourself that it is not causing you any immediate physical danger. Actively recognizing that you are in a safe space will help your nervous system to stop reading contact in dance situations as dangerous.
In addition to changing your response to touch, it is equally important to redefine the social assumptions. This can happen to dancers at any level, but I find many beginners tend to believe that people are judging them or dislike dancing with them. The assumption that people are judging your dancing often makes people tense, rigid, and represses the joy in their dancing. I find the simplest practice to change this is to reflect on whether or not you are judging other people. Many of us assume we are being judged, yet when we think about it, we spend little to none of our time judging others while dancing. You probably don’t spend entire dances rolling your eyes about your terrible dance partner, so why expect that your partner is rolling their eyes about you? Recognizing that you don’t spend every dance constantly judging your partner is a good first step towards breaking the assumption that your dance partners are constantly judging you.
I think that for most people, the most effective way to deal with these stressors is to start by acknowledging them. If you are aware that your sympathetic nervous system response is making you tense, you can take steps to shake it off and remodel your thinking to consider certain situations safer. Being aware of these mechanisms can help all levels of dancers to better settle their fears and gain comfort and confidence in various dance (and other) situations. While the strategies for building confidence are varied, I think the following video does a solid job of breaking down the general idea of stressors and how to change your thinking around it.
Starting with simple awareness of the sympathetic nervous system reaction can do a lot towards helping shift the reaction. There is a lot more to be said about how to work with it further, but in the interest of keeping posts to a readable length, I’ll end here and write more about that in the next few weeks.