man holding woman in dip

Photo by Nuno Duarte on Flickr

For the past three weeks, I've been taking beginning dance lessons in a group setting - meaning that I get to experience lots of different dance partners within a given class.

To my surprise, rather than learning a lot about where to put my feet, I've been learning a lot about how I want to be held and how I may want to hold others - on the dance floor and off.

From parenting to love to leadership, these beginner dance lessons have led me to look at my relationships through a refreshing new lens.

On the dance floor, I discovered that I want to feel my partner's presence and intentions through a firm connection between us (hand on my shoulder blade, arm nestled in outstretched arm). I can then sense where my partner wants to go and can respond by moving in sync, rather than trying to guess where to go (hold too light) or being dragged along (grip too tight, partner pushing and pulling).

In my other relationships, if I want to communicate an intention, do I move ahead before connection has been established, leaving the other to feel confused or angry? Do I grip tightly so that the other person feels like I am pushing and pulling? Or do I make sure we have a firm connection which allows meaning to pass between us?

On the dance floor, I want a partner who adjusts the length of strides to mine, rather than taking big, gulping steps which leave me hopping just to keep up.

In my other relationships, when I want to take things in a new direction, do I leap ahead impatiently, forcing the other person to hop after me or lag behind? Or do I pace my stride, taking smaller steps so they can experience choice and mattering if they want to join me?

On the dance floor, when I spin, I want a partner who can offer my fingers a cup-shaped hand (not a vise or a bowl) that is open enough for me to rotate freely, but not so loose that I become unmoored during my spin.

In my other relationships, when people want to explore - to take a solo spin (with my support) - do I hold their hands so tightly they have to wrench their wrists to turn? Do I let go completely so they spin out of control or lose their connection with me? Or do I provide a cupped hand that is neither too tight nor too loose, allowing them to rotate within our shared orbit without flying out of it?

Finally, on the dance floor, when I move away from my partner temporarily (as in a rock step in Swing) I want to feel a stetchy-rubber-band tension between us - a little tug with some give in it, which leads me back to my partner in time.

And in my other relationships, when others want to stretch a bit into their autonomy, moving away from me temporarily, do I form a tight rope between us that threatens to pull them short? Or do I hold their hand with a bit of give, so they feel their freedom and my presence, as we come apart and back together again in a dance of respect and co-creation?

About the Author

Elaine Shpungin Ph.D.

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Illinois Psychological Services Center.

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