The Dharma of Swing.

Alexander PenningtonContributors

When my housemate, Ruth, first asked if I’d heard about Swing, I thought she meant dating as a couple. In her mind, it was a potential hobby to help me soothe my break-up blues. We only cleared up the confusion once Ruth said she took a few classes with hundreds of people before she got married. Still, I could do this kind of Swing while single, so my curiosity piqued. What would it feel like? I asked my conscience. I listened carefully to its answer: silence. This is fine. My conscience only tells me what not to do. As time went by, however, I found an answer: it’s like meditation.

The first time I practised meditation was in 2011. I went on my own–without an app, music, cushion, mat, or a soothing voice to guide me–in search of an ecstatic experience, to know what it means to be present, to be here, now. Instead, it felt like I was in a long queue at a grocery store. After years of practice, my initial frustration became a mild feeling of contentment. This might seem anticlimactic, but years after that, a teacher told me that this feeling is itself a form of ecstasy. Swing, I imagine, creates its own form of ecstasy, or modifies another feeling into a more beautiful form.

I had, of course, danced before 2022, the year I started Swing, but I wasn’t compelled by dance as I was by meditation. Yet, a practice can be thrown in a new light or receive an unexpected boost once the context of our life changes. Tending to a crying baby all night, according to the Dalai Lama, is worth two years of meditation, and the pandemic changed the meaning of shopping trips and queues for everyone. Ruth even told me her Zumba class felt like a spiritually significant experience of communion. The pandemic changed my understanding of dance, and, naturally, the meaning of Swing. I decided to go to my first class.

Did you know that dance is humanity’s oldest elaborated art form? Even societies without mythology or religion had dance in abundance. As I stood in front of the local church in Muizenberg for my first Swing class, touched by the brisk and salty winter breeze of the sea, I felt like something important was going to happen, something here, now.

The church held a class of four, including Brendan the instructor, who ended up being my dance partner. The moment I began dancing with him, I started regretting the past and worrying about the future: why hadn’t I put on more deodorant? What if I stood on his feet? I became “in my head” and out of step. Meditation is the same. When I begin meditating, the part of me that meditates enters into dialogue with the part of me that never meditates. The latter is always bothered by the room’s temperature. If it’s winter, it says I should be wearing a sweater, and that I’ll get a cold, and then I remember how terrible the last cold was, how wildly contagious it is and… Whoops! I overthink. This was all going on while I was dancing. Brendan noticed and said, in a sagely tone, “Listen with your body”.

During the class, trying to triple-step, I remembered a sermon I heard as a pre-teen when I was forced to go to church for Christmas. The pastor, in full stride, exclaimed, “If you put yourself first, your life will be troubled!” You can have all the pleasures of the world, he explained, so long as you put Christ first… and give 10% of your earnings to the Church. What a deal! Buddhism had a counter-offer: if you sit, close your eyes, and breathe, you can completely change your consciousness. For free! So I went with Buddhism. There’s a catch, however: Buddhist monastic life renounces dance. Swing, sensing an opportunity while I was dancing with Guru Brendan, whispered into my ear, “As a meditator, shouldn’t you consider that we sometimes want oscillations of feeling? Is it better to stay in the middle range of emotion, or occasionally fall into a rage or sorrow and learn to hold it all with joy?”

After the class, I was invited to a party by a friendly stranger whose name is Mik. I had a moment to myself. A friendly stranger invited me to a party. This has not happened since the beginning of the pandemic two years before. Were there others who were warm, gentle, and inviting? Who listened with their minds and their bodies? Should I go? I asked my conscience, looking for encouragement. Silence.

One of my meditation retreats had a silent walking ritual. It was designed to teach impermanence. Every morning, we would walk through a field with our eyes closed. The sound of crystallised grass being slowly crushed by someone close and far arises, then falls, arises again, goes again. The teacher said something like, “sound-reality is more fluid than visual-reality”, but I can’t remember exactly. I do remember the morning we heard someone from the farm next door announce, “Hier kom die fokken sleep-walkers!” Some of us burst out laughing, while others ignored them. Later, the teacher pointed out that you can’t play with someone who takes themselves too seriously. Since I took myself very seriously, this was a revelation. Meditation and Swing gives us a chance not to take ourselves too seriously, to become lighthearted.

Asking what meditation “is”can be hard to say directly, so metaphors are useful. At the beginning, meditation was a “chore”. Once I built skill and familiarity, it became “thought-pruning”, “seated non-thinking”, “silence-chewing” or “brain-yoga”. This is the case with Swing too. At first, it’s “mumbling”, but then it becomes “doom short-circuiting”, or “delight-constellating”. Maybe even “light-sharing”. In a time of load-shedding, this is especially important.

Come to think of it, maybe Swing is a form of meditation. I’ve seen skilled dancers, like Muriel, Swing with their eyes closed. Folks who pray and meditate also have their eyes closed. But what are we doing by closing our eyes? In prayer and meditation, we try to become sensitive to what is “holy”, which is a translation from the Hebrew word qaddosh which also means “other”. While Swing dancing with another, the experience births one of the great yearnings of 21st Century life: connection. By connecting, we might even feel that we are held by something beyond our ego. In my case, the sadness of a long-distance relationship ending was held by something that released it.

On another silent retreat, I had to meditate for 14 hours a day for ten days. It’s a “retreat” because of the beautiful setting, and the chores of daily life are taken care of. It’s a teaser of monastic life. Your only responsibility is to honour the simple rules of the centre, like “noble silence”. What is noble silence? Bar an emergency, don’t communicate. Don’t even make gestures. There are sophisticated reasons for this, one is that noble silence allows us to fast from, well, other people. And it’s brilliant. A person arrives desperately needing a break from people. Once we can all speak again on the tenth day, we feast on humour, happiness, discovery, commiseration, trust, and intimacy. A natural joy in company is revitalised in no time whatsoever. At the end of the people-fast, and the pandemic counts, we are all reminded how much we need others. We can’t light-share alone.

If you remember, Mik invited me to a party. I had just arrived. It was in a mansion that needed some TLC, and the good-humoured tenants called it “Downton Shabby”. I thought I wouldn’t know anyone, so I felt nervous. Immediately after I’d arrived, I saw people I liked from my university days. After constant threats to the lives and livelihoods of those we love and care about, these reunions are a celebration, even an affirmation of life. My companions quickly introduced me to the hosts, and the rest of their friends who, months later, became my friends. After goodbyes from death and emigration, the new life of budding friendships felt beautiful. We are happier when we have more things and people to love. With a nod to impermanence, Hope took a leap.

A couple of months later, I even got to watch a documentary about Swing, and it made me think Swing’s meditation twin is Koan practice. A Koan is kind of like a contradiction that helps us see with our ears, listen with our eyes, and lets the mind be free. It is a creative approach to liberation: artistic, humorous, playful, responsive, generous, subversive, moving, and intent on human transformation for the good of the world. Paul Eluard made one of my favourites: “There is another world and it is inside this one”. He also asks, who actually leads, and who really follows, in Koan introspection? The Koan or the Mind? His answer is yes. With Swing, you hold a Koan who is alive, a walking contradiction you can move with, who we call a “person”.

When I started to transition from the “mumbling” stage of Swing to the “doom short-circuiting” stage, it felt like something else I really enjoy. Holding open doors, letting someone else go first, offering an elbow at a crosswalk, helping reach what’s too high, giving back what’s been dropped, to steady someone who’s tripped, pulling someone back to their feet, warmly embracing, are subtle forms of caretaking movements that, given a beat, becomes Swing.

Almost a year after my first Swing class, an Elf from Middle-Earth crossed my path and I took her to a Blues Class where two new Swing friends live (fine, she’s not actually an Elf from Middle-Earth, she just looks like one). She and I started dancing together, with sultry jams, dim lights, gettin’ all bluesy. People around us were doing the same, being happy together, and she said, while looking at me, with great enthusiasm, “I feel I’m in a wonderful world!”. This is what Swing can feel like, especially with an Elf.