Kay Newhouse fell in love with swing dancing in the backroom of a country bar in Rockville, Maryland, where she'd often head after teaching tango and cha-cha at an Arthur Murray Dance Center.
"I'd dance with a different person every three minutes for hours on end," Newhouse says. "At that point I was single and didn't know a lot of people. I'd spend the whole night dancing and having conversations. It was exercise, it was so friendly and it was an easy way to engage with people."
Hold on there: Switching partners, talking and engaging with people? The sad truth is, that's a covid-19 nightmare.
Of all the once-harmless human behaviors that are now potentially deadly, social dancing is surely near the top of the list. It's easily one of the most dangerous activities we can do for the very reasons that it's also one of the most glorious. The coronavirus preys on our humanity, and dancing brings that out in crazy plumes of joy. You really can't beat dancing for pulling us tightly together to share -- in big, breathless ways -- a host of emotional, physical and spiritual sensations.
Will dancing with strangers ever feel safe again?
Grabbing onto a conga line, shuffling at a nightclub, saying yes to the salsa, bouncing in the hora at a wedding or hollering "YMCA" at a cousin's bat mitzvah: The form doesn't matter. The bad news is the same.
HAILSTORM OF DROPLETS
We don't have to be dancing cheek to cheek to be imperiled. There's always going to be touching, unless we're talking perfect formations of line dancing. Even then, while Boot Scootin' Boogeying or Electric Sliding, there's a chance of bumping into other people, not to mention heavy breathing, shouting over the music, singing, laughing and a hailstorm of droplets, all over the dance floor.
The risk is real. In Detroit, the coronavirus tore through the tightknit Black community that is centered around a long-standing couples dance, known as "Detroit ballroom." Nearly three dozen people died, according to early estimates.
"This thing has been a direct hit on us," dancer Darrell Wilson told the Detroit Free Press in April. "Every time I look up, somebody I know has died."
The losses and anxieties have shaken the social-dance world. "That could have been us if we'd gone one more week," says Kevin Murray, who in early March shut down his Simply Swing Dance Academy in Silver Spring and Columbia, Md. His life revolves around hand-dancing, the Washington form of swing. He met his wife on the dance floor. But he's not opening his school again until there's a vaccine.
"The financial hit," he says, "is not as bad for me as the potential of losing folks on your watch."
ALTERNATIVES TO THE FUN
There aren't many appealing alternatives to the fun of dancing on a crowded floor. Socially distant line dances in parking lots? Anyone up for wearing gloves and masks in clubs?
"That's absurd. Comical," scoffs Michael Seguin, who's trying to figure out how to reopen his Mobtown Ballroom in Baltimore. Swing, the Lindy Hop and other jazz-era dances were his mainstays, but now he's thinking the future lies in hosting live music -- without dancing.
Seguin doesn't want his customers to get sick. But shutting down dance means a pile of other losses.
"This was one of the few places where no one's ever looking at their phone," he says. "The scene drew a lot of people who were kind of nerds, for lack of a better word. They were drawn to social dance because it's formalized and desexualized.
"It was a place to have physical contact with human beings where it was safe and OK."
That's really the key: immersive human contact, where you've stepped away from daily life. The dance floor is a playground where you can meet people without having to say anything, where everyone agrees that certain barriers are down. It's OK to approach a perfect stranger. It's fine to say no. Say yes, and your commitment can be as brief as three minutes.
Then you start moving and the endorphins take over, those happy hormones that help us feel empowered and at ease. Maybe you mirror your partner's twisting and add a little fillip of your own; he whips up a variation on that theme and you parry with something new all over again. That kind of creativity can last all night. Or just to the end of the song.
"You make bonds with people," says Lawrence Bradford, who has taught thousands of dancers through his Smooth and EZ Hand Dance Institute in Mount Rainier, Md. "There's a whole development of relationships that happens on the dance floor." Bradford has been dancing for most of his 75 years and says he hopes to dance for many more, after a vaccine comes out.
We crave those bonds, especially the face-to-face, physical and even wordless human connections that happen so easily on the dance floor. That's where we're challenged to create a good experience for a new friend. The way she holds your hand or copies your bounce, the way you slow your shoulder roll to match hers: These become signals of trust and compatibility. They're corporeal signs that we're being seen, appreciated.
"When we're not physically present with other people," Newhouse says, "it adds this whole dimension of loneliness to our lives that we can't resolve on the internet."
Having plunged into the smooth, elastic push-pull of West Coast swing all those years ago, Newhouse, 48, eventually became a competitor, teacher and organizer of events like one in early March that drew 800 dancers. Now, along with many other fans of social dancing, she's grieving.
"Our ability to dance together disappeared overnight," she says. "And this was stress relief for me, and socializing, so that isn't there. And that's really hard."
So should dancing with strangers come back? Hell, yes.
As to when that will feel safe again, there's a hopeful precedent in what happened a few years after the 1918 flu pandemic.
That's when the Charleston exploded, and the Lindy Hop. Swing dancing emerged, rooted in those and other dances popularized in Black communities. The dance craze accelerated throughout the 1920s and beyond. The flu pandemic had killed more than a half-million Americans in 1918-19, but not long afterward, people packed Harlem's newly opened Savoy Ballroom -- capacity 4,000 -- and others like it across the country. Not to mention those who flocked to basement clubs and dives.
"We just have to be patient," Newhouse says. "For the social-dance scene, we can't be first out of the gate. But it's not 'no dancing' -- just 'not yet' for dancing."