One phrase I remembered from a professor at my teachers’ colleges was, “students catch more than they are taught.” By this he meant that while every lesson, unit, course, and school-wide learning plan has codified (written down) objectives, there is always extra unintended learning by students who are very observant and pick up much more than we teachers consciously put down. This is a good thing, and good teachers will facilitate this “unintended” learning. In the West, we have a long tradition of holding dances at high schools, and also for middle schools on special occasions like graduation. While this is done mostly due to tradition these days, there is a lot to be learnt from the school dance; some of it is unintended, I’m sure. And this “extra learning” might just be some of the most valuable life-lessons younger students get.
The dances are well-planed and often complicated affairs. They are held every few months in the school’s gymnasium. The school hires a DJ or live band and the student council decorates the gym to make it feel like a ballroom with low lighting etc. While it seems lovely, it is actually a “crisis” time for middle school, and even some high school, boys. However, we all know that during a crisis you can learn a lot about yourself and others.
With every crisis comes fear. Imagine how scared we boys were at age 13 and 14 to take that long public walk up to a girl and ask her to dance. This act, which required us to expose ourselves to rejection and possible ridicule, demanded severe bravery. However, to face and ultimately conquer this fear was worth the price of tuition our parents paid for the whole school year. The dark, music-filled gym was our training ground, our test of manhood, our rite of passage from boys to men.
The dance was much more than a dance. Through it, we boys were forced to learn about girls and what they valued. For example, one girl remarked that she liked dancing with me because my fingernails were clean. Apparently my male peers didn’t wash up as well. Since that comment, I have always cleaned my hands like a surgeon before an operation. Another thing I learnt from this initial foray into dancing was that girls moved differently than me. I had to anticipate where my partner would step, how she would move her waist, and how I needed to place my hands on her hips with just the correct amount of pressure to tell her where I was going to move. So many thoughts were running through my brain as I piloted my body through this hazzardous ritual that I barely had time to enjoy the moment. However, after a few dances, I did slowly begin to understand why adults like to dance; it’s intimate and, as such, it requires you to be fully “switched on” and to be your best version of you. To be skillful, you need to spend more time and energy thinking about your partner than yourself.
As I danced these first dances with growing fondness for it, I realized that both me and my dance partners had heighted awareness. We were very alert, a little excited, and a little nervous. As such, everything seemed more alive, more dangerous, more electric. Time slowed down, the music became more vivid, her perfume -or soap or natural “girl smell”-, which I had never noticed before, became pronounced to the point of a lovely distraction. I noticed her eyes for the first time, and then couldn’t stop looking at them. How she closed them slightly when she laughed or averted them when she blushed. There was so much to take in – the sight, scents, and warm feeling of a girl who allowed me to be so close – that it was no wonder I was tongue tied and twisted as I struggled initially to find the right words for conversation. I was dancing with a girl in a dark gym, but I was really a student taking notes and learning something profound for the first time in school; and I was loving this “class.”
By far the most popular song at these early dances was Stairway to Heaven; performed by the world-famous British band, Led Zeppelin. Not only was it a slow song, which partners were forced by etiquette to dance more closely together, but it was also very long; something both the boys and girls enjoyed.
In the dark, with a strange but not unpleasant new found life form in my arms – a soft, sweet-smelling girl – I explored what it was to be a young man as I danced up the steps to heaven. Thank you, Led Zepplin! Thank you, teachers!