Sex, Love, Intimacy, and Partner Dancing
and what ballroom can teach us about human connection
People are prone to lump sex, romance, and intimacy all under the same umbrella. Men are often most guilty of this mistake, especially here in the United States. We latch onto a single person and expect them to fulfill all of our emotional needs, believing that a candlelit dinner or a candlelit bedroom are prerequisites to express genuine vulnerability.
But very few would contend that love and sex are the same. Sure, they can both be present in a relationship, but it’s a fairly uncontroversial statement that love is about more than sex and vice-versa. Think: at some time or another, you’ve probably fantasized about someone you had no romantic connection with. Likewise, you may have had a lovely walk in the snow holding hands where the thought of sex was a hundred miles away.
But where does intimacy come into this?
That’s where things get a little hazier, and is exactly what I want to explore in this article. Let’s start with two questions:
What are sex, love, and intimacy?
And how does intimacy affect ballroom dance?
Although the answers to each of these may be elusive, I’d like to give you my take.
Let’s start with sex. Hanky-panky. Rumble-tumble. Open mambo. All of these are words for the same thing, but it chiefly boils down to an evolutionary desire. What exactly this desire is will depend on who you ask, but it’s some cacophony of physical pleasure, reproductive drive, emotional intensity, and social power. It’s an immediate want for something and a fiery, primal method of getting it.
But where sexual desire is spurred by a quick surge of chemicals in the body, love is a slow burn. It’s harder to define still but involves feelings of warmth, attachment, and protectiveness. You identify with a person and want them to be a consistent piece of your life, or, from an anthropological perspective, a part of your tribe.
Intimacy is something different. It’s less about desire or mating and more of a spiritual closeness, a proximity to another human in full recognition of your mutual vulnerability. That’s a lot of big words to describe the feeling, but there are plenty of shorter ones too: Raw. Open. Known.
It’s a uniquely difficult thing to define, perhaps because we’re so used to mushing it together with sex and love, but it can appear wherever we have a paradigm of vulnerability. Intimacy expands this and means sharing in that vulnerability with a deep understanding of the other person.
Now I know what you’re thinking: sex and love already have that! And you would be right… some of the time.
But just as you can have sex and love independent of each other, they can also be independent of intimacy. You could be sexually charged or madly in love, but feel no real sense of closeness. Likewise, think of all the places you can experience intimacy with nothing explicit and no romance to be found: a late-night conversation with your best friend. An extra-long hug with someone you haven’t seen in a while. A social dance you feel like you poured your soul into.
The problem is we get confused and mix these things together. Someone touches us or holds our gaze for an unusually long time and we try to attribute it to sex or love rather than acknowledge it as a completely different feeling.
Ballroom forces us to draw that distinction. Unless you fall hopelessly in love with anyone and everyone you have a good dance with, your brain needs to find a way to express both physical and emotional vulnerability without the sex or romance that usually accompany them.
Newsflash: dancing with another person is vulnerable. It involves touching and being touched, as well as moving in a way that’s almost codependent. What your body does affects this other person in a visceral, physical, and emotional way. That’s powerful and scary.
Alongside that vulnerability, intimacy can be found everywhere in partner dancing. You may feel it in a west coast swing with a stranger at 4 am, or in the connection drills that let you feel your partner’s entire body as clearly as you feel your own.
But intimacy in dance isn’t strictly physical, and it’s not about sex or love either. When we dance, we put an element of ourselves on the floor. It’s the artistic expression that allows our dancing to reflect some core part of who we are. Doing that in front of people is intimidating and potentially embarrassing. Doing it while holding someone, knowing they are fully conscious of and affected by every artistic choice we make? Mortifying.
Therein lies the opportunity for intimacy. Yes, you are incredibly vulnerable when you dance, but so are they. Your partner is experiencing the same physical closeness and artistic risk as you, and you have no idea if they are comfortable or utterly terrified.
This may sound simple, but stop to think about it. There is a human being in your arms that, at this moment, is trusting you with a piece of their identity. You’re not even just viewing it, they’ve given you front row seats and an opportunity to influence and direct their artistic vision. That’s incredibly personal and you should feel special that someone is willing to share it with you.
This may be the 100th time you’ve danced together and it may be the very first. You don’t need any insight into their personal life or their emotions, their love life or their sexuality; you are sharing an experience with them where each of you exposes a piece of who you are and allow yourselves to be known.
This kind of intimacy in partner dancing is critical. A great dance is not made alone nor is it made by two people moving next to each other. Great dancing is made by two people operating as a unit. Then, to create something beautiful, we need to surrender a part of ourselves to the partnership. We indulge in that vulnerability with the understanding that we’re creating something bigger than what we could foster alone.
But while intimacy need not be present for sex or love, is it necessary for good ballroom dance? No, it absolutely is not. I have had countless wonderful dances with people during which our guards were up and in turn, I felt no emotional stimulation or spiritual titillation. The difference is those dances were rewarding for other reasons: they were athletic and gave me a sense of pride. Maybe I felt great about my own performance regardless of my partner. Or perhaps I loved the attention because looking pretty darn cool often has very little to do with any kind of spiritual connection.
To create truly inspired dancing, however -- THAT takes intimacy.
(Published in Sheer Dance, October 2020)