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Kelley Tackett: The promise of joy

The first time I went swing dancing, I simply followed the music. It was a snowy February night, and I was walking home from a late shift at The Herald when the soft notes of Ella Fitzgerald found me on the sidewalk behind Sayles. I wandered up the steps for a peek in the window, and found myself dancing for hours with fellow students and strangers, my feet slowly finding a rhythm (and losing it again) to a style of dance I’d never encountered before that night: the Lindy Hop.

Two years later, I still find a transformative joy in swing dancing, in throwing myself whole-heartedly at an endeavor for which I have no expectations or natural inclination. Swing persuaded a trust in myself to love something I might not succeed in, and a determination to find wonder in what I pursued. I wrote about swing dancing in every fellowship and grad school application this year, arguing that the dance’s spontaneity, paired with its consistent eight-count step, had well prepared me to go off into the world. The dance became a metaphor to seek out new experiences, meet new people and build life-long connections from the unexpected while actively working toward concrete accomplishments.

These selling points translate differently onto the pandemic-ridden present and the kinds of goals I now find myself setting for the coming months and years. Prior to unprecedented circumstances, I spent a lot of time imagining the lessons I would ultimately draw from my time at Brown, the moments I hoped would continue to define my life. For this very Commencement Magazine, which I copy edited for three years, I meant to portray — soulfully, eloquently — that fateful February night and how it changed my interactions with the world and subsequently myself. Yet swing did not prepare me for the pandemic, did not give me the tools to survive in isolation and rely increasingly on a virtual world where hand-holding and swing-outs carry substantial personal risk. The Lindy Hop would not help me through this, because in so many ways it represented the antithesis of what the world had come to require. It took time to recognize that it was not the gathering of more than five people or unmasked personal contact through which I forged such an immediate, heartfelt, eternal connection to swing, although I cherish all the friends I’ve made along the way. Rather, it was the promise of joy, a premise which lends itself to other joys, possible ones, made probable through my own actions. Swing taught me to accept joy where I stumble (over my own feet and others’) upon it, to hold that joy close and to accept it at face value.

The term “floorcraft” references a lead dancer’s need to plan one move ahead while navigating a crowded floor without sacrificing the improvised nature of swing. A few hours before the second anniversary of my dancing debut, Brown banned all gatherings of more than 100 individuals. The ban was not effective until midnight, so the dance went on, with copious amounts of hand sanitizer, constant safety reminders and careful monitoring of cups at the water cooler. Wearing the same dress, I was sure to dance with the same partners I had first found that other night, already meaning to close what I saw as the first of many circles leading into senior spring. Without knowing what the next week would bring, I was grateful to have that last night of near-normalcy, to dance with everybody watching. I didn’t know that would be my last full circle at Brown, but then, two years ago, I hadn’t known that night would be the beginning of one. It was fitting for swing to appear on the eve of another upheaval, a dance that has taught me to keep a wary eye on the rest of the floor while making up my own path as I go.

The last time I went swing dancing, I was blasting Sam Cooke on my headphones, spinning around the empty soccer field of India Point Park two days after it reopened for active use, my only company the smattering of dandelions underneath my feet and the neon smudges of distant joggers. It took a minute to find my steps in the music, to turn without the weight and surety of another person beside me. But the joy was easy, familiar and bright. The point was never to cling to the specific experience, the day, or the dance. I think I’m on plan E for how I’ll be spending this fall, and it will be months still before strangers assemble to dance together, each day encouraging greater speculation. Yet even without tightly woven social dances, I recognize, now, how swing has convinced me to trust the unexpected; to follow the music even when it takes me far from my depth; and to believe that the potential for joy lies in ordinary moments. That the next beautiful thing is one double-outside turn ahead.


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