On Being A Ballroom Dancer And Autistic

Enough people are savvy enough to realize I’m autistic after I get to know them well enough. Sometimes it just comes up, and sometimes if they’re psychologically inclined they’ll tell me. I’m not offended. They’re right.

And more often than not they learn I’m a ballroom dancer, and they ask me why someone with autism would do such a thing. One friend of mine told me that it’s something that’s almost inherently romantic, very intimate, and very social, things that would be anathema to people with autism.

First things first, there are some assumptions there. You learn very quickly that romantic relationships and dance partners rarely coincide, and the internet will tell you to back off from that almost immediately. I would be the first to tell you that anthropologically it must descend from primordial mating rituals, and indeed for some it serves that purpose, but there is a veneer of professionalism there to prevent things from getting disturbing and confusing.

But for someone to which the world is a confusing morass of contradictory signals, ballroom dance provides something that the regularity of social interaction does not: clarity.

When a couple is in frame, the dance that they will do for the next few minutes is determined by the type of music being played. This is almost universal, with a comprehensible set of attributes for every sort of music, with angry strings and castanets for tango and high-hats and saxophones for foxtrot.

And when actually dancing, you come to realize that every dance is an elaborate system of signals that form a language of movements. Lead moves his hand up and to the left, follow turns to the right. Lead brings his left hand down, the couple enters into a New Yorker. In some ways, it’s like clockwork. And, when dancing with a follow who knows her moves well, I find the clarity positively refreshing.

When dancing in the way I do it is very hard to be ambiguous if both people know what they’re doing. You can’t twist the meaning of a hand going this way or that in the way you can twist words with inflection and tone. Sure, you can style things, but the nature of the movement itself remains unchanged in a way that does not hold for spoken language. Ballroom dance lets me talk with my feet.

And so there you have it. That’s why, despite the utter morass of incomprehensibility that I find a good deal of social interaction to be, I love dancing in the way I do. I didn’t even realize it myself before I thought about it a good bit, but the simplification gave me an insight.

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