The Bicycling / Dancing Metaphor

[Fifth in the highly unpopular "metaphor series" of blogposts. See also: Vikings stadium/Star Wars, bikes/guns, gas/pop, and NIMBY/Amtrak.]

[A room full of swing dancers.]
Have you ever walked into a room full of people dancing?

I’m not talking about your cousin's wedding. I'm talking about that kind of dancing where everyone seems to know the moves from some secret script?

I remember gazing at dancers once morning at at the Aster CafĂ© for brunch. The place featured swing music, a trio of accordion, guitar, and a drummer playing upbeat low-key jazz. Even better, there was a group of about a half-dozen swing dancers doing some West-coast Lindy hop. (Or at least that what I think it’s called.)

Watching them was magical. They seemed telepathic, fitting each other like lincoln logs. They seemed to sink into the music like your old aunt in her favorite armchair when she watches TV. I have no idea how they did it, but I was was wonderstruck, and couldn’t take my eyes of the young dancers flying on the tiny dance floor.

Another evening out, I walked into a room at the Minneapolis Eagles club and it was full of people doing the “texas two-step.” (Or at least that’s what I think it’s called.) Beautiful older women wearing skirts, graceful pairs of men in hats dancing in matching blue jeans, circling and spinning round the room while a country band played on the stage behind them. The place seemed alive, as if each couple was a wave of the same current, bobbing along like ducks, swirling together and rhythmically synced.

I have no idea how to texas two-step, but I tried anyway. That's unusual because, most of the time, watching good dancers simply invokes awe. We step back and wonder: "How do they do that? It’s beautiful. I could never do that."

["How do you do that?"]
It struck me the other day that, in this way, dancing is like riding a bike. When they see a bicyclist riding down the city street, many people think to themselves, “That’s nice but I could never to that.” It’s exactly the same reaction: appreciation, but also distance. A bit of wonder. A dash of fear.

Have you ever tried to get a reluctant n00b into the bike lane or onto the dance floor? In both cases there’s a steep learning curve.

For dancing, it’s not just about teaching people basic steps, though that’s certainly a difficult and important beginning. But it’s also about teaching people what it’s like to be dancing, how to hold your partner in just such a way. It’s getting people comfortable with subtle perspiration, with the idea of touching a stranger. It’s about when to spin, how to lead and follow, and learning how to occupy the space where you’re not always sure what to do next.

For urban bicycling, the learning curve can be equally trying. It’s not just about teaching people the basics of bicycling — how to turn, stop, or stay upright — though that’s certainly a difficult and important first step. But it’s also about teaching people what it’s like to ride on a street, to negotiate space with cars, to use ones body in the public eye. It’s about knowing when to go at a stop sign, how to lock your bike at the end, and how to occupy the ambiguous in-between spaces on which bicyclists so often rely.

In both cases, there’s a learning curve. And in both cases, once you become adept, it’s all too easy to forget about the stumbling first steps. Once you learn how to dance a waltz or some basic swing steps, you eventually become a seamless part of the dance floor, and it’s easy to forget how intimidating it once was. Instead, you’re part of the beautiful group, a dancer in tune with the music and the ever-changing elbow room.

The same holds for bicyclists, with the unspoken camaraderie of the bike lane. Spending time with other bicyclists, going on group rides, talking about which corners suck or what route to take, it’s easy to forget how foreign bicycling can look and feel for people who haven’t figured it out yet.

[Me at the Tapestry folk dance center in 1996.]
In many places around the world, old-school dancing is simply an everyday tradition. in the Balkans, young people quickly learn how to do intricate circle dances, and their steps are the last thing that old people forget. I’m sure that by the time my German ancestors were young adults they simply knew how to polka, that the “left-left right-right” rhythm comes naturally when you grow up with the music and the culture.

The same is true for urban bicycling. Just like people who grew up dancing, kids whose parents taught them to ride in the city come naturally to bicycling like a loon on a lake. There are entire countries where this is normal! In both cases, for dancing and bicycling, it’s because the urban ballet is a seamless part of the culture. In both cases, to an outsider, it seems impossible. To an insider, it’s natural.

Thankfully, as a kid I learned how to waltz. A few years later, I figured out how to ride a bike to the dance hall.

[Traditional German dancers teaching audience members some basic moves at the Deutsche Tag German Festival in Saint Paul, 2016.]

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