Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Square Dancing as Spiritual Practice

Originally posted on February 28, 2013

I went square dancing last night and it is a particularly wholesome experience. It occurred to me that square dancing is also a spiritual activity. On the surface, the dancers, groups of four couples (eight people), are teams that are just trying to follow directions. They’ve learned the calls, but they’re just complex enough so that one is liable to forget what should be done when the caller says something like “eight-chain-four” or something. There are about a hundred calls, and more as you progress.

Of course you make mistakes, and that’s what seems to be the spiritual part. The game is to forgive yourself and let others forgive you. Others make mistakes, too, and so there’s a challenge to maintain a cheerful, reassuring attitude. The temptation, based on growing up in the USA in the middle of the 20th century, is either to become overly apologetic, paralyzed with shame, try too hard to get it right, feel blame towards others when they make mistakes, and the whole complex of everyday mild neurosis. It’s a spiritual exercise to return again and again to the innocence of friendship and letting-go.

Why does the caller make you make mistakes? Well, if he or she calls “too easy,” it’s not a challenge. It’s like staying at the beginner level. If s/he calls “too hard,” more than, say, a third of the squares “break down” in confusion. So the challenge for the caller is to work out a smooth series of calls that stretch but don’t break down too much. And the game for the dancers is to rise to the challenge and not feel too bent out of shape if occasionally you forget how to do a certain maneuver.

Note also that there’s also fun in feeling mastery, in “I can do this.” So many of the calls are within a familiar skill level that has been comfortably attained. The psychology of getting this middle ground was articulated by the Russian educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky (who died in the 1930s). He described the natural process of optimal learning as working around the “zone of proximal development,” which means a bit in the comfort zone to get grounded, and then into the material that’s a bit difficult, not yet mastered, but neither is it overwhelming. I find that notion very useful, and apparent in all sorts of activities, from working out at the gym to lectures at our lifelong learning program.

So the game of life is “stretch” but don’t “strain.” And equally important, keep a friendly, reassuring attitude, a bit playful, no big deal. I’m happy to say much of our community seems to operate at this level.

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