What Swing Dancing Taught Me About Writing

Photo by Rich Moffitt

When I lived in Washington, D.C., one of my favorite hobbies was swing dancing. Moving to music gets the creative juices flowing. Here's what I took from it, on and off the dance floor.

1. Don't expect to become a pro overnight.

Those aerial moves and fancy foot swivels you see in swing dancing take practice, sometimes years of it.

Same with writing. I am by no means an expert and don't presume to speak from that angle. What I've constantly learned about the craft is that you have to put in the time, study different techniques, read until your eyes hurt, and write until your fingers twitch in order to get good at it. And there's always room for improvement.

2. Dress the part.

Even if you're a newbie. While I was still a beginner at dancing, I loved putting on my dress with the circle skirt, shaping my hair into 1940s waves, and strapping on black-and-white spectator Mary Janes. Sure, I still clopped around until learning better, but I looked like I knew what I was doing, and that gave me confidence to keep at it.

It's the same with writing. You don't have to have record-breaking bestellers or millions of dollars to treat yourself like a professional. I set up a small yet functional workspace for my laptop and notebook. I also have a bookshelf devoted to writing resources. They're not fancy, but one look at the shelf or the writing space reminds me of what I've committed to do.

3. Expect to stumble or fall.

A swing dancer who hasn't tripped over her own two feet is either lying to you or has never been out on the dance floor. Everyone makes mistakes. Pros, beginners, the dance instructors themselves. It's part of being human.

Writing will trip you up, too. Plots don't work. Scenes have to be added or slashed. Your characters won't do what you want them to. It helps to simply accept that mistakes come with the territory. Pick yourself up, wipe the dust away, and have a good laugh. It's much healthier (and more attractive) than brooding.

4. Not all dance partners are the same.

Each person has certain rhythms and affectations that influence how they dance with a partner. Some style pairings clash horribly, while others move beautifully in sync.

With writing, some people won't like your style and will tell you to take up carpet cleaning. Others will love it and wonder why you're not the next Jane Austen (or James Patterson or Joyce Carol Oates -- insert your chosen author). I've learned that if you want to keep doing what you love, then you'll ignore the first group and seek the support of the second.

5. Don't be afraid to ask someone to dance.

In other words, take initiative. The worst you'll hear is "No, thank you." If that happens, go ask someone else. Eventually you'll find a person who wants to dance with you.

Now it doesn't work this easily in the writing world, but don't clam up by any means. When I submitted my work to a publisher once ( I've submitted more than one time, but you get what I mean.), I received a rejection letter but also an explanation of why my story didn't make the cut. After a mini-pity party, I decided to make those recommended changes. It took more trial and error, but eventually, I acquired an agent. That wouldn't have happened if I had allowed those past rejections to make me a silent wallflower.

6. Above all, have fun!

Swing dancing is for those who want to kick up their heels and let loose. Sure, it's got complicated steps and timing every now and then, but it's meant to be enjoyed. The more you strive to be perfect in every step, you'll lose the joy that brought you to dancing in the first place. You become what people call a technical dancer, not a passionate one.

From one art form to another, it applies to writing. I remember the sheer pleasure that I got out of making up stories as a child, folding sheets of notebook paper in half and stapling them to create books. I smelled the Crayola crayons as I drew my characters' smiling faces. Pure joy, the kind that a writer, swing dancer, or any person can have when creativity is set loose!

Do you like to dance? What kind of music gets your feet tapping?