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Made of Magic

The unexpected beauty of dancing with a stranger.

February 1, 2024

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Ballroom dancers in gowns and tuxedos in McCaw Hall

After months of rehearsal, Opening Committee members usher in the 2017 Stanford Viennese Ball. Photo: Frank Chen

Once a year for the past 45 years, hundreds of people who love to dance have gathered to waltz, swing, and salsa the night away at the Stanford Viennese Ball. There are performances throughout the event, the most glamorous being the opening waltz and polka showcased by the Opening Committee, who rigorously rehearse their routine for 16 weeks.

I failed to make the cut for the Opening Committee three times. I’ll never be part of that kaleidoscope of black and white, though I still long for it in the absurd, persistent way children wish for wings and castles and infinite cake. In the four months before last year’s ball, though, what started as a petty quest to prove I could dance yielded revelations I could hardly expect.

Hollywood loves portraying love through dance: La La Land’s Mia and Sebastian whirling in a background of stars, Dirty Dancing’s Johnny hoisting Baby high over a cheering crowd. The romance angle has merit, as social dancing requires many of the same skills as building physical intimacy and chemistry.

The hallmarks of my first serious social dance forays were abject panic and nonstop apologies. I looked at feet more than faces. I agonized over collisions where I went left when I should’ve gone right or halted when I should’ve kept moving. My desperation to be less burdensome to my partners solved nothing until I noticed that the more comfortable dancers weren’t pursuing perfection—they were improvising.

To really bond, you can’t force your preferences, styles, or expectations onto others. Having an open mind and assuming little about what will never or always work unlocks myriad possibilities. I discovered the importance of signaling enjoyment and mindfulness, committing to choices with careful confidence, flexibly responding to the unexpected, treating miscommunications and mistakes with light-hearted disregard, and focusing on putting my partner and their experience first.

After that, I stopped dancing like a self-conscious and half-mobile stick. But it wasn’t enough to know those precepts. I needed to implement them with strangers in the short space of a single song, and I needed to learn how to decipher their technical peculiarities.

I’ll never be part of that kaleidoscope of black and white, though I still long for it in the absurd, persistent way children wish for wings and castles and infinite cake.

How comfortable were they with basic steps and navigating the floor? How fast did they like to take turns? How flexible did they prefer the frame of our linked arms? How much did they tend to pause and freestyle, how fluidly or sharply did they implement figures, how much eye contact and conversation did they initiate, what movement patterns did they opt for, how did they respond to verbal reassurance or quiet concentration, how prone were they to stillness or to traveling?

I assumed studying veteran dancers would be a straightforward way to cultivate this discernment. Except watching two skilled people dance together was distractingly surreal. Leads catching their follows’ weight over a bent knee by cradling their spine and neck in a gentle fall. Follows hurtling into a series of rapid turns, each footfall twisting them so forcefully their features were a blur. Arms ribboning around heads. Pairs spiraling apart, rotating as smoothly as planets in the weightlessness of space.

There was an unspoken language that glittered in the moments when somebody arched backwards to let their fingertips brush the floor, when hands flew unerring between chests before settling into another’s waiting palm, when the angles of shoulders and wrists were silent signals to rotate and jump, to pause and hold. All unplanned, all spontaneous, all singular to that one couple at one particular time.

Even a capable dancer can make you miserable by highlighting your inadequacies with their own competence. In contrast, a wonderful dancer can meld your errors into part of an exciting, intentional collaboration. A capable dancer is occupied with the timing and precision of their own maneuvers. A wonderful dancer is focused on enhancing your movements. A capable dancer knows how to make themselves look good. A wonderful dancer recognizes how to make you feel good.

Regardless of skill gaps or familiarity with their partners, the best dancers had one commonality. They were completely present in an act of creation visible to everyone but directed toward their partner’s gratification. This happened to me when somebody cheerful made me laugh at our missteps, when somebody experienced made my stumbles look graceful, when somebody observant noticed me admiring another’s move and wove that into our promenade.

Wanting to be part of the Opening Committee once left me tearing up with frustration and disappointment. But since then, I’ve also felt the jubilation of a flash of shared delight with a partner. I know what it is to be made of magic alongside a person whose name I only just learned. It requires nothing but a willingness to dance for them and them alone. In those few minutes, you are integral to your partner’s immediate experience of the world, no matter their background or your own. Their happiness hinges on you. The beauty of it opens your heart. And that is intricately, infinitely more beautiful than even the finest choreographed performance.


Katiana Uyemura, ’19, is attending Harvard Business School. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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