26 August 2015

Young Blood: Practices, Partner Dancing, and the Virtue of Inclusiveness

Small subcultures are particularly aware of the ebb and flow of their community. They are fragile, and they depend on both a steady stream of new members as well as the retention of old members to stay alive. In her excellent article "Calling It Quits: Why Some Social Dancers are Hanging Up Their Dance Shoes", Mellisa West-Koistila identifies three reasons why the atmosphere of a dance scene might drive its members away. First, "faux professional dancers": the ones who are uninterested in dancing with less skilled or beginner dancers in favour of improving their own dance skills. Second, rivalries between dance schools or dance teachers. Third, boredom; dancing becomes less exciting, so dancers drift away from the community.

I think these complaints, or at least similar ones, are common to a variety of subcultures and communities. Alasdair MacIntyre's concept of practice captures West-Koistila's last two complaints quite nicely. For MacIntyre, a practice is a complex human activity--such as chess, architecture or partner dancing--with standards of excellence. While trying to meet a practice's standards of excellence, you realize the goods internal to the practice. So, in the case of partner dancing, the internal goods might be things like connection, musicality, posture, athletic movement and the life of a dancer. MacIntyre contrasts internal goods with external goods, such as money, power and fame. Each practice has its own unique internal goods (so a tango dancer's excellent posture is similar to but ultimately different from a salsa dancer's excellent posture or a basketball player's excellent posture). In contrast external goods are not unique to a particular practice. You can get money or fame from a variety of different activities. Internal goods are shared within the community, while external goods are competed for. External goods are a zero-sum game: when Serena Williams wins the U.S. Open, all tennis players benefit from the excellence of her performance, but only she receives the trophy and the prize money.

MacIntyre also distinguishes practices from institutions. Practices are concerned with internal goods, while institutions are focused on external goods. There is the practice of partner dancing, but there are also the dance schools and organizations that pay the rent, hire teachers/bands/DJs, schedule lessons, organize events, etc. Practices depend on institutions: without the dance organizations, the dance community would not have a space to exist in. But practices are also threatened by their institutions. There is always the danger that the institution's goals (money, power, fame, etc) will become a higher priority than the practice's goals (better dancing), and this would cause the institution to gobble up the practice. According to MacIntyre, the virtues of courage, justice and honesty are necessary to sustain practices and protect them from being destroyed by their institutions. Courage, justice and honesty are also necessary for achieving the goods internal to a practice, because this achievement requires subordinating ourselves within a practice. To achieve internal goods, you must be unwilling to cheat, you must acknowledge that the experts are more advanced than you, and you must open yourself up to their criticism.

As I mentioned before, two of West-Koistila's observations fit nicely into MacIntyre's scheme. Dance school rivalries are a symptom of an institution becoming a higher priority than its practice, so it is no surprise that these rivalries weaken the practice and driver dancers away. Boredom is a symptom of not learning new things, i.e. of not meeting higher standards of excellence and achieving new internal goods.

However, faux professional dancers seem perfectly capable of realizing the goods internal to the practice of partner dancing. (I'll be discussing dancers who are more interested in improving as dancers, so they do not devote their time to teaching or social dancing with beginners, which is a somewhat charitable interpretation of 'faux professional dancer'.) This complaint does not seem to fit with MacIntyre's theory. It is a truism that the way to become a better musician is to play with people who are better than you. And while I've found dancing with beginners to be beneficial to my leading, I do not think it is necessary to becoming a better lead, and I imagine I would improve faster if I spent my time dancing with the highest level dancers I could find. While faux professional dancers might not reach outside their clique, they are exposing themselves to the criticism of their peers and betters, they are working to emulate the great dancers, and they are diligently putting in the hours needed to improve their craft. On one hand, going out of your way to be inviting to beginning dancers does not seem to be necessary for the attainment of partner dancing's internal goods. On the other hand, especially for smaller subcultures, young blood is required to sustain the practice.

MacIntyre places heavy emphasis on traditions. Entering a practice involves subordinating yourself to established practitioners, who are already familiar with the standards of excellence and internal goods. Participating in a practice involves forming a relationship with not only present-day practitioners but also with the great figures of the past who helped make the practice into what it is today. A practitioner learns from and confronts the authorities and the achievements of his/her practice. But, MacIntyre's emphasis looks backwards. It focuses on the practice's past.

I do not want to overstate this point. MacIntyre does talk about the continuation of practices. He defines the virtues, at least partially, in terms of sustaining practices. He argues that teachers should conceive of themselves as introducing students into a practice. He has an account of bringing a child into the practice of chess: first, by offering them prizes for victory, and then over time having the child come to appreciate the goods internal to chess themselves. He conceives of practices as things that exist and change through time, as shown by his discussion of their traditions, their evolution (as standards of excellence are met, new standards of excellence are revealed, thus transforming the practice) and the great figures of their past. But he assumes that there is a child there who can be introduced to the practice of chess. Other than the brief mention of prizes, he does not discuss luring newcomers into a practice and keeping them in the community once they are there.

My point is that in order to sustain a practice we have to look forward, to look to its future. Practices require young blood. Since the virtues are the character traits that are needed to sustain practices, and practices require new practitioners, inclusiveness (as well as the pedagogical virtues needed for good teaching) should be considered a virtue. This is what the faux professional dancers get wrong: they may be improving their own skills, achieving the goods internal to partner dancing, and even pushing partner dancing forward by meeting its current standards of excellence, but they are not sustaining the practice of partner dancing because they are not working to introduce new members into the practice and they are not working to retain current members of the practice.

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