In my experience, swing dancing is a very private activity. That may sound strange, considering that you’re often dancing with total or relative strangers in the midst of crowds of people. However, when two people are dancing together socially, ideally the focus is inward, concentrated between the two of them. You’re thinking about your partner and the music. If you think about the others on the floor, it’s mostly to avoid running into them. Other people may or may not be watching you, but that’s not important. The important thing is your partner, and how things feel between the two of you. You are not performing for an audience, but interacting with one other person within the space of a song. Good social dancers tend to have strong connection, respond quickly and easily to their partner, and be comfortable with improvisation. Musicality (expressing the music through your dancing) is highly prized, as well as a certain playfulness. Sometimes a good social dance is a joy for others to watch, but it doesn’t always attract attention. The partners know how good or bad it was. Anyone else doesn’t matter.
Performance dancing is something very different. You’re dancing with another person, but the focus is outward, towards the audience. What’s important is that the audience likes or appreciates what you’re doing. Whether or not your partner is having a good dance is secondary (and sometimes, for some performers, irrelevant). You have to sell yourself and the song to the audience, so you beam yourself outward, away from your parnter. It helps that usually what you’re dancing is a choreographed, rehearsed routine. Both you and your partner know what’s coming, so you can concentrate more on putting the number over to the audience than on leading and following. A good performance dancer focuses more on how the dance looks than how it feels. They think about posture, and form, creating lines with their bodies. They are good showmen, with a personal charisma that helps the audience love what they see. The most imortant thing is that the dancing looks good: clean, sharp, and impressive. A good performance dance may look fabulous, even when it feels awful to one or both of the partners. The important thing is that the audience loves it.
Good social and performance dancing aren’t mutually exclusive. Some of the best social dancers around are also impressive performance dancers. Some of the same things that make a dancer look better also make the dancer feel better to dance with. Good posture, for example, not only looks better, but also makes you easier to lead. But they’re not the same thing.
This can be a hard distinction for people to make. We’re so used to thinking of dancing, any dancing, as a performance. If a person is comfortable dancing at the Wednesday night swing dance, why wouldn’t they be comfortable doing the same thing in front of an audience? Recently I went to a swing exchange where the Saturday night dance happened to also be a fundraiser for one of the organizations sponsoring the event. There had been a dinner for the donors beforehand, during which certain couples did Exhibition Dances demonstrating the different forms of swing dancing. When the exhibitions were over, the floor was opened for general dancing. At that point the organizers encouraged the swing dancers present to flood the floor… so that the donors could watch. I was sitting up in the balcony with several friends, all of them experienced swing dancers. Not one of us made a move towards the floor. We looked at each other and shook our heads. We hadn’t come to be part of a performance, we had come to dance socially – in private.