Traditional dancing between men and women (i.e. ballroom dancing) is a great way to teach and illustrate Theology of the Body. Such dancing reveals visually with the male and female body what God wants men and women to be as men and women in erotic love.
1) Consent: The man should not try to force the woman to dance with him; he should ask for and have her consent. She shouldn’t have to dance if she doesn’t want to. Of course, it goes both ways; the man shouldn’t have to dance with anyone he doesn’t want to either.
Likewise, a man should not try to force a woman to date him, to be in an exclusive relationship with him, or to marry him. The man must ask her and respect her decision. And no woman should try to force a man into such things either. Love cannot be coerced.
2) Male Initiative: Traditionally, the man should ask the woman to dance. Yes, sometimes women do ask men to dance with them, but it is not the norm. The woman taking the initiative to ask in itself may not necessarily impair the dancing, but it could reflect an underlying predisposition of the man being unable or unwilling to assume proper leadership of the dance (see section on Male Leadership below), which would be a problem.
Likewise, the man should take the initiative to ask the woman out, to ask to be in an exclusive relationship, and to ask her hand in marriage. The man should prove his interest, love, and commitment. If the man doesn’t care enough to ask or can’t even muster up enough courage to ask, then he doesn’t really love her. Cowardice is self-centered and unloving, regardless of whether she says “yes” or “no.” It’s not good if the man is more worried about himself and his pride than about the woman, her well-being, and what he wants to do for her. If a sincere and loving man asks, and the woman says “no” haughtily and cruelly rather than compassionately and gracefully, then the man should realize that he is better off without such a woman, who is unworthy of his love and incapable of loving.
Yes, sometimes women take the initiative to ask men out, but again, it’s not the norm and could cause problems down the road, though not necessarily, for the same reasons as stated above for dance. At the higher and more serious level of marriage, I’ve never heard of a woman asking a man. There’s a reason for that spiritually: the man should lead and prove his love.
3) Male Leadership, Activity, & Responsibility: Once she agrees to dance, the woman follows and the man leads. The man actively chooses what dance moves will be done and where the dance will go on the floor. If both try to lead and neither follow, no dancing really occurs. In fact, in the extreme case, they hurt each other and/or part ways. If the man leads terribly, both suffer. Such leadership thus carries with it very important responsibilities. For example, the man must take pains not to lead the woman in such a way that she (or both of them) runs into other dancers on the dance floor.
Why can’t the woman lead the dance? In theory, I guess she could, but have you ever seen a dance where the woman is leading the man, spinning him, dipping him, holding him in her arms, etc.? Does it work? Does it look good? No, it doesn’t because such a dance is not in accord with the natural qualities of the male and female bodies and character (which I will discuss further in later sections). Such is the reality of dancing; different natures must be taken into account and obeyed.
Likewise, in a marriage, the husband is the natural leader, the head of the household, and thus has important responsibilities, including providing for his wife and children. Dating and courtship should be a process of the man gradually learning how to lead his girlfriend in love and service of her.
It is important to point out that Christian leadership is servant leadership. The greatest in the kingdom are the servants of others, using their power and authority to serve others rather than themselves. A leader who abuses his power and authority, lording it over others, is abhorrent. But contrary to modern thought, authority in and of itself is not evil or oppressive.
I think it is also important to point out that, despite the contrary case in dance perhaps, a good leader knows when to follow and let others take the lead, if only temporarily. A good husband has humility and knowledge of both his own and his wife’s strengths and weaknesses. He knows when to follow his wife’s lead and never dismisses or stifles her strengths. Such a good husband never really surrenders his authority but rather exercises it wisely and prudently.
So in a certain sense the man too is called to surrender, to surrender his self-interest for the sake of love and “surrender” his direct and explicit leadership role. These are the kinds of surrender that men must make if they wish to lead well.
4) Female Obedience, Surrender, & Receptivity: Again, the woman’s role in the dance is to follow. She is supposed to let the man lead her. If she doesn’t, both dancers are going to have problems dancing. This follower role doesn’t make her any less of a partner, dancer, or human being. Following is not a role of lesser dignity in dancing; it is merely different.
When a woman is a good follower of a man in dance, she is surrendering herself, especially her body, to that man. If she follows him obediently in more intimate dancing and dance moves, she surrenders her body, herself, to him even more. The more intimate the body movement the more complete her surrender.
Likewise, once married, the role of the wife is to obediently follow her husband’s lead. Admittedly though, a good husband who will lead lovingly and humbly like I described above can be hard to find these days. A woman would be better off avoiding marriage if she cannot find a man who will love her as Jesus loves the Church, eager to serve her and willing to sacrifice himself and suffer for her sake even unto death, despite her flaws, weaknesses, and imperfections.
Dating and courtship should be a process of the woman gradually learning how to trust, how to surrender herself to her boyfriend. Of course, the man has to gradually earn this trust of his girlfriend through acts of love. And the ultimate physical, emotional, and spiritual surrender and act of trust is the sexual act, which is properly reserved only for marriage because the life-long, total fidelity of marriage is a stable foundation for the total trust necessary in the sexual act.
If the woman refuses to surrender like a female dancer who refuses to be led, or if a woman never learns to surrender like a female dancer who never learns from her male lead’s physical signals what he wants her to do, the relationship will have problems, if not collapse.
Contrary to modern thought, authority and dignity are not equivalent or proportional. The fact that the husband has more authority than the wife does not mean he has any greater dignity as a human being (the same could be said about the authority of the pope and bishops in relation to Catholics and non-Catholics). So when St. Paul says a wife should be subordinate to her husband’s authority, he is not saying women have any lower dignity; he’s merely stating their specific role in the marriage dance.
5) Male Height, Size, & Strength: The male body is naturally taller, bigger, and stronger than the female’s on average. It is the man’s height and strength that makes him the natural leader of the dance, for he is able to easily spin, dip, and hold the woman. She typically cannot do the same with him. If the man is not tall enough, it will be difficult or impossible for him to spin the woman. If he is not strong enough, it will be difficult or impossible for him to dip her, hold her, and do other moves requiring strength. If the man is not tall and strong enough, both suffer.
Likewise, men should put the height, size, and strength of their bodies at the service of women and thus love the women in their lives. A man should open doors, carry things (especially if they are heavy), fix things, and provide other services to women that require strength. This principle is true generally apart from erotic love but finds greater focus and deeper expression in erotic love. A man should use his strength and size to protect his date, girlfriend, or wife from harm, even to the point of sacrificing his bodily health or life for her sake.
Indeed, men should seek to be physically stronger for the sake of serving their girlfriend or wife. Lifting weights should not be motivated by ego (as hard as that is for us to avoid) but rather by a desire to be prepared for loving service to our girlfriends or wives, to strive for ideal masculinity. This kind of striving for strength should continue even after one has gotten married. Sometimes married men or even men in a serious relationship think they don’t have to work at being strong for their girlfriends or wives because they think strength is merely for attracting and getting women rather than also serving the one woman who is yours.
With all this in mind, it is quite natural that women desire and seek out men who are taller, bigger, and stronger than themselves. Just as naturally, men desire and seek out women who are shorter, smaller, and weaker than themselves. Despite the best of intentions, disharmony is more likely to arise where these physical inequalities are the opposite of these natural desires. Physical characteristics of the body naturally have psychological and spiritual consequences.
However, physical strength is not enough; a man in a relationship should have emotional, psychological, and spiritual strength to protect the woman’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Indeed, this kind of protection is even more important than physical protection, so cultivating emotional, psychological,and spiritual strength is more important than lifting weights. A boyfriend or husband should be the protector of the body, mind, and soul of his girlfriend or wife.
6) Mysterious and Unveiled Female Grace, Elegance, & Beauty: The female body is naturally more graceful, elegant, and (in some sense) beautiful than the male body (perhaps I’m biased, being a man, but I don’t think so). When the female body is spun, dipped, and held, the natural grace, elegance, and beauty of the female body shine through. It’s very hard to put these mysterious qualities into words, to articulate this mystery of the female body…. But perhaps a man is in a better position than a woman to delve into this mystery.
It seems as if the male body’s leading movements in dance enhance or unveil the grace, elegance, and beauty of the female body that was hidden or not as manifest in the stillness or unrhythmic movement before the dancing. Sometimes the female body seems like it radiates a graceful, elegant, and beautiful energy and dynamism all its own that the male body merely tries to direct and contain like a nuclear reactor directs and contains enormous atomic energy.
Likewise, I’ve always observed that women seem to become more graceful, elegant, and beautiful when they are dating or in a relationship. Sure, one might say that such women have someone to be more graceful, elegant, and beautiful for, and so they take more pains to be so. Indeed, women should seek to be more graceful, elegant, and beautiful for the sake of their boyfriend or husband. Make-up, skin care, hair care, etc. should not be motivated by vanity (as hard as that is to avoid for some women) but rather by a desire to look one’s best for and thus please and serve one’s boyfriend or husband, to strive for ideal femininity.
But I think this phenomenon goes or should go beyond merely what the woman does in response to having a partner; the man who she is in a relationship with can and should draw out and unveil her grace, elegance, and beauty by means of his relationship with her, by means of his loving service of her.
Sometimes married women or even women in a serious relationship think they don’t have to work at being beautiful for their boyfriends or husbands because they think beauty is merely for attracting and getting men rather than also pleasing and serving the one man who is yours.
Of course, it is true that grace, elegance, and beauty are more than skin deep. It is more important for women to cultivate a spiritual kind of grace, elegance, and beauty that infuses the personality than for women to spend hours in front of a mirror. But the body should not be wholly neglected, for the body is who we are too.
As for marriage specifically, the ultimate unveiling of the feminine by the man happens in the sexual act and the consequent motherhood that follows. The grace, elegance, and beauty of the feminine is nakedly exposed in the marital act. The nurturing love of motherhood from development in the womb to nursing at the uncovered breast also has a mysterious grace, elegance, and beauty to it.
7) Only One Partner: A man can only ballroom dance with one woman at a time. He only has one body with two arms and two legs and can only look in one direction. The human body itself places natural limits on what the man can do in the act of dancing. Same goes for the woman.
Yes, it is possible to dance in groups, but that kind of dancing involves little to no intimacy with other human beings. Either no physical touch is involved or the physical interaction is very limited with regard to intimacy because one’s body and attention is divided between two or more other people.
Likewise, a man can only be in a serious relationship with or married to one woman. Sure, it is perfectly fine to date many people at once, to search for a partner who deserves your exclusive focus and attention. But dating is a means to an end, not an end in itself; it is a means to finding an exclusive partner. Treating dating as if it were merely a recreational activity rather than a search of love will cause harm and pain and make it even harder to obtain a stable, loving relationship or marriage.
Marriage is a “dance” in which the “song” doesn’t end until one partner dies and in which we cannot “switch” partners in the middle of the “song” without hurting ourselves, our partner, and others “on and off the dance floor.”
Just as in dance, the human body itself naturally places limits on erotic love. God designed our bodies in a very specific way sexually. Abnormalities of fallen physical nature aside, the body of each and every physiologically normal man and woman has only one set of sexual organs, of genitalia. Thus only one man and one woman can engage in the sexual act at any one time (any attempts to contradict this is a perversion). This act is the climax and consummation of the marriage and is exclusive by nature. If God had designed the male and/or female body in a sexually different way, then we Christians (Catholics) would have a different Theology of the Body. Monogamy is thus natural and right because of the exclusivity of the sexual act itself.
8 ) Focus on One’s Own Partner: Not only does the body place limits on dancing, but so does the mind. While dancing, a man must focus on his own female partner, her body, and leading her well. If the man’s attention wanders, he, his partner, and their dancing will suffer for it. The same goes for the woman. If she is not focusing on him and his leadership, problems will occur.
Likewise, dates, relationships, and marriages are going to have problems if the man or woman isn’t focusing enough on the other and is getting too distracted by others. Obviously though, erotic relationships should not consume our entire lives. Family and friends deserve our love and attention too.
But ultimately, once one is married, one’s spouse should come first before all other men and women, and one’s actions should demonstrate that. And serious boyfriends and girlfriends that could become our husbands and wives naturally deserve a degree of priority. However, good partners allow their significant others to spend quality time with their family and friends and take the time to steadily incorporate them into their own circle of friends and family.
9) Union & Intimacy: Ultimately, the goal of good dancing is union. If both the leading and following are done well enough, the dancers achieve a unity of mind and movement virtually to the point of becoming one dancing body rather than two. But unless the two dancers are of one mind first, agreeing on whether to dance and on who will lead and follow, and actually agree on such things according to their own natures, there will be no unity of body movement.
This may seem kind of obvious, but for the purposes of Theology of the Body it’s worth pointing out that you can’t really dance with someone while they’re all the way across the room or if you can’t even see them. Too much distance makes dancing impossible or, at the very least, much less intimate and hardly dancing at all.
It does not matter really whether the man and/or woman intend intimacy or not when they dance; intimate dancing creates intimacy between the man and woman. Sure, some dancing moves are inherently more intimate than others. Holding hands, standard practice in traditional dancing, is not quite as intimate as moves where the man is actually holding the woman in his arms or close to his own body, however momentarily. Yet the very fact of the man leading and initiating and of the woman following and surrendering, this reality in itself, is intimacy of some sort. So in this sense, dancing is inherently intimate.
A man should not lead a woman into dancing moves that are too intimate relative to his actual relationship with the woman (one time acquaintance, friend, family member, girlfriend, wife?). And a woman should not surrender her body to dancing moves that are too intimate relative to her relationship with the man (one time acquaintance, friend, family member, boyfriend, husband?). Men and women who are in a serious relationship or married should discipline and guard themselves against too much intimacy when they are dancing with someone other than their boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse.
Likewise, as with dancing, erotic relationships of various levels will succeed if the man and woman are fulfilling their natural roles well and thus achieve unity of belief and action. Dating and relationships should be a process of ascertaining whether such unity is possible and of working to establish such unity where possible. Marriage should be the end goal when one has found and established sufficient unity.
With this fact in mind, it is easy to see that erotic relationships between people of radically different religions, politics, and worldviews generally are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be truly loving because these differences prevent union. Couples have to be “on the same page” on a lot of important issues to achieve a loving union.
And of course, the obvious and ultimate union of the bodies of man and woman is the sexual act. But this bodily union cannot be loving unless an emotional and spiritual (sacramental) union precedes it. Without this previous kind of union, the physical union will merely bring pain, disharmony, and separation.
Just as with “long distance dancing,” long distance relationships are kind of an oxymoron. You can’t be in an intimate relationship with someone if you aren’t physically present to them on a regular basis (cf. the Eucharist). It is possible for relationships to endure long distance strain only if intimacy and depth to the relationship have already been built up by prior personal interaction. A marriage, if entered into seriously, should be able to withstand a short period of time of long distance (strictly speaking, a marriage should be able to survive anything with God’s grace, except the death of one spouse).
As with dancing intimacy, it doesn’t really matter whether a man and woman intend commitment or intimacy when they have sex or engage in very intimate touching. The very acts in themselves are the language of commitment and intimacy. To speak this bodily language of commitment and intimacy and yet to will and act otherwise is to lie and harm the person of the opposite sex.
Dancing of any and all kinds has always been something of a spiritual exercise, not merely physical. It is not mere motion but rather an expression of the soul. And thus dancing between men and women is naturally going to reflect the sexual spirituality of the dancers, not mere body movement.
Ballroom dancing and the ettiquete surrounding it were developed during an earlier time when the sexual spirituality of the Western world was much more Christian and thus much more grounded in truth. It is no coincidence that as ballroom dancing has declined and been superceded by unchaste grinding and more individualistic and autonomous dancing, true Christian erotic love has also declined. There is a correlation and probably a symbiotic causation involved. A lack of love leads to unloving dancing and vice versa.