Welcome Chance Intrusions!
Lateral Thinking in Social Dance

Richard Powers

I once heard this theory: Is this theory true?

No.  There are too many exceptions — many rule-based dancers living on the West Coast, and many adaptive, experienced-based dancers living on the East Coast, like the history of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem for example.  And the theory ignores the dancers between the coasts.

These two kinds of thinking do exist, but the geographical division is an oversimplification.  It's more accurate to think of it as a difference between vertical thinking versus lateral thinking, which can happen anywhere.

             Vertical and Lateral Thinking

These terms were coined by the theoretician Edward deBono who wrote:
Welcoming chance intrusions is a fundamental component of creative thinking, and of social dancing.  Lateral-thinking dancers see differences from what they expected to happen as opportunities, not mistakes.

We all use vertical thinking.  It's impossible not to.  But lateral thinking has mostly been sidelined in traditional education, and thus needs some compensatory attention.  The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung believed that we are all born with the capability to integrate both kinds of thought.  Jung would argue that using all of our mind is natural, and that denying half of its capabilities is unnatural.  The point of deBono's writing was to encourage lateral thinking, in order to balance what remains of a cultural bias, not to condemn vertical thinking.  Both work together.

             Vertical and lateral thinking in dance

Social dance requires a lot of lateral thinking to be successful.  Lateral thinking enables us to adapt to the constantly changing situations found on the dance floor, while adapting to differences in our partners.  Lateral thinking enhances the creativity and self-expression of social dancing.

Mistakes while dancing are a good example of engaging both kinds of thinking.  As you might know from this page, in social dancing, mistakes are accepted as inevitable.  Social dancers laugh them off and move on, happy if things work out 80% of the time.  And the other 20% is when most learning happens.

What do we want to learn?  Not to ever make that kind of mistake again?  Yes, some kinds of mistakes are unsafe or potentially painful, and should be avoided.  Consciously limiting those options uses vertical thinking, which isn't a bad thing.  But we also want to open doors to new possibilities.  Maybe the Lead or Follow accidentally created something that was fun and didn't feel wrong.  And we learn how to keep moving through a mistake, adapting to the ongoing dance.  Those dynamics use lateral thinking.


Lateral thinking also helps de-stress our life.  When dancing, we learn that if things don't work out one way, they'll work out another way.  That's lateral thinking in action, and it applies to everyday life as well.  If we think that only one outcome is acceptable, that's when we start to stress ourselves, while also stressing others, to comply with that one outcome.  Being open to alternate possibilities significantly de-stresses our lives.  Any time we can say "OK, I can live with that" is a victory over stress.  As mentioned on this page, we occasionally may need to take an ethical stand, and insist on an outcome.  Vertical thinking is useful in those rare instances.  But in our everyday lives, the stress-reducing effect of flexible, lateral thinking is usually the best approach to most situations.

             Social dance forms

Most of our noncompetitive social dances were created as lateral thinking dance forms, like swing, tango, blues, nightclub two-step, cross-step waltz, hustle, salsa and bachata.  Those were all vernacular ("grass roots") dances, born in cultures which valued spontaneity, flexibility and individuality.  The original spirit of those dances would be lost if their freedom and spontaneity were to be replaced by an emphasis on rules and restrictions.

According to original Whitey's Lindy Hoppers superstar Leon James, "Want to dance Lindy hop correctly? Then don't be real concerned about 'correctness'!"

Skippy Blair wrote the following while describing West Coast Swing, but she could have been writing about any social dance:
The most fascinating part of swing dancing is the individuality of the dancers.  Stylings are flexible… the style one chooses should be as individual as the clothes one chooses to wear.  The only problem that exists in swing is when someone decides there is only ONE WAY to dance it.  (The caps were hers.)

Lateral thinking keeps that spirit alive.

More thoughts and musings