The phenomenon of 'speed dating' says something about contemporary society. Why does a practice like this begin in the first place? How is it different from, or similar to, past approaches that facilitated meetings between single people? What can we learn from previous practices?
A Strange Phenomenon
Does anyone else think 'speed dating' is a strange phenomenon? It strikes me as an 'assembly line' model of socialising. You work out the goals, you identify a series of steps towards that goal, you strip it down to its simplest form, replicate, and repeat.
So, hire a hall, set up rows of small tables with two chairs at each, draw up a roster, and get people to rotate through to meet 'x' number of people in the time allotted.
What is the goal? To meet members of the other sex with a view to finding someone you'd like to get to know better.
Can it work? Sure, for some. Why has it emerged as a method? Well, to put it in a nutshell, it is a response to a loss of community. Single people are finding it very difficult, quite literally, to even meet members of the other sex.
So this article is not a criticism of those who organise speed dating events. You do what you have to do. Rather, I want to ask, isn't there a better way? What have we lost? Can we learn anything from those who went before us?
I want to describe a different model of 'speed dating' – the traditional local dance. You start the same way – hire a hall. But everything else proceeds rather differently. How is this different from contemporary speed dating? We could identify two key areas of difference.
1. A Cultural Form
A dance involves dressing up, music, movement, bodily closeness, opportunities for verbal and non-verbal communication. It is not just conversational.
At a speed dating event people tend to dress in a fairly informal, middling way. At a dance you can pull out all the stops. Women have an opportunity to accentuate their femininity and present themselves as attractively as possible. Men can take a rare opportunity to scrub up and look presentable. And yet there can be all sorts of themes and styles, ranging from a barn dance to a formal ball.
The dance can be enjoyable in itself as a form of expression, and it can also be vigorous so as to increase the energy level, which helps to break down barriers. It can also be quiet and slow, which allows for a different kind of experience.
There is the enjoyment of dancing closely with a range of people of the other sex, developing more comfort with this, while also being respectful to all.
Conversation in Context
There are opportunities for informal conversation between dances. During a dance the partners can speak either a little or a bit more, depending on how comfortable they are, without being thought less of for not being much of a conversationalist. This is where we can see the similarity with 'speed dating'. You get a chance to dance and chat with a number, even a large number, of members of the other sex. This then gives an introduction so you can continue the conversation throughout the evening. If you are interested in someone you also get the chance to see how they conduct themselves generally.
All sorts of variations can be included. There will usually be a custom that the gentlemen ask the ladies to dance, but there will also be some 'Ladies Choice' dances. There will be 'Progressive' dances where the dancers change partners at intervals, going round in a circle until everyone has had a chance to dance with each other person. There can be dances for different age groups. The others take a break and watch while, say, the young people dance. There can be a time when married couples only have a dance.
2. A Community Event
A dance of this kind is a communal event. It can involve people of all ages, families, friends and strangers. It has a communal form of leadership which establishes the customs and standards that apply. There is a place for everybody and customs for ensuring everyone belongs.
A Cooperative Environment
A community dance has the scope, and motivation, to help people connect in gentler ways. It is not a competitive environment but a cooperative one. By contrast, many of the social contexts that currently exist are mere aggregates of people. Bars and nightclubs have no vested interest in the quality of relating that occurs. Men seeking to approach women can find it too intimidating. Women can get all dressed up only to go home disappointed at not being approached by men. The unstructured, 'aggregate' nature of the gathering leaves people to sink or swim on their own. Contemporary speed dating tries to overcome this by creating a structured way that you can at least get to sit down and have a conversation. Yet it lacks the other advantages of a community dance.
A Place for Everybody
A community dance can include all kinds of people, from the confident to the awkward, the beautiful to the plain, the normal to the somewhat odd. It does not exclude whole categories of people who would otherwise not have any way of meeting the other sex in a positive and potentially romantic environment.
For All Ages
A community dance can include all ages, from little children to the elderly. Yet it can also create special opportunities within it for the young and single. This opportunity is increased when the communities that organise the dances develop a network among themselves so that young people can attend a number of different ones so as meet a wider range of people.
Leadership That Includes and Teaches
At a community event there is a leadership that sets the standards and customs that are followed. Good leadership can teach by example, and importantly it can ensure that a variety of approaches is included so that everyone gets a fair go. For example, as well as 'Progressive' and 'Ladies Choice' dances, there can be different ways of pairing dancers so as to make sure that those who would otherwise be left out are included. Good leadership can also act informally, quietly asking some of the more confident to make sure somebody who is being left out is asked for a dance.
A Link With Formation
When a dance is organised by a community that already exists for another purpose, such as a church congregation, the whole experience can be improved and elevated over time through purposeful leadership development, and programs of formation or mentoring.
A Public Event
The meeting of young singles with a view to getting to know each and looking towards marriage is given a public context. Meeting someone is not merely a private matter. Family, friends and acquaintances can all take an interest and show some encouragement and support. At least they can be aware, and a young couple considering marriage can feel that the community has a stake in the success of their relationship. On the other hand the community can also give subtle feedback that perhaps a certain match is ill-considered. Many young couples these days go from being single, through solely informal contact, and on to living together without there ever having been any communal knowledge or involvement.
We can see then how a community dance can achieve the objectives of speed dating, and so much more. Instead of being a culturally 'reductive' event it can foster the growth of a local culture.
Nevertheless there are still many impediments to (re)establishing local community dances, and I hope to take up these issues in future articles.