So how do you get hitched?
The answer is obvious in cultures with clear courtship rituals. The answer is increasingly obscure in cultures like ours where the emphasis on freedom allows for much more improvisation, but this freedom makes it tougher for most to get hitched.
There are two kinds of rules that facilitate courtship: (1) the duty to court AND (2) the rule against extravagance. Both of these restrictions on freedom tend to facilitate marriage.
1. The duty to court.
The problem is that most people are somewhat shy–and that shyness is peculiarly acute in matters of mutual attraction. Where the rule is freedom and personal initiative, the absence of expectations effectively requires the participants to promulgate–autocratically–the appropriate ways to behave. Shy people–most people–don’t feel comfortable doing this.
One of the ways to help people overcome shyness is by gentle rules. If there is a rule, for instance, that every man must ask one woman to dance, then the shy young man can plausibly suggest, to himself and to all observers, that social compliance, not personal hubris, leads him to take the initiative. If the rules say that the appropriate answer is “yes” absent extraordinary circumstances, then the shy young woman can say “yes” on much the same grounds.
Such rules can be liberating. They tend to facilitate the initial stages of courtship.
The problem with such rules is when the genuinely unwilling are dragged along.
2. The duty to be modest about courting
There’s another kind of rule that can facilitate courtship–and that’s the rule against extravagance. In dancing or any other little courtship ritual, one of the dangers is that people will get really good at it–and display such excellence as to deter others from doing so.
Courtship rituals should be easy to learn, easy to follow. It should be easy for the marriage-minded to be an acceptable participant.
3. Social partner dancing has exhibited both of these rules
Recently my wife and I went social dancing–swing dancing, to be more precise.. One of the leaders/instructors mentioned two rules before the dance began–both of these corresponded to the two rules I mentioned above:
- The request and acceptance of a dance must be understood as something light and casual–and neither request nor acceptance should be interpreted, per se, as request or consent for some date.
- No aerials–ostensibly because of danger–but I think because too much excellence tends to turn social dancing into spectacle.
Social dancing, it seems, declined for various reasons, but one of those–almost certainly–was the rise of both excellence and improvisation on the dance floor. Dances became spectacles. Max Pearl, in a recent article, explained how swing dancing undermined partner dancing as a social convention:
But rather than getting more people out on the dance floor, the style’s athletic combination of complex turns, dangerous throws and light-speed footwork began to push intimidated amateurs back onto the sidelines. “As a result, the rise of swing meant that customers were dancing less and listening more,” Wald writes, quoting a 1938 Billboard report that chronicled the shifting dynamic. It was typical, he says, to see a crowd of 1,000 watching and grooving to only 100 people dancing.
Rules that once prescribed fixed (but easy to learn) steps produced greater inclusion. At some point the freedom to dance proves a deterrent.
The democracy of the marital aristocracy
As Pearl points out, the aristocracy was quite resistant to aristocracy of dance. Dancing too well was frowned upon. I think the reason is that too much excellence at social gatherings makes the shy and the awkward feel uncomfortable. In courting, it creates something of an arms race, especially among men. The better solution was democracy–giving everyone a limited set of dance steps to learn–but prohibiting the excellent from showing off.
I don’t have a thesis here, just some reflections on the tensions between liberty, equality, and the fraternization between the sexes.