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Epi-curious virtue ethics: Lindy Hop and sumac


As of late, I’ve become curious about the distinctness of life itself. Walking across campus, the small details of squirrels and sidewalks absorb me. The nuances in people’s speech catch my attention. Even the ways I change my opinions interests me. With one self-realization came the conclusion: detail opens us to this life’s gifts and makes gifts of ourselves.

Let me explain. As a ballroom dancer, I’d always shrugged at lindy hop, an 8-count swing-dance style à la poodle skirts and diners. Isn’t east coast swing enough? But last Tuesday, I realized something was afoot: lindy hop had grown on me.

“It’s got its own character,” I told a friend, struggling to put into words what I had observed. What to say of the way some dancers played with syncopation, “tripping” onto their feet at the last second? What to say of the way verbal additions bridged couples beyond the this-is-just-a-dance barrier, reaffirming that they were speaking, thinking human beings?

“It’s not just east coast swing as an 8-count pattern,” I continued. “It’s got more bounce. It’s like… more loose. More free. The dancers tend to lean in more… I like the lean-in.”

As it is, I’m a lean-in kind of person. If I’m not pulling spices out of my backpack at lunch hour, something’s wrong. Turmeric, nutmeg, flaky salt, you name it. There’s something rewarding to my methods, despite the perpetual teasing. I’d rather say “what’s the worst that could happen?” than bypass the chance to toss some sumac on a tortilla.

Yes, focusing on particularity could turn into another form of pretension. Expecting variation in everything may also lead to exotic consumerism, not to mention overthinking at the material level (e.g stressing over synonyms because you refuse to use a verb more than once in an essay). However, when done right, particularity lends itself to mindfulness. It provides the opportunity to increase virtues like sensitivity, curiosity, patience, and even forgiveness — traits that enhance society.

Anticipating flavor is a lifestyle, an attentiveness that is a reinforcing feedback loop. The more you look for variety, the more you can’t help seeing it. Thus, the more you get used to rewriting the narrative you prematurely created — for example, that lindy hop is the lesser cousin of east coast swing.

This kind of sensitivity enhances interpersonal growth. You’re better able to understand people once you attend to their complexities. Assumptions stall; judgments pause. Gently, you look closer and realize: there’s more here. Interested in the nexus between their axioms and your own, you don’t outright make the other person their mistakes. You forgive. After all, if it were you, you’d want someone to anticipate that there’s a little sweetness, a little swing, in you too.

Shared curiosity brings a deep appreciation, even awe. I have friends who probe, who ponder, who look at a napkin holder or a lamppost and proclaim, “And we could say the lamppost is a poem because…”

These people make me feel limitless.

They make me feel completely accepted in my reckless, inconsequential wondering; they make me feel playful, unmonitored, immune. My abundant joy and liberty then morph into gratitude. How lucky we are to perceive and perceive another’s perception. How rare that we can grow together over detail.

Noticing the small things means meeting the world where it is. No, meeting the worlds where they are, even the worlds inside oneself. So don’t discount the Stav food. Don’t say life’s dance will always “be like that.” Try pausing to taste the sumac. You may just surprise yourself.