Contradiction in terms

It happens more often than it should, to the detriment of the student, that two conflicting pieces of information are presented by two different teachers. This presents the student with a dilemma: in the pursuit of the “right” or “best” way of doing things, which one to choose?

I would argue that these types of conflicts are really simple misunderstandings. Contradictions are often either 1) two different ways of approaching the same fundamental idea, or 2) complementary rather than contradictory, usually a difference between technique and style.

For example, consider the notion of two centers. Skippy Blair is a prominent instructor who has done more than anyone else to create effective teaching tools for important technique and mechanics. Personally, I think she’s fantastic, and I think she has a gift for being able to communicate complex topics into easy-to-apply exercises (though I should note that I don’t always agree with the technique or ideas she teaches).

Skippy teaches that there are two centers: the Center of Mass (CM), located somewhere around the hips, and the Center Point of Balance (CPB), the point from which we move, located higher near the diaphragm. Like any good teacher, she helps the student to understand these concepts through practical exercises.

On the other hand, Mario Robau, an amazing dancer and an incredible teacher with a real gift for breaking things down into information people can readily digest, argues that there’s only one center, since, after all, it’s the center, which logically means there’s only one.

So who’s right?

I would argue that they both are. Mario is technically right: there is only one center to a given object, human or otherwise. And it is from this center that we move. However, we move from our center with forward pitch, meaning that our upper body is set slightly in front of our lower body (this is true both forwards and backwards). Thus, the two center explanation has great value as a teaching tool for people to mentally understand proper posture and pitch and translate it into a physical response. One teacher gave the straight truth, the other gave advice to produce a specific desired outcome. Both are being effective teachers in their own way.

Another seeming contradiction: heel first or toe first when walking forward. From a strictly mechanical perspective, as far as I’m concerned, this is a no-brainer: heel first. Why? Because that is how your body naturally moves, was designed to move, and how your body facilitates forward movement by rolling through the foot.

So why would someone teach toe-first? Simple: styling. Some people think it makes a nicer line to have a straight leg, others may think the music calls for it. The truth is that as long as you’re moving from your center and your feet are underneath you when you transfer weight, it doesn’t really matter whether you go heel first or toe first. They aren’t contradicting – it’s just two different ways of moving, one being the basic mechanics of walking and the other a stylization.

What other contradictions have you come across while learning to dance? Where does there seem to be a contradiction that is really two ways of approaching the same thing? Where does there seem to be a contradiction that is really the difference between fundamental technique and advanced style? Teachers, how do you reconcile the difference when asked about contradictions?


  1. For me, walking forward heel-first or toe-first depends on the momentum my body has, and on the action I want my body to have on this step and the next one. A heel-first walk will carry me forward, so if I want to keep stepping forward, that works well. A toe-first walk helps to stop my momentum, so if I want to stop that works well. Of course you ~could~ either stop or move with either, it's just that each lends itself to a certain action.

  2. Had a student ask me once: Such and such just told me that I have to step (fill in the blank) here on the fifth step of a whip (in west coast swing). But you told me to step (here). What am I supposed to do?My answer was: Learn both, they are both correct in a specific instance. The more you, well then, the more you know. LOLNever become complacent about what you know — there will always be shades of gray in something as artistic as dance. It's about adapting to whatever gets thrown your way that makes such-n-such CORRECT at that specific moment. If you learn several ways to accomplish the same end result, wouldn't ALL of them be correct?Just because you learn the "standard alphabet" isn't up to the person what words they choose to make of them. That's what I say about basic patterns. Here are your letters of the alphabet … now YOU tell me your story using them.Of course, each person will find those adaptations that fit their own personal style and body type and comfort zone. Oooh lah lah the excitement and diversity in interpretation!!

  3. Thanks for the comments! Jeanette, I fully agree that foot articulation is determined by foot usage (the third part of footwork being foot placement, which also relates to the other two). Funny though that teachers merely prescribe just one action without explaining why and without discussing the other options.Maria, I couldn't agree more that learning all the different variations is what makes us better in the end. That said, (and since this blog is about the fundamentals,) we teachers do have to teach *something* as the default. How do you decide what that is/should be and how do you deal with the other options? I'm all for adapting to our own personal style and body type, but it helps to have common ground if you're communicating with a partner.

  4. From Jamie, a friend and an incredible dancer in Texas: "We are experiencing our own 'contradictory' conversations in our dance community in Houston. While Texas has looonnngg had a 'constant connection' preference for lead and follow, there is a growing influence of 'lead & release' instruction in our community.Anyone who has danced with me even for a single measure knows my preference :). But sometimes the enactment of the two different styles on the dance floor results in humorous miscommunications and often downright battles. Despite my preference, I can see pros & cons to each….It seems the other types of 'contradictions' mentioned here are individually based, while the contradictions we're experiencing in Houston right now are dyadic. The enactment of one 'style' over the other influences the very nature of the communication between partners."

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