A hierarchy of needs (part 1)

I often talk to students about setting priorities. It can be hard to know what to focus on, especially when there’s so much to work on, and so many things we want to accomplish.

The thing is that certain elements need to be in place to achieve other elements. For instance, if you really want to be musical with your partner, you need solid partnership skills. And in order to have solid partnership skills, you need to have an understanding and control of your own individual movement. So the more musical you want to be, the more you need to understand partnership and your own movement. 

An underlying premise to all this is that West Coast Swing is a partner dance. What this means is that a successful dance is one in which both partners are connected and engaged in the creation of the dance. One partner being expressive without connecting with and engaging the other is not success. (It’s actually selfish. In previous posts, I’ve written about how it’s not all about you.) If the dance is about aligning and involving both partners, then musical expression will be dependent on both partnership skills and mastery of our own movement.

In the field of psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory of motivation that describes five tiers of human needs, with those at the bottom needing to be satisfied before individuals can attend to the ones above. Thinking about how skills in this dance are dependent on other skills, I’ve come to believe there’s a similar hierarchy of needs for West Coast Swing.

At the bottom of this hierarchy, there’s individual movement and body mechanics. This includes anything and everything in one’s own body for which an individual is responsible, such as posture and pitch, weight transfers, timing and rhythm, and frame and hand holds. Without an understanding of and proficiency in these elements, it will be hard to do other things in the dance. Conversely, poor body mechanics and individual movement can have negative effects on other parts of the dance (think of tight arms or being off time or being off balance). Therefore, we must satisfy the needs of our individual mechanics first if we are to be successful in other areas of our dancing.

Individual mechanics lay the foundation for the next level up: partnership. Partnership includes everything that contributes to connection, communication, and collaboration between the partners. This would include leading and following, extension and compression, communication skills, and teamwork skills. Achieving a successful partnership is dependent upon individual mechanics, and is required to be musical with a partner. Trying to be musical without developing sufficient partnership skills can actually have a negative impact on your partner (think of pulling on a partner while playing or not leading/following while playing or not communicating your intent to your partner). Thus, we must attend to our partnership needs before we can be successful in our musical expression.

Once we have some proficiency with partnership, we can attend to the next level up: musical expression. Musical expression involves any interpretation of the music, whether through individual movement or partnered movement. Individual expression is based on our first level of needs, but it must also be put in the context of the partnership, whether you are isolating your movement from the partnership or communicating your individual movement to your partner. So partnership skills are required for both individual and partnered musical expression.

And if we think about our dance as a performing art, or if we just think about the skills required to succeed at higher levels of competition, there’s one more level at the top: showmanship. This is a set of skills pertaining to presentation and entertainment, showcasing the couple’s musical expression for a viewing (or judging) audience. Showmanship requires a sense of musicality – how to interpret the music in a way that will be visually and emotionally stimulating to an audience. Showmanship without proficiency in musicality, partnership, or individual mechanics can fall flat, feel out of place, or seem undeserving by the audience (think of someone showing themselves off when it doesn’t match what’s happening in the music).

Putting this all together, we get a hierarchy of needs that looks like this:

WCS Hierarchy of Needs

The idea of the hierarchy is that the needs of the bottom must be attended to before we can successfully attend to the needs at the top. However, this is not to say that we need to have perfect mastery of individual mechanics and partnership before we can be musical. Rather, it means that in order to achieve a higher level of proficiency in musical expression, you must first raise your level of proficiency in individual mechanics and partnership. You can have a limited degree of musical expression with a basic understanding of individual mechanics and partnership. But if you try to do more advanced musicality without first improving your individual mechanics and partnership skills, you will likely be unsuccessful in creating a musical dance where both partners are connected and engaged.

We also do not need to work on just one tier at a time. We can work on our skills across tiers, but we should recognize how particular elements will be dependent on others. For instance, at a certain point in their journey (after getting comfortable with the fundamentals of the dance), I encourage my students to work on their individual musical expression by dancing by themselves to music, focusing on active listening and putting movement to what they hear. However, I caution them that doing this in the context of the dance can have negative consequences on their partner if they don’t first get a handle on movement and partnership. No one wants to dance with someone who is being musical if that person isn’t connecting with them – or worse, pulling on them. So in class I will show my students how to incorporate their individual expression while maintaining their quality of movement and their partnership. And, in accordance with the hierarchy, the more competent they are with their own mechanics and partnership skills, the easier it is for them to be musical without detracting from the dance or their partner’s experience.

And that’s the thing that people don’t always get. When you see two extraordinary dancers together, and they’re doing all sorts of cool and amazing things together, the reason they are able to do those things is because they’ve got a really solid foundation of individual mechanics and partnership behind what you see. They know their own bodies, have mastery of their own movement, know how to be good partners, and are able to connect and communicate with a partner. People see these extraordinary dances and want to go replicate what they see, without understanding that those things are only possible because they worked on the underlying skills and competencies.

Remember: successful partner dancing requires that both partners are connected and engaged in expression of the music – and that means having the competencies needed to effectively dance with someone else while being musical together.

In next week’s post, I’ll be looking at how this hierarchy applies to competitions and expectations for each level or division, with the goal of helping competitors to set priorities and focus their own efforts.

But what do you think? Do you think there’s a hierarchy of needs for our dance? What examples can you think of that support or conflict with this idea? How do you think about your own dancing to help you set priorities? What have you observed in others’ dancing that aligns or contradicts this hierarchy? For those that teach, when you work with students, do you sequence skills in any way or prioritize certain elements over others?

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