Words, words, words: “frame”

Words matter. The language we use to teach and talk about West Coast Swing influences the way we understand it and the way we dance it. This series will look at some of the terms we use in our community, with the aim of clarifying them for greater understanding and learning.

Before I learned West Coast Swing, I was dancing other partner dances – Lindy Hop and the competitive ballroom dances (both Standard and Latin). There were lots of times when my teachers would give me feedback and instruction about my frame. They told me to mind my frame, keep my frame, don’t break my frame, tighten up my frame, and other such things. And I would struggle to meet their demands, not knowing exactly what I was supposed to be doing but having enough of an idea to at least try. 

When I started teaching myself, I realized that I had never actually been given a definition of “frame.” My teachers had described how my arms should be held or what I was doing when I broke frame, but what exactly was frame? It felt like I was chasing an invisible moving target, and I didn’t want my own students to go through what I had been through. I wanted to define the term so my students understood it and knew what they were being asked to do.

I often tell my students that if I could go back in time, I would go to the moment when the word “frame” was first used and make them pick another word. Why? Because when we hear the word “frame” – especially as non-dancers – what do we think of? Most people will think of picture frames or window frames or door frames, and all of those are rigid, orthogonal, unmovable things. But is that what we want in our partner dancing?

If the dance has a unified center, where the partners are connected body-to-body, such as  in waltz, foxtrot, tango, and quickstep, then the arms are irrelevant. The leader could technically put his or her arms behind them and still manage to move the follower. In those dances, frame often is a rigid or fixed arm position, related to maintaining a nice top line and creating something more aesthetically pleasing.

However, in dances with two centers, where the partners are not body-to-body and must send communications to each other by means of the arms and hands, keeping the arms in a fixed, rigid position is far from ideal. Rigid arms are not only uncomfortable, but they are limiting in both what can be communicated and what can be done with the partnership. Yes, keeping your arms in a fixed position may be an easy way to maintain a sense of frame, but it is also a terrible thing for the partnership. On the other hand, “spaghetti arms” – where the arms have no tone or connection to the body – is also undesirable, because communication will get lost. So now we have a Goldilocks problem: not too rigid but not too loose either?

When I teach “frame” to my beginners, I ask them first what they think the definition of the word is. There are always some students with experience in other partner dances who will respond, with answers about how you hold yourself, the shape of your arms, the shape of you and your partner, or how you relate to a partner. I like to point out that you can have good frame while your partner does not, and so frame is about yourself and not your partner. But then, what is frame?

Here’s the working definition I’ve been using for about 14 years now, and it still holds up:

Frame is the relationship between your center and the point of connection.

Frame is not a fixed position, but a fixed relationship between your body and the point of connection or contact, which is usually your hand (but may vary depending on how the leader makes contact with the follower, i.e. closed position, hip catches, arm catches, etc.). With this definition, good frame is a consistent relationship between the body and the connection point, while bad frame or broken frame is an inconsistent or non-existent relationship between the body and the connection point.

So what then is the relationship between the body and the connection point supposed to be? Well, here’s where we find a difference between leaders and followers.

For leaders, we move our bodies first to initiate direction and movement, so a leader’s frame is the hand follows the body. To maintain proper frame, we move our bodies to move the connection point, whereas if we move the connection point before our bodies or independently of our bodies, we have bad or broken frame – and an arm lead.

For followers, your role is to respond to the communication coming through the connection point, so a follower’s frame is the body follows the connection point. As I teach my students, the first rule of following is “follow the hand” – being responsive to the lead as it is received at the point of connection. If the body moves before the connection point or differently than the connection point, then we have bad or broken frame – and we’re not following.

Part of maintaining this relationship between body and connection point is ensuring that the body and the hand stay physically connected. In order to do that, we engage muscles of the body (mostly the core, both front and back) in different ways at different times. But it’s important that we engage the right muscles to allow our frames to remain consistent but also flexible. If we engage muscles in the arms or upper body, we may restrict movement of the arms, creating that tight, rigid frame that limits communication and mobility – and ultimately what we can create with our partners.

Frame is the relationship between our bodies and the point of connection, and as such, it is our personal responsibility to maintain our own frames, regardless of our partners. We must manage the relationship by moving relative to the connection point, depending on our role (leader or follower), and by securing the connection between our bodies and our hands through proper muscle engagement. If we can maintain our frame, then we can create connection with our partners as we move relative to the connection point. In this way, connection is the result of both frame and movement, and allows us to communicate throughout the dance.

But what do you think? Do you have a definition of frame that’s different from this? How do you think about maintaining frame?What has worked best for you and where have you struggled? If you teach, how do you teach frame to your students and help them understand how to maintain it?

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