As partner dancers, we focus a lot on connection. I mean, a lot. It’s like we obsess over it. We constantly strive to connect with our partners. We aspire to have great connection. And we desperately want to dance with others who have great connection.
This, of course, is not surprising. Connection is critically important to a successful partner dance. We need to be able to feel our partners throughout the dance to spontaneously create, improvise, and express the music together.
In recent years, as I’ve looked more closely at how people teach and dance, I’ve noticed that some dancers and teachers act as if connection is the be-all and end-all of our dance. And while I appreciate the focus and drive to improve connection, let’s be clear about something:
Connection is not the ultimate goal.
Connection is a means to an end, not the end itself. The end is actually communication – transmitting information from one partner to the other and back. We strive to connect so that we can communicate with our partners.
What is it we’re trying to communicate? Ultimately, we are trying to communicate information between the partners about three things: where our weight is, where our weight is going, and how quickly our weight is moving. If we can communicate these three pieces of information, we can understand and respond to one another throughout the dance.
I imagine at this point some of you are saying, “Well, sure, communication is important. That’s why we obsess over connection.”
But here’s the thing: when we focus on connection without considering the goal of communication, we can end up creating a connection that actually limits what we can communicate.
I’ve seen dancers do things – and teachers teach things – that are so focused on the physical contact with the partner that they actually inadvertently impede the flow of information. For instance, a student of mine approached me after class to ask me about what someone told her at a dance in another city. A leader had told her that she was to push her hand down into his to connect. Does this create more pressure in the hands? Sure. Does it mean she’s engaging arm muscles? Yep. Does engaging arm muscles and shoulders cut off communication to the core and hips? Yes. So sure, pressure in the hands may make two people feel more physically connected, but it’s actually reducing their ability to communicate.
The same is true when people tighten their shoulder muscles to avoid breaking their frame. Will tightening the shoulders help you stay connected to your partner? Sure. Does it cut off communication to the core and hips? Yes, it does. (Does it also feel tight and restrictive and sometimes downright uncomfortable? Yep, that too.)
When we talk to leaders, we tell them that arm leading is bad. Using your arm muscles to redirect a follower doesn’t feel good, it can pull your follower off balance, and it can even injure a follower if it’s really aggressive. But it does the job, doesn’t it? I mean, it communicates when and where to go, right? So why do we discourage leaders from using it? Because there are negative consequences – and because there’s a better way (that would be a body lead, ladies and gents). The same is true of connecting to a partner using the arms and shoulders. Yes, it gets the job done, if the job is simply connecting. But it’s not. The job is communicating weight transfers, and using the muscles of the arms and shoulders creates all sorts of negative outcomes. Plus, we know that we can connect through the core in a way that is more comfortable and opens the lines of more detailed communication.
Remember: just because it feels good to you does not mean it’s good for your partner or the partnership. If you do things to your frame that make you feel more connected to your partner – that allow you to stay in physical contact with your partner and feel where your partner is in space – make sure that what you’re doing is (a) comfortable for your partner, and (b) not cutting off the flow of more specific information about weight transfers.
We create connection through movement and frame. If you want to improve your connection, you should work on your own body mechanics, weight transfers, and lead/follow skills. But keep in mind that the goal is not simply to stay in physical contact with your partner. The endgame is sending and receiving as much information as possible about each partner’s weight transfers throughout the dance.
So in your quest for great connection, don’t lose sight of what great connection is about. Aim to connect in a way that allows you to communicate more with your partner, and when you can do that, there will be no limit to what you and your partner can create together.
But what do you think? How do you think about connection and communication? Do you pay attention to what information you can send and receive with your partners while you dance? What kind of connection do you prefer and how does it help you communicate? Teachers, how do you get your students to connect in a way that opens the lines of communication? What problems do you encounter most when teaching connection?