The Joy of Blues Dancing

I’ve written before about how closed position creates more intimacy between the partners, and how it allows the partners to feel out one another together with the music.

Blues dancing is danced to slow blues – the kind that just begs for intimacy – and as such, it is danced primarily in closed position (depending on how much swing you mix into it). Learning blues dancing is a great way for all swing dancers to develop useful skills, such as leading and following, body movements, and musical interpretation.

Because the dance is in closed, blue dancing is a great way to understand leading and following. In closed position, the leader need only focus on the movement of his own body, and let the follower move with him. As a follower, she can learn to surrender to his lead and go with what she feels. With the centers close together, this dance is very much about dancing center to center.

Since the music is slower and in closed position, there is more time to explore body movement, rather than utilize patterns and footwork. With the partners’ bodies closer together, it is easier to communicate subtle movements, and it affords us the opportunity to really explore the music with different parts of our bodies.

Finally, because the music is slower, and because we’re in closed position, it allows us both the time and the freedom to focus on the music. Without the need to worry about leading and following patterns, we can get down to the fundamentals of movement to music.

Better body leads and follows, more body movements over patterns and footwork, and time to explore the music with your partner. Doesn’t that sound like a great recipe for amazing partner dancing?

Have you tried blues dancing? If so, how has it affected your understanding of swing dancing? Teachers, have you thought about using blues dancing to help your students focus on the fundamentals of swing dancing?

Detachable feet

Last week I wrote about how we become pattern dancers and the effects that has on our relationship to our partner and to the music. Just as we tend to get locked into patterns, we also get locked into specific rhythm patterns with our feet.

A rhythm pattern is a specific sequence of doubles and triples that forms the foundation for patterns. For example, the rhythm pattern for a six-count pattern is double-triple-triple. These rhythms are fundamental to our dance and are closely tied to the execution of patterns.

However, we spend so much time working on rhythm patterns that we can have difficulty breaking out of them. When we attempt syncopations or a change of rhythm with our feet it can be disruptive to our movement and to our partnership. Our bodies become highly dependent on our feet, sometimes to the point that we are moving from our feet instead of our centers. This isn’t entirely surprising, given the strong emphasis on when and where to put your feet in dance classes. After all, how we talk about the dance influences where we focus our dancing.

Learning to decouple footwork from movement frees us up to be musical with our feet without interrupting the flow of the dance. It allows us to take advantage of our feet as instruments of expression, particularly when the partnership demands attention of our bodies and a continuity of movement. Besides, being able to separate our footwork from our movement is indicative of a higher level of dancing, where the center drives the body and we don’t need to be mentally focused on our feet.

Do you find that you have to focus on your feet when breaking out of a standard rhythm pattern? Are you able to let your feet play without disrupting your movement or the partnership? What have you learned about footwork and rhythms that has made things easier or more difficult for you? Teachers, how do you talk about footwork in your classes and how do you help your students get comfortable with their footwork?

Round and round

People just can’t get enough of turns. Guys lead ’em all the time (some more than they should) and ladies are fixated on them – learning them, working on them, mastering the really difficult ones (like the ubiquitous yet frequently unnecessary one-footed skater spin).

With so much turning going on, and so many spins and turns classes, and so many private lessons dedicated to the subject, it’s a wonder that so few people really excel at turns – either following them or leading them. Sure, there are plenty of naturally gifted dancers, or those who somehow get it right, or those who have years of classical training under their belts. But there are lots of people who don’t have these advantages and still struggle to follow or lead turns comfortably and satisfactorily.

In pretty much every spins and turns class I’ve seen, I’ve watched as the instructor explained in great detail where to put your feet, how to turn on the ball of your foot, and how to execute the timing of your footwork. The thing is, we don’t turn from our feet. We turn from the same place we always do: our centers. And so teachers make lots of corrections – to your posture, to your arms, to your hips, to your shoulders, to your knees, etc. And then we as teachers expect you to make all of these corrections, even as we pull your brains in half a dozen different directions. Doesn’t that sound easy?

It’s not that your footwork isn’t important. It is. Along with all the other corrections any good teacher will make. It’s just that focusing on the center can in and of itself fix a lot of the other problems that dancers have with their turns: incorrect posture, being off balance, tension in the arms and shoulders, not traveling down the slot, slowing down during turns, and many more.

So how do you focus on your center when doing turns? Thinking about the preparation, execution, and finishing of turns in this dance, I would suggest three key pieces of advice:

  1. Move your center down the slot to make sure your weight is forward over your feet and to establish linear momentum that will carry you down the slot while you turn.
  2. Turn your belly button around during the turn to ensure you’re turning from your core and maintaining your momentum through the turn.
  3. Take your center back at the end of the turn to fix any misalignment of your posture, secure your center over your foot, and prepare to anchor.

Spotting your leader will also help (I suggest a soft spot as opposed to the whiplash-inducing hard spot), as will prepping with the center (reaching the sternum forward to expand the ribs in a way that moves your arms outward). Both of these techniques amplify the movement of the center through the rotation.

The center should also be the focus for leaders. At the start of the pattern, leaders should provide a clear linear body lead down the slot before leading any turns or rotation. The prep should then be led from the center, and while the turn will be executed using the arms, the arms should gently guide and shape the follower’s movement rather than changing or disrupting it. In short, the leader should do the least necessary with the arms, always guiding the follower down the slot with his center, and always paying attention – to her feet, to her balance, and to her timing for multiple turns.

What do you think of focusing on the center instead of other areas for improving turns? What issues do you face with your own turns and how might focusing on the center improve them? How were you taught to turn or to lead turns? Teachers, what is your approach to teaching turns? What techniques or exercises have you found most effective for your students?

Push it real good

Alright, people, we’ve got to address a serious problem facing our community. We’ve all faced it, felt its effects, and yet we continue to let it permeate our dancing.

That’s right. I’m talking about our failure to properly compress. 

Let’s get something straight: compression is a kind of connection, and connection is the result of movement. In this case, the movement of one partner towards the other, or both partners towards each other. Compression happens as the partners get close together and reach the closest they can get. The prime example of compression is the push break, one of the most basic and fundamental patterns of the dance, where the follower moves into the leader, creating compression, and then is sent back to the end of the slot.

So compression happens as one partner moves closer to the other, but it’s not so simple – there’s more to it than that. In order to create compression, some fundamental technique must be in place. 

For one, the partners must maintain their posture, such that they are moving from their centers and their centers are in front of their feet. At the same time, they should be holding their own weight, and not leaning forward such that their partner are supporting most of their weight. Of course, all too often, during a push break, you see followers who not only don’t bring their centers forward, but actually lean back, reaching with their feet and pushing their hips forward instead.

This leads me to the second important technique: following through. On a push break, the compression results from the follower moving into the leader, but frequently followers slow and stop themselves before they get to full compression. Not only is this anticipating (and thus poor following) but it is poor technique and sacrifices proper connection. The follower must continue and go forward as far as she can, making the leader do the work of slowing her down and stopping her by absorbing her weight as she comes in. (The leader should allow the follower to come in and compress, rather than abruptly stopping her by keeping his arms out in front of him. Which leads me to my next point…)

Third, we call this compression because there is actual compressing involved – compressing of the frame. If the arms, shoulders, and elbows are relaxed (as part of proper frame), then as the leader draws the follower in, his hands will get closer to his center, and as the follower moves into the leader, she will move her center in towards her hands. As a result, the distance between the partners narrows, and the pattern is literally compressed. This elasticity in the arms is also what creates the elasticity in the connection, providing a build up of energy during compression that facilitates the movement out of compression.

Finally, while some people may learn to create compression by doing all of the above, there is still the matter of properly and effectively exiting from compression. If compression results from the follower moving into the leader, then the next natural movement is to have the follower move away from the leader. As always, whenever there is a change of direction, the leader should initiate from his center (rather than his arms) and the follower should wait for his signal and then be proactive in her response. On top of this, the partners should not push the other away – pushing engages the arm muscles and creates a jarring experience for the partner. Rather, the leader should initiate the follower away with his body only, and the follower should send her center away from her own hands (the reverse of compressing). This is not only a more comfortable way to exit, but it ensures both partners maintain their posture and thus are more balanced and stable in their movement.

Compression is a difficult to master as extension, though we rarely spend as much time working on it. However, a focus on maintaining the fundamental technique of movement – from the center with proper frame – can dramatically improve one’s compression along with any other change in connection.

What are your observations of how people compress on the dance floor? What goes wrong and when does it feel right? At what point in your dance education did you first learn compression and what were you taught? At what point after you first learned about compression did you feel you learned how to do it properly? And teachers, how do you approach the subject with your students? What exercises or approaches have you found to work best in order to help your students understand and execute properly?

You wanna know the Big Secret?

What’s the difference between an average dancer and a really good dancer? If both do the same patterns and movements, why does one look smooth and graceful and the other less so?

Sure, one is more technically proficient than the other, and one makes nicer lines than the other, but if you ask me, the difference is really rooted in one particular aspect of technique: moving from the center.

In the past, I have often tackled multiple aspects of technique that I believe make for better dancing, but I have found that each of these can draw the student’s mind in a different direction, making it more difficult to achieve any significant progress in one’s overall dancing. It’s like moving one part of a Rubik’s cube, only to discover that you now have to move even more pieces into place. However, in recent years I’ve found that getting the student to focus on the center produces much faster results and tends to improve many different aspects at once.

Earlier this week, I taught a class designed to enhance the students’ connection by working on moving from the center. We looked at how to improve body lead and follow at the beginning, middle, and end of basic patterns. At the beginning of the pattern, we focused on both partners moving from the center first. For leaders, this means moving the center before the hand, moving backwards from the center. For followers, we worked on moving the center forward before the foot. In the middle of patterns, we looked at continuing the motion initiated at the beginning of the pattern. For leaders, this translates to pointing your center where you want the follower to end up, and for followers, it means continuing down the slot, keeping your center ahead of your feet, and making sure your center is following your hand. And at the end of the pattern, we looked at moving backwards into extension, where both partners move their centers back while maintaining correct posture.

The idea is simple; the execution is not. Of course, nearly all students walk into class with the right technique. And so, as I often say, it is our job as teachers to remind the students how to walk, that dancing is really just “walking… with style” – and no dance more so than West Coast Swing.

What do you think about moving from the center being the root of so many issues? What problems does this not fix? How have you improved your ability to move from the center and what have the results been? Teachers, how do you work on this with your students?