closed position

The paradigm of leading and following

Lately I’ve been working with my students on dancing in closed position to work on improving their lead/follow, body movement, and musicality. Despite the fact that I had the partners dancing nearly body-to-body, center-to-center, nevertheless, without fail, many if not most of the leaders would try to use their arms to move the follower, and many of the followers would try to guess where the leader was going.

In my view, this behavior is symptomatic of the general paradigm by which we often dance: the leader moves the follower, and the follower goes where the leader wants her to go.

Think about that for a moment.

The leader moves the follower. He is responsible for moving her from one place to another. Not the follower herself, but the leader does the moving. And the follower goes where the leader wants her to go. Where he wants her to go. The priority is on what the leader wants. And so the leader spends his time focused on moving the follower, and the follower spends her time focused on what the leader wants. And this was playing out in class, where the students were dancing in closed position.

The challenge is to shift our thinking about the role of the partners and the dynamic between them. Leaders should be focused on moving not their partners but their own bodies, and letting the follower respond (aka “body lead”). And followers shouldn’t be trying to read his mind but rather focus on moving themselves in response to what they feel from the leader (aka “following”).

This is a subtle distinction, but watch how many people have a hard time doing it. Because after months or even years of living with the current paradigm, we so easily slip into what we already know and do. The new paradigm isn’t impossible or even too difficult. It just takes commitment, the right training, and lots of mindful effort. But man, think of how great partner dancing could be if we did change the paradigm…

Pay attention to the dynamic you set up in your own dancing, and watch others when you get the chance. Which paradigm are you dancing and seeing? What happens when you try dancing the new one? Teachers, how is your teaching – both the content and the manner – shaping your students’ understanding of the role of the partners and the dynamic between them?

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?

Navigating a crowded floor

We’ve all been there. All too often. The couple that keeps intruding on our slot. The guy who leads his follower right into us. The woman whose arm styling means a whack to the head. The floor that’s too crowded.

It never ceases to amaze me that some people just don’t learn how to dance on a crowded floor. At the same time, how often do we teach people how to dance on a crowded floor? Let’s face it: the dance class is an idyllic environment compared to the social dance floor, where people tend to have enough room and they are hyper-aware of themselves and those around them under the watchful eye of a teacher.

Every now and then I get around to teaching a class on floorcraft – the art of dance floor navigation and etiquette. Here are ten tips for successful dancing on a crowded floor:

  1. Look around you. Seems obvious enough, but we tend to get focused on what we’re doing and lose sight of how what we’re doing fits into the space around us. Leaders in particular should look to where they are sending their followers, before sending them there.
  2. Narrow the slot. Pretty obvious here too. If there’s less space on the floor, then occupy less space.
  3. Use the slot you have. Leaders, if you don’t have room for a full slot, consider dancing with half a slot, think about what you can do in closed position, or maybe use a change of places to keep the flow of your patterns.
  4. Keep things simple. Not only are simpler moves less risky to execute successfully, but it’s also easier to interrupt a simpler move to make course corrections. This goes for leaders and followers.
  5. Learn to abort smoothly. If someone moves into your slot as you’re executing a move, find a way to gracefully change the ending. Cutoffs and moving into closed position are great options for leaders, while bending the slot and pattern extensions are helpful tools for followers. (Remember: Communicate kindly to your partner.)
  6. Protect your partner. If your partner is going to get hit or is going to collide with someone they can’t see, let them know. A simple squeeze of the hand is usually effective.
  7. Adjust your frame. Your body is yours to control, so if you have less space, adjust your frame so it’s shorter (but not tighter). Leaders, think about the timing of your anchor and how much counterbalance you provide, and followers think about keeping a closer relationship between your center and hand.
  8. Consider moving your slot. If the space at either end of your slot is too cramped, think about shifting your slot to open space left or right (assuming you’re not moving into someone else’s slot).
  9. Be sure to finish. Remember that good communication depends on good connection, and good connection comes from good movement. If we don’t finish patterns by moving our centers into or away from our partners, we won’t create extension or compression, and we’ll have a harder time communicating in an environment where communication is even more important.
  10. Apologize. We’re both responsible for a successful dance, so take responsibility when something goes awry. (You’d be surprised how often people don’t acknowledge collisions and other accidents or check in with their partners.)

The joy of partner dancing is that we get to share in the experience with someone else. So let’s all do our part to make sure everyone has a good time.

What do you all do to adjust to crowded floors? What are some of the biggest dangers you’ve encountered? Teachers, how do you prepare your students and teach them floorcraft?

Ready… set… what?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been confused when doing a starter step. Don’t be shy. It happens to all of us.

In fact, I often hear (from followers, in particular) that during the starter step, people are just unsure of what’s happening. And when I hear this, I can’t help but think about how terrible this is. As the dance gets started, people are lost. Right from the get go, you don’t understand your partner and you don’t feel comfortable. What kind of foundation is that for a successful partnership and dance?

So what’s the problem? Why are people so confused? The answer is simple: connection – or lack thereof.

I find that lots of people just don’t know how to dance in closed – how to physically connect, how to communicate to their partners, how to make one another comfortable. And to be honest, when starter steps are confusing, it’s usually the fault of both the leader and the follower. Leaders don’t know how to hold the follower properly, how to communicate clearly and effectively from their centers, and how to ease into the dance rather than rush into things. Followers don’t know how to connect to the hand on their back while maintaining their posture, how to fill the space he creates, and how to trust what the leader is giving them.

We start the dance in closed for a reason: being in closed allows you to connect with your partner, get in synch, get a sense of how your partner moves and how your partner feels the music. For these reasons, I often joke that in the first eight beats of the dance you’ll know 90% of what you need to know about your partner. (What’s the other ten percent, you ask? Knowing how they lead and follow turns.)

The point is: we should be starting off on the right foot (left for leaders, haha). Learning to connect in closed and do the starter step so both partners are comfortable and on the same page is so important for everything that follows (and leads, haha).

What has your experience been with starter steps? Have you had trouble, and if so, why? And what do you do to start the dance off right? What have you been taught to do for the starter step? And what do you teachers tell your students when teaching the starter step?

Go on, slow down and get intimate…

Some songs just call for intimacy with your partner. You know what I’m talking about: those slow, drippy, emotional songs – sometimes sad, sometimes sexy, sometimes light and dreamy, sometimes down and dirty. Those songs that call for the lights to be dimmed, or the songs that make you want to kick back with a glass of wine (or scotch – your choice), or the songs that make you want some privacy.

Too often, when these songs are played, I see dancers get out onto the floor, do their 4-count starter step, and then rush out into open position and their standard patterns. To me, this is not only antithetical to the music, but also a wasted opportunity to engage with your partner on a more intimate level. I don’t mean getting romantic and invading each others’ space (unless, you know, that’s what both of you want); I just mean taking time to connect with your partner and the music without the usual distractions of patterns and embellishments.

These kinds of songs just cry out for you to slow down and take your time. So what’s the rush to move out of closed position? While the dance is danced mostly in open position – and while some people may not know how to dance comfortably in closed – there’s a lot that can be done in closed. And not only is closed position more intimate, but it has the two partners’ centers closer, where you can feel more of your partner’s movement. And closed position forces you to strip away the fancy patterns and turns and styling and just focus on moving together with your partner to the music. Since I’m guessing you do partner dancing in part to share the experience with a partner, and in part because you like the music, what could be better than taking your time to do both of those together?

So my advice? Listen. And if the song calls for it, stay in closed position a little longer. Explore the possibilities. Take the time to engage with your partner and the music more directly.Go on, slow down and get intimate…

How do you feel about dancing in closed position? Reflecting on your own dancing, how often do you dance in closed? And how conscious are you of slowing down when the music calls for it? Teachers, how do you imbue this side of musicality in your students?