Connection is not the goal

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. (more…)

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.  (more…)

The truth about leading and following

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed something: people have the wrong idea about leading and following. I see students all the time who dance with an unspoken but implicit assumption about what it means to lead and to follow, and it  causes all sorts of problems for their technique and movement. These people think that “leading” means physically moving a follower and “following” means being physically moved by the leader.

This isn’t surprising. Think about how most dance classes are taught. We teach patterns that reinforce the idea that the leader moves the follower through a predetermined set of movements. The leader is in control and is responsible for moving the follower where she needs to be. Followers can style and embellish, but the leader is in charge of moving her. In fact, most new leaders think the ultimate aim of being a great dancer is to learn more – and more complicated – patterns, and new followers are overly concerned with where to go to execute the leaders’ patterns correctly. This is something we teach people, overriding what we instinctively know about how to lead and follow correctly.

As a result, leaders focus too much on moving the follower, followers focus too much on what the leader is trying to lead, and neither focus enough on moving themselves. This mindset produces things like tight arms and arm leads, imbalance and instability, over-leading, slow or heavy followers, poor execution of turns, and an over-reliance on the partner that detracts from individual expression and connecting with the music.

So what then, is the correct definition of lead and follow? I’ve come to realize that it is this: leading is moving your own body in a way that communicates something to the follower, and following is moving yourself in response to what you feel from the leader (and vice versa, responding as a leader and communicating as a follower). For both roles, the focus should be on the self – moving your own body to communicate and respond – rather than on moving or being moved by someone else.

My own dance journey has helped me to understand the appropriate role for each partner. I started out, like many, aspiring to have the coolest moves in town. As a matter of fact, a top champion saw me in my early days, complimented my dancing, and added, “Now you just need some big moves.” And as I advanced, I worried that my repertoire wasn’t big enough or complicated enough to be a great dancer. And as a result, I was often catering to my follower, rather than claiming my own place in the dance. But of course, the best dancers are the best because of their ability to lead and follow, and it stems from knowing how to move themselves so well that they can accomplish more with a partner to the music. In the past year, as I pushed myself further in this dance, I came to see that the path forward was about mastering my own movement and expression to create something better with my partner. The focus was not on what to do with my partner, but what to do with myself – to raise my quality of movement, to improve my own musical expression, and to better define my position as a leader in the dance. In the end, the more I focused on my own movement, the more I could communicate and the more I could achieve with a partner.

Focusing on your own movement means taking responsibility for yourself, and that results in greater balance, clearer weight transfers, and thus better connection. It also means we are less dependent on our partners, freeing us to be more expressive and communicative in the dance, and to create something more dynamic yet comfortable with our partner.

So take control of your own movement. Focus on raising your own quality of movement and worry less about your partner. If we all take care of ourselves, we will be better partners in the end.

Are you dependent on your partner? Are you a leader who focuses on moving your follower through patterns? Are you a follower who worries too much about what your leader wants? Are you in tune with your own movement and expression? Teachers, is the way you teach reinforcing an unhealthy dependency between the partners? Do you help your students stay focused on their own movement while dancing with a partner?

Stop working on connection

I often ask people what they’re working on in their dancing, either out of curiosity or because they are my students and I’m checking in with them. A frequent response to the question is “connection” – to which I inevitably reply, “What do you mean by that?”

We all want to have better connection with our partners. I get it. I really do. Connection is basically my number one value in partner dancing, because without it, how can you have a comfortable, effective, and successful partnership?

But here’s the thing: connection is not something you create unto itself. It is the product of other things, namely movement and body mechanics. Connection is created through movement of one’s body, either towards or away from a partner. So if you want to improve your connection, you work on movement and body mechanics.

I’ve written before about the importance of doing specific, concrete actions and it’s the same when working on improving your connection. Connection is an abstract by-product of other concrete actions – not something you tackle directly but rather indirectly by working on other things.

So stop working on connection and start working on the things that will actually improve your connection.

What are you working on to improve your connection? How has your instructor provided clear and specific actions for improving connection? Teachers, how do you help your students understand and work on connection?

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?