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?

The Choreographer

When I was first learning to dance, I took a lindy hop workshop with a great teacher from Ithaca named Bill Borgida. I don’t remember what he taught in the workshop, but something he said stuck with me: “Count Basie is my choreographer.” Count Basie is of course the great swing band leader, and his point was that the music was telling him what to do.

We often think of the leader as the choreographer in the dance, or at least the lead choreographer. He is responsible in many ways for setting the tone and directing much of the dance. But ideally what he choreographs is not born solely out of his knowledge of patterns, but rather his inspiration from the music.

Putting the leader in touch with the music has many benefits. Not only does it create a more musical dance, but it makes his choices clearer to the follower, who can hear what he’s trying to choreograph. This should also make it easier for the follower to engage and add some choreography of her own, knowing that she is on the same page as the leader, both of them connected by the music. It should also be a bit of a relief for the leader, who can let the music guide his leading rather than having to come up with moves on his own.

Who do you think of as the choreographer in the dance? Who is it now and is that how you want it to be? Teachers, how do you help your students to understand choreography and its relationship with the music?

Choose Your Own Adventure

When we learn patterns, we learn them from start to finish. We’re shown the beginning, the middle, and the end and how they flow together. We learn them with a set rhythm, a set timing, a set progression.

And that’s the problem. Patterns are taught as whole units with a prescribed beginning, middle, and end. Once a leader starts, he moves towards the end that he was taught follows the beginning. And followers in the same class also develop the same expectation, which is only reinforced when the leader does as he was taught. In this way, both leaders and followers become what we call “pattern dancers.”

And so we usually know the end when we get started. As a result, we lose a sense of spontaneity and we take away creative opportunities – opportunities to engage with our partners and to respond to the music. If both partners know the set pattern, it’s all too easy to disengage from your partner and just go through the motions. After all, you don’t need their guidance or assistance because you already know the end of the story. And of course set patterns may or may not fit the music well, but if the partners aren’t open to new endings, then they each take away the chance to adapt to what they’re hearing.

I don’t often teach patterns anymore, but when I do, I try to teach at least two or three similar “patterns” but each with some unique variation. (Think of whip variations.) It helps the leaders to disconnect beginnings from ends and see that each is an element that can be pieced together in different ways. It also tests their ability to lead – both in terms of thinking on their feet as well as seeing the options and executing clearly. For followers, they are programmed to pay attention, expect the unexpected, to not know the ending, and therefore to be open to more possibilities. This makes them stronger followers and better partners.

For me, much of the joy of West Coast Swing is in the spontaneous creation between the partners with the music, but to have this we need to break down patterns into elements of movement and to be open to piecing them together in different ways. That way together we get to choose our own adventure as we go along.

How have you been taught patterns and how has it affected your dancing? Do you notice pattern dancers while you’re dancing, either in yourself or your partners? Teachers, do you pay attention to how the way you teach patterns affects your students’ dancing? Do you have methods to help avoid training them to become pattern dancers?

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?

Leading and following naturally

My apologies for the long silence, but as many of you know, my life has gone through a lot of change over the last few months. I’m happy to say that I’m back online and I’ve got a backlog of posts awaiting your reading and feedback! – Eric

Anyone who has ever walked somewhere with someone else already knows how to lead and follow. And if you’ve ever walked down the street holding someone’s hand, then you know how to lead and follow… while holding someone’s hand.

If you’ve done this you know how to move in a way that guides the other person and in a way that responds to another person – without forcing them, without manhandling them, without hanging onto them. You already know how to move yourself in a way that communicates with someone else without using words.

It’s my belief that the reason so many people struggle with lead and follow is because we as dance teachers give them all sorts of information that distracts from what they already know. We focus you on how to hold hands, how to hold your arms, where to lead, and where to put your feet. Plus, we teach classes focused on patterns, where the leader learns how to move the follower and the follower learns to do what he wants. The result is a mindset in which “leading” becomes equated with “dictating” and “following” means “being forced.”

I started working with my students last month to shift the current paradigm, attempting to define “leading” and “following” as something other than “move” and “be moved.” For the leaders, we looked at the physical change in leading that results when you think of it as “inviting” – invite the follower to go down the slot, invite the follower to go under your arm, invite the follower in and back out. The body movement is the same, but nature and feel is more relaxed, more natural, and, well, more inviting. For the followers, we looked at just going where you were being directed. The followers assume the responsibility of moving themselves, which improves their posture, balance, and ultimately their body flight. It also takes the mental focus off of the leader and puts it more on what they feel, which helps to avoid anticipation and anxiety about what is being led. The result for both partners is more in line with what we do naturally when we guide and are guided through physical contact.

It never ceases to amaze me how much our mindset affects and influences how our bodies move and react. By returning to what our bodies already know, and adopting a different mindset about what it means to lead and follow, we can establish a more relaxed, trusting, and stable partnership, which opens the possibilities for collaboration and creativity.

How do you think of leading and following based on what you’ve learned? How does this new paradigm above make you think about your role in the dance? Teachers, what do you think about leading and following and does the way you teach reinforce that idea or something else?