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?