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…)

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?

Mind Over Matter: Don’t not do that…

This is the second in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.

In my first post in this series, I discussed the amazing influence of the mind over the body, particularly in how the mind can interrupt what we might otherwise do well.

An important element that affects the way we dance is the way we learn to dance. In recent months I’ve been thinking more and more about how the way this dance is taught in our community is often detrimental to our mastery of it. Our bodies know how to do some things naturally and yet the way we talk about the dance sets up a mental frame of reference that gets in the way of that. 

One key component to this mental paradigm is our focus on what not to do. We all know this line of thinking. We’re told to not do something that we’re doing wrong, and the focus is on undoing a bad habit. A prime example is tight arms, the solution to which is to relax them.

There are a two main problems with this method of instruction. The first is that when the mind is focused on a particular body part, we tend to engage that part most. Think about exercising. If you’ve done any weight training or yoga or Pilates, you know that where you concentrate is where you will work the hardest. This is especially true of compound exercises, where more than one muscle group is engaged. The muscle you think about while exercising is the muscle you will engage the most. It’s not because you’re doing anything to consciously engage that muscle more. Rather, it’s a subconscious reaction to where your mind is focused. So when you think about relaxing tight arms, you are actually more likely to perpetuate the problem rather than solve it.

Another problem is that knowing what not to do doesn’t always tell you what to do. If I said, of all numbers from 1 to 100, don’t pick 56, that’s helpful to a point, but it doesn’t tell you which of the other 99 numbers to choose. Likewise, telling you to relax your arms is somewhat helpful, but in essence, it’s the same thing as saying “don’t be tight” – it doesn’t tell you what you should be doing differently in a constructive way.

I’ve found that good teachers will redirect your attention to solutions that help you develop new habits, rather than simply telling you to not do something. And good students ask their teachers for constructive problems, trying to understand, “If not 56, then which number is it?”

What habits have you tried to overcome with the instruction of “don’t do that” and did it work? Was there some other helpful instruction that allowed you to undo your bad habit? Teachers, do you provide constructive advice that helps your students develop new habits to replace the old bad ones? How do you communicate that advice to your students? Post your responses below!

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?