Top 10 Ways to Improve Your Dancing: Part 1

For my final two weeks of classes in Boston, I figured I would go all out and strike at the issues I see as most critical for dancers in our community. As an observer in the scene, I find the same problems persisting on the social and competitive floors, and as an instructor, I find myself repeatedly teaching the same things in private lessons and group classes: fundamentals that make the difference between poor execution and a higher quality of movement.

So I sat down, wrote a list of the top 10 problems I see with people’s dancing and then came up with 10 things that I believe make the difference between okay dancing and higher-level dancing. They aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact there’s a lot of overlap. Not everyone has all of these issues, but most people have at least some. Here’s the first half of what I came up with (the second half will be my next post!):

1. Posture. This is a big one – bigger than most realize. Partner dancing is only successful with good communication, and good communication is only possible with good connection. Good connection is created by good movement, and good movement is only possible with good posture. Posture determines balance and stability as well as how one moves. Too often I see people leaning back or with arched backs, which means poor movement, poor connection, and thus poor partnership.”Good” posture is the vertical alignment that reduces strain on your body and positions it for efficient movement. In this case, that means standing tall and with forward pitch.

2. Frame. You all have felt bad frame: tight arms, jerky leads, follows who pull. I’m not sure how other teachers handle this subject, but my point is always that your arms don’t matter. Frame is not a prescribed shape of the arms or tension in the arms, shoulders, or elbows. Frame is in the back and torso – how you connect your arms to your core – and connection is created by movement of the centers, not through engaging the arms. Don’t worry about the arms; focusing on the arms unintentionally puts tension there. To establish good frame, all you have to do is stand tall and lengthen your neck. In doing that, you’ll engage all the right muscles – in the back – that you need to establish proper frame.

3. Basic hand hold. In open position, we connect through the hands. Somehow this becomes an awkward and difficult thing for people. Maybe it’s how we teach pistol grip, or the fact that we often fail to sufficiently address problems with hand holds as students progress (or as they hurt us on the social dance floor). Still, there it is: the thumb on the back of the follower’s hand, or the leader grabbing the follower around the wrist (what’s wrong with her hand?), or the follower who straightens her fingers, or worse, the follower whose grip is so tight the leader’s fingertips are white. I know this sounds like an oversimplification, but really, truly, you’re only holding hands. Seriously, just as if you were going to walk down the street together, you’re holding hands. The leader should offer his fingers for the follower (leader’s palm facing sideways, not up or down) and she should curl her fingers around it, both partners engaging their fingertips – and not their palms – to mold to each other. The connection here should be comfortable, solid, and flexible (meaning you can enter, exit, and change this connection with ease). No thumbs, no engaging the palms or wrists, no straight or stiff fingers.

4. Closed Position. I often remind students that nearly everything you need to know about your dance with someone you can tell in the first 4 beats of the music, and this is because you can tell a lot about someone’s abilities by how they connect and move in closed position. Maybe it’s because the dance is mostly in open, but there isn’t a lot of emphasis on connecting in closed, despite the fact that it involves a lot of the fundamentals of the dance itself. In any case, the primary point of connection in closed is where the leader’s right hand is on the follower’s back, since it is the closest point of contact to the center. The follower should not lean back into this, but should back up until she cannot back up any further. She should not reach for the leader’s shoulder (as so many do) but rather connect in the back first, and then casually lay her left arm along his right, letting the hand lay wherever is comfortable (often not the shoulder). Leaders should hold the follower’s shoulder blade, not with the fingertips but as if he was going to hug her. As noted above, there is no tension in the arm, just the connection of her shoulder blade in the hand. Both partners should settle away from one another, to fill out the space between them and get a better connection. I could go on and on here, but let’s leave it at that.

5. Moving from the center. I’ve written before about the need to move from the center first, and it is the most critical issue on this list, largely because this is at the root of all other issues. I see lots of followers moving forward feet first and leaders moving backwards shoulders first and both are dramatically affecting their balance, timing, and connection. I see leaders who move their arms instead of their centers, creating arm leads. I see followers who turn from their feet – and arms! – rather than with their centers, creating imbalance, instability, and poor timing. The ability to move from your center first into every step you take is critical to good dancing.

Rather than exhaust you further with the full list, I’ll save the other half for next time…. So stay tuned!

The mystery of frame

(Hi all – Apologies for the silence these past few weeks. My day job was eating up a lot of my time and I had to put this aside. However, I am now back and will post new entries more frequently, at least once or twice a week. Thanks for reading and responding! – Eric)

How many times have you heard an instructor use the word “frame” in a dance class? No doubt, plenty of times.

And how many times have you been told to “maintain your frame” or “don’t break frame” by an instructor? We all have at some time or another.

Now how many times have you heard a dance instructor actually give a definition of the word “frame” in a dance class? Think carefully. My guess is, for most of you, the answer is: never.

Think about what “frame” means to you, then post your best definitions here on this blog. What is the definition you know? What is the definition you use to dance? What is the definition of frame you use to teach? Share your answers here!

Following through with leads

Anyone who’s ever learned to play baseball or softball has been told that when throwing the ball, you need to “follow through” with your arm. You wind up, move your body, move your arm, release the ball, and then follow through. Following through directs the ball where you want it to go and provides a clearer, more effective trajectory.

Leading requires the same follow-through – with your center. Leaders often get the follower going and use their arms to follow through, rather than their bodies. The result is that their bodies are telling the follower one thing while the arms are telling her another – in other words: an arm lead.

The basic mechanics of leading tell us that where you point your center is where the follower will end up. This is simply a function of lead-follow: move your center, which moves your arms, which moves your hand, which moves the follower. Your arms will follow your center, and the follower will, well, follow your arms.

So when you lead a move and you want the follower to go somewhere other than right in front of you, your center needs to move or rotate through the pattern. If it doesn’t move or rotate and she somehow still moves to where you wanted her, either you gave her an arm lead or she went ahead and did something independent of your lead, because your body told her to stay in front of you.

Pointing your center where you want the follower to end up not only gives you a clearer body lead, it also reduces any arm leads, helps you to stay smoother, and ultimately makes it easier to dance at different tempos (because your body is in position at all times).

Leaders, pay attention to what your body/center is telling the follower, specifically about where she should go, and see if your arm is consistent with that. Teachers, how do you get your students to think about their centers – not just when starting a pattern but through the pattern?

Arm lead vs. arm use

It’s pretty much instinct for us as humans to move things by using our arms. Enjoying a drink, picking up a book, moving a chair. When it comes to moving followers, leaders tend to go with their instincts and use their arms.

Of course, the difference between moving an inanimate object and moving a follower is that the follower can move herself. In fact, it’s a misconception that the leader moves the follower: leaders, in fact, simply lead. In other words, leaders present a speed and a direction and the follower moves herself in accordance – hopefully.

And hopefully this movement is initiated by the leader’s body (the center, to be precise) without using the arms. The arms are simply a way to communicate a lead from one’s center to the center of the follower, but all movement happens from and by the center. Body leads are smoother, clearer, and cleaner than arm leads, which are often jerky, disproportionate (too strong), and disruptive to the follower’s stability, movement, and timing. However, there are times when the leader must use his arm. Leading a turn, for instance, the leader must lift his arm, which engages the muscles of the arm.

I distinguish this “arm use” – using the arm to shape the follower’s movement – from an “arm lead” – using the arm to initiate the follower’s movement. A follower should be initiated or redirected using the body (body lead), but once she is in motion, that movement may be shaped by using the arms (arm use). That said, an arm “use” that significantly changes the followers momentum then becomes an arm “lead.” So an arm use should not conflict with the original body lead at the start of the pattern, and any changes in momentum should be made by the leader’s center.

The idea here is to make sure that leaders use body leads, not arm leads, and that any arm use is used simply to shape the follower’s movement, not change it. Changes of momentum should be done with the body and the body alone.