Words, words, words: “delayed weight transfer”

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.

How we transfer our weight in dancing is everything. It affects our balance, our aesthetic, our timing, and our connection. And the more control we have over our weight transfers, the more we can do as dancers. After all, dance is movement, and movement is dependent on how we hold ourselves and transfer our weight through space.  (more…)

No, really. What are you actually working on?

Whether it’s my regular students or someone I’m working with for the first time, I always ask the question, “What are you working on?” I ask this to get a sense of where their focus and areas of concern are, as well as to get a sense of how they think about the dance.

And time and time again, I get answers like: “Posture.” “Connection.” “Creating space for the follower.” “Not being heavy.” “Frame.” “Anchoring.” All good things to be working on, to be sure, but they’re also abstract constructs and concepts. What does it mean to work on these things? In other words, when you’re practicing, either by yourself or with a partner, what are you doing differently to achieve your intended goal?

I’ve written before about the importance of self-awareness, mindset, and focus for improving one’s dancing. Equally important, however, is having a specific, concrete action to work on. If you can’t say in specific, concrete terms what you’re doing to improve your dancing, it will be more difficult for you to make progress.

Learning to dance – and developing our dance – requires specific instruction on how to do something new or how to do things differently. Abstract constructs and concepts are important for understanding the why of what we’re learning, but at the end of the day, in order to do something new or different, we need the what and the how. Therefore, we need a specific and concrete action to perform that helps us develop a new habit or skill.

So while it’s important to not just focus on what not to do, it’s also important that as students and teachers we talk about specific, concrete things that we can do to improve our dance.

Can you say right now what specific thing you’re doing to improve your dancing? As students, do you make sure you walk away from lessons with concrete things to work on? As teachers, do you make sure your students have concrete actions to work on?



Mind Over Matter: Staying focused

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

The previous post in this series looked at the danger of focusing on what not to do. Another common problem with the way we’re taught is that we’re often given too many things to focus on.

Focus is a critical skill needed for advancing our dancing. It’s how we train our bodies to develop new habits that replace the old ones. By focusing on continually and consistently doing something new, we learn to retrain our bodies, building muscle memory and a higher skill level that makes the new behavior become a habit – something we don’t need to focus on any longer. However, without focusing on new behaviors, we’re bound to continue repeating our old ones.

At the same time, the human brain can only focus on one thing at a time, and multitasking has negative effects on our ability to pay attention, control memories, and switch between tasks. So how can we make progress on any one thing when we’re trying to work on several at once? How do we focus when there are half a dozen priorities?

It’s hard enough to focus at all, given all the distractions while we’re dancing. It’s too easy to just revert to our usual dancing and not focus on anything. So imagine the challenge when we’re given a laundry list of things to work on.

Learning to focus is important for progress, as is knowing what to focus on. Getting to the root cause of our problems and finding the right solution is sometimes difficult but makes learning and improving so much easier. And a good solution is something that addresses root causes while being easy for the mind to focus on. After all, if we can’t focus on it, then we can’t do it consistently enough to make it into a habit.

How do you stay focused on building new skills? How does staying focused affect your dancing? How do you prioritize what you work on? And teachers, how much do you consider your students’ ability to focus when giving feedback or things for them to work on?

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!

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?