You wanna know the Big Secret?

What’s the difference between an average dancer and a really good dancer? If both do the same patterns and movements, why does one look smooth and graceful and the other less so?

Sure, one is more technically proficient than the other, and one makes nicer lines than the other, but if you ask me, the difference is really rooted in one particular aspect of technique: moving from the center.

In the past, I have often tackled multiple aspects of technique that I believe make for better dancing, but I have found that each of these can draw the student’s mind in a different direction, making it more difficult to achieve any significant progress in one’s overall dancing. It’s like moving one part of a Rubik’s cube, only to discover that you now have to move even more pieces into place. However, in recent years I’ve found that getting the student to focus on the center produces much faster results and tends to improve many different aspects at once.

Earlier this week, I taught a class designed to enhance the students’ connection by working on moving from the center. We looked at how to improve body lead and follow at the beginning, middle, and end of basic patterns. At the beginning of the pattern, we focused on both partners moving from the center first. For leaders, this means moving the center before the hand, moving backwards from the center. For followers, we worked on moving the center forward before the foot. In the middle of patterns, we looked at continuing the motion initiated at the beginning of the pattern. For leaders, this translates to pointing your center where you want the follower to end up, and for followers, it means continuing down the slot, keeping your center ahead of your feet, and making sure your center is following your hand. And at the end of the pattern, we looked at moving backwards into extension, where both partners move their centers back while maintaining correct posture.

The idea is simple; the execution is not. Of course, nearly all students walk into class with the right technique. And so, as I often say, it is our job as teachers to remind the students how to walk, that dancing is really just “walking… with style” – and no dance more so than West Coast Swing.

What do you think about moving from the center being the root of so many issues? What problems does this not fix? How have you improved your ability to move from the center and what have the results been? Teachers, how do you work on this with your students?

Ready… set… what?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been confused when doing a starter step. Don’t be shy. It happens to all of us.

In fact, I often hear (from followers, in particular) that during the starter step, people are just unsure of what’s happening. And when I hear this, I can’t help but think about how terrible this is. As the dance gets started, people are lost. Right from the get go, you don’t understand your partner and you don’t feel comfortable. What kind of foundation is that for a successful partnership and dance?

So what’s the problem? Why are people so confused? The answer is simple: connection – or lack thereof.

I find that lots of people just don’t know how to dance in closed – how to physically connect, how to communicate to their partners, how to make one another comfortable. And to be honest, when starter steps are confusing, it’s usually the fault of both the leader and the follower. Leaders don’t know how to hold the follower properly, how to communicate clearly and effectively from their centers, and how to ease into the dance rather than rush into things. Followers don’t know how to connect to the hand on their back while maintaining their posture, how to fill the space he creates, and how to trust what the leader is giving them.

We start the dance in closed for a reason: being in closed allows you to connect with your partner, get in synch, get a sense of how your partner moves and how your partner feels the music. For these reasons, I often joke that in the first eight beats of the dance you’ll know 90% of what you need to know about your partner. (What’s the other ten percent, you ask? Knowing how they lead and follow turns.)

The point is: we should be starting off on the right foot (left for leaders, haha). Learning to connect in closed and do the starter step so both partners are comfortable and on the same page is so important for everything that follows (and leads, haha).

What has your experience been with starter steps? Have you had trouble, and if so, why? And what do you do to start the dance off right? What have you been taught to do for the starter step? And what do you teachers tell your students when teaching the starter step?

Go on, slow down and get intimate…

Some songs just call for intimacy with your partner. You know what I’m talking about: those slow, drippy, emotional songs – sometimes sad, sometimes sexy, sometimes light and dreamy, sometimes down and dirty. Those songs that call for the lights to be dimmed, or the songs that make you want to kick back with a glass of wine (or scotch – your choice), or the songs that make you want some privacy.

Too often, when these songs are played, I see dancers get out onto the floor, do their 4-count starter step, and then rush out into open position and their standard patterns. To me, this is not only antithetical to the music, but also a wasted opportunity to engage with your partner on a more intimate level. I don’t mean getting romantic and invading each others’ space (unless, you know, that’s what both of you want); I just mean taking time to connect with your partner and the music without the usual distractions of patterns and embellishments.

These kinds of songs just cry out for you to slow down and take your time. So what’s the rush to move out of closed position? While the dance is danced mostly in open position – and while some people may not know how to dance comfortably in closed – there’s a lot that can be done in closed. And not only is closed position more intimate, but it has the two partners’ centers closer, where you can feel more of your partner’s movement. And closed position forces you to strip away the fancy patterns and turns and styling and just focus on moving together with your partner to the music. Since I’m guessing you do partner dancing in part to share the experience with a partner, and in part because you like the music, what could be better than taking your time to do both of those together?

So my advice? Listen. And if the song calls for it, stay in closed position a little longer. Explore the possibilities. Take the time to engage with your partner and the music more directly.Go on, slow down and get intimate…

How do you feel about dancing in closed position? Reflecting on your own dancing, how often do you dance in closed? And how conscious are you of slowing down when the music calls for it? Teachers, how do you imbue this side of musicality in your students?

Musicality done right

One of the greatest challenges of any partner dance is balancing the partnerships: the partnership with your physical partner, and the partnership with the music. Too often we sacrifice one for the other, rather than finding ways to engage both partners equally and at the same time.

The other night I worked with students on phrasing the dance to twelve-bar blues. The challenge was to be musical – to hit the phrase change but also to reflect the build up to the phrase change – and to do so in a way that was comfortable and engaging for both partners.

To do this, we practiced listening for the upcoming phrase change and picking patterns or stylings that would set up the partnership to be musical together. These selections were higher in energy and intensity but were simple enough that both partners could successfully and comfortably hit the phrase change, in some cases even providing the opportunity for each partner to hit the phrase change in their own way.

Lots of dancers can hear the phrase change coming, or recognize it when it occurs, but it takes some thought and skill to be able to plan for it, let alone do it in a way that engages your partner. Planning for the phrase change is how we avoid the last minute “attack” – the rushed and often tight movement to hit an accent or break. These “attacks” create tension and discomfort, rather than providing a comfortable and more relaxed approach that allows both partners to remain stable and to express their individual musical response to the phrase change.

How do you – as a leader or follower – engage your partner in musicality? How do you strike that balance between the partners, creating opportunities instead of commanding your partner in some way? And how do you set up things like phrase changes so that both partners can engage in a comfortable and stable way?

Top 10 Ways to Improve Your Dancing: Part 2

Sorry for the long delay, but picking up where my last post left off… (The rest of this list reorganizes – and adds to – what I taught in my last class at Arlington in August 2010, but it also includes the same material and principles.)

6. Following through. For followers, this means following momentum to its end. Too many followers slow down or stop themselves before they should. Instead, followers should go as far as they can go in any direction, and let the leaders tell them when to change direction (see #7 below). For leaders, this means using your body to direct the follower. Leaders often get the follower started without directing her to where he wants her. Once she’s in motion, leaders, you need to point your body where you want her to end up. This creates a body lead through the pattern, and not just at the beginning.

7. Understand your responsibilities. I realize we’re starting to get a little abstract here, but dancing is more than just the physical. It seems to me that a lot of dancers forget what their responsibilities are in the dance. Leaders are primarily responsible for changes of direction; once you set the follow in motion, your job is to signal any changes, and to do so in a clear yet comfortable way. Followers are primarily responsible for themselves and their own movement; the leader should not be in charge of moving you, but rather he should be in charge of signaling where and how you should move yourself. Too often followers move themselves through the transitions and leaders force the followers through the middle of the patterns. This is the opposite of how it should be.

8. Understand your role. Similar to understanding your responsibilities is understanding your role. (You can think of it as your tasks vs. your approach to doing your tasks.) The leader’s role is to guide the follower and politely ask her to do something, or even just suggest ideas. The leader is the follower’s guide – her director, her point of reference, and her support – but not her commanding officer – her dictator and overlord. Followers should respect the leader’s role – his vision and intent – and respond affirmatively, but she can and should also actively participate by communicating effectively. Remember: dance is a conversation, so this should be a back and forth, but not talking over each other and not ignoring or interrupting what the other person is saying.

9. Musicality. Yeah, I know, I could write volumes on this subject, but I just want to emphasize one point here: dance is the physical expression of what we hear and feel. It’s all too easy to get lost in patterns as a leader, or stylings as a follower, but remember that there’s a difference between doing a dance and dancing. Doing a dance is putting a series of patterns and moves together, but has nothing to do with music, while dancing itself is moving to the music, regardless of the patterns. The trick is to take the movements of the dance and fit them to the music we’re hearing. Let the music be your guide whether you’re a leader or follower. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s the ultimate goal we’re all striving for.

10. Pay attention. I know this probably seems trite, but it needs to be explicitly stated. If everyone just paid more attention to their partners (yes, you have two – your dance partner and the music!) our dancing would be better overall. When leaders don’t pay attention to the follower, they end up using her and treating her as an object rather than a person. When followers ignore the leader they interrupt the dance and create unnecessary tension. And when both partners ignore the music they stop short of having an experience where they both share in the interpretation of what they hear. Most of you know how to drive, so you know what it’s like to pay attention to a lot of things at once (speedometer, radio, traffic, person in the car with you, checking your mirrors, etc.). Dancing is the same way: there’s a lot going on but you’ve gotta try and keep your eye out. Start by paying attention to your dance partner, and then try alternating that with paying attention to the music. It gets easier over time.

What about you? Do you agree with this list? What do you think is the single most important difference between good partner dancing and great partner dancing?