Are you sure you have good timing?

My last post about dancing to blues raised some interesting thoughts about the rhythm of the music we dance to. Regardless of the music’s rhythm, however, we should always have proper timing.

We all know the importance of timing. (Or at least, we should.) Timing by definition is the precise placement or occurrence of something in time, and in the context of dance, that means executing movement at the right time with respect to the music. After all, our function as dancers is to express and physically represent what we hear, so timing our movements to the rhythms and melodies we hear is critical.

Annie Hirsch was invited to speak with the Bay Area West Coast Swing Community last year at an event hosted by The Next Generation Swing Dance Club. During the interview, she was asked what in her mind defined swing. Her response? “Three things: timing, timing, and timing.”

And for those of you who compete, you know it’s the first of the Three T’s upon which you’re judged (timing, technique, and teamwork).

But what exactly does it mean to have proper timing?

When I taught syncopations to my students last month, we came upon the discussion of timing, and I framed timing in three ways:

1. Starting with a down beat. This is the obvious one. The music we dance to has an even number of beats, paired in a downbeat (accented beat) and upbeat (unaccented beat). We sometimes refer to this as the “boom-tick” sound in the music. The downbeat is the odd count (1, 3, 5, 7) and the upbeat is the even beat (2, 4, 6, 8). Leaders should always initiate new patterns on the downbeat. It’s proper timing and it just feels better.

2. Spacing your movements accordingly. This one is pretty fundamental. You can start with a downbeat, but if the time between your steps doesn’t match the time between the beats, then you’re dancing off time. The rhythm of the music needs to match the rhythm of your movements, and that means that your movements happen at the same pace as the music (whether it’s stepping or something else). I see lots of dancers who start with the rhythm then lose it somewhere in the middle of patterns, resetting at the start of the next pattern. You should maintain the rhythm of the music throughout your dance.

3. Dancing triples on downbeat-upbeat pairs. This may not be as obvious, but it’s still important for keeping proper timing. We break the music into two-beat increments: a downbeat followed by an upbeat (1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8). A double is two steps in one of these pairs, a triple is three steps in one of these pairs. That means that a triple starts on a downbeat and ends on an upbeat (1&2, 3&4, 5&6, 7&8) – not the other way around (2&3, 4&5, 6&7, 8&1). I often see followers tripling off time, and it’s usually because the leader prepped the follower on a downbeat so the follower was forced to triple through a turn starting on the upbeat. This results in that awkward fumbling of the footwork after the turn. If you want to maintain timing, you should keep your triples properly placed with the music.

Timing isn’t just something we teachers and judges pick on for fun. It’s essential to being a proficient dancer, for your own movement, for connecting with a partner, and for expressing the music. So make sure you’re always on time (in dancing and in life!).

How do you think about timing? What challenges do you face with maintaining timing in your dance? How do you teachers approach timing with your students?


Where’s your head at?

As many of you know, I switched my teaching awhile ago from patterns to concepts around techniques, partnership, and musical interpretation. But as I work on these other things with students, I realized that outside of class and on the social dance floor, students are used to grounding their dance in patterns, and their mindset is very different under these circumstances. 

The way we teach the dance orients students to think of executing the minutiae of patterns, and in doing so, they lose the forest for the trees. We forget about the fundamentals of lead and follow, the mechanics of the dance, musical interpretation, and even body mechanics and partnership. The challenge then is to be able to execute movements while maintaining (if not elevating) your quality of movement, and that means not letting yourself get lost in the details. 
This month I taught whip variations of increasing complexity, with three goals in mind: (1) improve technique related to whips; (2) improve understanding of lead/follow and the mechanics of WCS; and (3) train students to maintain the first two while executing patterns through proper mindset. 
The challenge wasn’t easy, and I confess that not all of my experimentation worked, especially as we moved away from the basic whip to new variations. I noticed that how I taught – where I put emphasis and what words I used – affected the students, but also many of them have been trained as pattern dancers and are learning to form new mindsets and behaviors. Where they were most successful was when I was able to pull them up out of the details to the bigger and more universal concepts of the mechanics of the slot and lead/follow. But then, the trick is to keep them at that level over time…
How often do you get lost in the details of patterns? How do you see your dance as movements and not moves? Where does your mind gravitate while dancing and how does it affect your quality movement? Teachers, how do you instruct your students so they stay focused on concepts and techniques without succumbing to the details and repetition of patterns?

Take a little out

Last week’s post explored the concept of pattern extensions as a way of adapting patterns to fit the music. 
Similarly, pattern compaction – the process of linking two patterns by replacing the anchor step with a rock-and-go – can also be used to help fit patterns to the music. For instance, compaction can help get to the end of a pattern to fit the phrase of a song, rather than hitting the phrase change in the middle of a pattern. Compaction can also create a rushed feeling that fits well to the build up of a song before a phrase change or break. 
The trick to successful pattern compaction is creating the spring action of the rock-and-go. Though you remove the anchor step – the triple that ends patterns – there should still be an anchor – the extension that results from changing direction. The leader will still slow down and change the direction of his own body, causing the follower to reach the end of the slot before being redirected down the slot again. The only difference is that in a rock-and-go this now happens in one beat and one step (the first step of the rock-and-go) rather than over two beats and three steps, as in an anchor step. Getting this stretch right is what facilitates a smooth and easy change of direction. 
Too often leaders aren’t clear on the anchor, sometimes even pulling the follower out of her anchor step. In some ways, learning pattern compaction can help leaders improve their anchors by learning the difference between an anchor step and a rock-and-go, while also teaching followers to seek the stretch at the end of the slot. 
Have you learned pattern compaction? How do you use it in your dancing? Has it had any impact on how you execute your anchor steps? Teachers, do you teach pattern compaction? If so, how do you help students to get that spring action on the rock-and-go?

Give a little more

As I noted in an earlier post, there are a lot of pattern dancers out there – people who know the beginning, middle, and end of what’s next before it even begins. They don’t necessarily connect with the music or adapt their patterns to fit what they’re hearing.

This is where pattern extensions come in. A pattern extension is when a dancer adds an even number of beats to a movement to either delay its conclusion or delay the start of the next movement. They generally fall into three buckets or types:

  • Repeated movements, where the partners’ positions relative to one another are kept the same but they keep moving;
  • Stopping, where the partners hold still for a period of time; and
  • Continuous movement, where the partners add movements in a fluid way to keep moving and delay the end of the pattern.

Aside from executing them clearly and comfortably, the trick, of course, is to use these pattern extensions where the music calls for them. Repeated movements (e.g. continuous whip, walks, side-to-side grooving, etc.) are best applied where – you guessed it – the music repeats, either lyrically or rhythmically. They are also useful where the music slows down and you want to slow down your dance as well. Stopping is most appropriate when the music stops or drops off in a significant way, either during breaks or as a transition to a lower energy part of the song. And continuous movement is useful to lengthen patterns where the song builds up, so that you keep moving and building while the song does the same. And I often use repeated movements and continuous movements for phrasing, particularly to extend a pattern to end on 1 of a new phrase, rather than ending during the build up to a phrase change.

We often learn pattern extensions by learning patterns or amalgamations that have extensions in them, but learning to view these tools separately and apply them where relevant is a valuable skill to have – for both leaders and followers. Leaders can use them to adjust their patterns to the music, while followers can use them to appropriately interrupt patterns to fit them to the music.

How have you learned pattern extensions? How do you think about them and use them? Teachers, do you teach your students about pattern extensions, and if so, how?