social dancing

Come Together: The role of leadership

This is part of Come Together, a series about defining, building, growing, and sustaining our dance communities.

In our last entry in this series, we looked at what defines a successful community. As I have worked to build my own community in San Francisco, I’ve looked at a lot of other communities and spoken with a lot of community leaders. At one point, a leader of another community told me I would need someone else to work with me because I wasn’t charismatic enough to build a community. She was wrong in that I was able to build a community without some sort of “personality” by my side, but it’s also true that the community here is not like hers. So I became more interested in leadership – what it means to be a leader, what we do as leaders, and our role in creating community.  (more…)

What your partner really wants

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of balancing your partner’s experience with your own in partner dancing. Because we’re partner dancers, it’s not enough to just think about ourselves. It’s important to be mindful of how our partner feels as much as we think about our own enjoyment. (At least, if you want people to enjoy dancing with you and ask you to dance…)

While sometimes people focus more on their own enjoyment, I find that a lot of the time things can go the other way: people can be overly concerned with what their partners want. They really want to please or even impress their partners, and they worry about boring them, displeasing them, or disappointing them.  (more…)

It’s not all about you.

We all want our dances to feel good. I mean, why would you want dances that don’t feel good, right? We do this thing called partner dancing because we love, seek, and even crave that great physical and emotional connection with someone else as we move together to the music. When it happens, it’s just pure magic.

But here’s the thing: it’s not all about you. As much as we want it to feel good for us, it should also feel good for our partners. After all, this is a social dance, and if it doesn’t feel good for your partners, then they won’t want to dance with you. Then no one feels good.

When I work with students, I speak of three objectives for partner dancing:

  1. It feels good to you. This means that it is both pleasant for you as well as good for your body (in other words, not putting unnecessary stress on your body or causing long-term chronic issues).
  2. It feels good to your partner. If you do your part right, it should make things easier and more comfortable for your partners – and hopefully give them a positive experience when dancing with you.
  3. It looks good. Dance is a performing art, and hopefully it is aesthetically pleasing. Besides, if you’re doing your part right and it feels good, it should look good too.

Of course, the first two objectives can be contradictory: what feels good to you may not feel good for your partner. Most if not all of us have had a dance where our partner seems very satisfied but it just wasn’t that good for us. Maybe the physical connection wasn’t comfortable, maybe we just didn’t click with our partner, or maybe we just didn’t have a fun time. Worse still, our partner may do something that makes the dance difficult or even painful for us – arm leads, arm follows, rough leaders, heavy followers, leaders who don’t pay attention, followers who hijack leads, etc. Sure, that person may be having a grand ole time, but the person holding his or her hand may be less than thrilled with the experience.

I understand the desire to do things a certain way in order to maximize your enjoyment. The problem is: you have a partner. If you were at a club dancing by yourself, by all means, go nuts and do what you like. But when you take someone else’s hand and create a shared experience to the music, it should involve at least a minimum level of respect for your partner and his or her enjoyment. You should at least want them to be comfortable, if not ecstatic. In this case, it isn’t about maximizing your enjoyment, but about optimizing for the enjoyment of both partners.

Welcome to any relationship.

So what’s the balance? How do we make sure we’re having a good time and creating a pleasant experience for our partners?

First of all, let me say this: you won’t enjoy every dance. At least, not to the extent that you may like. Not every dance is perfect, and truly amazing dances are not common. It’s our community’s unicorn: a magical being that is very rare and very difficult to conjure.

Similarly, it takes two. It takes two to fail, and it takes two to succeed. You could be doing everything in your power to make a dance work, and you may still not find the connection or the good feeling you’re seeking because, hey, partners. You both have to do your parts well to create good connection, to make the dance feel good, to make the magic happen.

That said, you should know your part well. You should be doing what’s good for you and your own body in a way that improves the partnership, not in a way that hurts it. Having proper posture, frame, movement, and timing will improve the connection and experience with your partner. If you’re doing something that you think is proper but it’s causing discomfort or an unpleasant feeling for your partner, then it’s not proper.

It’s funny, but I work with students all the time who do things they would never want their partners to do to them. In fact, when working with students who have bad habits or poor technique, I will often dance with them and repeat what they’re doing (though not anything painful or dangerous, mind you). After they experience their own unpleasant actions, they immediately want to work on correcting it. Some are even embarrassed, having not realized what they were putting their partners through. But that’s the point: we don’t always know what we’re putting our partners through. They can be gracious and even smile and laugh and yet they still might not be enjoying the dance because of something you’re doing to them. This is why it’s important to get good instruction that can give you the tools and feedback you need to create a positive experience.

Yes, I want you to have a good time. Dancing is about having fun and gosh darn it, you should have fun too. But remember that this is partner dancing, and so we should be balancing our fun with that of our partner. We should be thinking about what we can do to make our partners comfortable, make our partners smile, and create a positive, enjoyable experience for them. (Hopefully not at the expense of your own enjoyment, but I won’t lie – sometimes that may happen.)

The best partners are the ones who make you feel good – physically, emotionally, and in creating a fun, dynamic, and musical dance. Rather than asking that from our partners all the time, how about we try to be the partner who provides it? Then you’ll be the one everyone wants to dance with.


The rarity of amazing

It strikes me that these days there seems to be some pretty high expectations of dances and dance events. People want greatness from their dances – that incredible connection when everything aligns with a partner and the music – and greatness from their events – the amazing energy of an inspiring weekend experience. I don’t blame those with such expectations: who doesn’t want great dances with their partners? And with an increasing number of events to choose from, we want great value for our dollar – events that are fun and rewarding.

The problem arises when people are overly disappointed because reality doesn’t match their expectations. Just because a dance isn’t out-of-this-world amazing doesn’t mean it isn’t something to be enjoyed and appreciated. Just because a dance event isn’t mind-blowing doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining and worthwhile. Sometimes good is good enough, and we should be happy with that. Because you know what? “Amazing” is a rare thing.

The fact that “amazing” isn’t common is partly what makes it so amazing. If every dance were amazing, then the bar would simply get raised and we might start expecting more. The rarity of “amazing” is what makes it special, and what keeps us coming back for more, and what drives us to work harder to improve. It’s the possibility of having that amazing experience that makes this dance both exciting and rewarding. But the truth is that most of the time dances are not amazing.

Take competitions, for example. In any finals of a higher-level division, there may be a couple or even three truly outstanding dances. Then there will be a few good but not amazing dances. And the rest will be less than successful – missed connections, misaligned styles, conflicted partnerships, etc. So of say ten dances, only a couple are going to be amazing. Why should we expect any more from our own dancing experiences, whether competitive or social?

Honestly, I mostly blame social media. Let’s face it: No one posts videos of crappy dances on YouTube; they post the amazing dances. And no one writes post-event status updates on Facebook discussing why an event wasn’t enjoyable and how it could be improved; instead they write about the amazing dances!, the amazing competitions!, and the amazing people!

But the truth is: not everything is amazing. And that’s okay.

I’m fortunate to live in an incredible dance community – big, friendly, and talented – and I know I get spoiled with great dances. So when I go to a dance or weekend event, yeah, I’ve been the guy who has a run of bad dances and complains about it. But then I remind myself to have a little perspective: I’m so privileged to be able to do this thing we call partner dancing – to express my love of music through movement, and to get to do that with someone else. So maybe we didn’t create magic, or we had some missed connections, or I had to work a little harder. I’m still getting to do something I love, something not everyone can do or do well, and even if it wasn’t great for me, maybe I made someone else’s day a little better. It may not be amazing, but that’s pretty darn good, don’t you think?

So as the year ends, and the holiday season arrives, let’s be thankful for all our dancing, amazing or not. And may the coming year be one in which we find the amazing in all our dances.

Our competitive nature

I had a blog all planned for earlier this month, but then two things happened: (1) I launched a new weekly dance in San Francisco (shameless plug for Mission City Swing); and (2) my last post went viral, reaching over 3,000 people in 50 countries around the world. Honestly, I was shocked. I’ve been writing blogs off and on for years, and this is the first one that took off. It got me thinking: Why did this one blog post resonate with so many people?

When I’ve talked with people about it, I heard a few different reactions: people related to it, it was personal, it was the way I wrote it, it went beyond dance. Those are all good reasons for the viral spread of the post. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that its popularity and the way it resonated with so many people is also a reflection of the importance of competition and competing in our global community.

Let’s be honest: we’re a very competition-oriented community. Competitions are the focus of our events, showcasing incredible talent through a variety and multitude of formats. Moreover, we have a very complex system for awarding points to competitors, and most competitors are keenly aware of how many points they have – and how many they need to move into the next division. And it’s not unusual to hear people ask about or refer to another’s level or division. Yes, there are many in our communities who don’t compete and don’t go to events and just enjoy social dancing. Still, it seems to me that the community in general is driven by the competitive world.

Competition can be a good thing. It drives us to improve, to push ourselves, to push our dancing, and to push the dance itself. In the time I’ve been dancing West Coast Swing I have seen a lot of evolution in the dance, and say what you will about that evolution, I would argue that the level of technical skill and musicality has greatly improved in our community. The top competitors are leading the way, continually working to outdo themselves, and it sets a great example for all of us to continually work at this dance, to continually improve, and to continually aim ever higher.

The danger, in my mind, of being competition-oriented is when competition becomes the basis for our social interactions.

As I’ve noted before, I took a few years off from competing, with the exception of 2011, when I competed in the Classic division with Yenni Setiawan. It was an awesome experience and I loved doing the routine with her, though our success was limited. At the end of 2012, for personal reasons, I had to step out of our partnership and I stopped going to events altogether for a year, until Boogie by the Bay of this past year.

I say all this because, with the exception of last year, I’ve been around, even if I haven’t always been competing. So when I went to Palm Springs for New Year’s and competed, I had to laugh when I met people and they said, “Where have you been?” as if I’d popped up out of nowhere. It was funnier still when I had known of some of these people for some time but just had never formally met them. I thought, I’ve been around for years – you just haven’t noticed me until now.

And after those encounters I was struck with a feeling – the same feeling I had had before when I got wrapped up in competition years ago: the feeling that you aren’t someone in this community until you’re someone in competition.

I don’t think this is happening everywhere to everyone, but I do sometimes get the feeling that we value people based on their status in competition. We sometimes prioritize dancing with those in our own division so we can prepare for competition. We sometimes seek out dancers in higher divisions in the hopes of better dances. We sometimes avoid people in higher divisions out of fear of disappointing – or avoid dancers in lower divisions out of fear of being disappointed. We ask about someone’s division, we compare points, and we want to study with top competitors – sometimes regardless of their teaching ability. In isolation, each of these choices may not be so bad, but collectively they can be problematic. Because it’s a problem for our sense of community when competition fosters a social hierarchy, a segmentation or stratification, where social groups form based on people’s status in competition.

What’s worse is that competition isn’t always an accurate measure of one’s dancing.

Sure, competition can capture some aspects of a dancer’s abilities, but in truth it emphasizes some skills over others. Competition can reveal aspects of one’s technique and movement, but it is better at assessing one’s aesthetic and one’s ability to perform and entertain an audience. (This is why – at all levels – there are dancers who look better than they feel.)

Aesthetics, musicality, and performance are all important skills, but what’s their relative importance when you’re actually dancing with someone? Do you care most about how someone looks? How they entertain a crowd? Or do you care more about how they feel? Or better yet, how they make you feel? If you care more about the latter, then one’s success in competition isn’t necessarily the best measure of someone’s value in our community.

To be honest, I’ve had some great dances with top-level dancers, and I’ve had some not-so-great dances with top-level dancers. Some of my best dances – the most fun, the most engaging, the most enjoyable – have been with people at lower levels. The point is that level or points or visibility don’t correlate with how much I enjoy dancing with someone. Really the only way to know if someone is worth dancing with is to actually dance with that person (or trust the advice of others, but even then, they may have a different experience than you).

So forget points, forget divisions, and forget what you saw in competition. If you see someone you haven’t danced with before, ask that person to dance. Roll the dice. Take a chance. You may just make that person’s day. And that person may just make yours. But even if they don’t, it’s good for our community. And anything that’s good for our community is something we should make viral.