social dancing

Was it good for you?

One of my resolutions this year is to support my local dance community. The Bay Area already has an amazing community – lots of friendly and talented dancers – but having been here for over three years now, I thought it was time to give back.

And as I work on starting a dance here in San Francisco [insert shameless plug for Mission City Swing] and on supporting the Bay Area’s biggest and honestly best dance convention [proudly promoting Boogie by the Bay], the same question keeps coming up in my mind: What makes for a great dance experience?

I’ve noticed at the dance conventions I’ve been to in recent months that the most influential component for me of a good night’s dancing is the music. Call me crazy, but as a dancer, I’m highly dependent on the music. If the music doesn’t move me, my dancing feels stale and boring and I just don’t have much fun. What makes for good music? That’s subjective, of course. For me, my favorite songs are those with a good rolling beat, those with variety and interesting musical elements to play with, those that grow and build, and those that have emotion and soul to them. But usually if a DJ plays a diversity of music – styles and tempos – I’m usually happy, because even if I don’t like one song, I’ll probably like the next.

Of course, a good night is about more than just the music. I have more fun when I’m with friends, when I have energy to dance, and when, quite honestly, there are good followers to dance with (or, at a minimum, I don’t have to struggle to lead my followers). It also helps if it’s not ungodly hot, if it isn’t so cramped I can’t find a slot to dance in, if the lighting isn’t too bright, and if the floor isn’t so fast I slip and not so slow I can’t turn easily.

But there’s also another element that makes for an amazing night, something abstract and intangible: the vibe. I think of the vibe as being that extra thing that’s more than the sum of all the different parts – an added energy that results from having fun, friendly, and talented people in the room, a good physical environment, and a DJ who knows how to keep people moving. Maybe the vibe is just the good feeling I get from all the other elements I’ve described, the chemical reaction when those different things come together, or the summation of everyone in the room having a good night. At the same time, it feels like one of those things that seems difficult to create and near impossible to replicate. It’s like something that just happens when you put the right ingredients together, but doesn’t happen when you try to force it. Whatever it is, it feels electric, like magic, and it leaves you wanting more.

What makes for a great night of dancing for you? Do you agree with the elements I’ve mentioned here? Are there others? Are some more important than others? What has your experience been?

The paradigm of leading and following

Lately I’ve been working with my students on dancing in closed position to work on improving their lead/follow, body movement, and musicality. Despite the fact that I had the partners dancing nearly body-to-body, center-to-center, nevertheless, without fail, many if not most of the leaders would try to use their arms to move the follower, and many of the followers would try to guess where the leader was going.

In my view, this behavior is symptomatic of the general paradigm by which we often dance: the leader moves the follower, and the follower goes where the leader wants her to go.

Think about that for a moment.

The leader moves the follower. He is responsible for moving her from one place to another. Not the follower herself, but the leader does the moving. And the follower goes where the leader wants her to go. Where he wants her to go. The priority is on what the leader wants. And so the leader spends his time focused on moving the follower, and the follower spends her time focused on what the leader wants. And this was playing out in class, where the students were dancing in closed position.

The challenge is to shift our thinking about the role of the partners and the dynamic between them. Leaders should be focused on moving not their partners but their own bodies, and letting the follower respond (aka “body lead”). And followers shouldn’t be trying to read his mind but rather focus on moving themselves in response to what they feel from the leader (aka “following”).

This is a subtle distinction, but watch how many people have a hard time doing it. Because after months or even years of living with the current paradigm, we so easily slip into what we already know and do. The new paradigm isn’t impossible or even too difficult. It just takes commitment, the right training, and lots of mindful effort. But man, think of how great partner dancing could be if we did change the paradigm…

Pay attention to the dynamic you set up in your own dancing, and watch others when you get the chance. Which paradigm are you dancing and seeing? What happens when you try dancing the new one? Teachers, how is your teaching – both the content and the manner – shaping your students’ understanding of the role of the partners and the dynamic between them?

The Joy of Blues Dancing

I’ve written before about how closed position creates more intimacy between the partners, and how it allows the partners to feel out one another together with the music.

Blues dancing is danced to slow blues – the kind that just begs for intimacy – and as such, it is danced primarily in closed position (depending on how much swing you mix into it). Learning blues dancing is a great way for all swing dancers to develop useful skills, such as leading and following, body movements, and musical interpretation.

Because the dance is in closed, blue dancing is a great way to understand leading and following. In closed position, the leader need only focus on the movement of his own body, and let the follower move with him. As a follower, she can learn to surrender to his lead and go with what she feels. With the centers close together, this dance is very much about dancing center to center.

Since the music is slower and in closed position, there is more time to explore body movement, rather than utilize patterns and footwork. With the partners’ bodies closer together, it is easier to communicate subtle movements, and it affords us the opportunity to really explore the music with different parts of our bodies.

Finally, because the music is slower, and because we’re in closed position, it allows us both the time and the freedom to focus on the music. Without the need to worry about leading and following patterns, we can get down to the fundamentals of movement to music.

Better body leads and follows, more body movements over patterns and footwork, and time to explore the music with your partner. Doesn’t that sound like a great recipe for amazing partner dancing?

Have you tried blues dancing? If so, how has it affected your understanding of swing dancing? Teachers, have you thought about using blues dancing to help your students focus on the fundamentals of swing dancing?

Choose Your Own Adventure

When we learn patterns, we learn them from start to finish. We’re shown the beginning, the middle, and the end and how they flow together. We learn them with a set rhythm, a set timing, a set progression.

And that’s the problem. Patterns are taught as whole units with a prescribed beginning, middle, and end. Once a leader starts, he moves towards the end that he was taught follows the beginning. And followers in the same class also develop the same expectation, which is only reinforced when the leader does as he was taught. In this way, both leaders and followers become what we call “pattern dancers.”

And so we usually know the end when we get started. As a result, we lose a sense of spontaneity and we take away creative opportunities – opportunities to engage with our partners and to respond to the music. If both partners know the set pattern, it’s all too easy to disengage from your partner and just go through the motions. After all, you don’t need their guidance or assistance because you already know the end of the story. And of course set patterns may or may not fit the music well, but if the partners aren’t open to new endings, then they each take away the chance to adapt to what they’re hearing.

I don’t often teach patterns anymore, but when I do, I try to teach at least two or three similar “patterns” but each with some unique variation. (Think of whip variations.) It helps the leaders to disconnect beginnings from ends and see that each is an element that can be pieced together in different ways. It also tests their ability to lead – both in terms of thinking on their feet as well as seeing the options and executing clearly. For followers, they are programmed to pay attention, expect the unexpected, to not know the ending, and therefore to be open to more possibilities. This makes them stronger followers and better partners.

For me, much of the joy of West Coast Swing is in the spontaneous creation between the partners with the music, but to have this we need to break down patterns into elements of movement and to be open to piecing them together in different ways. That way together we get to choose our own adventure as we go along.

How have you been taught patterns and how has it affected your dancing? Do you notice pattern dancers while you’re dancing, either in yourself or your partners? Teachers, do you pay attention to how the way you teach patterns affects your students’ dancing? Do you have methods to help avoid training them to become pattern dancers?

Navigating a crowded floor

We’ve all been there. All too often. The couple that keeps intruding on our slot. The guy who leads his follower right into us. The woman whose arm styling means a whack to the head. The floor that’s too crowded.

It never ceases to amaze me that some people just don’t learn how to dance on a crowded floor. At the same time, how often do we teach people how to dance on a crowded floor? Let’s face it: the dance class is an idyllic environment compared to the social dance floor, where people tend to have enough room and they are hyper-aware of themselves and those around them under the watchful eye of a teacher.

Every now and then I get around to teaching a class on floorcraft – the art of dance floor navigation and etiquette. Here are ten tips for successful dancing on a crowded floor:

  1. Look around you. Seems obvious enough, but we tend to get focused on what we’re doing and lose sight of how what we’re doing fits into the space around us. Leaders in particular should look to where they are sending their followers, before sending them there.
  2. Narrow the slot. Pretty obvious here too. If there’s less space on the floor, then occupy less space.
  3. Use the slot you have. Leaders, if you don’t have room for a full slot, consider dancing with half a slot, think about what you can do in closed position, or maybe use a change of places to keep the flow of your patterns.
  4. Keep things simple. Not only are simpler moves less risky to execute successfully, but it’s also easier to interrupt a simpler move to make course corrections. This goes for leaders and followers.
  5. Learn to abort smoothly. If someone moves into your slot as you’re executing a move, find a way to gracefully change the ending. Cutoffs and moving into closed position are great options for leaders, while bending the slot and pattern extensions are helpful tools for followers. (Remember: Communicate kindly to your partner.)
  6. Protect your partner. If your partner is going to get hit or is going to collide with someone they can’t see, let them know. A simple squeeze of the hand is usually effective.
  7. Adjust your frame. Your body is yours to control, so if you have less space, adjust your frame so it’s shorter (but not tighter). Leaders, think about the timing of your anchor and how much counterbalance you provide, and followers think about keeping a closer relationship between your center and hand.
  8. Consider moving your slot. If the space at either end of your slot is too cramped, think about shifting your slot to open space left or right (assuming you’re not moving into someone else’s slot).
  9. Be sure to finish. Remember that good communication depends on good connection, and good connection comes from good movement. If we don’t finish patterns by moving our centers into or away from our partners, we won’t create extension or compression, and we’ll have a harder time communicating in an environment where communication is even more important.
  10. Apologize. We’re both responsible for a successful dance, so take responsibility when something goes awry. (You’d be surprised how often people don’t acknowledge collisions and other accidents or check in with their partners.)

The joy of partner dancing is that we get to share in the experience with someone else. So let’s all do our part to make sure everyone has a good time.

What do you all do to adjust to crowded floors? What are some of the biggest dangers you’ve encountered? Teachers, how do you prepare your students and teach them floorcraft?