How good are you really?

It’s been my experience – as a teacher and just as an observer – that most dancers don’t have a truly accurate sense of their own abilities. A lot of people think they are either better than they are or worse than they are. And, not surprisingly, the truth is usually somewhere in between.  (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.


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?


What do you mean you can’t dance to blues?

Someone recently told me that he had trouble dancing to blues. This was not the first time I’ve heard this sort of remark from a fellow dancer. And it’s not just beginners I hear it from, but even more experienced dancers too.

When pressed further as to what they mean by “I can’t dance to the blues,” there seems to be an unidentifiable culprit to their trouble, leading to answers along the lines of, “I don’t know. I just don’t get blues.”

What is this strange phenomenon? Is there an official diagnosis for this condition? Blues challenged? Selective musical genre disorder? Idontgetbluesia?

What don’t you get about the blues? It’s a straightforward musical form. It’s got a beat and melody and rhythm like any other song. In fact, blues by definition is grounded in acoustic instrumentation with a strong rhythm section, so more than much of the other music we dance to, blues has a clearly defined rhythm with a clear downbeat and upbeat.

And why can’t you dance to blues when you can dance to every other genre we dance to?  That category of music you dance to so easily that you call “contemporary” is actually several genres of music – R&B, pop, soul, funk, hip-hop, dance, alternative, and rap (and more). Each has a different kind of instrumentation and rhythm, and yet you seem to have no problem dancing to all of those.

Is it the swung rhythm that throws you off? Well, first of all, not all blues is swung. Blues is both a musical genre (or style) and a musical form (or structure). As a genre, blues is defined by its instrumentation, its themes, and a walking bass line. As a form, it is cyclical, meaning it is a repeating progression of chords (twelve-bar blues is the most common example of this but only one of many examples). So lots of blues are in song form (verse-chorus structure) and lots of blues have straight timing instead of swung rhythm. Heck, much of B.B. King’s music is song form and straight time, and he was the King of Blues. Coincidentally, there are pop songs with blues form (e.g. “Give It To Me Right” by Melanie Fiona) and some with swung rhythm (e.g. “Stutter” by Maroon 5).

As for having trouble with swung rhythm, a big part of the problem is lack of practice. Ideally, teachers are including blues and swung rhythm in their classes, to expose students to these forms. (Unfortunately, that probably isn’t the case. I’ve heard that in Europe there is a dearth of blues, though I was fortunate to hear it played in Germany…)

Of course, plenty of people might argue there’s no need to bother, that blues isn’t relevant or necessary, and we don’t hear much of it anymore anyway. (We probably hear more Latin rhythms in our music than swung rhythm these days…) But everyone should at least be exposed to blues and learn to dance to swung rhythms.

First of all, blues and swung rhythm are the foundations of West Coast Swing. It is this kind of music upon which this dance evolved and came into its own. So from a historical perspective, it’s important to understand where the dance came from.

Second, the instrumentation of blues creates a very downward feeling and the swung rhythm creates that pendulum or syncopated feeling – you know, what we and musicians call swing. Both the downward feeling and the pendulum feeling are integral to the foundations of this dance (and all swing dances) – they create the feeling we should have in West Coast Swing. Like learning to play Mozart before you play Gershwin, you should understand the proper feeling and movement of blues before you master the music that came afterwards.

Third, as dancers, you want to continue pushing the limits of your movement and your musical interpretation. We are constantly dancing to new music that challenges us to grow and develop our skill set. And blues is another genre of music that offers different musical rhythms and instrumentations that we can add to our toolkit. If the goal is to be able to dance to any music, then being able to dance to blues should be included. Blues can push you to apply and develop your musical interpretation skills in ways other musical forms can’t.

And if nothing else, competitions will continue to include swung blues music. This is in part because judges want to see that kind of music included, in part to showcase a more traditional style of the dance, and in part because they know that some people struggle with a swung rhythm and it can be used to separate the boys from the men. So if you want to succeed in competitions, you’d best get a handle on your blues.

I know I’m biased and fortunate to have had exposure to blues and swung rhythms early on, before I even started dancing (as a jazz musician) and before I started West Coast Swing (as a lindy hopper). So yeah, I guess I get blues – the feeling, the rhythm, the timing. But it’s not impossible to learn, nor is it even that difficult, if you simply pay attention and apply your swing fundamentals (body mechanics, footwork, timing) to the music. As with anything else you want to learn, it takes focus and practice.

So what is this nonsense about not being able to dance to blues? You’re very capable. Just put on some blues and dance!

Do you hear a lot of blues where you live and dance? Do you have trouble with the rhythm? Did your teachers expose you to blues in classes? Post your comments below!



Are you setting good goals for yourself?

I like New Year’s resolutions. I know some people say, “Why bother?” but I think there’s value in taking stock of where you’ve been and looking forward to where you want to be in another year from now. Resolutions can help create a vision and set a direction for getting there. They give a focus, push us to grow, and help us achieve our dreams.

For all these reasons, I’ve been working with my students to help them set goals for the year. But I think there are good goals and not-so-good ones. The difference is not in the substance of the goal, but rather in how the goal is defined.

Sure, goals are by definition a little broad, but I’m a believer in SMART goals – specific, measurable, aspirational, realistic, and time-bound. Yes, “aspirational” is different from “achievable” or “attainable” and that’s on purpose. I think good goals aren’t things that we are already equipped to achieve, but things that push us to grow, learn new competencies, and reach new limits. (Besides, doesn’t “realistic” imply that they are achievable?)

In that vein, I ask my students two questions:

  1. What is something that you’ve been struggling with this year that you’d like to overcome?
  2. What is something new that you’d like to learn?

I also ask them to think about two kinds of goals: finite achievements and systems or habits. Finite achievements are end results, clear measures of success, or defined indicators of competency. Systems or habits are the repeated actions or practices that we engage in on a regular basis. For instance, a finite achievement is being able to do two spins and remain balanced, whereas a system would be to spend 15 minutes each day practicing turns. Usually the systems are what help us succeed at the finite achievements, and they are just as important (if not more important) as finite achievements. (And how often and how well you practice is everything when learning to dance!)

When defining your goals, be careful about misguided ambitions. For instance, I’ve had several students tell me that one of their goals is to make a certain level of competition (e.g. “I want to be Intermediate by the end of the year”). What does this really mean? It means you got enough points to compete in a higher level. So what does it take to get there? It means attending more events, competing more often, spending more money on travel. But does it say anything about your dancing? If you say, “Well, I need to be better to be Intermediate,” then I would push you to define what it means to be “better.” If you start telling me that you want to be smoother or more musical, then I would say you’re on the right track to setting a good goal for yourself. Competition in and of itself does not say anything specific about our dancing; at best, it is merely an indicator of overall progress towards some other goal. Your goal should be more specific than a level of competition if you actually want to achieve something this year.

I encourage students to come up with 2-3 goals for the year. Some come up with 4 or 5 – a mixture of finite achievements and system goals – but I discourage setting more than that. It’s not about failure: I think it’s good to have an aspirational goal that will be so difficult to achieve (but still realistic) that you run the risk of not achieving it. These goals push us the most, and usually if we do not succeed, we still gain a lot in its pursuit. No, the reason I discourage too many goals is that it splits your focus. Goals are good because they can keep you focused, but if you have too many goals, it disperses your efforts so that you don’t make much progress on any one thing.

So pull out a piece of paper (or better yet, your dance notebook!) and jot down your goals for this year. Review them with your instructor, and think about how you can achieve your goals this year. And then, get practicing!

And happy New Year! May 2016 bring new levels of success and achievement in your dancing!