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.


Stop working on connection

I often ask people what they’re working on in their dancing, either out of curiosity or because they are my students and I’m checking in with them. A frequent response to the question is “connection” – to which I inevitably reply, “What do you mean by that?”

We all want to have better connection with our partners. I get it. I really do. Connection is basically my number one value in partner dancing, because without it, how can you have a comfortable, effective, and successful partnership?

But here’s the thing: connection is not something you create unto itself. It is the product of other things, namely movement and body mechanics. Connection is created through movement of one’s body, either towards or away from a partner. So if you want to improve your connection, you work on movement and body mechanics.

I’ve written before about the importance of doing specific, concrete actions and it’s the same when working on improving your connection. Connection is an abstract by-product of other concrete actions – not something you tackle directly but rather indirectly by working on other things.

So stop working on connection and start working on the things that will actually improve your connection.

What are you working on to improve your connection? How has your instructor provided clear and specific actions for improving connection? Teachers, how do you help your students understand and work on connection?

What happened to the slot?

So, from everything I’ve been taught, West Coast Swing is a slotted dance.

Yet I feel like these days I’m seeing more and more leaders not really leading the follower down the slot. They either don’t really lead much or they give rotational and lateral leads.

At the same time I’m seeing more and more followers not really going down to the end of the slot. They either don’t go to the end of the slot or they aren’t back-weighted when they get there.

And I’m seeing more and more dancers move the dance all around, and even when they’re just shifting, bending, or scrolling the slot, it happens with such frequency that the dance starts to look less linear and more circular.

In my classes I emphasize the importance of a clear, linear lead for the leaders and of going to the end of the slot and anchoring for the followers. And when I’ve studied with top champions, many have reinforced the importance of defining the slot. So what’s happening? And equally important, what does this mean for the dance?

This could just be a phase, like so many fads in our community that come and go (remember swango?). Or maybe it’s an evolution of the dance, influenced by dancers and music that push the limits and boundaries of what’s possible. (Dances like Carolina Shag and DC Hand Dancing were spot dances that became slotted under the influence of West Coast Swing.) Or maybe I’m just seeing a lot of poor technique and poor mechanics. (Ebonics: a new language or just poor grammar?)

Yes, I’m a technician and a stickler for good mechanics, but I’m not against an evolution of the dance. Heck, West Coast Swing itself is an evolution of Lindy Hop, and it has always been evolving – adapting to new music, new technical knowledge, and new influences. And the definition of West Coast Swing, let alone swing, has always been the subject of debate among purists and progressives alike.

In my view, though, I think it’s important to learn the rules before you bend or break them. And when they are broken, it should then be done with purpose and intent, not because you never learned them in the first place. Besides, I think it’s important to know our history and to understand where we came from so that we can better understand where we’re going (or might possibly go).

For my part, I’m going to keep teaching my students about the importance of the slot and linear mechanics, but I’m also going to pay attention to those who are playing with slot dynamics. And I’m going to keep hoping that people will better define the slot in their dancing before they venture to change it.

Is anyone else noticing this change in the mechanics or shape of the dance? Do you think this is just poor technique or pushing the limits of what West Coast Swing is? And does it matter at all?

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?

Mind Over Matter: Staying focused

This is the third in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.

The previous post in this series looked at the danger of focusing on what not to do. Another common problem with the way we’re taught is that we’re often given too many things to focus on.

Focus is a critical skill needed for advancing our dancing. It’s how we train our bodies to develop new habits that replace the old ones. By focusing on continually and consistently doing something new, we learn to retrain our bodies, building muscle memory and a higher skill level that makes the new behavior become a habit – something we don’t need to focus on any longer. However, without focusing on new behaviors, we’re bound to continue repeating our old ones.

At the same time, the human brain can only focus on one thing at a time, and multitasking has negative effects on our ability to pay attention, control memories, and switch between tasks. So how can we make progress on any one thing when we’re trying to work on several at once? How do we focus when there are half a dozen priorities?

It’s hard enough to focus at all, given all the distractions while we’re dancing. It’s too easy to just revert to our usual dancing and not focus on anything. So imagine the challenge when we’re given a laundry list of things to work on.

Learning to focus is important for progress, as is knowing what to focus on. Getting to the root cause of our problems and finding the right solution is sometimes difficult but makes learning and improving so much easier. And a good solution is something that addresses root causes while being easy for the mind to focus on. After all, if we can’t focus on it, then we can’t do it consistently enough to make it into a habit.

How do you stay focused on building new skills? How does staying focused affect your dancing? How do you prioritize what you work on? And teachers, how much do you consider your students’ ability to focus when giving feedback or things for them to work on?