- Before You Sign Up . . different types of partner dancing (by Dean Paton)
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Before you sign up for dance lessons, be aware that two vastly different kinds of partner dancing exist. They are separate worlds, really. So be sure to know which type appeals to you..
When you watch a TV show like "Dancing With The Stars" or channel surf past a ballroom dance competition on PBS, what you're seeing is not spontaneous dancing but rehearsed choreography. Those partners practice set routines, over and over, and with each other exclusively. At the opposite end of the partner-dancing spectrum is social ballroom dance.
In social dance, no one keeps score. Nothing is rehearsed; no one memorizes routines. They just listen to the music – respond with their partners – and move as the moment suggests. Because it's "social" dance, these dancers can change partners easily, routinely. And, because it's not focused on winning contests, the aesthetic is more about enjoying that one person in your arms than impressing the vast auditorium.
This, of course, is how most people actually danced in North America throughout the first half of the 20th Century, before the television pandemic killed off the public dance halls.
At Northwest Dance Network, we teach this social brand of ballroom dance. We care less about promoting competition or choreography and more about inspiring connection between two dancers. In Greater Seattle, there are plenty of small studios and famous franchises that do specialize in a more highly stylized Ballroom aesthetic; just not us.
We call your attention to these two kinds of dancing because, unless you understand something of their differences, you could land on the wrong dance planet and end up miserable. Recognize that some people love the thrill of competition and feel great pride as their teachers promote them from Bronze to Silver to Gold levels of achievement. Others thrive in environments free from contests, hierarchy and the pressures these generate.
So, once you've decided you want to learn partner dancing, then decide which style appeals to your temperament. Most people find themselves drawn to one aesthetic or the other. Whichever you choose, we think you'll love the challenge, as well as what you're sure to learn about yourself as you glide about the dance floor in the arms of another human being.
For those of you who lean toward the world of social dance, know this: Seattle is perhaps the best city in North America for social dance venues, as well as organizations that teach this non-competitive brand of partner dancing. Every night of the week here you can waltz, swing, tango, fox trot, salsa, two-step, cha-cha – and never have to worry about some judge holding up a scorecard.
Clothes encrusted with glitter are not required, either.
- by Dean Paton
© 2006 Dean Paton
May be reprinted or reproduced only with permission of the author
Dean is a Seattle-based writer who also is an avid dancer and manages NW Dance's live music dances.
- Dancing: Just for the Fun (and the Health) of it! (by Janet Novinger)
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Actor John O'Hurley, a contestant in ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," is perhaps the country's best known poster boy for the fitness benefits of partner dancing. He wowed audiences with his dramatic interpretations of swing, waltz, cha-cha, tango and fast-step and dropped 20 pounds over a very few weeks of intense partner dancing. He told an interviewer he also gained "flexibility I haven't had in years."
As a nation, we are facing what the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call "a crisis of poor nutrition and physical activity." The obesity rate in the US is nearly 25%, and more than 65% of us are overweight.
As you set your health and fitness goals, consider what taking a dance class with Northwest Dance Network can do for you. Start dancing and you will:
Improve your general helath. The federal government has introduced an initiative, HealthierUS, which recommends incorporating more physical activity into your daily life as one simple step toward healthier living.
Increase your heart health. Studies show that making connections with others is associated with a lower risk of heart diseases. You'll meet lots of new people and start down a fun path to healthiness in an NDN dance class.
Lose weight A half-hour of sustained dancing can burn from 200 to 400 calories. A study at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center showed that taking 2,000 extra steps each day will prevent the 2-pound-a-year weight gain most Americans experience. During a recent Latin Club Dance class, one NDN student (wearing a pedometer) counted 1,394 steps. A recent Salsa class led another student through 1,050 steps. He said, "I think we usually move more! This time, Jim and Jodi were demonstrating lots of new moves so we watched a little more than usual."
Manage your stress.Movement reduces your level of cortisol, the stress-producing hormone.
Protect against Alzheimer's. A study by the Albert Einstein Center found partner dancing to be the only regular physical activity associated with a significant drop in the incidence of dementia.
Release endorphins. Movement releases the brain's feel-good hormones (think runner's high without the running).
Get off the couch. Studies show a direct correlation between the number of hours spent watching television and the amount a person is overweight. Get out of the house and dance!
Improve your mood. A Duke University study concluded that 45 minutes of exercise three times a week are better for improving your mood that a prescription for anti-depressants.
Reduce your risk of osteoporosis. The American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that "...all peri and postmenopausal women...engage in regular weight-bearing exercise such as walking" (and dancing!).
Live longer A moderate level of exercise cuts in half your risk of dying prematurely, according to the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas.
Beat the boredom of the treadmill. Gyms can be boring, dancing is not. You can dress up, look good, and meet new people while improving your physical health. Studies show that the more different cardio activities you engage in, the more likely you are to stay with an exercise program.
Improve your stamina, flexibility and balance. Like any other moderate, weight-bearing exercise, dancing on a regular basis can increase endurance and flexibility, improve balance, and strengthen bones.
- by Janet Novinger
© 2006 Janet Novinger May be reprinted or reproduced only with permission of the author.
Janet Novinger has experienced the health and fun benefits of dancing in her own life during her eight years of dancing with Northwest Dance Network (formerly Living Traditions). "Dancing is the most joyful way to exercise and a great way to make friends," she said. When she's not dancing, Janet provides training, coaching and consulting to help groups and individuals develop leadership and communication skills through her consulting firm, Explorations.
- Dance and the Four Stages of Mastery — Thoughts offered by Dean Paton
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Here perhaps is a more useful way to approach the pleasant discipline we call "learning to dance." Instead of picturing the classes you take as a linear sequence - say, progressing through four levels of Swing - imagine yourself in an evolutionary process called the learning cycle, four distinct stages through which all human beings progress whenever they learn anything new.
First is Unconscious Incompetence. In this stage you have little experience or skill. In fact, you're likely quite bad, but because you don't know how truly bad you are, you don't feel bad, and your self-esteem isn't crippled. Yet.
True damage to self-esteem (and the false confidence that coexists with the bliss of ignorance) often occurs in the second stage of learning - Conscious Incompetence. As your awareness evolves into this stage, you begin to realize how little you know. Perhaps you notice how impossible it seems for you and your partners to do much of anything smoothly. You certainly convince yourself that practically everyone at every dance or class is so talented that you'd never think of dancing with them. You may well flee the dance early, and might even avoid such terrifying places of public exhibition for weeks.
In truth, Conscious Incompetence is a vital step in the learning cycle. For once your exaggerated sense of self-loathing finds an equilibrium, you have the chance for some valuable self-assessment -- you can begin to determine your strengths and weaknesses, and from this sense of where you really are you can begin to focus on strategies for improvement. Much learning occurs here.
As your skills get better and your body works with your mind to integrate new steps and moves into your dancing, you evolve into stage three -- Conscious Competence. This is enjoyable and exciting for most people, because they not only start seeing themselves as good dancers, they realize how much they have learned. Others tell them how enjoyable they are to dance with, now that they've reached a certain competence, so a reborn confidence repairs their self-esteem.
Nevertheless, dancers in the Conscious Competence stage spend much of each dance thinking about what move to execute next, and how to balance the effort required to choreograph the next eight bars with the excitement of connecting with their partner. Brains occasionally go on overload, and feet still get trampled, but in general Conscious Competence is an enjoyable stage. Most people spend considerably more time here than in the first two stages. It is also a plateau where many dancers choose to remain.
True mastery isn't attained until the fourth stage of learning - Unconscious Competence. This is the place where there is little or no difference between what the body has practiced to perfection and the mind has learned. You no longer think about your frame, or what move comes next. In fact, you don't think much (about the moves, at least). Instead, you're free to enjoy the moment and genuinely connect with your partner. Those who manage to reach this level of mastery are sought after, indeed revered on the dance floor.
The trick is in the getting there. Anyone who manages to take most of the classes offered is pretty much guaranteed to reach stage three -- Conscious Competence. After a year or so of Walter, Julie, or any other instructor, drilling you with new steps and old jokes, you'll dance comfortably with most partners and have a good time.
To achieve mastery, however, you may well have to abandon the linear approach -- give up the convenient notion that simply by progressing through a prescribed sequence of classes you'll end up a great dancer. When we think linearly, we tend to think in terms of quantity instead of quality, or we make alienating comparisons: I want to learn more slick moves; I'll only dance with partners at my level; she's better than I am (or I'm better than him). The trap here is that you risk becoming a dance snob, a stylized technician with the moves of Fred or Ginger, but the heart and soul of Schwarzenegger's Terminator.
When you dance with someone who has achieved mastery, you know it within a few seconds. These partners allow you to look and feel grand, not better than you are, but as good as you can be. You connect. You'll dance with them again and again. Such mastery is an art form, a gift they give to each of their partners. You can choose mastery, just as you can choose to stay at stage three. Both options are valid.
If you opt for mastery, however, part of the prescription is to start seeing each Living Traditions class not as a step in a finite sequence but as a timeless opportunity for learning. So what if you've taken Slow Waltz 2 twice, or Foxtrot 2 three times? Go back and take Slow Waltz 1 again. And again and again. Plunge back into Foxtrot 1, or Swing 2, or try role reversal. What you learn will not necessarily be a published part of the curriculum, but as you guide a less experienced dancer toward new confidence and grace, as you forget about your own footwork and simply enjoy moving with your partner to a new level of competence, your own dancing will transport you to a place of uncommon joy, and you will learn far more than you ever learned the first time through. About dancing, and about yourself.
That's the real magic of any dance class. No matter how many times you take it.
- by Dean Paton
© 1995 Dean Paton
May be reprinted or reproduced only with permission of the author
Dean is a Seattle-based writer who also is an avid dancer and manages NW Dance's live music dances.
- Taking those first steps . . . to a dance
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Taking your first dance class can be a big - and sometimes scary - step in your social life. In that first class, you will find a surprisingly friendly, supportive group of people who are all in the same boat.
As your confidence and your dance vocabulary build, you decide to take the next first steps of entering the larger dance community - maybe going to a Free Recorded Music Dance Party. A few familiar faces, the support of the faculty and staff, good food, interesting conversation with strangers, a few mini-lessons from the instructors, and a bunch of fun dances with a variety of people - some of whom you didn't even know - and you're ready to try a Saturday night dance!
So there you are, walking into your first NW Dance - dance, and suddenly this Inner Teenager rises up and swallows the Adult you - and you just know that no one will ask you to dance, that you will make an utter fool of yourself... (There is something about the junior high dance experience that a deeply etched memory in each of us.) So what do you do with this terrified Inner Teen? Pat it on the head, give it a hug if necessary, and sit it on a chair in a dark corner with a hefty Time-out. Climb back into your Adult self, and learn the ropes of the dance.
Coming to the pre-dance workshop is a chance to dance with a dozen or more partners - and gives you familiar faces to look for later. Find the water jugs - this area serves as a great "change partner" circulation area. Smile! Make eye contact. If you come as a couple, dance with others as well. Tap your foot to the music. Avoid sitting too much (especially too near that Inner Teen).
Talk to folks if you aren't dancing. And do your share of the asking (both men and women ask at our dances, and it may be hard at first, especially for women). There is a shorthand you can learn - that a raised eyebrow or an offered hand can be as effective as words. If someone says no, take it circumstantially, not personally. And if you turn one person down for a dance, don't say yes to the next.
In Richard Powers' workshop recently, we were all discussing what makes us feel good at a dance. Here are some of our comments:
- being asked to dance by a stranger. If everyone asked a couple of strangers to dance, such good feelings could spread widely.
- eye contact from my partner (Looking away to navigate is one thing, but looking to find a candidate for your next dance is another!)
- ENERGY! Bring upbeat energy to each dance.
- laughing at mistakes (A simple "Oops!" and a laugh lets you move on in the dance, but do say "I'm sorry" if you run into someone.)
- dancing at your partner's ability level
Watching Frankie Manning (see his DVDs) dance is a lesson in what dance partnering is about. Frankie's first consideration is to make sure his partner is comfortable. He engages with her and quickly finds her ability level with Swing-and the entire dance is then devoted to making her look good-at her level.
Some thoughts or beliefs can hamper a good dance experience. One is thinking that every dancer out on the floor is better than you are. If you sit down and really watch, you will find every ability level out there. Often those who are having great fun look like they are great dancers, but might be doing just Swing 2 material.
Another is believing that a good dancer doesn't want to dance with you. Those who enjoy dancing the most are those who understand the fact that dancing is a team effort, that regardless of skill level, a common ground of skill can be found and that dance is really about connection between two people, if only for three minutes.
As Richard put it so succinctly - happiness is what you bring to the dance (and hopefully what you take home), not what the dance brings to you.
Oh - and don't forget to wake up your Inner Teen and take him/her home-for good. See you out dancing!
The staff at Northwest Dance Network
- Keep Learning (by Micah Jacobson)
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What are you doing to improve your dancing? What are you doing to continue to learn?
In almost four years in the swing dance community, I've seen a lot of dancers get really good. The scene in general boasts a level of dancing that goes far beyond what I ever thought possible. I also have seen many dancers stay just about the same over the years, and I have even seen a few get worse. "How?" you might ask. Isn't just dancing a lot enough to get better?
Well, yes - sort of.
I am writing this to all those dancers who are a little like me. I love to dance—I love it more than I would have predicted possible when I started this crazy journey. However, I am not usually content to just do something. I enjoy getting better. I love to learn. With that in mind, I'd like to present some ideas on how to do just that.
In the beginning, simply dancing a lot, taking a few classes, and listening to swing music will help anyone improve. I cannot emphasize the words of Chad or Paul or Rob or Frankie enough: You gotta put in some miles.
Eventually, though, most of us do reach a plateau. Those who have been dancing awhile will know exactly what I'm talking about. It's the time when you no longer seem to learn something new every time you get on the dance floor—when you've mastered Charleston and can't seem to break out of your rut.
I don't know whether this happens more to leads as opposed to follows, but I have heard both talk about it. I get sad to see so many people settle. When good dancers get stuck in ruts that they never seem to break—swingouts that have no frame or that end up looking like circles, static upper bodies, or sloppy, attention-grabbing moves that inhibit them from getting better—they also hurt their ability to learn over time. So, how do you get out of this kind of rut? Following are few strategies. I have fallen into every plateau trap I just mentioned, and I am sure I have many more to encounter. I also have tried all the strategies below with varying success. Once you have found what works for you, it's in your hands to make your dancing grow.
First, the obvious:
DANCE WITH DIFFERENT PEOPLE
This was a hot topic on the sfswing email list some time ago. I didn't contribute anything then, so now you get to hear it here. When I started dancing, I did not have a partner. For over a year and a half, I went out, often by myself, and danced with whomever I found. This takes a certain amount of courage, granted, but then so does good dancing.
Having a partner is good (I have one now), but a partner alone will not make your dancing better. Only you can make your dancing better. Having a partner accelerates the learning curve and gives you someone with whom to practice choreography. But remember that topic of ruts? Well, nothing brings on a rut like dancing with the same person too much.
Follows should try to be able to follow anyone. And leads should try to always make their leads clear, no matter who they are dancing with.
Remember, leads, if the follow doesn't catch the lead, it's often the lead's fault.
TAKE MORE CLASSES AND WORKSHOPS
This seems incredibly obvious to me. However, I can't count the number of conversations I have had with people who hint that they are beyond taking classes. I don't believe that it's possible to be beyond classes. Even the world's best still take classes from Frankie Manning.
I think that intellectually, most people concede that there is always something new to learn, but it has to show up in practice to count. Some of the best teachers in the world hold workshops year-round. If cost is an issue, just talk to the teachers or the people running the workshop. If you really want to learn, I guarantee there is someone who will help you.
TAKE PRIVATE LESSONS
At some point, the only way you can improve is to get coaching. Imagine an athlete trying to make the Olympics without a coach! I can't think of a single dancer whom I respect who has not taken private lessons. First, take some privates from people you admire. Ultimately, it pays to take a few privates from a variety of teachers. There are a million ways to swing, and the more influences you absorb, the better able you will be to identify your own style.
TRY TO LEAD AND FOLLOW
Learn to do the opposite part. If you are used to leading, trying to follow is really challenging. Learning the other part will help you in more ways than you can count. One word of caution: just because you are good at one, don't assume you'll be good at the other. Approach it with an open mind and a willingness to look stupid.
MODEL GOOD DANCERS
Look at the dancers you admire. I mean really look closely. What do you see? A cool move? An interesting variation? Those are fine to notice—but look closer. Where is their hand on a tuck turn? How high are their elbows? How closely together do they hold their knees? How much do they move around the floor?
By looking at the details, you will begin to build a greater appreciation for where you can improve. Try to imitate exactly at first. I don't mean that you should steal unique moves. Rather, try to exactly imitate that dancer, in everything you do, down to the last detail. Out of that effort will come revelations about where you can grow.
PLAY "YOU GO, I GO"
This comes directly from Eddie and Eva of The Rhythm Hot Shots. They did a wonderful exercise in one of their fall '97 workshops. Do several swingouts in a row. On the first one, have the follow do a variation. For the next one, have the lead attempt to do the same variation. After a couple like that, switch so that the follow imitates the lead. This exercise is not only a ton of fun, but also very good for insight. If you are doing it right, it should feel pretty uncomfortable. That's good.
There is nothing more brutal than videotape when you have a critical eye. I hate seeing myself on video. Still, it is one of the best ways to improve. Look for only a few things you want to improve each time you watch, and remember, this is all about having fun.
If you have other ideas or tips that have worked for you, send 'em on and I'll add them to my growing list (with credit going where credit is due, of course).
By Micah Jacobson
Micah is an instructor and dancer in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Dancer's Heart (by Noel Plumb)
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I fumble through my dance bag. I know it's here somewhere, past the gum and mints, the Catalina swing-camp brochure, and miscellaneous dance steps scribbled on every type of scratch paper imaginable. An open safety pin, OUCH!!—I gotta get a real tie clip. Eureka, I found it! A chocolate Power Bar, the swing dancer's best friend. Just two bites and it's gone—hopefully to my feet.
My friends and I have been dancing non-stop for a couple of hours now and the outside world has all but disappeared. The sound of the horns, drum and piano blend with the dancers movements.
Girls in vintage outfits, some with flowers adorning their hair, make for a colorful soup. We are all totally high: on the music, on the movement, on each other's smiles. It's a wonderful feeling. It's the "cookie" that keeps us all coming back night after night, dance after dance, class after class.
But It wasn't always this way. How does it go in Genesis? In the beginning... ... there was a great clumsiness across the land and the swing dancer was without style or technique. His feet would not obey the dance instructor's commands no matter how hard he stared at them. And he was harshly ridiculed for wearing clip suspenders.
Those beginning months can be brutal on the ego. If you can't laugh at yourself, you will probably hang up the two-tones permanently and have some good material for your therapist. There is no doubt about it—it takes a special kind of courage to learn to dance. And a special kind of heart.
If one does have the desire to really dance—not just, as they say in acting classes with such contempt, "indicate" (mechanically going through the steps)—but to let go and dance from the heart, the rewards are tremendous.
But how does a dancer get into that zone? We all have a secret inner life. Hidden under our jobs, our education, and the expectations that have been put on us from others and society. This hidden side we usually only reveal to the people we trust; our close friends, our relatives, our lovers. Its expressions are often silly, playful, daring or sexy. It's these expressions that we are challenged to reveal on the dance floor. "Will I look stupid?" "I can't do that… I'm just not that type of girl," "If I move my body like that, I'll look feminine," etc. So many ways the mind has of shutting down our creativity and convincing us the safest thing to do is nothing.
Watch people when they dance, the ones who really inspire and take your breath away. They take chances and abandon themselves to the music, ego be damned. It's this mix of controlled craft and impassioned release that creates the thrill, the juice, of enjoyable dancing. This is true for both the dancers and the audience. This is the magic that keeps 'em coming back to Broadway and the ballet season after season. Dancers express passionately what is laying latent inside the viewer's soul. That which they yearn to awaken, the audience experiences vicariously through watching. They can touch it, but they can't have it. We can have it—you, me and the others—as we participate in this wonderful play called dance.
So next time you're on the hardwood, take some chances. Find friends you can dance with that will let you experiment and mess up without giving you a funny look. Turn off the metronome in your head for a dance, don't count the steps, and just let the music and energy move you. Buy a full-length mirror. Set it up in your house, spin a swing CD, and practice dance movement in front of it. Play with some boogie backs, fish walk, Shorty George, Susie Q, kick-ball-change, etc. Be silly, be creative: no one is watching but the cat. This kind of practice can greatly help your improvisation and footwork next time you hit the hardwood.
As you challenge yourself with new movements and stylings, you will feel awkward. A good rule to remember is the bigger you screw-up the larger you smile. Slowly from the well of your own unique creativity, the dancer's heart will emerge. I love this quote from Theodore Roosevelt (rumored to dance a mean Charleston himself):
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
Keep Rock Steppin'…
- by Noel Plumb
- Thoughts about Partner Dancing (by Zachariah Cassady)
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Here are some of Zachariah's (not Waltz etcetera's) thoughts about partner dance.
I'm a fan of real-life partner dancing, dancing that's healthy and vibrant, self-governing and economically self-sufficient. And dancing close with your partner. And no rules: all you need is simple common sense and respect for those around you, forget about special rules and conventions, dance etiquette and all that shinola. Don't go making stuff up.
Dancing is art; art is useless — Most partner dancers probably don't think of their dancing as art, but that's what it is. I don't mean art as in "advanced dancers elevate it to an art," I mean that dancing itself is art; art is what you're doing when you dance, no matter who you are. It doesn't depend on your level of skill. Art has a bad rap these days; people don't trust "artists," but that's just because they don't understand what art is. To understand art, watch kids. Kids do art all the time: making up stories, dancing, drawing pictures, singing, making up plays. Art's as natural to us as breathing, but as we grow up we get disconnected from that playful creative energy, until we come think of art as something that just artists do. That's sad; art's an important part of life. Learning to dance can help you put that playful creative energy back in your life.
Art is useless; don't try to use art. That's the key to understanding art and getting it back in your life. You don't do art because you have to or need to or somebody pays you to do it, you do it because you want to, because it's fun, because you love doing it. The whole tortured artist deal - "I must create, I simply must!" - is baloney; that's part what gives art a bad rap and makes people distrust artists. Tortured art's not art, it's self-administered therapy, and probably not very good therapy at that. Art is something you do out of joy and desire, not need and misery. At a high level, art will take everything you've got and it will stretch you beyond what you think you can endure, but it has to be done out of love, not misery. Doing art has therapeutic effects, but you don't get the effects if you do it to get 'em. You get therapeutic effects because you do it with joy, because you're doing something you love to do.
If you approach dancing as art, it'll make it easier to learn how to dance. Remembering that you're learning to dance because you love to dance eases the inevitable awkwardness of learning something new. You can be frustrated but still light-hearted about it if you remember that. Dance classes give you new skills, new possibilities for having fun and doing something you love to do. Remember the love part; dance because you love to dance. Or go for a hike or something instead. Do something you love.
Loving to dance — If you dance because you love to dance, everything else can fall into place. If you don't love dancing, you're never going to be a dancer. You also need to love the music, but that's a slightly different topic. If your reason for going partner dancing is something other than loving to do it, you don't get to be a dancer, sorry. It's fine to appreciate the benefits of dancing - good exercise, the socialization and mental/physical problem solving help keep your brain working right and all that — but dancing is art, and if you do art for a reason, if you try to use art or get something back from it, if you do art for anything other than the pure love of it, it's gonna be bad art. It's not gonna be art at all, just technique and showmanship and decoration; decoration is the enemy of art. Being a dancer has one requirement: loving to dance, loving this thing where you move to music and play with another human in your arms. If you got that, you're a dancer.
As partner dancers, we need a partner, and we rely on our partner to share our love of dancing. Having a shared love of dancing creates a connection between us. All those details of frame and partnering we work so hard to learn are how we work that connection out. The details bring it down to earth and make it functional, but the connection with your partner is what the details are all about. The details are important: knowing the details and making them happen at the right time makes the dancing sing, and float, and feel so sweet, like falling in love — if you're connecting with your partner. The details are only details; if you don't connect with your partner and say to that person "I want to dance with you, let's you and me share our love of dancing" not in words but with your body and mind, the details don't mean anything, they don't go anywhere; you're just a technician at best. "Good technician" is no compliment to a dancer; dancing's all about love.
Dancing with people can open you up to new possibilities. Dancing is different than just hanging out with people or being sociable; creating art together goes a lot deeper than just yakking. But you have to really dance, you have to create art to experience new possibilities. If you go dancing because you think you might get lucky, or you just want to shuffle amiably along and chat with your partner, or to get a workout, or to show off, or for anything other than purely loving to dance, no new possibilities. If you want dance to open you up, you have to engage your partner, connect, try new stuff, push your limits, get outta your comfort zone. You have to play hard. Nothing interesting's ever gonna happen if you stay in your comfort zone. You have to push your limits physically, emotionally, creatively, playfully. Then dance can start to open you up to new possibilities.
Leading and following — In some dance circles itís become fashionable to edge away from the idea that partner dance consists of leading and following, and to try and come up with more politically correct terms and concepts. PC revisionism; kinda silly. But there is a problem that these linguistic revisions are an attempt to address: many dance teachers make no effort to teach what leading and following really are, or at least really should be. Maybe it's because the teachers don't know themselves, and are only passing on the incomplete picture of things they were taught.
Partner dance is the interaction of a lead and a follow; the roles are clear and unambiguous. Sure, it's possible to switch roles, and you can switch roles very quickly and subtly. You can also dance little solos, flourishes and embellishments, and if done correctly they won't detract from the dance itself. But in all these cases, thereís still one lead and one follow. That's it, that's partner dance: one lead, one follow. If you can't hack it, try something else.
Leading isn't pushing or pulling your partner; it's communicating an intention. It's not easy to learn how to communicate an intention vs. merely shoving your partner around, but that's what learning to lead consists of. Learning to follow, to grasp the lead's intention and respond to it, is no easier; both roles are equally demanding, and are in fact very subtle, sophisticated activities. Beginners can't lead or follow at first; at first beginners simply learn steps and then learn how to execute them in tandem with a partner. Some dancers stay at this level, and they may become very polished and sophisticated with their choreographed routines. But you can always tell the difference between a polished routine — choreography — and real leading and following: choreography looks like two dancers executing steps together, rather than a couple dancing.
Imitation and choreography are valid preliminary stages for beginners to go through. But beginners deserve to be pointed in the right direction; they deserve to be learning how to lead or follow from the very start. Leads should never be taught that it's OK to shove your partner around, however gently. Real leading and following do not include any shoving around of any sort or degree; it's not a matter of shoving more gently, it's a matter of inviting and responding. Leading and following are forms of engagement with your dance partner. Leading is active engagement; following is responsive engagement. A lead invites a follow, for instance, to take a step of a certain size and speed in a certain direction, with a certain quality of movement. The follow can accept the invitation or not; the dance can go on either way. But if the lead is truly engaged with the follow and with the music, the invitation will almost never be declined, because it will be what both partners want: you want to move together to the music, that's why you do partner dance. That's what feels so fabulous.
The lead is communicated not by pushing, pulling or shoving but by contact, both physical contact and in most cases visual contact. The goal in creating and tending your contact with your partner is to keep it absolutely even: the pressure of physical contact never varies. The contact between us — our frame — simply stabilizes our spatial relationship with each other. I move, and my partner moves with me. I do not have to push her or pull her; she wants to move with me, and as long as I'm not moving stupidly or absently or wrongly for the music, she will move with me. I lead my partner by inviting her to move with me in a way that suits the music and is easy and natural for her. It's my business as a lead to know how much weight she has on each foot, and what kind of step will be easy and natural for her, and will fit the music. Leading and following on this level is not easy to learn, but it's what partner dance is, and it should be taught to all dance students from the beginning. You gotta love the music — You can't love to dance if you don't love the music. Music is what you dance in; you dance with a partner, but in the music: it's the environment, the setting, and it provides the beginning, middle and end for your dance. Unless you're the DJ, like me, you may not have a lot of choice about what song's on next, and I admit it: that's part of what I love about being the DJ. But I dance a lot of places, to a lot of different kinds of music, and I find ways to love it all, or at least most of it. On the rare occasion when I don't love the music, the evening isn't so much fun. It's really important to love the music.
I don't mean passively loving the music, as in This is my favorite band or favorite waltz or whatever — that's music you've already decided you love, it's an established fact for you (watch out: as you become a dancer that might get all shaken up). I mean actively loving the music that's playing right now, as you dance. You're not going to be able to get into the music and make it the environment your dance travels through unless you love it. You have to resonate with it, let it hook you with its hooks, move you with its beat. If you're looking down your nose at the music or shrinking from it or thinking it's stupid or boring, it's just not gonna work for you. Find a way in, a way to love the music that's playing right now, or sit this one out or go to another dance. Don't torture yourself and your partners by "dancing" to music you can't find it in you to love.
Choreography vs. dancing - Learning choreography is a useful early stage in learning partner dance, but you don't really start dancing until you leave choreography behind. Typically, you start out learning anything new in dance by learning choreography: steps, patterns, moves. The accepted way (not the only way) to learn new dance is to memorize steps and patterns and movements and practice them until they become something you've got, something you don't have to think about. But memorizing a step and adding it to your repertoire is the superficial part of the learning that's going on if you're a partner dancer. As a partner dancer, what you're really learning is how to communicate with your partner better, how to lead better, how to follow better, how to do a better job of making dance happen between two people. Doing a step or routine you've memorized isn't really dancing, no matter how flawlessly you execute it.
The moves, steps and routines you learn are useful; they become part of your vocabulary as a dancer. But as you get better, they gradually lose their hard edges: "I'm leading a swingout." "I'm following a fast turning waltz." Instead, the sensations, muscle memory and body dynamics of the moves and patterns become part of you, and in the process they become infinitely variable. The better you get, the less it's about defined moves and patterns and the more it's just play, experimentation, moving with a partner: dancing. When someone asks me Hey what dance was that you guys were just doing, I usually can't say; it wasn't any dance in particular. I was just dancing with my partner, playing and improvising to the music.
The problem with all that is it's a big, long, steep learning curve between "triple-step, triple-step, rock-step" and pure improvised play with your partner. A lot of people end up stepping out of the learning process before they get there; dancing's not for everyone. Dance organizers and promoters cater to people unwilling or unable to make their way to dance as improvisational play by offering scripted alternatives: contra dances, line dances, squares, quadrilles, grand marches, mixers, etc. etc. That's all fine, but there's a missing element: the pure creative expression that shimmers, slinks, bubbles, or explodes out of the volatile combination of you, your partner, and the music when there's no script in sight. That's dancing.
The dance police — The dance police are everyone who thinks they know the right way to dance but aren't willing to keep their gems of knowledge to themselves. "The right way" has nothing to do with good dancing or skill; it's simply what the dance police think is proper or correct. But how you dance is up to you and your partner; it's nobody else's business. Yes, you need common sense and respect: observe the rules of the road, be courteous to other dancers, avoid causing collisions and creating obstructions; the dance floor is a shared public space governed by simple common-sense conventions that make it easier to share. But nothing else about your dance is anyone else's business; the rest is between you and your partner.
Everyone has opinions, but the dance police are afflicted with the idea that their opinions matter. Opinions don't matter. Knowledge, skill, insight and things like that may matter, but opinions don't. We have a lot to offer each other as fellow dancers and partners, but "the right way to dance" isn't one of them. Work out the right way to dance with each partner, and let everyone else do the same.
The dance police see themselves as chaperons at a high school dance. But we're all grown up now and who you dance with, who you don't dance with, how much you dance with one person, how close you dance, what steps and rhythms you use are nobody else's damn business. Go ahead and dance your "improper" dance right in front of the dance police. This is a rare exception where showing off may have some redeeming social value; maybe it'll make the dance police so disgusted they'll go away and police some other dance. The rest of us would be most grateful; nobody likes the dance police.
Ignore the dance police; they're quite impotent, just a bunch of busybodies afflicted with painful opinions. Take particular care you don't become one of them.
"Family-friendly" dances don't work — Some dance promoters and organizations have latched onto the family-friendly idea, targeting young families to expand their business horizons a bit. Bring the kids! Everybody come dance together! All ages! I've been to some of these family-friendly dances, and they just don't work; they're miserable, dangerous places for kids to be. Partner dance is an adult environment; it's inherently kid-unfriendly. Dancers come to a dance to dance, not to watch kids frolic; dancers shouldn't have to worry about running over a kid on the dance floor. Dance floors are dangerous places for kids, and kids are a danger to dancers.
As a parent, you have a choice: go to a dance to dance, or go to a dance to be with your kid. Don't abandon your kid at a dance; stay together. Dance together. If you bring your kid, hang out with your kid and make sure your kid's having a good time too. That way he or she won't be in danger of being stepped on or knocked down by fast-moving dancers. And that way everybody can have a good time, your child included. But you can't really participate in partner dancing when you have your child with you; it's not fair to your child or to the other dancers.
Dance as close as you want — There's a puritanical streak in partner dance: dance students are often taught you should always hold your partner at arm's length no matter what. Don't listen to the puritans; they didn't have it right about the witches, and they don't have it right about dancing close. How close you dance with your partner is a subtle, gentle, ongoing negotiation with each partner, in each dance. There is no right or wrong, just what both people want. Me, I like to dance close. There is one rule: whoever wants the most distance rules. Trying to force a partner closer, whether by muscling them in (leads) or refusing to have any frame and collapsing into your partner (follows) is rude, and can even be grounds for walking away in the middle of a dance. Try to work it out verbally if nonverbal clues don't work, and only walk away as a last resort. But walk away if that's what it takes; do not tolerate unwanted closeness.
Puritanical dance teachers have dominated how some dances get taught, at least in this country. In every turning waltz class I ever took, the teachers emphasized the importance of maintaining open space within the frame at the top. "Imagine there's a beach ball between your chest and your partner's." That's a lot of space! I'm sorry to say I never questioned that, and taught the same to many dance students over the years. But friends of mine who have spun to Strauss in Vienna and musettes in Paris tell me that a very close embrace is common, even for very fast turning: you can spin in contact with your partner, chest-to-chest and thigh-to-thigh. Shocking! Scandalous! The dance police do not approve! I now teach turning waltz as a dance that can be done in open or close embrace; for faster waltzes, a close embrace makes waltzing much easier, more connected, more relaxed. For blues, a closer embrace is natural and intuitive.
In all the partner dances I know, there's quite a lot of room for individual preference regarding how close you dance. You should check it out; experiment with dancing close with a partner who's comfortable dancing close with you. You might find you like dancing close.
Bad habits — Most dancers develop bad habits as they learn to dance. Some of these may be strategies - good or bad - that you adopt as part of your struggle to learn to dance, that then stay around to plague you long afterward. A classic example is counting the beat of the music: out loud, under your breath, silently, even just mentally. If you're counting the beat of the music, in any way on any level, it's a barrier to dancing; you're counting instead of hearing the music. Dance teachers count out the beat to help students learn to hear it in the music. The point is to learn to hear it, not to imitate the dance teacher. Stop counting. No, really, right now. It's really irritating. Stop it!
Bad habits of posture are particularly disruptive to good dancing, and hard to detect in yourself. There are way too many to list; any physical habit that makes it harder for you to be upright, open to your partner, relaxed, present, in contact is a bad habit of posture. The only cure for these habits is to dance with good partners and hope they'll help you out. Seeing yourself dance on video may give you a clue that you have a bad habit, but to break one of these you're still going to need a partner or partners who will patiently help you with it. Or impatiently; the point is to find partners who won't simply put up with your bad habits. Good luck.
Obnoxious styling — Styling can add snap and humor to your dance connection, or it can be an obnoxious, self-absorbed solo act that detracts from the connection. Dancers who are entranced with styling — shines and footwork variations, hand styling, head styling, etcetera — easily end up leaving their partners out of the loop. Leads and follows can be equally guilty of this. Styling should never get in the way of the dance itself. Your connection, moving with your partner to the music, is what dance is; styling should be unobtrusive. Stick with the dance, stick with your partner; let styling be an organic outgrowth of that connection.
Never dance with anyone you don't want to dance with — For partner dance to work, you have to say to your partner "I want to dance with you" and you have to mean it. Not in words, but in your body, in your dancing. Dancing with someone you don't want to dance with out of obligation, or in obedience to a social rule, at any time when it can be avoided is poisonous to you and to your partner because it's a lie. Lies are always poisonous. When you dance with someone you hold them in your arms and you move together in an intimate embrace. If you dance with someone you don't want to dance with, you're telling a lie not merely with your mealy mouth that said yes when you meant no, but with your body and movement and breath; you're telling a serious lie.
Wanting to dance with someone can be anything from nice but relatively shallow ("That person looks lonely; I'd like to make them feel more welcome here") to truly profound ("I want to dance with you more than anything else I can even imagine right now"). It's not important why or how much you want to dance with someone, but it's absolutely critical that you do want to dance with that person. If you don't want to but you do, you're betraying them and betraying yourself. Don't do it.
PS: this only applies in situations where you're free to choose your partner. It does not apply in dance classes, for instance; there your obligation is to dance with the next person in rotation, graciously and generously.
- by Zachariah Cassady
- Dance Shoes: Seeking a Sole Mate - Advice about finding the right dance shoes
[Click here to download a copy of this article.]
- Choosing Compatible Soles
The choice of hard leather, soft leather or suede soles is an individual one, based on your feet, your preference, and your budget. Soft leather soles (like Jazz shoes) give you more contact with the floor, glide well enough, and are usually cheaper. However, they offer little support for your feet and may be too soft for some people. Smooth (or hard) leather soles give more "springiness" to your feet and can have good built-in support. They usually last longer than soft-soled shoes. Some people find spinning and gliding across the floor easier with hard leather soles. Soft suede soles, which glide softly on wood floors, are the kind found on traditional competition ballroom shoes (for both men and women). Suede soles can be glued onto many non-traditional shoes. However, they are easily ruined by wearing them outdoors or getting them wet. Try out various shoes and soles -- spin, triple step, and glide -- and choose a sole compatible with yours.
- Searching the Ready-Made Market
Plain basic (black) shoes made for dancing are available for approximately $50-90 (or more) at several stores in the Puget Sound area (see specific list below). Men have choices of hard, soft or suede leather soles in two styles: rounded toe or elongated shape. Women have three choices at the basic level. Jazz shoes (very flat) have soft leather soles only. The Oxford flat has hard leather or suede soles, and the Character shoe has a choice of soles, with 1.5" or 2" heel. More selection and fashion styles and colors are available for both men and women with European style ballroom dance shoes at some stores. These usually cost more.
- Finding an Individual Fit with a Customized Shoe
Custom-made shoes are available at Art's Dance Shop in Kirkland, specializing in dance shoes, both readymade and custom-made. Costs vary depending on choice of leather, fashion, etc. If you have a problem foot, this may be a very reasonable solution.
- Converting a Street Sole
"Street shoes" are any ready-made shoes not specifically made for dance but adaptable to becoming your designated dance shoes. You can buy that favorite brand that fits so well! Check the soles. Leather, of course, is best, but some hard plastic soles will work, as long as no black marks appear on wood floors. Rubber doesn't work. Hard leather or suede soles can be glued by a cobbler to manmade soles, even to some athletic shoes. The cost is usually between $10-25. It is worth it, since the shoes will last a long time if you save them just for dancing.
- The Creative Sole-ution
For those on a tight budget, or those who want more than one pair of dance shoes, or those who just like doing things their way -- try creating your own soles. A piece of good leather (e.g. From Tandy Leather Company) and barge cement are the ingredients. Trace the sole of the shoe on the leather and cut it out. Rough up the current soles of the shoes with sandpaper or by scraping. Apply barge cement on both the bottom of the shoe and the leather. Let dry, then align and push together. Let the shoes dry. Trim. Dance!
- Maintaining Your Long-Term Relationship
For best results use shoe trees, carry your shoes in a shoe bag, don't let the soles get wet, and never wear them outdoors. (Real life should be so easy!) Happy Dancing!
Local Shops for Dance Shoes
(This list is for information only, not promotion of particular shops.) We suggest you call first.
Arabesque Dance Shop
22811 100th Avenue W
Character shoes (smooth leather or suede soles) $50-100 Jazz shoes (suede soles) $55-up.
Art's Dance Shop
Art is retired, but still takes some orders for custom-made shoes – specifically for dancing, smooth leather or soft leather, specialty fits for problem feet, $120-130 - up.
Bobillot Dance Shoes • Kathi Bobillot
Local distributor of very fine shoes. By appointment only. Ballroom and Latin: $85 to $95. Dance Sneakers: $55.
Center Stage Dance Shop
5012 University Wy NE
Jazz shoes (soft soles) - women's $50, men's $65 Character shoes and flats, women and men's styles, $50-75.
The Dancing Shoe
15207 6th SW
Burien, WA 98166
Quality brands of men's and women's character shoes. Jazz and practice shoes.
Emerald City Dance Boutique
Wide variety of European style ballroom dance shoes, $99 - up.
Petticoat Junction Dance Shop
14523 Hwy 99
Jazz and practice shoes, suede soles, flats, $40-50. Wide range of ballroom dance shoes, soft and smooth, $85-95 - up.
Rubaiyat Hand Made Shoes
Hand made shoes in patterns and styles of your choosing, suede or smooth leather. Prices depend on shape, style, leathers, heel height. Range from $135 - up.
- Choosing Compatible Soles