I used to be a pole dancer. In my early days of swing dancing, after I got confident in my movement and musicality, I was guilty of treating the lead like he was a pole… Just something for me to hold onto while I did whatever I felt in the music. I remember a guy once saying (with a bit of awe), “But I didn’t lead any of that”. I smiled knowingly and said, “I know….” So I was a pole dancer AND a brat.
Well, karma found me last week and nipped me on my little pink butt.
I was approached by an advanced guy in another scene who I’d seen around but had never danced with. Pickings must have been low that night because he hit me up for a dance.
He started the dance in open position. Which was a red flag because this particular dance nearly always starts in a close, intimate embrace.
Pole dancers love being in open because it gives them the maximum freedom to do whatever they want, which usually means showing off fancy footwork, styling and at times, solo movements. Which he did. Repeatedly.
I shouldn’t have encouraged him, but I felt compelled to keep saying things like, “Wow” and “Check you out…” because this guy put on quite a show.
Turns out not only was he a pole dancer, but he was a peacock too. He dominated the dance by showcasing two decades of styling mastery into a three minute song, leaving me do do nothing more than go, “Okay, okay… I get it – you are clearly the superior human”.
I don’t know whether he was trying to impress me (or the four people totally not watching us), school me or use me to show off. What I do know is that he needed me to give him the counterbalance needed to pull off some of those moves.
The dance wasn’t about me and it sure wasn’t about us. It was all about him.
Based on his skill level, I thought that dance was going to be more than “just a dance”. Instead I sat down feeling confused, a bit annoyed and very used. One might say… the antithesis of a tangasm.
Dancing is about connection. We connect in ways that are physical, musical, emotional and energetic. Great dancers employ multiple levels of connection.
Ego isn’t one of them.
Just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you should.
The concept of connection has always fascinated me. Below are my personal thoughts on how I’ve experienced connection in a variety of dances and movement practices over two decades.
At the most basic level, I believe connection is about the physical touchpoints that connect two partners together.
Connection Points: Every beginner needs to learn the appropriate connection points and which places should be avoided. Catching me at the hip bone is good. The squishy parts around my ovaries are not. And I don’t care what partner dance you’re doing, the groin is not a desired connection point.
Physical Touch: I don’t need the grip of a kidnapper. I don’t want fingers gouging out my kidneys or a thumb crushing the top of my hand. All I want is a gentle, but fully present hold – wherever you are touching me.
Initiating & Adjusting: In tango, I do my best to present my chest connection softly and gently, entering into the connection mutually by letting him meet me there instead of imposing my connection upon him. If it is a weight bearing or counterbalanced connection, I have to sense whether there is mutual consent before engaging and adjusting the degree of connection. It takes finesse to learn when and how to intensify (or lighten) connection fluidly throughout a dance.
This might just be the most important element of connection simply because it’s the one thing that puts both dancers on the same page. If both people are connected to the basic timing of a song, it opens the door for everything else to occur.
Timing, rhythms and structure of the music. It’s tricky to have musicality skills without a solid understanding of these elements. It can be tedious and boring to learn but it’s worth studying. I was guilty of doing this intuitively until I found tango and realized that wasn’t going to fly.
The energy of the music. The energy of the music needs to fit the movement in the dance. If I’m at an alternative milonga and the DJ plays Radioactive, I want to put some grit into my tango to get it to match the energy of the song I’m actually dancing to. So yeah, throw some dirt on it.
Musical element: Am I dancing to the vocals, the melody, the bass, the violins, the percussion? Being aware of what my main connection point is to the music helps me build an even richer connection with my partner, especially if we are doing call and response with specific instruments.
There is a ton of energy around movement and music. This is about the interconnectedness of the elements that influence our dance and how we are connected to other energies around us.
Inner Mechanics. I think of this as connecting my own physical body to my inner mechanical system that allows me to connect effectively with a partner. This includes everything from engaging my core to maintaining proper tone to my overall body organization. Great dancers do a lot of stuff internally that aren’t easily visible, but make a huge difference with how the person feels and executes movements.
The floor. As dancers, we pull our energy from the ground (or push our energy into it). For me, it’s not just about being grounded or weighted, it’s about sustaining that “push and pull” of energy with the floor that creates this connection. We are either sending or receiving energy at all times with each foot. Feeling the floor is a major connection focus for me.
Tradition and Roots. It’s always good to be connected to the historic energy of the dance, the music and culture. Blues and tango have deeply rich histories in the roots of the dance, the music and the culture. Honoring those roots and weaving them into your movement and expression is a way to connect to the energetic core of the dance. And yes, this matters.
The Moment. For me, dancing is very zen. I do my best to be in this moment, right here, right now. If I’m connected to a future moment or an outside thought (i.e., how does this look in the mirror), then I’ve lost connection to what’s happening with my partner right now. If my mind wanders away, my partner feels it. And they feel it as a drop in connection.
The Space. Space on a dance floor is constantly opening and closing all around you, especially in dances like lindy hop or salsa, where it can feel chaotic. Dancers must be connected to what’s happening around them so they can operate smoothly and safely with their partner.
Other Dancers. You know all those other dancers around you? What we do on the dance floor affects our partner AND everyone dancing around us. An oblivious dancer can create havoc on a floor. Distraction can cause disconnection. Don’t be the reason other dancers disconnect. On some level, we are essentially dancing with everyone in the room. Deep, right?
The Audience. I love dancing to live music at venues with a captive audience to entertain. I love connecting with the audience by including them into the experience I’m having, especially when I’m doing blues, lindy or west coast swing. Whether it’s a knowing wink over the lead’s shoulder or a “oopsie!” expression behind his back, I find people light up when they realize they are “in on” what I’m experiencing. And that’s when I know I’ve connected with them.
Where the real magic starts to happen.
Your Emotions (and theirs). Being aware of what the song evokes in me – and letting it express itself – is an amazing journey through learning to be vulnerable. My emotional state drives my styling. Sometimes I see dancers go into the emotional state of a character or persona in the song… very powerful when done well. Bonus points for noticing and connecting to your partner’s emotional state as well. During songs of angst, my old fusion partner would get super fierce during our dances. I’d flow right along with whatever emotion he showed – and vice versa. Sometimes great dancers are also amazing actors (or channelers).
Sensuality: Some dances call for us to unveil our sensuality… our masculinity, our femininity, and all the powers and vulnerabilities that come with that. This is an important dynamic to get personally connected to. If I’m super connected to my feminine sensuality and he’s connected to his masculine sensuality – oh my god HELLO. If only one person brings their sensuality, it’s like having a plug with no outlet to connect to. No power.
The Conversation. If we dance “conversationally”, we have to be connected to our partner’s calls and responses. If I’m not connected here I’m basically not listening and might be guilty of pole dancing (i.e., treating my partner like he’s just a pole that holds me up while I do all my fancy stuff). Or I’m being a peacock and dominating the dance by showing off all my styling leaving my partner to do nothing more than go, “uh huh…”.
The Story. Every dance is telling a story (even if it’s a boring one). I love getting connected to the story that builds from the music and the emotional dynamics brewing between the two of us. Therefore, I have to watch and listen for those cues. Ideally, the story we build in our dance should naturally connect to the story of the song. I’ve certainly been guilty of doing a sexy, playful dance to a song about murder or brutal heartbreak. Lyrics matter.
Heart to Heart. This goes well beyond chest connection. This is about embracing my partner unconditionally, fully accepting the wholeness of who they are, finding beauty in every essence of their being, creating that safe space where they can be totally vulnerable with me… and within our space together. It means there is no ego. I’m not trying to show off or prove anything. I don’t feel secretly disappointed at what my partner isn’t doing right. When I connect here, I allow myself to simply “be in love” with my partner for those 10 minutes. Or rather, I enter a state of loving-kindness, openness and compassion. And I allow myself to be fully embraced by my partner, accepting whatever he or she offers.
For me, some dances transcend connection – and enter into merging. This is where I feel so beautifully lost in my partner and the music that I can no longer tell where I end and everything else begins. This is where the dance becomes flawlessly effortless, we are connecting on a purely intuitive sense and the flow is beyond what either of us felt possible. Both of us find ourselves going beyond what we know to be possible and begin arching into the deepest corners of our creativity, expression and vulnerability.
It doesn’t happen often, but every time I’ve had a dance like this, it ends the exact same way. Both of us emerge in this state of awe and immediately go, “WOW – WHAT WAS THAT?”. I find those moments come unexpectedly, without us trying, but by simply being.
The intention here is not to over-analyze connection, but to appreciate the scope of what phenomenal dancers do. To emphasize how much of connection is about feeling and not just doing.
I certainly haven’t mastered connection. I’m still experimenting and discovering new aspects of it.
Ultimately, I want to do more than just dance. I want to create a moment with my partner. For me, dancing should be more than just a dance – it should be an experience that sticks with us… And we never forget dances with amazing connection.
I know a girl who treats leads like they are amusement park rides. She wants the lead to entertain her with a bunch of flashy moves… lifts, dips, drops. If the dance isn’t exciting enough for her, she will throw herself into a dramatic dip or drop – and expect the guy to catch her.
Not only is that incredibly dangerous, but it’s rude to the lead. It treats him like he is there solely to serve her. Leads shouldn’t feel used for the follower’s enjoyment.
It amazes me how many times I hear this complaint from leaders… Feeling like his job is to give ladies a magical, exciting dance – despite the fact that she may not have the technical skills to execute it on her end.
I don’t expect the lead to show me off and make me feel beautiful, sexy and talented. That is MY job – and I shouldn’t rely on a lead for that. Great followers look amazing with anyone they dance with because of their skills – not the leads.
Therefore, I’m studying technique – so I can be an equal contributor. A lead doesn’t want to exhaust himself compensating for things we aren’t willing to learn to do correctly (i.e., maintaining our own balance, staying on time, or sustaining proper frame and connection). He’s there to have fun too – not just work his ass off trying to keep us upright and beaming.
The most unforgettable dance I’ve witnessed was a tango couple in Denver; he led nothing but forward steps and side steps. The woman, with gorgeous footwork and brilliant musicality, spun those movements into pure magic.
She showed me that with amazing technique, we can make simple dances look and feel utterly captivating.
For me, partner dancing is about giving. I don’t seek out leads based on what I can get, I seek out leads based on what I feel we can give one another. I want the lead to sincerely enjoy dancing with me – and for the right reasons.
Ideally, I want to give perfect balance, solid connection and flawless timing (have patience; it is a work in progress). I want to inspire him with my musicality and entertain him with beautiful, creative styling. I want him to feel that moving with me is effortless so he can be in his heart and not in his headspace. And since that is the gift I want to give my lead, I am actively building those skills.
Ultimately, I want to be the follower who makes the dance fun for my lead. Because in partner dancing, it’s not all about me. It’s all about us.
If you just want to “use” a lead to make you feel beautiful and talented, at least drop $20 in his pocket when the song starts and say, “Entertain me!” so he knows what hell he just entered into. He will need it for physical therapy / medical bills when you throw yourself into a dip he didn’t lead.
Last week I jumped into a beginning tango class when I noticed they were short on followers. The first guy I rotated to looked at my fancy-schmancy tango shoes and said, “You’ve done this before”, to which I affirmed. He lit up and say, “Great – I’m in good hands then”.
I saw a slight buzz kill when I smiled and said, “Actually, I will follow exactly what you lead. Otherwise, you won’t learn anything.” I was kind – but intentionally blunt – so he understood my intention. He got it right away and smiled with understanding when I only did part of what he led. Later he thanked me and expressed how helpful that was.
Most ladies show up in a class and execute the move – regardless of what the lead does. The ladies do their part, the lead does his but they aren’t connected. They just happen independently of each other at roughly the same time so it ends up looking like a successful execution. At the end, the lead is smiling because he thinks he did it right and the girl is making a mental note to avoid this particular guy once open dancing starts.
Basically, the guy pays $15 to develop delusions of competence. And we wonder why people don’t get better despite all the classes they take.
So ladies, speak up. Tell the lead what you are feeling. Class time is feedback time. If you didn’t truly feel the lead, tell him that. Ask him to give you a stronger lead. If you don’t know what was wrong, ask him to experiment together on various adjustments.
Leads, if she didn’t execute what you expected, ASK HER what she felt. Don’t assume she just didn’t do the move correctly. Please seek to understand what she experienced especially if you’re not sure why it didn’t go right.
Did she feel the lead?
Was it clear enough?
Did she feel it was safe to execute?
Was she able to execute her part?
Followers don’t execute moves for a variety of reasons – and not just because we are confused, incompetent or thinking about unicorns. If I don’t feel safe doing it (i.e., the guy is trying to dip me but I sense he doesn’t really “have” me) I’m not going for it. Sometimes the guy has me on the wrong foot when he starts the big move. Sometimes he feels so ungrounded I’m just trying to protect myself from falling over. Sometimes he’s skipping a critical part that my movement is contingent upon. Those little things might render me “unable” to do the move.
So ladies, tell him what you need if something isn’t working. Focus on what you want or need instead of what he did wrong.
I believe in being an honest follow by following precisely what is led (yes, this will frustrate the lead, but no one said learning is easy). Being a true partner means actively contributing to both people learning the move and the technique being taught.
Remember, if the guy isn’t leading a move correctly, you aren’t able to learn the move properly either. Participate. Communicate. Help the guy figure it out with you so you both get something meaningful out of the class. Because that’s what you are both paying for. Unless you really are just seeking delusions of competence.
I don’t aspire to be a world class dancer. I want to be a captivating dancer. Watching 15 years of various styles of dance has left me wondering why some dancers are simply captivating and others are great, but… not so interesting to watch or dance with. Here are a few insights thus far.
1. We are an art form: Yes, dancing is about fun and expression, but it is also an art. The whole package – the movement, the outfit, the shoes (if you’ve seen tango done in dance sneakers you know what I mean), the hair, the body’s physique, the lines and shapes we create in our movement, even our facial expressions and attitudes. I love how ballroom, classical and modern dancers have perfected this concept. It seems that embracing dance as an art form changes how we dance – even socially. Beautiful aesthetics are always captivating for me.
At the end of the day, looks matter (that’s why they tan in Ballroom before a comp!). People flood to the ballet to see a beautiful body, in a flattering costume, moving gracefully and artistically. I don’t believe size rules out anyone here; but know how to move YOUR body and how to flatter it and showcase it beautifully in both movement and dress. People wouldn’t have cared about Jewel McGowan’s switches if she had been wearing cargo pants.
2. We are a storyteller: Some of my best dances are with guys who are actors. They understand how to tell a great story in a dance… They get into character and take me with them. Sometimes my partner eyes me like I am a morsel of buttered steak that he’s about to devour – and the next song he looks cold and furious and won’t look at me.
For me, captivating dancers are emotionally connected. And when that happens, a fascinating story begins unfolding. Whether we intend to or not, we are telling a story when we dance. Make it a good one. Make yourself vulnerable and express the energy you feel with your partner. Make eye contact. I never understand why people don’t look at each other when they dance. For me, it creates the impression of dancing together but not actually being together – so they seem disconnected from each other and the moment being shared. I use eye contact like spice; a dash here and there for emphasis. Eye contact is styling – use it!
3. We are in a relationship: The moment you say, “sure!” when someone asks you to dance, you have officially entered into a temporary relationship. So act like it. You wouldn’t enter a relationship and just do whatever you want with zero regard for the other person. In a respected relationship, no one truly wants to inflict pain, danger or embarrassment – or leave their partner feeling ignored or used. If you wouldn’t do it in a 5 year relationship, don’t do it in a 5 minute dance. We all deserve that respect, right?
I get tremendous insight in how someone operates in a relationship by how they dance. I can tell whether someone is a good communicator and a good listener by how they dance. Good partners are very in tune with what their partner is doing and expressing. They work in collaboration with one another… they assume joint responsibility for the experience. They expect nothing, but give everything. They listen more than they talk.
When the chemistry is good, my goal is to captivate my partner. I want my partner to be fascinated by the experience we are having. Sometimes a dance is not “just a dance”. We do that by fully entering the relationship and letting ourselves connect with vulnerability, openness and respect for our partner. I don’t want to be a “pole dancer” who treats my lead like he is nothing more than a pole holding me up while I do whatever I want.
What captivates me most is when I see two dancers who are utterly captivating to one another. If they are telling a fantastic, dynamic story (or conversation) in addition to being fully lost in their relationship with one another, they have won my heart. For total perfection, make the entire experience an art form with attention to all the visual details.
THEN we have a experience that captivates me at my very soul – and inspires me to pursue that in my own dancing.
A few years ago, I started doing Argentine Tango. While learning this highly complex dance, I found dances frustrating and unfulfilling. Until I met Joe. My dances with Joe were delightful! Each time I left his embrace feeling like the most elegant, talented dancer in the room. I thought “Wow – tango is easier than I thought!”.
My dances with Joe, a professional tango dancer, were amazing because of his skill level – not mine. A skilled dancer compensates for everything the unskilled person does wrong. When I dance with Joe, if I am off time, he gets me on time. On the wrong foot? Joe fixes that too. If my frame or connection is weak, or my musicality is off, Joe has to compensate for all that. Meanwhile, I am blissfully unaware and having a fantastic time – relishing in my delusions of competence. But Joe is having to work extra hard to make this dance tolerable / enjoyable / not a public embarrassment.
Many people think dancing with advanced dancers will make them better dancers. Really? If someone is compensating for all your mistakes, how will you ever learn anything? How will you ever learn how to stay on time, manage your own momentum, hold your own balance or weight, and maintain connection?
Want to learn how to stay on balance? Go dance a lot with a someone who constantly puts you off balance. You’ll end up mastering the skill of how to managing your balance no matter what.
THAT is a skill of an advanced dancer.
Fast forward two years: Last night I danced with a total beginner who kept apologizing each time he had me on the wrong foot or put me off balance. Later I explained that those things actually help me become a better dancer – it is good practice and skill development for me to learn how to handle those situations fluidly and with grace.
A truly advanced dancer knows how to handle awkward shifts in balance or being on the wrong foot or off time. Anybody can be a great dancer when they have a perfect partner – but for me, the skill set that truly makes them advanced is that they can dance just as well with a pro as they can with a beginner. If we are dependent on having a “good partner”, then we aren’t actually very good dancers.
When I dance with a beginner, I get a chance to work on skills I rarely get to work on with a skilled lead, such as maintaining my balance and staying on axis (regardless!) and filling long pauses and empty space with styling.
The truly advanced person keeps revisiting their fundamentals because we experience them differently as we develop. Even though I’m still very much a beginner in tango, I’m trying to avoid falling into the trap of having delusions of competence. I’d rather know how to dance, than just think I do.
I was approached at a dance last week by a guy who was ecstatic to see me. He said still remembered a dance we shared 8 years ago; he even recalled the exact song. Later that night, I was reminded by a friend that he too has never forgotten the first dance he had with me. He remembers all the details of that dance even though it was ten years ago. It still sticks with him.
I was baffled. Why did these memories stick with these guys after all these years? This is when I realized that sometimes a dance isn’t just a dance. Sometimes it’s an experience. And we don’t forget experiences. We forget events, encounters, conversations and situations – but an experience sticks with you.
So I began teasing apart what makes a dance an experience – and not just another dance…
- Being fully engaged in the relationship with my partner (every song evokes a relationship dynamic)
- Building a rich, dynamic and captivating story
- Jointly channelling the energy of the music and merging with my partner in doing so
- Unconditionally embracing and enjoying my partner throughout the entire song
- Showing that we are “in this together” – We are sharing responsibility for the entire dance, protecting each other, seamlessly covering for each other’s mistakes, etc.
- Being raw and authentic; letting them see what I really feel in my soul (and experiencing what is in theirs)
- Actively listening to each other, honoring each person’s contributions to the conversation and building upon them. Dancing is about communication, not just movement and personal expression.
Basically, it’s about connecting in ways that go beyond what occurs in a typical dance. I don’t think anyone wants to be forgettable. And yet, most of what we do in life has become easily dismissed from history of our lives. Why? I think it’s because we hesitate to truly connect on anything beyond a superficial level. We play it safe – but nothing interesting ever happens in that arena.
A lot of us struggle to connect at the deeper levels in dancing. Sustaining eye contact in a dance can be extremely uncomfortable for most people, so that level of connection doesn’t get experienced for many dancers. Emotional connection and storytelling is generally avoided unless you are performing – and even then, it is oftentimes so phony that it feels utterly vapid. The richness of real connection is crucial! Watch professional dancers perform; they look at each other with intense and raw emotion. It’s part of what makes the dance so captivating and connected.
I don’t want to be forgettable. Not every dance will be an amazing experience because that depends on how richly both dancers are willing to connect. It depends a lot on how vulnerable we are willing to be with one another. But when the potential is there, I aspire to immerse myself fully in order to create experiences that people (including me) will never forget. That’s why I dance. I dance to evoke connection that touches the heart and soul.
But this doesn’t stop with dancing. I can apply these very same principles in all my relationships, endeavors and interactions. Being fully engaged, actively listening and unconditionally embracing what is before me are principles I can apply throughout my life. But dancing lets me do practice these secrets of life to amazing music in the arms of dear friends. 🙂
After watching “I AM The Documentary” with Tom Shadyac, I sat back, trying to process a jumble of personal epiphanies from the movie. The interconnectedness of our world, the butterfly impact of our emotions, choosing cooperation over competition. Love being the solution for all things.
In reflecting on my own life, I questioned my choices and actions in light of these insights. I thought of the moments when I’ve been judgmental of another’s failure to be a perfect human (I hate that I’m guilty of this). I thought of times when I chose self-righteousness and stubbornness as a means to protect my heart (someone who knows me is nodding right now and thinking what an understatement this is).
I was reminded of moments of subvert competition; where we knowingly walk into the room playing up our sleek bodies, our designer outfits, our charmed lives. Is it pride and confidence – or competition? I’m not even sure anymore.
What is wrong with the world today? I am. It’s me. The answer is simpler than I thought.
We have lost our sense of connectedness. These behaviors, actions, and attitudes (judgement, competition, self-interest, ego) cut the cords between us. We all live in the same box but this chronic disconnect is extirpating our bonds as a community.
Chronic disconnect. We ignore the homeless because it’s “not my problem”. We conveniently forget that we make the same mistakes we judge others for. We shun people who don’t share our beliefs. We pass people and dismiss them as unworthy for a warm smile. Neighbors pretend to not see each other on the sidewalk. I know people who don’t even make eye contact with waiters.
What is the one thing that reconnects us? Acts of love.
These acts can be simple ones, like a warm smile or acknowledging others with eye contact. Michael’s mantra is to “be the first to say hello”. People light up when we do this. Whether I am at Chipotle or at Mastro’s, I make a point to look the server and busser in the eye and ask (with sincere interest), “How you are today?”. People aren’t used to that and I must say, I’ve seen people get choked up simply from being acknowledged in this way.
It’s inevitable that people will hurt us and infuriate us. My personal challenge at the moment is to ask myself one question. If I want to shut someone out because I feel hurt, I’m doing my best to pause and ask myself, “Is this an act of love?” before reacting.
Can I find it in my heart to respond with an act of love in everything I do? By choosing an act of love, I weave webs of connection. That’s the world I want to live in.
Compassion and forgiveness doesn’t mean that I open the door to be hurt again, it means I let go of the negative energy and accept the incident as an invitation to practice an act of love.
By choosing forgiveness and compassion, we choose cooperation. Societies who value cooperation allow failure and recovery to occur within the arms of total acceptance. Cooperation connects.
In America, we love competition. But I see how competition segregates. Go ahead; prove yourself as being the smartest. Win – and tell me how friendly the 5th runner up is to you. Competition (especially with women) ineluctably leaves others feeling inferior, or feel shame for not being better. But what is the point of winning and standing alone?
So today, I’m asking myself one question. Is this an act of love? It stands to be determined if this one question will ultimately change the world. But I know one thing for sure. It will certainly change mine.