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’m in a room filled with enthusiastic dancers and one self-righteous critic. She leans in close and mutters, “No one here can dance”. I smile politely but cringe inside.
When people scoff at how others dance, I want to remind them that not everyone can afford to drop thousands of dollars for private lessons. Many dancers are struggling to get by as students or single parents. I started dancing when I was in grad school completing two Masters degrees. Private lessons wasn’t an option for me for many, many years. Most people would love to invest in their dancing, but it isn’t always feasible. It isn’t fair to mock people who have the passion but don’t have the financial means to do the kind of training others do.
Let’s also not forget that most of us get into dancing just to have fun. Not everyone seeks to compete or perform. Some dance to be more expressive or playful. Some are experimenting with new concepts and ideas. Not everyone wants to dance the same way or the same style. Others seek to innovate, not recreate… and let’s be honest: innovating and experimenting is a wonky looking process, and everyone deserves a safe space to explore and create their magic.
I realize that the path I’ve chosen for myself isn’t necessarily the right path for everyone else. I love private lessons and practicas and seeking feedback. And yes, I know a lot of people get exasperated by the skill level in their scene and wish their peers would train more. However, if I want to raise the level in my scene, I need to be someone who inspires and helps others, not shames them or shuts them out. Serious dancers have the power to create glass ceilings in their community and they have the power to break them.
It’s easy to get self-righteous as we progress. I know several beginners who grew very critical of others once they got serious with their training.
When I find myself falling into judgement, I know it’s ego (which is driven by insecurity) sparking that. I turn my attention inward to focus on how I can better my dancing – or how I can help support others along their journey.
Dance communities are small. So much is gained by being kind, supportive and helpful of one another. I’m less interested in judging what my peers are doing and I’m more interested in finding ways I can inspire or invite people to explore new concepts and ideas along with me.
And I love sharing what (or most importantly, who) has been helpful for me. Serious dancers and scene leaders can gently offer guidance to those who are struggling, lost or going down the wrong paths for the result they seek.
True scene leaders help each other UP the ladder, not kick them down to the ground, block the ladder or scoff at how no one knows how to climb a ladder. You never know why people are where they are and why. It’s worth staying humble and kind. ❤
We may never know what issues people are facing which make them think, act and react in certain ways. Be helpful rather than judgmental. – Mufti Ismail Menk
I was just about to leave for my first big tango festival when a message popped up on my phone. It was from a skilled dancer raving over the amazing followers and how every dance was the “best one ever”. Then he said how excited he was to dance with me that afternoon.
My excitement shifted – without a clutch – to anxiety. Was I going to be totally out of my league? I had been working on my tango but I still had much to learn. I didn’t want to disappoint any kind-hearted, unsuspecting leads who took a chance on an unknown girl. First impressions matter – especially in tango.
That weekend, I felt this anxiety pulsing through my body with every guy who asked me to dance. Sure, the dances were amazing for me, but were they amazing for my partners? Because I truly cared about that.
My focus when dancing is on giving and creating. I seek to give perfect balance, timing and responsiveness. I seek to create a moment with my partner that leaves them feeling awe over what just transpired between us and the music.
That level of giving and creating takes time and work to master. Meanwhile, I wrestle with the insecurity of knowing that I’m not there yet.
When I began tango I discovered something terribly awkward. With it’s complex technique, requisite intimacy and demand for total vulnerability, tango makes people insecure. Could I get truly comfortable with being raw, vulnerable and (gasp) – imperfect in this unforgiving dance?
I could handle being raw and vulnerable – hey, I was once naked on stage. But the idea of people politely suffering through dances with me while making mental notes to avoid me for the next decade was unacceptable.
I am secretly obsessed with how I feel to my partner. I never want a lead to feel burdened by a lack of balance, or thrown off by bad timing or wonder how to control something that doesn’t listen and moves on auto-pilot. The insecurity is a result of how much I care about how I affect my partner and what we are collaboratively seeking to do.
Insecurity drove me to action.
Therefore, I work regularly with a pro. I insist he is brutally honest when training me. I attend weekly practicas (and probably annoy the leads with how much I ask how something felt or what would make it feel better). I ask for specific feedback. I assume nothing because I’ve been surprised in the past. Insecurity has kept me open to growing. It drives me to root out and fix everything that doesn’t feel good to a partner. Insecurity drives me to take an experience and seek ways to make it better.
This all served to help build greater confidence. However….
Confidence carries an ugly risk – assumptions. Sometimes we get so comfortable or confident that we get sloppy over time without realizing it. Or we think we know more than we truly do. A “good” embrace isn’t the same as a “phenomenal” embrace. Everything can be done better with new layers of technique.
As I develop confidence in an area, I keep it on my radar to check regularly with practice partners and my pro. I’ve grown sloppy two weeks later on something I thought I had nailed down.
So perhaps a dash of insecurity is a good thing after all… something to keep me humble and driven to stay on top of my game. A few weeks ago, I travelled to a festival out of state and had a drastically different experience. I felt confident. I felt humble. And even though I felt that tinge of insecurity, this time I knew what to do with it. I embraced it.
Windsocks. Usually seen outside car dealerships, dancing and waving in the wind to capture your attention. I’m pretty sure one of those windsocks just got off work and came out to the venue I was at and asked me to dance. It was a beautiful, evocative fusion song. But I didn’t get to do fusion to that song. Instead, I got windsocked.
The dance started off nicely enough. He pulled me in for a nice embrace and a gentle pulse. Then he broke into open position and began waving… waving his noodly arms and body as he became totally caught up in the freedom of moving his body as he channeled the music. I think his mind waved off too because he seemed totally oblivious to my ideas and invitations.
It happens in fusion. It happens in blues. It even happens in lindy. It seems to happens in dances where technique is not a dominant focus of the dance.
Have we somehow given the impression that technique isn’t necessary? Do people believe some dances are so easy that they don’t need to learn actual moves – much less how to execute them? Many classes teach moves but gloss over technique. It took me to YEARS to realize, “Oh yeah… technique. I should probably work on that.”
Yes, technique is hard and dirty work. And we dance for fun, right? Sometimes that windsock dance is fun – it’s free and playful and kind of mindless. And I get it. Some people just want to play. If they don’t like technique, they may gravitate to fusion or blues where they feel more freedom to play. But any partner dancing is a technique driven activity.
Fusion is no exception. Unfortunately, some people may not know what to do with fusion songs. Perhaps they never really learned blues movement and idioms, or the fundamentals of west coast swing, tango, jazz or general dance technique. They may lack skill in one dance, much less know how to skillfully blend dance styles or apply movement to a different music genre.
That skill and technique is what makes it fusion. Otherwise, it’s just freestyle social dancing.
For improv driven dances such as blues and fusion, having a wide vocabulary of movements to draw inspiration from (and being able to skillfully execute them) is a huge benefit. As dancers, we steal ideas and movements from other styles. Learning other styles helps you steal more.
Windsocking might be good for those who are still building their general dance skills, technique and vocabulary… and perhaps there are people who simply want to express and feel the music without taking it to other levels. That’s ok.
However, I believe there is magic in learning how to do something skillfully – especially when it involves a partner. Invest in learning various dances – technique and all. Dancing can be more than just freedom and expression. It can be absolutely magical.
At a recent milonga, I was captivated by one woman’s dancing… her technique, styling, body control – it was exquisite to watch! My friend, however, was completely unimpressed. “I’ve danced with her,” he says. “All she does is show off. In tango, I want to create a moment with my partner.”
Well, that explains a rather unfulfilling dance I had recently with a competitive blues dancer. He started off the dance with super-dynamic moves. He worked it pretty hard, showing off every bit of what he learned in his years of private lessons.
But it was the most disconnected dance I’ve had in years. He knew how to execute moves. He could lead. He could shape his body in dynamic ways. But it felt like he had forgotten how to connect with a partner. He was so over-connected with himself that there was no space for him to connect with me. My ideas, invitations and responses went ignored. He was just showing off.
People probably thought we looked great (he was, after all, a solid lead and dancer). But the dance didn’t feel good to me. And that should have mattered more than how we looked.
I walked away and thought, “Don’t put ego before connection”. I too have been guilty of being a “pole dancer”, treating my partner like a pole that simply held me up while I did all my fancy stuff.
Thankfully, things changed for me. I love being bound in a moment with my partner, responding to his expression, emotion and movements… unconditionally welcoming ideas and invitations. I love having a unscripted, raw, organic conversation that unfolds and blossoms in ways neither one of us could have predicted.
I used to dance with a ballroom instructor who segued into the street dances. When we danced, he simply did what he felt. Most of the dance was movements he made up on the spot based on our connection. His mastery of partner dynamics made this possible. Being unscripted made him ultra-connected and responsive to me. His focus wasn’t on thinking, it was on feeling. And it was phenomenal.
Dance WITH me, not at me.
Listen to me…. and respond to what I offer.
Show me what you feel and not what you were told to do.
In the past, I wrote about how a dance can be an “experience“. Creating a moment is the exact same thing. Experiences and “moments” stick with me. They remind me of why I love partner dancing – especially when it’s an amazing, artistic, bonding moment between two people.
A highly connected dance can be the epitome of listening. If you want to touch your partner’s heart and soul, show it to them on the dance floor by how you respond to them. Perhaps that’s how we create a moment.