I am in a group class, secretly feeling pretty cocky because I just nailed the pattern the instructor taught. I continue practicing it on my own until I see the instructor making a beeline for me.
He stops me. And inside 30 seconds, tells me the 5 things I was doing completely wrong. To be fair, he conveyed this kindly as “corrections and adjustments”, but I immediately realized I had made some serious assumptions regarding how well I was doing that move.
Lesson learned: There’s a huge difference between doing a move and doing it correctly.
Truly learning a move means that I can do it with correct technique so it feels good to my partner and is properly executed. It means doing it while sustaining correct posture, body mechanics, balance, timing, connection, aesthetics and lead/follow technique. It means it doesn’t fall apart when I add expression, musicality and a room of dancers around me. It also means I can lead/follow it with a variety of body types/sizes, skill levels and abilities.
That’s a hell of a lot stuff.
Until I started learning technique, I had no idea how detailed it truly is. There is a huge difference between the “technique” taught in the group class and the TECHNIQUE I am learning in private lessons. It also explains why I never look like the instructor when I do the move.
My delusions of technique used to lead to me proudly proclaim, “I can follow anything!”. Being able to “follow” versus “dance as a follower” is like the difference between, “I can walk!” and being able to walk on a tightrope while knitting.
It is not the same skill set.
For me, it means the difference between being able to “dance” and being able to dance tango (or west coast swing, blues, etc.). Technique is what empowers me to do a specific dance correctly, effectively and * ahem * – enjoyably for my partner.
As a follower, I can’t be a passive participant. I can’t expect the lead to do all the work. And I know leads who take every class and still get turned down by good dancers. Don’t hate me for saying this but… it’s more than going through the motions of the pattern and expecting our partner to “do their part”.
Both roles must actively contribute more than just the surface level motions. There are underlying mechanics that make a huge difference in our dancing.
I knew an instructor who ended every class with, “If you liked the moves we taught today and want to learn the technique necessary to do this on the social floor, talk to us about private lessons or come join us at our practica”.
They emphasized that the class was only the start of learning a move. There is still much more to learn before taking it the social floor.
We rarely realize how much we don’t know. We often assume we are at a higher level than we truly are. If you are sitting more than you think you should be, consider that there just might be more to learn.
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.
I have a friend who picked up dancing and immediately jumped into taking as many classes as he could. He was at the studio five nights a week, taking 2-3 classes a night. He wanted to learn as much as he could in six months.
Six months later, despite taking many intermediate and advanced classes, he still could not execute the basic movements cleanly. He only had a few moves that he remembered and could lead. His posture and body organization was a mess. At the end of six months, he had a beginner skillset with an intermediate ego.
This guy didn’t need more classes. He needed feedback. He needed to practice what he had learned. He needed feedback from his partners and perhaps guidance from professionals hosting practice sessions. He needed active discussion with honest practice partners.*
This is exactly what I crave in my dance community because I need all those things too. I don’t want more classes and workshops. I need time to work on what I already know. I need to work on the things I learned in my private lessons but haven’t integrated or refined in my social dancing.
We don’t need more classes. We need more practicas with active discussion and feedback between partners.
People can only absorb so much information at a time. Information overload is fatal to effective learning. If you can’t retain it or execute it, it’s useless. In some cases, we create delusions of learning where people only retain information on a very shallow level. They can recite what they learned, but can’t execute it smoothly for 10 minutes on the dance floor with a variety of partners.
I fully believe that the true learning doesn’t happen in a class; it happens on the social floor. It happens when you are practicing with a partner. It happens during your experimentation and exploration.
We don’t learn by listening to a lecture. We learn by taking things into our own hands and practicing… and discovering what feels best to us… and adjusting based on the result we get from that experimentation. And with a partner, you get the benefit of direct feedback.
The best practices of learning apply whether you are learning how to tackle an opponent, design a logo or do the mambo. Learn new information. Then dedicate time to playing with it, experimenting with it and integrating it. Seek out feedback, make adjustments and experiment some more.
And as any learning professional can tell you, that is where the true magic, the big epiphanies, and the real learning happens.
* Feedback and discussion isn’t one-way teaching. Regardless of skill level, both people should seek feedback from others in any learning environment. Make no assumptions!
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.
Years ago, there was a trend among swing and blues dancers that made everyone look like great dancers. Baggy pants. Those loose, flowy pants hid the legs and most of the feet and magically made our dancing look super clean and smooth. All was good until Bud stopped me and said, “Can you wear tighter pants next week? We can’t see what your legs or feet are doing.”
That comment changed everything for me. The following week, I did wear fitted pants. And it was like being totally unmasked on that dance floor. Tight pants meant that I couldn’t hide my mistakes. I actually had to focus on making sure my lines and movements were super clean (they weren’t). My footwork now had to be precise (it wasn’t) – otherwise, everyone would know I wasn’t really as good as I looked under those baggy pants (I wasn’t).
I became a better dancer after I stopped hiding under my outfits.
Today, I often wear tennis skirts for dancing. It’s perfect. The shorts are built in. It’s athletic wear and super comfy. AND they show off my entire leg – which means that I can’t hide anything. It motivates me to strive to dance beautifully, with precision and mindfulness because I can see exactly what I’m doing and so can everyone else.
It’s kind of like knowing that if you are going to be naked, you better look damn good, so you work harder. That’s what the tennis skirts do for me. It motivates me to look good because I have nothing to mask my mistakes or sloppiness. Which is precisely what baggy pants did for me; it allowed me to get sloppy without me realizing it. They gave me delusions of competence.
So be a little more naked. Be a little more vulnerable. Allow yourself (and others, especially if working with an instructor or are teaching) to see what you are actually doing. Personally, I was surprised and humbled. But now, I love being unmasked in this way. I’m comfortable with this vulnerability. And that alone has made a massive difference for me as a dancer.
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. 🙂