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.
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 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.
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!