Ask ten different ballroom dancers how to do a basic Rumba box, and I bet you’d get ten different answers.
Yes, the basics would be the same: the timing, the direction of the steps for the man and lady, that there should Cuban motion in the hips, for instance, but beyond the obvious “rules” listed in a syllabus, there are a myriad of ways a person could perform the same step.
Last night I had the pleasure of hanging out with mi amiga, Ivonne. After a fun little class learning some Tango and Cha Cha from Toni at Imperial, we headed over to a nearby Starbucks to chat. Among the many topics we broached, one that irked Ivonne was knowing if she was doing a step “right.” I’ve often had the same frustration; different people have told me different and even downright conflicting information about various dance steps over my dance “career.”
Who should I trust? Who is right? How will I know if I’m practicing a good habit or a bad one?
Let me make it clear that I don’t have all the answers, but here’s how I’ve come to think about this particular dancing issue.
1) Just as there is a “right” way to perform a tendu in ballet, there is a “right” way to dance ballroom steps, but at the same time, there perhaps there is more than one “right” way. One thing that would make a step “right,” for instance, would be that it is done in such a way that it doesn’t cause injuries. It would be in proper anatomical alignment. It would create aesthetically appealing lines in the body. You’d be on balance doing it. You’d be in control. But since all bodies are different, they will perhaps have slightly different alignments, create slightly different lines. The same steps done side by side with another person may look completely different on one person’s body than the other’s. It’s probably most important to be in sync with your partner in ballroom, and to aim to generate identical lines with one another.
2) Each dancer is a creative being who breathes life into movement. Is there a “right” way to do that? I think perhaps there are more or less authentic ways of embodying a dance, and perhaps people connect with themselves, their partners, and their audience to different degrees. Then there is the personal preference of those watching. But to say there is a “right” or “wrong” way of “being” defies logic.
3) Part of what I’m sussing out when I’m working on a step is how I, personally, am going to dance it. I can tell you that the way Marietta does a Samba is very different than how Inna does it. It’s because of who they are. I am on a hunt for who I am as a dancer. What movement comes naturally to me? Which one causes me to express more? What story am I telling with my movement, my body, the interactions between me and my partner? Am I being pouty, or sad, or exuberant? It’s all about the step but it’s not at all about the step, you know? Doing the steps with proper technique frees the dancer to express, which is really what dancing is all about.
4) Just like there are different “flavors” of ballet (Vaganova, Cecchetti, École Française, etc) there are going to be variations in ballroom dancing depending on which syllabus is used and who trained the person you are learning from. The master teachers infuse their students with their particular brand of dancing, from which steps they favor to arm styling but who can say which is right? Just is if you were a virtuoso with the opportunity to choose to play a violin made by Amati, Stradivari, or Guarneri, who could say which was the “right” one? All would be amazing, but all have subtle nuances that make them special, just like each dancer or master teacher. But again, none of them are 100% “right.” Art can’t be “right.”
5) Use the mirror. I’ll admit, I still have a difficult time with this one. The mirror can be an amazing tool to develop my dancing, but it can also be a weapon I use against myself. When I’m having a good relationship with the mirror, I can use it to see if I am moving like my professional partner. If I am not matching him completely, then I will know something’s not right. I often don’t know exactly what tweak I need to make (if I did, then I wouldn’t be mismatching him) but at least if I can observe the feedback I’m getting by looking in the mirror I can be aware that something is amiss and ask a question.
So, is there a “right” way to dance ballroom? I think the answer is yes…and no. Like most things in this world, a simple black and white answer doesn’t cut it. It’s not a dualistic question, but rather a paradoxical one. I think both ends of the paradox are true in the proper context. Yes, there is a “right” way to do ballroom steps, according to a syllabus and in proper anatomical alignment. But no, there is no absolute one “right” way to express through the movement. Part of what makes ballroom dancing so wonderful and beautiful is the uniqueness each individual dancer contributes and the synergy created by partnership.
As for determining whether you are doing something “right,” well, you’ll have to use your own discernment. For me, it’s important to receive information from a source I respect and trust. I remain open to the feedback from everyone, from coaches, to fellow students, to my personal instructor, but filter it in level of importance. I use the mirror to see how I am moving compared to my partner, the professional dancers, and fellow students. I watch a ton of videos of professional dancers performing so at least I have an idea of what things are “supposed” to look like. If I were really disciplined, I could even look at a syllabus (but let’s face it, I’m too lazy for that! Plus, I tend to be a visual learner. Reading about the details of a step in a syllabus seems like it would be a tedious task and difficult to envision – like reading the standard for a breed of dogs and then trying to picture the canine using only that description).
So now it’s your turn! What do you think? Is there a right way to dance ballroom? How do you know if it is right? I’d love to hear your thoughts.