Topical Series: Back To Basics

As a dancer, I’ve discovered some themes that I continue to return to over and over and over.  So I thought I’d share what I consider to be some of the foundational “basics” that I continue to work on in my journey to mastery and excellence in my dancing.  But the thing is, as foundational as these concepts are, and as much as I think I understand them, at least intellectually, I am still very much challenged to execute them, especially consistently and in concert.  But, hey, that’s part of what makes dancing so wonderful to pursue…the journey is never-ending and profound.

RumbaBasicBoxStep

By AaronOReilly (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So here they are, my thoughts on the basic concepts as I’ve come to know them in ballroom dancing:

1) Dance On Your Own Two Feet

Okay, okay.  This one seems obvious.  And when you are dancing alone, you have no choice but to do it yourself.  But add a partner, like in ballroom dancing, and it can create a level of dependency on one or both of the partners.  In ballet you use a barre, but you are only supposed to use it sparingly, lightly, just for balance adjustments and such.  You shouldn’t hang on it or pull on it or rip it off the wall.  Well, your partner should be used similarly – very little or not at all.  But it’s different with a partner than a barre, of course.  First off, unlike a stationary barre, your partner is moving.  In addition, you don’t dance with a barre out in the center in ballet and don’t need to be connected to it in any way, but in ballroom that connection is an essential aspect of the dance – as they say it takes two to tango!

But even if it takes two, those two should not be holding one another up!  I think this “basic” in particular has been on my mind lately for a few reasons.  First we are working on some open routines with more choreography out of a hold, and more challenging choreography in hold position.  I can’t tell you how easy it is to fall into the bad habit of using Ivan to propel myself hither and thither with my arms rather than powering myself with my own legs.  And this is even though I’m conscious of trying not hanging on him!  There most definitely areas in the dance where I depend on him more than I should.  He, on the other hand, has been supporting me too much.  He needs to pull away in those moments when I am not aware of how much I’m pulling, not over my own two feet.  I need him to do this so that I can have that kinetic feedback that alerts me immediately that I’ve invaded his space.  Without that feedback I can’t correct it because I don’t always realize how much I am doing it.

Another reason I realize it is because dancing the choreography on my own feels very different and is much more difficult than dancing it with Ivan.  When I dance alone, I can see where I am trying to step too far, where I am off-balance, where I’m not sure of the counts or the choreography.  I have to know what I’m doing 100% – be responsible for 100% of my dance…not try to off-load 15% to Ivan!  It’s humbling and so good for me.  My goal is to be able to dance the entire routine by myself as if Ivan were there so that when he joins me, I dance it like I do when I am on my own two feet, and we can create some awesome synergy rather than expending energy keeping me vertical, or in his attempts to get me back on time when I am late in a movement.

So anyways, I don’t know if I have any real tips about actually doing this dancing yourself/being-on-your-own-feet/not-hanging-on-your-partner idea except to begin to practice all your steps or routines solo to see how it feels to do it alone.  I promise it will be illuminating!

2)   Connection, Connection, Connection and Connection…and more Connection!

Let me be the first to admit I’m not always the best at connection!  There is so much to connect with in any given instant in dancing that I often feel overwhelmed!  I mean you gotta be connected to the music, connected to your partner, connected with yourself, and connected with your audience.  And each of these connections embodies a myriad of elements.  Often, if I connect with one aspect, I lose connection with a different aspect.  Let me explain what I mean by saying all this:

Connection to the music:  You have to remember that dancing is an interpretation of the music, a physical expression of the music through the body.  The movement you are doing should reflect the song.  Things to think about (or feel) when dancing to a particular song include the story told by the song, the mood of the song, the beat and timing and speed of the song.  Like, you aren’t going to do Jive moves to a romantic ballad.  The movement has to be appropriate to the music.  One of the biggest things I hone in on when dancing is how does the song make me feel inside?  How does my body want to move to express that feeling?  Am I going to keep my movements tight, sharp, upbeat and staccato, or am I going to reach for the roof and glide with sweeping large movements, or am I going to slink and prance and twist?  In any case, you can see that there is a lot to thing about in terms of connecting to the music.

Connection to your partner: This is probably one of the most difficult things to describe but when it is present you can feel it.  Of course there many aspects to connecting with a partner.  The most obvious way to connect is through physical touch.  In ballroom we connect through the arms but actually this is somewhat of an illusion.  What I mean to say is that the connection really comes from the core of the body, the spine and hips.  The arms are (or should be) connected to the core and an extension of the body’s core.  This is why if my partner moves his hips, if we are connected properly, the movement will transfer through our connection into my hips.  It’s Einstein’s law – you know the one – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?  Well, when connected properly, this law of physics can be demonstrated in ballroom dancing.

But beyond the physical connection, there is also an intangible energetic or emotional connection between dance partners.  This is the connection relied upon when not touching.  It’s the way I can tell it’s time to start so we begin in unison.  It’s how I know to step backwards as Ivan moves toward me.  Over time and with practice it becomes easier to detect – the partners become more aware of it and sensitive to it.  I can almost feel it sometimes, like when you get close to a stove and can feel the heat coming off of it without touching it….it’s kind of like that.  I will become aware that the energy I’m projecting is meeting the energy Ivan is projecting and building up in a kind of elastic tension….it pushes or resists between us when our bodies are getting closer but then pulls us together like an invisible rubber band when we are farther apart.  It’s tricky to do, especially in 360 degrees!  I’m much better at it facing forward, but a real expert should be able to connect in any way, in the back, on a knee, or whatever, in a sphere of space around them.

Connection to yourself:  This is basically being aware of what is going on for you, both physically and energetically/emotionally while you are dancing.  It is also physically integrating your movement so your arms are connected to what your legs are doing and connected to what the body is doing and connected to what the head is doing.  Movements should happen in unison, not piecemeal, with extremities reacting to the movement of the body but arriving at the same time rather than a beat before or after.

Connection to your audience:  Finally, there is connecting with spectators.  It can seem pretty scary at first but it is an essential aspect of any dance performance to project expression.  Dancing that is insular, self-absorbed, and contained is not engaging.  The movement falls flat and feels distant if you are dancing in your own little world for yourself and no one else.  Connecting with your audience means actually making eye contact, smiling, pouting, making faces, but also actually seeing them and allowing them to see you.  You have to look beyond yourself and it can feel uncomfortable, but it’s part what makes dancing so amazing.

3) Timing, Timing, Timing, and more Timing

When I first started dancing, I thought, “Hey, great, I can hear the beat and that’s enough.”  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Though being able to hear the beat is essential, really knowing your timing for each dance, whether quick, quick, slow, or 2-3-4-1, is imperative.  Especially when you want to play with the timing or use syncopation and pauses, it is vital to understand the timing of the dance.  One great thing to do (though it can seem tedious) is to count aloud.  And not just count, but count verbalizing the differences in the beats.  For instance, quick, quick, slow…should sound like quick, quick, sloooooow.  The longer count is drawn out, just as the movement completed during that count should also be slowed and lengthened while the movement is faster on the quick counts.  You should be able to see the difference between the counts as in a Rumba – there should be a distinct and apparent difference between the beats, not 3 even beats but two fast ones and one slower one.  You can also make counts louder vocally if they should be emphasized as in the 1 and 3 of the Cha Cha.  This helps create dynamic in the dance.

4)  Body Alignment and Mechanics

Every movement a dancer makes happens because of how the body is put together.  Dancing works and looks best when we work within the physical laws that govern how our body is knit together and how gravity works upon it.  Having proper alignment through the spine is especially vital, and correct alignment throughout the entire body from the toes to the nose, from ankles through knees to hips, not only helps create lines that are aesthetically pleasing, but prevents injuries.

For instance, we are going to move slower if we do bigger movements.  We can be quicker if we make smaller movements.  This is a universal law of physics that can’t be overcome.  We have to leverage how our bodies naturally move through space rather than fight against it.  For instance, if you are going to twist your hips around your spine, you have to keep the spine and shoulders stable so that they have something to twist against.  If you don’t resist the twisting in the upper body and instead allow it to also rotate, you will make this movement much more difficult and slower.

Knowing how your body is positioned in space, and how to properly align it by pulling upwards through the center are essential skills for any dancer.  But one of the things I find fascinating about ballroom dancing in particular is that all of the movement is based on how the body naturally moves.  This is different from ballet where movements, although possible anatomically, are not ones a person off the street would ever do (like no one is just going to break out and do a plie and sissone!)  But people off the street do spin, hold hands, step forwards and backwards.  Ballroom seems to me to be an artistic exaggeration and embellishment of normal everyday movements.  Therefore it follows that they are based on how the joints, muscles, and bones (basically the body structure) are aligned and how they relate to one another.  Finding that centered, balanced, aligned positioning is a continual challenge in my dancing, and one I continually return to all the time.

5) Sometimes You Have To Forget  All The Rules

This is kinda self-explanatory.  Sometimes you have to just stop thinking and allow the movement inside you to just come out however it looks!

Here is an example of really letting go!

When dancing from a space of total freedom, like Napoleon here, we most express ourselves, we stop trying to “be” something or someone.  We stop trying to package ourselves in a perfect box and just let go.  Sometimes this is how our soul takes flight and allows the creation of the most beautiful, unique, and pure movement.

What are the “basics” that keep resurfacing in your dance journey?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!  -Stef

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Claim Your Space

Ever since our honest conversation, things have been different on my lessons….for the better.  I had such a nice lesson today.  It wasn’t easy.  Actually, it means I’m taking more responsibility for my dancing.  It takes more energy, but overall, I’m really happy about it.

So I decided I wanted to come to my lesson with a directed agenda today and I told Ivan about it.  Again, another way in which I’m stepping up and taking responsibility for myself and my dancing.  Instead of just doing whatever, I wanted to review my Latin Rumba routine.  Why?  First, so I don’t completely forget it.  And boy did this turn out to be a really good thing.

The other things I told Ivan I wanted to do on our lesson, we only got to some of them.  But it’s all good.  I know that we will work on those things too, but first things first.  Soon I hope we will begin work on a nice open Samba routine.

Anyways, for now, what we discovered is this….I’ve really been unsure of my timing.  I know the steps, for the most part, but even some of those I couldn’t do without Ivan.  It’s totally different without your partner in front of you, leading you.  So we broke it down, step by step, count by count.  It was a bit tedious, but totally awesome.  I’m moving myself, 100%.  I’m counting, and know when I’m supposed to do what.  It makes me feel more secure.  It makes me feel more confident.  It also exposes my weaknesses and when I don’t know exactly what I’m doing…which is perfect!  Once these areas are identified, I can correct them.  When we dance together, much of this is covered up because I can go on automatic pilot with Ivan’s lead and he can help balance me and such.

So, I’m excited.  I’m fired up to practice my routine, by myself.  I’m super excited for when we dance it together again, but with him giving me a very light lead so that I can move myself, and be on my own two feet.

It also felt good on another level that Ivan was actually giving me more responsiblity and treating me more like a partner.  Yes, I’m still the student and all, and he definately jumps in when I mess up to correct me, but when I hit it, he’s so happy.  It’s a very good thing.

We also practiced presentation a bit.  I felt that it was quite off at the competition, along with a lot of other things.  The bottom line is that we weren’t connecting like we should have.  When we connect (and we can do it), it feels like we are one piece moving – the two puzzle pieces meld into one.  When we are in a hold like this, when we are connected like this, it’s hard not to follow.  Today, since we were conected, Ivan led me in all manner of presentations and I didn’t miss a beat.  He didn’t have to show me them, or instruct me in them.  It was kind of magically amazing. Connection, connection, connection!!!

So, I’m excited for when I can dance myself, I know my routine backwards and forwards with the timing and counts, and when we can connect to dance it like we did today when all that is in place.

I’ll be honest.  It was a lot to absorb, a lot to keep track of.  It’s going to take practice on my part and I’m going to have to integrate my computer (brain) with my muscles and body.  I’ve been very irresponsible about practicing my routines by myself but now am excited to create the space and time in my life to do this more.

Speaking of space, one thing I still need to work on is claming my space on the floor.  Ivan is so attuned, he can zero in when I’m not 100% convicted or committed in my movements.  Anyways, we were doing a crossover and I was thinking I was being a bold and confident and such, but Ivan, he called my bluff.

“You can’t partially claim your space, or maybe claim it.  Take it!  It’s yours! Declare it!”

He runs over to a rack of dresses over in the corner.

“Stefanie, what If I Dore’ and I tell you all these dresses are yours!  What you do?”

He hugs them all in a big, exhuberant squeeze.

“You don’t doing this.”  He half-way hugs some of the dresses, kind of unsure.  Maybe touching some, avoiding others, being shy.

He’s so good at acting out these concepts.  It’s pretty funny.  No one could ever say Ivan isn’t animated.

In any case, yes, he’s right.  I experienced it at Desert Classic, being afraid to really claim my space and take it.  As my confidence grows, I will feel more and more like I have a “right” to be there on the floor, which we all do….if we are there to dance then we have the right to claim our space.  So, I’m looking forward do doing this more and more in the future.

In that same vein, Ivan always admonishes me to finish my movements.  To complete one movement, then start the next one, and finish it.  I got another understanding of this lesson, not only on my underarm turn and spot turns, but also when Ivan had me do a little Cha Cha combo across the floor.  I did Cha Cha walk, spiral, repeat.  After fixing my spiral by making sure I was standing up straight, lengthening my spine, and not leaning, as well as not leaning backwards, Ivan wanted me to look directly at him while I walked toward him.  Basically, I was supposed to direct my energy along with my movements to him, representing someone in the audience.  It feels awesome when the two are in sync – my body and my energy.  Anyways, I made it across the floor and back a few times, then Ivan leaned over sticking out his cheek and told me to come and kiss it.  Well, what did I do?  I did my walks, all directed and all, but then stopped short about two steps before his cheek.  I didn’t complete the movement.  I stopped myself just like I always do….well, let’s say did.  Because I’m a changed woman.  No more.  Time to complete.  Every time.  All the way.  No holding back.

One final thing happened today that was pretty interesting.  Ivan had me do swivels.  I struggle with those things like crazy.  So when he started doing them, I immediately went into the mode of knowing that I’m bad at them.

“Oh Ivan!  Swivels!  Ugh! I’m so bad at them!”

He was all, “You always like this.  You say this to me like you never going to be able to do them in your life.  And look, 20 minutes later you are doing them, doing them so much better.  You not allowed to say you can’t doing things anymore.  You have to just count to ten and do it!”

Its a new rule.  I have to shut up and dance.

Because the truth is, I generally catch on and can do most, if not all, of what is asked of me or taught to me.  Sometimes I’m missing a piece of information which makes it difficult, like in the swivels, I wasn’t bringing my feet together fast enough and this was making the swivels slow and cumbersome.  Ivan gives me this little nugget, and bam, immediately I’m dancing different.

So, I’m not allowed to say I can’t anymore. I have to count to ten and then just do it.  It’s probably a good rule to apply to life in general as well.

So anyways, I’m focused and directed.  I have a new attitude and am determined and committed.  I have been moving every day this week except Friday, taking extra group dance classes at a local adult dance studio.  I took a stretch and tone class, kind of a yoga hybrid, belly dancing, a Glee cardio fitness class, and a Zumba class (not my cup of tea, but at least I sweated a bit), and then worked out with my friend at the gym on the treadmill before my lesson today.  I have dropped a few pounds and notice some changes in my body, but they aren’t enough that Ivan could see just yet.

Though a bit disappointed by this, that lasted about 10 seconds because then it just fired me up to work even harder to drop more weight so it is noticible next time, or at least in the very near future.  Also, I’m motivated because even if Ivan can’t see the changes, he can feel energetically, or whatever, that I’m serious, that my mentality has switched.

“I not feeling like you losing weight just now, but you already dancing different.  You already feeling different.  Very nice lesson today.  I like it.  I love it.  I like it.”

Cool.  I can live with that.  Actually, I’m excited about next week and have my next weight loss target written on my white board so I will see it every time I walk in my door at home.  It will remind me of what I need to do and why I am doing it.  Suddenly staying on my eating plan becomes easy.  I have to keep myself busy, and as long as I do that, I’m going to succeed.  Actually, I can’t possibly fail, unless I give up, which I won’t.  I’m still breathing so I’m still in the game.

This leads me to my last item of note – I have a confession to make.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the videos of me dancing at Desert Classic just yet.  It’s always been difficult for me to watch myself dancing, even at a smaller size.  It’s good to watch because it’s feedback – I can see how my body is moving, see where I’m not completing my momvents, see if my toes are pointed, etc, etc.  But esepcially because I don’t like my body right now, and because I’m not dancing like I wish I could, it’s hard to see.  Anyways, at the end of the lesson today Ivan asked me if I had watched my videos yet and I was like no.  He said to bring them next time and we will watch them together.  He wants to see not only how I was moving, but also the people around me.  If I am moving well, then we will know that the appearance issue really affected my results.  If I’m not moving well, I guess the jury will still be out.  But I do trust Ivan’s eye.  He knows what he’s talking about.  So if he decides I danced well, I’m going to be even more fired up to dramatically change my body for our next competition….whenever that is.

So, after our next lesson, I’ll let you know what he thought.  I’ll let you know what I thought.  Maybe, I’ll even share some video, if I don’t feel it is too horrid!

I guess that’s it for now.  I really needed to process all that happened today and that, in all honesty, is why I started the blog.  My husband got sick of me blabbing about it so much!  So, I have no idea if you found this post entertaining or if you got anything from it, but, well, I sure did!  Ha!  I feel much better, re-committed, re-energized, and excited.

I’m so glad I went and did the Desert Classic.  I feel like going to competitions, for me, is such a growing experience which lasts even beyond the actual event.  I just know my dancing is on a different level and I’m exctied to explore it.

Until next time,

Committed, Consistent, Disciplined, Svelte, Powerful, and Determined Stefanie