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.
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