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

Advertisements

I Love Chocolate….And My Friends, And My Mom

Sometimes I feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.  One of the very important (to me) things that sometimes gets put on the backburner when other responsibilities get in the way is writing a blog post.  You know, these things take time and between work, the commute, getting a dance lesson in, and preparing my food for my eating plan, not to mention some online writing gigs, and fitting in some time to make sure I still connect with my husband and some time to have fun and relax, well, living a balanced life is a full time prospect!  I don’t think I’d get even half of this done if I had kiddos!

Anyways, the short of it is that a lot has happened since my last blog post and I kind of don’t know where to start.  I think tonight it’s going to be a stream-of-consciousness ramble about some lessons, a boating trip (with dancing friends), and my mom’s first dance lesson, plus an update about the Desert Classic.  And Paragon, I would be happy to tell you about the dress – thanks for asking!

Let’s see….

I guess with Ivan I’ve probably had 3 lessons?  We’ve worked on all sorts of stuff, but mostly connection and expression.  As Ivan explains it to me, I’m not the first one to ever do a fan.  It’s not like people have never seen a fan before (in Cha Cha or Rumba), but how am I going to style it so I stand out?   One of the things I’m most excited about, which may sound silly, but to me is scrumptious, is the preparation to dancing (did I really just write that?  OMG, Ivan’s Bulgarian English is rubbing off on me!  What I mean is ….preparation to dance).  Especially in Latin Rumba and Cha Cha we’ve been working on Ivan placing me on the floor and then a little interaction where I am like bursting, I want to dance so bad (well, the idea is to act that way), and then he approaches, we connect, and then we begin as one.  Of course, it doesn’t always happen that smoothly, but the idea is there and I do think it will set us apart.

Also I am working on doing a better job of shifting my weight over my standing leg more quickly, and moving myself.  There are some “deadspots” in my dancing at times.  They way Ivan explains it, it’s like my engine stops working.

“You doing so good, Stefanie, to this point but then your “Check Engine” light goes on.  You run out of gas.”

Ah yes, the car metaphors abound.  Hopefully I’ll show up as a Ferrari rather than a dump truck while dancing at Desert Classic!  Ha Ha.

One thing I’m not excited about is the Jive.  Seriously, we haven’t even practiced it!  If I place last in all my Jives I will let myself off the hook!  We haven’t worked on it.  I’m just going to try and enjoy them as much as I can and let it be whatever experience it is.  I’ll expect more of myself once we’ve actually worked on the dang dance!

I’m feeling better about the stamina issue.  It looks like based on the schedule at Desert Classic that I will dance Smooth Thursday morning then Latin in the afternoon.  Friday I’ll have off to recouperate.  Then Saturday is American Rhythm.  I will wear my red and black dress for Rhythm and Smooth and I’m having a new dress made by Marietta for Latin.  I had a fitting just yesterday, and although still a work in progress, I really like it – more than I thought I would from the sketches.  It is going to be very figure flattering for me.  It’s black and gold with lovely asymmetrical draping.  If it continues along the same lines as what I saw yesterday, I’m going to feel very sexy and sleek in this frock.  Once I have it in my posession, I’ll be happy to post pictures.

Also, I’ve decided that I will get a tan this go-around.  Yes, I’m mostly covered, but go big or go home, as they say.  Why not do everything to play the part?  And time to put on the nails as well.

Okay, so besides doing what I can to get ready for Desert Classic, because seriously, there is so much I learn every day I dance, and at a certain point you just have to show up as you are – a work in progress, you know?  Well besides doing what I can to prepare, I also had some time for some R & R this weekend.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to go on a pontoon boat for a few hours this past Sunday with my friend Colette (featured in this post ) as well as my friend Ghada, and also Ivan and Marietta.  OMG!  It was SUCH a good time.  And yes, believe it or not, we do have a few lakes here in Arizona!  Anyways, I think we talked about dance for the entire time, which is just the way I like it.  The coolest part is that Ghada, Colette, and I all take from different instructors, but we are all friends and genuinely support one another.  Like if either of those gals won, even if they beat me in competition, I’d be happy for them and celebrate.  I know they’d feel the same about me too!

And we brought Ivan along for the entertainment, and he didn’t disappoint!  As you can see, we got into some chocolate trouble.  We also danced on the boat, ate, drank, posed for pictures, talked, laughed, tanned, and floated.  It was a most relaxing day and the entire world melted away.   I just feel so very blessed to have such amazing friends.

Oh, and here’s Ivan making a “Bulgarian cocktail”  Ha Ha!  He actually was a bartender for a few years in Spain, believe it or not!

Anyways, best day ever…well, one of the best ever.

But then I had to come back to the real world.  *Sigh*

However, back in the real world, there was another exciting event on the horizon.  Remember how Ivan was like, infatuated with the idea of dancing with my mom?  Well, he convinced her to come in for a lesson!  He has it in his mind to do a showcase number to “Gonna Make You Sweat” by C & C Music Factory with her as the centerpiece.  So today she came for her very first lesson and I got to be there too!

She was really cute.

“Wow.  That is quite a drive!”  She exclaimed upon arriving.  We got started and it was really fun.  We played around making up different moves and Ivan taught mom the Cha Cha basic step.  The showcase number is going to be freestyle so we can just have a lot of fun with it and not worry too much about technique.  Mom showed us some moves from the 60’s like the Pony and the Twist and Ivan made her do side splits and we also lifted her up in the air, making a seat with our arms.  She did great for her first lesson and Ivan said she was learning quickly.  I had to laugh, though when Ivan suggested, “Chris, maybe you to coming by yourself for the next lesson so we not killing Stefanie’s lesson.”

The thing is, we are gearing up for the competition right now, and Ivan has a lot of choreography to figure out and teach my mom.  I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to pick it up pretty quickly, so this sounds like a good plan to me, but I’m really looking forward to the day we do this performance.  It’s going to be EPIC!

I also had to laugh when Ivan suggested to my mom, “You have to practicing.  Listen to the song lots at home and dance at home.  Discover different movements, and how the music makes you dance.  Dance in front of the mirror.  Dance in front of your husband.”

“Oh no!” Said Mom.

“Yeah!”  I laughed, “Dad probably wouldn’t watch.”  He’s not big on the dancing.  This made it especially wonderful that he came to my showcase because he had to sit through a lot of dancing before I performed.

“Okay, okay.” Interjected Mr. Ivan.  “You not dancing in front of your husband.  You save it to being a surprise!”

“Okay, Ivan.  When do you think this showcase will be?”

“In September maybe.  There is a showcase the weekend before the Galaxy competition.”

“But I’ll be in Italy from August 31st through September 18.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.  You can practicing in Italy!”

We all laughed at that.

“But we’ll see,” he said.  “Maybe we can doing it in September.  If not, there will be other events.  Maybe November or January.  It okay.”

So, the long and short of it is mom did great, Ivan is very excited about the whole thing, and at one point or another we will be performing as a trio.

Alright, last in a long list of updates, I had a lesson with Inna tonight.  Actually, she wasn’t even supposed to teach tonight!  She was supposed to be in Florida, competiting at Milennium.  But apparently there was a snag with her travel plans and she was there tonight.  I think since most people thought Inna would be gone it was a smaller class than usual.  There were only four of us plus Inna.  And you know what?  I’m SO glad I showed up tonight.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again…Inna is a master teacher.  Tonight, because the class was smaller and consisted of more experienced students, she was able to get into deeper detail and explain timing in a way such that I discovered an entire new level to it.  I actually felt it differently in my body.  And as Inna explained it, when you really get the timing and rhythm of a dance it feels like the music is dancing you rather than you dancing to the music.  I had a tiny little taste of it tonight and it was honestly a breakthrough.  Like I said, at the very end, it actually felt different in my body, and it felt good.

You know, if you are a ballroom-er, then you’ve heard about timing.  We all “know” the counts.   But wow, I’ve never understood the timing in this way before.  It took the better part of the class for Inna to get her point across, as well as many demonstrations, so I’ll probably not do the subject justice, but I’ll do my best to share what I discovered.  One of the things Inna does that is so very effective is that she will demonstrate two different ways of dancing the same steps.  This allows us to visually see two different ways of dancing.  And the thing that is so effective about it is that she will dance the steps well, with the correct timing and arms and all, but then she will dance it with that added flair that makes it look professional.  One of the hardest things to figure out as a student is how to make my movements match those of my instructors.  What is it, exactly, that makes the quality of their dancing so much more amazing than mine?

Like I can see that it is cleaner and sharper, but try as I might, I can’t always emulate this, even if I use all my abilities.  But tonight, I discovered the importance of timing.  Holy heck!  It changed everything.  And, ha ha, I thought I knew timing before, right?  I also knew that one of my less-than-stellar-habits is to pass through steps, making them look sloppy, soft, mushy, because I am so concerned about getting where I need to get two steps ahead, rather than fully completing the step I am presently in in the moment.  Oh, Ivan’s communicated the same thing, but somehow I was able to hear it more deeply from Inna tonight.

So the concept is this:  In Cha Cha, say, the counts are 2, 3, Cha Cha, 1.  There are 8 counts in the measure.  The 2, 3, and 1 are all one full beat (2 counts).  Each “Cha” is one half of a beat (one count).  Therefore, logically, the 2, 3, and 1 are movements that take more time.   The Cha Cha part should take less time.

But in my dancing, even though I’d step on the right beats and all, everything looks even.  I made 2, 3 about the same length of time, but then I made the Cha Cha, 1 like 3 even beats, instead of quick, quick, full count.  I’d rush the 3 to get to the Cha’s, power through the Cha’s to get to the 1.  Okay, again, very confusing to put into words, especially without a physical demonstration.  So if you can’t follow what I’m trying to say, sorry!  The point is that conceptually I’ve known about this construct called timing, but today, I think for the first time, I truly felt it IN my body.  Amazing.  And super hard!  OMG it takes so much concentration and energy.  But it’s worth it!

One final thought and then I have to sign off.  It’s 11:35pm and I’ve got to be up early and have a full, full day once again.  Anyways, that last thought is this:  It takes no talent to be a dancer, just discipline, and having talent as a dancer, meaning the dance comes from the inside, is paramount.

What do I mean by this?  Well, I’m talking about being able to embrace the paradox of two opposites and knowing that both are true.  The paradigm that it takes no talent to be a dancer, but it does take a mind and discipline and practice, this comes from Inna.  She said this herself to us tonight.  And I think she is right.

But also, the paradigm that having that inner dancer, being able to move and change and evolve quickly, and having the dance come from inside is more important than all the practice in the world, this comes from Ivan.  And I think he is right, too.

How can this be?  Well, I think both are essential.  There is absolutely an element of training the body and creating muscle memory through repetition and practice in the study of dancing.  There is also absolutely an element of the dance transcending the technique, and that can’t be taught.

So my feeling is, I’m so grateful to have both teachers and both paradigms in my dancing practice.  I get the yin and the yang.  The whole shebang. (And that is my poem for the night).  My practice is to embody both the discipline and the freedom.

Alright, I think my system is shutting down now.  My bed is calling!