Peeling the Dancing Onion

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If you are new to ballroom, the biggest thing to remember is that you will never be finished learning.  You may be practicing a step or a technique and then you get it but your instructor soon moves on to something else and you’ll be working just as hard on that while trying not to forget what you’ve learned.  There are layers upon layers.  It is both the biggest challenge and, for me, the biggest source of frustration.  You get to the point where you are feeling good and things are clicking and then you get to something more advanced and it is right back to that awkward phase again.

There are what I call secret languages within dancing.  One of them is music and timing.  I’ve been thinking that if the “change the conversation” theme gets rolling, that I should write something on the “I don’t have any rhythm” excuse because I hear that all the time.  Dancing is certainly going to be easier if you’ve had musical training of some kind.  If not, you have to learn to listen to music differently and understand the language of the beat.  But I’ll save that for another time.

Lead/follow is another secret language as BCBallroom talked about in her last post.  In trying to explain the concept, I’ve had instructors say to me “How are you going to tell the lady that you are about to do X”.  The smart ass in me instantly jumps in with the answer “I’d just say, hey we’re about to do X”.  But I think it really does start to change you from two people doing steps to a couple that is actually dancing.

I’d toss connection into  the mix because that’s really what makes lead/follow work.  It has been a challenge for me to pick that up in the rhythm dances because you need forward poise but you still need to have good posture and your head back.  It means shifting your center of gravity forward enough so that your partner can feel you but not enough so that you lose balance.  The other struggle for me in this concept is that I’m several inches taller than Kid T and I outweigh her by a large margin.  That tends to make me mentally hold back for some reason.  Like a lot of concepts in dancing, there is a narrow zone that you are trying to reach.  Not enough and you can’t feel each other and things become harder to do.  Too much, and you risk throwing your partner off balance and that never ends well.  Through the dance, it is about making minor adjustments when you feel you are losing it.  It is strange because you need to give enough weight so you can feel each other but neither one of you are supporting the other.  If one of us instantly vanished, the other wouldn’t topple over.

Like everything else, there has been improvement in this area.  So much so that I start to notice it at groups and parties when I have to dance with someone besides Kid T.  It is like there is something missing.  At times I try to get more forward to establish the connection but a lot of ladies just move away rather than giving me their weight in return.

Another thing about lead/follow is that the arms are a lot less involved than you think.  OwnerGuy talks all the time in group class about things being illusions and he’s right.  When you casually look at a couple doing something like swivels in Cha-Cha, it may look like the man is moving his arms but the movement comes from the core and slight bending of the knees.  It also only works well when the lady uses the man to push off.  As BCBallroom said, this is where a lot of the movement and oomph comes from.  I see guys flailing their arms and I wince a little bit because you think that is what is needed to make the lady move.  On the other hand, I’ve done the step in group where I can’t feel the lady at all and she’s trying to do the swivels entirely on her own.  That always makes them slower and less than they could be.  Swivels is a Bronze step and you can do it easily enough but to do it right is much more complicated.  The man does need to be solid (good core strength) and the lady has to trust him enough to really use him for support.

Tango is another dance where there are a lot of illusions.  Getting a lady into promenade is perfect example.  When you first learn the step, it looks like it is all arms so you always start by just moving the lady with your arms.  It can work but not well.  The movement comes from the body and the arms really stay fixed in place.  That creates the much sharper movements that make Tango what it is.  Same goes for the cortes where you do a little upper body movement to make her move a certain way.  It is too easy to just push her with your left arm but, again, that’s not the goal because the frame really shouldn’t move  so it is a quick snap with the upper body.

Once you start down this path, then you start to realize how many times the various parts of your body move in different directions.  It creates the shapes but it also sets certain moves up.  And that is something else I struggle with.  Actually, my mind struggles with it more than my body.  If I could just tell my mind to shut up, I’d be in a better place.

For example, in our new Tango routine, there is a dip near the end.  Well, I create the shape by stepping forward with my left foot and rotating my mid section to the right while keeping my shoulders facing slightly left.  It gives her room to get next to me and the movement I do gets her to do her dip.  We are both slightly stretched and twisted which just creates a lot of potential energy.  Then, when the dip is over, I quickly bring my mid section back which kind of snaps her back into promenade.  It’s rough but I’ve done it close to correct a few times and that creates something she can really feel.  Plus, it looks cool too.  If I had known I was going to be a dancer, I would have paid more attention to Physics.

Part of me knows why they teach in stages like this.  (The cynical part of me says that it is to sell more lessons but I know that isn’t true).  As a dancer, you have to worry about your footwork, the timing, your frame, the lead/follow.  Every step requires you to think, is this a heel lead or a toe lead?  Is this a slow or a quick?  Do I need to take another action on the slow?  Where is my head weight supposed to be?  What kind of shaping, if any, do I need to do?  At a comp, add in knowing where the other dancers are and what your next step is supposed to be and when you need to deviate.  It is no wonder that they say dancing is good for the brain because there is a lot to think about.  They do this in stages to make parts of it automatic so you aren’t thinking about it because, frankly, that would be too much for anyone.  You’ll always be behind the beat if you have to think about everything so these movement need to be automatic.  That’s where the drilling and practicing comes in.  (Yes, I know there is a practical need for it, I still don’t like it)

It is really a perpetual onion though.  The next layer is not smaller.  Actually, it is probably more of an ever expanding onion.  Each layer is actually bigger and more complex than the previous layer.  But it is the best challenge that will ever frustrate the hell out of you at times.


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