First things first: many people could read this post and say, HEY I SAW YOU OUT LAST WEEK.

Yes! I still like to dance bachata. But I now do it once in a while instead of every other day, so this is a pretty big change for me.

Second, I wish to be clear that bachata remains both my favorite Afro-Latin music and my favorite Afro-Latin dance (well, mambo may be tied for first these days). From the spiciest traditional to the slowest and most lyrical remix, I enjoy it all. I have a deep love for this dance that I feel, at it’s best, is romantic, is playful, is relaxing, is exciting, is intimate, and is respectful all at the same time.

Unfortunately, I find that bachata is rarely at it’s best, or near it, for me any more.

I think that this has a lot to do with rapid growth in the community, and how this growth has happened.

This rapid growth is associated with several things: the proliferation of congresses and congress culture, the sensationalization of bachata in youtube videos, a focus on performance, and the rise and proliferation of sensual bachata. I do not mean to say that sensual bachata is entirely to blame for this – nor the instructors of sensualism – as it and they are not. But there’s a lot here that’s complexly interwoven. The growth of congresses and performance parts of the culture, for example, are very much related to the rise of sensual bachata.

People often complain about the appropriation of sensual bachata and the like. I think there are merits to both sides of the argument, and I won’t go into them here. I want to be clear that I don’t disparage sensual bachata in and of itself. I enjoy the movements, when executed well. When inclusive with a range of other styles and skillsets, sensual bachata moves can be a really great way to be musical and express different emotions in a dance.

That being said, this post is about the culture of bachata, how it has changed, and why I’m starting to lose interest in it. Here’s what has happened:

Sexualization

First, there are the movements. Plain and simple – they are often sexual. Of course they do not have to be executed in a sexual way, or one does not have to choose to do the more sexual variants – but they often are. To be clear, I don’t mind sexy moves. And I certainly don’t mind mutually desired intimacy. The leaders I dance with would be happy to attest to both of those things.

Yet sexy has a time and a place. During Pablo Alboran’s Perdoname (this is arguably one of the sweetest and most romantic bachata songs) I was once led in a move that required me to squat down to the ground and then stand up ass first with my leader standing behind me. Like, what?

What’s more, popular couples must look a particularly sexy way in order to be popular. Think of all the famous couples you know of. Are any of them not sexy, or do any of them not sexualize their dancing and their videos? (You could make similar arguments of salsa zouk and kizomba [though not swing] – but I would argue that bachata has accelerated its demand for sexiness in recent years).

The leaders in the scene are not necesarily to blame. Sex sells. It’s just unfortunate that it’s such a predominant component of selling bachata these days. Watching famous sensual bachata videos online is simultaneously for me super boring and pretty off putting. Yeah, I get it, you’re going to do a body roll and do one of those dramatic hand gestures and look at your leader like you want to eat him. I know.

-Objectification

While we’re talking about sex – and I will throughout the entirety of this post – let’s talk about the way women’s bodies are used.

Consider perhaps that move that  I discussed above, in which I had to ass stand up in front of my leader, while he just stood there and watched.

Consider perhaps dipping a woman and staring at her tits while she can’t see you do it.

Consider perhaps going to a workshop by Andrea and Silvia, in which the workshop is basically objectifying sex joke after objectifying sex joke.

-Self-aggrandizement

The current bachata culture is one of self-aggrandizement if I’ve ever seen one. Obviously, of course, as an instructor or a couple trying to make it in the bachata scene, you have to promote yourself. I respect the effort this takes immensely. I really do.

Nevertheless, I find the atmosphere that competitions bring to bachata in general to be kind of toxic. It encourages people to focus on building up their image before building up the quality of their dancing. People often begin training to perform without being good social dancers, develop egos about their dancing without having social dancing skills, and walk around like male peacocks – proud of their flashy feathers but having more awkward movement because of them.

Focus on appearances over communication

Bachata looks pretty cool to a lot of people. This is certainly the case for sensual bachata, though performance teams and couples typically integrate more “traditional” music and dance into the second half of their performances. (There was a video I tried to link to to demonstrate why I put traditional in air quotes but it appears to have been taken down, perhaps in light of all of the disparaging comments it elicited in terms of how much it deviated from true traditions.)

When dancers compete as a couple or join a performance team – which a huge number of people interested in bachata do – they often focus on the way a dance looks or the moves it has as opposed to how it feels. I wrote about this problem for performance teams at great length in this blog post, so I won’t belabor the point too much here. I will say this: the majority of “famous” bachata leaders I have danced with are atrociously rough. The thing is, with all the focus on looking and being cool, often the literal best parts of a dance (connection, communication) are left in the dust.

-Party atmosphere

I readily acknowledge that  all dance scenes have parties. Lots of parties. But I would argue that there’s something particularly party-centric about bachata today.

This has to do with growth of the scene, for one.

I also think it has to do with the fact that the new bachata crowd – the sensual crowd – is by and large a fair bit younger than other dance crowds.

The youthful, kind of reckless enthusiasm of bachata parties feels a lot like a frat house to me. This was always the case, but now that the scene has grown so much, and become so young, it’s simply multiplied. I wish to be clear that we find egregious drunkenness and after parties in all the scenes. But bachata dancers like to party so much they organize enormous pre- and after- parties even months before the event. In fact, I think this is a pretty big draw of bachata. Many people enjoy it simply for the burgeoning congress culture of going to a new city and being super lit all weekend. This is fine, I guess, I’m just not into it, and too old (emotionally) to be bothered.

-Inconsiderate crowd

The other night I was at a bachata social. I stood by the wall a lot and watched. I found myself growing increasingly agitated and disappointed by what I was seeing.

Elbows were flying, leaders were leading big moves without looking behind themselves, people were walking through the dancefloor disrupting various couples’ dances without seeming to care in the slightest.

Of course – again – you can find this in any dance scene, and especially if you go to the more clubby venues or congresses.

But I will say that I think that more experienced dancers tend to develop a more considerate ethos. Sensual bachata has simply brought in an influx of people who haven’t been around that long, so they don’t know better.  I also think that people who are drawn to the more party-oriented or sex-chasing components of this developing scene have a bit less consideration than those who join dance for different reasons. There is a small difference between bachata and other dances in this regard (people are self-absorbed everywhere), but I think the difference is real.

More disrespectful men

Unfortunately, I think the image of bachata nowadays and the potential for physical intimacy, sensuality, and sexuality of it all draws more men who are interested in specifically sexual connection and hooking up  than some of the other dances.

Of course – we find this in all dance communities. And if it’s done respectfully (not altogether often, at least in my experience), I’m cool with it. I have plenty of my own experience experimenting with it. But I find that the more intimate dances, and the more sensual they become over time, the more people it attracts who are in it for the sensuality alone.

The proportion of men in the bachata scene who have obnoxiously propositioned me (out of the blue, without any understanding or seeming care for who I am as a person, with their own pleasure or conquest in mind), is a fair bit higher than in, say, salsa, or swing.

-Lack of clear understanding of  boundaries, or willingness to communicate about them

Given that sensual bachata is a more intimate and sensual dance, I think it causes many people, and particularly men, to presume that they can initiate more intimate contact without any real grounds on which to do so.

In other words, many people think that just because someone is having  a sexy dance with them, that they can take sexual liberties with this person.

I cannot remember the last time I went to a bachata event and was not kissed on the lips, entirely uninvited, by at least one leader. I cannot remember. It’s a regular occurrence, and often more than one guy a night.

-Less active communication and playfulness from leaders

In a culture in which people are a bit more moves-oriented than others, in terms of its emphasis on competitions and performance teams, it’s sort of a given that there will be less freedom and flexibility in terms of which moves are executed.

I do not mean to disparage bacahta specifically (or sensual bachata) in this regard (though I will say traditional bachata often has a playfulness that sensual bachata does not).

Instead, I would like to elevate other dances that I think do the creative-communicating bit better than bachata: lambada is pretty good at it; salsa can be extraordinary at it (if you find the right dancers); west coast swing is almost always extraordinary at it.

I have found over time that I thrive off of this sort of communication. I find it intellectually stimulating. I find it emotionally compelling. I find it fun. I find that I get to be listened to and heard, and danced with rather than danced at.  I call people who lead and follow in this style “co-creators.” A very small number of leaders find ways to actively invite this kind of communication. But the number who do compared to other dances is vanishingly small, enough so that, I find I experience much better intimacy (of the emotional, intellectual, personal, sort) in other dances.

What this all means

This doesn’t mean much. I know very well that I am just talking quietly into the void. Bachata will be what bachata will be, whether I protest certain elements of it or not. I think that over time some of these hiccups will settle themselves, others may need some work, and others will probably be the same for a long time.

I have also written a post about sexism in dance communities. This applies to bachata and to other communities as well, and I think it’s highly relevant to discussions like this one.

All of which is to say, these are the reasons I’m not really into bachata much these days. It’s a shame, because I love the dance. Fortunately, the London salseros have picked up the slack, and then some.

I would, as always, be eminently excited by and grateful for your thoughts.

 

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Google defines dancing as “moving rhythmically to music.” This is a definition we all intuitively accept. Dancing – it seems obvious – is moving.

But I believe in our rush to move, we leave something important behind.

We forget a crucial fact: in order to move, and in order to dance, we must do so out of the spaces between movement. We must start with stillness.

We might liken a dance to a night sky. As there would be no stars without the space between them, so there would be no movements without the stillness between them.

This is an important idea for dancing in general, though I would argue that in partner dancing it has a particular importance that should not ever be ignored.

Here is what we do, when we partner dance: we default to moving. We are constantly thinking about how we should be moving, and what movements should come next.

For followers, in salsa, for example, we say: always do the basic. Always mark time. I once heard a famous couple criticized because the follower wasn’t always moving her feet. Followers should always be stepping, preparing themselves for the next possible movement.

We also, as followers, if we see a moment of pause or suspension from our leaders, tend to snatch the opportunity quickly. We have seen a moment and we will take it! We get, I would argue, selfish and disconnected from our  partners. We think, “aha! Now I get to do something fancy! Now I get to do what I want.”

The sin for leaders regarding stillness is to ignore it. Many leaders think they need to constantly be in motion, constantly providing moves for their follower to do, or else the follower will get bored. When two people are emotionally connected however I would argue that being bored is impossible, and stillness properly integrated into a dance does not just help facilitate that kind of connection, but also provides leaders with an opportunity to listen to what their follower has to say with their body.

This mentality of constant, perhaps even frenetic, movement, I believe, is problematic because it is antithetical to four things I love dearly: presence, connection, listening and intention.

Instead of defaulting to movement, I suggest, perhaps we should default to stillness.

When we are still, we are present with one another. We do not have to worry about our technique or our creativity or doing the right thing – we simply are one another.

When we are still, the noise drops out, and we can connect with each other more deeply on an emotional level.

When we are still, we have the time and energy with which to listen to one another.

And when we are still, we start from a baseline out of which we can use our bodies intentionally to communicate with one another.

Now to be clear, the type of stillness I am talking about varies immensely. And one does not of course have to be completely still, and most certainly not all of the time. One simply has to choose to move out of a base of stillness. Stillness takes form such as a 6 second long hug at a beginning of a dance; it may be the simple suspending breaths on counts 4 and 8; it could be a break in the music where you simply stand and look at one another; it could be counterbalance in an extended movement, when your eyes meet for a split second across the distance of your extended arms.

As a leader, to initiate stillness shows followers that you are present with your follower. It shows that you are eager to communicate on a level that goes beyond simple steps. It shows them that you care about your connection. It shows that all of the movements you will initiate come out of partnership and intention. (For more on which, see this recent post on leader qualities.)

As followers, this enables you to be truly, incredibly in tune with your partners.  Sometimes in classes followers are told to “have patience” or to “wait.” “Don’t anticipate!” instructors admonish. But I argue that in doing so these instructors do not quite get at the heart of the matter. Instead, I would insist: Be still. Listen.

When a leader stops moving, I know, I know, you might really want to keep moving. You might want to keep doing a basic or to take this moment to do something cool with your hips or your hands and shine. But if you also go still, and you wait, then you and your partner share a beautiful moment of tension and suspension, in which you are both ready to hear the slightest signal from one another’s bodies. You could then choose to move – but in this case it would be a moment of intentional communicating, not for the arbitrary sake of constant motion.

For both leaders and followers, out of stillness comes a platform for truly communicating. Instead of moving willy nilly just because that’s what you’re supposed to do, movement becomes intentional. Every move conveys an emotion, an idea, that your partner can interpret, and volley back to you.

Consider an exercise of standing in closed position with a partner with your eyes closed. Stand still. Don’t move. As a leader, transfer your weight slightly back and forth between your feet, ever so slightly. Your follower should be able to feel this and move with you. Go back to standing still. You can breathe together, literally. With stillness, this is possible, as you slow down and feel each other. In a state of stillness you can do other intentionally feeling things such as slightly tap your fingers, tilt your head, pop your rib cage, shake your shoulders gently, wait for a second or two then do a subtle roll of your abdomen. Each of these movements is a communication for your partner and your partner alone. An audience could maybe see this if they’re looking for it (and personally am watching for it like a hawk), but they don’t know what it feels like.

So I do not mean to say that when you dance you should never be moving. You should. And I don’t mean to say that followers should never move when their leaders give them stillness. Because out of stillness comes opportunities to connect, and to communicate with your body.

But I believe that the default when we dance should be stillness. The default should be presence. The default should be listening. And then, from that platform, movements can all be intentional, emotional, interesting, connected. Instead of rushing ahead with movement, we wait and move in synchrony.  This is because our movements are not given but intentional acts of communication, ones that convey affects such as love, joy, sensuality, passion, tenderness, fire, playfulness, or whatever you’d like.

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I have been asked several times if I could write more posts about leading. I am currently working to bring someone on board to talk about leading technique (as mine is sub-par). For the time being, however, I thought it might be nice to at least talk about my preferences.

What traits do I look for in leaders?

Now, to be clear – there are many followers who look for very  different things in their leaders than I do. For example, some followers really like to be showy (this is fine by me, just not my preference). Some like big moves (also fine, I like them too). Some like to be thrown around like a rag doll (I used to). Some like leaders who stick very closely to the parameters of the one kind of dance they do (like a salsero who is classically salsa), or leaders who aren’t surprising (this is common). Some I know even seek out leaders who are more forceful with their leading, because it gives them more energy into which they can lean for balance.

But I do have clear preferences. My preferences come out of a deeply held belief that dance is about presence and communication. The qualities  I appreciate most in a leader are those which enhance them.

So here we are – the ~11 traits that characterize my ideal leader.

1) Timing 

It should go without saying that being on time is crucially important for being an ideal leader.

But I will elaborate another timing point:

I don’t like it when leaders are in a hurry. What do I mean, “in a hurry?” Interestingly, I can spot this “hurry” in a heartbeat. It means always thinking about what’s next, and rushing ahead into it. It means blowing through a beat, instead of relaxing into it. It feels like impatience.

The majority of what I would call “advanced” or “experienced” leaders move confidently through the music without running. They relax into the beat, and are present with every count. Some even suspend over certain counts, particularly 4 and 8 in bachata and salsa, and wait until the last moment before moving onto the next step. This adds a beautiful sort of breath to a dance.

2) Emotional Connection

A good leader for me must be present with me. A good leader is attentive, takes care of me (as I take care of them), and focuses much more on what the dance feels like than how it looks. With a good leader a dance is an intensely good nonverbal conversation. This means eye contact, of course, but also so much more, such as being playful, communicating with our bodies, and communicating with various facial expressions depending on what the dance calls for.

I often default to some variety of “flirty” for my facial expressions and  for this to all of my leaders I expressly apologize.

Emotional connection means listening to the music together.  If in salsa, it means paying attention to each other while shining. In bachata, it means tuning into each other’s footwork. In west coast, it means communicating the hell out of your connection. In all dances, it means sharing 4 minutes of vulnerability, emotions, and – in my opinion – love, for one another.

2a) Romance

I have heard many people say that one dance is four minutes love – and I personally ascribe to this idea. There is something perfectly romantic and so, tenderly sweet about the structure of a dance. It’s vulnerable, it’s close, it’s paying attention, it’s taking care, it’s appreciating one another’s strengths and weaknesses, taking four minutes of your existence to give yourself over to each other.

My perfect leader is romantic. This leader touches me kindly; they hold me sweetly. This involves things like soft hands on my back, an intentional hold on my wrist; a loving touch of the foreheads when the timing is right.

This isn’t to say that this leader imposes an intimacy on me that I do not indicate I want. Romance does not equate to skeeziness. Romance is kind; romance is sweet; romance is respectful. And romance does not have to be sexual. It simply is romantic in the classic sense of the word: choosing to connect with, illuminating the best of, and deeply appreciate one another.

3) Feels deeply

Similarly, my ideal leader feels things deeply. I personally really enjoy feeling and expressing emotions when I dance, though it’s really emotionally challenging and indeed feels a bit off when I try to do this in a dance and my leader isn’t there with me.

Whether its a soft and slow bachata, a jazzy mambo, or a slanky cha cha, the more my leader feels and expresses, the more liberated I am to feel myself. We can take each other to really amazing expressive heights, if only we meet one another with the courage to do so.

3a) Is expressive

Perhaps it goes without  saying, but my ideal leader takes those deep feelings and turns them into a powerfully emotive (and therefore emotionally vulnerable) dance.

4) Control 

My ideal leader of course has superb technique. I like to think of technique as the combination of two things: knowledge of a dance, and control over one’s body. With these two things, anyone can dance stunningly, and both appear to be and actually be supremely confident. When you have complete control over your body, you do exactly what you intend to do. Your dancing happens because you choose it to, not because your body is forcing you to take steps or throw your arms out for balance. With good leading technique, this level of control also means that your follower feels the movements you are prompting them with extremely comfortable accuracy.

An important part of control is balance. The more firm a leader is in their own positioning, the more effortless and joyful a dance can be for a follower. And then, if you both have amazing balance, you can stop on a dime together or hang suspended in space, and look each other in the eyes and have one of those moments that is one of my absolute favorite about dancing, that says, we are so in tune; we are also very badass.

(For control for followers check out this post.)

5) Good posture

Good posture goes along with control, but I wanted to put it on this list separately because it is the first thing I look for when scanning the room for potential people to ask.

Good posture goes like this:

Stand up straight. Don’t hunch your shoulders forward, especially when in closed position (this is literally the worst). Stand up straight literally 100% of the time, unless it’s a stylistic choice for the sake of a shine or etc. Shoulders should be down and slightly back but not egregiously so. When you lead, do not let your elbows go behind you, and do not overextend your shoulders when leading moves to break your posture. Do not overextend your shoulders – it’s so important I said it twice. I avoid people who do. Trust me on these points, they’re incredibly important for dancing with everybody, not just me.

6) Precision

Very few things in the world are sexier to me than precision on the dance floor.

Precision is the art of knowing exactly how far to extend your lead, in what direction, and with the exact right amount of force at the exact right time. I am tempted to say it takes time to learn precision, but I know some leaders who were very precise off of the bat, because they were methodical and intentional about the mechanics of dance from the start.

7) Follower input

My ideal leader enjoys listening to me, and getting input from me.

This can happen in a number of different ways. For one, I really enjoy when a leader pays attention to my body and what it can do, and what I like to do. First dances can be the best dances if a leader discerns my skill set and gives me what I want. Sometimes if my knees are hurting I’ll resist (pointedly) moves where I have to bend down really far, and a good really will realize that’s a no-go and stop leading those moves. That’s great. A good leader will also pay attention to the green light signals I give. I can’t tell you how much I love it when a leader in our first dance ever starts to spin me and then realizes that spinning is kind of my wheelhouse, then gives me eight more right into a dip. Shows both a mastery of the dance and attentiveness to me. Love it.

Another ways follower input happens is when a leader gives ample space for me to contribute. This might mean slowing down a turn so I can spend some time doing whatever TF, or integrating more pauses into the dance so as to facilitate communication.

It’s nice when, on the rare occasion I decide to “hijack,” a leader is on board. But I will say this: I do not like it when a leader tells me my input is good, but I can only have it if I hijack (as has happened). These are partner dances in which the lead and follow rules are pretty much agreed upon–patriarchy is literally built into the fabric of the dance. I am also a human being who likes to walk gently among the people around me. If you expect me to interrupt you for the sake of our conversation, I will never do it. Soliciting input by providing space to your partner is an excellent way to show them you are listening. And I notice, and will love you for it.

(For more on follower input, check out this post on partnerwork technicians versus co-creators.)

8) Creativity

My ideal leader is creative.

If a leader gives me a lot of standard “moves” that I’ve danced a thousand times, if they are executed really well, I will have a great time.

But if a leader takes their knowledge of dance and how bodies can communicate, then leverages it to do stuff I’ve never seen before – whether they make it up beforehand or, perhaps better, can do it on the spot while listening to and communicating with me – then I’ll have a shit eating grin on my face the entire time.

Some people debate whether creativity can be leveraged at the beginning of learning to dance, or if one needs to “master the rules before they can break them.” I think starting at the beginning is great so long as you don’t neglect technique, too. The more rules and move you learn, and the more technique you have, the more precise, followable, and enjoyable your creativity will become over time. But it never hurts to think outside of the box, even from day one.

I will say also that doing multiple dances helps leaders in this regard a lot. In fact I’ll go ahead and say…

9) Multiple Dances

To be clear, there are amazing leaders who do just one kind of dance.

But since we’re talking about ideals, I love it when leaders dance multiple dances, because I do, too, and it opens up a huge field of creativity and communication to us.

One of my absolute favorite things to do is simply follow (in a communicative way), whether that means sliding from the language of one dance into another or just free wheeling doing all sorts of things. Tons of music in pretty much every genre is danceable if you listen well enough. Ask me out for a night of partner dancing at a jazz club or house lounge or top 40 pop party and I will be nearly incapable of saying no.

10) Gentleness (and variety)

I like leaders who are gentle. On the spectrum of heavy to light (see a post and graph on which in this post), I prefer them to be much closer to the light end. This is different for me than it used to be. I used to really enjoy super energetic, push and pull kinds of dances. But as time wore on I became more and more attuned to the emotional and intellectual components of a dance. Now I prioritize gentelness. Or, perhaps it’s better to say, I appreciate it when leaders play with the amount of force they use to meet the stylistic needs of the dance, defaulting to gentle typically. It feels so great to be touched gently, to be led like a feather – and then, of course – when the music calls for it, to be able to whip out hard and fast moves (with control). I do enjoy the energetic, but it has a time and a place, and should be matched by expertise on the entirety of the spectrum.

10a) Puts me in comfortable positions

Few things I find more irritating than when a leader knocks me off balance or distorts my body into uncomfortable positions. To be clear – and I think most leaders would vouch for this fact – I am an incredibly flexible human being. I used to be a contortionist. But when I am dancing with someone, I don’t want my rib cage to be isolated so far to the side that I have to struggle to maintain my balance.

An ideal leader never moves a follower more than the range of their body and balance demand. This may mean making adjustments for followers who are different sizes for you (for example, I am quite short and compact, so I need smaller steps and isolations). This could make all of the difference, however. When in doubt, erring on the side of smaller rather than larger movements I believe is always wise.

11) Subtlety

Subtlety is my favorite thing in dance.

In part, this is because of the intense presence called for by subtle movements on both the part of the leader and the follower.

In part, it is because I am bored by the obvious. I am not intellectually engaged at all by a dance that gives me standard movements that move in standard sizes and with standard forces.

In part, it is because of gentleness.

In part it is because subtle movements from my leader call me to listen with intense concentration, which I find both challenging and thrilling.

I love nothing more than to be led by one finger tip, one centimeter at a time, moving exactly at the speed and in the direction intended. This creates an intense bond composed of listening and attunement. I am tempted even to call it harmony, or some sort of cosmic oneness.  When dancing with subtlety my partner and I are absolutely present with one another, and best of all we both know it, so we catch each other’s eyes and feel the electricity of each other’s touch, nearly literally.


So this completes my list. I understand that the list may seem intimidating. Is it actually possible to be all of these things at once? Yes, it is, though the number of leaders I know who are is not huge. And I of course do not require that everybody meet every aspect of the list. Just one of them and I might be in heaven dancing with someone.

I just think it’s worthwhile to have conversations about qualities that we value, so that we can get at what the things are that we truly love about dance, and direct our energies toward them.

I would love to hear if anyone disagrees on certain points or has different preferences. I am always delighted to learn about different approaches people have to our dances. 🙂

 

 

* the cover photo represents my behavior when my favorite leaders are around and is a reference to this facebook meme:

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I read a lot of articles online that opine on how great light followers are. They talk, for example, about how easy it is to dance with a light follow. They also talk about how instantaneous and effortless the connection is. I very often hear people praise light followers for feeling like feathers, like clouds, or like marshmallows.

Of course, to prefer a light follow over a more heavy follow is a matter of preference. But it is a preference I hear leaders state reasonably frequently. This means that being a lighter follow is something that many people aspire to.

Unfortunately, as often as we hear that light follows are the best ever, it’s far less common to find quality advice on how to go about achieving that.

To start, then, I’ll do my best here to define what a light follow is (more or less – everyone has a slightly different understanding, I think, and mine is not perfect). I’ll then go into techniques I use to increase my lightness. I do not intent for them to come across as a definitive list or the best techniques – I mean only to share what I have learned so far.

Importantly, I do not write here to suggest that I am the most light follow or that I have the best understanding of how to make that happen. But I do try very hard, and think about it a lot. Given some of the feedback that I receive I appear to be at least on the way. My advice may not be the best but I don’t think it’s a terrible place to start thinking about it. And, as ever, I would be grateful for your feedback and input.

What it means to be a “light” follow

A light follow is, in my best understanding, typically characterized by two things: self-propulsion and responsiveness. 

Self-propulsion is perhaps self-explanatory: you move your own body. You don’t make your leader do it for you. Now, that does not mean that you backlead. It does not mean that you anticipate, or that you “hijack”. But it means that you go where your leader intends without them having to push you.

This is how it happens: 1) Your leader gives you a signal, 2) you leverage the brilliance of your  properly calibrated frame (for an instructional video on frame see this blog), to feel exactly where your leader wants you to go, and 3) you go there, using almost entirely your own energy, and not your leader’s.

Responsiveness comes from being a good enough listener that you can read even the slightest signal, whether it’s a tap on the shoulder or a fingertip moving along your spine. Now when you get that signal it  doesn’t mean you run away with it and do whatever you want. You respond with the least amount of energy possible. I could talk for several thousand words about how to calibrate that amount of energy. (In fact, I do so in this post.) But it stands well enough now to know that responsive followers listen to and attune themselves to their leaders in a potent way that leads to a supremely well-communicated dance.

Combining self-propulsion and responsiveness leads to this marshmallowy cloud quality. It leads to lightness. When you interpret signals from your lead quickly and delicately and then go where you need to go, leaders can give you practically anything to do without breaking a sweat. You aren’t burdening your leader with the weight of your inertia; your leader makes a suggestion, and then you, should you choose to, follow through.

The article I linked to above, at the grapevine, here, has a few paragraphs describing what it’s like to dance with a light follow, if you’d like to read more.

Clarifying the difference between “light” and “absent”

I would like to be very clear about one thing before moving on. I have been told many times (by leaders who are connoisseurs of light follows – and to be clear, not all are) that followers tend to occupy opposing ends of a spectrum of heaviness, leaving out the most important section. It looks like this:

lightness

“Too light” is the area in which followers don’t hold their frames, or, in other words, don’t respond with any “tension” to a lead at all. Leads end up feeling frustrated because their lines of communication aren’t clear; if you don’t have some resistance, if even the smallest amount, in your response to your leader’s leads then they will have a hard time leading you. The trick to being a light follow is to hold your frame well, and to respond with resisting energy, but always with as little as necessary to get the job done. Say for example your leader gives you a lead with an impetus of 10. Say the lead is a pulling motion. You hold your frame and pull back, but say, at a level of 1 0r 2. If you were to initiate a stalemate in which no one moves, you’d pull at a 10. If you were to be heavy, you’d pull at a 8 or 9. To be light, you always do “resist,” but you do so minimally. You can read more about how to do that in this post on maximizing the purity of your connection. I know I’ve linked to that  post a lot already but it’s quite important for what we’re doing here.

Techniques for increasing the lightness of your follow

These ideas come in no particular order. Some of them have to do with your mindset about your dancing – others hopefully will give you concrete ways to practice and implement lightness.

1) Have good posture; Build a good frame

In order to be responsive – and therefore to be able to propel yourself in the proper direction and with the proper speed – you need a good frame. You can read about frames in this post or watch a quick video here. A good frame consists of lines of connection running throughout the whole body with as little tension in them as possible. It is passive (loose) when not being engaged by the leader. Once the leader gives you any force, however, then it must become active (engaged).

This is important for lightness because a good frame will make the signals you receive anywhere on your body – though particularly your hands – from your leader go right to your core. Then you can move your body, often your legs, of your own accord.

2) Move

This brings us to the most basic but important part of lightness: moving. Don’t expect your partner to move you or put you anywhere. Don’t think of leads as giving you impetus to move; think of leads as giving gentle suggestions to your frame on where to move yourself.

3) Have a strong basic

This is particularly important for salsa, and something that I personally lack.

The basic steps give you the ability to move fluidly and quickly should you do them correctly. This involves rolling through your feet when you step and pushing off with a roll of your foot when you take off, putting your heels on the ground for maximum power, making sure to actually move forward and back throughout the basic and not just keep your feet in one place, and putting just the right amount of weight onto your feet when you step forward and back so that you can move well in any direction if given the signal.

4) Maintain your own balance completely

Plenty of followers depend on having a “strong leader” to maintain their balance for them. This is unfortunate for a lot of reasons. One is that its tiring for leaders. Another is that it sends unnecessary force into the channel of communication between the two of you, and therefore makes it much more difficult to communicate and lead.

How do you work on your balance?

4.1: Get good shoes that fit. Good shoes are crucial for good balance. You should feel as comfortable standing still in a new pair of heels as you do in flats. Wiggle your feet back and forth. If you feel your heel slipping or your ankles buckling, move on. I personally only wear Alvares because of the impeccable balance. If the problem with your balance in heels isn’t the make of the shoe but  your unfamiliarity dancing at the height, make yourself wear the shoes out dancing anyway, or around your house. You need to build the muscles necessary for moving fluidly at this new height. Try not to change shoes or heights too often when you dance as your muscle memory will get confused.

4.1.a: Find a good heel height for you. I personally think that the right heel for you is more about the placement of the heel and the sturdiness of it (and therefore the company that makes them), but the height still matters. Many followers feel comfortable in flats. Some prefer 3 inches or about 7 or 8cm. I personally dance in 10cm for comfort (for some reason they feel better to me than 8cms) but I would probably balance better in 8cms.

4.2: Practice moves on your own. Work on your basic. Do some lunges. Shine in your kitchen.

4.3: Practice following on your own. While you’re dancing about your house, push yourself off of doorjams or swing around a foundation pole to keep your balance in a new way. Another great way to do this is to stand without holding a railing on a subway.

4.4: Strength train. I can’t tell you enough how important strong muscles are for good balance. Core, glutes, and quads are probably the most important to think about.

4.5: Practice stopping on a dime. While dancing alone or with partners, practice the art of stillness. Move, and then stop suddenly. Maybe force this on yourself by having a friend or an app randomly turn off music. Or find leaders who use stops in their dancing. This will enhance the amount of control you have over your own body.

4.6: Use your toes. While it’s ideal to never have to pull yourself off of the brink of tottering forward, sometimes toes really come in handy. Grip the ground like your life depends on it.

5) Develop core strength – or learn how to use your core when you dance

I once took a salsa course in which the instructor made us do planks. This was fine (ahem) – but far more important for dancing than having a strong core is knowing how to use it. This means engaging or tightening your abs pretty much most of the time when moves are being executed, and especially while you spin. It will not come all that naturally at first, probably, and then becomes as effortless as breathing. This will keep your upper body frame connected to your lower body, which is crucial for just about everything.

6) Develop spinning skill

The better you are at spinning (and on your own), the less your partner will have to force you through a spin. I have a particular technique I like to use when I spin that is core focused (watch a spinning in place video here or a travelling spin here), though many people I know are more feet focused. 

In general you want to have a really, really solid frame for spinning, a tight core, rotational momentum that comes from your feet and/or your legs and your core, and, often, a really sharp and accurate spotting technique. Balance will also really help you here.

7) Practice calibrating

In the graphic above I indicated a “light sweet spot.” This post on connection is best to consult on this point. In brief, it says this:

The lead follow dynamic works through actions and reactions. In general, leaders initiate actions, and followers react. The appropriate reaction is an opposing force, but to some degree less than the leader applies. If a leader pulls, for example, a follower also “pulls” (which is rather sort of just maintaining the structure of their frame); if a leader pushes, a follower also pushes. The trick is to find the right  amount of energy to pull or push back with. If a leader gives you a force at a level of 10, a heavy follow might respond with an 8; a light follow would respond with a 1 or 2 or 3 or so.

So I here encourage you to practice finding your 1, 2, or 3. Go to a social and commit yourself to being mindful of this. In each dance, try to give less energy back to your leaders than you are used to. Don’t unnecessarily push or pull. Instead, hang back and listen, and calibrate the amount of force you use to be as little as you can. Don’t  forget however to not become too light so as to lose the ability to communicate. A spring with no tension is just a loose string; a spring with a tiny bit of tension will be able to function as a spring but will also be light as a feather.

8) Develop flexibility in your core

The more flexible your core is – that is, your ab and your back muscles – the more fluid your movement will be, and the easier it will be for you to  be responsive in these areas of your body. Try stretching daily.

You might also want to work on body isolations on your own. The more natural body isolations are to you, the more natural they will feel to your leader.

9) Cross-train

Few people in Europe dance more than one dance and this puzzles me a lot. I can honestly say that the best thing I’ve done for my ability to follow in every dance has been to dance multiple dances.

When you become exposed to a greater range of movements that can happen, you learn much better not to anticipate moves. You also learn to be more responsive, as you train your brain and your body to listen more keenly. Instead of just going through the motions of steps you’ve learned in class, you learn to be a more active listener. This isn’t to say you can’t be an active listener if you only dance one dance, but picking up more dances certainly helps.

9.a: Cross train with dances that require subtlety

Few things made me better at following the subtlety that can be deployed in salsa than dancing with very subtle leaders in bachata and kizomba. At the higher levels these dances require extreme degrees of listening and responsiveness, especially in the core.

10) Wait and listen, with your body quiet

One of the reasons kizomba (and a good, subtle bachata) can be good for mambo and other energetic dances is that it encourages you to be quiet and listen.

One of the biggest strides I took in my journey to follow better happened one night when I was feeling sick. I didn’t have the mental or physical energy to be my normal, wild self (to be clear, I used to be a super wild dancer, a fact that surprises probably no one), and I realized that I followed much better.

Many followers in salsa, lambazouk, and other similarly active dances are very energetic. They carry lots of tension and expressive energy in their bodies. Tell yourself you’re going to dance small and quietly for a while. Don’t keep trying to speak. Just listen. Receive. See what happens.


Okay, loves. This is my list. It’s long, but incomplete. There are many other things out there, and many elaborations I could make on points. I am not an expert in any regard – but these are some ideas I’ve had and skills I’ve worked on myself. I would love your feedback, as I want this list to be as comprehensive as possible.

In the meantime, if you know anyone who might find this useful – consider sharing it perhaps. I can honestly say that these kinds of posts – the ones in which I talk about specific leading and following techniques – were the things I craved most in my early days as a dancer. This is actually why this blog exists. Hope it helps!

 

 

 

 

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There are many different kinds of social dancers. I like to categorize them into different groups.

One of my favorite categorizations concerns the amount of listening, freedom, and cooperation that goes into a dance.This applies primarily to leaders, but it can also apply to followers, as different followers will react to and prioritize these types of leads differently. I simplify the concept by breaking it down into two different categories, though in reality it is more of a spectrum.

The two types of leaders I want to talk about today are 1) Partnerwork Technicians (thank Toan Hoang for the term) and 2) what I’ll be calling for now Co-creators.

I have made a graph:

dance graph 1

First are the partnerwork technicians. The partnerwork technicians are rather quite traditional. In their perspective, leaders play the traditional masculine role: they are dominant, and they are in charge of making the dance proceed apace. Follows simply follow them, and want to be given clear instructions on what to be doing at all times. These leaders have a very specific idea in mind for the moves that will be executed and how the dance will turn out. They focus on learning moves and patterns, and they tend to think that the hallmark of a good leader is figuring out precisely how to get a follower to successfully execute the moves they lead. They can be quite musical and extremely talented and beautiful dancers. The quality of their lead can also feel very nice. They can also sometimes appreciate a good “hijack,” if executed well. It just so happens that these things happen within the context of their more traditional leading style, in which they simply determine the course of the dance.

On the other hand are the co-creators. Co-creators are less traditional. These dancers prioritize turn patterns much less than the partnerwork technicians do. They use turn patterns as a part of their dance, certainly, but the patterns constitute a less significant portion of the dancing. What then takes up the rest of the time? Plenty of things, some of which are: simple movements that give the follower space to play, pauses, moments of suspension, emotionally connected shines. This kind of leading gives space to the follower to play and contribute to the shape of the dance. This doesn’t mean that the follower leads–they don’t. But it means that the follower has time to play, and the leader responds to that play. The leader integrates it into what happens next. This is why this category is called “co-creating.” They can be highly technical or they can be less so. Interestingly enough, you don’t have to be a greatly technical dancer to be a great co-creator.  I’ve danced with beginners who are extremely enjoyable because they take this approach. These leaders tend to exert concerted efforts to be “musical” and to interpret the music in a way that joins with their partner, rather than controls them. There is often a lot of communication between the two partners, whether by touch or with simple eye contact.

By now it should be clear that dancers can be great experiences or they  can be terrible experiences at either end of the spectrum. It ends up looking something like this:

dance graph 2

So what’s the point? Why bother bringing this up?

First, I want to encourage us all to try to understand the other perspective as well as learn from it.

Many people are tempted – as I admittedly sometimes am – to paint the two camps with broad and unfair brush strokes. I sometimes want to call the partnerwork technicians old-fashioned, patriarchal, bad at listening, selfish. It does feel that way to me, sometimes. But as a generalization it is wrong. Often I really enjoy these kinds of dancers. Often, they are very good listeners. Often, they are very present with me on the dancefloor. Often, they have delightful musicality. People who focus on the technique of partnerwork and turn patterns have the capacity to be extraordinary dancers whom I enjoy a lot.

I have, conversely, heard many people accuse the co-creators of being “bad” dancers, messing with the lead-follow dynamic, and hurting the integrity of the dance. I understand this perspective. I can see how someone who really values the electric pace of advanced turn patterns would see co-creation as a possible devaluation of their approach to the dance, or, at the very least, a poor bastardization of it. But they’re, I believe, quite wrong. Leaders do not have to control every aspect of the dance. It’s okay for people to choose to dance differently. It doesn’t mean they’re worse than anyone else.

In fact, I think we would all be served by taking a hard look at ourselves and identifying where we fall on the spectrum. There are things we can definitely learn from the other camp. Co-creators can learn interesting moves, can learn about the physics of dance execution, and can learn technique from partnerwork technicians. Partnerwork technicians, on the other hand, may be well served by taking some moments to more seriously listen their partners and experiment with making their leading more open-ended and reactive. It never hurts to be self-critical or experiment with new styles.

Second:

I would like to go on the record and say that Co-creators are brilliant, and not nearly as abundant as they could or should be (except in west coast swing, where it’s practically a given nowadays).

I love co-creators because I value being seen. I value being heard. I value being in conversation about the music, instead of just following my partner’s interpretation of the music. I value having some space. I value being able to play. I value the ways in which my leader and I can constantly be in dialogue, the flirtation and joy and love I can express with my body.  With a hard and fast partnerwork technician, and especially one who  doesn’t particularly try to listen or be present with me, it’s not always easy to connect in that way. With a co-creator, it is a given, woven into the very fabric of the dance.

I think that many of us, entering the Afro-latin dance space, assume a particular dynamic: leads tell follows what to do. But if that’s not particularly appealing to you, there is another way. You can think about your leading in terms of suggestions. You can pause to get input from your partner. You can pay attention to the way your follower breathes through the music, and integrate it into the steps that you suggest.

This brings me to my quick third point:

We might give most of our money to and spend most of our youtube time ogling performers and many of the world’s famous partnerwork technicians. But the dancers I’ve placed in the upper right hand quadrant, the “less known highly sought” co-creators who focus on conversation and communication, are seriously amazing artists. At congresses, it might not be as obvious that they have fans as for the other artists, but you can tell from the way they never get to sit down that these people are extraordinary. They are certainly the ones that I always keep my eye on, and I believe they should be sought after teachers every bit as much as the often more flashy partnerwork dancers.


And this brings me to the end of the post. In sum, what I have tried to say is this:

a distinction exists, and we should pay attention to it. I really enjoy dancing with dancers on all ends of the spectrum, though the chances you’ll catch me with a shit eating grin on my face are greater with the co-creators than partnerwork technicians. Relatively speaking there aren’t that many co-creators in the world, famous or otherwise, but I hope that we develop more of an appreciation for this style of leading and following over time.

I had salsa in mind while writing the post, but it applies also pretty well to lambada and bachata. It probably applies less well to kizomba, and as I stated, west coast has already moved quite firmly in the direction of co-creation.

As ever, I welcome your thoughts, comments, concerns, and etc.

 

 

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I have struggled mightily with this blog and the question of whether I should talk about performance teams.

Performance teams are a highly controversial and complex topic. Many people think they are great, and many people really do not. I’m not actually sure how many people on performance teams know this, but many people who do not dance on performance teams dislike the teams, ranging on a spectrum from “yeah I’m uncertain if performing is problematic” to “I really fucking hate performance teams.” The majority of people I know who care about social dancing a lot fall somewhere on this spectrum.

Because this is so  controversial — and because I personally have pretty strong feelings on the “dislike” end of the spectrum — I have hesitated to write about performance teams on the blog. But I think I have found a way to address performance teams in a productive and loving way:

I am going to share what I believe I have discerned are the most common problematic that performers exhibit.

Of course, I do not mean to say that everyone who joins performance team develops problematic habits. Some don’t. Some do, and then outgrow them. Everybody is different. But there are common trends in the performance team world, and I figure, if you’re on a performance team and you care about the quality of your social dancing, then maybe this post could give you a helpful heads up of common bad habits (or what I think are bad habits) to watch out for.

Here they are:

1. Caring more about the way you look than the way you feel

Admittedly, this is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Do people prioritize the way they look after they join performance teams, or do they join performance teams because they prioritize the way that they look? My guess is that it’s different for everybody and probably a bit of both.

Performance teams open up people’s worlds in terms of cool, flashy moves they can do. This is especially a problem for leaders. Flashy moves can be great if they are executed with good technique and communication, and if the music calls for it. They are not quite so great if this is the focus of a dance. Thinking about the audience more than your partner’s experience of your lead (or follow) takes away from the things that can feel  best about dancing: subtlety, softness, kindness, resonance, co-creativity.

For followers, the major problem here is LADIES STYLING. For the love of God (especially sensual bachata dancers), know this: the more time you spend dramatically throwing your arms around, the less time you spend paying attention to your partner. Of course it’s possible to integrate styling into the dance in a way that is attentive and caretaking to you both – this is something I work very hard to do. But many followers who like to perform focus more on themselves than on the people they’re dancing with.

2. Focusing on moves, not on communicating

This is similar but not the same as the point before. In the point above, the dancers are focused on moves for the sake of the audience. In this point, the dancers care about each other, but, in my opinion, by focusing on moves they’re kind of doing it wrong.

I know a handful of leaders who used to be incredibly lovely social dancers. But they were self-conscious about their dancing – as they were new to dance – so they joined performance teams. Once they did they gained some confidence. The confidence came from this great arsenal of cool tricks with which they thought they could could impress their followers.

This, in my opinion, is a mistake.

I am much more impressed by listening, by patience, by taking time with the music and each other, by connection. I am, to be clear, also impressed by cool moves and when they are executed properly I’m happy as a clam. Some leaders who focus on the “cool moves” stuff I find incredibly fun. But I also find it kind of sad that people think they need to be flashy and do moves to be impressive – whereas they could simply focus on the quality of their connection, and most partners would be overjoyed. For the record, it’s the latter category that I’ve noticed tend to get queues of people waiting to dance with them.

3. Exaggerated, overly large movements

Performing calls for big movements. On stages, this is what sells. So performance teams condition people to move in ways that are quite big.

People who perform tend to have larger frames, to do more exaggerated body isolations, to take bigger steps, and etc. Literally everything they do can get bigger. (This applies to performance teams and also performance couples. For the record, the majority of famous bachata performers are terrible at this.)

I find this, as a follower, to be pretty uncomfortable, as it knocks me off balance. This also has the effect of making me feel like I’m not being listened to or cared for, because the leader is giving me stuff to do that is outside a comfortable range of motion. If I’m dancing a bachata and in the first couple seconds of a dance my ribs or hips are isolated out to the fullest extent of their motion, or farther, I brace myself for the rest of the dance.

I also find this, as a social dancer, to be kind of obvious and boring. Performance teams, I find, often direct people’s attention away from the small, lovely things that can transpire between them. Often these things are not seen. Given the right leader I can time a subtle chest pop or even just an inhalation, and they’ll notice and it’ll be great. Or they will do the same, and I’ll notice, and it’ll be great.

Big movements are easy. Small movements require much more technique, much more responsiveness, much more listening. I much prefer being led with one finger and having to move one centimeter than being shoved over to the side. Much. This is a personal preference, but I also think it tends to be the preference of a lot of people I know who have been dancing for a while and really prize the value of communicating and connection in social dance.

4. Too forceful

Forcefulness is probably my major gripe with performance teams (and, again for the record, those famous bachata leaders).

I’m not sure why it so much enters the equation once people start performing, but they tend to — both leaders and followers — put a lot more energy into their movements. It has to do with the need to make large movements happen quickly, I think, as well as make sure their partner is doing the same.

The problem with  forcefulness is that it can be uncomfortable. It can cause injuries. It can force your partner to be on the defensive throughout the entire dance, so as to protect their hands, backs, and shoulders. It’s really not necessary. Not at all. Of course you’ll encounter some partners who need more energy from you. But not everybody will be this way.

So if you’re on a performance team, you may simply wish to check yourself. Listen closely and calibrate your energy to meet that of your partner. Or ask people if the amount of energy in your frame has changed. Try downramping your energy at a social and see what happens. See if people can still follow you. There’s quite a good chance they will. Those are just some suggestions – none of which you have to take.

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So that’s it for now. These are the four most common negative changes I see people undergo when the join performance teams. This isn’t to say that positive ones can’t happen as well. My aim in the post has simply been to raise some flags for people to look out for, should they perform and want to make sure their social dancing continues to improve too.

If you want to read more about my theories of connection and how to lead and follow well, take a look at Maximizing the Purity of Your Connection.

It’s probably clear that I really am not a huge fan of performance teams. Really not. Dancing for me is beautiful first and foremost because it connects us, because we listen, because we are present with and taking care of one another. I find that these things fade when people join performance teams, and therefore I lose a lot of what I value most about the dance.

There are plenty of other people in the world who don’t have the same preferences as me, however. So if you disagree with me or don’t resonate with my approach to dance, that’s super cool! Difference is what makes the world go ’round.

Disagree with me, enlighten me, challenge me, as always. Let me know what you think <3

 

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castle-

There is a problem with cha cha. But the problem isn’t the dance itself. Cha cha, actually, is my favorite dance. I like it even more than bachata. 

The real problem with cha cha is that many people do not have the desire to dance it. 

Cha cha (typically) takes courage; it takes personal expression; it takes patience, and connection. Not many people feel particularly compelled by those ideas, or up to the task.

The thing about mambo is that it’s got familiar patterns we can all rely on. Leaders can get away with doing turn patterns the whole dance. You can go seamlessly from one familiar move to another, tossing a follow this way and that, and pretty much everybody will think that you’re ‘dancing.’

While I do agree that this is ‘dancing’ and that people who dance this way are quite good at it, shuffling through partnerwork in various 1 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 patterns that you’ve learned and drilled doesn’t necessarily fly in cha cha.

Why not?

The distinctive – and glorious – thing about cha cha is that it slows you down. The basic for cha cha takes nearly twice as much time as a basic in mambo (generally speaking). You have a lot  more time to simply take your steps; therefore you have a lot more suspension, and a lot more empty space to fill. A whole library full of instructions or youtube channels of “moves” will help you, but not all that much.

All of this extra time does two really great things:  for one, you can better dial into your partner and connect with them. To me, one of the best things about cha cha is that it helps foster an emotional bond between partners. With a slower basic, I find that in cha cha my partners and I have more time to just be present with and listen to one another. We settle into each other’s embrace, we make eye contact, we feel the counter of each other’s bodies and movement. Plus, with typically killer tracks, I find that my partners and I get much more in tune with what the other person is thinking and feeling. I feel my dance intensely, while at the same time I feel their dance intensely. Cha chas have a really great potential to be deeply shared experiences (though this not untrue of mambo as well, given the right partner).

The other great thing the slowness of cha cha does is give space for expression and play. This you can do both with your partner and by yourself. With your partner you can change the speed of your steps, be very precise and connected through slow movements, keep an eye on each other and intertwine your shines, and in general really play and connect with each other as you dance. By yourself, you rather have the opportunity to go wild and do as you please. People often take their sweet time about shining throughout a cha cha. Cha chas tend to be fairly dynamic songs, and they provide ample opportunity to really experience and express your feelings.

This means that, in a sense, cha cha is a much more vulnerable dance than mambo. With all of the space that it provides, it gives you more room to dance and to express yourself. It opens you up to your partner, then, in a way that may not be typical and may feel scary. It also opens you up to everyone else in the room who may catch a glimpse of your dance. Cha cha challenges you to dance at the edges of what you have been taught and what you have learned. It gives you space to be yourself and express that, and to do so in a way that is connective. It is vulnerable. 

For many people, this is a turn off.

For me, it feels passionate and alive and connected and the perfect combination of my own expression intertwined with my partner’s.

Now, I acknowledge that there are valid alternatives reasons you may refrain from dancing cha cha. For example, some people don’t hear cha cha on2 very easily. I understand that this can pose a challenge, it did for me when I was getting started. But this period for me did not last long because I saw what the dance had to offer, so I made the effort to learn the music.

Many other people would object and say that cha cha simply isn’t played or taught enough, so they don’t know the steps very well. This is fair. I have sympathy if you consider yourself one of these people. However, I would encourage you to peer closely at your reasons for feeling hesitant anyway. Why do you feel no passion for it or desire to learn, or to at least give it a shot with a forgiving friend? Might it have something to do with the safety and comfort of mambo partnerwork?

I suppose also people might actually not like the music of cha cha, but guys seriously!

If you actually want to dance cha cha, there are people who can teach you! 🙂 Also, On2 salsa is translatable to On2 cha cha. Many people muddle through a few dances and then kind of rather get the hang of it. Plus, if you are a leader, I can assure you that no follower expects a particularly complicated cha cha. So many followers love cha cha (as evidenced by London cha cha socials always being dominated by followers) in part because of the simplicity and freedom to play that comes with cha cha. Give them a high quality basic for the whole dance, and chances are good they’ll be quite happy.

The vulnerability you’ll share with them is what is so beautiful about cha cha.

It is also why it is so hard, and why I think we should do it anyway.

 

 

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Last night at a social, a bachata leader told me that he loved me.

I said, “I love you, too.”

While this isn’t altogether  too uncommon an experience, it is something I think about quite a lot. This is because I feel it quite a lot.

People tend to understand this, though usually they wouldn’t call it love. Most people – and especially non-dancers – when I tell them I experience love on the dancefloor, say that dance is too shallow for love. It’s superficial. It’s connected, sure, and maybe also intimate, but it’s not love. They tell me, often, that feeling something akin to love on the dance floor doesn’t mean anything in real life, because these leaders don’t know a damn thing about me, and I don’t know a damn thing about them. We don’t go shopping together. We don’t call each other when we’re sad. We don’t stare longing out the window and compose florid poetry about one another.

But I argue that dance love is perfectly real – just of a slightly differently flavor.

There are some smart metaphysicians out there who will tell you that separation is an illusion. As humans, we evolved to perceive the matter in the universe as discrete bits that manifest as things such as solids, liquids, and gasses. We see tables; we see trees; we see animals; we see other humans. To our limited senses, these are all very distinctive entities. To some degree, this is true. But to another, it is simply an illusion, as all matter is simply a super condensed form of energy, interlocking into different chemical and physical forms that are constantly in flux. To be clear, this is  science, not some form of new age spirituality. Humans perceive separateness, and do experience consciousness separately. But it’s not necessarily the most accurate depiction of reality.

By my account, to love is to see beyond this illusion.

To love, for me, is to collapse barriers. To love is to dissolve separateness. To love is to experience a sense of unity, or oneness. What this looks like in the practicalities of day-to-day life is something akin to empathy. It is coming to see someone for who they are, and accepting them. It is acknowledging what makes a person different from you – what constitutes the separation that has come to characterize their life – and embracing it wholeheartedly. It is offering yourself genuinely and openly to another person. It is coming together, despite all the things throughout your lives that have kept you apart.

We experience this kind of love to varying degrees with different people. For most people, the collapsing of barriers is most intense with a spouse. They become like one. But it also happens intensely with family members, with children, and with close friends with whom they experience a lot of resonance. It is also possible to experience it with complete strangers. When I meet people, I can quite literally feel their humanity pulsing around them. I don’t know much about them, but  I attempt to see them in this moment as clearly as I can. I attempt to experience the world through their feelings and their eyes, and to acknowledge our shared existential frailty. I feel a very real kind of love for them, even if its not the closely bonded type I have with close friends and lovers.

All of which is to say is this:

When I dance, I try to collapse barriers. 

I think, to some extent, we all do.

When we dance, we are very much ourselves. It’s pretty impossible, I think, to lie about who we are when we dance. And so therefore we are vulnerable with our partners. We meet each other rather existentially naked.

And then we communicate. We move. We feel. We connect. We make eye contact. We see into each other’s passion. We melt into each other’s current emotional state. We get swept up in the music. We get swept up in experiencing the moment through our partner’s feelings, through our partner’s bodies. We learn much about who they are, in these kinds of moments.

We also do incredibly romantic and loving things when we dance. We keep avid watch on the couples around us to protect each other from wayward elbows. We flirtatiously laugh as we stare into each other’s eyes. We hold each other gently. We press our foreheads against one another. We smile as we sway. We inhale as one on the count of eight, experiencing anticipation and suspension together.

This, to me, is entirely real. Sure, sometimes people just don’t really get the whole presence thing. Sometimes, people are distracted. Sometimes, people only dance with me only for the sake of trying to convince me to fuck them later. But I do generally find that most of the time, the people I dance with are there genuinely because they want to be present with me for those four minutes.

And yes, absolutely, I feel it with some people more than others. With some leaders I feel pretty lukewarm. I enjoy their presence but there isn’t all that much electrifying about it. But with others, with leaders who are present with me and with whom I feel both vulnerable and met, my heart beats relentlessly and joyfully, as though on ecstatic fire. If I dance with them a lot of over time I experience added feelings of safety, gratitude, softness, and warmth. I have intensely fond feelings for people with whom I lovingly connect week after week.

I think this is a real, and intensely beautiful thing. I suppose I could think of what I experience and feel on the dance floor as not love, but I don’t see any good reason to do so. Given how vanishingly short life is, I’d rather take every opportunity I can to feel more rather than less. Dance gives me that. And, especially, giving myself to dance gives me that. Love on the dance floor, in this way, is one of the most potent forces in my life that makes it feel beautiful, and exhilarative.

 

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DANCE ADDICTION

(Hi. I talk about “addiction” in this post. I do most certainly recognize that a psycho-chemical relationship to some activity such as dancing or running is not as dangerous or psychologically damaging, usually, as true forms of addiction (eg, gambling), and especially potently chemical ones (eg, alcohol). I choose to use the phrase ‘addiction’ because there can most certainly be a compulsive set of behaviors and feelings around dance, as I do experience and observe in others. But this is addiction lite, to be very clear.)

 

 

I once wrote on this blog was called What happens when you dance for love. 

In it, I talked all about my addiction to dance. I am–I have been–compelled to dance in part because it provides a space in which I feel cared for, adored, loved, and connected intimately to another human being.

This got me thinking about the wide variety of ways in which people can become or consider themselves addicts. Sure – this whole love thing I have going on is pretty powerful. But there is plenty else going on.

So this is what I’ve got – a list of 9 things that keep me (and many I know) coming obsessively back for more:

1) Physical activity

Physical exertion is known to secrete all sorts of addictive feel-good molecules.

Beta-endorphin and dopamine are both secreted in high amounts while exercising, leading to feelings of joy and even ecstasy. Beta-endorphin is in fact what accounts (by and large) for “runner’s high” – and why people develop somewhat real chemical addictions to running.

The same thing happens with dance, or at least with the dances which require exertion.

Interestingly, it is the phenomenon of emptying the lungs of air which accounts for the bulk of this chemical effect. So these ecstatic and addictive feelings are the greatest when the heart and lungs really get pumping — in the fast and furious sort of dancing. Yet it can also happen when you do not move at all — all you have to do is laugh.

2) Synchrony

Millions of years ago, our primate ancestors got most of their emotional highs from grooming.

As fire was invented and tribes developed into larger social systems, however, humans required ways to bond in larger groups. Thus the systems that had previously just worked for grooming began to develop for other activities. Specifically, singing and dancing.

Research has shown quite definitively that vocalizing or moving in synchrony creates powerful neurochemical effects–ones that simultaneously bond communities and foster feelings of joy.

3) Touch

All that being said, “grooming” is still an incredibly powerful high for us. One-on-one physical touching is still incredibly powerful. The impact of physical touch cannot go understated–and most people (especially single people) do not get enough in their regular lives.

Touch stimulates the release of oxytocin – the “love hormone.” This stimulates the release of beta-endorphin, dopamine, and serotonin. Touch is known to reduce stress levels, to lower blood pressure, and to improve camaraderie and even the success of sports teams

Add the chemical effects of touch to those of physical activity and synchrony, and you are faced with something powerfully addictive.

4) Music

Music is an extraordinary part of human experience that can also reduce stress, facilitate catharsis, take one on a journey, and create feelings of love and joy.

Dancing without music can be great. Certainly. But it is the submission to and submersion within music that makes it such a transcendent and even spiritual experience.

5) Community

A lot of people who dance begin because they don’t have particularly strong social lives. I personally began dancing at a time in my life in which it was almost impossible to have friends, due to some mental health issues. So dance, in this way as in many others, really saved me.

Dance provides a way of immediately having a bunch of friends, even if it’s your first night and you’re technically a stranger to everyone there. Being a stranger doesn’t last long. Soon enough dance provides the sense of continuity and community that we all crave.

6) Love, Connection, Intimacy

The  power of connection and romantic love while dancing is probably my own personal greatest addiction.

Dance is a world in which we connect. When you step onto the floor with someone, you are fully with each other. You are present with one another. Ideally, you are all that exists for each other. You take care of one another. You act as guardians, and even confidants, as you vulnerably open up to one another.

You can also experience a lot of intimate, romantic physical contact. You trace your fingers along your partner’s shoulder blades; you interlock your fingers with theirs; you accidentally bump noses; you inhale against one another’s chests.

For  people who really value intimate connection – and especially those who are single – you really can hardly do better than dance.

7) Improvement

Many dancers are addicted to betterment. I personally find that every single time I go out dancing I feel a tiny bit better than the time before. I cannot stop. I love getting better. Not only does it feel good to progressively master a craft (as if, hah, dance could ever be mastered), but it also feels good to see the ways in which your partners and the communities around you react to your dancing.

The better you get, the more people notice, and the more frequently people ask you to dance.

(I talk about improvement in the posts Should you care about technique and How to know how good you are.)

Which brings us to…

8) Validation

The validation you can get on the dance floor is truly like no other. Strangers ask you to dance – this is flattering. Partners ask your name after a dance – this is flattering. People watch you dance with wide eyes – this is flattering. Men or women express some sort of sexual attraction or interest in you – this is flattering. Partners connect with you romantically or flirtatiously while dancing – this is flattering. People assent to going home with you at the end of the night – this is flattering.

I don’t know if, as human beings, we enjoy anything more than we do getting positive feedback from the people around us.

In dance, we can receive that feedback in terms of our sexuality, our appearance, our skills as dancers, as party-goers, as sartorialists, as friends, as romantic partners. As so many things, in so many ways.

And then, as I mentioned, the better we get at dancing, the more potential we have to be validated by people who are themselves already talented dancers, or who are highly valued in terms of the social hierarchy. That is powerful stuff right there.

9) Gambling

To cap it all off, the human psyche relates to dance like it relates to gambling. 

Having a “great” night is pretty unpredictable. You never know when you’re going to stumble into a new favorite dancer, or connect really well with someone, or have a string of great dances, or be the only follower in the room and spend the whole night with leaders fighting over you.

Unpredictability is why gambling is so addictive to the human psyche. We feel compelled to invest our time and money in it on a regular basis just in case this is the big one. 

So thus many of us find ourselves going dancing every single night, because we never know when that unpredictable and oh-so-juicy flood of dopamine is going to hit us.

 

These nine reasons – and I am sure many more – are by and large why I found myself dancing every single night for years. I was always well aware of it, but that wasn’t enough to stop me. These days, having been doing it for long enough (as often happens to people after a few years), the vice-like grip the gambling aspect of the dance has had over me has lessened.

Nowadays I function perfectly well only dancing about 4 nights a week.

For anyone who knows me, this is a vast improvement.

Have I missed anything? What do you think?

 

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Most of us, when we enter the dance world, have a starry-eyed view of all the dancers currently in it.

The exclusive, close-knit group of dancers up by the DJ booth are seem to be experts; people in performance groups seem like great leaders and followers; instructors all most certainly seem to be experienced, amazing, and sage bastions of dancing wisdom.

Unfortunately, the longer you dance, the more and more you realize that this simply is not true.

Just because someone is a part of a particular social group, or has been dancing a long time, or behaves like a hot shot, doesn’t mean anything about the quality of their dancing.

Just because someone performs or even looks great when they dance doesn’t mean they feel great.

And just because someone teaches dance doesn’t mean jack shit about how talented of a dancer, leader, or follower that they are.

Here’s the kicker, however:

You are also, at least in some way, that person. 

I am that person. My best friend is that person. My favorite dancers are that person. I say this because none of us are truly objective about our dancing. None of us can conduct a truly adequate self-assessment. We really cannot. Even if we think we are popular enough, as social dancers, we don’t know precisely what other social dancers experience when they are with us and why they keep coming back for m0re.

How are we ever supposed to know how talented we are? How are we supposed to know our “level”? How are we supposed to decide when we can teach, and when we cannot?

Here’s how:

Get feedback.

There are two important kinds of feedback you can get, and they are both crucial. There is solicited feedback, and there is unsolicited feedback.

On Soliciting Feedback

Dancers love to talk about each other, to debate technique, and to give each other feedback. If you want to know what is good or what is bad about your dancing, ask. You can ask friends and you can ask strangers and you can most certainly ask instructors.

Importantly, I advise asking a diverse pool of people. You might be unlucky and stuck asking someone who really doesn’t have a good understanding of the world of dance, and can only give you narrow feedback. If you want to be a good social dancer – someone who is capable of dancing with anybody out there – then you’re going to need to ponder and probe and work on your dancing with as wide variety of people as possible.

Getting unsolicited feedback

In addition to asking for feedback, however, you can pay close attention to the kind of unsolicited feedback that you get.

Dancers do – I promise, this is a real thing – express joy to one another if they like each other’s dancing. Of course not everybody does this all of the time. But if people like you, generally speaking, you will be informed.

After dances, depending on how talented (or fun, or experienced) you are, people at different levels will demonstrate interest in you. “What’s your name?” “How long have you been dancing?” “Where do you teach?”

Generally speaking (again), people within your own “level” and below will be the ones complimenting you. You can gauge your skill by paying attention to who it is precisely who likes you the most.

So pay attention to who gives you feedback. Pay attention both at home and abroad. If no one is telling you that they like your dancing, you should probably take this seriously. If only people who are beginner dancers give you unsolicited positive feedback, and you want to be a pro, take this seriously.

In my opinion, no one should start even contemplating teaching before seasoned professionals begin treating them like one of their own. Because this will happen. If you are qualified to teach (at a particular level), other people who are qualified to teach (at this level) will seek out and express admiration over your dancing.

I personally feel very humble about my dancing and know that I have very far to go. I am so young in the worlds of precision, scope, and skill. Yet as much as I know my weaknesses, I also know my strengths. I know what many dancers think of me. Sometimes this is because I ask. But usually it is just because I pay attention. I know where I fit into the various worlds of social dancing in which I participate.

I really wish more people would do this. So many people — and instructors — blindly assume their dancing is great (smdh. I recently saw an “instructor” leading bachata on four and no it was not a stylistic choice). This wouldn’t happen if this instructor and others would set aside their egos and pay attention to what the people around them think and feel.

These are partner dances. We will never be able to dance with ourselves. The only way to get a reasonably well rounded perspective of ourselves as dancers is to pay attention to the feedback we spontaneously receive, and also to seek out more as much as possible.

Thoughts? <3

Importantly, I want to be clear of course also that there are many other ways to be reflective upon and improve your dancing. These include recording yourself, working alone in a studio or in your kitchen, keeping journal records of your progress, and the like. But what I really wanted to drive home today was the importance of the outsider perspective.

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