General Technique

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 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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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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dance connection

Survey any group of dancers about why they love to dance, and a good portion of them will inevitably say “connection.”

I have no hard data to back this claim up, but I have been asking people in different dances and communities all over the world about their preferences for years.

Dancers are addicted to connection.

The problem, though, is that we rarely mean the same thing when we say “connection.” I have almost never gotten everybody in a group to give me the same definition, whether there are 40 people in it or just 4. Sometimes, they don’t even know what they mean by it themselves.

“Define connection? Hang on, let me think about it.”

The thing is, we all love connecting, but we don’t necessarily know how, or why. We do it automatically, hungrily, incessantly, passionately. We don’t sit and dissect and ponder it (well, not all of us). We don’t bother to come up with language to describe it. We just do.

Today, for the sake of helping us better understand our dancing and relate to one another, I share the primary ways in which I have discovered people interpreting the word “connection.”

1. Connecting with the ground

Connecting with the ground is a very common idea in the swing family of dances, but not so much in the Afro-Latin communities I am a part of.

So far as I can best tell, swing dancers value when their partners “connect with the ground” because it means that they can better understand their partner’s balance, position, movement, and how to work with them.  It means they smoothly transition from one foot and location to another, without disrupting the dance. It means to be sure, to be planted, to be well-balanced. If a leader, it means being sturdy for your followers; if a follower, it means being poised to be guided in whatever way the leader imagines.

Whether or not you connect well with the ground, it is an absolutely crucial element of your dance. To better connect with the ground is to better be able to collaborate with your partner.

2. Connecting with the music

For many dancers, a big part–if not the biggest part–of what motivates them to get on the floor night after night is the music that thrums in their bones.

They also, perhaps more importantly, delight in having a musical partner. This is because music is something beautiful, moving, and transcendent that can be experienced simultaneously. While dancing you can, together, delight in its subtleties, float through its melodies, exalt in its climaxes.

While you experience music together, you are communicating. Musicality is a conversation. Your partner’s musicality is at the same time both similar to and different from your own. By feeling and watching your partner, you notice what your partner hears in the music. Sometimes it is also what you hear, but other times it isn’t. This is a beautiful thing — this tension between similarity and difference. It is by and large what it means to be human.

And dancers love it. 

3. Connecting with each other’s dance styles, preferences, and abilities

When you dance, a well-connected partner will pay attention to your body and your dancing.

She will notice your timing, your balance, your frame, your energy.

If she is a leader, she will notice your strengths and preferences: Do you enjoy spinning? Do you like complicated patterns? Do you enjoy subtle rib cage isolations? Do you want to shine, or do you want to be physically connected the whole time? She will listen to you. She will pay attention. And she will help craft a dance that speaks to you in particular.

(I talk about this and the dynamics of lead/follow a bit in this post on sexism).

If a follower, she will attune her energy, frame, balance, and musicality to match yours. She will listen to you, and she will do everything she can to interpret your moves with loyalty and grace, while simultaneously contributing her own flavor. She will carry out your vision. More importantly, she will do so in a way that does not just look but more importantly feels good.

Well-connected partners listen to one another, and attempt to meet each other’s bodies with their own energy and skill.

4. Connecting with each other emotionally

When you’re with a well-connected  partner, she will not just meet you where you are at physically, or even musically, but will also meet you where you are at emotionally.

Sometimes when we go out dancing we are bursting at the seams with energy and just need to go, go, go. Other times we are feeling a little morose and melancholic, and just want our partners to hold us and sway.

A great connector will tune in to your mood, and will attempt to meet you where you are at. Of course, it is technically impossible to fully assimilate to your mood. But partners can at least empathize with how you are feeling, and attempt to bridge the gap between their mood and your own.

5. Connecting with each other’s eyes

Eye contact  is an extension of the point above, but it has so much of its own power that it bears mentioning on its own.

Eye contact is a basic human form of recognition. It says “I see you.” It says “I am interested in you.” It says “you matter to me.” Good connectors are all about that. And dancers eat it up like candy.

Now, to be fair, there is usually such a thing as too much eye contact. Everybody knows those few leaders or followers who do nothing but stare right at your face throughout the whole dance. It can be a bit uncomfortable, to say the least.

But almost nothing is worse than a dance in which your partner avoids looking at you the whole time. Failing to make eye contact often makes partners feel neglected, ignored, under-valued. Failing to make eye contact can ruin a dance. Making good eye contact can make the same exact dance the best of your whole night.

6. Connecting with each other’s bodies

It’s funny how little we think and talk about this, but partner dancing is by and large very tactile. We look at each other, and followers can take visual cues in their following… but everything else we do for communicating is with touch alone.

You can be rough; or you can be gentle.

You can be quick; or you can be slow.

You can be abrupt; or you can be disarming.

Every single part of your body has the power to connect with your partner in an attentive and loving way: For example, How do you grasp your partners hands? How do you maintain tension between your and your partner’s legs? How do you support a followers arms with your frame? How respectful are you of your partner’s intimacy boundaries?

We may not be cognizant of it, but how lovingly (or not) our partners communicate with their bodies is an important part of how well we feel connected, cared for, and fulfilled on the dance floor.

7. Connecting with one another emotionally, romantically, intimately

Now when I say “emotionally, romantically, intimately” I am being intentionally vague. Dances can range from a simple emotional connection of care and attention, which can be very platonic, on one hand, to a very flirtatious or sexual connection on the other. The point within this spectrum is to participate in a level of care and chemistry with your partner. It is to delight in the appreciation of the other person.

In some dances this is more obvious than others. And it always takes different shape. In west coast swing, there is often a lot of playfulness, not a lot of body contact, and therefore, conversely, a whole lot of eye contact.

In kizomba and bachata, on the other hand, there is often full on body contact, from the head to the toes. In these dances, you often touch your foreheads together, sway together, breathe together.

There is a spectrum of romance in dance in which you are welcome to participate, or not. It is completely up to you. Dance is a safe way (usually) to step into that space, experience that kind of loving attention, and then step back out and on to the next dance.

And it is, quite often, the stuff of which addicts are made.

—–

All of which is to say that the idea of  connecting is nothing but incredibly human, and therefore nothing but incredibly important for our dancing.

I spent 21 of the first 23 years of my life solo dancing on stages and the like. I loved it very much. It was fun and empowering and expressive.

But I didn’t become a dance addict until I added another animal to the mix. I didn’t become an addict until there was flesh under my hands, until there was someone I could eye, I could touch, someone I could listen to, I could support, I could love.

Through “connection” we get to experience someone’s attention. We get to be present with one another. We get to care for one another. We get to forget the rest of life exists and get lost in one another.

We get to listen. We get to support. We get to be listened to and supported. We get to focus on each other, delight in both our  similarities and differences…. and then walk away from the dance feeling more loved, more light-hearted, and more capable of getting through the tough stuff in life.

Because ultimately what all of these different kinds of connection have in common is a collapsing of barriers. They erode separation. They destroy boundaries. They, instead, facilitate union. They put us in harmony with another being and the world. They assure us that we are not alone. In doing so, they joyfully meeting some of our most basic needs as human beings.

This is what it means to connect, and it’s what brings so many of us — if in our different ways — back out on the dance floor night after night after night.

 

 

That being said… so far as I can best tell,  the ways I have listed are the most common ways that people define connection in dance. But I am always looking to expand and modify this list. To that end I would love love love your thoughts on it, too.

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In today’s video, I discuss what goes into a high quality body roll–one that is fluid, and well-controlled.

I look at what I consider to be the two most important skill sets that go into a good body roll: flexibility, and strength.

Then finally I discuss how to conceptualize it, and different drills you can do to improve yours ASAP.

Here: 🙂

 

If you’ve got questions let me know!!

 

 

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purity of connection

In today’s post – which is a bit of a doozy – I want to talk about a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I call it the purity of connection.

What’s purity?

Purity I consider to be the quality of having the most clear line of nonverbal communication between a leader’s body and follower’s body as possible. I think purity is perhaps not absolutely necessary for a fun dance… but it is definitely necessary for a dance that has a lot of complex communication in it and which is executed flawlessly.

I think it probably also impresses the hell out of the person you are dancing with.

So the bulk of this post will address different things that both leaders and followers can do to enhance the quality of their connection, focusing on this concept of purity. These techniques apply specifically to Afro-Latin dances but the ideas are still relevant for partner work generally.

Afro-Latin connection

There are two primary ways in which two bodies can hold, transfer, and utilize energy between them. They can, essentially, push, and they can, essentially, pull.

Different theorists give these ideas of pushing and pulling different names. My favorite names – which I borrow from a particular vocabulary preference among some west coast swing dancers – are compression (for pushing) and extension (for pulling).

In compression, you press into one another.

In extension, you pull away.

In either case, “tension” (the word most commonly bandied about by Afro Latin dancers) exists between the partners, and is the force contained within muscles that makes movement happen.

Now – the reason these concepts come to me via west coast swing is that this is a dance – though it is not the only one – that defaults into extension or compression. The leader and the follower are always in counterbalance against one another. 100% of the time. This means that these dancers are always pulling against, or pushing into, one another. (To be clear, both partners push at the same time, or pull at the same time. Dancing doesn’t work, ever, if one pushes and the other pulls.) The “resting” position in this dance is to be in extension. If this sounds like it’s really challenging to you, that’s because it is. It’s a lot of fun – like when you grab hands with someone and spin around in a circle real fast – but it requires a high degree of musculature control and is chock full of its own brand of challenges.

This notion of constant counterbalancing is very different from the Afro Latin dances. In salsa, bachata, and zouk, there is not an undercurrent of counter-balance. (Kizomba is somewhat of an exception as the closed position is minimally counter-balanced in the direction of compression.) There is not a consistent push and pull. The default connection, the resting connection, is neutral.

So when do compression and extension happen?

Compression and extension happen when the leader initiates them. This concept is so important perhaps I should say it again: compression and extension happen when the leader initiates them. Leaders can extend or compress to intiate forward and backward movement, and can also deploy these forces laterally to create rotation. When the leader ceases to compress or extend, the follower stops compressing or extending, too, and immediately. They then move on to the next movement, or go back to neutral, with the follower waiting for the next initiation of movement. The better a follower does this, the more smoothly the dance proceeds. 

When this is done right, the leader and follower have a smooth, open channel of nonverbal communication between them. This is where the concept of purity comes into play. I think of the connection like a current between my leader and me. If we both have good frames without any leaks, if we keep our own balance, and if we are neutral when we need to be neutral and compress and extend when we need to, then we will create a dance that is flawlessly well connected.

There are things that both leaders and followers can do to maximize the purity of this connection. I’ll describe each of them as briefly as possible below.

High quality leading in compression or extension

There are several things a leader can to do maximize the clarity and comfort of their lead.

1. Keep it small, tight, controlled

There is no need to dance very big. In fact, big leads usually ends up making the dance more challenging for the follower. The wider the sweep of your arm on a turn, for example, the more a chance there is you will throw off your follower’s center of gravity and lose the connection. Followers only have two options when you give them a lead is that is too big: to move backwards in order to keep their feet under them, or to lose their balance standing in place where they are.

Of course it is possible to dance expansively and well, but a good rule of thumb, and especially for beginners, is to keep the dancing close and tight. The more compact your lead, the less margin for error there will be in both you and your follower’s movements, and the more seamless your connection will be.

2. Don’t be forceful

Unfortunately, many leaders often confuse force for clarity. They think that in order to pull off complicated moves, they have to manhandle their followers into the pattern.

This could not be further from the truth.

If you are having a hard time getting a certain move to happen, it’s not because you’re not pushing hard enough. It’s because you’re not leading the move well enough. There are many ways to enhance clarity without force, such as by changing the position of your hands or finding a new place on your follower’s body to lead the move from. If you want to lead a complicated move, it is your responsibility to figure out the best way to communicate that to your follower.

Unfortunately, some leaders are just plain old forceful regardless of how complicated the move is. In this case, seriously, just knock it off. Be mindful. I encourage all leaders to experiment with varying the energy they put into their leads. Just try to be a bit more gentle one night. Do you still get the same results? Can people still follow you? If so, you have just opened up a whole new field of possibilities for how you lead your moves. You will probably find that some moves, or some music, or some followers, feel better with different amounts of energy. That’s great. Keep on calibrating your energy so that it supports your dance, rather than forces or derails it.

3. Power steer

One thing you can do to help with the problem of force — or which will significantly enhance the comfort of your lead no matter how much energy you use — is something the west coast swing champion Bill Cameron calls “power steering.”

What Bill means is this: whenever you apply force in one direction, you should also be bracing your muscles, exhibiting a small degree of force, back in the opposing direction. This provides a feeling of cushioning to your leads, which is extraordinarily comfy for followers. It feels amazing, and is one of the dead giveaways of an advanced dancer. Don’t just fling your follower in one direction, but apply a degree of balancing force.

4. Have a nice frame

Having good posture with the shoulders down and back, and with your arms extended in front of you as a part of your frame, is crucial to being a high quality leader with a pure connection. A good frame enables you to have a clean line of muscle communication from your center of gravity through your shoulders and your arms and all the way into your finger tips.

A good frame connects your whole body to your follower’s whole body. This is an absolutely crucial component of a pure connection, as it is the actual physical infrastructure that constitutes it. Without a good frame you simply cannot communicate.

5. Be braced to balance the follower

A perfectly ideal follower will never need you for balance. But none of us are perfectly ideal. In fact, the vast majority of us are far from it.

Even while you and your follower are both attempting to preserve the purity of your connection, your follower may need you sometimes. Coming out of a spin, balancing on one foot, lunging forward or being off axis are all prime occasions in which your support may be necessary.

Instead of waiting for your follower to signal a need and then stepping in unpreparedly at the last second, you can instead always be braced, providing supporting musculature to your follower – should they need it – through your frame.

6. Encourage gentleness with gentleness

Some leaders complain that followers are too rough with their hands. (This critique goes both ways.)

In response to this roughness, they elevate the amount of force they give the follower. They one up them. They increase their energetic input to get the job done. Then the follower responds in kind, and the dance becomes a contest for the strongest grip.

But what if that follower only has a firm, or rough, grip because they have been manhandled by leaders before you?

This is usually the case.

Instead of increasing the degree of force you use next time you find yourself in this situation, try decreasing it. Try becoming more gentle. Try coaxing your follower to follow you, rather than pushing and pulling on them. There is a very high likelihood that they will notice this dramatic shift towards gentleness, and will be able to relax into you and your dance, and communicate without battling one another.

High quality following in Afro Latin dances

Followers have an equally important set of techniques they can deploy to facilitate a smooth and pure connection. Here are my favorites:

1. Do not  initiate any tension, compression, or extension

When I first began partner dancing, I had no idea how to connect. Almost no one told me, and those who did didn’t quite have the language necessary to communicate to me what I needed to do.

So for a period, I thought that what I needed to do was to always be pushing on my leader.

This was not the right thing to do.

Instead, what I should have done was let myself be entirely neutral. I should have let my hands rest in my leader’s hands without any force. I should have waited for my leader to initiate extension or compression, and only then reacted with any degree of energy or force.

I constantly think about this role as being receptive and responsive, but not initiative. Refrain from initiating tension, and you will leave the line of communication clear and open for your leader to send you signals.

2. Give back in kind, but to a lesser degree

The question then arises of what you do once a leader initiates extension or compression.

The answer, first and foremost, is that you hold your frame completely steady, and let your body move in order to maintain that frame.

What this looks like, in terms of the kinds of forces running through your body, is responding with extension or compression in kind, but just to a lesser degree.

When a leader pushes on you, you push back. But to a lesser degree. When they pull on you, you pull back, but to a lesser degree.

I talk about this a lot in the video on Advanced Frame Theory and Tips.

Consider it like a physics or a math equation. When a leader pushes on you, say with a level of 10, you push back. If you push back with a level of 12, you will overpower your leader, and you will ultimately become the lead. If you push back with a level of 10, you will be in a perfect stalemate – nobody will move. If you push back with a level of 8, your leader will still have the upper hand and will be able to push you, but it will take effort.  You will be heavy. 

If, on the other hand, you push back with a level, say, of 2, you will maintain your frame, you will have energy between your muscles and your leader’s muscles (and 8 in the direction of motion, because 10-2=8), and your leader will be able to move you fairly effortlessly.

If a leader goes out for a big move and supplies you with a 16, give them an increased amount back.

If a leader is uniquely gentle, then give back in a uniquely gentle way. I have done whole dances barely touching fingertips together.

Then, of course, when the compression or extension is no longer coming your way – let go of it! And be ready for the next stuff to come.

If you do so – if you respond in kind but to a lesser degree – and consistently so – you will be able to follow what your leader gives you while maintaining a high quality connection, open to more signals from your leader. What’s more, doing so with a calibrated degree of force that is reasonably low can make you a “light” follow, which many leaders prize highly.

3. Power steer

Just like leaders can hold some tension within their muscles and exhibit force back in the opposite direction, so can followers. Don’t simply fling yourself in the direction that a leader sends you. Instead, move in that direction with control until the leader stops you and deploys compression to send you off in another direction.

High quality partner dancing is all about control, both within yourself and between you and your partner. This concept of “power steering” is a great way to enhance your control over your own body, as well as make the dance more enjoyable for your leader.

4. Give back with a nice frame, and with the right muscles necessary to maintain it

When responding in kind to your leader, do so with a nice frame.

(I talk about this in Frame Basics and Advanced Frame Theory and Tips.)

In general, a good frame (for me) is composed of engaged abs, shoulders held down and back, engaged lats, engaged pecs connecting the torso to the arms, and a thin wire of engagement running from the underside of the upper arms all the way to the fingertips.

Yet in every position you find yourself in, and doing every single different move, you will find that different  muscles are necessary to maintain a good frame.

So while you dance, constantly be aware of your frame and how the leader engages it. You will find that sometimes you have to engage your triceps to round out a circular motion, or sometimes you need to really engage your lats for a high quality cross body lead. It varies.

Be mindful of which muscles you are using and you will find that you can much more easily (and immediately) respond to leads given you, and then drop them and move on to the next ones.

5. Balance yourself & hold your own weight

Leaders can balance you, and a good leader will anticipate occasions in which you may need it.

But ideally, and for the most pure connection possible, you maintain your own balance 100% by yourself.

When you spin, you do so in one spot, and then you easily step back on 1 (in salsa) without needing your leader hold you in place, for example.

When you do a cross body lead, you walk in a straight line and don’t pull on your leader.

When you do any kind of move on one foot, you maintain your own center of gravity.

These are all great examples of cases in which you should balance yourself.

There are also cases in which you should learn how to hold your own weight.

In dips, for example, many followers simply throw themselves backwards and expect their leaders to hold them. But they could do this with much better technique, which makes the movement easier…even effortless… for their leaders: they could hold their own weight  as much as possible, by pushing upward with their hips and bracing their abs. Doing both of these things reduces the burden of weight  on the leader. I don’t think I need to emphasize how pleasant a surprise this often is for leaders.

Balancing on your own and holding your own weight  within your body preserves the purity of your connection. If you throw weight or tension into the connection, it blocks the channel. Anytime you throw tension toward your leader, your leader cannot very easily bypass it and send you a signal you will be able to hear.

If, on the other hand, you manage to hold your own weight and leave the channel for communication open, then your leader is free to send you more signals, you are free to receive them, and the two of you are free to continue dancing at your highest level of potential.

So with balance, I bring my list of following qualities to a close.

I know this has been a very long post – but all of the components of it have been necessary to flush out as important components in the purity of connection.

Basically, what I have tried to convey is that what both followers and leaders need to do is take care of their own bodies and movements. They should be ready to support one another – but still always trying their best to maintain the purity of their connection to their partner. This enables leaders to communicate clearly and followers to correctly read the signals given to them via their bodies.

This enables dancers to better be in tune with one another. This way, moves can follow one after the other, often very rapidly, without break. The better the purity of your connection, the more subtly you can communicate, and the more present with another you can be. So much of partner dancing is about  being in harmony – and thinking about your connection in terms of purity can be on great way to do that.

 

 

give me your thoughts. I know nothing.

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salsa leaders

This blog is by and large about following.

But following doesn’t exist without leading… every good follow needs a good lead to make it happen. And, boy, do I have opinions on what a good leader is, or what.

I spend a lot of time ruminating on what leaders and followers need to do to enjoy their time together. Here is a list of what I think are the 8 most egregious wrongs a leader can make on the dancefloor:

1. Squeeze my hands

Seriously, leaders. Don’t do it. You can lead a follower by simply touching your fingertips to theirs if you want to. There is absolutely zero, and I mean zero, reason to squeeze a follower’s hands.

It is uncomfortable. It is painful. It hinders the dance. It hurts your partner. Don’t do it. A simple light grasp is all we need.

2. Be forceful

I understand that some leaders like to be “stronger” than others. They put more force behind their leads. Of course this varies from leader to leader – it is only natural.

There is a difference, however, between a lead with more energy and a lead who is forceful. My favorite leads — my absolute favorites — are extremely gentle. This does not mean they are not clear. Some leads seem to think that in order to be more clear they have to be forceful. But  that could not be more wrong. You can be extremely gentle (given that your follower is receptive to the gentleness) and still be very clear.

There is an important technique that can help with this problem. The brilliant west coast swing champion Bill Cameron calls this “power steering.”

What Bill means is this: whenever you apply force in one direction, you should also be bracing your muscles, exhibiting a degree of force, back in the opposing direction. This provides a feeling of cushioning to your leads, which is extraordinarily comfy for followers. If you don’t power steer when you lead, now is an excellent time to start.

3. Dance too big

This one goes out to all the beginning leaders.

One egregious mistake beginner dancers make is dancing too big. They take too big of steps, they extemd their frames too much/break the lines of their frames, and they throw their arms out in a broad circle to lead spins.

The thing is, the bigger your lead, the more you throw your follower off balance.

Partner dancing happens much more easily, smoothly, and quickly if it must if it’s kept close and tight. When you spin a follower, all you gotta do is raise your hand and give a bit of a rotational motion to the back. Like, a fraction. Seriously. Don’t over lead… instead quality lead.

4. Dip without proper technique

Perhaps this goes without saying, but if I didn’t say it somebody else would.

Dipping followers without knowing the mechanics of dipping and people’s backs is a gigantic, and I mean a gigantic, no. 

Some mistakes leaders often make when dipping is snapping back at the shoulderblade level, which makes the neck snap uncomfortably, not giving enough of a circumference on a dip that rotates, which interrupts the otherwise fluid motion of the spine, or giving deep, fast dips to followers they aren’t already sure will be able to follow them without being hurt.

If you haven’t thought about these issues (and others) and are a leader, it may be time to start.

5. Dance above your follower’s level

One thing that drives me absolutely crazy is when an “advanced” leader is paired with an intermediate or beginner follower, and continually gives them moves that they cannot follow.

This frustrates the follow, makes them feel incompetent, and ruins any kind of positive connection you might have in the dance.

It’s one thing to lead one move, or a move at the beginning, and discover that the follower can’t do it.  It’s another thing to learn their level early on and then ignore it entirely. Sometimes I think leaders do this out of habit — they are simply too lazy to change their normal patterns of movement — and other times I think leaders do this out of arrogance — they are displaying disdain for their partner’s lack of technical ability.

In either case, I do not approve. A good leader leads a follower, and is present with the follower.

6. Collapse your frame / have bad posture

Almost nothing is more important to me in a dance than the quality of my leader’s frame.

The frame is where all leads come from – so it’s super important for the quality of connection and the clarity of the directions being given me.

But the frame is also where, in closed position, you rest. If a leader has bad posture, it will collapse on the follower and feel uncomfortable.

If, on the other hand, a leader has great posture, I’ll ask them to dance all. night. long. I won’t be able to keep my hands off of them. There’s something very homey and sexy feeling about a great frame — because a great frame is, after all, a great embrace.

7. Verbally tell the follower what to do or correct them

Every once in a while a leader will say something to me like “keep your hand there behind your back.” I’m like, “I was going to anyway, but thanks?”

Telling a follower what to do before it even happens is a statement of a lack of faith in their ability to follow.

Telling a follower what they should have done afterwards implies that you think they were wrong.

What partnership really is taking accountability into yourself whenever possible, and doing everything you can to support your partner.

What’s more, if you want to lead your follower in a complicated move, learn how to do it in a way that you can lead it without verbal indication. Many people say it’s “always” the leaders fault when a move goes wrong. I don’t agree, really – I personally make mistakes or could be following better all of the time. This mentality is what has enabled me to improve as a dancer. But it is still by and large a decent guideline to follow that leads should try their best to lead followers in a way appropriate to them. For more on which, see this post on feminism and latin dance.

8. Overstep bounds of intimacy

This is a problem unfortunately many leaders are guilty of.

They overstep the bounds of intimacy.

Now of course a follow is complicit in what happens in terms of physical intimacy during a dance, too. But just like we live in a society in which men take sexual actions and it’s a woman’s job to say “no” – in dance men often initiate intimacy that women are uncomfortable with.

The acclaimed leader Juan Calderon likes to talk about this issue in terms of traffic signals. Dance is usually non verbal. So how do people communicate? With their body language.

Pay attention to your follower’s body language. If you move to close the gap between you two and your follower resists, that’s a red light. If you move your head forward to connect and your follower tilts theirs away from you, that’s a red light. You should probably stop your current course of action immediately and back off until the follower signals more comfort.

If your follower lets you connect your head to theirs but doesn’t initiate any of their own movement, that’s a yellow light. This is a signal for caution, and may mean you should back up and wait for them to give you more positive signals.

If, on the other hand, your follower notices you inclining your head and moves to incline theirs to meet yours on their own, or initiates another sort of intimacy when you do so such as stroking the back of your neck, that’s a good sign that they’re into whatever you’re leading. This is a green light.

Now, partner dancing is NOT a race to get as many green lights as possible. But it is an intimate space between two people, so ways of thinking about boundaries is necessary.

Don’t overstep intimacy. If you detect any yellow lights, back up to make sure your follower is comfortable. You can still have a great and connected dance without your bodies smushed together from head to toe.

 

…And with that, I draw my list of my personal biggest leader “no”s to a close. What do you think? Dyou do any of these, leaders? Love / hate any of them, followers?

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how to spin in salsa stefani ruper

Image Credit

In the most recent video in this series – TPF006: Spinning in Place, I discussed the mechanics of spinning in place.

Spinning in place is a fairly simple skill, once you understand the concepts and begin integrating them.

Travelling is simple, too, but a lot more goes into it that most people don’t know about.

This video is all about a great set of techniques not just for a good but a seriously great travelling spin.

 

In the video I cover:

-Your frame

-How your frame works in a travelling spin

-Where to spot in a travelling spin

-How to spot and why it’s crucial in ways most people don’t think

-What to do with your feet, knees, hips, glutes, back, chest, arms, and head in a travelling spin

-What it means to spin “in a plane”

-How to make this movement happen

And of course – I close with the reminder that this is just one set of techniques among many. It may not  be the best for you. But it’s a great starting place and I know for sure that it works wonders for me and many others.

Let me know what you think or if you have questions!

 

 

 

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"The Spinning Dancer" by Leonid Afremov

Image: “The Spinning Dancer” by Leonid Afremov

Spinning.

An elusive skill.

Something mysterious, even.

Instructors in beginning classes will often say – ‘and then the follower turns.’

Um, no.

There’s a lot more to it than that, right?

There is. And the thing is – it’s not rocket science. Spinning well in place is actually a fairly simple, straightforward act.

All you have to do is know the basics of how it works, practice the motions untill they become habit, and you are golden, it’s smooth sailing from there on out.

In today’s video, I describe my own personal technique for how to spin in place. There are of course many different ways to think of and to describe spinning, but I personally find these techniques to work very well. They come not just from years of salsa but literal decades of dance training. That’s not to say they are foolproof and will work best for everybody, but they do do the job for me.

 

In the  video, I discuss:

-prepping for a spin in salsa (when given a “j” lead),

-foot technique,

-core technique,

-frame technique, and

-spotting.

I also include a short clip at the end that shows me first doing some travelling spins and then ending in place… where the alignment of my body and spotting are very obvious components of my ability to follow that lead.

Let me know what you think or if you have questions. I know this may seem easier said than done, but all it takes is a bit of thinking and a a regular dose of loving practice. 🙂

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If Colors could dance

Image: If Colors Could Dance

An old friend of mine–a west coast swing leader–once told me that he noticed a friend of mine, a bachata, salsa, and zouk follower–because she was a “pure follow.” He asked her to dance–and he recommended that his friends do the same–because of this specific quality. The pure following. 

I was intrigued. What’s that, I asked? And more importantly, why is it so desirable? And how do I become a pure follower too?!

What is a pure follow?

A “pure follow” is a follower who can follow whatever is thrown their way. A pure follower does not do canned steps. A pure follow does not backlead (do moves before they are led), or hijack (change what’s being led). A pure follow is not confined to the movements of a specific dance, but is rather well connected throughout their body, so that they can interpret and nail a lead no matter how unorthodox.

Now of course a pure follow can’t necessarily follow a shitty lead. A pure follow doesn’t have to perfectly respond to off-balance, jerky movements or to lack of clarity in the lead. But a pure follow does their best to do so, and will respond well to a high quality lead.

Why do you want to be a “pure follow”?

There are many reasons you might want to be a pure follow. Here are some of them:

Versatility.

You can follow a wide variety of leaders. You don’t need a particular style of salsa (on 1, on 2, etc) or a particular kind of lead (hard, soft). Hell, you don’t even necessarily need a particular kind of dance. For example, I once danced a great tango with an experienced tango leader, because he could use my efforts at pure following to manipulate my body, even though I know almost nothing about tango. Knowing tango would have made the dance much, much better of course, but it was an enjoyable dance for both of us. I also often go out clubbing with leaders and we just kind of do our own thing, mixing steps and moves and the like. You can do this, if you learn how to follow instead of how to do steps.

 You can do more than one kind of dance.

Each partner dance has its own unique flavor and is delicious in its own right. The more of a pure follow you are, the more your skills leak over into other dances and enable you to dive into a new community head first.

Versatile leaders love you like crazy.

Just as there are follows who transcend barriers between dances, so there are leaders. Unfortunately for these leaders, however, they are confined to lead only things within the vocabularly of one particular dance on a given night….unless they end up with a pure follow who will follow unorthodox moves or stuff borrowed from other dances. “Pure leaders” consider “pure follows” a godsend.

Advanced skill set.

At advanced levels, the lines between skills required for different dances blurs. The kinds of moves getting led can vary widely. Being a pure follow keeps you right up at the top of an expanding pool of talent.

Times change.

Moves change. Dances change. If you’re not a pure follow you might get stuck in old times, say, back when you took classes and learned specific turn patterns. But if you are a pure follow, when new movements come along (hello sensual bachata, hello “swouk”), you’ll be good to go. You’ll stay right on the edge of innovation, being able to follow whatever develops in the dance.

You liberate leaders…

and enable them to freely interpret the music. Many experienced leaders will tell you that there is a particular level or type of follow whom they trust implicitly–so much so that they don’t have to worry about only doing certain moves or keeping you balanced or on track. These followers enable them to truly let go, and become one with you and the music. It is much easier to be one of these followers — and for more leaders — if you are a “pure follow.” Since pure follows can do whatever is given them (within reason), leaders can let go. Knowing you can do this for some leaders is an incredible honor and gift.

Creativity. Since you are a “pure follow,” experienced dancers can get creative with you. They can test the bounds of their own leading and dance, and have fun discovering new things they can do. Creativity is a part of what makes partner dancing magical and it is greatly enhanced by pure following.

I’ll talk more in a forthcoming post on ways to develop your pure following. For now it’s probably enough to know that it by and large just has to do with listening, and an open-minded (open-bodied?) willingness to let your body go where it is compelled.

In the meantime – let me know what you think. Is pure following really all that important? Is it too obvious? What’s your experience?

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