How to learn

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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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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One of the most common beliefs in the Afro-Latin dance scenes is that mistakes are always the leader’s fault.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been on the dance floor, experienced some sort of miscommunication with my leader, and said “my bad” only to have the leader positively insist that it is always the leader’s job to make the dance go well. They always say, “no, no, no, it’s my bad, it’s always the leader’s fault.”

I think this statement could not be more wrong. I always fight back. I roll my eyes; I shout over the music; I say, “I’m allowed to fuck up, too.”

The whole idea of it is just blatantly incorrect. It’s plain wrong. I know that everyone wants leaders to be chivalrous, and in charge, but that completely misses the point. Sure, a leader can assess a follower’s skill and attempt to adjust for it. I know that. Some of them are experts at it. But I know extremely talented leaders who still sometimes get smacked in the face by an errant arm. There is no way they can anticipate every move a follower makes.

One time I hit a guy in the head with my own head… while we were shining. How could that have possibly been his fault at all? It most certainly was not.

There are infinite ways in which followers can make mistakes. I could step forward on 1 instead of back. I could be off time. I could throw my weight into a dip unexpectedly. I could lose my balance on a spin. I could collapse my frame and let my elbows go behind my body. I could backlead. I could let go of my leader’s grip. Leaders can sometimes anticipate these things, especially in the case of advanced leaders dancing with novice followers, but not always.

Sometimes – often – it is simply the case that mistakes are the follower’s fault.

What’s more, I find the whole idea to be rather insulting. Saying that everything is the leader’s fault denies that followers bring any sort of agency or skill to a dance at all. It says that the quality of the dance doesn’t depend upon what the follower has to contribute, but instead upon how well the leader maniuplate’s the follower’s body.

It’s sexist.

If we are going to continue to do these dances but do so in a way that honors equality, we need to acknowledge that followers have agency and skills that make a difference.

In the examples of followers making mistakes that I listed above, in every case, the leader can surely compensate for them. For example, a leader could lead dips that are less deep. A leader could more carefully guide a follower’s timing. A leader lead turn patterns equal to the follower’s level. But there is still a very big skill set that a follower can bring to meet the leader half way. A follower can learn how to do a better dip, can fix their frame, can learn timing. Leaders pick the moves but these moves are selected and executed in part based on what the follower contributes to the dance.

Let me be accountable for my own mistakes, leaders, and we can make a better dance together.

If you do so, perhaps most importantly of all, then we can all become better dancers. 

If we constantly tell followers that mistakes are not their fault — and if followers then get in the habit  of blaming mistakes on leaders — then followers literally have zero impetus to become better dancers.

One major component of quickly becoming a badass social dancer is constantly evaluating and correcting oneself on the dance floor. I am constantly in a state of self-correction on the floor. Every time a hiccup or mistake occurs, I immediately think “what could I have done to have avoided it?” There are always many different answers. Maybe I could have better balanced myself. Maybe I could have better connected with my leader’s frame. Maybe I could have stepped more evenly in the line of dance.

If I thought “oh he could have led that better” every time there was a mistake in a dance, like our culture apparently wants me to do, I’d never learn what mistakes I was making. I’d never improve. It is 100% because I consider myself culpable and responsible for the quality of a dance that I have managed to become a better dancer at all.

People often say that leaders should be able to read followers and craft a dance that matches their skills… but followers can also read leaders, and tailor their skill set to fit within the context of that particular dance. This is an important quality of being a good follower, perhaps the most important. None of us will ever get good at it if we expect the burden of communication and execution to lie on the leader’s shoulders alone.

Ultimately, my greatest fear here is that teaching dancers that it’s a leader’s job to fix things prevents followers from reaching their true potential.

So the answer to my initial question of whether mistakes are always a leader’s fault is no. It is not always the leader’s fault. Dances are not composed of robot leaders and robot followers — masters and puppets — but rather human beings who communicate. This mean that a complex set of both leading and following skills are necessary for a good dance, and that everybody is accountable for the talent that they bring to a dance.

 

I have a feeling you disagree. Go ahead, let me have it. 🙂

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pure following stefani ruper

In this post, I wrote about what a “pure follow” is, and why you might want to be one.

Today, I want to talk about strategies for achieving that goal.

Of course – it is a forever receding target. We can never be the most perfect, or the most “pure” follows. Never. But I really do think we can come close.

Here are the few ways I’ve discovered that work best, at least for me, in helping enhance my capabilities as a pure follow:

1. Practice.

Nobody ever improves without practicing. The more you dance — and mindfully so — the faster you’ll improve, and the better you’ll be.

This happens at home, it happens in the studio, it happens at rehearsals, it happens on the floor. The more frequently you practice (and in a thoughtful way), the quicker you’ll improve.

2. Do more than one dance.

I know I’m pretty obvious about this being important in this blog, but I do several dances. Every single dance I add enhances the quality of dancing I bring to the other dances I already do. Why? Because each dance has its own specific set of skills that it focuses on (eg, kizomba, zouk, bachatasalsa, west coast)…. and these skills are useful in all of the other dances, too. For example, the range of torso motion emphasized in bachata can really help follow a salsa leader who likes body rolls and dips.

3. Listen to your partner.

Try as best as you can when you social dance to forget the moves you learned in lessons–or even moves you’ve done previously with other leaders–and just listen very presently to what your current partner is doing. This is very challenging but can be extremely rewarding both in terms of the quality of your following as well as the quality of your connection.

4.  Make social dancing your learning space.

Many people will disagree with me somewhat here. They’ll say – learning is for the classroom. The social floor is for fun. But I think they couldn’t be more wrong. There’s no saying you can’t have fun and learn at the same time. You don’t have to be a burden on your partner. Nobody ever needs to know you’re even doing it…learning on the dance floor. Just pay attention. Notice what your reaction is to different leads. Discover your own programming and presuppositions. Then get rid of it. Try and clear your mind of your predictions and simply go with the flow. Study your own social dancing and learn your own habits, so that you can simultaneously enhance the good ones and get rid of the bad ones.

5. While you’re at it, watch.

Watch other dancers. Learn from their movements. Discern what the more common patterns are… and figure out where they might be broken. Pay special attention to leaders and followers who don’t seem to follow the rulebook, but are instead playful and creative with their dancing. What do they do? What can you import into your own dancing?

6. Assume ‘mistakes’ are your fault. 

This is not just the nice thing to do, but it’s also the fastest way to become a better social dancer.

I go into every single social dance I do with a critical eye on myself. If something “goes wrong,” I assume it’s my fault. I pay attention to what’s going on. I press myself to find ways to spin more efficiently, to connect my frame with fewer leaks, and to read my leader’s intentions better. How can I change what I am doing to make this a higher quality dance?

This helps you continually refine your following such that you can follow whatever leads are giving you. It also enables you to be able to follow more. Higher level leaders have more precise, easier-to-follow leads. But they’re not the only ones you’ll dance with. Paying attention to your following and every leader you are with will help you with the whole range of leaders.

7. Ask for feedback from your leaders.

Ask: did I follow that like you intended? What did I miss? How do you think we miscommunicated? If I get a lead a few times in a night that I know I am doing wrong, I seek out a leader and ask them to show me what they intended.

This is directly related to the point above. You can start off by asking these questions in your own head – you will in all likelihood find the correct answer over time – but it always helps to get external feedback. Your own reflections combined with some thoughtful help from other dancers can really help fine tune your following.

8. Take classes from diverse instructors. 

Different instructors have different viewpoints on just about everything, from social etiquette to turn patterns to the quality of leading and following. Diversifying your instructor set can go a long way toward getting you out of a fixed mindset and into more flexibility as a follower.

For that matter, it’s important to focus on continuing to learn and expand your range, period. Many people give up on lessons far too early, or never take them at all (myself included). I consider this to be a big mistake, since some instructors have very literal magic to share with us.

9. Travel.

When I started travelling to different congresses I noticed my speed of improvement really pick up. Why? Because people dance the same dances with different styles all over the world. Compare, for example, bachata in Cadiz to bachata in Miami, or zouk in Poland to zouk in the Caribbean. There are huge differences between the two. In fact, having danced bachata only in the USA for my first few years, I could hardly follow anything given to me in bachata in Europe upon arrival. I’d say it took me about a solid six months to become proficient in European bachata.

But then when I came back to the USA, I could follow even more of the local bachata here than I could previously, because my skill set had been so expanded.

This goes for hemispheres and nations but also for local communities. DJs and instructors in Boston are different from DJs and instructors in New York, which makes for totally different dancing environments, and totally different kinds of leads.

The more you travel, the more expansive your following will be.

 

And with travelling I bring my list to a close. These are my favorite strategies for working on the “purity” of my following. Do you have similar strategies? Care about the same things? Want to recommend some ideas to me? (Please? 😉 )

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This is the third post in a series devoted to honing particular dance skills. As I explained in the first post on Kizomba, I have found that adding new dances to my repertoire always increases my abilities in the rest of the dances I do. This is because each dance has its own set of specific skills it specializes in more than the others. But each of these skills is still useful in every dance.

I have discussed kizomba and zouk previously. Today we cover bachata … first in general and then “traditional” and “sensual” where they diverge.

Bachata, general

Body sensitivity and isolations

Bachata is an excellent dance for working on the subtlety of your following. Leads are often extremely gentle and nuanced, which calls you to a higher level of following, particularly in your torso.

Torso flexibility and fluidity / smoothness (and body rolls)

Bachata and kizomba are both great dances for working on receptivity in your torso. Bachata is particularly good for enhancing the range of motion and fluidity of torso movement. The range of motion is simply greater than in kizomba. Because of htis, additional strength is required in bachata. The combination of enhanced range of motion, flexibility, and strength results in a much more fluid and responsive torso.

Romantic enagement

I think romance is a legit skill that can be learned and practiced. Bachata is often a very romantic dance – and while doing it you have the opportunity to explore different ways to express yourself romantically with your body.

You can play with your hand on your leaders shoulders, neck, and head, can trace your hand along the line of your leader’s back or arms, can work on different hand holds, and can experiment with the way that different ways of touching heads (on the side, titled, head on) feels. There is a lot of variety here and bachata can make you a pro at it.

Bachata, “traditional” or “Dominican”

Footwork

“Dominican bachata” is well-known as a dance for footwork. 

This is true – it’s a great dance for experimenting with your feet and the varying instruments and beats in the music. Dominican bachata has a lot of distinct musical riffs that are rich, fertile ground for play.

These songs are usually quite long… so knock yourself out.

Frame connectivity and footwork following

Dominican bachata, more so than perhaps any of the latin social dances, requires good frame connectivity.

This dance is often danced in open position. But it is still a led dance. For that reason, your frame needs to be well connected from your hands up through your lats, pecs and shoulders, and down into your torso. From there you send the signal to your feet, and you can (though you don’t necessarily have to) mirror or complement the footwork that your partner is doing. You will be pulled, pushed, and rotated in often complex patterns.

Dominican bachata is an excellent dance – perhaps the best of all the social latin dances – to work on sutbleties in the connection in your hands and frame.

(For more on frame connectivity, see TPF001: Frame Basics and TPF004: Advanced Frame Theory and Tips)

Bachata, sensual

There are a lot of kinds of movements relatively unique to sensual bachata. A lot of sensual bachata does come from zouk, as many will be quick to point out, but I also think it comes a lot from people just playing around with different body parts within the bachata rhythm (and sexually so). Bachata has traditionally been a relatively simple dance, so it is ripe for jazzing up with fancy moves.

Foot Sweeps

Sensual bachata is all about foot sweeps these days. What’s a foot sweep? It’s when the leader kicks the followers foot with their own foot to move it to a new position on the floor.

Great foot sweeps come from always being centered over a foot and having excellent balance on that single foot. A great frame and connection with your leader can always support you while the sweep is happening.

rib cage isolations; head isolations; shoulder isolations; ISOLATIONS

Sensual bachata isolates just about every body part that can be isolated.

Shoulders are grabbed and moved independently, arms are flung out to the side and expected to be handled gracefully; heads are rolled standing in place; rib movements are isolated; hips can be grabbed and moved with just one hand.

Stillness

A part of what all of these isolations mean is that the rest of the body needs to be still. Sensual bachata is great for this.

 

Unorthodox body positions

Sensual bachata has some moves in it these days that you can’t really find in any other dance. For example, a leader will often press a follower down to the floor, so that her butt touches her heels. The follower could be spun out of this, leapt out of this, or popped to standing, then body rolled out of this.

Sensual bachata is the only dance in which my torso has been bent over to be parallel with the floor, my arms pulled behind my back, and then whipped around spinning into a standing position. I was super suprised the first time I was led in this, and even more surprised that I managed to make it work.

So this makes sensual bachata really great for expanding the range of your body and kinds of leads you’ll follow.

Ladies styling

I find ladies styling in sensual bachata to be a bit narcissistic, which I find obnoxious. But if you want to learn how to flaunt your own body and moves, sensual bachata has plenty of material for you to work with.

 

So that’s it for my list of bachata specific skills. Obviously there are lots of other great things you can learn from bachata – but these are the ones least commonly found in other dances.

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This is the second post in the series “honing different dance skills.” The first was kizombaIn it, I described several skills required of followers in kizomba that are useful in every dance, but which are most prominent in kizomba.

This means that if you want to develop your following in such and such a particular way–such as by enhancing the subtlety of your torso connection–then kizomba might be a great dance to add to your repertoire.

Today we move on to another dance – this time, Zouk.

What is zouk?

First we need to address the question of which kind of zouk I am talking about. The zouk that we most commonly see out social dancing is Brazilian zouk, from the Brazilian dance called “lambada.” This lambada dance collided with Carribean zouk music in the mid 1990s, and the combination of the two was, apparently, super appealing. The Brazilian lambada dance has since become associated with Carribean zouk music, and then expanded to include a whole genre of it’s own, largely inspired by hip hop, pop, R&B, and the like.

So you may occasionally run into social dancers who are keen to preserve the differences between Brazilian zouk and Carribean zouk, but more often than not, these days, at least in the states and in Europe, at zouk socials you will solely encounter the hair-whipping, thumping beats of Brazilian zouk.

(If you want to read more about the dance’s history – go here!)

Single foot balance

One of the most important skills a follower can develop is the ability to hold their own weight, and especially while standing on one foot.

In fact, in most dances, for most of the time, your weight should only ever be concentrated on one foot anyway. To stand with your weight planted on both feet is called “splitting weight” and it makes it relatively more difficult for your leader to direct your next steps. This is especially true of west coast swing. You should probably always clearly be on one foot, unless the move calls for otherwise (and to be clear, sometimes they do).

Zouk is an excellent dance for working on single foot balance because its becoming increasingly popular in the dance for leaders to lead single foot moves.

In zouk it is reasonably common to be led spinning, on one foot in place, while the leader holds your frame and walks around you in a circle, creating the spin. It is also common for leaders to stop your motion and suspend movement for the sake of musicality, leaving you in place on one foot.

You can identify when a “single foot” spin, moment, or pause is coming based on the leader lifting you up from your frame in place. This upward motion is intended to block any sort of lateral motion, such that you stay just in one place. It also helps keep you balanced, as it elongates the length of the line you have over your foot.

If your leader is good, they will also provide steady support where you need it, in order to you to balance well.

That being  said, the better you get at these moves, the less you will need to lean on your partner.

Flexibility and manipulability in upper back / neck

Zouk moreso than any other dance requires flexibility in the upper back and the neck. The dance is said to “hinge” at three axes — at the shoulder blades, at the shoulders/neck, and at the neck/head.

This dance absolutely requires fluid rotational movement around those three axes.

At the shoulder blades, you can create a concave shape, closing your rib cage in towards itself, arching forward. Keep your neck and head in line with the arch so that you are looking at the floor. Then rotate around so that you are leaning off to one side, hinging from your upper back / shoulder blades. Continue rotating, pulling the shoulder that was the highest while leaning to the side now back and around, such that now you are arching back from your upper back, looking at the ceiling. This should have a more ‘convex’ feel to it as while you arch back your rib cage also opens. A good leader will not just help facilitate this movement but  also the convex and concave feelings.

Zouk also requires what I call horizontal movement in the rib cage. You can think of this as creating a convex shape with your ribs out to the front (keeping your shoulders in place), transitioning around to the side, creating a concave shape with your torso in the back (so that if you look down at this point you should see the plane of your stomach) and then rounding it out to the other side, and back to the front. All the while keeping your shoulders in place.

See a video on zouk body movement basics here:

You can work on this flexibility alone but will inevitably work on it while dancing with a partner as it is crucial to just about every zouk dance anyone ever does. Being able to move like this is as basic to zouk as the basic step is.

“Shaping” turns

Mastering the curved movement of zouk, and particularly through turns, enables you to throw lots of cool curves into your turns in other dances. You can spin with your head and your torso off to the side as much as your heart desires.

Bachata and west coast swing are particularly friendly to this kind of “shaping” these days – salsa less so.

It is important not to over-style turns, however: if you are bent half way to the side and whipping your hair around coming out of a turn, that’s all well and good, but it does prevent your leader from being able to lead you at this moment. This is important for west coast and bachata but  most especially for salsa, as the vast, vast majority of salsa moves a lead will give you before, during, and after a turn rely on having a properly straight posture.

Pure following in body, especially the upper body; shutting off brain

Zouk more than any other of the social latin dances requires–in my opinion–pure following.

Of course, when you start out in zouk, you learn steps.

But as you progress in zouk, leads melt into other leads, and you cannot keep track of the “moves” you were taught being led any more.

And much of zouk has you off axis. You do get to just stand straight up throughout dances, for sure. But you will often have your face looking down at the ground, or up at the ceiling, or at some position in between, and maybe your eyes are closed. And your leader pulls on your shoulder or taps you on a place on your back and you don’t just rotate your torso and keep your eyes moving all about, but also spin in one place.

For me, zouk is an excellent dance for learning how to shut everything off and simply try to do what my lead is communicating to me to do. I can’t look at the lead and interpret from body cues (often in complex following situations they are standing behind you); I can’t remember moves from class; I can’t even guess which way I will be looking next.

Trust

That being said – because you are looking this way and that, and because you are often off axis, zouk requires an enormous deal of trust in your leader.

Zouk also has potential to be the most “dangerous” of the dances, for a lot of reasons: it manipulates the spine more than other dances; it has more large and often “violent” motions (but they don’t have to be done that way!); it tends to draw in leads who like doing flashy moves (though not exclusively of course); and the dancefloors are always full of so much movement that a careless leader quickly becomes a hazard.

So zouk requires a lot of trust in your leader. And it requires honesty with yourself and communication. If you enter into a dance with someone and feel unsafe for any reason, you can (must) communicate this to your leader in some way, reject the leads that you are being given that make you feel unsafe, or extract yourself from the dance if you must.

In cases in which you do not feel unsafe, however, zouk is a great time to practice trust.

No styling

People will probably disagree with me on this point, but I stand by it: in zouk, I get to do the least amount of styling of any dance, save, of course, for kizomba.

In salsa there are shines; in bachata there is a lot of open position in which styling can be reasonably easily inserted; in west coast swing there are anchors and sugar pushes and turns… and pretty much everything is styled all of the time (even not styling is a stylistic choice, westies will be quick to point out, since all movement on the westie floor should be intentional.)

But in zouk, the strides of the basic are larger than in other dances, the basic often rotates the whole body, and it is often done quite quickly. When you are not doing the basic, you are often caught up in movement that is so complex that styling simply cannot be done, or should not be done, so that leads cannot be missed.

This isn’t to say that styling is impossible, not at all. But I find that I spend much more time in zouk doing exactly what I am told to do than in salsa and bachata, in which I have more freedom in the shape of the music and the shape of the dances to move as I choose. I am certainly biased in this perspective, as I am not the world’s most accomplished zouk dancer, but I still think that, relative to other dances, there is less styling in zouk.

Now you might be wondering: why is it a good thing that there isn’t as much styling in zouk?

Because I really think followers need to be followers first and foremost, and stylers secondarily. (The same goes for leaders, though is less commonly an issue for them.) It’s pretty common for people to get caught up in the way that they look and they way that they personally want to interpret the music, rather than their leaders.

It is a very hard thing, to learn how to listen to your leader first, before the music.

But it’s so important.

And zouk is great for that.

 

 

And… that’s it for my zouk list!

Please tell me what you think! And share your own thoughts! Next up is bachata.

 

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Most people I meet, especially in Europe, dance just one kind of partner dance.

They do just west coast, or just salsa, or just bachata, or just zouk, or just kizomba. This is perhaps the most common in the west coast swing scene. I see it a lot in zouk, too, and in bachata in Europe (but not the states… a discussion for another time).

So a lot of people are puzzled when I tell them I do a lot of dances. I, on the other hand, am very puzzled that they do not.

Not only do each of the dances have their own delicious flavors and kinds of connection, but they also have a unique set of skills.

For each dance that I learn, I acquire a new set of skills. Of course, each skill is useful in every dance (I mean that, every dance), but each dance has its own realm of specialization. When I begin learning this new realm of specialization, I can translate my new skills to other dances. It ends up helping me in myriads of ways, some of which I expect but most of which I do not.

The more you advance in each dance, the wider the range of potential leads you receive. So the more variety you have in your dance background, the more likely it will be that you can follow the unique leads being given to you.

What’s more, learning other dances can help get you out of the rut of being a follower that does movesand elevates you into the category of dancers who are “pure follows.” “Pure follows” don’t do patterns but instead hold their bodies in react to certain touches in the right way to make a leader’s intentions–whatever they are–be realized. They can do anything thrown at them. Pure follows are more in tune with their bodies, more in touch with how different kinds of touches and maneuvers influence them, and more ready, in general, to effortlessly handle what is thrown at them.

Being a “pure follow” is something to which I aspire religiously.

So I have come up with a list of all of the different skills that are emphasized for follows in each of the dances I do. Of course the lists are not exhaustive. I would love your feedback on how to enhance them. As it stands this is what I have noted and most benefited from in my experience. If you are looking to brush up on different skills picking up a new dance might be the perfect remedy for you. Hopefully if so these posts can help you choose which one.

Today, first up, is kizomba/semba/tarraxinha/urban kiz / etc:

First, a quick note. I know that there are many varieties of kizomba, and that there’s a hell of a lot of debate about it these days. But by and large, for followers, the quality of movement and following is applicable across the genres. So I will address them all lumped together here.

Sensitivity and delicacy

All of the dances require sensitivity and delicacy in its higher levels of following. But kizomba is the Afro latin social dance that has sensitivity and delicacy built in from the very start (tango does as well, but I’m terrible at tango so I can’t talk about it), and whose entire dance depends on it.

Kizomba requires you to be still, to listen, and and to calibrate your following in both your torso and your lower body, to the tiny, precise leads you are being led. It teaches you to be sensitive, and to move delicately.

Dancing small

A big problem for followers (and leaders) is learning how to keep their dancing small. This was an enormous challenge for me personally, as I was literally used to taking up whole warehouse and ballroom-sized rooms when I danced in choreographed solo pieces.

Quick aside: when I am new to a social dance space and scanning the floor for leaders to ask or followers to watch, one of the first and most important things I look for is the ability to make small movements.

Something I am repeatedly told by leaders–especially here in the bachata scene in the UK–is that followers over-interpret leads. Bachata requires followers to be capable of both very small and very big movements. In the UK, because sensual styling is so prominent, many followers over-interpret subtle leads and turn them into big, dramatic movements. This is a gigantic no for following and is something you should be wary of doing no matter where you live.

Being cognizant of the size of your dance while dancing (any dance) can be a great way to make up for that error.

Another great way is to dance kizomba.

Following without patterns

Kizomba doesn’t have a basic that occurs in a predictable fashion. It has certain kinds of steps that are done more often than others, but  it doesn’t have a basic. It doesn’t have steps and a rhythm that fit squarely within 1 2 3 4, 5  6 7 8.

Sometimes in the past I have seen kizomberos wearing T shirts that say “kizomba’s not on 1, or on 2; it’s on you” or some combination therein. That is correct. There’s no set basic, no way to know what your feet will be doing next.

This is really hard for a lot of leaders and some followers to get the hang of in the beginning, but it has the added benefit of unhooking your following from learned combinations and expectations  of what comes next.

Taking steps based on a frame lead: direction, length, and degree of commitment 

One unsung but incredibly important skill of partner dancing is the art of taking steps based on being led by the arms or the torso.

In some ways, it is a very basic concept, and one we  do naturally when we dance. When a leader pulls me to walk forward, I walk forward. When he steers me right, I go right.

But how exactly does that happen?

This is how:

You have a “frame.” Your frame is the set of your muslces and skeletal structure, usually described as residing mostly in the arms but it also extends into the back and torso. The way that you hold your frame enables you to connect to your partner and read the leads.

(A good frame, by the way, is the absolute sexiest thing about a leader when they dance. Mmmmm.)

In most partner dancers, there is a basic step. You do it all of the time. Most followers will simply keep doing the basic throughout the course of a dance.

The thing is, however, that that’s not exactly how partner dancing should be done.

The basics themselves should be led. A follower should never really take any steps — or should at least be prepared to stop or change the step — throughout the duration of a dance.

I need to reiterate that: when you do a Afro-latin social dance, theoretically, you never take a step unless the leader tells you to. Never.

Of course, this gets glossed over a bit here and there, and salsa dancers will tell you to always mark your basic–just always do it. This advice won’t lead you astray in salsa particularly. But even in salsa, any move that isn’t just a simple basic in open position requires a leader to lead it.

And the way in which you are led out of a basic or into moves is typically via your frame.

So something kizomba can be great for is teaching you when and how to step. Because kizomba does not have a basic, you have to listen just to your partner in order to know what to do with your feet.

Kizomba, also, even though many followers attach themselves to their leaders at the pelvis (seriously don’t do this, friends), is actually primarily connected in the torso and the rest of the frame.

So when you follow steps correctly in kizomba, you must read them from direction from the upper body. Kizomba requires you to keep your feet directly connected to your torso, and to precisely move them in the fashion demanded of you by your lead.

There are three components to every step that you take: direction, length of stride, and degree of commitment.

The direction of stride is determined by the lead. Keep your feet in line with your frame. When your frame rotates, this usually means that your feet will be moving in that direction. Kizomba teaches you to keep your feet moving in the direction provided to you.

The length of stride is also determined by the lead. Kizomba is great for teaching you how to calibrate the length of your stride. When moving forward, it is impossible to overstep, because if you did you’d literally be stepping on your leader’s toes. When moving in an “exit” – that is, with your feet off to the side of your partner in some way – your leader is precisely giving you the exact length of stride you should take, based on how much your frame has moved. Do not overstep what your leader gives you.

The weight, or degree of commitment  of the stride, is determined by the lead. This is a hugely important aspect  of following that we don’t talk about enough. Degree of commitment is an aspect of every single step you take. And what I mean by that is this:

Do you take a full, confident step forward and transfer all of your weight to one foot when led? Or you do split your weight? Do you lean into your step, such as by bouncing into the ball of your foot, and then transfer your weight back to your previous foot? Or do you simply tap your foot on the floor? When you tap it, how much weight do you put into it?

When you extend your foot to a new place on the floor, you don’t have to go all the way on it. You can be led to put any percentage of your weight into the step. Every time you take a step in a dance, that is, take an actual step, you put 100% of your weight into a step, and transfer your whole body to be centered over the foot. Yet you actually shouldn’t do that until the leader puts you over that foot. Sometimes, instead of taking a complete step you should only bounce into the ball of your foot, then go back to the other foot, or tap your foot, or simply place your toes on the ground without transfering your weight at all. This means giving 30%, 5% or 0% of your weight, approximately, respectively.

Kizomba is an excellent dance for working on properly calibrating the weight/commitment, direction, and length of your stride. It is full of moves that change direction, that change distance of pace, and that play with how much weight you and your partner transfer from one foot to another.

This skill translates amazingly to other dances because it teaches you to stay put until given direction otherwise, and then to do so with the exact specifications of distance, direction, and weight.

Difference between steady pace and accelerated steps

Here is an interesting tidbit that applies in most dances: When given a constant velocity lead, a follower should take single steps at a consant rate. I know it sounds obvious but it’s amazing how easy it is to mess this up.

When given a lead that accelerates–that is, that takes you from being still to moving or from moving to moving faster–a follower should accelerate the rate of steps taken.

So for example: at a steady pace, the counts 1 2 should have a step each on 1 and on 2, for a total of two steps.

With an accererated pace, the counts 1 2 should have a step on 1, on &, and on 2, for a total of 3 steps.

A west coast swing dancer would call this a “triple step.”

This kind of movement happens not infrequently in kizomba, as when being led back (from the followers perspective) and to the right. It’s almost like a swinging sensation. It can give you a good feel for the difference between ‘constant’ and ‘accelerated’ movement, which will translate into the other dances that require it. West coast swing uses this a lot. It is the core of the dance. Bachata, salsa, and zouk don’t use this quite so much because it requires going outside of the basic steps. Nevertheless for these dances this is an important skill to understand because, for one thing, you never know what a leader is going to throw at you, and for another, it helps calibrate the quality of your steps to the quality of your lead.

 

 

And… that’s it for my kizomba list! Sensitivity, delicacy, dancing small, following without patterns, taking steps based on frame leads, and mastering the difference between steady and accelerated velocity are all important dancing skills that are best honed by dancing kizomba.

Please tell me what you think! And share your own thoughts! Next up is zouk.

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