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 moves, and 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.
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.