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.
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.
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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