castle-

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

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

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

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

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

Why not?

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

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

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

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

For many people, this is a turn off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Read more

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

I said, “I love you, too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of which is to say is this:

When I dance, I try to collapse barriers. 

I think, to some extent, we all do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read more

DANCE ADDICTION

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

1) Physical activity

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

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

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

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

2) Synchrony

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

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

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

3) Touch

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

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

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

4) Music

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

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

5) Community

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

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

6) Love, Connection, Intimacy

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

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

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

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

7) Improvement

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

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

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

Which brings us to…

8) Validation

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

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

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

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

9) Gambling

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Have I missed anything? What do you think?

 

Read more

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.

Read more

rule for asking people to dance

I recently wrote a contentious blog.

I had no idea that it was going to draw as much fire as it did. I thought people might disagree – I didn’t anticipate how emotional everyone would become about it.

In the blog post I believe in the hierarchy: 5 reasons I never ask pros to dance, I discussed my views on asking etiquette.

In the post I made the case – though honestly I think it’s so obvious it doesn’t need to be made – that more ‘advanced’ dancers frequently enjoy dancing with other ‘advanced’ dancers the most (and intermediate with intermediate; pro with pro… though most people always enjoy dancing “up”). This is the case because technique and familiarity with the dance (as well as experience with musicality, creativity, etc, gained over time) facilitate a unique kind of connection. Having a reasonably equal skill set means that people can communicate at the same degree of precision, subtlety, and creativity.

This does not rule out enjoyment of “lower level” dancing by any means. It simply says that people tend to match up well at similar levels of technique and familiarity in the dance. It’s like playing any one-on-one sport, like tennis. People can enjoy playing with anyone at any level, but particularly enjoy when they can match skill sets.

And we should take these factors — in addition to many others — into account when we ask people to dance. We should do this in order to best be sensitive to the emotions and needs of the people around us. It’s perfectly okay for someone to enjoy one kind of dancing or another. I see nothing condemnable about that.

Why this is a contentious idea

People were disturbed by my post for many reasons. I cannot infer all of them, but my impression is that the most common causes for concern were:

-I was promoting an attitude which discourages beginners from the dance

-I was disrupting the credibility of instructors who for the sake of their business require their reputations to be egalitarian

-I was promoting coldness or hostility on the dance floor

-I was denying that people have more to contribute to a dance (such as musicality, or emotional connection) than technique (I wasn’t, to be clear)

-I was saying that less experienced dancers should never ask more experienced dancers to dance (I wasn’t)

-I was advocating for a world in which we pay attention to differences based on ability (I was)

I could respond at length in an attempt to refute each point above, but instead I think I’d like to just simplify the matter.

I can actually distill this idea into one specific rule.

This is the rule:

Only ask people to dance with you if you think, with your most objective and self-aware best guess, that the person you ask to dance with you will enjoy it.

That’s it. That’s all I make sure of when I ask someone to dance. Before every single dance (without fail) I ask myself the question:

“What are the chances that this person will enjoy dancing with me?” Sometimes I get a clear answer – such as 1% or 99%. Most of the time it is more ambiguous. I follow a 40% or a 75% or what-have-you based on the context.

Many factors go into my calculation of these odds. Very many. Most of them have nothing to do with technique, skill, or experience level at all. They can concern someone’s mood, social environment, or level of exhaustion, for example. But some do. Some factors most certainly do take experience into account.

Here is a small sample of questions I consider when evaluating each potential dance partner (and usually it just takes seconds): 

Do I know this person? Have I danced with them before? Did they indicate they enjoyed it or would like to do it again some time? (Examples of this would be asking my name after the dance, engaging me in conversation, appearing to be genuinely smiling and engaged with me in the dance, having open body language with respect to me both on and off the dance floor) Do they regularly ask me to dance? Do we ask each other to dance at roughly the same rate, or am I always the one asking?

Has this person had a chance to ask someone she personally wants to ask recently, or has she been asked repeatedly without a chance to choose? Does this person have a queue of people waiting to dance with her? Does she appear to enjoy it or would she rather go be among friends or take a break?

When watching this person dance with others, does she appear to enjoy or seek out dancing with people at my “level”?

Is this person surrounded by a group of friends, and does she appear to only want to socialize and dance with them specifically? How close is she to the dance floor? Is she looking about the room for a partner to do this dance with, and NOT scanning for one person in particular? Is she tapping her foot, itching to get out on the floor? Or does she appear tired? Is she sitting down, drinking water, combing her hair, or otherwise disengaged from the floor? Is her back turned to the dance floor? Is she in an intimate conversation with someone? Is she talking to or dancing with someone who looks like she’s really into them and it would be an obnoxious cock block or interruption for me to ask her right at this moment? Has this person clearly detached from her previous dance partner and moved on, or is there a chance she wants to do another with them, or talk with them as she is walking off the floor? By my best guess, is this person possibly my equal in skill, creativity, or some other important facet of dancing that would make them really enjoy dancing with me, even though we don’t know each other yet?

I literally consider each of these factors when asking someone to dance, whether it is a close friend or a stranger. A close friend might have a lot going on or  feel tired; a stranger may simply not be interested. In any case, I want them to have, at this moment, what they need or want the most. If dancing with me is not near the top of that list, then I see no reason to ask them.

Because the thing is this: everybody has different preferences, and finds themselves in different situations on the dance floor. As in life, you never really know if someone wants you until you ask. But very many people feel obligated to say yes to a dance, even if they don’t particularly want to.

So I always try to guess before I ask, in order to best take care of both of us.

Of course, I am not always right. How can I tell? I can tell by how much eye contact they make, by if they are smiling, by how earnestly they thank me after the dance. If I guessed wrong when I asked someone to dance, I feel a bit bad, but I apologize to the universe (or to the dancer, honestly, depending on the situation) and move on.

Very often, the people who do not enjoy dancing with me are better dancers than I, professional or not. This is in large part why, as I indicated in my earlier post, I rarely ask “pros” to dance. I am waiting until they (and everyone else) are just as excited to dance with me as I am with them. Sometimes people accuse me of having this perspective because I now consider myself a hotshot dancer, having learned a thing or two. I want to rationalize saying “no.” This could not be further from the truth. I have felt this way from my very first dance several years ago. My allegiance to this principle is more about respecting the needs of the people I ask than it is about protecting myself. Dancing for me is like sex. I won’t do it unless both of us are excited.

So that’s my rule: I only ask people to dance if I believe there is a reasonably good chance they will enjoy dancing with me.

What do you think? Still contentious? Let me have it. 🙂

 

 

Read more

competitions social dance

Bachata and zouk over the course of the last couple of years have become competitive in an institutionalized way. People can sign up to compete as couples performing. This happens a lot in European bachata nowadays. People can also now increasingly enroll in social dancing competitions called jack and jills. Jack and jills are not super popular (yet), but the idea is being played with, tested, implemented.

I am nervous.

——–

There are a lot of differences between the Afro-Latin dances and the American swing dances with which I am familiar.

Yet for me the greatest difference is that many American dances (such as west coast swing) have social dancing competitions, and Afro-Latin dances do not.

Obviously this is a debatable point: are competitions really all that impactful? I would argue that they are. Every aspect of the dance, from its social structure to its commodification to its technique, is ineluctably shaped by competitions. In today’s post I simply talk about how.

It will become clear throughout this post that I am not a fan of competitions. It is therefore worth stating at the outset then that I do participate in them from time to time. I can’t condemn something without trying, right? I do have a good time. There is a quite lovely thrill to competing. Even when I don’t do well (which, to be clear, is quite often), I still really enjoy it. I experience the same thrills that I imagine keep others coming back for more. I must cede however, that it’s possible that if I won all of the time I’d feel differently about competitions. I might have a stronger emotional attachment to them, or value them more highly relative to social dancing. I also cede that I am relatively inexperienced. Quite. Nevertheless, the effects that I witness on the west coast swing community I believe are quite real. It doesn’t necessarily matter all that much how I experience, love, or hate competing, because they will regardless have the same effects on dance communities.

Jack and Jills: What are they?

Real quick, for our Afro-Latin readers: Jack and Jills (at least in wcs) are social dancing competitions in which you get randomly paired with leaders or followers and are evaluated for your performance as individuals. If there are many people participating (and usually there are) you can go through a couple rounds of elimination until the final round, in which you get paired with just one individual and then compete as a couple. The two of you compete against other couples for the street cred, financial reward (yep, you pay to participate, and you get paid if you win), and points for advancement. As you collect points you advance in levels. You are judged by the quality of your performance.

Competitions: The Good

1. Technique

Here is the one big plus to having social dancing competitions. The wcs community is highly driven by the need to become better  dancers – by and large because it means winning and advancement.

Wcs is often referred to as a ‘dancesport,’ and I would say a significant portion of dancers regularly compete. This means that people learn new moves, work very hard at their musicality, and become better dances in a much more directed and quick fashion (generally speaking, as a group) than in the Afro-Latin dances. People are almost always improving in west coast swing and I have no words for how much I love this fact.

2. It’s fun

Lots of people really enjoy competing. There is definitely an aspect of ‘let’s see what we can do!’ that thrums in your veins and makes you feel alive when you compete. No doubt about that. I don’t wish to understate the importance of this part of competition culture.

3. It rallies people to support each other

The west coast swing community is very supportive. You might think that competitions would tear a community apart but at least in the west coast swing community the opposite happens. People become each other’s greatest cheerleaders, and that’s super awesome.

4. Co-creation

There are a lot of factors that go into lead/follow dynamics in a dance. What about certain communities makes them approach leading or following in certain ways?

There is a disparity in this regard between west coast swing and the Afro-Latin dances. Afro-latin dances are very much dances in which there is a lead and there is a follow and the lead leads and the follow follows. West coast swing…not so much. West coast swing is much more of what I call co-creative (more on which here). It is a “conversation.” Followers do still follow but there is a lot more flexibility around that role and the ability for followers to contribute to the flow of the dance. Competitions definitely encourage followers to be more pro-active with the flow of a dance.

Competitions: The Bad

1. De-prioritization of social dancing

Competitions pull dancer’s attention away from the social floor and towards their competitive goals.

This is apparent in many different ways. For example, some people only take classes, and rarely social dance. For another, people will often spend much of the potential social dance time sitting out because they need to “get in the zone” or don’t want to mess up their dress, hair, or makeup. For another, people skip out on social dancing in the evening entirely or retire early because they need to rest before competitions.

The more energy any one gives to competition the less, necessarily, they have to give to the social floor. That’s all well and good for competitions but it simply means that many people get lost in their goals, and forget about the basic loving fun that brought us all (most of us) together in the first place.

2. Working against your partner

As much as competitions help encourage co-creation, like I just talked about above, they also can turn the dance floor into a battle for control.

You can see this simultaneously at both higher and lower ranks of dancing. I have heard many higher ranked west coast swing leaders remark on the assertive, steering quality of their followers. They end up fighting for control. I have also heard it encouraged many times (by professional instructors) that lower ranked followers need to fight their leaders to have good timing, to focus on the basics, and to do a dance, basically, that they think the judges will like. Because remember: in the initial rounds of a competition you are not being judged as a couple but rather as individuals who just so happen to be dancing together.

This goes against every single instinct that I have as a dancer. Dance, for me, is a sacred union between two people. It’s an agreement to be in harmony, to listen to one another, to take care of one another. At least this is, I think, what it should be. For competitions to sometimes (though obviously not always) have this combative flavor is for them to downplay the potential empathy and love that can flower between two people.

3. Emphasis on appearance over feel

Competitions are judged based on the way you look. Period. It’s about show. It’s about performance. That’s fine for people who dance in order to shine. It’s not for those of us who dance to connect.

Of course, feeling and connection are not mutually exclusive. I readily cede that you can have a very flashy yet still very well-connected dance. In fact, for a dance to go very well you must be well-connected in at least some ways. But the focus is obviously not on how good you feel for your partner. The judges cannot see that. The audience cannot see that. Only you and your partner can feel it.

I know very many higher ranked who look great but  who do not feel great. Their leads are jerky or rough or overly-strong. I know an even greater number of lower ranked dancers who are incredibly fun to dance with and feel amazing, but  who do not advance because they don’t look the way they are supposed to look.

Unfortunately, because of competitions, people are encouraged to be more of the former than of the latter. When we focus on the way that we look, on our styling, we draw attention away from the way that we feel and connect with our partners. Certainly you need to communicate well – and should therefore lead or follow well – as a partner who pulls off really badass dances that are fun to watch. Most certainly.

But it remains a hard fact that competition encourages the fancy, the flashy, the aesthetic, more so than the connected, (read my thoughts on the different kinds of connection here), the gentle, the subtle, the silent, the swaying, the slow, the intimate, the invisible.

4. Hierarchy

All dance communities have hierarchies. That’s just the way it is. People organize by power, and in dance, power is given by and large by perceived dance prowess (I talk about this in this post on hierarchy). There’s really no way about it. It’s how we are as a species.

But in west coast swing, due to competitions, we see two big differences.

One of these differences is that the hierarchy becomes based on appearance more so than it does on feel. I mentioned above that I know many lower ranked – “novice” – dancers who are super fun and feel amazing but who don’t advance because they don’t look the part. This may be all well and good except for the fact that these people get very little street cred. People might enjoy them well enough on the social floor but no one reveres them or aspires to dance like them. This kind of breaks my heart. In the bachata and kizomba communities especially we often find that people who move the least are desired and valued the most (or at least used to be) because they feel and connect the best. If there is going to be a hierarchy – and, inevitably, there is – then I would rather it based on connection and feeling rather than looks.

The other difference is that the hierachy is formalized. In the Afro-Latin communities hierarchy is pretty loose. It’s there but everyone has a different experience of different dancers and different connections with them, so people’s opinions often  vary widely regarding skill. There’s a lot of flexibility.

West coast swing could not be more opposite. Now, to be clear, people at all levels of dance are super nice to each other. Super nice. But that doesn’t change the fact that a hierarchy exists and everybody knows it. How advanced someone is or not is public knowledge. And whether people intend to or not, this matters. Subconsciously, someone’s level alters your perception of them, changes how much you want to be friends with them, and makes you judge yourself relative to them.

This is okay. It really is. But I’d prefer if it weren’t this way. I like people to have better access to their own opinions, without them having been colored so much by a label.


All of which is to say that I am not entirely stoked (to say the least) about the prospect of competitions becoming popular in bachata and zouk. We are already seeing, with the advent of youtube, the popularity of performance teams, and the rapid spread of sensual bachata, a decrease in the intimacy and quality of dancing and an increase in the flashiness of moves people do. I know I am painting a broad stroke here but I am merely paying attention as best I can.

For me, personally, the reason that I love Afro-latin dances so much, and particularly bachata, is precisely the focus on the interpersonal, the felt, the emotionally connected. I have trepidation about what competitions could do to our community. That being said, perhaps being aware of the ways in which competitions affect us – in bachata and other Afro-latin forms as well as west coast swing – can help us to avoid their pitfalls while still delighting in their strengths.

And, to be clear, I am not saying that wcs needs to do away with competitions. WCS is a highly functioning, lovely dancesport full of amazing people who do amazing things. It is simply its own kind of animal, different from the Afro-latin dances. I would simply like to be mindful of those differences.

As ever, I would love love love your feedback.

 

Read more

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.

Read more

Last week I wrote a post diagnosing 9 ways in which we subconsciously participate in sexism in our dance communities.

(You can read it here.)

This week I want to follow up on a highly related topic. I cannot address everything that needs to be done to remediate sexism. But I do want to get the ball rolling by talking about feminism — and what role it might play on and around the dance floor.

So I ask the questions: What should the role of feminism be in dances that come out of heteronormative histories? 

What can we do to promote equality and safety in our dance spaces?

First to address: what do I mean by ‘feminism’?

I mean – wanting equal rights for both genders. I mean – liberating ourselves from gender norms. I mean – being a woman who doesn’t have to be submissive and demure. I mean – being a man who doesn’t have to be the emotion-less, alpha-male breadwinner.

I know a lot of people think that feminism means something else, something more, maybe something about hating men – but they are by and large incorrect. I think my definition is probably the most broadly accepted definition by feminists and dictionary writers alike these days.

(And I do also, very much so, endorse an intersectional feminism, which means, learning from and attending to the situations of women and all people beyond white, middle-upper class women.)

Here are 15 ways in which I believe we should use feminist insights to improve the quality of our dance spaces.

1. Detach gender from lead/follow roles

As I addressed at great length in last week’s post, our communities associate men with leading – which gives them an aura of dominance, strength, and ability – and women with following – which gives them an aura of meekness, weakness, and obedience.

First, we need to do away with the idea that those things are necessarily true about being a leader or a follower on the dance floor.

Second, we should dissociate men from leading and women from following. Men can do both; women can do both. Men can be strong; women can be strong. Men can be leaders; women can be leaders. Men can be followers; women can be followers.

We can do this by discontinuing language around The Man and The Woman roles. I do that on this blog and I admit that it can be a challenge – it makes my grammar unwieldly. But I do it anyway because it’s important. Instructors can also stop addressing ‘men’ and ‘ladies’ in class and instead call them ‘leads’ and ‘follows.’ Even in classes in which all the leads are male and all the followers are female, it would still be helpful to use this terminology to help everyone subconsciously shift their gendered perceptions of the dance.

2. Ask.

Ladies: Women are used to being chased. We are used to being pursued. We are used to being asked for our attention. If we have to go up and ask men for attention in a bar or on the street, often that signals some sort of desperation (or feels like it does). At the very least, standing back and waiting for men to do the acting is simply a habit for the vast majority of us.

The reality however is that in partner dancing, any male leader whose worth even the tiniest bit of salt is ecstatic to be asked to dance. Men are turned down all night long. Even some of the best male dancers I know profess to being regularly turned down.

So being asked for anyone is actually a very pleasant experience.

If you’re afraid of asking, start safely. Ask people you know. People you’ve met in class. People you’ve danced with before. If someone has asked you to dance before, there’s a pretty good chance he enjoys dancing with you, so he is a reasonably safe bet. And if you get rejected, shrug your shoulders and move on. You have no idea what’s going on for this guy – why he might not want to dance right now. There are so many fish in this sea, just go grab another.

Men: Ask! Keep asking! And be aware of how you react to women asking you. If it turns you off, ask yourself why, and see if it has anything to do with latent, silly notions of gender normativity sitting in the back of your brain.

Also be mindful about who you ask to dance. Do you only ask women in short skirts or under a certain age? If so, you’re missing out on a whole lot of dancing – perhaps the best dancing you could get – from women who simply choose to dress humbly or who are older and have a wealth of amazing dance background. Many advanced dancers know this and actually will gravitate toward older women.

It’s also reasonably common for male leads to ignore female followers if they have sexually rejected them in one way or another. Get over it. This is both immature and signals to followers that you only value them sexually.

3. Say no.

Some people make it a rule for themselves to always say “yes” to a dance.

Some don’t want to say “yes” but do anyways because they feel uncomfortable rejecting people.

To which I can only say: bullshit.

Say no.

If you don’t want to dance with someone, for whatever reason, that’s completely fine. Personally, if I ask someone to dance, I’d rather them say “no” to me than dance with me if they’re not 100% into it. It’s like sex. I have no desire to be with someone who’s not into it.

And if you end up in a dance that you didn’t know was going to be so uncomfortable in one way or another, change it. If your leader grips your hands too tightly, shake them so they loosen up. If your leader holds you too close, back up. If your leader really doesn’t get the point and is hurting you in any way, drop their hands and walk away.  I mean it. We might have this crazy idea that we need to suffer through uncomfortable dances… but if we all communicate empathetically and like adults, it’s completely unnecessary.

4. Be okay with no.

When someone says “no” to you for a dance – this goes for everybody, but I’m particularly looking at you, fellas – accept it.

Accept it the first time they say no.

Don’t tug on their hands. Don’t say “c’mon.” Don’t give them a puppy dog face. Don’t be stroppy and storm off in a huff.

You have no idea why this person said ‘no’ to you, and it’s none of your business, anyway.

5. In fact, try to get excited about “no.”

We shame people a lot in our community for saying “no” to dances. I think this is wrong, though I do understand where that impulse comes from.

But imagine if we were all empathetic communicators, and when we said “no thank you” we still did so with love in our hearts. And imagine if those who heard the words “no thank you” were actively glad that the person was honest with them, and stood up for their own needs?

When I ask a friend to dance then notice he looks tired I am very glad that he hesitates to say “yes,” because it means I can insist he sit down and take care of himself. Sometimes we don’t get what we want, but others do. We can be glad for them (I do recognize this is easier if they are nice about it).

6. Followers: Don’t follow everything.

As you follow… as a woman or a man or whatever you like.. you don’t have to follow everything. That’s an over-simplified, rather sexist view of how the roles and genders work.

Following doesn’t have to be – shouldn’t be – blanket submission.

I prefer to think of following as an active yes. In every move of the  dance, the leader gives me an option. The leader says: here, this is what I think is cool at this moment. Don’t you agree? And 98% of the time my answer is yes. I acknowledge that this dance needs a clear lead and a clear follow in order to function. I enjoy following so much. But every once in a while something comes my way that I don’t want to or can’t do, so I simply don’t.

You don’t have to follow everything. If something makes you uncomfortable; if a leader is too close; is a move is too sexual… straight up don’t do it.

And leaders – if your follower rejects a lead, or asks for a different quality of connection or move, that should be reason to be glad, too. Don’t take it as a burn – take it as a compliment that a human being who has needs is willing to be vulnerable about them with you.

7. Women: If you don’t want to wear high heels, don’t. But do if you wanna.

A lot of women think in Afro-Latin dancing that you have to wear high heels (and/or dress a particular way) because people will think less of you otherwise.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

At the beginning, it might seem like the best dancers all wear super spikey heels and slanky outfits. But as you progress in the dance you learn that what actually happens at the very highest levels of dancing is freedom. No one cares what shoes you wear so long as you dance well.

Now, I talk a bit in this video about why you, for the sake of your technique, may want to choose to wear high heels. But I also talk about why it isn’t necessary. If you dance better in flats, wear flats.

Leaders like quality follows who connect well with them when they dance. That’s it.

8. Let same-gender partners dance together

I think probably 100% of the time I dance with other women, men come up and try to intervene. “You should be dancing with me!” “Don’t you prefer to dance with men?” “I’m here to save you from dancing with each other!”

Actually, we are very happy to be dancing with each other.

Leave same sex dances alone. If they wanted to be dancing with different genders, they would be. .

9. Learn the opposite role

It is still very common – for people to cat-call and holler…or, more usually, giggle… at same sex couples on the floor. 

This kind of behavior indicates that people think this is “weird.” If you learn the opposite role, even just a little bit, however, you will help de-stigmatize it. You will help make the dance floor a more comfortable place for people who enjoy dancing opposite roles. You will also learn what is good and what is challenging about the opposite role, and perhaps develop more empathy and respect for people who ordinarily dance it.

10. Dance with people who have learned the opposite role

It’s reasonably common for women to dance with women. Just like with sexuality, we in the West find this fairly acceptable. We do objectify it—men will watch with lustful eyes and make lewd comments—but we accept it, most of the time.

It’s much less common for men to dance with men. And it’s quite common for men to feel very nervous or even repulsed by the idea of dancing with other men.

I understand that we all grew up in a culture in which cis-heterosexual men are not supposed to have any kind of physical contact or emotional intimacy with other men. But this is wrong, and times are changing. Other men aren’t an attack on your masculinity. They aren’t going to molest you. They are simply guys who enjoy following and think you might be fun to dance with.

11. Make space for your follows to contribute to the dance

Some leads give moves and expect you to follow them and that is that. And that’s great – I have no problem with this. Sometimes, all I ever want to do is follow, follow, follow. I do enjoy that aspect of following – the “obedience.” If you are a musical leader, I will be happy as a clam.

Other leads, however, think about ways to draw their followers into the creativity of the dance. They might give them space to shine, or pause on a few beats to let them improvise, or listen to their bodies and their movements to come up with leads better suited to them (to be clear, the followers still don’t have to take up the offer if they don’t want).

Both methods are great but only the second one feels empowering. Only the second is co-creative. Only the second makes you feel enchanted by your follower’s brilliance. If you lead, perhaps consider thinking about how you can listen better to your follower to meet them where they’re at.

12. Take stock of who you patronize 

Many of us (most likely all of us) have a subconscious preference for male instructors, DJs, and promoters. This comes from Western culture at large, from the culture of dance specifically, and also from the natural tendency to give deference to the lead in the lead/follow dynamic.

But female organizers in the scene can also be super talented, super smart, and super badass. Ask yourself: Which instructors do you like the most? Which DJs? Do you think that there may be some subconscious sexism lurking in your preferences? Try deconstructing your views and giving female experts more of a shot.

13. Communicate

One important thing we can do to help create safe spaces for each other is to communicate openly, honestly, and empathetically.

This means off the floor – such as when we have discussions about feminism, or when your friend informs you that you drunkenly took advantage of her while dancing the night before.

It also means on the floor – such as when your leader dips you but you have a bad back, or when you’re feeling drained and would like to have a more simple dance.

If we can all respect each other’s opinions and desires, and support one another, than we can help everyone take care of themselves as well as better connect with one another.

14. Emote

At the heart of feminism is the desire to erode gender norms. A part of that is telling men that they don’t have to be cold, burly, manly, or whatever. Women don’t have to be anything specific, either. We can simply be human beings. We can have emotions. We can be vulnerable.

So much of what holds us back from expressing ourselves when we dance or truly connecting with our partners is fear. Fear of being rejected. Fear of letting go. Fear of appearing silly. Fear of doing traditionally female things like displaying emotions. I see people holding back on dance floors all over the place.

Daring to emote while you dance – to really express yourself or to really emotionally connect with your partner – can help you break your own walls. It can teach you that it really isn’t all that scary. In fact, it’s actually quite thrilling – to be personal, exposed, and vulnerable in the company of strangers.

15. Take care of one another 

It should go without saying, but we should all want the best for one another, and should stick up for each other. I have altogether too often (really, multiple times) been sexually assaulted by a friend at a congress and had others just sit back and watch. Of course I can fight  for myself, but if we were all on the same page together about supporting each other’s autonomy, it would be much harder for those of us too drunk on booze or dance to take advantage.

I think this also means calling each other out on shitty behavior in our day to day lives. Sometimes we don’t treat each other all that well, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we are disrespectful. Sometimes we are judgmental. Sometimes we are dismissive, or treat people with indifference to their feelings. We should of course try to not be these things. When we suck at that, though, if our friends called us out, we would be held to a higher standard of respect both on and off the dance floor.

 

Or something. 🙂

 

And… that’s my list. These are the insights I believe feminism has to bring to our dance communities, and the ways in which they can help bring about a more safe – and exciting – space, for all of us.

I am super curious about what you might think about this. Let me know in the comments or elsewhere. <3

Read more

sexism in salsa

The partner dancing that we do today – whether it be salsa, or west coast, or bachata, kizomba, or zouk – has emerged out of a long tradition of sexist behaviors. This is a simple fact of history.

Fortunately, paralleling great feminist strides in our culture as a whole, that tradition has really begun to collapse. One great example of our progress is the fact that women, once shamed away from asking men to dance, now ask men to dance all of the time. Quite literally all of the time.

This is cause to celebrate! Progress is happening!

However: this progress is by no means complete, nor necessarily as quick or transparent as we would like to believe.

In today’s post I elevate for discussion several ways in which we subconsciously participate in and perpetuate sexism. These habits of ours are all quite different and I am certain that no one will agree with me on all the points. But that is precisely what I am hoping to do with this exercise – I want to bring up some potential ideas, get feedback, and talk about what needs or does not need to be done.

What follows are 9 ways in which I believe we accidentally participate in sexism.

*(For the sake of making some of the points about sexism in this post, I use heteronormative language. We associate leading with men and following with women – so I wrote this post associating leading with men and following with women, something I do NOT do in the rest of my blog posts. You will also note that some of the critiques did not apply to women but to following; however, since by and large following is still associated with women and that which is feminine, I believe the critiques are at least helpful starting points for discussion on gender norms in dance.)

 

1. “Ladies: don’t think, just follow.”

“Ladies, don’t think, just follow” is a common piece of advice. It might be, in fact, the most common piece of advice given in group classes. It is a piece of advice I have given many times myself, and which I repeated to myself constantly in my initial months and years dancing. “Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.”

Yet there are two problems with this piece of advice, and specifically with associating it with women.

First, it is in some sense factually incorrect. Even while it is important as a follower to avoid anticipating moves, thinking is still an incredibly important aspect of following. While I dance I am constantly aware of my surroundings, noting habits in my leader, and attempting to attune my dancing to his. Sometimes I do close my eyes to better follow. I do try to stop actively engaging my conscious mind. But I a) am still concentrating like crazy, just in a different way, and b) do not do this all of the time. I do this as a choice, which I strategically make with my thoughts, based on my active judgment of what’s going on in the dance and the kind of following that is required.

Secondly, this phrase reinforces negative stereotypes. The brilliant London-based salsa instructor Toan Hoang recently asked me: “what do you think that does, time and time again, hearing instructors shout over the music in classes: ‘ladies, don’t think, just follow?'”

This is what it does: it subconsciously reinforces the idea that leading–the “male” role–requires thinking, and following–the “female” role–does not. It tells us that men should think and women should not.

2. Polarizing leading and following

We tend to think of leading as just leading and following as just following, but there are nuances to these roles that are often unfortunately lost on the surface.

As much as leaders choose which moves to do, high level leaders will also spend a significant amount of energy listening to their followers. They will get a feel for what works for the follower, and will be able to pick up on signals in her body regarding what kind of movements would work best on. This, in some senses, is a bit like following.

Followers, in the other role, do by and large follow the movements provided by leaders, but they also suggest. They also subtly guide the course of the dance. They also, at high levels, use specific movements and kinds of tension in their body to indicate to the leader what they would like to do. They sometimes hijack and it is appropriate.

If we taught leading and following like this from the get-go — as a pattern that was more interactional and less polarized than we think of it now — we might be able to help people have dances which are more like communicative exchanges and less like strictly “male”/”female” role play.

3. Forgetting the power of ‘no’ and misconstruing power dynamics

In partner dancing, by and large, yes, leads (men) are “dominant” and follows (women) are “submissive.” Nearly every person who partner dances will tell you that this is a part of why they enjoy the dance.

But it is important to be wise to an important facet of the typical dominant/submissive relationship.

In BDSM communities, it is well known that even though doms appear to have all the power, it is actually the sub that is the most powerful person in the relationship. That’s right. Doms look like they have the power, but they actually don’t.

Why? Because no matter what the dominant person suggests, it is up to the submissive to say if it is off limits or not. The safe word is the key to power dynamics in the bedroom. It enables the submissive to call the shots and to ultimately set the boundaries around what happens.

In partner dancing, we don’t have a safe word. But we don’t need one. The follower can simply deny a move being led. All we need to do is to recognize that right. This means, among other things, getting rid of the follow everything being given to you mindset, and it means not just accepting but being actively glad when followers assert what they are and are not comfortable with. This would enable us to inhabit lead follow roles, and even in a gendered way if we want, without sacrificing the nobility and power of female followers.

4. Ladies Styling

It is often said in partner dancing that men are the support, and women are the beauty.

Or that men are the frame, and women are the painting.

Or that men are invisible, and women are showcased.

This results in classes being, by and large, for men to learn moves and connect, and alternative classes in “ladies styling” being for women to learn how to be pretty.

This is bollocks. Complete fucking bollocks.

Men can be aesthetic, too. Men can move fluidly and beautifully while they lead. Men can shine. Men can dance. 

And women are most certainly a part of the power and structure that make a dance look–but more importantly feel–good.

In fact, I would argue that focusing on “ladies styling” actually detracts from the quality of the dancing. However much energy women/followers devote to their styling is exactly the amount of energy they can no longer be spent on listening to and connecting with their leaders.

5. John y Jane couples

Daniel y Desiree. Ataca y Alemana. Sergio y Gaby.

Jordan and Tatiana. Hugo and Stacy. Kyle and Sarah.

There are a small number of teaching and performing couples who go by the female name first, but by my best guess (scanning congress websites and the like) they constitute no more than 10% of performing couples. I am being generous with that number. I’d bet my life savings it’s actually no more than 5%.

This is a norm we inherited from the rest of our culture – to always say Mr. first and Mrs. second. But that doesn’t make it right. 

And I want to state here, unequivocally, that I do not blame this entirely on the couples. Sure, they are the ones who choose their names, but we are the ones who consume them. I am 100% positive that we subconsciously admire and patronize male-led partnerships more so than female-led ones. If we want our leaders to step up their game and represent gender equality then we, as their patrons, have to step up ours, too.

6. Teaching moves

Most lessons, especially those offered right before a social, are designed mostly for men. They teach “moves.”

The instructor might say dozens of times in the lesson, “leads do XYZ, and the followers will just know what to do.”

Um, no. The follower won’t automatically know what to do. There is a distinct skill set – a distinct ability to read what a leader is intending – that following requires. Classes very rarely talk about this.

Placing the emphasis in classes on moves gives priority to men’s (leader’s) education in the dance and leaves women in the dust. It also turns the dance into a set of directions the lead gives the follower, instead of a two-way line of communication between them.

If instead of moves we taught “how to be good partners,” classes would be good for both leaders and followers, and we would think of men and women as equitable partners in making a dance go smoothly.

(I talk about these ideas at great length in the post “Is it always the leader’s fault?” Also, for an example of things that I think could be taught in beginner classes, see Maximizing the Purity of Your Connection)

7. Male instructors dominating classes

I have only once personally ever gone to an Afro-latin dance class taught by a couple in which the woman spoke more than 50% of the time.

(In swing dances it happens much more often.)

Sometimes even in classes when following is being discussed the male instructor does the talking… even though he is not the resident expert on following.

Men simply dominate the hell out of teaching class. In part this is because the emphasis of the class is on “moves” and men are the ones teaching how to lead them, but this is also because we simply don’t make space for women to talk.

8. “Hijacking” and the language of hijacking

Hijacking is what happens when a follower doesn’t obey the lead, and instead does whatever she feels like doing. This is a serious sin in most dance communities. It is nowadays however much less so in west coast swing.

There are two important issues having to do with the idea of “hijacking.”

First is the act itself. What’s so bad about hijacking? Done tastefully, safely, and occasionally, “hijacking” can be a great way for a follower to be playful and musical with her leader. This might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I do know a lot of advanced leaders in the Afro-Latin dances who are on board with this sort of thing. In swing nowadays, though it didn’t used to be, this kind of behavior is actively expected and even beloved.

Second is the language of hijacking (another great idea of Toan’s). To “hijack” is to do something negative. It might even be to do something violent. It’s to interrupt the natural, good flow of things. It states unequivocally that the lead has the right thing in mind and the follower does not. This kind of language can be especially problematic if the follower “hijacks” in order to protect herself.

The language of hijacking might be less problematic if leading and following weren’t currently so divided along gender lines. But as it stands, it helps create a sense of the woman overstepping her bounds on the floor.

If we change our language around “hijacking” we may be able to shift this kind of moralistic duality. We could also perhaps migrate the act from that of “taboo” to that of “skilled art one engages in smartly once more experienced in the dance.” I suggest using words more like “making a statement,” “being proactive,” “playing,” “exercising agency,” “changing the direction of the dance,” (Toan’s favorite), “contributing to patterns,” or my favorite, “co-creating.”

9. Catcalling, ogling, or giggling at female-female dancing (and male-male dancing)

(This item does not really apply to swing dances, which have by and large normalized same sex dancing)

When two women dance together, we cat-call. It’s a sex show.

This is terrible because it fetishizes female-female coupling.

When two men dance together, we stare and laugh. It’s funny. 

This is terrible both because it derides the connection two men can have together (indeed, it makes it laughable that men can connect at all), and also because it finds the idea so funny that a man would stoop to the “female” role of following.

Seriously get over it, everybody. When same sex couples dance together, it’s because they want to dance together, not be a show. And if they happen to want to be a show for the sake of being a show, it shouldn’t (usually) be. For the sake of disrupting our culture’s fetishisization of same-sex dancing, I suggest ignoring attention-seekers.

(If, on the other hand, you’re laughing at your friend because they’re so hysterically bad at the role they are trying to play, then by all means, be my guest.)

 

 —–

From same-sex couples to ladies styling to re-thinking lead/follow dynamics, I have gone through a diverse array of ways in which we subtly promote or at least participate in sexism within our dance communities. (I talk about ways in which we can remediate it here.)

I do not mean to say that we do this on purpose. This is just like when people are casually sexist or casually racist in their day to day lives. No one wants to be the bad guy. None of us necessarily are. It just so happens that the world we inherited was not very nice, and sometimes even doing our best we fail to see the ways in which we oppress one another (and ourselves).

Also, I want to be clear that there are many ways in which we are sexist that I did not talk about. I chose to focus on sexism that is unique to dance and left more of the “standard society stuff” alone. Some “standard society” instances of sexism include, for example, pushing beyond a follower’s comfortable levels of intimacy while dancing, getting drunk and groping/assaulting followers, the often disrespectful hookup culture at congresses, deferring to male promoters in the scene more than female promoters, or considering men more as authorities on how to dance than women.

I will most certainly be discussing those topics in future posts.

Yet for now I would love to hear what you think here. I believe these are some really important issues. And a lot is at stake here, including how we define “leading” and how we define “following.” So it’s a big deal. But change is coming anyway. We may as well be mindful about it and do what we can (such as take steps I talk about in this post) to facilitate thoughtfulness and comfort in our dance spaces.

 

 

To stay up to date find us on facebook. 🙂

 

Read more

angels in dance

I have a friend who leads like I imagine the angels do.

I can just picture it: Gabriel, Peter, and this sweet guy from Jersey, all chilling in the back of the club with a queue of ladies and gents waiting to dance.

This leader, my friend, is angelic in the most real and important way. He once told me that he consciously tries to make every dance as amazing as possible for the followers he is with. I know this sounds simple, but a whole hell of a lot goes into it. For any given dance he takes note of the qualities of your initial connection, gauges your emotional state, and crafts each move of the dance in a way as to help you feel safe and happy. He is committed to not just your pleasure but your comfort and joy. This, he says, is the essence of a good leader.

I agree.

What about a good follower? A good follower does much the same. A good follower listens. A good follower responds. A good follower tunes into your  emotional energy, feels your interpretation of the music, gauges your type of connection, and provides the kind of response that is satisfying for you – the leader – on those levels. A good follower, like a good leader, meets her partner where she is at.

Dancing with these kinds of people can be heaven.

Being one of these people can also be heaven…

But you know what else it can be by the end of the night?

Exhausting.

Being a caring dancer can be really fucking exhausting.

Partner dance is care

Partner dancing is an intimate act. It’s two people, moving together. It’s communicating. It’s being present. It’s relationship. It’s teamwork. It’s union. It’s sex, but better.

What distinguishes partner dancing from solo dancing is the relationship you have with your partner. Dancing is as rife with opportunities for mutual positivity or mutual negativity as any other time two people interact with one another.

Any time you interact with someone, from passing completely random strangers on public transit to making love to your own spouse, you have the opportunity to show them love and make them feel better, or not. You have the opportunity to smile at them, or not. You have the opportunity to be empathetic, and to listen, and to respond lovingly, or not. You have the opportunity to embrace a human being, and to make them feel at home in the world, or not.

Partner  dancing – like any act between two people – is an opportunity to take care.

Taking care is giving energy

Yet the thing about taking care of people is that it’s hard work.

We all only have so much emotional energy.

Say you wake up in the morning feeling springy. The sun is bright, and the sky is blue. You bounce out the front door. “Life is beautiful,“  you think. You buy a few dozen roses, and you pass them out to all the strangers you pass on the way to the office. All of these people smile brilliantly at you… they’ll probably remember this moment all day. You put positive energy out into the world. You showed them love. You took care of them.

But what if you passed out roses all week, and no one expressed any care or even gratitude for you back? You might be able to get by feeling good about it for a while, bolstered by your sense of virtue and good ethics, but after some time of constantly putting all this energy out into the world, you will probably really start to yearn for some back. We are, unfortunately, limited human beings, who require as much nourishment from the world as we put into it.

At the end of a long, caring week without feeling cared for back, you might feel a little bit tired and a little bit sad. You might not feel like you could do much at all. You might not even feel much like you could buy one or two roses.

All you want to do is lay down and sleep.

Or better yet have someone come give you a rose of their own.

Emotional exhaustion on the dance floor

When I dance, I want to give 100%.

I want to be fully present with my partner, and I want them to be fully present with me.

I want to take care of my partner, and I want them to take care of me.

I want to love my partner, and I want them to love me.

I have noticed over the years however that if I cannot find a happy meeting ground – if I cannot find reciprocal energy of attention and care in a dance – I leave it feeling emotionally drained. If this goes on many times over the course of the night I go home feeling exhausted and sad.

This can happen for any number of reasons. My leader is indifferent. My leader doesn’t pay attention to me. My leader never makes eye contact with me. My leader is physically rough with me. My leader doesn’t seem to know or care how the quality of the lead affects me. My leader puts me through turn patterns without giving much thought to musicality or my experience. Perhaps most commonly – my leader is caught up in their own world.

It also happens when my leader doesn’t notice – or cannot appreciate – the kind of care that I can give or am giving.

I don’t care if it’s someone at their first lesson or a pro whose been at it for decades. Even though the ways in which people can be caring vary based on technique, anybody on the dance floor is capable of care. Anybody is capable of demonstrating appreciation for you as a dancer and as a human being, as well as connecting with you and trying to give you the best experience possible. They might not be particularly good at it, technically, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the love that counts.

Takers and givers

A friend of mine once told me that she thinks about people in the world in terms of givers and takers.

On the dance floor, the angels, the ones who care, are givers.

People who are oblivious to care are takers.

If you don’t go into each social and try to nourish and connect with your partners where they are at, you are a taker.

But if you go into each social with a big open heart and a desire to connect, support, and show appreciation to your partners, you are a giver.

Should you consent to dancing with a taker?

I don’t typically consent to dances that I think will be emotionally draining.

If I have boundless emotional energy to give, I’ll say yes to everybody (who appears to be respectful). If I think the leader who asks me to dance is well-intentioned but clueless about this sort of dynamic, I’ll still say yes. I don’t feel drained by people who are loving in whatever capacity they can be.

If I am not feeling particularly boundless, or simply having a rough day, I will say no to anyone who doesn’t make me feel cared for. Sometimes I literally cannot bear my emotional energy being drained any more. Sometimes I need to feel cared for more than I can summon the will to care for others.

But if I dance with a giver…

If I end up with a partner who connects with me, finds my strengths and weaknesses, supports me, smiles at me, enjoys the music with me, or attentively makes art with me, then I feel cared for. I feel loved. I feel safe. I feel happy. I feel energized. My energy increases.

This is just like if someone makes me dinner, or opens the door for me, or simply smiles at me when I pass them on the street. It is a gesture that sends a message of openness, intimacy, and love.

This is super cool – the energy we get from gestures of love – it’s one of the best things in the world. We all experience it every time we go dancing, or simply walk down the street, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.

Here’s what’s even cooler, though:

Dancing when both people are givers.

If I get into a situation in which not only does my partner care for me, but also in which I care for them back, my energy does not just grow, but grows exponentially.

I feel actively energized in being able to care for an angel – for someone who is a giver.

I give; they give. Then I give more; then they give more.

And this isn’t just me, this is everybody. It’s human nature. When we care for people, we feel needed. We feel important. We feel reciprocal and connected and alive. We actively want to do good.

Caring reciprocally magnifies itself.

This is exactly the stuff that magical dances are made of.

It’s each person doing everything they can, putting in 110%, to make the dance good not just for themselves but for each other.

You tune in to your leader; your leader tunes in to you. You settle into their frame, and they embrace yours. You figure out how to support their balance, and they support yours. You touch them lovingly just so, and they smile or touch you lovingly back. You wink, they smirk. You don’t just get comfortable with one another, but you transcend that. You become joyfully at home with one another.

There is nothing in the world more energizing than this: when you can dance for someone else, and it means that you are nourishing yourself at the same time.

There is no longer a push or pull, a him versus her, a fight for safety or peace.

There is, instead, only mutual love, and something I think of as genuinely healing.

So I recommend…

That when you go out dancing, you think about dancers not just in terms of their technique, or even their connection, but rather their attention to and appreciation of their partner.

Perhaps pay attention to your own heart and dances. Take note of when you feel the most drained, and when you feel the most enlivened.

Nourish yourself on the dance floor. If you’re feeling exhausted, let yourself be exhausted. Perhaps seek out a dance with one of your favorite angels, who could help restore you.

Nourish others on the dance floor. This means taking care of them while dancing with them, but then it also means providing space for them to care for themselves. This may mean letting them seek dances elsewhere.

And maybe most of all take note of the people who have really cared for you (and others) over time. Express your gratitude. Give back. Recognize that a good dance is never really just a good dance. It’s a relationship full of focus, attention, support, care, and love.

Be an angel. It’s what you, your partners, the community, the planet, need.

 

Read more