Google defines dancing as “moving rhythmically to music.” This is a definition we all intuitively accept. Dancing – it seems obvious – is moving.
But I believe in our rush to move, we leave something important behind.
We forget a crucial fact: in order to move, and in order to dance, we must do so out of the spaces between movement. We must start with stillness.
We might liken a dance to a night sky. As there would be no stars without the space between them, so there would be no movements without the stillness between them.
This is an important idea for dancing in general, though I would argue that in partner dancing it has a particular importance that should not ever be ignored.
Here is what we do, when we partner dance: we default to moving. We are constantly thinking about how we should be moving, and what movements should come next.
For followers, in salsa, for example, we say: always do the basic. Always mark time. I once heard a famous couple criticized because the follower wasn’t always moving her feet. Followers should always be stepping, preparing themselves for the next possible movement.
We also, as followers, if we see a moment of pause or suspension from our leaders, tend to snatch the opportunity quickly. We have seen a moment and we will take it! We get, I would argue, selfish and disconnected from our partners. We think, “aha! Now I get to do something fancy! Now I get to do what I want.”
The sin for leaders regarding stillness is to ignore it. Many leaders think they need to constantly be in motion, constantly providing moves for their follower to do, or else the follower will get bored. When two people are emotionally connected however I would argue that being bored is impossible, and stillness properly integrated into a dance does not just help facilitate that kind of connection, but also provides leaders with an opportunity to listen to what their follower has to say with their body.
This mentality of constant, perhaps even frenetic, movement, I believe, is problematic because it is antithetical to four things I love dearly: presence, connection, listening and intention.
Instead of defaulting to movement, I suggest, perhaps we should default to stillness.
When we are still, we are present with one another. We do not have to worry about our technique or our creativity or doing the right thing – we simply are one another.
When we are still, the noise drops out, and we can connect with each other more deeply on an emotional level.
When we are still, we have the time and energy with which to listen to one another.
And when we are still, we start from a baseline out of which we can use our bodies intentionally to communicate with one another.
Now to be clear, the type of stillness I am talking about varies immensely. And one does not of course have to be completely still, and most certainly not all of the time. One simply has to choose to move out of a base of stillness. Stillness takes form such as a 6 second long hug at a beginning of a dance; it may be the simple suspending breaths on counts 4 and 8; it could be a break in the music where you simply stand and look at one another; it could be counterbalance in an extended movement, when your eyes meet for a split second across the distance of your extended arms.
As a leader, to initiate stillness shows followers that you are present with your follower. It shows that you are eager to communicate on a level that goes beyond simple steps. It shows them that you care about your connection. It shows that all of the movements you will initiate come out of partnership and intention. (For more on which, see this recent post on leader qualities.)
As followers, this enables you to be truly, incredibly in tune with your partners. Sometimes in classes followers are told to “have patience” or to “wait.” “Don’t anticipate!” instructors admonish. But I argue that in doing so these instructors do not quite get at the heart of the matter. Instead, I would insist: Be still. Listen.
When a leader stops moving, I know, I know, you might really want to keep moving. You might want to keep doing a basic or to take this moment to do something cool with your hips or your hands and shine. But if you also go still, and you wait, then you and your partner share a beautiful moment of tension and suspension, in which you are both ready to hear the slightest signal from one another’s bodies. You could then choose to move – but in this case it would be a moment of intentional communicating, not for the arbitrary sake of constant motion.
For both leaders and followers, out of stillness comes a platform for truly communicating. Instead of moving willy nilly just because that’s what you’re supposed to do, movement becomes intentional. Every move conveys an emotion, an idea, that your partner can interpret, and volley back to you.
Consider an exercise of standing in closed position with a partner with your eyes closed. Stand still. Don’t move. As a leader, transfer your weight slightly back and forth between your feet, ever so slightly. Your follower should be able to feel this and move with you. Go back to standing still. You can breathe together, literally. With stillness, this is possible, as you slow down and feel each other. In a state of stillness you can do other intentionally feeling things such as slightly tap your fingers, tilt your head, pop your rib cage, shake your shoulders gently, wait for a second or two then do a subtle roll of your abdomen. Each of these movements is a communication for your partner and your partner alone. An audience could maybe see this if they’re looking for it (and I personally am watching for it like a hawk), but they don’t know what it feels like.
So I do not mean to say that when you dance you should never be moving. You should. And I don’t mean to say that followers should never move when their leaders give them stillness. Because out of stillness comes opportunities to connect, and to communicate with your body.
But I believe that the default when we dance should be stillness. The default should be presence. The default should be listening. And then, from that platform, movements can all be intentional, emotional, interesting, connected. Instead of rushing ahead with movement, we wait and move in synchrony. This is because our movements are not given but intentional acts of communication, ones that convey affects such as love, joy, sensuality, passion, tenderness, fire, playfulness, or whatever you’d like.