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.
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.