Monday, September 30, 2013

The paradigm of leading and following

Lately I've been working with my students on dancing in closed position to work on improving their lead/follow, body movement, and musicality. Despite the fact that I had the partners dancing nearly body-to-body, center-to-center, nevertheless, without fail, many if not most of the leaders would try to use their arms to move the follower, and many of the followers would try to guess where the leader was going.

In my view, this behavior is symptomatic of the general paradigm by which we often dance: the leader moves the follower, and the follower goes where the leader wants her to go.

Think about that for a moment.

The leader moves the follower. He is responsible for moving her from one place to another. Not the follower herself, but the leader does the moving. And the follower goes where the leader wants her to go. Where he wants her to go. The priority is on what the leader wants. And so the leader spends his time focused on moving the follower, and the follower spends her time focused on what the leader wants. And this was playing out in class, where the students were dancing in closed position.

The challenge is to shift our thinking about the role of the partners and the dynamic between them. Leaders should be focused on moving not their partners but their own bodies, and letting the follower respond (aka "body lead"). And followers shouldn't be trying to read his mind but rather focus on moving themselves in response to what they feel from the leader (aka "following").

This is a subtle distinction, but watch how many people have a hard time doing it. Because after months or even years of living with the current paradigm, we so easily slip into what we already know and do. The new paradigm isn't impossible or even too difficult. It just takes commitment, the right training, and lots of mindful effort. But man, think of how great partner dancing could be if we did change the paradigm...

Pay attention to the dynamic you set up in your own dancing, and watch others when you get the chance. Which paradigm are you dancing and seeing? What happens when you try dancing the new one? Teachers, how is your teaching - both the content and the manner - shaping your students' understanding of the role of the partners and the dynamic between them?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Joy of Blues Dancing

I've written before about how closed position creates more intimacy between the partners, and how it allows the partners to feel out one another together with the music.

Blues dancing is danced to slow blues - the kind that just begs for intimacy - and as such, it is danced primarily in closed position (depending on how much swing you mix into it). Learning blues dancing is a great way for all swing dancers to develop useful skills, such as leading and following, body movements, and musical interpretation.

Because the dance is in closed, blue dancing is a great way to understand leading and following. In closed position, the leader need only focus on the movement of his own body, and let the follower move with him. As a follower, she can learn to surrender to his lead and go with what she feels. With the centers close together, this dance is very much about dancing center to center.

Since the music is slower and in closed position, there is more time to explore body movement, rather than utilize patterns and footwork. With the partners' bodies closer together, it is easier to communicate subtle movements, and it affords us the opportunity to really explore the music with different parts of our bodies.

Finally, because the music is slower, and because we're in closed position, it allows us both the time and the freedom to focus on the music. Without the need to worry about leading and following patterns, we can get down to the fundamentals of movement to music.

Better body leads and follows, more body movements over patterns and footwork, and time to explore the music with your partner. Doesn't that sound like a great recipe for amazing partner dancing?

Have you tried blues dancing? If so, how has it affected your understanding of swing dancing? Teachers, have you thought about using blues dancing to help your students focus on the fundamentals of swing dancing?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Where's your head at?

As many of you know, I switched my teaching awhile ago from patterns to concepts around techniques, partnership, and musical interpretation. But as I work on these other things with students, I realized that outside of class and on the social dance floor, students are used to grounding their dance in patterns, and their mindset is very different under these circumstances. 

The way we teach the dance orients students to think of executing the minutiae of patterns, and in doing so, they lose the forest for the trees. We forget about the fundamentals of lead and follow, the mechanics of the dance, musical interpretation, and even body mechanics and partnership. The challenge then is to be able to execute movements while maintaining (if not elevating) your quality of movement, and that means not letting yourself get lost in the details. 

This month I taught whip variations of increasing complexity, with three goals in mind: (1) improve technique related to whips; (2) improve understanding of lead/follow and the mechanics of WCS; and (3) train students to maintain the first two while executing patterns through proper mindset. 

The challenge wasn't easy, and I confess that not all of my experimentation worked, especially as we moved away from the basic whip to new variations. I noticed that how I taught - where I put emphasis and what words I used - affected the students, but also many of them have been trained as pattern dancers and are learning to form new mindsets and behaviors. Where they were most successful was when I was able to pull them up out of the details to the bigger and more universal concepts of the mechanics of the slot and lead/follow. But then, the trick is to keep them at that level over time...

How often do you get lost in the details of patterns? How do you see your dance as movements and not moves? Where does your mind gravitate while dancing and how does it affect your quality movement? Teachers, how do you instruct your students so they stay focused on concepts and techniques without succumbing to the details and repetition of patterns?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Choreographer

When I was first learning to dance, I took a lindy hop workshop with a great teacher from Ithaca named Bill Borgida. I don't remember what he taught in the workshop, but something he said stuck with me: "Count Basie is my choreographer." Count Basie is of course the great swing band leader, and his point was that the music was telling him what to do.

We often think of the leader as the choreographer in the dance, or at least the lead choreographer. He is responsible in many ways for setting the tone and directing much of the dance. But ideally what he choreographs is not born solely out of his knowledge of patterns, but rather his inspiration from the music. 

Putting the leader in touch with the music has many benefits. Not only does it create a more musical dance, but it makes his choices clearer to the follower, who can hear what he's trying to choreograph. This should also make it easier for the follower to engage and add some choreography of her own, knowing that she is on the same page as the leader, both of them connected by the music. It should also be a bit of a relief for the leader, who can let the music guide his leading rather than having to come up with moves on his own.

Who do you think of as the choreographer in the dance? Who is it now and is that how you want it to be? Teachers, how do you help your students to understand choreography and its relationship with the music?