And now we’ll take a break from our regularly scheduled program for a few words from the sponsor…
Has anyone you’ve ever talked to about ballroom dancing compared it to language during the discussion? I’ve had a couple of people I know make that comparison in talks with me recently, and I thought it was interesting the way those comparisons unintentionally happened at the same time, and they wove together in my mind with some things I had read online recently from several sources. So I thought I would talk about that train of thought I had for a few minutes, if you don’t mind.
So… social dancing seems to have been on people’s minds recently. Based on the content I find in most of the online sites about ballroom dancing that I read from the shadows, I get the impression that I’m one of the few people who goes out of my way to have lots of different experiences dancing, which includes a lot of social dancing. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m lucky enough to live in an area that has lots of places to go out social dancing every weekend while most other people don’t, or if it’s because I happen to find social dancing to be rather amusing, which the dancers who would rate themselves as being more on the competitive spectrum don’t. Maybe it’s some combination of both. I certainly don’t do it because I have some great need to be out among people – I could be quite happy staying at home and studying things in my career field to stay on top of stuff for my job I get paid for, or planning the next fitness challenge I want to throw at my body to see if I can do it. Those would certainly be more relaxing and far cheaper options for my weekends in any case.
There is something about going out social dancing that really appeals to me, so much so that I actually joined an organization where I can help put on a bunch of social dances throughout the year for other people to enjoy as well. And it’s not just the fact that I am a male, so I have the ability to use social dances to practice whatever I want because I’m in control of what dances I do and what figures we use. After reading through a bunch of other people’s comments about why they don’t necessarily like going out social dancing as much as I do, I have been thinking a lot about why it is that I actually enjoy social dancing, enjoy it enough that I keep going back out there and doing it almost every weekend. What am I getting out of it? Based on some things that other people have said when I was listening, I think I’ve found one word that can sum up what I am getting out of the experience:
No, I’m not talking about the awkward small talk that is inevitably made when you are out dancing with a partner, especially a partner that you don’t know all that well. After all, when I open my mouth to speak, generally the only things that come out are stupidity, or bad wordplay, or less-than-funny jokes (much like when I write. Ba-dum ching!). What I mean is, as a dancer in this Lead-Follow relationship that we establish for the few minutes at a time during the night when we dance together, we are conversing with dance. Ballroom dancers will generally learn several languages in the course of their training. Perhaps we are speaking in the elegant language of a Waltz, or the rhythmic cadence of the language of a Cha-Cha, or the fierce and masculine language of a Pasodoble (I only wish that happened more frequently). These are all things that I have studied throughout the years, and they all have very different rules to follow to ensure that what you picture in your head is expressed clearly for the understanding of your partner.
My own amateur dance partner made an off-hand observation a few weeks back that I think is really fitting to help explain why so many high-level competitive dancers I’ve met in my travels don’t necessarily like social dancing all that much. I overheard her explain to someone else that your average social-only dancer has a lot of dance vocabulary. They go out to dance classes and pick up figures for various dance styles which they then incorporate into the dances they do during social parties, and anyone who attended that class with them will also know those new vocabulary words or phrases, so they are able to perform the steps successfully. When the pure social dancer tries to dance the same thing with someone who was not in that class with them, they run into problems, so they do what anyone who speaks a different language than you does when trying to get their point across: they either repeat the word or phrase over and over again until you pick it up, or they try to ‘teach’ it to you, which in dancing means that they are telling you what you are supposed to be doing, hopefully without making you feel stupid in the process.
High level competitive dancers have a different focus: grammar. Normally they don’t spend a lot of time learning new dance figures or combinations. They have their routines, and they generally stick with them until they move up into a different level or get bored and decide to alter the routine to spice up their lives (or their instructor changes things, if they dance Pro-Am). Instead, once they have the basic steps in the routine down, they spend all their time focusing on the technique to make the steps look good, which really does equate quite nicely to the grammar of a language if you think about it. Technique gives you the proper structure for your steps, much like grammar gives you the proper structure for your sentences. My dance partner said that she often has danced with social dancers that she can understand pretty well (like me, I hope), but she has also danced with social dancers that are really loose in their frames and incredibly hard to follow. Her words were something like ‘they have a large dance vocabulary, but terrible grammar, so they are really hard to understand.’
You may be asking yourself at this point ‘what is he trying to get at?’ Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again: I really feel like social dancing and competitive dancing are the two sides of this coin that is ballroom dancing, and you can’t truly experience what this hobby is meant to be unless you do both. Much like you need both a good vocabulary and good grammar to communicate, and constant practice to make sure you are communicating well. You can spend all kinds of time (and tons of monies) learning high-level technique from world-renowned instructors and adjudicators, but no matter how good your grammar may be it doesn’t do you any good if you only know how to use it when you do the same figures in the same order that your routine is in, or you are only comfortable when dancing with one person. I’ve seen people who are really amazing when they dance with their instructors as they work on their competition routines, but their dances fall apart when they dance with anyone else because they didn’t realize how doing things in a routine order with an instructor caused them not to actually learn how to lead the figure properly for any other lady they danced with. That wouldn’t make you feel much like a master wordsmith, now would it?
Plus, unless you are independently wealthy, you probably aren’t able to go out and compete every weekend to really use what you’ve learned with any sort of frequency. I mean, if you are independently wealthy, great! I would love to dance with you! Send checks or money orders to P.O. Box 222… anyway, social dancing allows you to go out and practice your conversational skills for much less of a cost. However, if you spend all of your time only going to social dances and don’t work on picking up rudimentary technique for your dances, then you will have a much harder time dancing with random people who you meet at parties. I personally think that competing is a good way to force yourself to practice technique, making sure that you really know it and can apply it whenever you go out dancing.
I did say that I had more than one person make the comparison recently between ballroom dancing and language, I didn’t forget that. Just to show you how well the comparison works, you may or may not remember reading about a class I took recently where we spent the majority of the class switching roles – making the people who normally dance the Lead part dance as Followers and having the people who normally Follow try their hand at being Leaders. As the class was beginning and the instructor was talking about why he was going to have us go through this crazy exercise, he told everyone in class that he really noticed a significant improvement in his ability to be a Leader when he was able to “speak fluent Follow.” By taking a walk in his partner’s shoes early on in his teaching career (so to speak – he has much bigger feet than any woman I know), he began to feel what it is that they were feeling from him, and he could see why certain things he did caused the figures he led to succeed or fail.
Maybe this will help you understand why I think that ballroom dancing really is better when you do both social dancing and competition dancing. After all, social dancing is how these dances came into being in the first place, so you know that is an important part of the story, but competition-style dancing is all that people see on television which interests them to take up the hobby in the first place. We should all cheer for both sides! Anyway, those are some thoughts that I had that I thought I would share.
We now return to our regularly scheduled notes about dancing that I write to remember what it is that I did. Let’s see if I actually remember things that I did earlier this week – I got so caught up in writing down my language notes that I didn’t write down notes after I got home from class like I usually do. Hmm…
What do I actually remember doing? Well, I think I remember most of what happened Monday night at Latin Technique class. The first funny thing I remember came right at the beginning of class. As we were taking the floor and talking about doing something in Cha-Cha, Tanya Tiger said that she was super excited that there were currently the same number of men and women in class, so we all should be able to get a lot of work done. She then proceeded to bend down and knock on the wood floor, since she was worried about jinxing things with her comments. As Lord Junior was thinking about what to work on with us, we all started laughing as another lady rushed through the door just two minutes before the class was going to start. She looked over at all of us, since she initially thought we were laughing at her, but when we explained what Tanya had just done she started laughing too. Good times.
Lord Junior wanted to start with us working on the Reverse Top figure in Cha-Cha, since he had tried to do the figure with Veep during a dance over the weekend and it had failed miserably (she blushed a bit when he mentioned that). We started off with guys on their right leg, left leg pointed back, holding on with only the left hand (ladies were in the natural opposite position). We did a Forward Check on beat two to start, coming back with a Slip Chasse for the guys and a Forward Lock Step for the ladies, and then leading the lady to do a Curl before going into the Reverse Top. We went around and timed things to release the lady so that she ended up out in Fan Position at the end, hopefully going around enough to end facing 90° counter-clockwise from where we started.
Having gone through the Reverse Top like he wanted and still having lots of time left, we added things on. From there we did a Hockey Stick, putting in a Spiral Turn with a slight turn of the wrist in the middle to get the ladies to spin all the way around and face away from us for the second half. We did one normal Lock Step forward to complete the actual Hockey Stick, and then added two other locks forward in Guapacha timing (Guapacha is a fun word to say). As we did the Forward Check at the start of the next measure, we rotated the lady’s wrist slightly the other way to turn her back around to face us so that she could do a Lock Step toward us while we did a small (very small) chasse to the left to end up with our right hand on the lady’s shoulder, standing perpendicular to her, setting us up for something even more fun.
Next we did a syncopated Telemark (yes, it is a figure borrowed from International Standard dances) to turn around 180° before sliding our right hand down to take her left and lunging out to our left side while she collected her feet and did a standing line to her right, pointing her right arm to the sky. To make sure we worked both of the lady’s arms, we next rolled her in along our right arm, grabbing her right hand with our left when she was close enough, and then we let her do another standing line to her right, pointing her left arm to the sky this time (since we are holding the right hand). The men just shifted slightly to our left here, not actually lunging to the side this time since we were using the opposite arm and didn’t want to end up twisted in a funny way.
I’m pretty sure I remembered that all correctly… at least for my footwork. The Follower’s footwork is a bit fuzzier since I didn’t do any of it, but I think I highlighted the points that differed from what you should see in the syllabus guidelines for the steps if you look any of this stuff up (I’m sure tons of people look up figures when I talk about them. Tons!).
Wednesday night’s class is a bit easier for me to remember, since it was just yesterday. I got to spend some time working on American Smooth techniques again, since the class was pretty small and Lord Junior is still studying for his American Smooth certification exam. He said he would only do this for us for American Smooth. There is no chance that he would switch things in Latin Technique to look at American Rhythm dances. While he will end up taking the exam for Rhythm once he completes Smooth so that he has the complete set of four, he doesn’t care if he gets a super-high score on the Rhythm test like he did for when he took his Latin exam, so he has no plans to go through things with us to help him study (for some reason he thinks Rhythm is stupid). We looked at American Tango this week, because he had been studying over some things that he thought were pretty fun and wanted to show them to us.
Since the Silver-level ‘figures’ that he is learning are really just progressions of other figures you would learn in Bronze, he didn’t really have names for anything to give us, other than the individual component names. So we ended up with a progression that was supposedly like four ‘steps’, but could cover almost the whole dance floor in the process. We began in Promenade Position, taking two steps forward. On the second step the men would come around, cutting the lady off so that we could do some Promenade Pivots. We took four pivoting steps, releasing the lady after the last one. The men remained on our right leg while the ladies took one extra step backward to put us into a Same Foot Lunge, holding on only with the left hand to her right. We held that position for two beats, then took up her other hand in ours and rotated her around us 180°. The men only squared up to the ladies in this process, just shifting their weight between feet, ending on the right foot, but the women took three steps to put them back on the opposite foot from us.
As we stood there facing each other and holding both hands, the men crossed their left leg behind and pointed the right foot to the side, pushing slightly on her right arm to get her to mirror us and point her left foot at the end. Then we then did a normal Tango Close step moving backwards, rotating 90° counter-clockwise and returning to dance frame. If done correctly, you should be facing the wall at this point. We then moved ourselves toward the wall, rotating another 90° counter-clockwise again with a syncopated Chasse, turning to Promenade Position at the end. Lord Junior wanted to set this up as if we were turning into Promenade Position in the corner to start traveling down the next wall.
As our next Promenade traveled down the new wall, we took one slow step forward, then two quick steps where we squared up with our partner on the second to do what Lord Junior called a ‘Dumb Ronde’ (I’m pretty sure that’s what he called it) on the next slow beat, which was basically crossing our right foot behind our left and as the right foot hit the floor the left foot did a Ronde so both actions happened in the same beat of music, and the Ronde was dragged out to cover two beats. Moving on, we split apart on the right side from our partner taking one side step to the right, rotating and taking one forward step with the left, then turning again to do a right side Fan and holding for two beats before moving forward to collect our partner back into dance frame during the Tango close step. By the time we finished this set of figures, we were right back where we had started with the Promenade going down the new wall, so now we had to do something that traveled.
We started with a normal, basic Tango Walk for two steps forward. On the second step though, the leaders separated a bit from our partner so that there was some space between our bodies. Going into the close figure, we gave the ladies a Underarm Turn, stopping her halfway around so that we were in Shadow Position. In Outside Partner we took two slow steps forward, and then went into an Open Reverse Turn. That would put us a good distance down the floor if you have long legs (I do. Yay me!). At the end of the Open Reverse Turn we rolled the ladies across our bodies out to our left side while we did a check forward and then came back, putting us into Open Fan position. Going into the final close of the progression, we rotated the fan so the lady came toward us, using our right hand to stop her (kind of like a Tuck Turn) before giving her a Underarm Turn with the left hand, and then collecting back into dance frame with the Tango close steps and calling it good for the night. Whew!
I think this weekend is the first Christmas-themed dance party I am going to. It’s really early in the month, so I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it’s also really early in the month so I’m surprised it’s happening now. I guess I shouldn’t be, since technically it’s already the second weekend in December. I also have two coaching sessions scheduled this weekend – one with Sparkledancer and Sir Steven, and a second with Sparkledancer and the Princess (gulp). Yeah, she didn’t forget that she wanted to work on things with us, like I had hoped she would. So we’ll have to see how I do with that challenge. You know why I prefer to work with male instructors? Not just because they know my part better, so they can see what I’m doing wrong, but also because when they want to dance with me it’s a bit awkward for both of us, so it doesn’t happen that often. The Princess is the only person who’s ever told me to cuddle her on the dance floor, as she was trying to show me something. That was weird. Maybe something else weird will happen when I see her on Saturday. I’ll let you know about what happens next week!