These are some of my not optional bits of advice, What instructions are “not just a suggestion” to you?
Partnering a dance class is something I have only done once before. I’ve taught a couple of times, but always small classes. I had the opportunity last week to partner Mirage for social dance 1 and 2 at Stanford. Lets start with the fact that i was honored to be asked. Sure I’ve taken these classes so many times I can mouth many of Richard Power’s talks along with him, but so can most of the dancers at Stanford. But Mirage asked me. *Fan girl moment*
But surprise, or maybe not so surprising, having taken the class a bunch of times, having danced the dances countless nights, having given impromptu lessons many times, none of it prepared me to stand in the middle of Roble 38 and have more than a hundred people watching me. Waiting for me to screw up.
Every step was so very much thought. “God am I doing it right? Like actually right? or am I just on autopilot, doing my version of what works?” Watching Mirage and trying to guess at when she needed me to partner someone in the class and when I needed to stay in the middle. Trying to exaggerate things so they are easier to see. Figuring out what to do with my hands while I stood awkwardly by myself in the middle. Funny how in so many years I never really noticed what Mirage did. Of course, I was at the undeniable disadvantage that Mirage normally partners. She has so much experience, and makes such amazing faces, and is so good at exaggerating things for demonstration purposes, I really had no chance of competing. Not that I wanted to compete, just to come up as competent against that measuring stick.
And then there was all the strangeness of being the teacher (kind of) instead of a student or a dancer. I am so used to teaching one on one. I am used to improving someone’s dancing by dancing with them. Feeling what they are doing, where they step, how they carry their weight. See how much we can fix just by having a partner who knows what I’m doing so they can concentrate on what they are doing. But in partnering the class, I had to stand in the middle, and look around at so many couples and see whether things were working or not. And if they weren’t, figure out why, and decide if there were patterns in what wasn’t working. And then figure out how to verbally recommend a fix. I know I was just partnering, but it turns out that in partnering, like in following, there is not “just” about it.
And as for making faces, standing in the middle of that room I wished I had a degree in acting. How the hell was I supposed to make sure the students around us could tell when I was giving enough weight? How were they supposed to tell when Mirage was making something easy or hard for me? Well, I tried my best. And it was definitely the thing I got the most comments on. Just about everyone who came up to say something to me after the class mentioned that I need to work on my facial expressions. More of them, more exaggerated, etc.
It was an awesome experience to partner the classes for a few days. I don’t think I’ve learned so much in a dance class since the last time I took a particular class for the first time. (Which was technically last quarter when I took History of Waltz. But that aside, it’s been 2 years). It was fun, but I was so glad to have Richard back, if for no other reason than it got me out of the spotlight.
I simply must go on this rant. Flimsy frames make me feel like you don’t actually want to dance with me. Frames completely lacking in flexibility hurt (and are often associated with a desire to torque my back and an obsession with cranking my arm faster than I can turn). But good frame is more than just a pet peeve of mine. It’s for the preservation of everybody’s comfort and enjoyment. If you’ve ever danced with someone who has poor frame (lead or follow) you probably sympathize.
Before you read any farther, please understand that I acknowledge that I am by no means the paragon of perfect frame. I need work as much as or more than the next person. But it takes two to tango.
What is “frame” exactly? I guess you could say its the tension in your arms. It’s what distinguishes you from a cooked noodle or a statue. It’s the lead’s arm securely around your partner, and on the follow’s back (may I suggest about the height of the shoulder blade). The exact location can of course vary, depending on the desired amount of room between the two dancers, the height of the partners, and whether the follow is wearing a corset. It’s about how much the lead allows his(or her) shoulder and elbow to rotate, causing the couples’ shoulders to be parallel or skew. It’s the outstretched arms having resistance so hands don’t get folded back against shoulders.
Frame is what allows you to have a connection with your partner. And that connection is so very important. Are you even really dancing if you don’t have a connection with your partner? Sure, I mean, you are dancing by yourself, but you aren’t social dancing. With a good connection, you can start together, and stop together, lead variations, employ floor craft (translation: you can steer and not crash!). With a great connection, it is like you are reading each other’s mind. And that’s where the magic really happens.
I’m going to do something novel to this blog, and employ a do/don’t list for having a good frame. (IMHO of course, it is my blog after all. Please feel free to agree/disagree/add/subtract things in the comments!)
- Give your partner plenty of room, especially in a cross step waltz where both partners need room to cross in front.
- Have tension in your arms so each partner can move the other around. Sit back a bit, settle your weight, use your frame to hold the two of you up. Try for “London Bridge” contact with the outstretched hand.
- As a lead, give your follow plenty of warning if you are going to break out of the frame for a variation, especially if you can feel the follow’s hand on your back. Shoulders can be hurt badly if the follow doesn’t have time to get their hand free (ie a free spin).
- Clutch at your partner’s hand with your outstretched hand. Blue fingers are bad (I’m guilty of this, especially during redowa/mazurka).
- Hold yourself so stiffly that it makes your partner can’t move at all and at the end your arm feels like it’s going to fall off
- Boss your partner around about exactly where their hand needs to go, as long as their selection is functional and non-sketchy.
To say much more is to risk becoming pedantic (if I haven’t already reached that point). Each dance has it’s own sweet spot on the scale of how flexible or stiff your frame. Tango, for example, works better with a much less flexible frame than cross-step.
As for great frame, I think it’s all about matching your partner. And this isn’t just something that the follows do, or just the leads. Both of you adapt to each other’s frame. And when you find the balance between you, that’s your sweet spot. And all of a sudden you are moving as one, thinking as one, dancing as one.
So I just realized today that I’ve been posting semi-regularly since the end of January. Its kind of exciting! But I’m also kind of monotonous and overly full of rantings. So I thought it was about time for another guest author.
This is an essay that Jeremy wrote for dance class a few years ago, that he chose to share himself and I have always loved. I wanted to feature it here because it tells such a beautiful story about why he chooses to dance. And I suspect he may speak for more than just me as well.
The Perfect Connection
I notice her as I walk along the rows of watchers that adorn the walls. She is studying the passing dancers with a practiced eye. Tall, elegant. I can tell simply by her poise that she is a dancer.
Smoothly, I walk up to her, reach out a hand, and ask,
“Would you like to dance?”
She says nothing, only smiles as she takes my hand. I lead her out to the floor, skimming to the inner lane past the gracefully rotating couples, before we begin with a cross.
From the first, I notice that she is as graceful as she appears. As I spin to the wall, she is as light as air, but still firm in the frame. As she spins, her skirt flares in time to the beat, and soon, we are lost in the music – a piece by Enya, one of my favorite songs.
The pivots flow into the natural step, preserving the enchantment that surrounds the dance. I take a moment to admire how she turns – each step measured and exact, but still graceful and poetic. Shadow position comes at a thought. Complex series of spins flow together naturally, as if we had practiced for hours. We are as water in a brook, babbling over the obstacles in the crowded riverbed, negotiating the path inexorably, but still gently. We flow down and away, and for the moment, we are one.
As the last chords fade, the last spin turns into a dip, low to the ground. She looks up at me as we stand, eyes smiling.
“Thank you for the dance,” I say, bowing slightly.
She curtsies, and steps away, never to be seen again.
This is not based on any specific memory of mine, though I am sure something of the like has happened to me at some point in my dancing life. Rather, this is a template for all of those mysterious dancers that we have danced with, connected with, and let fade away from our lives.
What we do is strange. We form a type of connection with a stranger that most of us never share with our loved ones, and yet we constantly allow these connections to fade as the song ends. The type of connection between partners in a freestyle setting just isn’t replicated anywhere else in the world.
There is something inherently mysterious about that connection – the connection that lets us do moves and sequences that we have never before performed with absolute confidence in our partners, and in ourselves. That perfection of connection rises and rises, and yet still somehow disappears when the song is done.
We have the potential. We can share something together that few people can claim – absolute empathy with another human being. We can be more than just ourselves – for just that one, brief, tick of the clock. I dance to find this. I dance for those ephemeral moments of cross-step – and for that perfect connection.
An article in the Stanford Daily about our Ceili Group:
Take it with the typical grain of salt that Daily articles must always be taken with, but hey, at least they are talking about dancing, even if they don’t always get it right. I can’t say how accurate the article, having not been myself yet. I swear I will go before the year is out.
Beginning waltzing is about the turning basic. Making it work, not stepping on your partner, getting around, being mostly on the rhythm and enjoying it. Intermediate dancing is about all the cool variations. what works, what doesn’t, what feels really different and cool. Eventually it’s about timing and musicality. I’ve got a secret for you though, advanced waltzing is not about more, or fancier, variations. Advanced waltzing is about the perfect turning basic. It’s about the partnering, about that turntable feeling, the connection between you and your partner; perpetual motion.
A lead who asks me to waltz, starts with about 2 turning basics and then throws one variation after another at me and doesn’t stop for 3 minutes until the song is over is not uncommon. Nor is it impressive as far as I’m concerned. Honestly, I usually find myself wondering after about 30 seconds if this person even knows how to waltz. Do they even know the basic step? are they scared to dance?
Too many variations can also feel like my lead is showing off – and not to me. He stops dancing with me, and instead is dancing for an audience. I’m not a performer, for good reason. I like to dance with people I dance for my partner, not for people watching. And it drives me nuts if you ask me to dance, and then spend the whole dance showing off for someone else. If you want someone else’s attention, dance with them.
If you are terrible at a turning basic, 3 minutes of stumbling through it isn’t always much fun. But how will you get better at the turning basic if you never try it? Don’t underestimate my ability (or that of any other follow) to compensate. If I may also suggest, don’t slight variations like a waltz walk or a half coupled up promenade. More impressive than a fancy variation, more impressive even than three minutes of a perfect turning basic, is not smashing your partner into another couple. Watch where you are going. Recognize when there isn’t room for a variation. There is nothing more impressive than taking care of your partner.
Don’t ever despair that you don’t know enough variations. Especially in a turning waltz, a good, solid, basic step is enough. Whether you just began dancing last night, and can’t tell your left from your right yet (another secret, I still can’t tell my left from my right), you are in the midst of learning and feel intimidated that you can’t keep track of all the variations, or waltzing is like breathing to you, remember that a well executed, uncluttered dance is not just a valid alternative to stringing variations together endlessly, it is the more impressive option. IMHO.