Thursday, October 21, 2010

Are you a bottom-up dancer or a top-down dancer?

Greg and I had a great conversation the other day about learning to dance and adding styling. This applies to, as far as I can tell, every type of dancing there is: if you learn to dance well, and that means learning proper technique, you will look good even without learning fancy styling. In fact, this applies to learning to do lots of other things, as well.

I liken it to a bottom-up or top-down approach. If you start from the bottom, i.e., concentrate on learning fundamentals like good footwork, lead and follow, timing, body flight, being smooth, proper turning and all the other things that make for good, solid, basic dancing, you are going to look good even if you never learn a lick of styling. In fact, if you take the time to learn all of that, you will probably pick up a little styling along the way whether you think about it or not, and then when you are a good technical dancer, it's much easier to pick up more styling and make yourself look even better.

The other approach is to start from the top and work your way down: maybe learn the basic steps, but concentrate more on styling from the very beginning. Those who take this approach do so because they want to interpret the music and be more dancerly right away, rather than dancing like an automaton. I can appreciate this--I can. However, from what I have seen MOST of the time (not always--some people learn this way and end up being good dancers), people who learn this way lack the fundamentals and therefore do not look as good as people who learned the basics first. In fact, and please don't take this as a personal insult, but some of them are laughably bad, because their styling is disconnected and their technique is awful. doesn't do any good to swing your hips or fling your arms around if you're doing it at the wrong time, in the wrong way, you're not leading/following and you're not with the music. I'm sorry. It's harsh, I know, but it's true. I'm telling you this for your own good (unless I'm not talking to you at all).

There are exceptions to every rule. Some people learn to dance the "right" way and never, ever become good dancers. Others learn the "wrong" way and turn out great. It has a lot to do with your natural level of grace and talent. I'm just saying, this is an observation I've made from watching a lot of people dance.

I've had people come to me for lessons who want to learn some styling so they look better. My advice is almost always to improve their technique first, and then worry about style. They usually follow my advice, and it works out great. That is not to say they don't get to learn any styling at all--I'll show them things they can do with their free arms, etc., but they soon learn that good basics are the best way to look like a good dancer.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How Ballroom Dancing has shaped my life

My ballroom dancing journey began in the spring of 1995. I was living at home with my mother and one of my brothers, Bill. He had been taking ballroom dance lessons for a year, which I thought was an odd thing at the time, but when he informed me one afternoon that I would be going with him that evening, I decided I didn’t have anything better to do—so I went.
Bill and another brother (I have three) and I had spent several years roller dancing, so in some ways ballroom dancing was a natural progression. I had thought I would take right to it—after all, how hard can it be? That first night I was the very picture of awkwardness. I didn’t know what to do with my feet, I was off balance, and I just didn’t “get” it.

Naturally, I was immediately hooked! Despite my complete incompetence, there was something alluring about ballroom dancing. The music and lead-and-follow nature of the dance was so different from roller dancing, which is usually a set pattern done to boring organ music. I was intrigued and determined to learn more. I insisted on going back the next night, and before I knew it, I was dancing three to five times per week between classes and social dances.

In the 15 years since that first attempt, I have gone from absolute beginner to a competitor, performer and teacher. I have met many wonderful people, some of which have come and gone, and others I have known for years. One of the people Bill and I met through one of our performance opportunities is now his girlfriend, Sharon, and she is a good friend of mine as well.

Most importantly, it was through ballroom dancing that I met my husband, Greg. I was actually dating someone else at the time that we met, but that relationship had been going downhill for some time and I had just not gotten around to leaving yet. Greg was good friends with the DJ and would come in to visit with her, although he only danced West Coast Swing.

One night after surveying the room to see who to ask to dance a swing with, Greg decided that I was the only vaguely competent dancer there (…but actually, I was pretty poor at West Coast Swing then. I just happen to be less poor than the other choices), so he asked. After that, we danced all of the West Coast Swings together.

This went on for several months, and then my relationship finally fell apart for good (unrelated to my dancing with Greg—at ballroom dances, everyone generally dances with several partners during the night). I swore off men for a year to “find myself”, but it turned out to be only a month before I started dating Greg, and we’ve been together ever since. That was the year 2000.

I cannot imagine where I would be now if it were not for dancing. It’s a wonderful way to bond with one person or meet new friends. It’s therapeutic—no matter how bad I’m feeling, physically or emotionally, a night of dancing lifts me up and makes me feel better. It’s great exercise, burning about 300 calories per hour, on average, and working every muscle in your body. Finally, it keeps you young. I once met a 96-year-old woman who looked like she was in her 60s, and she attributed her youthful outlook and appearance to years of dancing.

Ballroom dancing has been a major part of my life for 15 wonderful years, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. I plan to continue for as long as my legs will carry me.