Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More musings about following

Although I have been dancing West Coast Swing for about 10 years, I have only had enough lessons in it to make me a pretty competant dancer, as opposed to a seriously advanced one. I have the right basic style, a good connection, and I follow *most* of what I'm led into. Sometimes I miss, mostly when the music is fast and the guy is throwing a lot at me and I can't process it fast enough...I don't have that automatic ability to follow every crazy thing like some followers do. Anyway, the point is, I have fun, most of my partners seem to as well, and I have a good time when I go out swing dancing.

Last night at Swingtime Tuesday at The Station in Roseville, I had a really good night. I didn't dance a ton, but the dances I got were really good. I was also socializing and helping a student who just had his first WCS lesson, so overall it was a good night. Afterward, I got to thinking and had a conversation with Greg that I thought I would summarize here. In some ways, this also applies to Ballroom and Tango, but I think it's especially evident in WCS.

There's an old saying about WCS that goes something like, "Beginning dancers do the basics. Intermediate dancers do a lot of moves. Advanced dancers do the basics." While I have observed that to be largely true, I've also observed that there's a degree of personal style in that. I have danced with some advanced dancers who seem ot have kind of an "agenda" when they get on the floor--they're really good, and they have some great moves, and they want to show them off. When I dance with them, I generally walk away at the end feeling like an idiot, because I didin't "get" half of it.

Then there's the other kind of advanced dancer. This is the kind that knows how to dress up basics so well that they make you want a cigarette afterward (especially if it's a slow song). They have a style that's easy to adapt to and match, and they dance so *with* the follower that you feel like you're the only girl on the floor. When I dance with a leader like this, I feel like a good dancer. Because they keep it simple, I follow everything, and I'm not stressed, and I have time to interpret the music and really dance *with* them instead of fight for my life. Not that they don't throw in a fancy move or two, but those are spaced out between basics so you get a chance to breathe and process in between. Because I'm followoing well, they give me approving smiles and they seem to enjoy it, too, even though they aren't showing off their whole repertoire.

There are some leaders who never ask me to dance, and I imagine it's because I can't keep up with them. That's fine...they're entitled to dance or not dance with whomever they wish. I'm just saying, there are other dancers just as good who seem to really enjoy dancing with me.

Partner dancing is supposed to be about the partnership. The best leaders make their partner feel at ease, no matter what her level, and don't make her feel like an idiot by dancing over her head or becoming annoyed when she misses a lead. In Tango, they say the best leaders will never let the follower know she missed a lead--he adapts and incorporates whatever she did into the dance so it seems natural. I think that can be done to some extent in Ballroom and Swing, although it's more difficult there because those dances have more structure. He can certainly minimize the mistake in many cases.

Of course, if she belligerantly goes on about her own thing and doesn't follow anything because she's following her own agenda, that's a different story...I'm talking about a follower who's trying her best to really follow.

The thing is, is it really the end of the world if the follower missed a lead? Isn't social dancing about having a good time together? Laugh, smile, make it work. Dance *with* your follower instead of *at* her, and maybe you'll be surprised at the results.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Following: Argentine Tango vs. Ballroom

It's interesting coming to Tango from a Ballroom background. On the one hand, I think having dance experience of any kind gives you the ability to move your body and an understanding of how everything workds, which makes it easier to learn a new dance and be able to just physically do the movements. On the other hand, having that previous experience gives you a sort of prejudice--as a ballroom dancer, my natural inclination is to follow like a ballroom dancer (I'll get into that in a minute). I've seen ballet dancers who come to ballroom who keep their legs a little too straight, turn out too much or at the wrong times, and have difficulty folowing because they're used to dancing on their own. When I started learning West Coast Swing from an actual swing teacher, she told me I had too much body flight...I was used to taking big steps in ballroom, so I'd travel too far for swing. Just some examples.

Here are some observations I've made about the differences between following Ballroom vs. Tango.

  • Ballroom goes by a fairly consistent set of rules. Individuals might have their own styling and their own theories on how to make things work, but it all comes down to the same basic thing. In Tango, there are different ways just of doing the dance: open vs. close embrace, how much the partners lean on each other, a quiet, small lead for small, intimate steps vs. a more definite (louder, in a sense) lead with bigger moves. The lady has to learn to adapt to all these styles. As a beginner, I often get schooled in the "correct" way to dance Tango...and then I go dance with the next man, who corrects me and shows his "correct" way. It can be frustrating, but on the other hand, I am learning a lot and it's fun to get so much variety.
  • In Ballroom, the steps are pretty standardized, so a follower with a decent amount of experience can dance with any man and have a pretty good idea of what he's going to do and how he's going to do it. There are some standards in Tango, like ochos and molinettes (excuse any spelling errors, please), but the follower really has to wait for him to lead every single step, because he might have his own twist on it. This makes for a more intimate, connected experience than Ballroom, where the lady can go on autopilot and get away with it...although she still has to wait and follow.
  • In Ballroom, probably the most fundamental rule of following is that the lady is to continue moving forward or backward until the leader tells her otherwise. She is constantly in motion--even when standing still, she is either stretching into the frame or doing some kind of body action. Her momentum often makes a pattern possible. In Tango, she should take just one step at a time and let the leader tell her where the next one will be. There may be several moments of just silence, where the partners will stand perfectly still and just connect. I like that.
  • In Ballroom, the lady needs to feel every single weight change the leader makes, so she can stay on the same foot. It's a very subtle thing, and I've heard from Tango dancers that they have a hard time following Ballroom because of that. Because, in Tango, the man often does weight changes, or even just embellishments with his free foot/leg, that mean nothing to the follower. She stays on the same foot until she is told to change it. The lead comes from the man's chest, and the movement may be very subtle, but he will literally lead her to make that change. I sometimes still change feet when I feel the man do it, out of habit. I know it's wrong, but it's an ingrained habit that I have to get past.
  • Like in West Coast Swing but perhaps not as much, the lady has a few opportunities in Tango to hijack the lead. This is something I don't know a lot about yet, but I know one place where the man sweeps her foot, and if he allows her, she can sweep him back. She can also take her time to do little embellishments and express the music the way she feels it when he leads certain moves. Not all the time, of course--he's still in charge--but there are those opportunities. In Ballroom, the beat keeps marching on and there really isn't much opportunity for those things...nor is it encouraged. 
That's all I can think of for now, but those were some thoughts I wanted to share. Of course, there are a lot of other differences, like how the music is interpreted, the frame, and how you carry yourselves, but here I wanted to focus on the differences in following technique. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts!