What partner dancing taught me about connection, movement and gender
This is the story of how I learnt to dance, how it broke me out of my English shell, and is a list of learnable dance principles.
I hit ‘peak dance’ at a Blues festival in Madrid 2013. We had danced ‘til daylight. I couldn’t stop. The connection is like a drug. The authenticity of Blues music moves us deeply. When you hold someone in that sound, expressing that sound physically together, something striking happens: oxytocin abounds. Through the night you get close to and let go of so many. Your connection muscle strengthens.
The next day I felt changed, I felt something so specific yet I had no words for. That morning I typed in my diary:
The other dancers’ movement felt as distinct as the timbre of a beautiful musical instrument. And as our two kinaesthetic voices attuned, they became a new unique voice united in music. The Blues spoke through us, and we floated on it, in a lightness and intensity I don’t think I’d felt before. How I related to the other dancer transformed sometime during those four hours of dancing, as though I had let go of something. It didn’t matter how ‘good’ my dance partner was. Any unexpected movement so easily and so instantly became part of what we co-created in the music. Whatever happened felt it was exactly as it should be. Hours later my body still feels lighter and most dialogue or interaction feels more seamless. It’s so interesting that changing how you do one thing can change how you do another.
What does physical connection do to us?
Every point of view is narrow. We are naturally limited by what we individually see and experience. There are many barriers to block our view of the experience of others. What’s unique about partner dancing is that you learn to interconnect your physical experience with that of another’s. We even learn to listen and speak at the same time. This is listening in the sense of feeling what your partners body is ‘saying’ whilst your own body ‘speaks’. Your partner ‘follows’ the way you move your body. How they follow you feeds back into how you lead. It’s a physical kinaesthetic version of ‘me seeing you seeing me seeing you’. An infinite feedback loop that attunes you both deeply. I danced for about eight years before I had this experience. Learning to dance is very much like learning a language in that it is a medium for communication. At its best it is a two-way conversation. In true conversation we can connect our viewpoints.
How it began
I am not a natural dancer. As a 17 year old I recall being embarrassed at my own jerky awkwardness in a discotheque mirror. My mother told me just to be sure of my moves and it would make me a good dancer. My surely odd moves made me cringe, feeling so clueless about what part of my body to move and how to move it. As a student, a friend suggested I attend the ballroom dance class. “A good way to meet girls” she advised. I was immediately sold, and even more so when I discovered dance classes usually have more women than men (women had to cue up to dance with me). We quickly learnt many of the ballroom dances: waltz, quickstep, Viennese waltz, rumba, cha cha cha, jive, and samba. My first breakthrough was leading a whole jive routine fluidly. It was simply the feeling of doing one move while envisaging the next, and enjoying the flow of movement through music. We weren’t in ‘conversation’ but we did connect through an agreed routine.
Before I knew it I had been recruited into the London University Ballroom and Latin American Dance society, to compete the following academic year. This wasn’t a judgement of my competence. Ballroom competitions are leagued like football. The beginner’s team will take almost anyone. For two years I had subsidised private ballroom classes and had a dedicated partner. I focussed on Jive, Cha cha, and Rumba. I loved all three. Jive for being so joyfully energetic and upbeat, Cha Cha for its Latin slickness, Rumba for its slow romantic intensity.
Here I list some of the key principles for the language of dance. Notice you could apply many of these principles to other physical disciplines and relational experiences, including your favourite physical relationships ?
To use a language learning metaphor, these principles are like the grammar of dance: broad principles that apply to most phrases. I will not mention too much about specific steps (dance vocabulary).
Key principles I learnt from Ballroom
It’s possible to move one part of your body without moving another. Body popping dancers that move like robots are an extreme example of this. They move like they are not human at all. For Cha cha I learnt to rotate my hips whilst my shoulders remained static. This is tricky because your body is one piece. Moving one limb will naturally move the rest. Practising such movement is much easier with a mirror. You have to get a feel for how to move the muscles that isolate the part of your body you don’t want to move. Your reflection shows you when you are doing this right. When I see the movement I’m looking for in my body, I memorise the way it feels so that I can replicate it without a mirror. Just as every musical chord has a unique texture, every combination of muscle movement has a unique sensation: memorise that sensation and you can recalibrate how your body moves.
Shoe sole traction
We all need to be sure footed. The degree of traction between your feet and the floor is very important. You need it to be not too slippery and not too sticky. Michael Jackson’s famous Moon Walk depends on having exactly the right degree of slipperiness (also controlled with weight placement between feet). You can also adjust the degree of traction with substances like talcum powder (for more slip) or by brushing the suede soles of your shoes (for more stick). Covering your soles with Gaffa tape is a good quick fix because it tends to have the right degree of traction. For one 3 minute dance in a competition, water can to give you extra traction until it dries.
Flirt with your judges and your partner. Look like you are loving the music (even if you hate it). Chemistry between partners will make the show more engaging to watch. Your ‘vibe’, the way you disturb the air is always a big factor in performance and will make up for a lot. My ballroom teacher Gillian Cook had us pretend we were about to kiss each other to make us better flirts. It made us feel like we had actually kissed even when we hadn’t.
For one body to communicate movement to another, some tension in the upper body and arms helps. We call this making a frame. If your arm is too floppy it won’t make a rod to transmit the motion like pedalling a bicycle transmits motion to the wheel. The person following the lead needs to maintain some tension in her arms so that the movement from the lead transfers to the follow’s body. Imagine the arm connection between dance partners is like the push-handle of a supermarket trolley, it moves immediately in the direction you sent it.
When you are taller than your partner it is easier to look down at her. Simply looking up – your jaw bone parallel with the floor makes big difference in presentation. It makes you seem prouder, more present, more confident.
The pressure of judges instils focus. Every round was a knockout like the Wimbledon Tennis tournament. To be more present makes every movement more real, more engaging to watch, better placed, more in time with the music. You win a lot of extra points just from this. To feel more present under pressure is empowering.
Having the attitude of ‘look at me! I’m the most interesting thing to watch here’ went against my repressed British upbringing. The ballroom performance world taught me it is not narcissistic to consider yourself interesting , even fabulous, if your assumed fabulousness is about entertaining others. To be ‘full of yourself’ out of a need to feel good about yourself is very different to performing for the amusement of others. One is inward looking, the other outward.
Over those two years I competed in nine competitions. In Warwick I finally won a runners up trophy, coming 5th in the Novice level Latin event during the second year. At the end of it all I was generally a more flirtatious, extroverted person with the confidence to tempt any woman onto the dance floor. The many ‘steps’ or dance moves I learnt gave me an understanding of how to move another’s body. Much like when I learnt some Judo, I gained knowledge of how one bodily position prepares you for another bodily position, only in dance it’s about having fun.
Finishing my two year Masters in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I was no longer a student so I had to leave the university team. My ballroom days were over… I missed the over the top world of ballroom competitions that were like a ball on steroids with flamboyant costumes and compulsory fake tan. There is very little Ballroom social scene outside competitions. A year or two later I took up Lindy Hop.
Dancing Ballroom Jive with a strained foot at the Southern University Dance Championship (SUDC) 2005. Novice level. We go wrong in this clip and are knocked out from the next round.
Key things I learnt from Lindy Hop
Lindy Hop is a dance related to Ballroom Jive. It has many steps in common but a different styling. Ballroom is generally very stiff and upright, Lindy is a more relaxed street dance in which you stick your bum out.
How to lead!
Ballroom taught me to lead but only via memorising routines. When I danced with people who didn’t know my routines I could adapt them to fit what they could follow. However, with Lindy Hop leading moved to a whole other level. The emphasis was social dancing with strangers, not repeating routines. We therefore learnt an extended vocabulary of moves to adapt. And there was somewhere to social dance Lindy every night of the week.
Beyond transferring movement directly to you partner (like pushing a trolley) you can use the momentum in your ‘trolley’ to pull you. One of the defining moves of Lindy Hop is known as the ‘swing out.’ As the name suggests, you swing your partner out around you, one hand on a shoulder blade, the other holding her hand. With enough momentum created, you release her shoulder blade and her momentum shoots her out. This is a very popular move. It seems the love of being swung around in childhood stays with us. A variation is to set her free before you have turned yourself. This way the momentum of her body pulls your body to face her (not your own muscles): fast round the bend the cart pulls the horse. It feels great.
Mid swing out, there will be a point at which you are holding each other’s weight (you are still connected by one hand). You lean back to take her weight. If you didn’t her momentum would pull you over. Imagine standing face to face, holding someone hand in hand. If you both lean back gradually your four arms function like two ropes that prevent you from falling. If you let go you would both have to take a step back to prevent falling. This principle of holding each other’s weight is fun and can be used in many moves.
Leading from the body
If I transfer some movement from my body to your body, I can initiate that movement from any part of my body. For example, if I chose to pull you one centimetre towards me whilst I face you holding your hands, I can pull with my fingers, or my wrists, or my elbows, or my shoulders. I could hold my arms in a solid frame and just lean back a centimetre. Or I could make a frame of my whole body and shuffle my feet back one centimetre. The interesting thing is that each of those choices will feel different to the follower. Each unique muscle movement transmits a slightly different message. Leading by moving your arms works less well than moving your whole body. You will feel a more solid connection. Great partner dancing is a lot to do with great connection.
How to follow
At 3am in the middle of a London summer on a bridge across the Thames, a tall and slightly androgynous figure asked me if I would like to ‘follow’. That is to assume the role that is traditionally taken by women. At that time I’d been partner dancing for at least 5 years but I had never experienced what it was like to be in the other role. With some apprehension and curiosity I agreed. She was a great lead. Everything was so clear. I could feel what she wanted my body to do and it was great fun. It instantly changed how I lead others because I could imagine better what the other might be experiencing. We can learn lots in someone else’s shoes.
Discovering the Blues
In February 2011, Justin Riley came to London to teach a dance I had barely heard of. The way he and his teaching partner Gaia moved together astonished me. I had been dancing eight years but they showed a fluidity and degree of connection I’d never seen before. During the practice session after the class an experienced blues dancer explained to me “It feels like you are floating”. That statement stayed with me ever since. I wanted to ‘float’ and make others feel like they were floating too. Blues quickly became my favourite and has been ever since.
I love the Blues for many reasons. The Ballroomers taught me to ballroom, the Lindy Hoppers taught me to Lindy but the Blues-ers taught me to dance. They teach you deeper fundamentals from the beginning. These fundamentals are the secrets of deeper learning. You learn faster when you can focus on the pivotal skills. Many disciplines withhold such teachings, like some kind of secretive arcane school. As a metalearner, I believe this is a waste. It slows your progress and engagement. The advanced piano technique I learnt as an adult would have helped engaged me better in piano as a young adolescent. Beyond teaching method I just love the Blues. It has a rare authenticity that grew out of the suffering of slaves shipped to the Americas. The earliest forms don’t have drums because they were forbidden. The controlling powers considered drum beating too militant an activity to be allowed, but they could still sing! Some great art has come out of suffering, and the African slaves truly suffered.
Key things I learnt from Blues
To dance the Blues you first need to relax. My background in ballroom made this hard. Latin Ballroom movement is often tense and electric in quality and this invites muscular tension. Competitive Ballroom is less about connection because your partner knows what’s coming next. She doesn’t need to interpret the subtlest messages that come through your touch. I was surprised to discover that loose ‘spaghetti arms’ transmitted more information about my partners body than a tight frame might. Stiff frames are great for moments like lifting or spinning your partner fast, but they won’t let you ‘float’ together in the subtleties of the music. Tightness in your arms acts like a barrier to sensing. The more sensitive instruments of perception are the lightest.
It is a challenge to put into words what this feels like. Imagine you are blindfolded and someone hands you a sword. Waving it in the air you will be able to feel how stiff the blade is. A floppy blade will vibrate its wobbles through the handle without you ever seeing it. You can probably even sense the length of the blade by the momentum it carries as you move it. Like this you can perceive much of your partner’s movement with your eyes closed.
Balance and weight placement
Balance is of course an important fundamental in any physical activity, but how you improve it is hard to put into words. It is a felt-sense that words struggle to capture. My ballroom teacher Gillian taught me to imagine a pile of children’s bricks. If you imagine all your bones standing on top of each other with nothing holding them together it might make you place your weight more precisely. That metaphor didn’t work for me. My first Blues teacher Justin Riley taught me to place my weight as though I was riding a surfboard or a horse. I had snowboarded and this made perfect sense to me. My dancing changed overnight. Every step I took felt more certain, more solid and my partners could feel it.
If you are a little off balance on a bicycle, a skate board or a horse, and you hit a bump, you will fall off. If you place your weight in the right place you feel ready for almost any bump. You have a centre of gravity that feels powerful and prepared. The antithesis to this we call ‘tea potting’ – to sway your weight side to side like a metronome. Everything is less certain without a stable centre of gravity. It is harder to lead or follow. However, when you have the right centre of gravity, you feel prepared for anything. You can sense the other’s movement more clearly just as a steady telescope sees much further.
I have mentioned two contrasting , even contradictory types of connection: the relaxed loose ‘spaghetti arms’ for a more subtle connection and the stiff frame necessarily for transmitting faster high energy movements. How do you have both? ‘Tone matching’ is the skill of matching the tenseness or relaxedness of your partner. This way you can have either type, and anywhere in between, as and when you want it. When the length of your bodies touch (called close hold) there is no need for tense arms because you can directly feel your partners entire body move. To lift or throw my partner at the climax of a song we will need to ‘tone up’. My partner will feel the intensity in the music as she feels the tension building in my body. She (or he) matches my tone. We have both retuned our radio frequencies but are still on the same wavelength. With this ability to communicate through touch, it is possible for two complete strangers to instantly perform a dance that the uninitiated would think was choreographed.
A lead so light she can steal it
Now that I have transcended the need for a fixed frame, I learn that we can even blur the line between leading and following. As my body speaks in light movements I can simultaneously ‘hear’ the movement she ‘speaks’. This isn’t possible if my body is in a tense frame. Our separate movements can attune and co-create movement together. This grey area between leading and following reminds me of an exercise I did in an improvised theatre class: on being asked a question like ‘What is your name?’ a group of us had to reply simultaneously feeling for a single voice. Listening to each other our voices converged and we could say things that made sense. Whilst all parties contribute to the voice, no individual chooses the final words. I have experienced some beautiful moments on the dance floor where we are both surprised and delighted at the movement we create. In that subtle realm of light leading it is also easy for the follow to seamlessly ‘steal’ the lead. You might pass is back and forth numerous times in a single dance. This way we move beyond the patriarchal lead-follow paradigm of ‘the lady must surrender’. Together we enter a world of harmoniously equal voices.
Follows move like asteroids in space
When you follow the movement of another, think of yourself moving like an asteroid that obeys Newtonian physics. That is, you keep moving with the same speed, direction and rotation until you come into contact with something that changes your movement (usually an intercepting hand or arm). Don’t just stop of your own accord – asteroids don’t slow down and stop like they are moving through treacle. If you are travelling across the dance floor keep travelling. If you are rotating (asteroids also do this) keep rotating. This principle allows the leader to predict the movement of your body, and to create movement with continued effect (whichever of the two happens to be leading).
During the Ballroom competitions we had to dance the same routine whatever music came on. Every round of the competition was a different song. This felt limiting because different music suggests different movement. In a Blues social dance I feel like we ‘jam’ with the musicians. The music tells our bodies what to do, adding extra colour to the music. The music, the lead and the follow become one rich tapestry. The music is the true leader: we skip to punctuate the phrase endings, stretch upwards as the musical pitch rises, leap to hit the climax of the song, tap the multiple rhythms with separate body parts (your feet mark the straight beat on the drums, your shoulders mirror the syncopated guitar).
Dancing to live music you notice the chemistry between jazz and blues musicians who also improvise with each other in the moment, often communicating much through their eyes, following each other, switching which member of the band has the lead. The aliveness and spontaneity is electric. To see the subtle chemistry between the musicians echo through the connections across the dance floor is truly wondrous. A hundred people intimately connected to a sound improvised moment to moment. We love the musicians and they love a dancing audience who feel their music so deeply. A joy multiplied.
Never stop moving
All forms of art are composite creations. That is, they are formed from multiple parts. The separate parts contribute to the whole. A dance is a linear work through linear time. Like the music is follows it has a beginning, middle and end. You body has multiple limbs that can be moved in infinite combinations and shapes. Dance flows from one movement to another, each move influencing what may follow it, each position having its unique possibilities. We choose a chain of moves that elegantly dovetail. As with any art form a ‘composition’ interconnects it’s separate parts. We present the separate moves as part of a whole, not isolated pieces. A simple trick to emphasise this is to keep moving – a slight movement of a shoulder can be enough to keep the dance alive during a pause in the music. Never stop dancing until the music ends. An exception to the principle is a ‘freeze’ in which you emphasise the lack of movement to make a point. You are therefore clearly still dancing even during a freeze as it has a striking effect.
How dancing changed me
Psychologists analyze behaviour in terms of what it moves us away from and what it moves us towards. Was I dancing away from something? I grew up in an old fashioned English school designed to make me conform. We were even beaten for speaking out of turn. I wore a uniform and tie every school day from age four. There were no girls there to dance or flirt with. Girls were kept away in the girl’s school. This was a context where most men would be afraid to dance. Dancing was something for a ‘girl’ or a ‘woman’ – both terms often said with a pejorative tone. You wouldn’t want to stand out as it might get you laughed at. I was supposed to follow the rules without question, and with an English stiffness. I was never very good at doing as I was told but when I left I was still uneasy talking to the opposite sex. When I took up dance I was definitely dancing towards women. I had no idea how that Latin movement would help break me out of my English stiffness. A stiffness that had trapped me since school and possibly a motivation for becoming multilingual.
My Ballroom teacher Gillian Smith would enthusiastically announce “Dancing is about one thing, and that is looking good!” The world of ballroom dance competitions gave us all access to another world where different rules applied. Irrespective of your gender or sexuality, we were required to Latinize ourselves with fake tan and hair spray. We had to wear over the top sparkly costumes. Then we had to go onto the stage draw attention to ourselves as much as we could. Routines, with their entries and exits, were calculated to ensure the judges saw your number as much as possible. We would ‘travel’ up and down the dance floor to make sure they all had the opportunity to see how fabulous we were. The judges were dotted around the edge of the dance floor in a circle, so we would engineer rotation into all routines so that our number (pinned to my back) would be visible in all directions. Then we would leave the floor taking the longest route so that we were on the dance floor as long as possible. We were coached to be primadonnas, to grab as much attention as possible. The complete opposite to my conformist upbringing, my inner introvert, I had found a path to extraversion. It’s OK to stand out when you can dance!
Those knockout competitions were intense experiences. You knew that every dance might be your last. When we heard our numbers called for the next round the whole university team would cheer for you. I remember feeling more present than I had ever felt before during one of those competitions. The pressure to perform boosted my engagement in the moment. Each dance had to be better than the last. Stage actors have told me they feel incredibly alive when acting in the limelight. Ballroom dance competitions can have a similar effect: I was required to perform to the best of my ability in a very narrow window of a three-minute song, whether I liked the music or not. Once I got elbowed in the face mid-performance but I smiled on.
To learn to move more and more parts of my body made me feel more ‘embodied’, more sensual generally. I became more aware of my posture and physical presence. When in a playful mood I feel more like moving just for the sake of moving, like a panther that enjoys the feeling of every step, as though each movement is an expression of my aliveness.
My single sex segregated upbringing did not prepare me well for flirting. Aged 17 I even bought a book on ‘Flirting’. It graded its readers based on our attitudes to the book. I was in the lowest category: “You will hide this book away out of embarrassment”. Like many stiff Englishmen my track record of approaching women I was not that of a Latin ‘Fonz’. It was more like the subdued Anthony Hopkins character in the film “The remains of the day” lacking the courage to make a move at all. English literature is full of such men. After my Latin Ballroom flirtation training I was different, replete with a range of playful skills. I had the confidence to invite anyone onto the dance floor, the confidence to flirt with anyone with danceable music playing. I could be very subtle with the gentlest squeeze of a hand, or much more blatant. My most outrageous dance flirtation I’ve done was to bite a woman on the neck on halloween like I was some kind of werewolf. Not a typical dance move. Don’t try this indiscriminately! She was a little surprised but went on to date me for 4 months.
To lead and follow revisited
Leading and following, like domination and submission, are a factor in all relationships. Perfect equality cannot happen 24/7. How a person leads, or doesn’t lead, follows or doesn’t follow says a lot about their personality. Can you trust another to move your body? Are you indecisive in your lead? Dancing, especially the blues community, encourages us to transcend fixed gender roles that society might impose. We don’t assume a women is ‘a follow’ or a man ‘a lead’. Gender stereotypes can also be shells that constrain your life. How many opportunities for love or friendship were lost because we were afraid of saying what we thought? The price of authenticity, of intimacy is often a moment of vulnerability. Our roles protect us from our fears of rejection. “It’s unladylike for her to pursue a man, so just look pretty and don’t make a move”. “It’s unmanly to get emotional, so don’t show her you care too much.” Juno Dawson says “Gender fucks us all.”
We all have a male and female side to explore. Partner dance naturally leads to playing with both sides of nature’s dichotomy. At a certain level you will have to learn both roles to better understand the opposing role and to be in a position to teach. It is an imbalance to study only one half of the equation. It is also fun and enlightening to experience different roles. Who would be content with only one role in life? In the blues dance community it is not uncommon to meet men and women who dance both roles without it being a statement of sexuality. Men dance with men and women dance with women, and often switching roles multiple times within the same 3minute song. “Do you prefer to lead or follow? “I like to switch. Do you?” Switching makes the dance experience even more of a conversation, a deeper alchemy of contrasting elements. My most memorable dances were when the lead-follow paradigm dissolved and we found a sweet spot between these ends of the spectrum. Both knowing a language of physical music we can just let it say what it has to say.
My 15 years experience as a teacher of mindfulness-informed therapies have taught me that awareness, especially its expansion has a lot to do with switching perspectives. Every viewpoint is limited, so simply changing viewpoints can be enlightening. There are an infinite number of viewpoints to try out. Human affairs are relational. We are a social species with social problems. To look through the eyes of another is educational. Numerous artworks capitalise on this phenomenon. The film ‘Tootsie’, a masterpiece staring Dustin Hofman ends with him saying – “I was a better man as a woman with you than I ever was with a woman as a man.” He had dressed as a woman to get an acting job. When Beyoncé sings about if she were a boy :“I’d listen to her, ‘cause I know how it hurts”.
If you let it, the music just takes you. The music is the leader. I have to love the music to do this, but when I do any self consciousness I have vanishes. The joy in the music is bigger than my fears, and this draws people in.
Partner dancing is intimate, especially in blues. In one night I might hold 20 people in close embrace, cheek to cheek. Such intimacy with strangers gives you practise in attuning to the needs and comfort zones of others. It is possible to propose closeness with a bodily position, an invitation that your partner can take or leave. Like in any relationship where you are close enough to hurt each other (elbows are deadly weapons), it’s a mistake to assume too much, to get too close without being highly sensitive. If your ‘lead’ is pulling you too close, place your right forearm on the front of their left shoulder and apply gentle pressure. They should get the message. As a lead, present your partner with an open frame as they turn towards you. Their momentum (moving like an asteroid towards you) will carry them into your open arms. Your ‘follow’ will sense the invitation and may choose to move closer.
More than looking good
One of the first things my Ballroom teacher taught me was that dancing was all about looking good. Blues emphasised another side: feeling connection. This led me to often asking myself a question that seems to be a good life question: ‘What’s more important, what it looks like or what it feels like?’ Living has two striking sides: outward appearance and inner experience. It’s often important to have the right appearance to win over your judges. A well executed dance can fill onlookers with awe. It was the outward appearance of blues that initially drew me to it but the inward feeling that hooked me. Your romantic partner might look beautiful but will you stay together with the wrong feeling? Often there is a correlation between the two: what looks good also feels good. However my inner blues dancer leans towards prioritising the inner sense. The depths of human connection carry us to places looks never can. Human connection is the principle reward for living.
The world of today is known for its isolation and separation. There is a lot of scientific evidence to show that loneliness is as bad for you as smoking: people die early from it. Relational psychotherapies teach us to bridge the gap between separate worlds with questions like “What is that like for you?” and “What do you think that is like for me?” In partner dancing you come close to sensing physically the other person’s inner physical world. I dare say this can be a useful piece in solving the loneliness epidemic. Let’s dance!