Sunday, February 10, 2008

Critics and Learning from Others: Part 2

This is the second of a two-part article. If you haven’t read “Critics and Learning from Others: Part 1” I recommend you do so before this article, although I hope they both stand on their own as well. (Side note: I'm not naming names in this post, as the principles apply no matter who is involved.)

In some of my conversations with more advanced dancers, I hear many of them overlooking opportunities to learn from others around them, especially those taking a different approach.

In the musician world, mature musicians with extensive technical skills know the best musicians often “play less” than the up and coming players. You learn and practice intense technical skills over and over until you become mindlessly competent with a wide set of exercises.

During performance time, more mature artists choose to play less but make the most of each note you play, saving their most complex abilities to add balance and spice to their art. Part of the growth process is learning what to leave out of your playing, and when playing “simply”, they use their technical excellence to create enhanced feel to their fewer notes. Great music is a balance between intensity and silence, and dancing is similar.

At the club recently, I'm talking with a strong lead who has forgotten more patterns than I've ever known. He has been dancing salsa over eight years, and has accumulated a large set of very complex moves, executing them with great authority. He's at a point in his development that complexity is his benchmark for "good" dancers.

During my short conversation with this strong lead, I point out one of the gals at the club visiting from another country. This young woman is an extremely advanced dancer, excellent spinner, strong, sexy stylist and was easily one of the best dancers in the room that night. She would be in the top 3 follows in almost any club in the world, and makes it all look easy and fun.

She was dancing with her performance partner, and the strong lead I'm talking with commented, "Oh, he isn't very good." (I'll call the strong lead the "OHNVG guy.") I was surprised by that comment, since her performance partner does an excellent job showcasing his partners’ strengths, even if he's not Johnny Vasquez himself. Their dance had a nice balance between show quality tricks and a set of finesse moves which they made look easy, but required seasoned dancers to make them look great.

The performance partner also had some nice, well placed moves that were not overly complex, but complimented the music well. These allowed his partner to add style and look sexy between more intense combinations. It's clear they can dance at a high level, and he is smart enough to know it's about her and making his partner look great.

Later that evening, I saw the OHNVG guy dancing with the same world-class follow. During their dance, he put her through the ringer, doing tons of complex arm twisty, over the river and through the woods patterns, and he to used his extensive pattern vocabulary to keep the intensity cranked up all through the tune. She did very well, nailing a large set of his most complex moves, although she missed a few things along the way. It was almost as if he wanted to show he knew some moves that she didn't. Most spins where triples or more, with a few of the extended, spin the girl until her head snaps off from spotting or spin her until her shoes start smoking from the friction.

She aced the extended spinning tests and I can tell she has that professional, "OK, if you want to spin me, go for it and I'll do it until your arm falls off" attitude. There were a few points in the combinations where it was like she was underwater looking for a place to catch a breath, but she handled it with grace. It was spin, spin, spin, complex arm twisting cross body lead into more spins. She took it in stride and smiled most of the time, with moments of intense concentration reacting to another complex sequence.

Now, my turn to be a critic; her performance partner has his strengths and weaknesses, and the OHNVG guy doesn't realize dancing isn't just about patterns and complexity. They could both learn from each other although when I talk with her performance partner, he was the first to tell me he is a work in progress and constantly learning from leads around him. I noticed he films many guys dancing with his partner, and he told me he's always on the lookout for great ideas he can borrow and then make his own.

The OHNVG guy didn't compliment or reflect the music or use his extensive pattern vocabulary to build a dance but rather used the music as a time-keeper to start and end complex sequences. He started the dance complex, and continued with high intensity with some very minor breaks along the way. He really did an amazing end-to-end endurance dance, although most of the time it lacked feel and musicality, where the dancing and combinations didn’t match the ebb and flow of the music. It was an impressive technical showcase of his leading patterns, but missed the musical and connection components of great dancing.

Complexity isn’t an enemy or inappropriate, if both partners have the ability AND the section of the song is appropriate for intensity. Few songs are complex from beginning to end, but tend to build throughout the tune. His follow was about as good as it ever get in terms of ability to keep up with his complexity on a first dance, but he missed the chance to let her dance with him rather than for him.

I have great respect for the OHNVG guy in terms of his pattern vocabulary. Few guys will invest the effort required to get to his level in terms of advanced patterns. On the other hand, he reminded me of less mature musicians who are over-balanced in the “more is more” camp.

That said, I suspect he’ll mature over time and balance out his dancing so he takes his highly technical skills and balances these moves with more graceful, simpler patterns, allowing his partner space to add her flair to their dance. In this case, his follow had the ability to make almost any lead look great, but only if the lead provides the space for her to contribute. With the constant complexity, most of the dance disproportionately reflects the leads concept of the dance, without allowing enough space for the follow to shape the dance.

An improving lead needs to practice and enhance our technical skills and pattern vocabulary, but keep in mind that complexity doesn’t make dancing excellence, but it’s part of a balanced dance. When a dance gets too complex for too long, it’s like a conversational partner who never lets you get a word in while they are speaking. The more mature guys wants his partner talking as much or more, otherwise it’s a speech. Most women get exasperated when we do that too long, and they will avoid the dancers who do the same.

Be sure to watch for dancers taking a different approach from yours and see what you can learn from them, rather than writing them off as “not very good”. Often they have a few strengths that can compliment what you already do, especially the ones who have been dancing a few years or more.
Just because you are blind, and unable to see my beauty doesn't mean it does not exist.
-Margaret Cho


  1. This reminds me of a sound lesson I learned in a class once. The male teacher was trying to get across a similar point to yours. To demonstrate this he gave two short demo dances and challenged the class to decide... "Which of these two do you call a dance?". First, he did a sting a fast, showy, but mechanical, cross body moves with a lot of spins and stuff. Second, he did a slow sensual dance, with body movement and good connection with his partner. The answer spoke for itself. Then he added, " know what I call this?", twirling the girl again for illustration, "Bitch spinning!". Sharp perhaps, but a point well made. I sometimes have to slap myself on the wrist if I find myself inadvertently lapsing into Bitch Spinning...

  2. Hey Don, I really love love your humor. I just couldn't help laughing secretly in my office when reading this club story. You are such a great story-teller :>
    I guess I am still in the pre-mature attitude, looking for someone to fight with in the club...I'll make some reflection over this issue. Thank you again.


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero