Saturday, January 12, 2013

Better Dancer: Find Your Own Fun

What happens when your dancing becomes above average for your scene?

Of course, you can get some great dances with the stronger dancers in the room. Some dancers will seek you out regularly, knowing you're one of the stronger partners. There are many advantages and it beats having potential partners run for the hills when they see you're in their zip code.

So you think you can danceHowever, some people lose the joy in dancing over time, because they are always looking for increased complexity, and that levels off as you mature. The landscape changes as your dancing becomes stronger. Like an addict searching for a new high, we often seek out partners and who dance "more" and the air becomes thinner as you advance.

Some more experienced dancers sit out half the night, talking with friends and socializing because they aren't excited about dancing with less mature partners. That's fine, as the clubs are a social scene, but it is hard to talk over the music at most clubs. (Many do it anyway.) Sometimes they only find a few people they actually want to dance with, even if the room is nearly full of other people dancing.

It doesn't have to be that way.

More complexity doesn't equal "better dancing", and in the social scene, it's often inappropriate with the music playing at the moment. After a lead spins his partner 6 times, spinning her 12 or 24 times isn't two to four times more fun for the follow. It actually gets boring at some point, and a world-class follow once told me she thinks, "OK... I can spin as much as you want, so how about we dance?"

When you hang out with world-class musicians, dancers or athletes, you find they often approach things differently. While they constantly push to develop extreme technical abilities, they also find a joy in performing "simple" skills, but doing them exceptionally well.

They refocus on refining the details, and they never stop improving their foundational movements. The best also learn how to enjoy practicing itself, looking for incremental gains and new challenges to keep them fresh.

Experienced artists know that what you leave out is often as important as what you leave in the art. Contrast creates emotion, and the wider the range, the better.

Once dancers have a wide range of complex dance skills, the best are content and confident enough to save them for the right moments. Most also make a more in-depth study of the music and refine their listening skills, knowing you can't dance to music you're not hearing. Cross-training other dances is also popular among more seasoned dancers. This provides a fresh perspective, new challenges and venues for growth.

Almost everybody can improve their connections with their partners and the music, but that only happens if your focus is there. (That can also happen as a near beginner, but most newer dancers are focused on the movements.) With maturity you find yourself refining little things others may not directly notice, along with enjoying the journey itself.

Sometimes it's as simple as smiling more, paying more attention to your partner's moods and reactions, and finding graceful ways to cover for your less experienced partners (AKA "making your partner look better"). For some it's expanding their dance horizon by adding another dance style, or taking classes from different instructors. You have to find your own path to fun and it's an individual journey.

Don't expect it to always be "more fun" unless you find it yourself. Many people improve to the above average point, then lose interest and go off to take up another activity, even when there is lots of room to grow.

As you improve, the number of partners who share your complexity skills goes down, but the fun and growth don't have to be reduced.

Let me know what you're doing to keep the joy in your dancing.
Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, "Where have I gone wrong?" Then a voice says to me, "This is going to take more than one night."
- Charles Schultz (Peanuts)
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Originally published in Jan 2010. I've tweaked a few things before the republish.


  1. Is there a connection/movement trade off, and also a connection to audience vs connection to partner tradeoff?

  2. You are absolutely right about there is always room for improvement for just about anything not just dancing. For example, I thought my basic salsa steps looks great, but my instructor pointed out that it looks kind of robotic. After couple month, she fine-tunes me more on my basic step, my steps look better and I feel more confident at the same time.
    I still like dancing with the beginners; it’s like strolling through the park vs. doing a triathlon. With more advance lead, you have to do more styling, spin and footwork. My mind draws a blank once in a while when the lead gives me a T-stand. I can do only a handful of styling, and there are few I would not be caught dead doing them, especially the one that ladies going down at the guy doing a split. I think it is a very unattractive move
    I still go to Pasadena Ballroom Swing Dance now and then because I enjoy swing dance and the big band music. Last time I danced with this older gentleman couple times in one night, I guess he was in his 80’s. He looked so happy and I imagined he was quite good swing dancer in his younger days. Half way through the 2nd dance, he had to excuse himself because his pacemaker was bothering him. I had fun dancing with him but glad he did not drop dead on me. But if he did, at least he was happy and smiling. There was this younger guy lift me up in the air and caught me by surprise. I had a blast that night even though swing dance is not as interesting as Salsa to me nowadays.

  3. Tom: I don't think there is a conflict between connection and movement. If you're doing complex moves, then you need to have an even better connection.

    Great dancing would mirror the music, where there are breathing points in the dance. (I'll write an article on this... a subject I think about all the time while dancing...)

  4. Wow, this is a great article, thanks for the new perspective!

  5. As I've gotten better, I've found more joy in dancing with beginners. There are lots of challenges:

    1. Getting them to relax and stop fretting about their lack of experience.
    2. Keeping them on-time.
    3. Leading them through moves that they've never done before.

    Beginners keep us honest. An advanced follow will often guess at an ambiguous lead (like raising her right arm and expecting her to turn clockwise). With new dancers, we can't get lazy, and we have to be clear.

    And when we give novices good experiences, they're very appreciative, especially if they've been shoved around or criticized by other leads.

  6. t0mat0 on twitterJan 25, 2010, 5:11:00 AM

    Find your own fun, have fun around you, have fun banked to remind you if you feel low, and make your own fun!

  7. Great post, Don.

    This makes me think of the challenge vs. skills balance that can lead to flow, not only in dance but in pretty much any other activity in life. What's encouraging is that challenge is very subjective. Just by shifting your focus (as you mentioned), you can turn a dance with a beginning or less-experienced dancer into a challenging or at least engaging experience.

    I remember one time I was dancing salsa with a gentleman who was completely off the beat. Since we were dancing in an open position and had enough space, and because he wasn't leading any moves, I challenged myself to find a way to remain in the music through syncopations, etc. while still going with his movement and direction. It really challenged my ability to juggle the two conflicting demands for following both the leader and the music. That was two years ago, but I still remember the experience and how thrilling it was, almost like a game.

  8. What a great article! Thank you for the good suggestions. I feel that I learn every time I go social dancing. There are so many different partners and styles, I can always see something new and interesting, as well as have fun. A


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero