Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Dance Is Like A Conversation

Non-dancing friends often ask me if dancing isn't anachronistic, in that men are always leading, asking the follower for a dance. My answer uses a metaphor that I've heard a couple of times: A dance is like a conversation.
Interestingly, this metaphor can be taken quite far. There are many parallels. In the following article I want to discuss those aspects focussing on the parallels in leading / following and how to put them into dancing.
I'll address the leader as 'he' and the follower as 'she'. It's just a simplification, the same statements would apply if I address leaders and followers vice versa or if both are male or female.

DISCLAIMER
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I wrote this article about 5 years ago, and have changed my opinion on many things quite a bit since then (e.g. using the non-matching terms follower and leader, instead of dancer in analogy for dancing :)). But despite that, it's a fun analogy and demonstrates an approach to many issues in the scene. It's open for discussion :) 
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A conversation isn't just there. It doesn't fall out of the sky and you start talking. A conversation needs to be started. Someone needs to ask for a dance. I've almost never run into the situation in daily life that only men start conversations, so why should it be different in dancing? Anyone can start the conversation. 

To have a conversation you need a language in which you can talk. Technique would be the equivalent in dancing. There are a lot of techniques including some that just don't work together, which is not to say that one is better than the other. Once the language is chosen you'll need a topic to talk about. The topic often happens to be the music. Of course it can also be set by the leader or the follower.

We haven't yet started talking, which is considered helpful for a conversation. Let's start out with basics. Leading is talking and following is listening. Leaders, be aware that unclear leading is like mumbling. Your partner doesn't understand you and probably will be annoyed trying to decipher what you want to say. Followers you'll please every leader with a good ear.

Clear communication in one direction is very basic. Usually conversations are much more complicated and so is dancing. A one-sided conversation, in which the leader talks and talks and just won't stop, is boring for the follower. The inverse holds true too.

There are many ways in which a follower can talk. Sometimes talking is a smile or an extra turn that wasn't lead. You have plenty of options here followers; go and explore them. Finding new ones is very satisfying.

So now that the followers know how to talk we have a problem - we might have two people talking at the same time. Experience will tell you that this doesn't work. So leaders have to learn how to be quiet and to listen. How to be quiet as a leader? It isn't easy, especially since you were probably taught to lead all the time; maybe the follower even expects you to. 

Followers, generally speaking if there is something you really want to say at that moment, go ahead. The same goes for leaders. Being quiet is definitely not the same as listening. If you want to keep a good conversation going you'll need to listen and show interest in what your partner tells you.  What is your partner doing? Switching topics? Be aware also that not listening can easily be interpreted as rude. You profit though to not do interpret it in that fashion.

Going further: Sentences from two different people do not alone necessarily make for a good conversation. What you need is not just pure talking, but the content of what you are saying should relate to what your partner just said. In a conversation, that can be an answer to a question or a response to a statement. Responding can be done for instance by taking over the new style that your partner introduced (e.g. adding a bounce), but here again there are so many ways. Be alert and play around. 

Sentences should also be intra-connected content-wise. "I like bananas. Check out that Giraffe. Did you just fart?" are totally random. This happens when leaders just lead move after move. But if you start dancing then moves should become connected. I personally really like to keep the energy of a movement going, inverse it, increase it, decrease it, but in any case use the energy of the precedent movement. This is what will make your dance flow.

A careful reader might have noticed that I suggested 'smiling' as a way to talk. Smiling is not a lead, so how come I mentioned smiling? A good connection is not just physical. In a good conversation there are quite often emotions involved. This is nice to know when you are speaking because it adds an extra communication level which will open a whole new mode of information transfer. It's not so much about the amount, which of course grows too, but you gain the possibility of transferring different types of information. There might even be different information transferred simultaneously. This level has the nice feature that both of you can transfer information at the same time.

Something I've seen a number of times is the repetitive use of one styling. If you think of everything you do in dancing as talking then repeating yourself all the time is like telling the same joke over and over again. At some point that joke just isn't funny anymore. 
If you can listen to the music, try to get new things out of it or watch yourself and when you find yourself repeating the same things be open minded, look at other dancers, change the way you used to dance moves!

The above addresses only the situation of two people interacting, specifically the couple that is dancing together. But hey, I'm sure you've had conversations with more than two people involved. Having more than two people can be difficult in dancing simply because it's unusual and seldomly taught. These conversations are usable as well as totally in accord with the above. 
Stealing is one of those situations. Assume you have one follower and two leaders. Yes, it's very likely that the leaders will communicate a lot trying to find even smoother ways of stealing the follower which doesn't mean nobody is paying attention to the follower any more. It is a different way. The follower is now the topic of the dance and thus has quite a lot of influence on the conversation. You can make it easy to be stolen or hard or.... It's a new situation, a new playground!
Another situation with more people involved can include competitions, when the other people involved might not even be dancing. Stay open-minded on conversations with more than two people. They can be fun!

One last parallel, probably the one which will draw most disagreement: If you are asked for a dance it is often considered impolite to refuse. But looking at the metaphor of conversation, I do think there is at least one good reason for declining a dance. Sometimes you get asked by someone with whom you just have nothing to talk about. It happens. That conversation would turn out to be very one-sided or pure small-talk and therefore very unsatisfying. To turn down such a dance is in my opinion totally acceptable.

Feel free to pick those parallels that fit for you. I'm very interested in your views and feedback.