My concept of what makes a good dancer — of what separates a “wow” dancer from an excellent dancer — has changed a lot from when I started dancing to now.
Back when I didn’t know how to dance at all, I thought the best dancers were the ones who could make me do moves I didn’t even know how to do, because they were so skilled at leading moves that *anyone* could follow them. My goal as I became better at following was to be able to dance/keep up with the “best” dancers (re. the internationally famous teachers/anyone known to be exceptionally good): it was my gauge to tell how much my dancing was improving (being able to follow everything being led smoothly and “perfectly”) — having dancers who were previously disgusted dancing with me give sincere expressions of enjoyment.
It was when I attended the Denver Fusion Exchange (DFX) this January that my concept of a “good dancer” started to change. Nervous as hell, I asked two of the most well-known blues dancers/teachers in the world to dance, and was absolutely delighted when they agreed to dance with me again and again multiple times that weekend. From what I saw, they did not turn anyone down, regardless of whether they had danced with them before, and regardless of their dance level. If they were already supposed to dance the next song with someone else (which one pretty much always did), they would promise their next dance to the person who asked them, and would always go and find them and dance their promised dance with that person. These two dancers were a whole different class/level of dancer. Getting a, “That was awesome!” from either of them was enough to give me the biggest dance highs of my life up until that point — my next ten dances after my dances with them would be ridiculously, insanely good because of the elevated emotion I got from knowing they had enjoyed our dances as much as I had.
But I put them at another level not because they were pretty much the biggest names at the event, but because of their ability to dance with anyone. I don’t know if I’m 100% accurate in making this assumption, since I never actually asked them what they were thinking, but I believe that it didn’t matter to them who they said yes to, because they were/are such good dancers that they can have a good time dancing with anyone.
It’s this — this ability to dance and enjoy yourself regardless of your partner’s level or dance experience — that I think is the hallmark of “the best” dancer — what separates “wow” dancers from merely excellent dancers. So many of the dancers I know that are known for being “the best” in their scenes, or even in the international scene (although usually fewer in this case, in my experience) only dance with other awesome dancers. They ignore and turn down the beginners to intermediates for not being “good enough,” unless they are current or potential students. They like to stick out, show their stuff, and show off. Some won’t even dance with their own students.
To be frank, if the only way you can enjoy yourself while dancing is when dancing with high level dancers, then I honestly don’t consider you to be all that spectacular a dancer. To depend so much on the level of your partner to enjoy the dance itself is really rather ridiculous. You don’t have to be a good lead to lead a good follow — I know because I’ve led both highly skilled follows and ones who learned their salsa basic step through doing zumba. With advanced follows, you barely have to lead anything for them to know what they are doing and follow it perfectly (not in a backleading way, but in a hyper-observant and sensitive way). A tango friend even told me that one of the particularly cocky/bad-attitude leads isn’t even a great lead — but because he only chooses to dance with the better follows, he can delude himself into believing that he is actually one of the better leads.
I think it’s stupid to get to the point where you only dance with the best dancers and think no one else is worthy of dancing with you. When I was learning to lead salsa and practicing my leading on the social dance floor, I felt most accomplished when I led dances with absolute beginners and still made them follow the moves I was leading. While, of course, I would probably prefer to dance with more experienced leads for the most part, I can have incredible dances with beginners who only know a handful of moves, by adding my own grooves, styling, flavour, and personality to the dance. For example, two weeks ago, I ended up dancing with a lead who only appeared to know two Cuban salsa moves and was leading just them the entire dance. I started playing with the “out” parts of the basic (sorry, I don’t know how to spell the name and tried to Google it and couldn’t find it, so I’m not even going to attempt to), and by the end of the dance, I had the lead joining in on my made-up styling, sticking his tongue out at me in jest, pretending to kick me, and just having the best time ever. It was one of my most fun and playful dances. This week, I got another beginner, so I started playing more with my musicality and styling, and he gave me so much room to play that we both had an amazing dance.
In contrast, my dance with a more advanced lead that followed was absolute crap. He grabbed my hand as soon as my dance with the beginner lead ended, and I was getting a strong vibe from him that he wanted me to show off and make him look good, since I had been doing a lot of fun stuff with my arms and the music during my previous dance. I felt incredibly annoyed by this, and so I didn’t style at all during that dance. He styled all of his own movements, throwing in so many rondes, sweeps, etc., and leading me in the sharp style of a performance lead, and I gave him absolutely nothing to work with. 😀 I had to pull my hands out of his at the end of the dance, because I think he expected me to want to dance with him again, but I hate dancing with people who dance to show off. I don’t mind complex moves and hyper-speed dances — in fact, I can really enjoy them — but only when it’s what the lead is feeling in the music, not because he wants to perform/show off for his imaginary audience. I also hate it when people ask me to teach them on the dance floor, because my dance time is my time to let my mind go, not to think for my dance partner’s benefit.
For almost all my dances now, I can have enjoyable dances with even the most beginner leads because I have learned to dance within my own body, so that, even if the lead is leading nothing but a forward and backward basic step in salsa or step-touch in blues or absolute basic walk and ochos in tango, I can still enjoy myself, rather than being bored out of my mind and just waiting for the song to end so that I can run away. (Tango is the worst for this — just this week, a new lead who moved here from another country pretty much ran away (sped-walked) when I tried to talk to him and later approached him (so, two times), because I was dressed uber-casually and I bet he thought I was the most terrible dancer ever and just didn’t want to even give me a chance.) True, I don’t want to dance an entire afternoon/night of dances with beginners, but I also won’t make pained faces and noises and make my dance partner feel like a terrible person for eating my time. As long as I’m dancing and feeling the music in my own body, it doesn’t matter what my lead is doing. Every beginner I have danced with lately has gone away extremely happy. The cuban salsa lead who stuck his tongue at me even said I was “a delight to dance with.” 🙂
There are two follows in our blues dance scene who are considered the best dancers, both with incredibly different dance styles, and I remember every lead describing one as incredible because she was always moving, always dancing, and making every move and lead look good regardless of what was being led. I never full understood what they meant, but now I am beginning to. When you love the music so much and feel the music so much that that you never stop dancing and making the dance your own, no matter who is leading it, is what I think is the mark of the very best follow (and lead). There’s really no such thing as a bad dance when you can dance like that. I have my moments of pure following and moments of letting my personality really shine. I wish the follow were still living in Vancouver (I’m pretty sure she moved away) so that I could observe more closely what the leads were talking about now that I am starting to understand it, but I’m thankful to have learned from her anyway, even through word of mouth.
I’ve been dancing with a lot of advanced salsa dancers lately, and have been finding that the best dancers are the ones grooving to, feeling, and loving the music, and are also the ones who put me in break-away (blues term) the most, to give me time to do shines (salsa term) and just do my own thing. They can do crazy moves, but also know when it is appropriate to just chill and feel the music together.
I have the same philosophy for solo dancing. I recently had to name my favourite dancers for a dance audition I attended last weekend, and I had never really thought about this before and so just wrote the names that came to my head. I wrote down three local street dancers and two west coast swing follows (one local and one international). The quality they all had in common was that they were all 100% about the feeling, the music, and the enjoyment of dancing. They’re the ones you know are losing themselves in the music, letting themselves go, letting themselves be outrageous, letting their personalities shine through. I dislike cyphers because they make most people put their game faces on and try too hard, looking to really shine and impress others when their turn comes. So they dance too big and it looks a bit off, because they care too much about doing tricks and showing people how good they are. The people I wrote down as my favourite dancers are already so good that they don’t need to try too hard and just dance like themselves. As a result, they are more interesting for me to watch than the people throwing down the massive moves.
I’m glad I am surrounded by such good role models guiding me in the right direction during my dance journey.
I know some people are going to interpret this post the wrong way or try to use it against me by saying I am a cocky dancer who thinks I am so great (heck, a salsa dancer did that [spread rumours about me to salsa girls he went out with, and maybe other dancers, saying I thought I was such a great dancer when I wasn’t] two years ago when I did nothing to him but simply acted uninterested in dating him, when his primary purpose in the dance scene was to score dates). In fact, I know I have a long way to go as a dancer, and I never plan to stop learning and growing, because I see dance as part of my life, now, rather than a mere hobby and something I do purely for fun.
I can’t wait for my attitude to evolve even more, with the goal of having a fantastic time dancing with anyone and everyone! 🙂