Category Archives: musicality

What Makes “the Best” Dancers?

There's a noticeable qualitative difference between people can dance, and people who can DANCE.

There’s a noticeable qualitative difference between people can dance, and people who can DANCE.

 

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.

 

Are you a human or a dancer? I'm a human dancer. :)

Are you a human or a dancer? I’m a human dancer. 🙂

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.

make-room-i-gotta-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.

inspirational-dance-quotes-kobi-yamada

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! 🙂

dancing

 

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Filed under Argentine Tango, Blues Dancing, Dance attitudes, Dance Progess, Dance Tips, Hip Hop Dancing, musicality, Salsa Dancing

When Dancing = Playing: Dance as a Playground

Which dancing baby do you think is the happiest?

Which dancing baby do you think is the happiest?

The dance floor has become my playground! Dancing is playing! I think this is the goal I will strive to achieve now in every dance scene.

A few tango leads this week reintroduced the concept of “dance as conversation” to me, but that description does not resonate with me anymore. I think of dancing as playing! This week at tango was the first time I was able to add myself to the dance, where my feet and body suddenly found a voice of their own to use to express myself and interpret the music. It happened out of the blue during the middle of a night of dancing at a milonga — one minute I was a passive follow, the next, I was an active participant. I remember one particular dance with a tango lead — the dance directly after the one in which I’d spontaneously started adding my own adornments/embellishments/styling. He’d said near the start of our tanda, “I gotta say, I’m liking the embellishments” and gave me extra room to play when I told him I was bullshiting and didn’t even know what I was doing. With that okay from him to keep going, I threw myself into that dance, playing within the confines of the dance he led for me to play in. At the end of our set of dances, I pretty much yelped with delight: “Thank you for letting me play! I had so much fun!”

As I later described on Facebook:

“It was the best feeling ever! I got to play and really express myself in the dance! I changed the quality of my steps and movements to capture the powerful and tender moments in the music. I used my free leg to capture the little things, with kicks, flicks, sweeps, longer steps, trailing sweeps and steps, taps… it was like a switch had flicked that had turned on my ability to dance and express myself in the music. It was like I had been doing it all the time, even though I hadn’t even being doing it several dances into the night. At one point, I got so into it, I think I took an extra step that wasn’t led and apologized for going overboard (this was during my first dancing using styling) and my lead said it was okay, because tango is a conversation. It was the first time I ever experienced dancing tango like a conversation, and I LOVED it. Because “I” finally had a say in how to feel and express the music. I got to dance the last four tandas this way!”

As I said, I don’t think of dancing as a conversation anymore. “Conversation” isn’t the right word to express what I feel like I am doing when I am have my most awesome dances. Thinking of dancing as a conversation makes me think too much. And I don’t dance well at all when I think too much. It puts me too much in my own head and is intimidating. I dance best when I am not thinking at all.

Dancing as playing = my happiest, most enjoyable dancing.

Dancing as playing = my happiest, most enjoyable dancing.

In blues, I remember that call and response can involve taking turns by bars of music, and who wants to be counting out bars to make sure they aren’t hogging the spotlight or not taking or giving enough time to the person who they are dancing with? As a follow, we are just supposed to speak up at specific moments to influence the course of the dance, because if we are “too loud” then it is no longer a “conversation.” Dancing starts to involve worrying about how your partner is perceiving you, and about showing off for/impressing your partner or the people around you. “Am I too boring?” “Am I contributing enough to the conversation?” “Did I miss something?” “Did I misinterpret a cue?”

I don’t dance this way at all. (Alright, I guess I do actually get intimidated by dancers who I know are really good, sometimes.) Me, I just want to have fun. To me, the music and whatever my lead chooses to lead provide the playground for me to play/dance in. The playground is different every time. How much energy I decide to put into my movements, how I decide to go along for the ride — this depends on how well I think the dance playground created by the lead matches the music. As such, during dances with leads who find ways to capture all the beautiful nuances in the music, I can spend an entire dance pure following and be happy, while during other dances, I am inspired to pepper everything with my own movements, to highlight the moments my lead chooses not to acknowledge but that speak enough to me to make me want to show what I hear. This is not the same as back leading and not following what is being led, but rather working with what I am given and finding a way to have the most fun possible and stay truest to the music.

Dancing as conversation is too much about, “I talk, you listen; you talk, I listen,” because talking at the same time is rude.

Playing is just pure joy and carefree dancing!

This might not make sense to you, but it’s how I’ve come to look at dancing. And now, when I dance, I am the happiest and most carefree I have ever been!

😀

Let's all dance like we're carefree kids again! :)

Let’s all dance like we’re carefree kids again! 🙂

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Filed under Argentine Tango, Dance attitudes, Dance Progess, Dance Tips, musicality

“Feeling” the Music

dancing to the music

Me, caught up in the music. 🙂

You know how some people scrutinize your playlist and base who you are on the type of music you like to listen to? You know how people have “guilty pleasures” they listen to when no one’s around, or bond over with other “geeks”, and eventually feel proud about listening to when they get older?

It’s funny, because I actually prefer to listen to other people’s playlists over my own. I’ve gone through three iPods now (through a mix of breaking or losing them) and enjoy going through other people’s playlists, remembering songs I used to be really into, discovering new gems, and appreciating songs I have never taken the time to really listen to before. I had the choice to delete all the songs from a used iPod I bought about a month ago and start with a blank slate of my own (which I would have filled with music to practice to), and I decided to keep the songs, even though there aren’t any house or hip hop songs or music I probably should put on, and would add if I had the option to. But I’ve discovered a handful of awesome disco and funk songs, one legit blues song and dancehall song, lots of Michael Jackson songs, songs with awesome lyrics and meanings, songs I grew up with — just so much to give a chance and listen to with new ears, now that my ears, mind, heart, and soul are so much more capable of hearing and feeling than they were before.

 

"Listening to" versus "feeling" the music = two very different things.

“Listening to” versus “feeling” the music = two very different things.

Don’t know where I was going with this. I think it’s valuable and worthwhile to give all music a chance. Before I started dancing, I didn’t like so many different types of music — hip hop, funk, house, disco, blues, salsa, jazz, breaking, “chill music,” etc. I’d wish they would play something else, and had no idea how anyone else could enjoy it. I spent so much time feeling stupid for practicing to music I didn’t like, but always found myself one day genuinely liking, and then loving the music. Today, I LOVE funk, blues, hip hop, house, disco, and other music. My friend wanted me to try sending happy energy to other people, and I discovered that, to get into a happy state, I only had to listen to the music being played around us (breaking, and another type that was far off in the distance), to feel a smile form on my face and get into a happy state.

There are still some types of music I don’t understand or relate to yet. In fact, I only started liking breaking music last week, when I felt the breaking groove for the first time, which kind of unlocked the music for me.

Someone told me this week that you have to get the music first to get the dance, but I think it really is the opposite case for me. As a person, I have to feel it in my body first — appreciate it in my body first, through dancing or singing — for my ears to start appreciating what they are hearing.

In high school and university where my main interests were writing and singing, the music I appreciated was in the form of songs with relatable and/or powerful lyrics, especially the songs I could belt out as a soprano. I’m so glad that these last few years, months, weeks, and days have allowed me to appreciate music at a whole new level.

Have you ever soloed to kizomba music? Leapt, soared, and gotten so lost in exhileration that you pulled your partner along for the ride with you to electronic music? Waacked to passionate Argentine tango music? I don’t know why, but tango music makes my arms and body move like nothing else, though my legs haven’t gotten it, since I haven’t acquired the footwork yet.  And the salsa music that many people complain is monotonous and boring? Try solo dancing to it — really listening and just moving your body to it — and you will come to feel, as I did, that it is far more interesting than its 1,2,3, 5,6,7 rhythm would lead you to believe.

There is always something to appreciate in the music (though a lot of the music that has been cropping up lately, I haven’t really been paying attention to and can’t speak about). One of the things I love most about partner dancing is being able to share another person’s experience of the music — and the ability to co-create a new experience. Especially with dances like fusion, WCS, and tango, where the opportunities to play with the music are almost limitless… omg, a great dance is an experience to be savoured.

As I posted on my Facebook page earlier today:

Learning to dance feels like how it felt for me to learn French — don’t get it, don’t get it, don’t get it… and BOOM — understanding! Over and over again. Every dance is a new language waiting to be unlocked. 🙂

Weird, I know, but I’m weird and I know it. 😛

Yep.

Yep.

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Filed under musicality