Thursday, February 25, 2010

Connections: The Ultimate High (Part 4 of 4)

(Part 4 of 4 on Connections. Here's Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3)

Once in a while, a connection comes along that's in a class of its own. Its that undefined, unpredictable spark of chemistry which sometimes occurs between 2 people and when it happens while dancing, the experience is quite electric.

I'm not sure if this connection will feel exactly the way I describe for everyone - I imagine there are differences but the general gist will still be the same.

The Electric Connection
If ever there were "movie moments" in real life, this would be one of them. You can't predict or anticipate it. All of a sudden, there is it! At the beginning, the dance feels like its going to be a "mwah!" connection and then, suddenly, a spark! There's a subtle but very distinct swirl in the energy and I can remember thinking, "what just happened?" at the end of the song.

Yes, this is that inexplicable age old "magic" between a guy and girl and the experience is quite unique when it happens during a dance. The stage is already set complete with leading lady and man. Music is already playing and both are already in close proximity with each other because of the dance. Time stands still and there a new energy that exists which hints of the soft fluttering wings of butterflies. If one could see energy at that moment,it would be like fire flies fluttering about.

The dance itself becomes more of the backdrop and when its over, what comes next is a huge adventure of its own.

This connection has only happened a few times in my life so far and when its happened it has certainly made life quite interesting. In one case just for that brief moment and in another with longer lasting effects.

Here's my conclusion: when it does happen soak it up and enjoy it. I mean its quite euphoric after all. Yes, this spark can mean the beginning of a fulfilling partnership off the dance floor but I would suggest postponing major decisions until after the energy settles back to normal levels AND you get to know each other beyond just dancing.

Dancing's Connection to Me
There is nothing quite like partner dancing that can express the perfect harmony of music and movement inspired by 2 people. The feelings generated when dancing with such wonderful connections are so amazing. The after effects stick around long after the dance itself has ended. You feel good, your partner feels good and it just keeps propagating.

There is one last connection I'd like to point out and that is the connection to self.

There's a lot I've learned through dance and it continues to teach me still. The big thing I didn't expect was how dancing teaches me to just be me and celebrate that.

I remember about a year into learning to dance salsa, I was contemplating what to do with it. I was taking lessons and going out once, maybe twice a week to social dance. I wondered if I would ever be good enough because I wasn't pleased with my styling: I didn't feel like I was any closer to being as swanky or sexy or svelte as some of those other dancers on the floor who seemed to own the dance.

Someone dear to my heart, also a dancer with whom I've always had a "mwah!" connection with, gave me some advice that turned everything around and helped me continue. Basically what he said translates to this: find your own voice in the dance.

It took me a few more months before I realized that I was trying too hard to dance like other people. I needed to trust in my own sense of self and movement and connection to the music. Before long, I started to bring forward other things from my dance background that I loved:elements of ballet, tango, jazz, swing and most recently belly dancing. Dancing turned into this wonderful interaction where I could express myself through movement, interact with other people, enjoy music, get hugs, compliments and help other people feel good all at once.

Following also taught me to clear my head of any preset expectations or try to 2nd guess the lead. Because of this, there is no room to think about all these "what ifs", I could simply be in the moment with no judgement: the feelings, touch and movement were the true indicators of whether or not the dance was successful.

A non-dancing friend asked me why I love it so much. I said that when I dance, I get to flirt with the boys, get compliments from them, I get my exercise, lots of hugs and I feel great! Not only that, I can help someone else feel good too. I've met some amazing people and continue to grow and learn while having a great time.

What's not to like?

When people tell me how much they enjoyed watching me and my lead dance because we were so good and having so much fun - that just rocks. I dance for the joy it brings: to be able to connect to others who aren't dancing with me to share that joy is always so gratifying.

When you have a good connection, its easy to have a great time dancing. That what I always strive to give and what I love to get back.

"Life is a dance. Sometimes we lead, sometimes we follow. The clearer the communication, the better the dance. The music may change so you just have to learn how to adapt and be flexible. Sometimes it's fast and really “up”, sometimes it's slow and sensual. But when you get really present and in the moment, it's just soooooo easy." ~Pamela Marshall

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Connections: Dreamy Dancing (Part 3 of 4)

[Part 3 of 4 about Connections. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.]

The joy of partner dancing cannot be contained in words. The best expression of it is in the dance itself or the music that sets the stage for it. I do my best to share the wonderful connections that I make through partner dancing because it is a large part of why my life is as joy-filled as it is. Its my small way of giving thanks and in the process, perhaps convincing others to give it a go and get in on the fun.

Someone else said it best:
“While I dance I cannot judge, I cannot hate, I cannot separate myself from life. I can only be joyful and whole. That is why I dance.”

quote by Hans Bos

The really cool thing about Hans is that he is neither a dancer or a writer himself. He made this observation while watching people dance.


When it comes to social dancing its all about the harmony of music and movement: there is lead-follow interaction that has some structure and then, there's that timeless natural flow that comes from the simple pleasure of a guy and a girl doing a dance to a song.

The Solid Connection
This is where "home base" should be for partner dancing. Whether you're a beginner or an advanced dancer. Both leads and follows share responsibility in making dance connections solid ones.

For any of you learning a new partner dance, make sure you learn about what it takes to establish a solid connection. If you've got good instructors, you already have some exposure to what it takes to do so. If you haven't been exposed to that many dance instructors yet, here are some basic highlights from a blues dancing weekend that I've found to be helpful for any social dance.

As I said in part 1 of this series, good connections begin with an introduction which allows you to settle in with your partner: Feel the music, figure out what to do, say a nice hello and off we go.

There are some other things besides knowing the basic step of the dance that help to establish a solid connection:

Be Yourself
Its hard to get a good connection if you're not yourself. This goes beyond dancing a little bit. If you "force" something, it shows. Take deep breath, remember how much fun this is and shake away your shields and any negative energy. A lot of what I'm suggesting happens differently for each person so do try to stay within your comfort zone. You may find (as I did) that your comfort zone will open up to allow for more and more positive things but don't force it. It'll come. The only exception to "forcing" is the "fake it like you own it" that helps you with the confidence thing (see Part 2 on the Uncertain Connection).

A dance with solid connection should have a quite a few of these between lead and follow. Some people dance with what I call "dance face". Dance face takes different forms but the most common is the far away look, not quite at your partner but off to the side, serious, concentrated and sometimes pursed lips, kind of like the Blue Steel look that Derek Zoolander perfects in the movie Zoolander. That's cool, personally, some of these dance faces have brought smiles to my face and then when my leads notice my smile, they smile back and the connection we have is instantly enhanced. Natural smiles are infectious: its universal how a smile puts everyone at ease.

Eye Contact
I don't mean a stare down here - I mean normal eye contact; like when you're having a nice conversation with someone. As a follow, sometimes I'm a little coy with the lead to see what happens. Why not right? Its part of the dance and if he's cute oh-la-la!

Or, I imagine this very polite and pleasant conversation, like you're talking about the wonderful weather we're having:

Lead: "Would you please walk down this way? I think you'll like the view"
Follow: "I will and thanks for clearing the way."
Lead: "Now, why don't I turn you around and show you off? Then we can settle into a nice comfy cuddle."
Follow: "Of course!" BIG SMILE "Thanks for letting me do my stuff and while I'm at it, I'll get my arm out of the way to make it more comfortable for both of us"

Give and Take
As with any good connection, there's the perfect balance of give and take: lead and follow. The lead provides the direction and the follows execute to match each other to the music that's playing. Just like physics (or close to it): for every action, there is an equal reaction.

Just the right mix of Fun, Flirty Playfulness
Timeless is the interaction between the opposite sex: its meant to be light-hearted, flirty and fun! There's an element of play that has a different energy between a lead and a follow than there is when you're dancing by yourself. I say have fun with it! you don't have to go overboard and cross over any lines. A solid connection will have some element of flirtation and fun or whatever mood is set by the music.

The Sometimes-On-Again-Sometimes-Off-Again Connection
These connections are the ones that leave me perplexed. There's a lack of consistency: sometimes the dances are great, other times, not so much. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, leads don't ask you to dance and then suddenly, they do again.

Call it the phase of the moon or something in the water but even the best of us can have an off dance. Whether its me or the lead, as long as there was a good connection at some point, that all that I try to focus on. We are all evolving as we dance, styles can change as we learn from new teachers and try new techniques. Sometimes, this too can affect a connection. In the end, we all find our natural voice and at that point, things settle into the solid connection.

There are leads with whom I've danced with while I was still learning who have my eternal gratitude. I know those early dances were sometimes awkward and disconnected and yet, sometimes after taking a "break", they continued to dance with me. Now that I have grown as a dancer and follow, I can take pleasure in paying them back when we continue to dance with no more "off again" connections.

And the ones that do not to ask for a dance? They should dance with who they enjoy dancing with. I would hope to dance with them again because we connected at one point but if not - its all good. There are dances aplenty for us all to enjoy.

The "Mwah!" Connection
Ah, the heavenly dance! For me, this dance is effortless, ethereal and supercalifragilistic! My lead makes me feel like I'm dancing on clouds. We've entered another level of unspoken communication where everything falls into place - just so - in perfect unison with each other and the music. Its the solid connection taken to the next level.

There's a purity in the unspoken connection that's unique to partner dancing and for this connection, its like being in the zone. I'm laughing and smiling and just having the best time ever. I'm not 2nd guessing or anticipating anything, just flowing through the movements that I'm lead through with the music and adding to the dance by punctuating things with my "voice" which often times overlaps perfectly with that of my lead. My lead is also in that flow with me and he's taking what I'm putting into the dance to add to his lead.

I am so lucky that I've connected with quite a few dancers in this way. We don't always pull off the moves we want but it doesn't matter - its all part of the dance. One of my favorite leads expressed it best, he said whatever connection we have to the music, we have the same one. We hear the same things and have complimentary movements to dance together in such a way that it looks like we've danced the song a ton of times together. A series of perfectly timed movements without a word spoken, to the right measure in the music: its truly a beautiful thing.

Its the whipped cream on top of the ice cream sundae of connections. The solid connections are enough to keep me coming back but these connections are the ones that really make everything that much sweeter.

If you dance with someone long enough, you get to this level because you know each other so well. If you're lucky (and I have been soooo lucky!) I've met (and still dance with) leads where the connection has always been that good since the 1st dance we shared. The quality of our moves and the level of difficulty have gotten better over time - we're even able to ad lib and come up with totally new stuff together and the connection: "mwah!" always.

Can there be anything better? Life is pretty good when dances are full of solid and "mwah!" connections.

Stay tuned for the final and fourth installment.

In the meantime, to the leads who have made my dancing experience so rich: you guys are the bomb diggity - thank you so much!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Connections: The Bad and the Ugly (Part 2 of 4)

[Part 2 of 4 about Connections. Here is Part 1.]

In my perfect world, there would be no such thing as a bad connection with another human being. I've been relatively lucky as far as my share of undesirable experiences go and strive not to let the ones I have experienced affect me in a way that takes the joy out of life. Doing this on the social dance floor is so much easier because the interaction is always framed inside a 3-4 minute song. [If you need a new thought on how to not let the bad things bring you down: check out this blog post].

First things first: In writing about "The Bad and The Ugly", I want to make it clear that I am describing how things feel from one follower's perspective (that would be me!) on the dance floor. I am NOT claiming to speak for all follows, nor do I know the true character of the leads who might be guilty of these connections. A dance may tell me something about a man's character but its certainly is NOT the sum total of who he is as a person. These observations I share are not judgments. For me, dancing is a state of mind and I do my best to suspend the analytical/thinking part of my brain so I can fully focus on the present: the music, my lead and the movement of the dance.

The Undesirable Connection
There are times when i wish that one could award technical fouls or red cards on the social dance floor for these "offenses". The result would be a time out off the dance floor so that they are informed of their offense and they don't deprive someone else of a joyful dance.

Herky Jerky
Ah, they mean well but boy! do I feel like a rag doll in the hands of this lead. Bravo for the enthusiasm of expression! I would like to remind them though, that while they may enjoy swinging their arms whole-heartedly to the music (and it may even help them to stay on beat) there's a lot of strength generated by that motion and while you are holding my hands, my arms become an extension of yours and the hard, wild movement is not so much fun sometimes. I can't totally relax for fear of an arm being pulled or hyper-extended so I match the tension which can be tiring. Its also hard to distinguish that normal swing for a pre-lead to another move. I'd like to remind these leads that a firm and gentle hold goes a long, long way. Relax a bit, the swaying will naturally happen when your body moves to the music. If you're wondering as a lead, whether you're guilty of this or not: if your arms are circling way outside the frame between you and your partner and you watch them carefully as they are gritting their teeth or thinking "when is he going to stop?" then I would suggest "less is more".

Gropey Creepy
This is the guy who likes to take advantage of the fact that social dancing gives him leave to get close to a girl by just asking her for a dance. He likes to pull the girl in an extremely tight embrace even though the song is going over 180 rpms (its fast). Sometime, he may even reach out and touch (or grope) some body parts that should be admired, not mauled. The irony here is that despite the abundance of physical connection, the dance itself is so uncomfortable, as a follow, all I can think about is how NOT to make any more of a connection. In this instance I try to practice what I can about defensive dancing: my left arm is no longer draped over the shoulder but positioned more as a lever between this lead's chest and my own, I do my best to minimize any natural hip movement for fear of instigating more unwanted attention. I remind myself - its only a 3-4 minute song and at the end of it, I will do my best (and quickest) exit, politely decline any future dances and move on!

Body Odor
Sense of smell is very powerful and even if someone is a great lead (or follow for that matter), body odor can ruin a perfectly wonderful dance. It simply overrides everything else. Personal hygiene is extremely important and its every dancer's responsibility to know what impact you're having on the person you're dancing with. This is one offense that is so easy to avoid! Please, do take the time to check out how things smell before you subject someone else to it. There's a reason why there's are whole industries that provide people with products like deodorant, cologne, perfumes and mints to mask those odors that are a by-products of the food that you eat or the natural way your body tries to modulate its own body temperature (perspiration). If you're lucky, you can ask a good friend to be your "test" and if you're someone's good friend, you should help them out by letting them know. If you're my friend - then please, pull me aside and let me know!

Can't Find the Beat
Of all the offenses, this one is hardest for me to cope with. I am still not quite sure that there's a good way to "fix it" without being a total a_ _ to my lead and back-leading. The beat is the pulse of the music and dancing off beat just feels wrong! Its like being pulled in 2 directions at once. The music says one thing and my lead says another: I want to flow with the music but also need to follow my lead and they are at odds with each other. Its like being in the middle of an argument between my mom and dad who want me to do 2 entirely different things: a paralyzing conundrum. I find myself stuck in place between 2 opposing forces and still having to move! I shudder at the thought. My dear leads who have a hard time finding the beat - please listen to the music as much as you can! Practice finding and moving to the beat: tap it out, bob your head, tap your fingers. You don't have to find the 1 to start all the time - just find the beat 1st. After that, when you get used to hearing and feeling the music, you'll be able to find that 1 or 2 or 5 or whatever count you desire.

The Uncertain Connection
This next category of connections is on its own because I think its has an easy fix and the connection isn't as ugly as the previous ones. Its more like a warning or yellow card versus an all out penalty.

Confidence is attractive. To dance with uncertainty takes positive energy away from the dance and as a follow, its hard to respond well when I'm not sure what I've been asked to do.

The solution here is simple: "Fake it like you own it." A simple dance, led with confidence and fun will trump a series of botched up, uncertain set of moves any day. Everyone makes mistakes and I can tell you that leads who dance with confidence will make a mistake part of their "plan": flash a smile to charm or a sheepish one to apologize and its like we shared a private inside joke instead.

I know that there are some leads out there who might not agree and who feel like they have to be "all that" and more to lead a good dance. All I can say is, if you dance with confidence (remember confidence does NOT equal cockiness), there is a positive energy that you bring which enhances the connection.

Dancing is supposed to be fun - so have fun! You can still smile, take care of the lady your dancing with, distract her with your charm and let her enjoy the dance with you. Uncertainty is another "joy-killer": how can you be happy if you're not sure? When I sense that uncertainty in my lead, I do my best to smile to help to put him at ease.

If you're a beginner lead and are too busy worrying about not knowing enough moves. Check this out: most beginner classes will teach you anywhere from 6 to 8 moves and you can execute the moves in closed and open position: 2 for the price of 1!! So, think about all the possible variations: simply change the order of how you lead the moves and you can easily fill up a whole dance.

This type of connection, while uncomfortable, isn't undesirable because in my experience, confidence builds over time with positive feedback and practice. Its so cool to dance with someone who's actively learning and improving because one day, without even knowing it, things just "click" and I'll be swept off my feet into a dreamy dance connection.

Coming in Part 3: The awesome connections!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Connections - Adventures in Life (Part 1 of 4)

Some of the best adventures in life result from those wonderful and unexpected connections that you make with other people. I am very lucky and extremely grateful to have made so many wonderful connections in my life so far. My connections in dancing have certainly added to these adventures and have all contributed to helping me grow in becoming a better follow.

So, to give weight to how important this topic is and so I don't write a blog article that turns into a short story, this begins Part 1 of a 4 part series where I'll share my views on dance connections.

As much as there is so much joy in partner dancing, I hate to admit that not all connections are equal. Some are so memorable, I can still remember them years after and some are just memories I don't want to re-live. I do believe that every connection teaches me something about myself and makes me more confident in who I am.

In my perfect world, anything to do with dancing would only be a joyful occasion. Reality often reminds me that this is not always the case. The good news is, there are ways to make more of the good kinds of connections and less of the "undesirable" kind.

Dance is a microcosm for real life and the social interactions and connections on the dance floor are a hotbed of metaphors for those same interactions off the dance floor. So, based on my experiences so far, I'd like to offer some general advice that will lead to more positive connection on the social dance floor.

BIG UMBRELLA GUIDELINE: A nice, simple introduction is always the best way to start.
There aren't words enough to describe how important this. This rule applies whether you're dancing with someone for the 1st time or not. It can make all the difference in making or breaking a connection. I'm just suggesting that every interaction should start with a nice "Hello".

If you already know the person, then that can take different forms:
1) A hug
2) A kiss on the cheek
3) A chest bump

you get the general drift.

So with social dancing - BONUS! There's this song that's playing in the background.... AND it has an introduction too!
Here's what I suggest:

1) Take the 1st few 8 counts to establish the beat/rhythm of the dance. One of the hardest things for me as a follow to do is to dance off beat. Its almost as bad as scratching your nails on a chalk board. When you take the time to establish your rhythm in a comfortable position (Open embrace or closed), you're able to take that few seconds to smile at your partner, listen to the music and set yourself up for the rest of the song.

2) Get a feel for your partner and their dancing style. I don't mean feel her up. I mean start by checking to see if you're connected by moving side to side. Execute a few basic moves(cross body, inside turn, outside turn) and then rev it up if you think she can handle more. I'm pretty sure that if you're opening move is to throw your follow into a quadruple spin,its not the friendliest way to say "hello" unless your dancing with a whirling dervish (no offense intended). Instead of that nice hello, you'd be saying "Let's see if you can handle THAT! Show me what you got!" Not exactly the most friendly of hello's.

3) Get in to a flow and then build up the moves. Most leads that are learning will have a set of moves that they'll want to just run through and that's ok because we all have to practice what we learned. BUT, its a bit jarring to do a move that doesn't quite fit so well with the music. Just because you can do something in time and on beat, doesn't make it "fit". LISTEN TO THE MUSIC - if it means not dancing right away, then take the time. I can't tell you how many lovely jazzy songs have been not quite as lovely because a lead decides to execute these series of quick fast turns and direction changes that just don't fit as well as smooth variations of cross body leads with turns, sweeps and flares that help express the music so much better. Its just as bad to try to dance in a tightly closed embrace to an extremely fast and happy song: not only to you (the lead) run the risk of crossing the line into being a pervert, but you also just kill all the energy of the song and will force your follow into an extremely defensive stance which just ain't nice.

4) Try to match your partner. Yes, for advanced dancers this could mean toning down quite a bit. Ever seen a ballerina dance with a head banging rocker? Its probably quite entertaining for the people watching but I'm willing to bet that as a far as a connection goes, not so much. Its a much better dance experience all around if you can match each other. Key words: Match Each Other which implies that its a 2-way street! Don't force it, don't stress it and whatever you do, don't belabor it! If something doesn't work, don't get upset. Humor is a good alternative to most situations on the dance floor and at the very least, just smile (that's what works for me almost 100% of the time). If you make a mistake and own it, no apologies necessary: sheepish smile, keep on dancing and your golden. If you're dancing with someone new, who's to say you didn't plan it anyway? In rueda (which is a group dance) when a move goes horribly wrong our caller will call "reset!" and execute a basic move to get everyone together again. You can do this too - just come up with your reset move, smile and move on.

The final catch all: I'm diverging a little here to share a personal belief that a mark of a good follow is that they can match any lead. The key word is CAN. Just because one can do something, doesn't mean one chooses to do so or likes it. Social dancing for most people is about the joy of expressing music through movement with another person. Everyone has their own wants about what that is and if someone only chooses to dance with people they know they can connect with, that's their choice. Don't make it into your issue. Personally, I believe that there's more great connections to be experienced out there all the time. By giving everyone a chance - at least give one dance - I can always find them. If it turns out those few minutes are not so good for me, then I can choose to decline the next time that person asks.

These are my general rules to achieving nice connections all the time. There are exceptions obviously and then what do you do when the other person is just not cooperating or operating with the same rules? I try to address that a little bit in the next parts of this series where I talk about specific connections. I've generalized the connections I've experienced into different types/categories which I'll get into in more detail.

Here's a preview of what they are:

The Undesirable Connection: This is the connection that, for whatever reason, leaves you with a bad taste. These are the experiences that reaffirms the things that you don't like in interacting with people and give you the opportunity to handle them with grace (or at least minimum damage).

The Uncertain Connection: Though I think this is unique to a learning situation, its still happens in real life so I want to give it a category of its own. Often this connection will lead to another type as time passes.

The On-Again-Off-Again Connection: I think that description says it all and like the Uncertain Connection, it can evolve into another kind of connection over time.

The Solid Feel Good Connection: These are the connections I strive to have the most of as follower in dance as well as a person navigating through life.

The Mwah! Connection: Heavenly, my "top 10", totally whack! Ideally - all connections should be like this. These are the connections that are so memorable, you'll find yourself talking about them years after they 1st happened and hopefully they are happening still. Life would be a dream if all connections were like this one.

The Electric Out-of-This-World Connection: This connection is old black magic that makes your head spin and leaves you bemused, sometimes bothered and totally bewildered.