Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dance Diversity

Someone once asked me to characterize what I love about the different dances that I've learned and enjoy.I couldn't answer it on the spot but thought it would make a great post so here it is.

Discovering dance has opened up worlds for me. I am always learning something new: about me, about movement, about the people that love the dance and why they love it, about the origins of dance, about the places where the dance is alive, about the music and its structure. Dancing is one of the easiest and most gratifying activities to get into: it has so many riches and rewards. There's a little bit of something for everyone.

SO - what's the deal with so many dances? I know, for most people, its hard enough to learn ONE new activity that's quite complex: new movements, new music, new connections with new people. Me, I just love the variety. I love being able to find the common elements, the threads that connect the different steps and movements. I love being able to respond to whatever music is playing with the right moves. I love that no matter what song is played, I can dance to it.

Dance is universal. Its cool see how different dances relate to one another. There is something primal about moving your body to music and its even more exciting when I can do that in sync with someone else without saying a word. There are dances that challenge me technically, dances that just make me smile and bop my head, dances where I melt into my partner's close embrace and yet others that, once the music starts, just seem to run right through me so that my feet and body just react without thinking.

Here are the top 10 dances that I really enjoy, in no particular order:

SALSA: This is the dance that has currently holds me captive (3 years so far and still going strong). I started learning the LA or On1 style of salsa. I love the dance because its sensual and fun. There's a call and response aspect to it that's much like the flirtation between a guy and a girl as they basically try to say "look at me" to each other ... and sometimes to the people watching. I think there's such joy in the music that you can't help but dance to it. Its energetic and fun: when you see people dancing, you just want to join in.
MAMBO: I discovered mambo about a year and a half into dancing salsa. There was this "On2" thing which no one could really explain well to me and as I took different musicality workshops until I learned that this particular on2 style came from New York. A large part of why I'm learning this dance is the teacher that helped me discover how much there is to dancing it. It challenged me in a way that I hadn't been challenged before because it taught me new techniques. I learned more about the structure of the music, about the evolution of the dances and met some amazing people along the way. Its enhanced my dancing in so many ways - I continue to learn something new every time I dance it. When everything works, the dance is smooth: explosive and then chill with effortless transfers of energy.

CASINO: Salsa from Cuba. For me this dance was like the "swing" version of salsa. There's this revolving connection between the follow and the lead. I learned it when I discovered Rueda de Casino which is a dance with different couples in a circle and a caller directing the circle on what to do. Instead of just dancing with one person, you're dancing with everyone in the circle. There's a stronger sense of community in the dancing because everyone is interacting with everyone else in the circle. Talk about a party! There's an energy unmatched by any other dancing really because of the collective group. Whether danced in a circle or not, I love the idea of the lead and follow revolving around each other: one is "macho" - grounded and strong while the other is just as commanding - sensual and always flirtatious.

LINDY HOP: Whenever swing music plays, any heaviness in my heart fades away. The music has a bounce that lifts my spirits in a way that no other genre of music does for me. I get to move to the suave voices of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and cool grooves of so many wonderful musicians. This dance connection is one of compression and extension - like a rubber band that just springs back and forth. Lead and follow use each other's energy to create dynamic movement with the freedom to still express one's own personality. It can be insanely fast and energetic with kicks and lifts. It can be groovy and cool; smooth with just that hint of peppiness. The springiness of the dance is what makes it fun and the light-hearted music is just hard to resist.

WEST COAST SWING: Partner dancing to pop music with elements of Lindy and Salsa - what's not to like? This dance to me is a combination of salsa and swing to music that I can sing to that's modern and hip (as in hip hop). What fun! I don't get a chance to dance this a lot but I love the connection in this dance. The connection between lead and follow extends and contracts with such smoothness. Unlike Lindy, its less bouncy, more like dancing on ice.

BALBOA: This is what I like to dance when swing music gets FAST! Its a close embrace dance with the push and pull of swing, with the small crazy feet movement coordinated to a crazy fast song. 

BLUES: Oh, the blues! This is basically a dance for the wee am hours where everyone is a bit tuckered out from swing dancing but not willing to end the night. Its cool and hot all at once. Its a close dance that has the most opportunity for personal expression while still having the potential for the strongest connection without as many rules and boundaries as the other dances. It looks deceptively easy but the truth is, the best blues dancers have such awesome connections to their partners and to the music. Now this, is dreamy dancing (though Kizomba and Tango are close... I talk about them later). This dance speaks volumes in the smallest movements sometimes. I've had blues dances where I never made more than 2 steps forward or back with my partner and others where I've walked across the length of the dance floor. If you let it, this is the dance where the music speaks to lead and follow in different ways and both can have a beautiful conversation about it on the dance floor.

BACHATA: This dance stole my heart when I went on vacation with a group of friends in the Dominican. I was crazy into volleyball then and we had befriended the activity directors of the resort we stayed at. It turned out that the head of the group was a former volleyball player (he was good!) and the rest of the folks were a dance troupe called Chocolate. They taught us how to dance bachata and that's what started it all. I'm happy its grown so much in popularity! This music is the latin equivalent of swing music to me (even though the content is almost always about tragic love of some kind). I smile when I hear it and it draws me to dance no matter how tired I am. As I've danced it, I've been able to bring in elements from salsa and swing. I love that playfulness of 2 people being able to just do footwork while still being connected: its wonderful! You can dance close, you can dance apart, you can dance like tango ... ay, que rico!

TANGO: This dance has an elegance that is unparalleled. To me, it looks amazing and the connection captures what I sometime feel is the epitome of the interaction between a lady and her leading man.  This dance captures the elegance of  walking. It takes this mundane activity and brings it to new heights. Its dramatic, its subtle, its stylish. In the arms of a good lead, I feel like I'm walking on clouds. The lead and follow walk as one and to truly follow this dance, I have to just listen and focus on my partner. There's a stillness in the movement and a connection with my lead that is unmatched (in my view) by any other dance. 

KIZOMBA: This dance captured me because its got the elements of so many of the dances I've already talked about AND the music feels like the pulse of a heartbeat. Its a younger dance compared to all the others I've mentioned so it brings together elements of tango, bachata and blues. Danced in a close embrace, like a tango, it has less of tango's formal elegance. What this dance does have is that it captures the softness of the connection between a lead and follow. As I'm falling into my lead's embrace, I can feel the music pulse like a heart beat and when I'm in sync with my lead, its feels secure and comfortable in that embrace. I feel like I can just let myself go, moving in concert within this snuggly, comfortingly warm embrace and as the song progresses, it becomes more intimate: a dance to swoon about for sure. When I'm done dancing with someone who knows how to lead this dance, I always need a few seconds to acclimate myself back to 'reality'... mmm-hmm!

BELLY DANCING: This is not a partner dance but its on this list because learning to dance it has helped me to come into my own as a dancer. Belly dancing is HARD. Its teaching me to isolate body movements in ways that I never thought I could. As a consequence, its allowed me to more freely express myself as a woman and a dancer. I do not have the svelt, sleek body of a ballerina, nor do I have the voluptuous curves of say Jessica Rabbit.  It was hard for me to figure out what felt good, much less looked good when I danced these supposedly sensual dances. I felt really awkward doing a shimmy or any type of movement that was considered "sexy" or sensual because I thought I looked ridiculous. Learning to belly dance has basically taught me that every woman's body can move beautifully in its own way. I'm still a novice at it but its great fun.  The power of a shimmy, shoulder roll or a body roll when dancing is never to be underestimated and I have belly dancing to thank for that.

Closing Remarks...
There are many other dances that I've learned over the years (like cumbia, merengue, cha-cha, waltz, fox trot, two step... ) but the ones I've listed above are ones that I've invested a significant amount of time in or have made a significant impact in my life somehow and are the ones that I enjoy the most.

I'm lucky to be in Seattle - a city where all these communities of dance thrive and are so open and encouraging. The only small drawback is that these communities don't frequently intersect and so, I don't have enough days to do all the dancing I would want to.

I have a dream though, that I'll try to work on to see how far it goes: dancing heaven for me would be a place where I could dance all these dances with all my favorite dancers (leads and follow alike):

"Dance is your pulse, your heartbeat, your breathing.
It's the rhythm of your life.
It's the expression in time and movement,
in happiness, joy, sadness and envy."

- Jaques D'ambroise