Dance, especially social dance, should be a response to music. Leaders may be able to lead many complicated moves, but if they are disembodied from the music it will not feel good to their partner or look good to an audience. There is nothing more frustrating to a follower than to have to choose between following the leader and following the music. The great (i.e., enjoyable) dancer does not make you choose. In fact, the best social dancing is not a dialogue between man and woman; rather, it is a conversation between a man, a woman, and a great piece of music. Here are a few tips to help you bring the third partner into your dancing.
Allow yourself to be moved.
One of the qualities that we as human beings most enjoy about music is its ability to move us. Therefore, it is important to allow the music to move your emotions as you dance so that you can capture the feeling of the song. Does the music arouse feelings of love, anger, joy, playfulness, longing or airiness? By enjoying the music and adjusting one's movement quality accordingly, the music and the dance will become united as they should.
Allow yourself to play.
Why did you just lead that turn? Why did you just syncopate with your feet? Are you performing choreography, or are you truly responding to the music? It is important for both leaders and followers to allow the music to inspire their moves as well as their improvisations. Leaders: instead of beginning the dance with a fury of complicated turns, try starting slowly and gradually building as the music builds. Followers: listen to and anticipate the nuances in the music that make your feet want to step to a different rhythm. Here's a challenge: For an entire song, try dancing the basic step only - no turns, no syncopations - until you feel the music calls for one.
Allow yourself to become a student again.
How many hours have you spent taking dance classes, watching instructional videos, and practicing moves? Great! Now how many hours have you spent taking music classes, reading about dance music, and just plain listening? If you want to reach a new level in your dancing, learning the latest dips and tricks may not necessarily be the best next step you can take. Try learning how deeply music and dance can be connected.
Listen to the music you don't like.
Are you an avid salsa dancer, but don't like Latin jazz? Do you love Argentine tango, but can't seem to get into milonga? Oftentimes, we don't care for certain types of music because we don't know what to listen for. For example, I used to dislike classical music until I took a music appreciation course in college; now, I love listening to polyphonic classical music from the baroque period. Many dancers choose not to dance to certain types of music; however, this is like only learning to listen with one ear. Sometimes the music you dislike is the music you need to listen to the most. Learning to appreciate new rhythms can open up new avenues in your dancing.
Sometimes we sacrifice our attention to the music in order to (we think) better lead or follow our partner. Indeed, it seems that instructors give far more attention to the skills of leading and following than they do to the act of listening to and interpreting the music. And leading and following are very important skills; however, we must not forget what inspired us to get up and dance in the first place. By inviting the music back into our dancing, we can reach a new level of enjoyment whether we are beginners or seasoned veterans.
Note: This article was originally published in the January issue of Joy in Motion, a monthly e-newsletter devoted to the celebration and exploration of social dance. To receive this newsletter or visit the website, click on the links below.