Partner dancing can help you get what you really want out of life: happiness, fulfillment, satisfaction, love, joy, peace, all that. You just have to dance the right way: for your partner, not for you. The starting point for that is connecting with your partner; connection is founded on respect.
Connect: It can be simple human warmth, full-on erotic fire, or any of a thousand other shades of feeling, but you have to connect with your partner to get anything out of partner dancing. Connection is face-to-face, heart-to-heart, wide open. Dance with people you feel open to, people you really want to hold in your arms. If you dance with someone you’re not open to, do everything you can to open up to him or her. All it takes to connect is a sincere desire to, a little effort, and respect.
Respect: If you have a hard time connecting, it may be due to a lack of respect. To connect, you have to recognize your partner as your absolute equal, in every regard; knowing that and feeling that, way down deep in your guts, is what respect is. Respect can’t be learned; you either have it or you don’t. Dancers who are secretly insecure about their own dancing are often not-so-secretly disrespectful of their partners. Outmoded ideas about leading & following can also undermine respect; a current example is the breathtakingly clueless catchphrase “Follows, are you doing your 49%?” For dancers, respect means dancing that’s based on absolute equality: nobody’s in charge. If you need to be in charge, or if you see your partner as anything other than your equal, you won’t be able to connect heart-to-heart.
Connection & respect are crucial to getting anything worthwhile out of partner dancing; they’re also the key to a deeper way of dancing, where dancing becomes atool for human evolution.
Everything worthwhile in partner dancing depends on connecting with your partner. Dance with people you connect with, and stay connected with your partner while you dance. That said, we all find ourselves dancing with people we don’t feel very open to at times. When that happens, see if you can open up; do your best to let your partner in. You can’t connect with someone who’s not interested in connecting with you, but make the effort anyway; it’s good practice.
A good connection is light & easygoing; there’s no heavy-handedness about it. Everyone dances voluntarily, no one controls anyone else. It’s also respectful and egalitarian: leading isn’t bossing, and nobody likes playing with the kid who always has to be the boss. Be a friend, not a boss. Don’t be a predator either; prowling for sex keeps you from connecting. Other ways of staying disconnected are being all caught up in how you look to other people, being super technical & in love with your own technique, being competitive, distracted, cool & reserved and so on. Dancing is so much deeper & richer if you take your attention off you and your concerns, and put it on your partner, so you can really connect and play; why settle for less?
Respect is directly recognizing that another being – any being – cannot be greater or lesser than you. You can’t think or wish or believe or reason your way to that;you either see that it’s true, or you don’t get it yet. Respecting people is incompatible with wanting to have power over them or control them; if you feel the need to control or boss your partners, you don’t get it yet. Respect has nothing to do with fear, and it’s nothing you can earn, because you don’t deserve it. No one “deserves” respect; respect can only be given freely, as a gift. You can make someone fear you, but you have absolutely no influence over whether they respect you, i.e. acknowledge you directly from the heart; that’s up to them, though you invite respect when you respect them.
Mutual respect is the starting point for connected partner dancing. If you don’t acknowledge your partner directly, and recognize that he or she is your equal in every way, you can’t get anywhere; the real juice of partner dancing will never open for you. You’ll just be going through the motions, like the fancy dancers with the frozen smiles you see on TV.
Dance skills aren’t enough
If you want to be a partner dancer, go to classes; study & practice. Partner dancing is a language, and you need to learn the lingo: you need to develop dance skills. But dance skills aren’t enough to make you a good dancer; for that you also have to open up and connect with your partner by dancing kindly and generously; you have to dance for your partner and not for yourself. If you don’t learn that, your skills don’t count for much; nobody likes dancing with a self-absorbed jerk, I don’t care how many smooth moves he’s got or how flashy her footwork may be. Technical excellence doesn’t make anyone a good dancer.
You may get a certain glow from being able to lead a difficult move, or respond exquisitely to a lead, but it’s a very shallow glow; admiring yourself doesn’t have any depth to it. That shallow glow doesn’t satisfy the longing. We all long for intimacy, to touch and be touched, and for that to happen you have to open your heart and connect with your partner. That can’t happen if you’re focused on you, self-absorbed. Dancing exquisitely with strangers leaves you empty & lonely. Connect with your partner; let life in.
Play, not work
Study & practice, but don’t make dancing into work, e.g. relentless striving for excellence. Let it be play instead; most of us have forgotten how to play. Real play is full of love, and your ability to play is a very good indicator of your relationship with love, with the life inside you. Our connection to the love that’s inside, the love that doesn’t depend on anyone else gets strangled and narrowed by life. As we grow up, play gets co-opted or trained or beaten out of us; we turn play into things like excelling at sports, crushing the competition, hardening & toughening ourselves for life’s battles. We turn play into war or discipline or competition. All the love & joy get beaten out, and what we’re left with is “play” that’s just another chore, or a way to get a competitive advantage, or something to beat yourself up over. Same old crap. Partner dancing is a way you can reconnect with real play, with joy, which is love spilling out of you.
Ignore the rules of social dancing (and stay away from dance contests)
Some of the conventions & rules of social partner dancing create unnecessary barriers to connecting with your partner. For instance, the convention that you should only dance 1 or 2 dances with any given partner, then move on to someone else. If you’re beginning to connect with someone, if a deeper space is beginning to open up between you, keep dancing and let that develop. If you want to connect, don’t set arbitrary limits or let yourself be bound by customs that interfere with connecting.
By far the worst convention of partner dancing is the habit of comparing yourself to other dancers. Admiring someone’s dancing and maybe learning from it is harmless, but comparing yourself to others and judging that your dancing is better or worse is like marinating yourself in the essence of disconnected dancing. It’s just as bad either way: thinking your dancing is terrible and everyone’s laughing at you is just as self-absorbed & disconnected as thinking your dancing’s better than everyone else’s. Comparison is all about how it looks, and none about the quality of connection, the juice, the heart – because you can’t see that part from outside, and it’s not something you could compare anyway; it’s different with each partner. The more you focus on comparing yourself, the more self-absorbed & disconnected you become. The apotheosis of disconnection, the most utterly self-absorbed custom in the world of dance is competitive dancing. If you’re trying to connect with your partners, there’s nothing worse than a dance contest; steer clear.
If you want to connect with your partner, and maybe get to some of the deeper things partner dancing has to offer, you’re gonna have to ignore some of the rules & conventions and dance on your own terms.
How to connect?
Connecting with your partner has nothing to do with how good a dancer you are. You can have mad skills & moves, and fabulous “dance connection,” as they say in partner dance lingo, but as long as your attention’s on you, you’re not connecting. Connecting means being more interested in your partner than you are in yourself. Dancing that’s focused on you – how you look, your pleasure, showing off your skills, working on your excellence – is disconnected dancing. Dancing where you set yourself up as some kind of authority, correcting or coaching or otherwise “helping” your partner is particularly disconnected, not to mention jaw-droppingly arrogant. Connected dancing is respectful, humane, egalitarian, kind and playful. Here are some things to consider if you want to connect:
• You have to want to dance with that person, the one in your arms. Wanting to dance with someone is personal: you want to dance with that particular person. Dancing out of politeness or obligation or “why not?” or “anyone’ll do” is disconnected, but it’s possible to turn that around by connecting as you dance. If you don’t feel open & connected, turn the whole dance into working on that, seeing if you can open up to your partner.
• Dance with the person, not the role. The defined roles of lead & follow are useful in learning to dance, but they’re really not very important (heresy!), and there’s no human warmth in a defined role. Reach through the role to the person in your arms. Your partner’s a fellow human, not a role. The roles are just play-acting, something you’re making up; stop taking them seriously!
• Leads have all the power, which is a problem. Partner dancing needs a lot of human warmth to overcome the power imbalance. The system is inherently unequal; if you leave it at that, you don’t connect. Embrace your partner as a friend; that neutralizes the inequality because friends are equals. Then the unequal system’s just a game you’re playing with your friend; you don’t take it seriously, and you both feel free to playfully subvert it and generally mess around with it.
• Be kind. All those dance etiquette do’s & don’t’s can be replaced with those 2 words. You could replace not just dance etiquette but probably all the useful commandments & laws on the books, religious & otherwise, with “be kind.”
• Don’t take dancing seriously. Dancing is way too important to be taken seriously. Taking it seriously defeats the purpose. The best dancing is profoundly unserious and transcendently playful.
Connect with your partner at Waltz etcetera
I see a lot of playful, intimate, joyful dancing at Waltz etcetera, where I’ve been hosting dances and teaching dance for the past 11+ years. From 7:30 – 9:30 we play about half waltzes and half other dances, mainly blues, Latin & foxtrot/swing; around 9:30 we go downtempo with sweet waltzes, sensuous Latin, sweet & sultry ballads, cool jazz etcetera. Come join us!