Fellow. USISTD

Dance Nerd

Musings on dance technique, by no means definitive.

What Theater Arts Taught Me Part 1



All learning is a process of self-teachingto some degree. You can understand the instructions behind a certain technique, but to make it useful you need to figure out how much of the thing to do. There are forward steps, and there are Forward steps, and then there are FORWARD STEPS!!! Which one is enough for the situation?

Rotational movement like a Standing Spin in Ballroom can give dancers fits. How do I stay related to my partner? Where are the feet supposed to go? How do I create speed? Where’s my head supposed to be? Those are the most common questions and most good teachers have a few fixes for each. The unfortunate task I have as a teacher writing an article is that my pupil/readers don’t have the benefit of a visual for imitation to see the relationships of all the aspects of a movement. What I can give you is a process to use in learning any type of movement to find when you’ve done enough of a technique.

With lifts, the alignment of one’s own body and that of the relationship to your partner takes on a heightened importance because of the increased weight, momentum, and centrifugal/centripetal forces. In dancing a Three Point lift turning, we have all the same factors of force as in a Standing Spin. If you imagine the man’s center is the center of a circle, the lady’s center is on the outside of the circle, and there is an imaginary line between those two points that is the radius (the man’s arms are not the radius because we aren’t holding the lady’s internal organs). To start the turn, the man rotates and the lady’s body, because they are attached, travels around the circumference of the circle. That is a pretty accurate description of what happens but tells you nothing about how it feels.

As a teacher, even a teacher of one’s self, you need to become adept at designing games to experience how much of a given technique is useful. At some point, possibly as kids and for me on a daily basis, we’ve all taken an object (like a backpack) and spun around letting the force of our turn cause it to pull away from us. This is what’s happening in the lift or in a Standing Spin. The person at the center of the turn is applying centripetal force to the thing or person on the outside by pulling their center away. On the outside you experience velocity that moves tangent to the circumference, meaning you don’t actually feel that you’re moving on the circumference, you feel you’re constantly attempting to escape.

That theoretical understanding will only get you so far - farther than you’d get without it, but not far enough to execute a movement well. Where the lift work can help you develop a feel for figures on the ground is in the consequences. If you don’t find all the right alignments of bodies in a Natural Turn or that Standing Spin the worst thing that will happen is you’ll look bad, pull your partner, and probably get depressed. If you don’t manage to maintain your body properly in a lift, especially one with rotation, you get all of the above and you probably won’t be able to execute the movement without serious strain.

Because the scale of the forces is magnified in a lift it is easier to recognize them proprioceptively while in motion. The forces that pull on your spine to distort back or forward, the forces on your arms causing them to disconnect back, and the forces on your feet are all increased. I found that all of the techniques I had about posture and movement were correct but useless until I found that elusive quality...Enough.

Not everyone is in a position to practice lifts either because of experience, physical condition, or the availability of partners and training, but you still search the accuracy of your movement by applying more force. If your hold is in a weak or tenuous place then it will be very difficult to apply force in a positive way to the partnership. You can apply the same principle to any figure and to the mechanics of your own body. That’s where all the technique that we have comes in. In the case of the manuals that’s already worked out; direction, alignment, placement, CBM, etc. The thing that’s not worked out is how muchis necessary for each unique situation presented by individual dancers in the moment.

Mostly I have been writing from the man’s perspective since this is about my own path of discovery, but the same applies for women (because we’re all in this together). The poise that ladies take and position of their hold are designed to receive these forces efficiently. Those forces are a reality: momentum, centrifugal and centripetal forces, torsion, and torque. That feeling of all those forces balanced to produce the desired figure is like an AM radio station driving cross country; you scan past it in each direction a few times until you find it.

For the most part if you have the ability to go through the motions of a step you probably have enough knowledge. You just have found the right amounts of...Enough.