As a dancer and Rolfer®, I find myself constantly searching for simple, elegant ways to describe complex concepts in movement. One such concept that often seems difficult to describe in swing dancing is frame. Most often I hear overly simplified images like “Barbie doll arms,” or models like “relaxed but with tone” that involve complex ideas and can be confusing. So in my search for a singular concept to encompass all these pieces, I have found myself over the past year drawing on a concept I first encountered during my training to be a Rolfer.
The way I currently approach swing dancing frame is that it behaves like a non-Newtonian fluid. Since most people are not immediately familiar with what that means, let’s start with a definition.
A non-Newtonian fluid is a liquid which has a variable viscosity depending upon circumstances. In simple terms, this means that the substance behaves like a liquid under some circumstances and more like a solid under other circumstances. The common example that most of us will be familiar with is ketchup. Glass bottled ketchup will tend to behave more like a solid when you first turn the bottle to pour it, but once you start it flowing by shaking it or poking it with a knife, it will continue to flow smoothly. For the purposes of describing frame, I will be using a different non-Newtonian fluid by the Dr. Seuss inspired name Oobleck.
Oobleck is a soupy suspension of cornstarch in water that exhibits shear thickening, meaning that under pressure the fluid behaves temporarily like a solid and then returns to a liquid state when the pressure releases. So with a tub of Oobleck, if you were to say, punch it, you will essentially bounce off as though the material is a rubbery solid, whereas setting a hand on it and simply sinking, the Oobleck will remain in a liquid state. This effect often gets used in science shows as a way to “walk on water” as you can see below.
This change in viscosity occurs due to what one scientist refers to as the “Three Stooges Effect” which is to say that under pressure, the molecules in the Oobleck are trying to move too fast through a space together and get stuck, as in when all three Stooges attempt to walk through a door at the same time. So the material changes it’s state in response to force, reactively instead of proactively. It is this combination of fluidity and reactivity that, to me, makes it such an apt image for swing dance frame.
In a dance context, I use the idea of non-Newtonian fluid to influence any point of contact I am using with my partner. When we are in a neutral state relative to each other, shoulders, arms, forearms, and hands remain in a relaxed fluid state. But when our bodies move closer or further away from each other with a strong force, the arms react by acting more solidly to resist the change. I don’t think about actively relaxing or tensing my arms with these changes, I think of them as constantly seeking a fluid state, but reacting under pressure to resist change when force is applied. By doing so, my arms communicate the motion of my body relative to my partner. Rather than being instruments of leading or following, when the arms behave like a non-Newtonian fluid, they simply become a way to transmit force from one body to another and can communicate equally from lead to follow or follow to lead. And as an added benefit, it leaves my muscles feeling good after a dance instead of worn down by constant work to maintain a specific shape or create constant tension.
This is not to say that frame behaves this way at all times, I think there are always exceptions (and there is probably an exception to that) but this idea of non-Newtonian fluidity in frame is an underlying principle of how I think of frame in swing dancing. Non-Newtonian fluid is, at this point, the best single image I have come up with encompass the use of both ease and tension in creating connected frame.
Note: If you want to try making your own Oobleck to get a feel for how this material behaves, simply combine 1 cup of water with 1.5 to 2 cups of cornstarch and mix thoroughly.