Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

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.

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Comments on: "Swing Dance Frame as Non-Newtonian Fluid" (9)

  1. Yep! Now I want to make some oobleck!

  2. You should make Oobleck for your next Lindy Lab class!

  3. ilya lisenker said:

    More like a viscoelastic solid. LIquids can be deformed indefinitely whereas solids, like a frame, have a “hard stop”. Dough and tire rubber are relatively extreme examples of such solids. Frame would be somewhere in between.

    • With the way I use frame, I am looking for it not to have a “soft stop” rather than a “hard stop.” Soft tissue is not a mindless solid and it’s stretch point can change based on how you orient to it. One of the reasons that I see a great number of dancers lose energy in their frame is because they apply a “hard stop” before they reach full stretch. The goal here is an image that influences frame to be more reactive and fluid rather than an exact description of the soft tissue.

      Also, dough and tire rubber will hold a shape when no force is applied to them, which is not how I use frame. Rather, the way I view it frame expands or molds to the space it is given until force is applied to it.

      And again, this is simply my conception of frame at this time and based on the way I connect. Rubber, dough, etc. are perfectly workable frame metaphors as well, just not in line with what I do.

      • Josh Brown said:

        Non-Newtonian fluid is a great metaphor for how frame responds to compression, but I don’t really see it carrying over to extension/stretch. It definitely applies to things like a sugar push or “stop sign” tuck turn, but how would you view it in the context of a swing out or a send out (esp. with an “opposition” rock step)? This becomes especially troublesome for moves that require stretch and compression in different parts of the frame at the same time.

      • As far as working in leverage, Oobleck responds similarly to being compressed or stretched. If moved slowly apart, it will flow like a liquid, but if you grab and try to pull it fast (similar to stretching on 1 of a swingout, hopefully minus the “grab” part) it will resist the stretch. You can see a similar effect with silly putty. If you pull two ends of a piece of silly putty away from each other slowly it will stretch almost indefinitely, but if you pull them apart rapidly, they will temporarily act like a solid and the silly putty will snap into two halves. Silly putty is an extreme example, but that’s just to illustrate that the shear thickening can occur similarly under compression or leverage.

        As far as the frame having different levels of tension, I believe Oobleck actually serves that very well. If you watch the pools in the video as people run across them, they do still continue to ripple like a liquid would. Essentially the material closes to the point of impact “tenses” up the most and material further removed from the point of impact tenses progressively less. In terms of how I use this in my own frame, I almost always work with the chest and shoulder girdle as the perceived point of impact, building tone in those areas first and spreading out towards the elbow as needed and almost always leaving the hands and wrists in a relatively soft state while the core muscles do most of the work/tensing.

  4. Love this Jason! Excellent and oobleck is so much fun to play with…just like the feeling we get when we let our bodies swing!

  5. […] Swing Dance Frame as Non-Newtonian Fluid | Jason Sager […]

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