Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Stepping Away from The Lindy Lab

About a month and a half ago I ended my tenure running a dance studio and one week ago I finished cleaning out the office at The Lindy Lab. It was a dream I’d had for about 10 years and 3 years ago got the chance to try making it a reality. The greater reality turned out to be, not so much a nightmare, but more one of those weird confusing WTF dreams that just leave you questioning your own brain and feeling like you may not get back to sleep that night. So I’m moving on to other pursuits and wanted to put together a post to share my experience so I can close out with friends and community on why I’m doing this and hopefully express something that may be useful to future folks walking a similar path.

TL;DR version: I took a moonshot on setting up a studio to try and spark transformation in my scene and found I couldn’t create or gather enough support or buy-in to make the idea sustainable for myself. After watching my own energy flag for close to two years, I chose to get out before I soured on dance and did my best to leave the scene with a great space to create in.

What This Post Is and Isn’t

This will be, to the best of my ability, an honest telling of why I chose to move on. It was, in many ways, a difficult tenure and a difficult decision to leave and I don’t want to candy coat that. I also want to be clear that in trying to speak truthfully about my experiences, I am, for the most part, at peace with the past on this or actively working to making peace with it. There were a lot of frustrations and results that I will likely never fully understand the “why’s” but I have plenty of responsibility in that as well. I’m grateful that I got to take the chance I did and humbled by what I learned from it and will try to cleanly communicate both the positives and negatives that lead to this course of action.

Backstory

I’ve been dancing in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill swing scene since 2002. I grew up in this scene, took lessons from just about anybody and everybody who was teaching and grew immensely as a person through dance. I found a love of body mechanics in dancing that lead me into my career in Rolfing which, in turn, deeply affected my teaching. I had a longer term vision of buying an old church to forge a mixed-use space to house both my Rolfing practice and some sort of dance/movement space. The Lindy Lab at Triangle Dance Studios was a way to test the concept in a rental situation before I considered buying a space. It was also intended to be a space for growth, creativity, and exploration in dancing which I felt had never been strongly offered in this area since I started dancing.

Creating a Space to Support the Dance

I’ve written before about the difficulties I had with the studio build. But suffice to say in the course of about 2 months I spent probably $10k and 400 or so hours of my own time plus a lot of friend’s man hours building a space to raise the level of ambiance for our scene. It has significantly raised the bar for the studio that owns the space and nudged the owner to take some steps to improve all the other studio spaces there. I hear from the studio owner that people rave about the studio but really nobody seeks me out to say thank you and there seems to be a general lack of care from other renters and dance scene for trying to care for the space. People tend to break things or move things out of sight and make no effort to replace or even note that they have broken things. It has helped me understand why the studio owners tend not to go all out on their spaces and the past year I’ve had the refrain of “this is why we can’t have nice things” in my head more times than I expected to. While I’m happy for the improved spaces for the scene and proud of what we built, it ultimately seemed like people responded to a different space a bit, but not enough to affect their behavior towards taking greater care of the space.

Teaching From a Radically Different Head Space

To put it succinctly, I have taken a fundamentally different approach to teaching dance than any other instructor I have seen on the swing dance world stage. I took my training as a Rolfer and developed a way to help people find dance in their existing movements, using what they already know and treating dance as inherent rather than something that must be taught. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of faults as a teacher and I believe that pretty much every teacher out there does something better than I do. But I built my teaching to provide a base that would allow people to travel and learn readily, giving them a “first principles” base of knowledge to be able to fill in the gaps from things other teacher don’t say (or don’t know to say). I tended to receive comments from students who traveled that they rarely encountered an international teacher saying something about mechanics that they hadn’t heard from me already and I’d taught it more succinctly and accessibly.

Lack of Return Students

The response to classes was a somewhat baffling combination of intense appreciation coupled with lack of attendance. While I consistently received praise for the style of teaching and was told it made the dance far more accessible or made people comfortable in a way that nobody else had, such statements also frequently came from people showing up once and never returning. I also encountered a number of people choosing to take from an instructor who was closer even if they felt they got less from that instructor. I’ve been over this many times with friends and fellow dancers and we’ve never really been able to determine if people couldn’t tell the difference in the quality of material or simply had other priorities or goals. But frankly it was disheartening to find myself teaching someone how to do another instructor’s material without it hurting them or their partner (when prior instructors had just shrugged at or been completely oblivious to the pain) and then have those students just head back to previous instructors. I had some really great engaged students 2-3 years ago, but somewhere in the past year and a half that seemed to disappear and a sustained lack of excited students eventually wore down my excitement for teaching.

Did Not Play Well With Other Instructors

I had high hopes going in but found it pretty much untenable to work with any other local instructors. Where I had expected collaboration I more often ran into passive-aggressive silence and where I tried to show respect to former teachers I mostly saw them reference me as someone they taught, oblivious to the fact that I spent the middle 5 years of my dancing career unlearning habits from them in order to be the dancer I am today. Suffice to say I’d seen some of the drama and instructor bullshit coming up in this scene and had hoped to change the conversation. In the course of several years, I feel like was wholely unsuccessful and ended up being just as bad. Some of the standard instructor power trips in the dance world are hot button issues for me and I hoped to set an example or talk to other instructors in a way that would help, but when I didn’t get far I got frustrated and started getting on my own little petty tyrant power trip.

I’m quite sure I was as much of a pain in the ass to other instructors as they were to me and I just generally found that it was more effort than benefit to work with anyone who I hadn’t trained. I would have liked to have things turn out differently but I’ll echo a sentiment I heard time after time the last few years that the instructors (and I include myself in this) are some of the most off-putting people in the scene and one of the primary reasons that more people don’t step up to help. I was fortunate enough to have some friends willing to kick my ass about it when I was making things ugly and I already find my interactions with people being lighter as I’ve basically removed myself from any need to be in contact with that energy.

Timing Suuuuucked

In general, I think there was also a strong element of timing to all of this. Attendance rose and fell but seemed to be in an overall decline in general for the last 4 years or so, even before I started Lindy Lab. Options like Groupon and Living Social seem to have run their course in this area so options that used to provide quick boosts to prior studios didn’t amount to much. In general, it seems like this area is in a bit of a dip in terms of advanced dancers getting more into jobs or marriages or whatever as well so while that core hasn’t disappeared it has become less consistent week to week than it was a few years ago. It does seem to be starting to uptick as I’m handing things off, so I’m heartened, but generally I felt like I spent so much keeping things going through a trough in the cycle that I stopped having much interest in sticking around to push things back uphill once the cycle picked up again. And, on a personal level, add in things like a multi-year house renovation and a 5 year career overhaul and by this past spring I felt pretty certain I wasn’t going to have anything left to give if I kept going.

Deciding to Quit

All these factors came together earlier this year to culminate in a decision to quit. I say I’m quitting because I’m trying to take ownership of that word. It’s a word I haven’t been comfortable with as long as I can remember and I think it’s about time to redefine it for myself. I’ve spent many years in my life holding onto situations, activities, and relationships where I was not getting back the energy I put in and I’ve slowly come to understand that that just doesn’t serve me long term. So, having given it a good 3 years, trying as many angles and tactics as I could without completely tanking myself, I’ve decided to quit with as much integrity as I can and move on to other pursuits.

Space to Grow

Ultimately I am quitting both to create space for myself and to create space for The Lindy Lab. If I had continued to head the studio, I believe it would have taken me an awfully long time to rebound even if it had been possible. Stepping back and turning it over to a committee of committed and excited dancers creates much more space for LL to grow again. It also frees me up to focus on aspects that I did enjoy, namely teaching and special events. And frankly, I find I’m greatly happier having my evenings free to spend with friends, fix up my house, cook, read, etc. The person I’ve been trying to be for several years now has arrived much more readily by creating space than it did by pursuing achievement. The Lindy Lab was an amazing vehicle for me to grow and learn and, for a time, to spread some Lindy Love to some wonderful people and I look forward to seeing it grow and change under new leadership.

The Hopeful Aftermath

I spent a lot of my past year wondering if I was just in the way. And while I don’t think it will just completely rebound, it does seem that attendance has already started to pick up as we’ve worked through handing things off over the past two months. There is definitely space for someone excited and motivated to jump in and start teaching Lindy in the area and the workload is already being spread better than I ever managed to do it.

I just had a former dance student who travels and lectures on education tell me he presents some of my teaching tactics all over the country to great success. A Rolfer in Portland who I was talking to about teaching asked me excitedly if I would be willing to share a workshop on how I teach dance. So it seems that whether I decide to teach again or not, some of the key tenants that I wanted to get out to the world are getting out.

And perhaps simply put, I think I’ve finally managed to swap out “Try to change the world and hopefully that will make me happy” for “Let myself by happy and see how the world shifts”.

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First On The Floor

The last two nights, I taught a pre-concert beginner lesson for Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra which was playing for a 2-night series of Duke Performances shows.  The band was fabulous, both nights were a packed house, and both nights the new dancers were enthusiastic, creative, and happily socializing with each other.  But a curious effect emerged the second night.  Where the floor had almost always had at least 2 or 3 couples on it Friday night, it ended up being completely empty of dancers for most of the Saturday show.

It got me thinking about the TED talk below from Derek Sivers.  One of the things I have been working on with beginners is how to present getting on the floor in a way that makes it easier to make that leap.  Particularly in a hall full of seated non-dancers, people can feel awfully intimidated stepping into the space between and audience and a band.  The Friday night dance had enough experienced dancers on hand that usually at least one or two couples were willing to brave the floor and others would follow.

On Saturday night, there were few experienced dancers on hand.  With the lack of experienced dancers to get the floor started, it never seemed to really build momentum.  It got me wondering if there are better ways to help new dancers feel comfortable enough to be the first on the floor.  I haven’t had a chance to try all of these ideas out yet, but I have a rare free morning, so I figured I’d write them down and see what people think.  I’d also be interested to hear other’s experience with getting dancers to brave the floor at not-exclusively-dance events.

Use the Buddy System

One thought that I haven’t tried yet is to suggest that several couples take to the floor at once.  It seems to me that being that it isn’t really until you’ve got 3 couples out on the floor that it gets easier for more people to go out.  So what if rather than trying to go out as a solo dancer or couple, one gathered a few people off the floor to go out at once.  Imagine it as the difference between someone trying to start a solo Charleston jam on their own versus putting on a T’aint What You Do and having multiple dancers descend on the floor at once for a Shim Sham.

Have the Band Invite People to Dance

Jazz musicians as a whole don’t always have the best reputation for liking dancers.  I’ve been a shows before where it wasn’t clear if a band was open to dancers or not and it definitely has opened the door when someone in the band says something like “the dance floor is open”.  My experience has been that lots of people are just waiting to be given permission to be creative, try something new, or just get on the floor.  I try to make this explicit in the beginner lessons, but I think permission from the band might carry more weight once the show starts.

Get Them Chair Dancing First

Perhaps another thing that keeps people off the floor is the way that they sit and watch a band.  I find most jazz concerts people sit very quietly as if listening to a lecture.  For me, if I’m feeling intimidated about getting out there or I’m not feeling terribly creative, sometimes it helps to just take a song or two first to bounce in my chair, let myself connect with the music, and let it draw me in more as I start to move in bits and pieces.  I haven’t tried this with a beginner class yet, but maybe it could help to have them sit and chair dance for a little bit before getting up to find a partner.

Ultimately, Let Whatever Happens Happen

In the end, I’m not going to try and force dancers on the floor.  I do think it is interesting though how people can be having a great time in a lesson and then never make it out for a dance that night.  I tend to think it is less an issue of desire and more one of confidence and the more I can lower that barrier for my students, the more they can enjoy the night and add something special that only that combination of music and dance can provide.  I’d love to hear about it if anyone tries any of the ideas above and I’d be grateful to hear anyone else’s thoughts on things they’ve tried to help new dancers get on the floor more easily at concerts like this.

The Basic as Savasana

Last night I taught a class for the first year anniversary of Cirque de Vol studios staff holiday party.  It was a group of all teachers in various circus arts (hooping, aerial silks, trapeze, etc.) so they were taking to the lessons and within a few minutes, happily spinning, twirling, and flinging each other around the floor.  Things got rowdy and raucous and I wanted a way to introduce a texture of calmer energy into the mix.  So, given that the crowd would all be familiar with various movement forms, including yoga, I decided to tell them to think of the basic like Savasana.

Thinking about it this morning, I felt like it was a pretty good analogy.  For the beginner, the basic is a place to rest and reconnect before going out and doing the next crazy, new set of moves.  And as a growing dancer, the swingout, like savasana, becomes a place to deepen practice and feel out both the holes in your dancing and the beauties in it.  And as the swingout becomes ingrained, it is something you can always come back to and a place where there is almost an infinite space in which one grow and evolve for as long as you continue to dance/practice.

Engineering a Friendlier Dance Scene

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while, and based on a recent discussion on Facebook, I figured I should go ahead and do this.

First off, I will say I see it thrown around a lot that a given scene or venue or event is more or less welcoming.  I’m not really convinced that it is an inherent trait of a scene so much as something very malleable.  Over the past 2 years, I have, on various nights at our Thursday night dance, received comments that people felt like it was the most welcoming dance they had ever been to but also seen people walk out within 20-30 minutes having barely danced or engaged with anyone at all.  I think the experience can be awfully subjective and all one can really do is try to improve on the overall experience.

I have been running the primary Lindy night in the Raleigh/Durham swing scene and playing with a number of options to turn the experience into one that is more welcoming across demographics.  Much like in my dancing, I tend to think a lot of the things new and returning dancers are looking for are relatively inherent but easy to trip ourselves up on.  The studio I run, The Lindy Lab, has given me a lot of opportunities to play with setting up a space to encourage socialization, so I want to share a few of the things I have tried, learned from, and am currently experimenting with.

Right Size Your Space

I have observed a curious phenomenon with dance classes where no matter what size the room is, the couples in rotation will always seem to move out towards the walls until they have as much space as possible between themselves and everybody else.  The same often happens with dances, where people will expand away from each other until they reach a sort of equilibrium of space.  Along these lines, I find there is “critical mass” of people that it takes to build energy in a space (without being too packed and going nuclear).  If the space is too large for the number of people, it becomes easy for everyone to just seek their own comfortable space or group of friends, but when the available space is sized about right, a curious chemistry starts to take over.

Right size the spaceFor most of 2012, our Thursday dance was in a space that was too large.  ~2000 sq ft. for an average of 30-40 people left a huge gulf of space that people would have to cross to go ask someone to dance, and made it more effort for people to interact.  To counter this, we simply moved the chairs from the back wall about halfway into the room, creating a more intimate space and the energy of the night improved.  This was an adjustment we had to make every week and sometimes several times in the night, but making sure the space was close enough to keep people from disconnecting tended to drive energy, not just on the dance floor, but also in terms of interaction around the edges.

Ask Me To Dance Table

I consistently hear people throw out the idea of having dance captains/ambassadors/courtesans/whatever to either seek out newbies or to be hunted down and asked for dances by them.  For me, I like to be efficient, and the idea of trying to assign ambassadors each week or weed out the right people to hold up as ambassadors, struck me both as a lot of extra busy work and the sort of thing that was likely to end up landing in the laps of a small handful of folks most of the time.  So rather than base the idea around people, I decided to base it around an area, specifically, a table with a sign on it that simply read “Ask Me To Dance Table.”

Even different species will ask each other to dance if prompted well ;)

Even different species will ask each other to dance if prompted well 😉

Not unlike a taxi stop at an airport, this creates a very egalitarian way to connect people offering a service (asking to dance) with people of any level wanting said service (to get a dance without having to ask).  Anyone of any level can have a seat and be sought after by anyone who feels in a mood to currently do the asking.  We put out “newbie guide to the swing scene” pamphlets as well, which offer tips on making friends in the dance scene and encourage them to try asking someone after they have been asked to dance.  There is a pretty brisk turnover, and I rarely see anyone sitting there for more than a song before they are asked to dance (the only exceptions have been people who were painful to dance with or solely relied on the table to get dances).  Plus if a few people are at the table together, it often emboldens one or two of them to ask one of their compatriots to dance.

Have a Seat, Make a Friend Area

While at any given time, most of us have periods of “OMGIWANTTODANCEEVERY SONG!!!!”, most dancers’ typical night goes something like “do some dancing, do some chatting, grab some water, rinse and repeat”.  And sometimes we want to be among friends but don’t want to dance for one reason or another or are new and just want to observe, etc.  So for a while, I tried out having a “Just Feeling Chatty Table” which did OK, gave newbies a place to hide for a bit without being total wallflowers, and gave the tired or overstimulated a place to crash but still be at the dance.  This worked for a bit until I saw this video:

So, based on this video, I have changed the goal of that table from “feeling chatty” to “Have a Seat, Make a Friend” and am starting to stock the table with things which I feel engage a sense of childhood while also giving people something to do together (not all of of us comfortable just holding a straight conversation).  So I have been getting things like Legos, Lincoln Logs, Puzzles and games that can be played a couple turns at a time and paused readily (like Connect Four or Checkers).  This idea has just started to come together over the winter break, so I don’t have good data yet on whether or not it works, but I can say that generally when I have mentioned it, people are excited by the idea, and this has generally helped elevate the appearance of the dance from just being another “here’s music, now it’s up to you” dance to something that offers a sense of community.

Let People Make it Their Own

My goal as an organizer is to try to take things like the idea of an ambassador program and make occur in a way that feels seamless and natural.  In essence, I believe that most people are naturally friendly, given the right circumstances, and my job is to try and create those circumstances, rather than asking people to be more friendly.  By finding ways to lower the barriers to entry to talk or dance with someone, everyone can become an ambassador for the scene, including the new dancers themselves.  My feeling is that if I empower people to be outgoing rather than tell them they need to be outgoing, there is less chance of people feeling singled out or burdened with trying to make someone else’s experience enjoyable.  Rather, my aim is to try to even the playing field so that each experience becomes a shared one and each person’s input (regardless of their level, age, race, etc.) becomes an important and integral part of the stew.

As the name of my studio, The Lindy Lab, implies, all of this is an experiment and I am eternally playing with these ideas: putting tables in different places, feng shuing the room to fit the vibe of a given night and any number of other versions of poking at variables to see if they have any effect.  I encourage anyone who is looking to make a scene better to think about the things you think will help, and then try to think of things you haven’t thought of before.  I have seen the discussion of how to make dancing more accessible come up year after year and it often devolves into placing blame on one group or another.  I will admit to having felt that way at times myself, but the more I have expanded my view and tried different things, the more I think that this is a challenge that is best solved by making it enjoyable for people to engage with each other and leveling the playing field to include everyone as equal partners in creating the community.

Following as Active Choice: An Experiment in Wording

A few years ago at The Experiment I had a conversation with a follow who said that while she felt like an equal partner in her marriage, she did not feel like an equal partner in dancing.  My experience dancing with a significant number of follows is that they view the dance as if their part is somehow less important or requires less attention than leading does.  While I have been aware of this issue for years, it has recently occurred to me that some of this attitude could result from the passive language that is often used in teaching follows, especially at early stages.

Over the last few months I have been working intently to  rewrite my teaching language to clearly present following as a role with equal importance in the dance.  I have found that a few key wording changes have produced very different results in the way student followers dance, at least in the short time that I have been experimenting with this.  While I’m aware that these results are by no means a clear indicator of long-term success, given the current national online conversation about gender relations in the swing scene, it seems beneficial to share what I have found so far.  Given the current experimental phase, I figured I would write this up like a high school chemistry experiment rather than a lecture.

I’d also like to give a quick thanks to everyone who has helped me work through how to talk about this, and to all the leads and follows who’ve given me feedback to help me refine ideas to this stage.

Examining Effects of Active Choice In Following

Introduction

Following in dance is often presented to beginners as a purely reactive role.  Analogies for following often involve passive objects on frictionless surfaces, and follows are told to “wait for the lead.”  More attention is given to leads in most classes and follows often receive praise for doing things as expected rather than for following what was actually lead.  After months or years of working to become a “good follow,” follows may suddenly be thrown the idea that they should start adding creatively to the dance, which can seem counter to the skills they have spent their early dance career developing.  It can be a treacherous cocktail of mixed messages about doing what you’re told while being creative and matching the lead, yet also being yourself.

But what happens if we teach following as a “choice” rather than a “should”?  Instead of presenting following as doing what the lead says, what if we present it as listening for the lead as a suggestion or invitation and choosing how to respond?  By altering language and presenting the role as equally capable of influencing the dynamic of the partnership (rather than exclusively reacting to the movements and signals of the lead) we hope to see a rise in confidence of the follows as well as a greater sense of “team” in dance couples.

Methods/Experiments

In teaching private lessons, both experienced and new follows were presented with the idea that following is a choice.  Of particular note is one follower with several years experience who, while commanding in her daily life, has always seemed to lack confidence in her dancing.  This student was asked to think of following as a matter of interpreting the lead and choosing to execute her interpretation as explicitly as she wanted (i.e., purely following), rather than thinking of following as doing it “right” or “wrong.”

In group classes, focus was placed on the follow’s ability to control their own side of the connection (i.e., their own arm) and their ability to suggest ideas in connection or pulse simply by altering their own movements.  Time was spent asking the leads to dance with no pulse or off time and for follows to exhibit strong pulse and rhythm to influence the lead into matching, bringing the couple on beat together.  Followers were presented with the idea of being able to use stretch in frame to generate energy for their own movement, and both lead and follows were taught that they could stretch their own frame individually and as a means of communication to their partner.

Test wordings and exercises were used over approximately 20 follows in 3 months of classes.

Results

In response to this style of teaching, follows have generally been very appreciative of the use of active wording.  They have also advanced faster and appear to be actively engaged in trying to understand how to follow movements rather than asking “what am I supposed to do?”

Follows have exhibited greater flow of motion and more willingness to put their own energy into movement, plus greater trust of support from the lead.  Multiple follows are also exhibiting spontaneous creativity in following and footwork within the first few months of learning to dance.

Dancesplaining has been nearly non-existent in the classroom setting during this experiment.  There has been more positive partner interaction in rotation, such as discussing how to make a move work rather than assigning blame if it doesn’t.

The most dramatic result occurred with a private-lesson student.  Immediately after introducing the idea of interpretation and choice, the follow’s movements became significantly more confident (or actually read as confident for first time that we ever observed); movements became fluid, and she began to smile and have fun.

graph

Conclusions

Presenting following as an active interpretation and choice to respond appears to help follows feel more confident in their dancing and less nervous about doing it “right.”  They also appear more comfortable with the idea of shared responsibility for creative aspects of the dance.  Preliminary results seem to indicate that they are also more interested in continuing to learn and improve than in past classes which used more passive wording.

This style of wording also appears to reduce pressure on the leads by giving them time to integrate their own material while follows work on new material, and by presenting the dance as a shared creation rather than content purely dependent on the lead.  Leads are also able to focus attention in different places when follows are empowered to share responsibility for concepts like pulse and rhythm.

Overall, dances in this experimental mode have exhibited more teamwork and less “2 people holding hands and dancing around each other.”  Both roles seem more excited, less fearful of each other, and less worried about judgement.  Students appear to be approaching the dance and learning as a team rather than as isolated individuals.

While it remains to be seen how this will affect dancing in the longer term, preliminary findings show a great deal of promise.  Feedback from each side has been positive, both in terms of how students feel about the dance and how they feel about the instruction.

Making Better Use of Your Lats

It’s another one of those often used, but tough to execute, pieces of advice, “use your lats.” I hear it a lot in the swing dance world and in the fitness world and while it seems to be a simple idea, many people struggle with it. Often, the issue is not that the lats aren’t active, but that other muscles are preventing the lats from fully activating. So here’s a quick run-down on how you can gain better access to this muscle.

lat-extensionWhat are Lats?

Just a quick definition for those of you unfamiliar with them, your lats, or latissimus dorsi, are the main power muscle involved in retracting the arm from an extended postion.  So if you are is out in front or above you (flexion) and you want to pull it into back towards a neutral position by your side (extension), that’s the job of the lats. The lats are also used for a few other movements but pulling in (extending from flexion) is a primary issue in dance and athletics.

Extending to Activate

When attempting to engage their lats, most people (and most of their instructors, coaches, trainers, etc.) try to go at it directly. “Find your lats and squeeze them” can work, but most people struggle with this version. I have found that taking a more 3-dimensional, indirect approach helps many people to more effectively engage their lats, allowing them to get greater power and range of motion out of the muscle.

The basic idea is to think about expanding the muscles of the anterior (front) chest and sides (pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and serratus anterior). Instead of focusing on your back and trying to squeeze from there, put your attention on the front of the body and allow the chest muscles to expand as you pull. Rather than initiating from the back, imagine the force starting from the chest and wrapping around and under the armpit and through to the low back. As you do this, be aware of the head and neck which have a tendency to push forward in response; keeping the head upright will help the chest to expand, enhancing the engagement of the lats.

wide-lapels-bow-tieIt also helps to work on keeping the space around the clavicles (collar bones) spacious and wide.  Imagine wearing a jacket with extra wide lapels that extend into the space of the shoulders.  The more the shoulders settle wide and back, the more it will help you to engage the lats when using your arms.

Why Extension Helps

The rigors of modern life (computers, driving, etc.) frequently put us in an arms forward position for extended periods of time. This means that their chest muscles are often stuck in a contracted position. As a result, many people become habituated to a posture that involves some level of collapsing in at the chest.  So when they attempt something like a lat pull or retracting in from extension, the anterior chest muscles tend to stay contracted.

metal-pulleyThis contraction of the front muscles causes an inhibitory effect in the lats. This response, known as reciprocal inhibition, causes muscles with opposing actions to be prevented from contracting at the same time. Similar to how you can only move a pulley rope by pulling on one end at a time and allowing the other end to move, a joint only moves effectively when muscles on one side expand, giving the opposing muscles room to contract. By focusing on expanding the chest, you allow room for the lats to contract and prevent the reciprocal inhibitory effect.

Beyond Just Lats

This expansion tactic can be used to aid in movements throughout the body. By lengthening the antagonist muscle to a movement, you can provide more space for the acting muscle to contract, adding to both potential for power and mobility. The more you work with activating your body in a 3-dimensional fashion this way, rather than isolated muscles, the more freely you will be able to move across all your joints. So the next time you are having trouble executing a motion, try finding the opposing muscles and allowing them to expand, using space over effort to move.

No Dancesplaining, Please

scolding_child

Dancesplain

  1. To provide negative, and typically unsolicited, feedback to a dance partner with an attitude of superiority. Can be given on or off the floor by men or women and conveys that the recipient of the feedback is the sole cause of any problems in the dance.
  2. The gender-neutral equivalent of mansplaining in a dance context

This past weekend, I was teaching a beginner Lindy workshop with my partner, Lindsay. About halfway through the class, she leaned over and whispered to me “there are a lot of guys telling the follows what to do, can you say something?” I got on my soap box for a minute, made a little speech about it, and class moved on. But given the number of times someone has mentioned something like this to me in the last month, I figured it was worth putting into post form.

Let me preface this by saying I do not think this behavior is limited to men. I have seen women do the exact same things in a dance, and other contexts. It just so happens that I have heard complaints on at least 4 or 5 separate occasions in the past month of leads, without establishing any permission, telling follows they are doing a move wrong. I will give some benefit of the doubt and say that this may sometimes be people thinking they are being helpful, but it’s rarely as helpful as they think it is.

And a caveat, the following ideas should be superceded in cases of physical danger.  If someone is hurting you, you have every right to tell them without asking permission and if they don’t listen, I believe you have every right to end the dance immediately.  That said, there are still more and less effective ways to have that conversation that will be discussed below.

The Issue

I think there is an underlying fallacy that “If I know better than my partner, then I should help by telling them they are doing it wrong.” The problem with this is that it assumes you are doing things perfectly. This assumption is just inherently incorrect, you can always do things better. And the better you do something, the more naturally it sets you partner up to do their part better. For instance, I spent years watching body flight (ie. continuing momentum) be drilled into dancers and thinking it was just something follows had to be told to do. In recent years, I have started to recognize that there are ways to follow through that even most complete beginner follows interpret as “keep going.” If I hadn’t continued to refine my leading, I would have just kept assuming that every partner I danced with would have to be told to travel through. It reminds me of something Michael Mathis had said to me years ago, “I find that as I become a better lead, my partners just seem to magically be better.”

One_way_signsIn addition, immediately blaming your partner builds a wall between you. Rather than two people having a conversation, things become a lecture. And the typical accompanying tone of these lectures is scolding. When you tell someone, unbidden, that they are doing it wrong, you break down the partnership and lose out on hearing what your partner has to say.

I find blaming your partner and teaching on the floor tend to happen more often with dancers (and teachers) who have stopped growing. If you are a very predictable lead, your regular partners knowing your moves can make it easy to think that you have totally nailed leading them. And if you are a follow with the attitude of “I can follow perfectly if I have a good lead,” you may not notice that those good leads are making a lot of subtle adjustments to make the dance work with you. Both of these archetypes place blame squarely on their partner and, in a sense, minimize the importance of skill in their own role. Approaching  dance with this sort of attitude turns it into a binary system of “one person is right and one is wrong,” with a corrolary of “I always do it right, so guess who the wrong is…”

The Underlying Issue

Similar to mansplaining, I think the underlying issue here is abuse of a power differential. That is to say a perceived difference in skill (I’m the better dancer) is used to keep the other person down (You’re doing it wrong) rather than help them to be on the same level (could you try this, I would appreciate X, etc.) The sad part to me is that it happens often enough around me that it made sense to come up with a word to shorthand it. I have had follows come to me saying they had 6-8 guys in a night tell them they are doing something wrong. And before you think this is limited to bad dancers, I’ve seen rockstar dancers treat their partner or students similarly at times too.

I think the core of this is typically that when something doesn’t work, the conscious mind goes into overdrive trying to figure it out. The job of the conscious mind is to parse things down and put them in boxes with labels. A couple of the more readily available labels for problem situations are me/them and right/wrong. Since it doesn’t feel good to put the wrong label on me, we look for somewhere else to put it. Having someone dancing a different role right in front of us makes it that much easier to slap the “wrong” label on them, saving the embarrassment of putting it on ourselves. What we forget in doing this is that partner dancing is not just a me/you dance, but it’s an us dance and if we start using me/you labels, then we break the us. And in breaking the us, we often end up giving ourselves permission to crap on the newly labeled them.

Creating a Better Way…

So how can we move towards creating a shift? When I look at how mansplaining is being approached, I mostly see a continuation of the us/them mentality. It’s easy to lash out and call a dancesplainer an asshole and perpetuate the cycle. It is challenging but potentially much more productive to address the issues in a way that leads back to an “us” solution. With that in mind, here are a few communication skills I think are particularly effective in enhancing my own learning and effectively communicating with dance partners when there is an issue.

Look to Yourself First

One of the most effective tools for advancing my own dancing has been the idea that I can always do something better. As I lead, I look for where I may be miscommunicating or temporarily stopping/losing communication with my partner. Early on it was easy to get so wrapped up in what I was doing that I had no spare attention for my partner. The more I have worked on finding the holes in my connection, the more it has also made me better aware of what I am actually leading versus what I assume myself to be leading.

The same things goes for following. “He’s not leading it,” is legitimately true sometimes, but it also can become an easy out from figuring out how to connect better. When I’m working on following, my general goal is to work on sensitivity and reaction. If a move isn’t working, I do my best to follow what I perceive in the lead so that we can get a sense of where things are breaking down. The same way I have found holes in my connection as a lead, I’ve been able to find and improve on my communication as a follower by focusing on what I can do better first.

I try not to think of things in dance as your fault or my fault. In a sense there is only our fault. Looking to what you can fix first is not a matter of taking blame, but rather looking for what you can contribute to improve the situation.

Establish Permission

It’s generally kind of shocking to be dancing along and have someone, out of nowhere, tell you you need to fix something. Not only that, but it can easily shatter whatever happy bubble you’ve had yourself in, which has a tendency to piss people off. So even if your intent is to be helpful, unsolicited feedback often raises the fight or flight response and runs a risk of coming off as an asshole. We all blurt things out occasionally, and I know I’ve had occasion both to irritate and be irritated by friends when one of us just assumed feedback was welcome. It can help a great deal to find ways to prep for feedback and allow it in without breaking the happy bubble.

Both as a teacher and as a student, I have found it is often really helpful to approach first with a question along the lines of “Can I make a suggestion?” If he or she says “yes,” then we can proceed to having a discussion about it. If he or she says “no,” then I keep my opinion to myself unless that person is causing serious harm (in which case I might have led with something more direct like “I need to talk to you”). The act of asking for permission can feel a tad cumbersome but it respects the other person’s boundaries and gives them a moment to adjust to a state of readiness to hear feedback. It is the dance class equivalent of inviting someone to a performance evaluation rather than barging into their office and telling them they need to shape up or ship out.

Use Positive & Open Language

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

“You’re doing this wrong,” is a rather unhelpful statement and has a strong tendency to make the recipient feel lousy. It also introduces a level of certainty into the conversation that very few of us can truly live up to. Again, the conscious mind looks to be able to slap a label on something, but if you convince yourself you already have it figured out, then you shut down the opportunity to learn. Instead of approaching with a “You are/aren’t doing X,” wording, you can open a dialogue by describing what you feel or simply expressing that something doesn’t seem to be working. “I feel like we are losing connection here” or “I think we are are behind the beat” are far more friendly wordings that invite your partner to explore the issue as an equal.

If you approach things as equals then you can give feedback as a potential experiment rather than a command. “What happens if you lean back more?” is a sentence full of possibility and potential avenues for learning. “You need to lean back more,” shuts down the possibility that anything other than your idea could be correct. When you use an open question or statement, it creates space for both you and your partner to learn together. When you make a closed statement, you not only are shutting down your partner’s opportunity to explore, but you are effectively saying you have nothing to learn from the situation.

Building Something Beyond Yourself

We all dancesplain occasionally. I’ve certainly done it and times and had it done to me. The world we live in is rife with opportunities to make one group right and the other wrong. But when we do this, we drive a wedge between ourselves and our partner. Judgmental feedback can cause people not just to take issue with us, but to fear judgement from every lead or follow they dance with. If you want to help your partner grow, then help them to feel safe and free to play and grow and you will reap the rewards of having great partners to dance with. And if you can’t say it with respect and love, then please don’t say anything and ask for help from someone more skilled in giving feedback, because the fear of judgement has a far more potent effect on most people’s dancing than any bodily technique point you can offer them.

In the last two years I have talked to a lot of long-term intermediate/advanced dancers and noticed a great trend towards self judgement and less talk about loving the dance. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think the more we treat each other with respect and love, the more the dance will grow. If we treat each other with judgement and fear, noone’s going to want to dance with us. That said, I’d like to leave you with a talk from one of the great lovers of this dance, Dawn Hampton (click the link below to hear Dawn deliver this as only she can):

I really want you to love the dance, to love the music, to love yourself. The only thing that I can say to you is when you get out on the dance floor, is let go.

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