So what are the up and down orientations, what do they mean, and where do they come from? In essence, orientation is a statement on what a dancer resources to begin and end a movement. For instance, when jumping, is the primary intention to touch the high point of the jump or is the primary intention on preparation and landing?
While all of us have our own natural preferences, one of the primary influences that can enhance or override our preference is cultural background. For the purposes of this article, I’ll stick to African and European influences which I feel are the two primary cultures at work in swing dancing today. While these cultural differences may not be as strongly pronounced in descendant American generations, a few hundred years are hardly enough to wipe out the differences completely.
A quick look at African dances reveals a strong cultural tendency towards down or “earth” orientation while European dances tend strongly towards an up or “sky” orientation. Traditional African dances draw the eyes of the viewer to the feet while European dances (waltz, ballet, etc.) tend to emphasize arms more, drawing the eye upward. In the following videos you can see the strong contrast of up and down orientations in cultural dances.
African dance and music routinely features a strong percussive element. Not only the drummers but the dancers as well form part of the rhythm by striking their feet on the ground. It often seems as if the legs are only lifted so that they can be brought down again. The dances across various African cultures are often rhythmically pulsating, driving, and pushing through the ground. Even in the Massai jumping dances, the jumps are rhytmic and involve a strong downward preparation and final landing. You can still see these influences pretty strongly in early jazz, swing and tap dancing.
By contrast, Ballet, and many ballroom dances create a much more floaty feel. Dancers are constantly reaching or arching skyward, emphasizing the top. Jumps emphasize the height rather than the prep and the landings slow the descent of the free leg so that it hangs in the air longer than gravity alone would allow it. You can even see this upward tendency in many European folk dances.
This is not to say that one or the other is right. While you may find one orientation more appealing, they are both part of any well-rounded dancer’s repertoire. But knowing your own preferences can both help you to select motions that fit your natural tendencies and expand your dancing into less familiar movement styles. When working with unfamiliar styles of motion it can be helpful to consider if they come from outside your cultural norm.