Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘communication’

Advice From My First 7 Years as a Rolfer®

It’s been a little over 8 years since I graduated the Rolfing® basic training and slightly under 7 since I completed my licensure, got laid off, and made an abrupt transition into “full time” at about 2-3 clients a week at the time. Last year I completed my Advanced training and assisted a Unit 3 training for the first time and it’s had me thinking about how much has changed since I first stepped into a classroom in Boulder. I’ve reached the point where there’s no thought to calling myself a Rolfer anymore and even on the days that it just feels like work I still wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

I’ve had my first Rolfling (client who decided to become a Rolfer) and possibly a few more in the making so I’ve been thinking about some of the advice I can offer that I feel really helped me become the Rolfer I am today. It’s not a comprehensive list, but a number of salient points I’ve found useful along the way.

Worry Less About Fixing and More About Learning

It’s challenging to remember when someone is paying for your help but one of the things I wished I’d realized earlier is that it’s not incumbent on me to be everyone’s savior. In the course of my career I might seem like a total wizard to some people and a charlatan or waste of time to other people. In training it was easy to watch an instructor be magical and think that that was what I was supposed to produce in the next hour. And in hindsight what may have held me back in my first few years was the tendency to try and push harder when that sort of magic wasn’t happening.

Having recently assisted a training for the first time, I think that ideally Rolfing training would be something like a 4-year degree. But for a variety of factors it’s not reasonable to run things that way so what we get is a training that teaches enough enough to be dangerous then sets us up to spend our early years getting our “finishing school” from our clients and continuing education. Even being told “the 10-series is what you do for 5 years or until you know what you’re doing” is easy to lose sight of in that moment when you have hands on a new client who’s coming to you for help and your training didn’t tell you exactly what to do in that moment with that client’s particular issue.

Looking back, and in working with my first Rolfing mentee, I think one of the things that most served the Rolfer I have become at this point was learning to back off, stop trying to fix, and focus more on learning. Making my Rolfing practice into my Rolfing *Practice* as it were. When my job became not to fix in the moment but to be effective enough that people came back (when appropriate for them) that was when I think I started to really become more effective. Pacing things not only to the client’s rate of change but also to a level or touch where I could work but still listen an gain understanding of what was going on. So that has become my primary stock piece of advice to new Rolfers which I also found echoed to some level by my advice to first time dance students.

Your primary job for the first 5 years is not to fix people. It is to be effective enough that people want to come back so you can continue to learn from working with them.

Sweat the Small Talk

I started Rolfing training as an avowed introvert, quiet and shy. When I share with clients that this is where I started from, most having little to no trouble believing this (although that’s starting the change lately, *happy dance*). They are far more likely to have a hard time believing I’ve been a swing dancer for 15 years and taught, competed, and ran my own dance studio for a while. So when I say that I’ve found being chatty with clients is a valuable thing, it’s a pretty big statement from where I started.

I think the early stages of Rolfing training made it easy for me to get focused on the client’s body and issues therein. After all, as Dr. Rolf said, it is the part we work with because it’s what we can get our hands on. People tend to show up in my office because they have big issues that have been affecting their life for a while and it’s easy to hang up on those. But one of the things I’ve realized over time is that if I focus too much on the current issues it becomes hard to see why we’re doing all this work and where it is going for the client. Understanding my client’s strengths and resources and joys has proven every bit as important as their problems and it takes a certain level of trust and familiarity to share any of those.

Making small talk with clients (or bigger talk), chatting about their day, their likes, what they or their kids did this past weekend, etc. has been a major source of insight that I didn’t expect it to be. I find that the more levels I’m willing to work with my clients on the more effective I’ve been able to be. Since it’s impossible to really know a person from an intake form I find myself that I can learn and connect more with my clients in a conversational”rolling intake” way not unlike getting to know another human being in any other situation would. The more I’m willing to roam through subjects with clients, the more I get to see the bigger picture of who they are, how their issues and activities and woes and joys are influencing their lives, and very often in conversation I find words or ideas or other hooks to help empower them in their healing process (and I find plenty to help heal myself as well). Sometimes the conversation itself is an important part of the healing. And let’s be honest, it can be a weird thing to meet someone, get in your underwear, and have them work on you; carrying on a conversation like a normal person often seems to help with the process of normalizing the newness of Rolfing for a lot of clients.

When in Doubt, Ask the Client

Being unsure what to do seems to be a pretty common thread in my first few years and strikes me as likely to continue showing up pretty regularly in my practice for the rest of my life. In theory unless I’m working with another Rolfer, I’m the person in the room most likely to be the expert on Rolfing but that still often means not knowing. I’ve often seen situations where Rolfers seem to think they need to know what the client needs as a default. “How do I know when to do X?” is a common question I’ve heard in classes and I think it speaks to the uncertainty of working with bodies and human health. I’ve found that, for me, the simplest and most powerful solution is to own my uncertainty, say “I’m not sure” and then ask the client for input. After all, the client is the expert on being themselves and have been figuring out and meeting their own needs for a lot longer than I have, so why not use them as a resource?

I usually give the client an out by telling them”You’re paying me to figure it out” if they don’t have a clear preference or sense of which direction to go, but sharing ideas and asking for client input helps make the process collaborative and a team effort for the their health. It invites them into conversation with their body and offers them some practice with better defining their internal landscape. It makes my job a hell of a lot easier than trying to know everything all the time and it gives me more information for my own learning process. It’s humbling and humanizing to say “I don’t know” but I’ve found it’s almost always improved on my results and helped keep my ego from getting in the way of the work.

Get a Mentor

There is a lot to learn in this little niche therapy of ours, and fairly likely still a lot more than I’m aware of at 7/8 years in. My de facto mentors for the first few years were my first Rolfers, Bethany Ward and Larry Koliha. I knew going into my first 10-series that I was interested in being a Rolfer so Bethany gave me a behind-the-scenes view of her processes as we worked together and it was incredibly helpful and something I’ve carried in to working with potential Rolfers. Larry and Bethany are also faculty at the Rolf Institute which meant they were full of helpful thoughts on preparing for the training or reigning in my occasional oversteps in practicing (I got scolded for trying nosework on a friend before I had done any training).

It was a real boon to be able to have someone I could ask when I got stuck with a client or when a session had a detrimental result or even when I just felt like a client’s issue was out of my depth and it was better to refer them out to someone more experienced. At the same time, I had Larry’s advice that often the difficult clients are the ones you learn the most from as a guide to work on staying calm and continuing to hang with the moment when I was having trouble with a client or with my own body. And being able to take classes from Larry and Bethany and receive work from both of them over the years has been a great source of new-to-me ideas and feedback on if I’m getting the right idea or if I missed the point of something they were teaching.

And ultimately having mentors has also provided me a metric for realizing that I can be both different and awesome. One of the things I’ve noticed over time is that the people who excel in various fields often seem to do so in part by being deeply themselves in the process. Being able to compare notes with Bethany and Larry and the occasional shared client helped me realize that I didn’t have to always use their ideas to be effective and on occasion I saw something for a client that they didn’t and vice versa. Knowing and working with them gave me a model for success in this trade and over time also helped me realize that my success didn’t have to look the same way as their success.

Get a Colleague

I think perhaps even more important than finding a mentor is finding a peer with whom you can connect. Someone who you feel on an even playing field with and free to talk about your experiences, exchange work, challenge each other, be a shoulder to cry on, and grow in unison (if not always in the same direction or at the same rate). A good colleague provides a safe space to grow in a different way than a mentor and can also help be a great yardstick for our own progress.

One of the most valuable resources to me has been my first client-turned-Rolfer, Lisa Barr. While we started in sort of a mentor/mentee relationship at first, we transitioned pretty quickly to trying to be more like colleagues and equals and both of us feel we got far more benefit from that relationship in the long run. Lisa knows me far better than any other Rolfer because we make time to trade sessions, get coffee after the session, and spend time talking about life beyond the table. This close friendship not only means we have a strong supportive colleague but also gives us additional space to grow and often helps us connect the dots and do deeply transformative work with each other. I believe we are often able to evoke change with each other that more experienced practitioners couldn’t or didn’t because of the additional layers of trust and familiarity that we have built with each other.

Get a (Really Good) Therapist

I feel like I got very lucky with the therapist I started working with just after I finished Basic Training. I’d be dumped HARD during my Unit 3 and came home incredibly distraught and finally ended up working with the therapist who a doctor friend had been advising me to try for several years prior. Frank has been my go-to therapist through the growth of my career and someone I still see off and on as my life, body, etc. continue to shift and grow. Working with him has not only improved my life but it has made me a better Rolfer.

While I started from a place of being a pretty good listener, having a therapist to model on has provided so many small and large pieces towards presenting both a more compassionate and more open model of listening for my clients. My early few years working with Frank involved a lot of anger and his willingness to simply sit with it and advice to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” has, I think, made me a far more accessible therapist to my clients. I’ve learned how to sit and simply hear their stories and when appropriate share my own stories or my own thoughts as opposed to jumping to giving advice or trying to fix things for a client.

And in a more general way, I think it’s an important aspect of presenting balance in ourselves with our clients. As I keep my own personal self developing, I keep myself relatively sharp for helping others develop as well; plus having a close relationship with a therapist has been useful when I need to get a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for a client.. And as a colleague recently said to me “I keep going to a therapist so that I don’t have to”.

You Get To Co-Create the Context

It took me a while to recognize it, but the average client coming into my office doesn’t seem to know what to expect from a Rolfing session. Rolfing can be hard to describe even if you’ve had it and it seems to almost defy the “elevator speech” level of communication. So even if they’ve been referred by another client, many new Rolfees seem to show up not knowing what the experience is going to look like.

While it’s easy to view this as a detriment, I have found this can be spun as a strength of the work as well. With minimal pre-conceived notions, it becomes possible to set the stage for our work in a different way than if someone is going for a spa massage or other therapeutic intervention more oriented to them simply receiving care. I have found this ability to re-contextualize our work together as something collaborative, exploratory, out-of-the-box, and holistic is of great benefit and helps go beyond just “fix my pain” to allow room for the sort of transformative work that drew me to Rolfing in the first place.

I aim to meet my clients on a person-to-person level first and foremost and to work as equals rather than play into certain professional roles and expectations. It works for me and it seems to work for the majority of my clients. I’ve seen other colleagues work it different ways that serve them where my strategy wouldn’t fit. But in essence, you get to set the tone of the relationship you want to create with your clients and the more you take advantage of that, the more your work starts to look like you which I generally seems to make the more powerful both for Rolfer and client.

It’s OK to do Free Work

At times, offering free work has been one of the best tools to create a learning environment for myself and to be effective with clients I might not otherwise have helped. Offering free work significantly cuts down the anxiety around producing results for money which helps me feel space to experiment and take risks I might have talked myself out of. Sometimes a client shows up with an issue so outside of my experience that I have no idea if I can help but I want to try and see both if I can help them and if I can learn something. For instance, when I had a lactation consultant start sending me infants with tongue tie issues I spent the first few months doing free work on babies. This allowed me to create training space for myself and the freedom to experiment helped me to play with tactics that were both new to me and seemingly outside of what other tongue tie workers were doing.

Offering free work has also been a great way to smooth things over with clients on the rare occasion where something goes wrong from a session. This happens occasionally when a client struggles with integrating a session or every once in a while when I make a mistake. I try to first do no harm, so when I feel I’ve done something that adversely affected a client, it helps me stay in integrity with my intentions to either return their money for that session or offer free work until they feel better. Some of this is self soothing but it also goes a long way towards restoring trust with clients and being clear that we are working for their betterment and it gives me a chance to get hands on them again and try to learn where things went sideways. The most memorable case of this working for both me and a client happened when I was working with a first time client and had one of her ribs pop out of alignment. She called me the next day saying she was in pain and would be unable to come back, so I offered to do free work until the issue resolved. I spent 6 weeks doing free sessions for her until it felt better but I learned a lot about ribs and haven’t had that happen since, plus she became one of my best clients for a number of years.

Be Careful With Discount Work

One of the things I’ve learned over time is it’s equally important that my clients are covering my needs as that I am covering theirs. At the base level this means that I need to get enough money and/or emotional return on my time and energy to make doing work sustainable. While offering discounted work is occasionally valuable as a marketing or accessibility tool it can also be fairly destructive to the sustainability and quality of my work and client relationships.

I’ve run Groupons twice in my earlier days and found that those kind of steep discounts invite a lot of clients only looking for more discounts. I’ve gotten a few wonderful folks out of each one, but not at a much higher rate than what was already coming through my door by referral. At the same time Groupon tended to bring in a higher than average level of people just there for cheap work and less engaged in the process in general. Additionally the ones who wanted to stick around but only if I kept offering them a discounted rate tended to be the ones frequently going on fun weekend outings worth several times the discount they were asking for. While I don’t fault anyone for trying to save money, it typically seemed like the issue with these cases was one more of priority than true need for a discount which ended up feeling to me like a de-valuing of my time and effort. Noticing this effect has also made me very mindful of making sure my providers feel fully valued when I go to other therapists/practitioners/artists/etc nowadays.

So my early years pricing advice has been to set a price that feels good, and maybe a little uncomfortably high in the sense that it gives you space to grow into. Start from the market price for Rolfing in your area and adjust up or down to find that sweet spot for yourself. I don’t think money is everything but it is the most easily quantifiable and I do believe it communicates something about how people value my time and effort. What I found running Groupons was that doing a lot of work at a steep discount tended to affect the quality of my work across the board. So at this point I’m very mindful of offering discounts and making sure that I take care of my needs in a sustainable fashion that keeps me doing great work for my clients and myself.

Start with 3s When Strategizing and Pitching Work

I started out doing a lot of one-off sessions at dance events so I didn’t get particularly tied to the Ten-Series sales pitch but over time I’ve learned that it’s not where I prefer to start with clients. And clients coming in for the first time tend to find the idea of committing to 10 sessions upfront for a therapy and a person they have never tried to be rather daunting.

3 sessions is a much more manageable amount to consider for trying something new and I find it is typically enough for most clients to decide if we are making forward progress towards their needs and goals. For the last few years I’ve told new clients to “give it 3 sessions and that should give you a good sense of whether or not we’re making forward progress and/or if we need to change directions.” After a year or two working with that number as a proving ground, I’ve found there’s better client engagement and return, more people helped, and I’ve gotten much better at honing in on my clients’ core needs. Plus I find it typically takes 3-5 sessions to really start establishing a trust and rapport that allows for deeper work so when clients stick around past that point we usually get to dive into even cooler territory. Or if a client and I aren’t making some progress in 3 sessions I’m much better informed by then to be able to suggest someone or something that might be more helpful to their needs.

Strategise/Be Opportunistic About Classes for Advanced Training

My practice is in Raleigh, North Carolina in the USA. In the time I’ve been in practice there have been just a handful of RISI credits offered within even a day’s driving distance. When I finally got around to planning for Advanced Training I found myself scrambling to get the required prerequisites done in time. I actually ended up finishing my prerequisites mid-Advanced by flying to LA for a class on my way down to Brazil for the second half of my Advanced Training.

So generally now I recommend to newer Rolfers that they keep an eye out for the workshops near them, try to spread out the CEUs you need to get through RISI for your Advanced Training. If you live in Boulder or Seattle or the like it’s probably not a particular issue. But if you live a couple hundred miles or more from the nearest place where RISI regularly offers classes then pay attention to when they come up and try to maybe take one class every year or two. This will help you be ahead of the Advanced Training game when it comes time to cash in those prerequisite classes.

Titration and Pacing

One of the first pieces of advice I got from Bethany when I did a mentored session with her was to slow down and find the first layer of resistance rather than diving straight to as deep as I could do. I started out with a “Get in there and FIX IT” mentality that, in hindsight, was partly driven by a desire to speed through my own discomfort with my client’s expectations of relief (ESPECIALLY in the cases where I got a client who’d been to a much more experienced Rolfer elsewhere). It took a number of years and a fair amount of confidence and self loving growth to reach a point where I could just hang out at a client’s pace of change and feel (for the most part) comfortable with the discomfort of “they’re not feeling better yet and I’m not sure if they will”. The more I became comfortable with not having to ‘fix’ a client and just helping them evoke change at a pace that worked for them the more effective my work became. And curiously enough, the less I rushed things, the more rapidly they seemed become available to shift.

Pacing for myself as a human and practitioner is important as well. When I first started, two of the local Rolfers were closing their offices and I expected to be flooded with clients. In hindsight I’m glad I ended up getting very few of their people coming to me because it gave me time for my body to adjust and strengthen with this work. It made for some tough financial years in the middle but I believe that taking 5 years to reach a relatively full practice helped me be a better kind of strong and stable for this work.

Learning to pace and spread out my learning has been of great help. The desire to know ALL THE THINGS is certainly there for me at times and occasionally it’s worth cramming a few classes together. But it’s worth remembering that sometimes our clients integrate the most when we take our hands off of them. And similarly, we as practitioners and people integrate similarly when we just settle in and do the work where we are and with what we have at that moment.

Go Beyond Fascia/Try Things/Make It Your Own

I didn’t plan it this way, but looking back at the last 4 or 5 years of Continuing Ed for myself, I did as much learning about tissues other than fascia, as I did taking more traditionally Rolfing/fascial work classes. Nerve work, scar tissue, visceral, and deeper cranial rhythms all helped me refine my touch, expand my range, and take my fascial work deeper as well. Plus watching the various instructors for these courses helped gain a broader idea of how many directions this work can go and how much you can personalize it to your own knowledge base, body type, and way of being.

I started to define Rolfing, at least for myself, as something more of a philosophy than a technique. Most of the experienced Rolfers I know seem to have borrowed pieces of other work that isn’t strictly from the original Rolfing tradition and most of them do work that is in some way distinctly reflective of who they are as a person. As I observed this, I began to think of Rolfing less as a tool and more of an organizing principle for how I arrange my toolbox and how I go about using those tools to help someone (ordering of interventions, seeing beyond the surface, etc.). Thus, to to me, Rolfing becomes not a specific product or service that I offer but rather a context for offering my best therapeutic self to help people, which is part of how my work began to reflect me as a person.

Get Some Work for Yourself

Simple enough but so easy to get away from the habit. Believe in your own product and get Rolfing (and any other work that calls you) not just when you need it but before you need it. Having gone through phases of both I can say I think my clients’ results are markedly better in the periods where I’m spending or even overspending on self care compared to the periods where I wasn’t getting any work for 6 months or so.

Make Room for the Work to Change You

When I started down the path of this work, I oriented to it strongly as “I want this so I can do good things for others” What I failed to predict in those early stages was how much the work would also become a tool for letting the world do for and change me. At nearly 10 years since my first Rolfing sessions, I’m suddenly encountering the idea from multiple sources that the spiritual/personal growth work that we do is not just for ourselves but for all of our relationships and our clients as well. And after spending most of my life orienting as a giver, I find myself learning some really powerful lessons about how much I’m capable of receiving as well.

When I started training as a Rolfer I was on antidepressants, living in a construction zone of a house , and unconvinced that I had much value in the world. I was rather painfully shy, afraid of judgement, and felt stuck going down some family paths that I didn’t even realize I was on. Last year one of my colleagues told me when she had first met me seven years ago she was sure I was going to be a pain in her ass because I was dreadfully unhappy and couldn’t see it for myself.

Yesterday the same colleague told me she’s looking forward to the day when her children reach the point of change that I’ve gotten to lately. I’ve also had comments from pretty much every Rolfer I’ve worked with long-term about how much my body and way of being have changed over time. I still have the rest of my life to grow but I’m significantly happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than I was before I entered this process.

As I changed, my work changed and grew. The more my energy and way of being improved, the better my clients’ results got. In a grand sense, I don’t think of this work as fixing or creating a change in someone, it’s helping them (and ourselves) remove or work through the roadblocks to being our best, happiest, lightest selves. The more we allow ourselves to soften into our hard spaces, the more we learn how to offer similar space to our clients, our friends, and ourselves. So regardless of where you start from, probably my biggest advice to new Rolfers is to be open to the work changing you, challenging you, and bringing you to places in yourself that you may not have been able to imagine when you walked into your Unit 1 training.

First, Make It Not Suck

The title of this article is my Rule #1 that I give new dancers who are worried about being desirable to dance with. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you have to be a great dancer to be fun to dance with and, in my experience, it’s simply not true. Some of my favorite and memorable dances are with total beginners who were just having so much fun that they couldn’t be bothered to worry about whether they were doing it right or not. I generally tell people that if you can make the dance not suck, then it’s already in C+/B- territory and anything beyond that is gravy. And making it not suck is typically as simple as the following three factors.

It Sucks If It Hurts
It Sucks If It’s Creepy/Threatening
It Sucks If There’s a Weird Power Differential

Generally speaking, if it doesn’t suck it’s pretty good. You can be off-time, you can only have 2 moves, etc. and you can still be plenty enjoyable to dance with. I tend to remember this best from a friend in tango who put it as something like “Sometimes it’s great to just walk”. To be clear, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have dances that suck once in a while, but if you keep these three things in mind, I think you’re already ahead of the game for being a delightful person to dance with.

It Sucks If It Hurts

no-painThis one seems simple and obvious, but it’s amazing sometimes how easy it is to forget. I see a lot of this as stemming from “I have to get the move right” style thinking with dancers, really at any level. Trying to forces moves or movements runs a high risk of doing something that doesn’t jive with yours or your partner’s body and worrying about making the move work or end a certain way lends itself to forcing it. Yes, it’s lovely to hit that 32 count sequence just the way you thought or simply finish a basic turn on time, but doing so at the expense of your body or your partner’s body kind of ruins the moment.

I work with this in beginner lessons by building moves off of natural movement and teaching the dance with people moving together throughout rather than dividing leads and follows, teaching them a specific movements separately, and then pushing them back together and expecting them to suddenly match each other. While it can be more complex learning this way, it focuses the learning on partnership instead of individuals and helps make lead/follow interaction the primary energy of the dance rather than footwork. If people are thinking about their feet first, they tend to lose sight of the fact that there’s another person attached to them. If you focus first on that human interaction, it’s much easier to avoid hurting each other or be aware of it and shift when it happens.

And to be clear, this can happen at any level and with both genders. I regularly hear complaints about painful leading from several male instructors in my area and I’ve chosen to stop dancing with one female instructor who routinely gripped my hand so hard that I would worry about having to work with it the next day. Pain or comfort are achievable at any level of dancing, choose comfort.

It Sucks If It’s Creepy/Threatening

no-creepingIn the context of dance I think this mostly translates to “don’t assume you have the right to anyone’s body, time, or social interaction”. It’s easy and rather enticing to say things like “the boundaries are just different in dance” but I believe this often gets taken as “the rules of engagement around consent are different too”. The act of dancing with someone is just as much a negotiation as any other social interaction. The more it’s a balanced interaction where “no” is treated as a completely legitimate answer, the less likely this is to be an issue.

Again, I think this boils down to making the interaction human first and dance second. It’s easy when you’re in a new social environment to start to compromise on boundaries, particularly if you’re worried about seeing the other person on a regular basis. This may be different in other scenes, but I think the influence of Southern culture in my area means you often see people avoid challenging the few creepy apples at a dance because they would rather put up with the behavior than deal with a potential conflict. I don’t think there’s some singular right answer to this, but as we as a society are starting to talk about boundaries and consent more, I hope to see these conversations start happening one-on-one in the dance world more and hopefully enough of those will lead to some really great shifts.

It Sucks If There’s a Weird Power Differential

power-differentialThis is probably the most pervasive but also the most subtle one and therefore easier to overlook; enough so that I spent most of a year saying the first two make it not suck aspects before I thought of this. As much as we love to talk about equality and togetherness in the dance scene, there can also be a lot of hierarchy at play, partly real partly in our own heads. When you set up a perceived power differential between lead and follow or experienced dancer and newbie it makes the dance more about roles and less about humanity. It also makes it much easier for things like dancesplaining to occur and for dancers who feel they are in the less powerful position to be less likely to hold their boundaries if one of the first two ways of sucking occurs and less likely to speak out for what gives them joy in the dance.

I had lunch a couple days ago with a former dance student and we got talking about the challenges of this when he was a beginner. Now, for context, this is someone who routinely speaks in from of large groups of people and performs original songs in public; I consider him to be incredibly brave, creative, and very willing to engage with the challenges associated with growing in any skill. He told me that he found there tended to be two types of dancers offering him feedback as a newbie, those who’d ask if they could make a suggestion and others who would launch unprompted into critiquing his dancing or telling him “you know what you should do…” Watching him talk about it, I could even see his body shrink in on itself as he talked about the second type and the memory of being criticized.

Don’t get me wrong, criticism and understanding what and how to do things better is an important part of growing as a dancer. However, there’s a time and a place for it and more and less effective ways to communicate these concepts. I see lots of “better” dancers telling newer dancers what they should do without realizing that they are presenting the information in a way that widens the gap between them rather than bridging it. Ineffectively worded or improperly timed feedback like this tends to create a subtext messaging of “It’s not OK for you to be new or learning; you should be better” and even without poor feedback this is the sort of message that I see a lot of people telling themselves.

It’s normal for there to be a difference in experience, you just don’t have to turn it into a difference in power or value. Feedback can be a tool to raise people up but it can also be a tool to bludgeon them into being less than. And again, this can happen at any level; there are several instructors in my scene who I routinely observe and receive complaints about dancesplaining through entire dances on the floor. When you drive this kind of wedge between yourself and your partner, it pretty much kills the team vibe of a dance partnership and turns it into two lonely people holding hands and doing moves at each other.

If It Doesn’t Suck, It’s Generally Pretty Good

There’s an old Woody Allen joke that pizza is like sex “Even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good”. While I like the idea of the joke, I think it’s a bit off the mark. I look at it through a bit more of a lens of pizza or dancing or sex don’t have to be the most amazing pizza/dance/sex I’ve ever had to be good, but if something sucks there’s almost an addition of insult to injury that makes it all the worse. Having recently had the worst Chicken and Dumplings of my life a couple weeks ago, I can say that, like most comfort foods, when it’s decent dance is kind of inherently good, but if you make it terrible it will irritate people enough that they’ll shut down from you, talk about it to their friends, or post about it on the internet.

At it’s core, partner dancing is a shared experience. So long as you aren’t doing any of the above and putting your partner or other dancers around you on guard then it becomes easy to step beyond our standard social boundaries and create a shared experience. If the dance turns to suck in one form or another, then those boundaries tend to harden into barriers and both partners (and the floor around them) lose out on that social interaction.

Making it not suck also frees up a lot of energy and attention for learning. When something sucks, and even when it’s just a sucky feeling of your own creation through self-judgement, there is so much time and energy spent by the mind in either defending or reinforcing that sucky feeling that much less learning/growth occurs. When it doesn’t suck, there’s a lot more room for empowerment, for focus on the task being learned, and while not always completely safe there is a lot more safety available to take the risks and push into challenging territory that growth and learning requires.
dont-hurt-them

And the TL;DR version of all this, summed up much more succinctly by the Dalai Lama: “Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them at least don’t hurt them.”

 

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.

In Defense of the Rotator Cuff

This post is being written at the request of a lovely Aussie follower who has suffered multiple rotator cuff tears in the course of her dance life. While not all dancers suffer from rotator tears, it’s a fair bet that almost every dance will run afoul of their shoulders at some point. The following ideas should help you minimize your chances of injury in those moments of potential crisis. Note that while I will give some specific lead or follow examples, all of these should hold mechanically true for both leading and following.

A quick note before anyone jumps up to tell me that their instructor told them to do it differently, I’m speaking here from a biomechanical and injury-proofing standpoint, not an aesthetic or stylistic standpoint. I personally find that solid body mechanics tends to translate to great aesthetics for me, and I try to base my dancing first and foremost on things that I think will allow me to keep dancing for the rest of my life. These are the best safe & effectively connecting body mechanics that I have come up with in 11 years and if I develop or encounter a better idea, I’ll definitely post about it.

Anatomy Time!

rotator cuffThe rotator cuff is the group of muscles connecting the top of the upper arm bone (humerus) to the shoulder blade (scapula).  The reason these are important is that the shoulder blade is a relatively mobile and therefore unstable joint. The surface of the shoulder joint (glenoid fossa) is essentially a very shallow bowl that has been overfilled with the head of the humerus. This makes the joint very mobile, but also vulnerable to sliding around or out of the socket (one of the reasons shoulder dislocations are far more common than, say, hip dislocations). The muscles of the rotator cuff are all oriented closely around the joint to rotate the humerus in the joint, provide stability, and protect against injuries like dislocations.

Dancing Based on Natural Angle

Based partly on the rigors of modern life, most of us have become habituated to some less-than-natural positions for our arms. The arms-straight-ahead position that most of us spend a lot of time in (driving, typing, etc.) rolls the shoulder in a way that compresses the front of the joint and, over time, tends to make the shoulders stick forward even when our arms are at our side. Many people, either by instruction or habit from daily life, learn to dance with their arms straight in front of them, reinforcing this compression, and putting the shoulder in an unstable position to deal with strong pushes or pulls. I feel that opening the shoulder up to a neutral and balanced position makes it both more stable and far more functional at handling the demands of swing dancing.

To reacquaint yourself with this position, first hold your arms up around belly button height then slowly move them from reaching straight ahead to straight out to the side. As you swing through this range, you should notice that the level of tension in the shoulder lessens as you move towards the middle of the arc, hits a point of minimal tension, and then the tension starts to increase as you continue towards the end of the arc. You should also notice the position of tensions shift as you pass to either side of that middle point. This point of minimal tension is what I refer to in classes as the natural angle of the shoulder. It is the angle at which the rotator cuff is most relaxed and therefore most able to react to various forces. The exact angle varies from person to person but typically falls somewhere between 30-60 degrees from straight out front and places the hands in a position wider than the shoulders.

When I’m dancing, part of protecting my shoulder is that I consider this angle to be home base for how I orient to my partner. I remember as a newbie being taught things like spotlighting or to “square off” to my partner and it always felt a bit forced. I have found orienting myself to my partner based on the natural angle of my shoulder to be far more connected and comfortable and consequently safer for my shoulder. My hand and arm move to follow or lead my partner and I adjust the angle of my body to keep my shoulder in an open, relaxed and ready position. It can be counter-intuitive to the way many of us orient to our hands, but once you get used to it, it should make a lot of sense for your body.

Chest Up, Shoulders Down

The other typical position that can compromise the rotator cuff is the overhead lift of leading and following turns. Many dancers don’t just bring the hand and forearm up when they turn, they also raise the shoulder blade. Lifting the shoulder blade off the ribs puts the shoulder in a vulnerable position by disconnecting it from the support of the ribs. Without the support of the ribs, it becomes much easier for a pull at the wrong time to bend the shoulder into an angle that will injure it. I have found the next two concepts to be exceptionally helpful in keeping the shoulder in a safe position during spins and turns.

Paint the Fence (aka NO ROTATION)

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????A common stressor that many dancers put on their shoulder is trying to rotate it out as they lift. While I realize it is a fairly common cue, I find the “checking your watch” method of leading turns does not make kinesthetic sense to me. Rotating the arm to look at your wrist forces the elbow above the shoulder blade which then pulls the shoulder up with it. The more the elbow flairs away from the body, the more the shoulder separates from the ribs, reducing both stability and connection.

A far more effective method of raising the arm comes in an approximation of Mr. Miyagi’s paint the fence exercise from The Karate Kid (the original, not the remake). Keeping with the natural angle of the shoulder, the motion of the arm is basically just “Uuuup…, Dooown…” and the torso moves to create the turn.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R37pbIySnjg]

Unlike Daniel-san, for dance purposes you’ll want to let your elbow be loose, relaxed, and weighted so that it stays low as your arm comes up. But notice in the motion of the movie that this is a whole body motion. You can see the muscles of the chest flex and relax with the motion and you should be able to feel them activating. If you try to same “look at your watch” motion, and feel your pecs, you’ll notice they have almost no activation. Keeping the arm rising and falling and making adjustments with the torso rather than the shoulder rotation will put you in a much safer position and typically keep you more connected to your partner (which also helps you be safer). By maintaining the connection of the arm to the torso, you can also effectively lead turns by initiating small rotations from the chest and spine rather than large motions from the arm.

Scapula as Counterweight (or Turns and Trebuchets)

The other issue I often see putting shoulders in harm’s way is the tendency to think that everything needs to go up. People become so focused on their hand that they forget there is a wrist, elbow, shoulder, and ultimately, spine attached to that hand. So if your only awareness is the hand needs to go up, everything else in that chain tends to go with it. Again, the shoulder rises and you are suddenly in the vulnerable position of having your hand above your head with only your rotator cuff actively holding the shoulder in the socket.

trebuchetWhat has served me best is to bring an awareness of my shoulder blade and to think of it as a counterweight to the arm, similar to but not quite as unbalanced as the counterweighting found in a trebuchet. When I want my arm to rise, I don’t think about taking my hand up, but rather, I think about initiating by allowing the scapula to slide down (inferior) my back and away from my head. This serves to stabilize the shoulder in several ways. One, it insures that my arm does not come up without my scapula being solidly in touch with my ribs and it additionally eases some of the effort of lifting my arm, meaning my hand goes up with less muscular effort and I have more freedom to adjust in case of emergency. One of the easiest ways to experience this is to stand with your back against the wall and try both lifting your shoulder blade as your arm rises or letting it slide downward as your arm rises. With the downward slide, you should feel more of the engagement in your chest and back and your arm should feel much lighter and floaty than when you lift the shoulder blade with it.

incline_pulleyThe counterweight idea is not only useful for turns, but can also be applied to protecting the shoulder from collapsing forward when stretching out in swingouts, tossouts, rocksteps, etc. In a stretch where the arm is not going to come up above shoulder level, think of the shoulder blade as a counterweight to the front of the chest and allow the chest to rise and open as the shoulder blade descends. In the inclined pulley illustration, think of M as the shoulder blade and m as the arm. So long as M is weighty enough, it will resist being pulled up and over the top by m. But if the force of m wins out, then the shoulder blade (M) will be pulled up over the top of the pulley and it will all tumble down the slope. By letting your shoulder blade remain weighty when stretching (at a natural angle) it will prevent a lot of potential strains and sprains that can occur from collapsing and hyper-extending the shoulder.

Keep it Personal

There is no one right way to do this. There is a great deal more variability in human anatomy that a typical textbook will not show and as such, there is a great deal of variability in function as well. The safest angle for one dancer may feel very unstable for another and so on. The more you can create ease in your body, the more ready your muscles will be to keep itself in safe and comfortable positioning. Similar to the non-Newtonian frame concept, the more you are in a fluid, rather than rigid, state to start, the more readily you will be able to react both to potential threats and to communications from your partner. In addition, the safer your body position feels, the more it will free up your attention to try more awesome things. Use the above as suggestions to play with your own angles and ways of conceiving of motion and use whether it feels more tense or less tense as the metric for more vulnerable or less vulnerable.

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.

Neural Mobilization Unit 2

 

At the beginning of December, I had the pleasure of taking another neural mobilization workshop with Jon Martine. This workshop dealt primarily with neural mobilization around the hips, shoulders, and spine as well as some visceral manipulation.

I was once again very surprised and pleased with how effective the work could be with a lot of patience but very little force. Particularly in working with the visceral components it often felt more like listening to the body take on a life of its own rather than making something happen. While I can tell there is still a long way to go with developing my skills around it, it does seem to be a great way to practice listening and following in the way I work.

I had some strong experiences in my own body related to the work as well. In particular, after having work around the collar bones and shoulders, I felt width in my shoulders on a level that I don’t think I have experienced before. It made me strongly aware of how often I hold postures that compress my shoulders or attempt to take up less space with my body than it actually occupies. While I’m fairly aware of having broad shoulders, it was the first time I can recall feeling them truly relax into their full width.

I also got lucky enough to be the demo body for the work on liver, lungs, stomach, and transversus thoracis. Because I have a mild-moderate pectus excavatum, the area of the middle and upper chest has always felt like a particularly problematic area for me to open up. Jon had me test with side bending before and after the work and the difference was pretty amazing. Before, I felt my ribs could side bend pretty readily, but something in the middle was hanging me up; but after freeing up the internal structures, it was like I could bend another 20 degrees further to each side!

I’ve since had an opportunity to play with this style of work with a few clients and I’m really happy with the results. I really like the effect it is having on my ability to listen better in fascial work too.

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