There’s a distinctive language in Ballroom and Latin dancing, and I’m not referring to the words used to describe step patterns or technique. Two people, moving together as one to music, must have a way of communicating that transcends spoken words.
We can break down the elements of this language into three primary parts: music, physical connection, and visual expression. Let’s take a look at each of these components.
Music is the underlying foundation of all dance, so it’s critical that there’s a strong connection between the way we move together and the music we’re moving to. In order to move efficiently, both parties don’t listen to and interpret the music individually. If that happens, they would often be on different wavelengths, leading to disarray.
So to keep things efficient, the Lead is responsible for controlling the use of music.
Beginners should not be overly concerned with the information presented here as it can be overwhelming. For beginners, my advice is that the lead learns to count where the “one” beat is in music as that’s the foundation to become proficient as a dancer.
Although the Lead manages the way music is interpreted in the dance, that doesn’t mean the Follow is left out. In fact, especially in the Latin dances, the lady sets the rhythm throughout the dance, using her body as an instrument to create musical expression. Things are a little different in the Ballroom dances due to the constant connection of the partners, although she still represents a rhythmical element of the dance through the ebb and flow of her shaping.
In partner dances, the couple is physically connected to one another for a significant percentage of the performance, if not the entire dance. So obviously this connection plays a key role in the language of ballroom dancing. And the language can begin even before the couple connects to start the dance.
I recall a judge at a major world-level event telling me that he could immediately tell that one of the couples was going through conflict because the lady refused to actually place her hand into that of her partner as they walked onto the floor, instead holding her hand an inch above his.
Consider the act of inviting the lady to take dance hold in a Ballroom dance. The man raises his arms to invite her to dance. If she waits before responding, she may well be saying something. If she rushes her response, she could be saying something completely different. In Latin and Rhythm dances, the man can invite her to dance, or he might challenge her. Each of those options uses a different type of physical invitation and corresponding connection.
Then there are the roles of Lead and Follow. Leading and Following are equally challenging roles. You cannot have one without the other, and you cannot have two people both taking on the same role at the same time as that would make it impossible to present a beautifully coordinated presentation.
The language of the Lead is that of clarity and legibility. To lead well he must be confident in the choreography he is leading, and he must be aware of how his lead affects the partner. For example, in a pivot action, if he tries to keep his weight in the middle between his feet instead of moving his body weight over the pivoting foot, the lady will have a very difficult time trying to accomplish the action he is asking her to do.
If she waits before responding, she may well be saying something. If she rushes her response, she could be saying something completely different.
The Lead must know which foot his partner is on and be “reading” her body throughout the dance to be aware of how she is responding. Unless he is aware of whether she can complete the figure he is leading, he cannot be prepared to make adjustments that accommodate any differences. A good lead listens and responds constantly, allowing some flexibility so that the end result looks like the couple planned every step together, even if something completely unexpected just happened.
The Follow must trust implicitly. She must also be willing to listen to what is being led. A common problem is when the Follow knows what is coming and moves herself. When you watch a couple where this is happening, it looks like two people who happen to be doing similar steps at the same time. It’s remarkably different from seeing a couple that is genuinely communicating with one another to create those moves.
In her physical connection and movement, the lady may be soft and demure or aggressive and strong. I’ve seen some ladies who are so aggressive that they actually compete with the man. This may be deliberate, or it may be unintentional. Either way, these qualities become part of the language being used in the dance and they become part of the story that is being told on the dance floor.
The final component in the language of ballroom dance is visual expression. When dancers are advanced enough that they are no longer thinking about all the details of where the feet go, they are able to move into a much more sophisticated stage where the dancer expresses the feeling of the dance through body stretch or shaping, arm movements and facial expressions. These things are considerably more challenging than step patterns and should rarely be attempted until dancers are at a skill level where step patterns become second nature.
In the Latin dances, expression includes ways that each partner might accentuate features they want to emphasize. In Tango it can include the way partners look at each other with both defiance and passion. In American Smooth it can include the way the arms stretch to accentuate body movements.
When all of these elements come together, we see dance that is mesmerizing and memorable. All of it produced without a word spoken between the partners performing the dance.
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