Recently I was directed to view a lecture by Donnie Burns, assisted by the amazing Gaynor Fairweather. The session dates back to 2007 in Italy. While I have some issues with Donnie’s lecture style, it was a great presentation overall covering issues of authenticity in the Latin American dances.
We have five competitive Latin dances in the International style: Cha Cha, Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble and Jive. Each one has unique characteristics. Each one is significantly different from the others in terms of what it is meant to express as a dance.
Over the past decade, the competitive dance world has tended to focus so much on athleticism that it has strayed steadily away from the intent of each dance. In the process, we are losing the character of these dances, and with it their emotional power. Walter Laird has pointed out that in other sports, like track and field, nobody is moved by the performance of the athlete. Physicality is not art. It isn’t emotional in its purpose. When a runner puts out 110% effort to win a world championship, they don’t cause the audience to weep because of the performance!
Dance is an art form. Like music and acting and writing, part of the intent of competitive dancing is to move the audience. You are trying to tell a story. It’s a story of partnership between two people moving together to music.
The contrast between the partners is intentional, and a major part of the story. As Donnie puts it, Gaynor was elegance and beauty, while he was the beast. Yet together they were able to produce a powerful story.
In a simple figure like the Advanced Hip Twist, the man is presenting an opportunity for the lady to show off what she can do with her legs and hips. He is drawing attention to her best features, the whole idea behind that figure. Each partner has a job to do, but they are different jobs.
He gives some examples from different dances. In Jive, for example, there are so many old pieces of choreography, now seemingly forgotten, that make the woman’s legs look amazing.
In Samba, if you don’t have enough characteristics that come from the basic actions, you will never illustrate the musicality that this dance represents. As a result, you won’t show an understanding of what Samba is really all about.
In Rumba, the dance world has moved from almost no setup, which agreeably isn’t ideal, to a fake setup process that is supposed to illustrate intimacy and passion, but comes across as insincere.
Too often, instead of focusing on authentic characteristics, dancers are instead focusing on pure athleticism. Donnie mentions that you can get fabulous body speeds out of basic figures, so we shouldn’t just ignore them. You can’t use different timings and take advantage of the story they can tell if you are just trying to go fast all the time.
When couples move too far from the original characteristics of these dances, you start to lose everything that partner dancing is about, because the dances start to blur together to become just a mess of different choreography. They lose their distinctive qualities.
What happens when Samba becomes something similar to Cha Cha? How can you tell a Samba story with Cha Cha choreography? How can you tell a story about a partnership when most of the dance is spent in side-by-side action with the couple not even looking at each other?
Donnie points out some basic elements of good partnering. For example, using the various parts of the body to lead, while ensuring you never use the arms!
Thigh, hip, hip weight, bone, upper body muscularity are all valid sources of lead energy. They all require the lead to be perfectly balanced over his own two feet, in control of his weight. That gives him the ability to choose any part of the body needed for an effective lead.
The leads should be active, but quiet. They are never busy. Use of the arms moves the energy outside of that narrow envelope and destroys everything you are trying to achieve.
He mentioned a technique he had been taught by Walter Laird in which he places a towel under his armpit and needs to keep it there for most lead actions. If it falls, he’s “rubbish.”
You can watch the lecture for yourself below.