Dance is a broad and far reaching term encompassing everything from boppin’ around to your favorite tune to top tier trained professionals. At its very root dance is the intentional movement of the body in sequence and rhythm, primarily with music, and is something we all have the capacity for. It is also something our bodies respond positively to right down to the neurological level, just type in ‘medical benefits of dance’ and you’ll have plenty to read. And like any skill or discipline it can be practiced, studied, developed, and improved to ever increasing levels of mastery. As a twenty year full time professional dancer and second degree black belt I can promise you there is a never-ending supply of things to learn.
The various styles of dance have very different underlying techniques and processes. They all start from the same root of intentional rhythmic movement but can arrive at profoundly different endpoints. Just watch a video of hip-hop then one of classic ballet then one of ballroom. They are all engaging in their perspective ways but are also completely different disciplines. The TV show So You Think You Can Dance was built on the premise of illustrating this by having accomplished dancers attempt styles other than their own.
A simple non-dance comparison would be to look at the medical field. Someone trained as an orthopedic surgeon would be versed in the general principles of medicine but wouldn’t have the specialized skills to suddenly try their hand at organ transplants. Studying and training to the point of specialization enables you to understand and appreciate what someone in a differing specialty is doing, you just don’t have the skills to actually do it yourself just as they won’t have the skills to do what you do.
Specialization enables mastery but it does so by narrowing the focus to only those skills associated with the specialty. ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ refers to the approach of perpetual generalization. Staying in a more multi-faceted approach enables you to be functionally fluent in many different areas. The catch is the amount of time it takes to spread your efforts around on so many fronts prevents you from reaching a level of specialized mastery in any particular one of them.
In dance it is our bodies we train and sculpt to most effectively execute the particular demands and stylistic standards of our genres. For ballerinas to go up on pointe requires a completely different set of muscular skills and structures than those needed for tap dancing. The movements of Latin ballroom might be very rhythmical but they, and the postures they are built upon, are very different than those used in hip-hip.
This does not mean there aren’t any universal principles. In dance the end results might vary enormously but they are all using the human body and thus need to function according to the physics of human physiology. The skills of any specialty are unique to that discipline but the process of specializing is essentially the same.
This one should come as no surprise so I won’t belabor it. If you wish to master something you need to practice it repeatedly until even the advanced skills required become second nature. Whatever the skill, repetitive drilling and rehearsing is the only way to program the muscular memory, enabling us to not only utilize the skills with minimal conscious focus but also to hone our instrument so it is ideally suited for the demands of our discipline.
Natural talent can certainly give you a head start, sometimes even producing a mastery level result, but without practice those results tend to be short-lived flashes and very difficult to repeat or sustain. They are more the product of luck than of skill.
And despite the classic saying practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. So make sure you get the proper training and guidance to ensure your practicing is going to develop the most effective skills possible.
Any skill involving the use of the body will rely first and foremost on how we have it aligned, both to produce maximum results and also to prevent injury while attempting to do so. Ballet requires a certain range of motion and support, hip-hop requires a certain amount of loose body isolation, sprinters require a certain level of forward momentum, long distance runners require a certain sustainable stamina, jobs involving heavy lifting require a certain amount of structural support, jobs involving sitting at a desk for long stretches of time require a certain sustainable alignment to allow circulation and prevent repetitive stress injuries.
The good news is, whatever the posture we seek there is an underlying principle at its core. Let gravity pull your tailbone towards the ground while you elevate the top of your skull. How far we pull this stretch will vary from requirement to requirement but the starting point and underlying benefit is the same. Keeping the spine elongated and vertical improves balance, circulation, prevents pinching of nerves or compacting of vertebrae, it adds an aura of poise and confidence, and keeps our lungs expanded.
Start with a lowering tailbone and elevating crown of the skull then work your way out from there as your discipline demands.
The Ground Is Your Friend
All structures need a foundation and all movements need a fuel source. Look at any movement closely enough and you will find its initial source was the ground beneath the dancer’s feet. Even dance styles filled with small and intricate isolations within the body require an initial support and starting place from which to activate.
Truth be told, isolation can be a bit of a misnomer. In dance it is a term of reference for moving individual parts of the body in contrast to one another. It takes a certain kind of flexibility and greatly increases the musicality the body can produce but it is the particular part of the body we are isolating not the movement. Dominoes fall in isolation but it is the pattern they collectively produce which generates the ultimate impact.
So if we want to make our movement more powerful, both in terms of mechanics and of perceived impact, we need to root it to a stable source of fuel. The ground is always there for us, work with it rather than against it.
The greater whole is always made up of many smaller parts. The engine moves the car but is comprised of hundreds of smaller components, thousands if you want to go down to the level of bolts and washers. In terms of dance mechanics it is important for us to understand the roles each of our individual parts play in the overall movement but another profoundly important factor to understand is that all those parts rarely have the same tasks or timelines. Some parts of our bodies will start or finish their actions at different times and some parts will end up having opposing or counter-balancing tasks.
If the entire body tries to launch into an action or slam the brakes all at the same time that action becomes much more difficult to get moving and a much more difficult to bring to a stop.
To use spinning as an example you will often hear dancers, and martial artists, talk about ‘spotting’ which is the technique of keeping the eyes fixed on a single point while the body rotates. The eyes snap around and lock on to the target first as the body is spinning not only to help maintain balance but also to provide the body with a specific definition for where the turn will be completed so it can do all that complicated math for us.
Many hands make light work.
The bigger or more complicated the job the more effective the process will be if spread over multiple moving parts. It takes more coordination but having thirty people help you move the stack one brick at a time goes much more smoothly than trying to heft the whole thing all at once by yourself.
Know Where You Are
At a purely practical level our bodies are capable of astoundingly complex calculations with regards to our movements we just need to provide them with the parameters. We don’t have to consciously plot out, scrutinize, and manage how to get from one spot to the next. We simply have to tell the body where we are wanting to end up and when we wish to get there. It will figure out how powerfully to launch us forward, it will steer us around obstacles, and it will bring us a to a stop once we arrive.
The amount of tiny underlying processes which have to work in unison to make the simple act of crossing the room happen would be staggering if we always had to consciously manage them all simultaneously. This is why we aren’t so great at it at the beginning of our lives, or if we have suffered an injury which disrupts our previously developed skills, and why it only develops into an automatic skill after a great deal of practice. It’s an incredibly complex formula but thankfully, once rehearsed sufficiently, it only requires very simple targeting parameters from us. Where we currently are is one of the most crucial of these.
We can’t figure out how to get where we’re going if we don’t know where we are starting from, and we won’t know we have completed our previous action until we are aware we have actually arrived.
In dance terms this means being able to know with certainty where you are at any given point in your sequence of movements. Which foot are you on? Are you in the position or posture you intended to be? We can always alter or even completely improvise our next movement but we can only do so if we are aware of where we are now.
Always In Transition
Going hand in hand with knowing where we are is knowing, or having a plan for, how that fits into the overall intention or design. We need to know the domino is in the right place so it can play its part in the greater pattern. In mechanical terms this means as dancers we never fully complete any action 100% without using the last 10–15% as part of initiating the next action.
To use a Latin ballroom example, one of the signature actions is the shifting or settling of the hip. Even if we are striking a pose and holding it for several measures of music we only settle the hip about 85% of the way then use the last 15% to help start our body moving into the next step. If the hip settles 100% of the way while we are still standing on that leg we become locked into place and are unable to move forcing us to then un-settle the hip in order to free ourselves and re-use that last 15% to get us moving.
That is the inside secret. The final arc of all movements and actions is not generated by the action running all the way to its completion but by the beginning of the next action leaving the final stretch of the previous one behind. The arm reaches full extension not because it reaches as far as it possibly can away from the body but because the body begins to stretch away from the arm as it prepares or starts the next action.
Where we are now is never a permanently fixed thing.
Even if we are at the completion of a previous task a new one is always beginning. If we lock ourselves 100% into one position without any room for breath or transition we are no longer able to dance.
Intention vs Purpose
Dance being ‘intentional movement’ makes intent a very important ingredient. If we intend to move forward then our body can do the preparations and calculations to make it happen. If we expand that intent into the bigger picture we can intend to go forward so we can execute a particular trick before moving sideways to the location for our next accent feature. The intention gives our body those all-important parameters, the more complex the movement the more specific and detailed the intent needs to be, and it also infuses our movements with clarity and confidence. Intention alone can lead to positive impacts and people being very impressed with our physicality and prowess.
But to take dance to the next level, to make it Dance, requires something more. It needs a sense of ‘why’.
Going forward to execute action A followed by moving sideways to then execute action B is the first step on the way there but it is still only intention, it isn’t yet purpose. We moved forward in order to execute action A is a partial ‘why’ but the more important one, the one which can give dance the power to impact people at a visceral level, is ‘why action A?’
We can draw this sense of reason or purpose from any number of sources. As performers we can draw it from the music or the directions we were given when we were taught the movement. As choreographers we also pull from the music or from the story we are trying to tell or the impact we are trying to have or the atmosphere we are trying to create.
It doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be as simple as an overall mood, nor does it even have to be immediately understood. If there is genuine purpose behind the movement people will respond. Curiosity will draw them in and they will go along the journey because they have faith there is a journey in our movement which can be followed. Purpose expresses our belief in what we are doing which others can then connect to and invest in.
If we went forward to execute action A as a way of demonstrating we are being blocked by some sort of obstacle which then leads us to go sideways and execute action B as an attempt to get around it now the movement has more than mechanical or directional intent, it has purpose. It has a purpose which communicates something others can understand and be impacted by. That is how dance becomes Dance.
Mechanical awareness and technical proficiency are vital things to develop. Sheer force of exertion alone only accomplishes so much and almost always at steep and depleting cost. Through informed and consistent practice we can hone our instruments to levels of greater mastery. We must walk before we can run, we must dance before we can Dance.
As sense of purpose is the final ingredient. That purpose does not need to be complex or profound, it only needs to be genuine. And it needs to be ours. It can be as sweeping as a life-long career or as simple as getting through the day with dignity and kindness. To have a positive even powerful effect on others, and ourselves, they do not need to share or understand our purpose. Its genuine presence is instantly palpable and enough to stir the heart.
Proficiency impresses. Purpose inspires.