The Dance Is In the Details
By Rochelle Lockridge
My intentions were noble. My updated goals clearly stated I was not going to learn any new dances this summer; "perfecting" the basics with technique and styling were it for me. I planned to focus the majority of my time and energy on the West Coast Swing (WCS) solo I’d be performing with my instructor, Troy Lerum, in the next Dancers Studio showcase in September, along with keeping my hard-won waltz, tango, foxtrot, cha cha, rumba, and East Coast Triple Swing body memory intact.
As some of you may have surmised, once I started down the sinuous path of focusing on technique and styling, I realized I didn’t have the bandwidth to be sufficiently prepared for my WCS performance and also pay attention to the details of everything else. Seeing that long list of dances in print should have been a tip, right off the bat, that my goals were a bit too ambitious for someone who has been dancing ballroom for only a year and a half, and has an issue with being a "work in progress" on the performance dance floor. (See last month’s column bemoaning the it’s-ok-to-be-a-work-in-progress philosophy of ballroom dancers.) Consequently, I downsized my goals by dropping the American Rhythm and American Smooth rounds from my showcase performances, leaving only the solo and a social dance round: Hustle, Nightclub Two-step and WCS. I figure if I can hold my own on the social dance floor, I should be able to follow my instructor well enough without too much additional preparation. Although I say this with some trepidation; perhaps I should be considering a preemptive strike before Troy shows me how to do it right and the reality sinks in that I’m still in over my head.
It's not that I haven't been working on the basics and details all along this year; I have (at least those I know about before my teachers pull back the curtains to show me what I really don't know yet… ahhh!!!!!). But there are details my body wasn’t physically capable of addressing at the beginning of my dance journey. I first had to strengthen my core, arms, legs, neck, hips, back, ankles, feet, hands, and even toes to cultivate the needed body awareness and flexibility that would improve my dancing. And have you ever noticed how much you don't know until you jump in and start flailing around in the deep end? I know about improving my frame, proper head placement, posture, body rotation, completing weight transfers, etc., but foot articulation? I hadn’t even heard of that term until a few weeks ago when the reflection on the tv in my living room joined my quest for "perfection" by pointing out that my WCS basic footwork needed help---a lot of help. Things did not look right. When I demonstrated this to my teacher to try to get to the root of the problem, he gently responded, with some dismay in his voice, "Where did you learn that from?" It was at that moment that I knew there was a much bigger problem here than I thought. I don’t care to admit the amount of time that he’s literally holding my hand, walking back and forth in front of the mirrors trying to help me see, feel, and hopefully embody the proper step technique that is characteristic of WCS. There's a rush of excitement from both of us when I get it right, but it just won't stick.
Figuring out exactly what my body is doing or not doing to make something work right requires patience. With the support of a stronger, more flexible body, good teachers, and plenty of practice, I do make progress...two steps forward, one back. But emulating the ladies’ gliding effortlessly along their WCS slot continues to be a mystery that my own middle-aged, fluffy body has yet to solve. After some experimentation, I recently stumbled across a way to shape and move my feet that provides a better approximation of proper technique, than my clunky stepping thus far. With additional online research, I was led to a series of blog posts that addresses the importance of West Coast, along with a how-to guide with exercises for foot rolling that help in creating that classic WCS look and feel. Ah-ha, that's why my feet and legs don't look right. That's how I get that smooth sliding-across-the-floor look to replace my beginner bobbing. And guess what? My East Coast Triple Swing improved as well when I realized how important my feet are. The dance is definitely in the details.
Learning the basics and paying close attention to the details is providing a strong foundation upon which to improve and build new skills, and it even makes learning a new dance easier. Didn’t I expressly state that I was not going to learn any new dances this summer? Yes. But in my defense, who isn’t tempted by the passion of a tango? Due to a fortuitous schedule change at my studio, the Argentine Tango group class that I'd been eyeing for months is now offered at a time I can attend. By the end of my first class it was clear that my resolve to end the summer sans new dances had been thrown out the window. And to my amazement, learning the Argentine Tango has turned out to be anything but the assumed distraction. I have one word for you: Swango---incorporating Argentine Tango into West Coast Swing. (I’m not making it up. It’s real. Look it up on YouTube.)
It’s been great fun and quite the learning experience to take a basic WCS whip pattern, interrupt it with an Argentine Tango Corte, (our heads gently leaning into one another with arm raised in that iconic Tango pose), followed by a leg brush and ronde before finishing out the whip. And to prevent the appearance of sticking something foreign into the middle of the routine, I’m finding a need to understand both the basics and the finer details of each dance and sequence separately. What makes a West Coast Swing a West Coast Swing? What makes an Argentine Tango an Argentine Tango? How do we blend them while still maintaining the defining characteristics of each? How do I quickly develop a finely attuned awareness of my partner’s body position in relation to my own, in order to confidently execute a flirtatious leg flick while preventing a devastating knee to the groin? Details…details….
I’m not sure how many times I've heard it over the last two months, but it has been quite a few. From teachers, fellow students and even strangers at social dances out in the wild, I’ve been reassured that taking the time to learn the basics, and learn them well (i.e., paying close attention to the details), will make all the difference between being a dancer and being a good dancer. Uh-oh…. Just had a thought… Are they applauding my dedication to establishing a strong foundation, or are they kindly, in that non-confrontational passive-aggressive Minnesota way telling me, "Oh, honey... You’ve got problems... You really need to work on your basics."