Beauty in the Basics

Happy to see that I’m not the only ballroom technique geek out there! I loved reading all of the comments on last week’s blog post, echoing the appreciation for technique in our dancing. The further we advance on our dance journeys, the more important technique becomes and frankly, the harder it is to apply if we didn’t establish a strong foundation in the beginning.

So how about that foundation?

Adult students often jump ahead to the more advanced “fun” stuff because their teachers and/or studios want to make sure they don’t lose interest and quit. We as the students also don’t realize the intricacies of the basics because once we learn that a box is forward, side, together, back, we’re given the impression that we now know how to dance a box!

I know for a fact that my waltz box didn’t look like the beginning of this basic Bronze-level routine:

We’re taught ballroom steps and once we memorize those steps, we think we know how to dance ballroom. But we don’t, we just know the ballroom steps.

As I wrote last week, the steps are what we’re dancing, but the technique is how we’re dancing. That video (featuring the owners of my dance studio, by the way) clearly demonstrates the beauty that can come out of even the most basic steps when you add in the knowledge of how to dance those steps.

But doesn’t it get boring just dancing basic steps all of the time? What about all that flashy stuff on Dancing with the Stars? Or at ballroom competitions, the dancers in Open always look like they’re having more fun, why can’t we just do that?

Although I think Len was being too harsh on some of the contestants, I am glad that they’re emphasizing more ballroom technique on Dancing with the Stars this season. Shows like DWTS have been fantastic in introducing the general public to the wonderful world of ballroom. They’re also setting up some unrealistic expectations for viewers who take the next step and sign up for lessons at their local dance studio.

Just like there is a difference between knowing ballroom steps and knowing how to dance ballroom, there’s a big difference between learning how to dance and learning how to dance a routine. Learning a routine involves memorizing a specific sequence of actions. Contestants on DWTS learn how to dance routines. This season, they will hopefully get closer to learning how to dance, but the routine is the primary focus so they can perform for the show’s viewers every Monday.

If you get into a “who’s better” contest between social dancers and competitive dancers, a point brought up against the competitors is that they only know how to dance their routines. So if you paired them up with someone who wasn’t their competitive partner and asked them to dance a Rumba that wasn’t their competitive routine, they’d flounder.

If you have a strong foundation in basics and technique, however, you can theoretically dance with anyone. You have a whole library of steps to reference and the skill and knowledge to connect with your partner and yourself. You know how to dance, not just how to dance a specific routine.

I suppose in the adult ballroom student’s journey, there is a time and a place for each. If you’ve signed up to perform in a studio showcase, then it will be more important that you learn how to dance your routine for that showcase. I still think including some foundational and technical training is important because 1) it will make your routine look better and 2) it will protect you and your partner. Lifts in showcase routines are particular scary when it’s obvious that the student has no idea what they’re doing and the teacher is using sheer strength to keep the student where they’re supposed to be, but hey, it’s sure to thrill the audience! Even just a little work on how to maintain balance through a turn would go a long way for people who like to do fun, fast Latin-style routines in their showcases.

Ballroom is different from a lot of the other dance styles because of the wide range of involvement. All this talk of establishing a strong foundation in your basics and the importance of good technique may have some people thinking, “Isn’t ballroom supposed to be fun? You don’t have to be so serious about it.” Some people like just learning how to dance the steps so they can go out social dancing once a week. Others like me dive head first into a competitive track and get very serious about every little detail of their dancing.

My experience has shown me that seriously considering every little detail makes the overall dancing a lot more fun. Just this past week, Teacher revisited the concept of making every movement originate from the body instead of the limbs. We’ve worked on this before, and the idea of which side is leading, and this last lesson was the first time it truly clicked in my head and felt really good in my dancing. Dancing parts of my Tango routine with my whole body, instead of just stepping through them, added a whole new level of joy in the movement.

That’s why I get so serious about the technique and why I’ve taken two weeks now to go on about it. But that’s me. I also know that you can have a perfectly good night out social dancing without spending hours drilling your basic box. As long as you’re not hurting anyone (maybe another post will be on the dangers of having no technique), I say you do you and dance to your heart’s content.

Happy dancing, everyone!

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