salsa partneringTwo contrasting experiences of late highlight the delicate balance required for good dancer partnering.

Experience #1: Excessive desire for contact

I recently went to Havana Village (a salsa club in DC), which is not my usual scene for salsa. There’s just a little too much meat market sprinkled in amongst the dancing for my taste. While some great dancers go there, there are some not so great ones in equal measure. Havana is in a narrow townhouse in Adams Morgan, and thus the dance floor is tiny, with no room for bad floorcraft (which nevertheless abounds). Many of the guys who go there are also not necessarily looking for just a dance.

It is a challenge to the dance connection when other agendas are present. What I mean by that is that although salsa is a sensual dance, sensuality is the quality of the movement in salsa but romance is not the purpose of the dance. It’s difficult to describe exactly what goes into a good connection other than to say it requires both partners to be absolutely in tune with each other, and responsive to cues and movements from the other. Bringing in other intentions that do not arise from that place actually interfere with the connection.

Specifically– and I’m using specific examples from my recent Havana Village experience:

  • When you gaze deeply into my eyes searching for me to return whatever it is you’re feeling for me, that does not help our dance connection.
  • When you throw me into wild dips and drops without first having established a trusting, balanced partnership, that does not help our connection.
  • When you try to increase the intimacy of our contact by pulling me closer or trying to move your hands below my waist, that does not help our connection (and may perhaps reward your efforts with a push or a slap).

When the man I am dancing with is trying to get something else out of the dance other than just dancing with me, it quite frankly puts a big wall between us.

Now, you have probably witnessed or experienced deep eye gazing, crazy tricks, and intimate contact on the dance floor where it looked or seemed perfectly natural. However, I guarantee you that in each case, the action arose out of the bond that had already been established between the dancers, whether out of an existing relationship, the experience and trust built from dancing together more than several times, or in some rare cases, the chemistry is right from the very first dance.

Experience #2: Fear of contact

contact improv from DC improv festivalIn my modern dance class today, the choreography included a few very brief moments of physical contact with other dancers. One, in which we leaned against each other lying on the floor, and the other in which we provided brief support in a layout and assistance in standing up.

Trust me when I say that I have not heard so much giggling since my friend Stephanie’s first grade birthday party sleepover. We were all grown adults in this class, and yet it seemed that most (some who I might add have professional dance experience) felt embarrassed or uncomfortable with this sudden contact required by the choreography.

Being a salsera and all, I felt like a fish in water with the contact; however, the awkwardness does start to be contagious when one’s partner is erupting in fits of giggles.

Where does this fear of contact come from? I have witnessed the same thing at play in beginner social dance classes because it is indeed something that takes some time and exposure to get used to (but in the end becomes the most beautiful aspect of the dance). In our daily life, we do not often come into physical contact with each other and often consciously avoid it. We are not so accustomed to making the eye contact necessary for effective partner communication, and to sustaining touch against the body or hands of someone we don’t really know or have not ever had that sort of contact with.

As experience #1 shows, that very intimacy we are apprehensive about in experience #2 it not what effective partnering is. Once we get beyond those apprehensions and into the dance, we realize that this physical contact is actually pretty neutral territory. It’s territory that requires trust and an acute tuning-in to one’s partner. It’s true that other things can arise out of the partnership, but that requires the intention of both halves, and it’s not something that’s going to happen during a brief combination in class.

I’ve never done contact improv, but I’m curious to try it out to test this hypothesis. I also think that I’ve identified a need in the DC adult dance education arena for a partnering class in modern and ballet. In the meantime, I would highly recommend that classically trained dancers seek out some partnering “cross training” in social dance such as salsa, swing, tango, or ballroom to break down some of those feelings of discomfort.

Oh, and don’t go to Havana Village or you might get the wrong idea about those salseros!

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