As an instructor, the most common complaints I hear from Followers and from Leaders are related to connection:
- Leaders complain about followers who “tug” or “pull” on the connection, are difficult to move, or who grip/clamp down.
- Followers complain about leaders who “yank” on the connection, pull/push them through patterns, and “pull” them before they are “ready”.
The Connection Conundrum
Do you see an irony in those complaints? I do: both sides of the partnership are complaining about the same things, but are assuming the problem is on the OTHER side of the connection. Hmm…
At any rate, these are difficult complaints to deal with for a few reasons:
- Connection and how a dance “feels” is pretty subjective — some prefer gentle connections, others prefer stronger or more present connections. Every connection will feel different and a certain amount of adjustment is required by everyone, even between regular partners because your connection may change depending on the music, your mood, etc.
- Connection is a mutual/collaborative thing, and the dancer being complained about is rarely present at the lesson so the situation really can’t be diagnosed and addressed.
- Connection is incredibly personal — it’s a huge part of an individual’s personality in the dance. NOBODY partner dances with the intention of hurting another person or being an unpleasant partner, so being told, “I don’t like your connection” can be devastating.
Connection is so personal that the feedback loop is often a lot like the feedback loop on weight loss. Very few people will tell you that they think you’re looking fat. But when you slim down, you begin to realize that people did think you were looking pudgy, when they say things like: “Wow, you’re looking great!”, or “Have you lost weight? Good for you!”
Proposed Solutions (that don’t work)
When these discussion arise in public forums — like during social conversations with other dancers, with students, or on discussion boards like Westie Discussion of the Day, the majority opinion is typically along these lines:
“If someone is hurting you on the dance floor, you must tell them. Just be polite. For example, you can say, ‘The last time we danced, it hurt my shoulder, so could you be more gentle this time?’ or, ‘I’d like to dance with you but could you please not do any dips and tricks with me? It makes me uncomfortable.’ “
I’m going to call B.S. on this popular opinion, because it makes no sense.
First of all, it contradicts the first rule of partner dance etiquette that you’ll read or hear pretty much anywhere that the etiquette is discussed: “Don’t coach your partner on the dance floor. You were asked for a dance, not for a lesson.”
Secondly, it doesn’t work. Here’s why:
- With the subtle/polite approach, the dancers who need to hear the message either don’t understand it, or don’t realize it applies to them, or think it’s just one person’s opinion and doesn’t apply to their dancing at large.
- With a more direct or forceful approach, feelings and egos get hurt, people respond by becoming defensive, and the result is generally unproductive.
- The person giving the feedback may have a valid opinion but likely no ability to help the offender improve anything. “You pull on me” or “You feel too heavy” tell the dancer nothing about what needs to be done to improve the situation. In fact, that kind of feedback often leads to unproductive adjustments, such as disconnecting!
What typically happens is another solution that doesn’t work: avoidance. Well, this MAY work to help you escape from partners who don’t make you feel good. But it also creates tension and awkwardness that do more harm than good in a dance community.
Solutions That Do Work
In my experience, there are two things that can work well to help improve a dancer’s connection. Both involve focusing on YOUR own connection.
The first is to ask for feedback from a variety of dance partners, but there is a trick to doing this:
- Be specific. If you ask a general question like, “how do I feel?” you’ll get an abstract and qualitative answer. Instead, be specific: “When we dance, could you tell me if you think my connection is pleasant and why or why not?” or, “Could you give me feedback on my timing?” Or, “Could you tell me how I feel on the ‘1,2’?”
- Ask BEFORE the dance starts. For the reasons stated above, I and most dancers I know do not give feedback in a social dance (i.e. it’s rude and it doesn’t work). Sometimes I’m asked for feedback after a dance ends … and I would be happy to give it if I had been paying attention in that way. When I social dance, my “teacher” switch is usually turned off. Instead, ask your partner when you ask them for the dance, or just as the dance is beginning. This gives them permission to give you feedback throughout the dance, to stop the dance to have a real-time discussion, and/or to tell you what they felt when the dance is over.
The second is to find a coach with a method and vocabulary for teaching connection. There are many different approaches to connection; it might take a couple of tries before you find a coach that suits you. The important thing here is having someone who can effectively communicate and help you physically achieve a result — as well as having someone who can give you feedback and check-ins over time.
STILL having connection challenges with certain dancers? You can invite one of them to share a private lesson with you. The instructor can gauge and address both sides of the connection and you can frame the suggestion as a way to save money on one-on-one instruction.
My Personal Experience
One of the most unexpected, enlightening “break through” moments I had in dance happened because a leader and I simply opened the lines of communication. I had been working on a new approach to WCS connection and movement, and things definitely were not “clicking” yet.
During a competition, I got a particular leader in preliminaries and, because there were so many followers compared to leaders, he already knew he had made finals. But he was nervous and I asked why. He said, “I don’t know how to dance with you — you always get away from me.” Wow. I had about 3 seconds before the song started so I said, “OK let’s keep our eyes on each other and we’ll be fine.” And it was O.K.
Later that evening during social dancing I found that leader and said, “Hey, that was interesting feedback because I’ve been working XYZ and obviously I haven’t got it worked out yet. Could we dance and could you give me more feedback?”
And that’s what we did. He spent three or four dances with me, leading me in different ways, allowing me to tweak the new technique I was trying to master, and talking about it with me. After those dances, I was finally able to put the last piece of the puzzle together and make my new technique actually work. And he said he actually hoped that he’d get me in Finals.
It was a matter of having a mindset of discovery rather than defensiveness. It was also about listening for what that leader was communicating rather than assuming he was insulting me (he wasn’t saying, “I don’t like dancing with you” — he was saying, “I wish I could dance with you better”).
The problems of tugging, pulling, feeling difficult to move, feeling yanked on, etc. may have a variety of root causes, including balance issues, timing issues, poor awareness of one’s body or of space, or simple ignorance about what connection is, how to create it, and how to use it.
To this day, no one has ever taught me connection; I’m one of a very few instructors that I know of who have a method and a language to teach connection, and that was developed through a long process of trial, error, cross-training, and experimentation.
I’d love to help you learn how to connect, even with partners whose connection you don’t enjoy. Contact me!