Basics, Beginners and Dancing Bliss

Posted on October 10, 2016


You may have heard from your dance instructor at some point that it’s good to go back to basics once in a while. They may have tried to instill the importance of perfecting fundamental techniques, and encouraged you to focus more on connection and ‘basic moves’, and less on complex, extravagant moves that might cause injuries if done improperly. You hear this often, and might think it’s a marketing gimmick (which it may well be), but it is definitely true.

As a reasonably experienced Zouk dancer I like to challenge myself and when dancing with a follower whose abilities I have confidence in, I often do complex movements and improvisations focusing less on basics and beat and more on overall musicality. I think this is fine (hence why I do it) as long as you are both safe, aware of the correct techniques for executing moves, such as bonecas and cambres, and can return to following the traditional “Zouk beat” even after dancing to a different rhythm to explore multiple facets of musicality. However, I have to wholeheartedly agree with the importance of going ‘back to basics’ considering how many injuries I have witnessed or heard of this year among my dance friends around the world.

Some advanced dancers tend to take shortcuts and lose their technical foundations when they focus more on showmanship than connection. Then there are others who for one or many a reason somehow, portray themselves or get portrayed as an ‘elite’ dancer, hanging out with fellow ‘elites’ at the dizzy heights of some hierarchy that should never really exist in the most social and egalitarian of past times, without managing to read the basic counts if they tried, or leading a simple move without resorting to brute strength. As a Zouk nut I’m happy to say I see this less in Zouk than many other styles. But as a lover of Latin dance in general, it’s a bit saddening.

My personal opinion is that you got to know the rules you break; otherwise you’re not bad ass, just oblivious.

Build walls on the foundation, then roof on the walls; without foundations the walls cannot stand and the roof collapses. That’s the difference between styling / playing with the music, and being off beat. In order to play with ‘styling’, you have to know the basic steps; in order to play with music, you have to understand the normal rhythm and timing.

I myself am guilty of this at times, even though I try to be more conscious and mindful in my dance to avoid unintentional slip ups, such as when I forget about the proper footwork as I lead a nice off-axis travelling Zouk turn. I find it so hard to focus on so many different and minute aspects of movement while also thinking about safety, musicality, and whether the next spin will involve being whipped in the face again by my partner’s ponytail (or dreadlocks). But focusing on those little things helps program them into your natural rhythm so that eventually conscious thinking is no longer necessary. Meanwhile, you will have to remind yourself to think about the foundation and check that urge to show off.

The main point of this is article however is not about going back to basics, although it is related and therefore worth a mention. It is not about advanced dancers taking beginner classes, which they should do. Nor is it about dance teachers telling you what moves you are allowed to dance and how to execute them on the social dance floor, which may or may not be a good thing depending on the context or your familiarity or rapport with each other.  It is not about whether potential issues are dealt with sufficiently by the existing norms and etiquette of social dancing, like discouraging aerials in packed dance floors and other naughty behaviour.

No, it is about dancing with beginners, more specifically, why it is good for them, for you and for the scene and growth of partner dance. Really, what better way is there to perfect your basics?

In this article I focus on Zouk because that is my love and the only dance that I consider myself anywhere near qualified to have an opinion about. However, the concept should apply to other styles as well… I think. So when I say beginner, or newbie, I refer to someone who either may not have had any formal instruction is Zouk, or who may have been to some classes but are not confident to dance a full song or play with music and timing which you tend to do earlier in Zouk than some other genres. If you are a follower it will be the latter case that would be most relevant.

To start with let me tell you a story from about 6 years ago. Like many others, before Zouk I was a Salsa dancer. I went to 2-3 classes every week, I would continue to attend beginner classes even after I was an intermediate level dancer, and I was in a performance team already when I started Zouk (even though I sucked at performing). But I only went to a very few socials till I started Zouk and only went in the company of other ‘beginner’ dancers, especially ladies. In one of the firsts among those few socials I got left in the middle of the dance floor in the middle of a song, which then also happened to my friend at the same event. She told me I couldn’t dance, and left.

Obviously I wasn’t very happy and even today I am at times anxious about asking someone I do not know for a dance, although now it is rare. That night was ruined for me and I was shattered. It would have felt worse if I hadn’t found out that Johnny Vasquez and Edwin Rivera had also experienced similar situations. However, I did learn some lessons, including never to just assume someone would want to dance with me, but to try and earn that. It inspired me in a way to work hard and improve, but it also tempted me to give up and walk away. Even though I have been teaching on and off for a couple of years now, and even though I compete as a semi-professional, it still affects me and I think back to that night where I stood in the middle of the dance floor, feeling like I wasn’t good enough.

Very few of us are born with dancing talent, and even then it takes much work to polish it into something workable, like how a ruby must be polished and cut from a rough stone with potential into a glistening priceless gem. I, like many others, definitely was not born with any raw talent for dancing. I went to classes and learned from teachers. I was slow at first but at some point it started getting easier to move to the beat and lead; to listen to the music and execute a move appropriately without tripping over. It took time and hard work to get to a level where I enjoy social dancing. While it may not take others as much time as it took me (or some could take a bit longer), from an amateur to a world-renowned professional, everyone has a similar story, and we should never forget that. Unfortunately, sometimes we tend to forget.

We tend to forget sometimes that we were beginners once, and that others took a leap of faith to dance with us. We forget that first night out social dancing, the nerves getting the better of us as we ask a stranger to dance, or hiding in a corner feeling overwhelmed, hoping someone else from the class would turn up. We forget the times we awkwardly stepped on someone’s feet and smile sheepishly as we apologise. We forget our own journey of learning. We forget when we were rejected and how we felt like perhaps we didn’t belong. For a leader and follower alike, the first few nights of dancing are some of the most self-conscious and overwhelming days of their lives.

I have seen how new dancers who are welcomed with open arms keep coming, practicing and growing. I have seen some go from being effectively clueless into amazing dancers in their genre, sometimes in less than a year. I have seen others being ignored or worse, being harassed and taken advantage of, that disappear and are never to be seen again. I have also seen some ignored by ‘elite’ dancers, only for those same elites to clamour over one another to dance with that same person a year later when he or she had persevered through all the cold shoulders to excel.

Let me tell you now, you don’t want to be that person that ignores someone’s existence on the dance floor for whole two years and then suddenly can’t get enough of them when they finally get ‘good’ at dancing. People are not goldfish. They remember. Luckily they are also forgiving, and might like dancing with you and so you might not be left on the dancefloor. People generally are not that petty; but that does not mean they will respect you.

Typically, when newbies really fall in love with a dance they become hard-working and grow. This is helped by the fact that while some have big egos and little memory, many people in the dance scene, especially the Zouk community, are genuinely warm and caring social animals who will take that leap of faith and try to lead you or let you lead them.

Obviously while beginners blossom, others transform, their lives change, they multiply, they get new commitments and opportunities and move on from this passion to the next. So the dance scene depends on a continuous infusion of new blood to stay alive, to keep growing and to glow.

When it glows, it gives so much – friendship, emotional support, stress relief, fitness, confidence, career opportunities, love, and refuge, to name a few. When it doesn’t glow, it is gloomy, despondent and for the regulars at least, it leaves a hollow void. Hence why we must all play a part in ensuring that the flame continues to glow, and the best way to do this (as well as supporting the bars other venues that host us) is by belonging to that group of warm caring souls, who made us feel welcome and believed in us, when they didn’t have to and when it was not earned by us. How we can give back to the scene that we take much from, and in doing so keep ourselves sane and functional, is by welcoming beginners and making them feel at home.

Of course on any given night we want to make sure we dance with our friends, partners and our favourite dancers. When I go dancing with my partner I want to dance the most romantic songs with her. However, if I see a stranger or if I see a beginner sitting around for a few songs without a dance, I try to find an opportunity to dance with them. At least I try to even if I’m not always able to. I don’t say no to a beginner unless compelled for safety reasons, or if I am tired or have promised a dance to another, in which case I will catch them for the next song.

The one time when I would deliberately say no will be when someone dances in a way that is unsafe to either her, myself or others around us, and if her attitude, the inappropriateness of ‘teaching’ in a social dance setting, or my limited teaching experience prevents me from being able to help her make something out of it. In which case I would subtly try to market dance classes to her, in the hope that she would go to a class and learn the correct technique in progressive steps from some qualified instructors. This is better than attempting to learn through, say YouTube, without appreciating the optical illusions of Zouk.

As the scene grows, so does the list of my favourite dancers, which means I can’t dance with all of them or with every beginner every given night. There are others that I admire that always make sure to dance with all the ‘beginners’.  I am not that good, but I try my best. Luckily these two groups are not mutually exclusive, and many ‘beginners’ are an absolute dream to dance with.

This is because firstly, newbies are always present. They are excited to dance with you, are focusing, are actually enjoying even the simplest things of the dance and have no false pretences or expectations. I can be myself and be silly. What makes a dance enjoyable is not just the skill of your partner. It is in fact more enjoyable dancing with a beginner who wants to be there and is present than an advanced dancer who is disengaged, who may be looking around for a friend, thinking about dinner, or of the next dance with a famous instructor.

Secondly, as previously mentioned, who better to go back to basics with than a newbie? Beginners sometimes know the basics better than advanced dancers, or at least remember the correct execution of basic moves better since they learned them more recently. If I had to name three moves that Zouk as a whole is founded upon, it is the basic, lateral and lunge. As we get advanced we decorate our moves and sometimes these decorations bury the fundamentals beneath them, which we might not even notice as we dance with others that we dance with 3-4 times a week for years and who can read us. Go to a social in a different country, and all is lost. This is also another reason why advanced dancers should go to beginner class once in a while.

Thirdly, you do not feel any pressure or temptation to do anything fancy, which in a packed dancefloor may not always be a good idea for safety, at least until you have warmed up. Dancing with a beginner allows you to focus on the basics, warm up, get into rhythm and ease in to the night.

Having said that, for a beginner, a dance is a fun and scary experience at the same time, whether they are a leader or follower. So if you dance with someone much less experienced than you, there are a few things you can do to make sure they are comfortable, feel welcome, feel safe, and you both have fun. Being a lead I can only really share things that a lead can do, but I think there are a few points here that are appropriate for both leaders and followers to note (and possibly avoid).

Overwhelming beginners with too much information is unlikely to help achieve the  effect you intended. Too much instruction and advice (and talking in general on how they are doing something wrong) could be extremely patronizing and in any case hard to take in constructively when it is all new and there is loud music blaring around the place. Some things are better left to be explained by professionals in a classroom environment when there is time, space and when one is alert and focusing on how to progress. I’ve tried doing this in the past and pretty much wasn’t very effective at anything other than making me look like a wanker.

Instead, this is what I find works for me, when dancing with a beginner as well as when trying to introduce someone to Zouk. I try to not teach, but just lead. Get in to position, with a firm hold so the leads are clear, and ensure they are comfortable. If they are totally new you can mention a couple of clear and obvious points without going into any detail, such as:

“Don’t panic”

“Don’t think”

 “Don’t look down”

“Just mirror my chest and do the first thing you feel like doing when you feel a lead”

And, more importantly, “Relax and smile”

If they are beginners but not totally new, the only point you need to mention is the last one. Here are some practical tips based on what I have tried and worked well as a leader. You might think they are rubbish (’trash’ if you are American) or they might make sense, either reaction is acceptable.

Start with what they know, like simple weight shifts and swaying from side to side, or simply walking if they are totally new, then work their way to Zouk. Basic, Lateral, and as long as you take it slowly at first, only build the tempo with the song and lead clearly, they will most likely follow, even if there is an occasional fumble.

If they do make a fumble, don’t stop to grumble! Try not to explain or correct it if you can help it, but slow down, then go back to swaying and shifting weight, and simple movements to music before getting back to basic step. Create an environment where they don’t feel bad or useless, but where they can relax and every new thing can be related to and be an extension of something they already know. In the right environment everything can flourish.

When a beginner eventually becomes comfortable with the basic step in the correct tempo, they will naturally make the connection with the beat and it will make more sense than if they were just shown the basic. This is because in a physical activity like dancing, doing and seeing what happens is the best way to learn. Then it is time for the Lateral. I find that due to the change in hold (from close to open) and the difference in foot work and direction of movement for each partner (so the followers cannot just mirror their partner), moving from the basic straight into the traditional lateral often create problems. These differences may cause the connection to break just when your partner is getting used to it, and result in a drop in confidence.

What I find useful instead is to go into the ‘Diamond’ (the lateral in close hold). This allows the close hold connection to be maintained, which your partner may now be comfortable with. In turn it is easier to lead the direction changes more clearly and ensure your partner follows with the right footwork. The trick is not to be forceful but to maintain a strong frame and lead the change in direction at the right time, and they will naturally follow with the right footwork without you having to explain it. Immediately compliment them on their awesomeness and make a point of saying that the footwork is great. Then they will know what to do and you can eventually ease from the Diamond into the regular open hold Lateral.

For the same reasons it is easier to lead the lunge in the close hold at first, and then diversify when your partner understands it through execution. Once they are comfortable with these foundation moves it is possible to try out other basic moves, ideally involving body movements or stepping and turning. Remember to compliment and be silly and funny, but always present and attentive. The result will be a happy newbie who, even if they are not in love with Zouk, will be confident enough to not runaway and give it another go later.

Of course it is harder to involve an almost-complete beginner if you are a follower and your options are restricted, but it is not impossible. The key is to be patient. You will need more patience than any leader. Make your newbie lead feel at peace, calm and again, don’t stress them out with too much instructions or information. If they get it wrong it is stressful. You will have to give hints, but subtly. This can be done by changing weight to the right foot and subtly applying some pressure through your connection to suggest the lead to do the same. Smile, but focus and let them move at their pace. Note that the pressure and resistance of your response can communicate to the lead, how much to move, when to stop etc. If you have to give advice verbally, remember the “sandwich”: find two positives to compliment the leader and sandwich any opportunity for improvement in between.

Remember to be cautious about giving too many instructions and encourage the beginners to enrol in a class so they can continue to improve. If you do have suggestions, remember to be consistent with your advice. Beginners may take your ideas seriously and implement them to improve. Another story from my dance journey: an experienced dancer once told me when I was a beginner that I needed to have more presence on the floor and have some style. So I worked on it. Next time I danced with them I made sure to put their ‘advice’ to good use, but rather than approval I was met with another piece of advice: ‘the best leads are invisible’. I was confused, as that’s what inconsistency does. Finally, dancers should only give advice only if they want to help someone improve, never as a way of putting people ‘in their place’. Negative comments and putdowns achieve nothing and benefit no one, so it is better to keep such thoughts to oneself.

Returning to the concept of dancing with a beginner without explicitly ‘teaching’ them, they would probably ‘learn’ more inadvertently while dancing with you than if you were trying to give instructions. This in a way is strength based learning. If people try something and find it hard, they are more likely to give up whereas if they try it and its even a little successful, they are more likely to keep exploring, and improving, on and on until they are hooked.

And once they get hooked, we all know how far people can grow. Seriously some people grow in their dance like the bean stalk in Jack and the Bean Stalk. One or two years later the shy person standing nervously in the darkest corner of the dance floor is wowing audiences and partners alike, and gleaming like a supernova on the other side of the world. All this could be because of your patience, kindness and a clear lead or good responsiveness.

So here’s another reason to be good to beginners… You will never know when they will end up as your teacher!

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