Fluidity in Social Dancing

July 6, 2020

We recently received a question from one of our Beginning students about how they could make their movements more fluid, rather than feeling "stiff and awkward" while dancing.

In this expanded response to their question, we'll take a look at two different ways of thinking about fluidity in dancing. While they may initially seem to be in opposition, in the end we'll see that they're actually quite compatible, even interconnected. We'll call these two approaches "Fluidity on the Macro Scale," and "Fluidity on the Micro Scale."

Fluidity on the Macro Scale

When we first learn to dance, we're understandably concerned about getting each individual movement right: "step forward with the left foot on count 1, then replace weight back on the right foot on count 2," etc.

While these individual checkpoints over the course of a movement are important, when we focus too much on them, our dancing is bound to become, as our student put it, "stiff and awkward." This is because by focusing too much on these individual checkpoints, we can easily lose sight of the overall arc of the movement. (Idiomatically speaking, we can't see the forest for the trees.)

A great example of this can be found in Benjamin Zander's TED Talk, "The Transformative Power of Classical Music," which you can watch below. The two musical examples he gives between 1:00 and 15:00 are what we're concerned with here, but the whole talk is worth watching.

Beginning dancers are like beginning pianists, too focused on hitting the individual notes to effectively convey the overall arc of the piece. In order to dance with greater fluidity, we have to stop thinking about the individual steps, and start thinking instead about the overall arc of the movement.

For example, in Rotary Waltz, this means that we need to stop worrying about where to put our feet on every count and focus instead on the overall arc of the 360° rotation over six counts, smoothly rotating 60° per count.

In practice, this might mean starting by learning all six steps, then zooming out to focus on getting the Lead to back around on 1 and the Follow to back around on 4 (now we're thinking in sets of 3 counts, rather than single counts). Once we've fluidly connected the 1 to the 4 and vice versa, we can zoom out even farther and focus on fluidly connecting the 1 to the next 1 (now we're thinking in sets of 6 counts rather than sets of 3). Once we have that down, we can zoom out even farther to work on fluidly dancing through a whole musical phrase.

In general, the more we can expand our view to focus on the macro and smoothly connect longer and longer strings of movements, the more fluid our dancing will become.

Fluidity on the Micro Scale

Another strategy for dancing more fluidly takes completely the opposite approach.

Rather than zooming out in order to smoothly connect what happens over the course of many counts, we can zoom in to see what happens between each count.

Take our previous example: "step forward with the left foot on count 1, then replace weight back on the right foot on count 2." In the beginning, we quite reasonably see this as two actions: 1) step forward left, and 2) replace back right. But in reality, there's a whole lot more going on here.

To see what we mean, try this exercise, which is adapted from one that Tatiana Mollmann demonstrated in a recent Facebook Live Q&A with Jordan Frisbee. Do those "two movements" of stepping forward left and back right (the first two steps on "On 1" Salsa), but do them as slowly as you possibly can. Take a full 10 seconds to do each step (i.e., take a full 20 seconds to complete the whole break step movement). If you finish taking either step before the allotted 10 seconds is up, reset and do it again more slowly until each step takes the full 10 seconds.

Why are we doing this? (That's certainly what the whole class was asking when Jeffrey Bihr, the instructor for Nick's Movement for Actors class at Stanford, made us walk across the floor this slowly for several full class sessions.) We're doing this to bring our awareness to the fact that what we initially think of as "one step" is made up of infinitely many smaller movements along the way. When we take 10 seconds to take a "one step," we see that this "one step" is actually a continuous motion through space, rather than a single discrete point in space. And while a point in space can't be described as "fluid," a continuous motion through that point in space can be.

How can we apply this insight to our dancing? One way that helps some dancers think about this is to give names to counts between the counts. In other words, rather than just counting "1-2-3-4," we can count "1-e-and-a-2-e-and-a-3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a," where the "and" is halfway between the numbered counts, and the "e" (pronounced like the letter) and the "a" (pronounced "uh") are halfway between the "and" and the numbered counts. (If the numbered counts are quarter notes, the "and" divides it into eighth notes and the "e" and "a" divide it into sixteenth notes.) Or if the dance has a swung rhythm, you can count "1-and-a-2-and-a-3-and-a-4-and-a," where space between the counts is split into three even sections rather than four.

Counting this way serves as an effective reminder to some dancers that there's a lot more going on in between each of the counts. Other dancers find that adding these additional counts is more confusing than it's worth, but in any case, the important thing to remember is that we want to think of each step as a continuous motion through space rather than a single point in space.

Taking the Express Train to Fluidity

As an analogy to connect these two different approaches to fluidity, imagining taking a train from point A to point Z, passing through stops B to Y along the way.

The beginning dancer who feels "stiff and awkward" is dancing like the local train that stops at each and every stop along the way—B, C, D ... W, X, Y—focusing on making sure each of those stops is made at exactly the right time and place. While there's nothing wrong with wanting each individual step you take to be correct, focusing on each individual step will make you dance stiffly.

The fluid dancer is dancing like the express train that passes through each stop along the way while focusing on only the most essential stops with an overall goal of connecting each of those essential stops as continuously as possible.

In the end, by zooming out to focus on macroscopic strings of movement instead of discrete steps while simultaneously being aware of the continuous series of microscopic motions that you are dancing along the way, your dancing will naturally become more fluid.

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