The curse, the dance, the quest

All scientists know the curse of thinking too much. Maybe it's no coincidence that there are many scientists and geeks of all flavours in the swing dance community; dancing is a release from thought, a kind of meditation, musical yoga for two. For me, above all else, it's that experience of presentness, caught between a partner and the music, that keeps me coming back for more. I suspect I'm not alone.

But what about away from the dance floor? Swing dancing has a habit of sneaking into people's brains and setting up shop like some kind of syncopated fungus. No matter what your line of work, once it's in there there's no escape. You practise Charleston while you're waiting for your lunch to microwave, and while you're eating you think about practising Charleston. And think about it. And sacrifice your eyes on the altar of Youtube.

The improvisational partnered dances of the jazz era first staked their claim on my brain in 2000, when I was 17, and never left. As it happened, shortly after my first dance class I took my first class at university too. On my dance journey since then I have found my studies in physics and cognitive psychology particularly useful in understanding the dances I love. After all, what is partner dancing if not brain-controlled movement of connected bodies?

No matter where the lindy hop came from, no matter which snippet of history gets you fired up about what is and isn't blues dancing, and no matter which vintage video made you style your Bal the way you do, the laws of physics don't often concede an argument. There are simple facts about the ways bodies move and interact that quietly persevere no matter what storm of preference and politics is swirling around them.

Over the years, I've heard people say things like, "You can't capture the essence of this dance; it's too free!" and, "Lindy hop is one part physics, two parts creativity and three parts magic!" Maybe. Sure, I can appreciate where these people are coming from. When I swing out, I leave my calculator and pocket protector behind. I STFO 'cause it feels good and that feeling doesn't come from the mechanical bits and pieces of the dance, it comes from the blend; the magic lies in the whole enchilada. There are few things more joyful to me than the mindless flow of a dance that unfolds so naturally I feel like the music is playing my partner and I in unison.

There are no words for that. Right? I mean, could anyone ever wrap up that magic and dispense it in bite-sized chunks to eager-faced dance students? Well, call me crazy, but I think that the answer might just be yes.

There are only so many times that a physics student can hear his dance teachers talk about energy, momentum and stretch before he starts to read between the lines and see equations. There is only so much talk of musical interpretation and 'conversation' in the dance that a psychology student can hear before he wonders whether his brain's language centres are lighting up while he and his partner are arranging movements like words across a musical phrase. And there's only so far down the rabbit hole that a curious fellow can venture before wondering whether at the bottom there might be a grand unified theory of partnered jazz dancing waiting on a velvet cushion for anyone who bothers to look.

This isn't just about satisfying curiosity though. Figuring out 'the laws of partnered dance mechanics' can have practical results. My own dancing and teaching have improved a lot from beating my head against the question of what's actually, physically going on in the best dancers' bodies, and then trying to make those same things happen in my body. But I have also come to realise that understanding something and actually doing it are different. I could write a book on the mechanics of Kung Fu and still get my butt kicked by a grumpy grandma. Seeing my theories of movement and connection playing themselves out between the world's best lindy hoppers doesn't equip me to match them, no matter how hard I might wish.

So, why bother to write this blog? Well, the inverse is of course also true; great dancers don't have to understand what makes them great, they only have to do it. This mismatch can create a serious challenge when it comes to teaching. Please don't get me wrong; I respect the teachers who have devoted their lives to spreading the joy of dance and I'm all for fun, accessible teaching. I just want it to be grounded in reality. Giving students a physically accurate, self-consistent picture of how good dancing works helps with their learning. It just needs to be boiled down into fun, accessible teaching concepts. Fun and truth; that's what I want.

So, I'm interested in nailing down some truly universal rules about good dancing; rules that go deeper than touchy-feely analogies and vague allusions to energy, momentum, stretch, delay, etc. In the posts that follow, I'll share some ideas about whether and why such universal 'laws' might exist, and what they might be. Throughout, the goal is to focus on what works.

I will address these questions and more:

  • What is musicality?
  • What kind of body movement works in connected dancing and why does it work?
  • What is a dancer's 'centre' and why is it so important?
  • What is the relationship between steps and movement?
  • Why is 'pulse' important?
  • What is 'connection' between dance partners?
  • What is 'frame', what essential properties allow it to work, and why?

I hope that there might be someone out there, who finds these ideas useful.

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