Moving and connecting as nature never intended

Most readers will be familiar with Windows Media Player's (WMP) music visualisation programs, which splash weird, eye-catching images across the screen, changing in real time to reflect musical dynamics. These might look pretty but they do a lousy job of representing music. If you watched one with the sound muted, how much could you infer about the music? My guess is, maybe some rhythms at best. Dynamic visual representation of music is not easy.

You can dance better than this.

Now consider this: WMP makes its visualisations using just a single computer. The flow of information is simple:

Music --> Interpretation by a single computer --> Visual ouput, one frame at a time.

This is not all that different from what a solo dancer needs do to be musical. The dancer's visual canvas - his body - is controlled by a single brain. Music is heard and interpreted, musical movements are planned and executed. Obviously this is a simplification of the complex physiology at work but the point is, dancing within one body doesn't ask for anything outside the range of normal human behaviour. Millions of years of evolution and a lifetime of experience have trained your brain to hear music and move your body in all kinds of amazing, finely controllable ways, which are readily adaptable to environmental demands like swingin' tunes.

Why is well-connected, flowing partner dancing so difficult? There are lots of reasons of course, but many of them stem from one fact: a single dynamical system (two human bodies trying to dance together as one) is being controlled by two brains, each with its own ways of interpreting music, and has direct sensory and motor connection to only one half of the system. That is, your brain, via your nerves and muscles, can only directly control the half of the dance partnership that is your own body. And yet somehow, the two parts are supposed to closely cooperate to artistically express, adaptively in real time, some compromise between your two different interpretations of the music. It seems impossible! And yet the best dancers can do it well. How can this be?

Over the years, dancers have evolved - culturally, not biologically - systems of movement and connection, that afford them a high level of shared body control. These systems work by constraining the movement options of each individual partner so as to give the whole partnership more options. Not unlike in most relationships between life partners, each dance partner agrees to not do certain things so that the partnership might be able to do more. Later posts will deal with the mechanical details of these self/shared control systems. The rest of this post will describe the guiding principles behind them.

The first principle is that these systems are primarily functional. They are not the way they are because some authority figure in the past said that people must move and connect in certain ways. Rather, these systems evolved for the same reason that all complex things have evolved: they succeeded where others failed. Many dancers, dancing many dances, for many years, through trial and error have developed efficient systems of movement and connection. These allow for a high level of fun and creativity with the least effort on the social dance floor. Interestingly, it has not been necessary to deeply understand why these systems work; for practical purposes, knowing and teaching the how is enough.

So, on to practical matters! As far as I can tell, the main guiding principle behind effective movement and connection is mutual predictability. Each partner needs to move and connect in ways which make it as easy as possible for the other partner to have the experience, "Ahh, I see and feel what you're doing and where you're going with that. I can work with that!" Of course, too much of anything is a bad thing; if you move too predictably (eg. doing the same 'move' over and over), your partner will get bored. A balance must be struck; it's all about time scale: predictability over a few seconds is good, a few minutes, not so good. Perhaps a better word than 'predictability' is 'trackability'; your partner must be able to track what you're doing. But, for the sake of continuity, let's stick with 'predictability'.

Before moving on though, one other point must be made about this word. Reading the word 'predictability' might be setting off alarm bells for you because teachers often stress, to followers in particular, that prediction/anticipation of leads is a no-no. I agree with this. This is different from the kind of prediction I'm talking about. This kind, the kind to be avoided, is less about prediction your partner's movement and more about assuming that you're capable of reading his/her mind. This is sure to lead to dysfunctional dancing because often, not even the leader knows what he/she is thinking; advanced leaders frequently just let the dance unfold and 'go with the flow', often without strict plans for what will come next. Good followers learn how to keep track of their leader's 'flow' (trajectory) without making any assumptions about what that means for the follower. There is no 'supposed to do' in pure following; there is only letting the dance be done to you. If it is not done to you - if your motion is not physically changed for you by energy provided by your leader, with zero extra energy input from yourself (which is a functional definition of pure following) - then whether or not it was intended doesn't matter. Of course, good followers have a huge amount of input into how they are dancing, but they accept that input as their responsibility; it is not an attempt to guess what the leader might be thinking. In summary then, what I am advocating is promoting each partner's ability to track what their partner is doing within their own body, identify a pattern and see where it is likely to lead, without inferring that some particular response is required (that is the kind of 'anticipation' that should be avoided.) If one can avoid feeling obliged to lead oneself in response to something that one's partner has done with his/her body, then prediction is a useful thing because it provides a reference point for one's own self-directed dancing within the bounds of the partnership.

If you can see that your partner is moving is such and such a way and predict where that will take him/her over the next few seconds then you can plan around that in a way that allows you dance with enough independence to have your own fun while always being ready to pass energy back and forth (lead/follow) with your partner. A simple example of this is a good old footwork variation. A good leader will move and connect in a way that usually allows his/her follower to know when has been given enough 'space' to add in a variation without interupting the flow of the partnership. An inexperienced lead, by contrast, will be harder to track and prone to giving the follower the impression that she/he can never quite know what's coming next so it might be unwise to do anything but strictly follow. Of course, predictions can always be wrong, even between the best dancers. What I am arguing is that in general if partner (A) moves and connects in such a way that partner (B) can be reasonably successful is predicting (A)'s dancing into the near future, then (B) will be in a better position to cooperate with (A). (B) should also try to allow the same kind of predictability for (A). A useful analogy here is a squadron of jets flying together. If the squadron is to stay together without constant radio communication ("Ok guys, we're all about to slowly peel left. You ready?"), then each jet must fly in a way that is predictable to the others. There are certain simple, physical rules (like 'no sudden moves', for example) which allow this to be achieved. We will look at these rules in detail in future posts.

I'd like to finish this post with a brief discussion of lead and follow. Splitting a partnership into lead and follow is, of course, the one big pre-agreement that has to be made between the two brains controlling the two bodies in the dance partnership if anything at all is going to be achieved cooperatively. The agreement is simply this: When one partner is passing energy to the other ('leading'), the second partner will allow that energy to flow naturally into their body and be conserved in the process, meaning that it will usually change the way that they are moving. Note that no mention is made here of one person being the leader and the other, the follower. The best dancers will tell you that both partners are both leading and following throughout most dances. A good dance is a conversation, with two speakers and two listeners, not a monologue with one of each. The only restriction is that, just as in a good conversation, the two partners do not try to talk over the top of each other. When one speaks (leads/gives energy), the other listens (follows/accepts energy). Strictly speaking, I believe it is physically possible to both lead and follow at the same time; it's just extremely difficult and not really necessary for the creation of fun dancing.

I suppose that special mention should be made here of historical exceptions. Blues is probably the most conversational of the usual swing-associated styles. I'd say Lindy hop comes in at second place. Balboa, on the other hand, is more traditional and many people feel strongly that is should be role-based as far as lead and follow are concerned. That is, one person leads for the whole dance, the other person follows. End of story. This is a cultural contraint, however, not a functional one. Speaking in strictly physical terms, lead and follow can be shared back and forth in any partner dance. Doing so will make some things possible, which are not possible if the lead is uni-directional. At the same time, it will make other things harder. Presumably, the Balboa community has decided that the latter is too great a cost to justify the former. For whatever reason, Blues and Lindy have evolved into dances, which allow for lead-sharing whereas Bal, in general, has not. I am not trying to argue that one is better than the other, only that they are different. Cultural constraints aside, the same general physical processes are at work during leading and following in all of these dances. In future posts, I will attempt to explain in detail, the mechanics of pure leading, pure following and lead-sharing.

In this post I have tried to demonstrate that musical, co-creative partner dancing presents a challenging shared control problem. I have argued that systems of movement and connection have evolved, which allow for efficient shared control within a dance partnership, and that this is achieved through mutual predictability between partners. Finally, I have argued that control can be shared in different ways through different systems of leading and following.

In coming posts, I will further explain the notion predictability in movement and give it a clear physical definition. I will then attempt the explain the system of individual movement, which I believe good dancers use to make their motion predictable to their partners, to facilitate good connection.

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