Steps: The biggest myth in dancing

Sometimes when I'm somewhere where there's music and people are moving to it, I'll ask a friend who I know/suspect might have never had any dance lessons whether she'd like to dance (not *because* she's untrained; because it's fun to dance with a friend!). Understandably perhaps, friends who know that I've been dancing for some years are hesitant because they feel pressure to perform. Even if I reassure them that there's no need for any of that, that it's ok to just move to the music however feels natural and just have fun, I am still sometimes refused because she 'doesn't know any steps' (or at least that's why I'm *told* I'm being refused :->). People often identify dancing with 'dance steps'. Whether or not it's intended, this association places the focus of a dance on what the feet and legs are doing. To 'get the dance right', one only needs to put one's feet in the right places in the right sequence. Whatever the rest of the body is doing is a mere detail. Some readers may have seen the old printed dance instructions where footsteps are drawn on a page, connected with dashed lines and numbered to indicate the order in which one should put one's feet in different places in order to do the dance. This post will discuss this kind of 'step-centric' approach to dancing and propose that a more functional view might be quite the opposite; to put movement first and steps second.

It is common to teach 'moves' in Lindy, Bal, etc, using language that focuses on steps. "Ok, leaders, start with a rock-step, triple-step as you lead the follower towards you. Then, step behind with your right foot as you catch her and send her back in the other direction...." I believe that this kind of language serves to 'discretise' (break up into chunks) peoples thinking about how they move through a 'move'. The process becomes a sequence of small, intermediate goals, which need only be achieved one after another in order to get through the move successfully. So, a dancer learning a move might think, "Ok, step here on 1, then step there on 2, lead over here then step down on 3, hold 4, ......" Combined with this thinking might be a sequence of shapes, which the dancer aims to make as (s)he progresses through the step sequence. So, there might be a notion of the general shape that one should make with one's body when taking a particular step in the sequence. Overall, this way of thinking about a dance seems analogous to the way that a movie is made up of a fast-switching sequence of still images. Dancers are taught all the still images and then are largely left to figure out how best to dynamically connect them. This kind of thinking (and the kind of teaching that encourages it) is very effective at making long sequences of complex movements amenable to memory. It is less effective, I believe, at helping people to progress from 'doing moves' to actually dancing, since good dancing consists primarily in particular ways of generally moving and less in the fine details of the location, orientation and timing of a particular step. I'm not saying those things aren't important; I'm saying they are of secondary importance. Steps are only important in so far as they carry movement (with the exception of deliberately showy footwork - 'steps for steps' sake' - but this too is less important to solid, co-creative partnered dancing than is good movement).

By focusing on the steps to be taken on various beats, a dancer's attention is drawn to only a small fraction of the time for which they are actually moving. An 8-beat move inhabits the full time interval between 8 and 8 and there is a lot of time between the moments we identify as beats. Many good teachers speak of the importance of dancing in the 'spaces' between the beats. I agree with this philosophy. I think that a good way to promote it is to place less emphasis on the beats themselves in the first place. I'm not encouraging arhthymic dancing; I'm encouraging an emphasis on movement, rather than steps. Or, rather, I'm proposing that steps be thought of differently, as tools for the control of movement, instead of as an end in themselves. 'Stepping behind on 4' is not a goal that encourages good dancing. 'Moving your body in such-and-such a way between 3 and 5, and supporting the movement but putting your foot down behind you on 4' is.

Ok, so, it's all very well for me to complain about the the focus on steps, but what are the details of what I'm proposing instead? How, exactly, do steps 'carry movement'? Is there a 'best' way to step? If it's not about position and timing, what *is* it about? Recall the theme of the last post: good communication between partners is facilitated when each partner controls his/her movement in such a way as to minimise the *jerk* of the movement of his/her centre of mass (COM). The remainder of this post will attempt to explain the mechanical details of jerk minimisation through well controlled stepping.

Good dance movement would in many ways be easier if people had somehow evolved to have wheels instead of legs. If we could roll around the floor smoothly instead of having to take steps, it might be easier to deal with the requirement for minimum jerk. But we don't have wheels; we have two fancy, multi-jointed support-sticks that we call legs and we have to learn how to use them in certain ways for good dancing. I think that a useful way to summarise good step control is to say that one needs to learn how to use steps to move one's COM around the floor as if it were on wheels, gliding smoothly through space. This ignores the issue of the rhythmic pulse that shows up in all swing dances but we'll get back to that later. For now, I'd like to ask you to let yourself believe that the basic tools of good dance movement can be learned entirely without rhythm (as indeed, I promise you they can!). We will demonstrate that this is the case by taking a conceptual tour through the detailed process of what we mean by 'taking a 'step'.

Imagine that you're standing on one foot (or actually do it, if you can still read this at the same time). There is a position for your body, with your COM directly over your foot, which feels most balanced and comfortable. But this is not the only position available to you while supporting your weight on this foot. Your foot is not a sharp point, it is more like a flat plate, extending across the floor far enough to give you the ability to stay standing, even if your COM deviates from its central position over your foot. It is fun and useful (and a great workout for your stabiliser muscles!) to explore your range of balance while standing on one foot. Begin in the balanced, central position and then deliberately lean slightly in different directions, paying attention to the way that your weight shifts from the centre of your foot to one side and then the other, as you change your direction of lean. Notice also that it doesn't take much leaning to get your leg muscles working overtime just to keep you vertical. This 'weight shift' corresponds to the changing position of your COM, which is moving as you lean. Imagine your COM as a small marble floating in space, in your tummy, behind your belly button. As you lean in all the different directions, your marble is 'colouring in' a kind of oval shape in space, which contains all of the possible positions your COM can be in while you're standing balance, at this height, on this foot. If you then also allow yourself to bend your knee and play with your balance at different heights, the oval will be extended into the third dimension, becoming a kind of spherical (ok, so 'roughly ellipsoidal' would be more accurate but we can think of it as a sphere) cloud in space. We will call this the 'control cloud' that corresponds to the step you're standing on. To clarify the definition: the control cloud for a step is the region of space in which your COM can exist while having its motion controlled by the muscles in the the weighted foot.

As you move around from one step to another, whether you are walking or dancing, your COM is floating between the control clouds of different steps. The most important thing for us to realise is that the degree of control available to you is *not the same* everywhere in the cloud. Control is much better when your COM is close to the centre of the cloud and tapers off as it moves ever further away. Accordingly, it becomes more difficult to make sure that you are moving with minimised jerk if, on every step, you allow your centre to stray too far from the centre of the cloud. Of course, eventually control disappears altogether and you will fall over if you lean sufficiently far without taking another step. The art of controlled stepping for good dance movement, which facilitates good communication between partners, requires a dancer to learn how to step in such a way that his/her COM never strays from the region of good control for each step. Two things help with this: The first is simply extending one's region of control through experience and training. There are exercises which one can do to learn how to better control the motion of one's centre through a larger range of movement per step. Simple muscle development also helps. The second thing to learn is step spacing. No matter how controlled you can be with each step, if you want to move across the floor, you will eventually need to replace one step with another. It is common amongst beginner dancers that steps are irratically spaced; sometimes unnecessarily close together, sometimes too far apart. By contrast, experienced dancers know how to space their steps so that they are able to maintain a high level of control over the movement of their COMs. The guiding principle in 'planning' (it is usually done subconsciously by experienced dancers) the right step spacing is to always take as few steps as possible in order to achieve well-controlled movement.

As a simple exercise to demonstrate all of this to yourself, try this: Stand on one foot and keep your other leg underneath you, slightly bent, so that your foot is just off the floor. Now, play with your balance for a moment; move your centre around within the control cloud of the step you're on, noticing that fine control feels ever more difficult, the further you move your COM from the point directly above the centre of your foot. Now, to experience a finely controlled step, try the following: Slowly move your COM in the direction of the leg you're not standing on (ie. if you're standing on your right foot, use your right leg to slowly push your COM towards the left). Keep the unweighted foot *directly under you*, just hanging there, moving with you as you control your motion with your weighted foot. As your COM approaches the limit of the well-controlled region of the current step's control cloud, reach out slightly with your unweighted foot in the direction of your motion, lower it to the floor and transition some weight onto it (but just a little bit! Aim for a 90/10 split between the old step and the new step). [Side note: It is sometimes taught that a dancer should not reach out with a foot to take a new step. This is not true; if the dancer is aiming to move across the floor, there is always some reaching. It's also true, however, that reaching *too far* hinders well-controlled movement. The important quantity to focus on getting right is step spacing.] What you have done by putting the new step on the floor is established a new control cloud for that step, which *overlaps* with the control cloud for the old step. Your COM is now still within the reasonably-well-controlled region of the old step *and also* at the far reaches of the not-very well-controlled region of the new step (hence the 90/10 split between the old and the new). Now, keep your COM smoothly moving towards the well-controlled region of the new step's control cloud. Notice the weight split gradually shift between your two feet as your COM moves: 80/20, 70/30, 60/40. *If you have spaced your steps optimally*, by the time you get to 50/50, your COM will be right at the edge of the well-controlled regions of both steps at the same time, passing from the old and into the new. You can test this by lifting either one of your feet of the floor. You should feel like you're going to fall over but 'only just'. If you have spaced your feet too widely, you will feel like you'll definitely and quickly fall if you lift either of your feet off the floor. If you have spaced your feet too closely (arguably, this is not as problematic as spacing them too far apart, because closely-spaced steps can be easily controlled. Still, they are not without problems, as we shall see), you will feel as though you could lift either foot off the floor and still stay standing by only making a tiny adjustment to the position of your COM (and, you won't have moved very far with your step!) Keep moving your COM gradually until your weight is 100% on the new step (ie. your COM is now directly over the centre of the newly weighted foot). The overall effect of this stepping process has been to provide an unbroken passage of good control between the maximally balanced positions of the two steps, meaning that stepping in this way ensures that the motion of your COM is always well controlled, as required for good dancing.

Before rounding up this post I would like to discuss a stepping habit with which many good dancers sabotage their ability to work well with their partners: Taking too many steps. It is natural, especially for an inexperienced dancer, to want to spend as much time as possible within the safely balanced, well-controlled region of each step. One can manage to do more of this while moving around the floor, simply by taking more steps and spacing them more closely. The same speeds and trajectories can be achieved in many cases, but the dancer feels more controlled. The trouble with this strategy is that it removes options for communication between partners. Every step is a commitment to a position on the floor. It can be a lot of fun to flirt with a step without actually committing to it; to move in one direction only to stop before stepping and go back the other way. It is also fun to add rotations/swivels into steps to make trajectories more interesting. Stepping earlier than required can cut off both of these options, which can be very frustrating to a partner who is trying to 'enjoy the spaces between the steps'. Again, the guiding principle should always be to take as few steps as are necessary in order to maintain well-controlled movement that facilitates good leading and following. I like to teach the mantra, "Never hesitate to move. Always hesitate to step."

For several posts now, we have discussed the art of partner dance movement. In the next post, we shall progress to the next chapter: connection.

Carl Joseph  – (June 1, 2009 at 10:12 AM)  

Here, here! Nice post. Looking forward to seeing how you continue to develop this.

I've often been amazed at how often people forget to walk when learning to dance. We've learnt to walk and do all the COM movement stuff you describe naturally. Start learning to dance and we immediately forget it! Probably because of the "step by step" focus of teaching.

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