Connection 1: Body language

We have finally arrived at what I think is possibly the most interesting - and most confusing - issue discussed by partner dancers: Connection. We have already flirted with questions of connection in earlier posts but now we will dive into them head first. The discussion will begin by introducing connection as a kind of tactile language; a means of communicating through forces and shapes experienced/observed in two dance partners' bodies. We will then consider an argument that a particular system of such language is more effective than others that are commonly used in facilitating musical, co-creative dancing. It will be argued that this system is more-or-less universal between the various styles of improvisational partnered jazz dancing, being different only in fine-tuning between Lindy, Blues and Bal (and other styles as well, even outside the jazz genre). Finally, this system will be explained in depth. In order for the explanation to be as clear as possible, a simple physical model of connection will be developed and explored. Please don't worry if you've never studied physics; I will attempt to explain things in a way that is accessible to everyone. For those who are interested in the quantitative details of the model, there will be small 'technical supplement' (read as 'shameless geekfest') sections along the way.

It is useful here to state a very brief summary of much of what has been discussed in earlier posts:

  • There are many ways to define 'good swing dancing'; we have chosen to define it as musically co-creative connected movement which is innovative within a historical frame.
  • Both musical auditory processing and sensory-motor control of your body are evolved human capacities and carry the legacy of that evolution.
  • Gestural and (later) verbal language provided the survival advantage of efficient communication in cooperative social groups. Current theories of the neural processing of music suggest that it evolved in parallel with language processing. We have speculated that musicality in dance results from the music-verbal language-gestural language links.
  • Fast, efficient sensory-motor control of a single human body (ie. the one which houses the brain that controls it) is biologically evolved and therefore intuitive. Control of two connected bodies, shared between two brains, has evolved not biologically but culturally, through trial and error, by many dancers over many years. These systems involve self-imposed restrictions on the movement of each individual partner, which facilitate shared control.
  • Particular systems of shared body control have emerged as more effective than others. These are the systems used by the most respected dancers. Good teaching consists in distilling these systems into basic principles and communicating those principles accessibly, in entertaining ways, to students.
  • Individual partners move in a way conducive to good shared control when they move with maximum predictability over time scales short compared with a whole dance (ie. less than a second to a few seconds). Predictability over longer time scales (eg. Dancing the same move or sequence of moves over and over) can make a dance uninteresting, so good dancing combines predictability over short times with originality over longer times. We have speculated that maximum predictability over short time scales is achieved when individual dance partners move in such a way as to minimise the jerk of the motion of their individual centres of mass. This makes the dancers' motion smooth, preventing sudden, difficult-to-work-with changes, each partner helping the other to have the experience, "Ah, I can feel and see what you're doing and where you're going. I can work with that!".
  • For the purposes of good shared control, the primary function of steps and footwork is to carry movement; where you put a foot is much less important than how you control the motion of your centre of mass through the space above it.
  • The following steps are required for shared control:
  1. Partition the control into roles of lead and follow. The roles can be passed back and forth but in general, only one person is leading and the other is following at any given time.
  2. Restrict individual movement in the ways described for leader and followers in an earlier post.
  3. Restrict the connection system to obey a particular set of rules, which is known to both partners, or can be learned through 'tuning in' to each other on the social dance floor.
  4. Cooperate to create shared movement, which reflects the music.
Now, for a very simple functional definition of connection: Connection is achieved when the motion of one partner's centre of mass is influenced by - and influences - the motion of the other partner's centre of mass, in a predictable way. Let's keep this in mind as we proceed. First, however, we will take a step back and consider connection as a kind of language-based conversation, which will provide a familar analogy against which to frame the later technical discussions.

The various partnered jazz dance styles are primarily social dances, meaning that the primary goal within each is for a dancer to be able to visit a place where (s)he has never danced before, dance with someone (s)he has never met before, to music (s)he has never heard before and still have fun. This extreme flexibility requirement places heavy constraints on the complexity of the movement/connection system which dancers should learn. Strict systems with long lists of specific rules to learn are not likely to facilitate this kind of flexibility. So, if dancers seek to learn lots of specific moves as their end goal, they may find that unfamiliar partners don't know any of the same moves, making it difficult to find common ground on which to share a fun dance. We can make a linguistic analogy here, imagining that two strangers - one English speaker and one Spanish speaker, say - might try to prepare to have a conversation in a new language (eg. Japanese) which is unfamiliar to them both. If they each prepare by learning randomly selected phrases from a phrase book, it is unlikely that their conversation will achieve any depth, if it manages to get off the ground at all. What's required then, are some general rules - preferably as few of them as possible - allowing people to communicate flexibly. In language, these are the rules of grammar, which allow for the building of meaningful, original sentences. Two mutually unfamiliar dancers can have a creative, original dance then, if they just know the same rules of grammar, which is a significally smaller set of things to learn than a long list of pre-cooked sentences.

I think it's interesting to spend a moment discussing the language spoken between regular dance partners, particularly in the case of rehearsing/performing choreography. Frequently, such partnerships are able to achieve things in their dancing, which neither partner can achieve while dancing socially with someone else: particularly impressive tricks and aerials; quick, subtle changes of direction, etc. At the same time, the dancers in the partnership might not have as much fun while dancing with each other as they do when dancing with unfamiliar others, because all too often, with each other they are having the same conversation over and over. We might think of this as analogous to a couple of actors playing out the same scene, learned from a script. They have each got their own lines down, complete with emotional nuances, and can predict each other so well that the scene flows smoothly enough to convince an audience. But the internal experience of the actors themselves is not the same as it would be if they were having a real, original conversation. Yes, if they are good actors they are still able to bring some genuine emotion to the script and 'play off' each other but they both know that there is only one way the conversation will go.

Ok, so, point taken, I hope. What does this have to do with connection - the physical mechanism by which dancers achieve movement together? The key point, I believe, is the amount of information which must be pre-learned by the dancers. Choreography still uses connection but it uses very complicated connection. It does this because it can afford to - there's lot of time to learn the rules and rehearse. Choreographed performances might involved sections where two dance partners are able to precisely coordinate their movements without being in physical contact at all. They might use subtle visual signals in order to communicate when it's time to change and do something differently. And as a result of all this complexity, they are able to achieve things which are rarely achieved on the social dance floor. It would be *great* if every dance we ever had looked as good as the best choreographed performances. Indeed, when most of us first come to partner dancing, we dedicate ourselves to learning cool new moves and tricks and love dancing them on the social floor with familiar partners who know the same stuff. But we soon realise that the prospect of having the experience of executing precise choreography with everyone we ever dance with is going to require a godlike memory and a preparatory discussion before every dance. "Hi! Would you like to dance? Great! Do you know such a such a move? Do you know how to get into it from this move? What about this sequence? Ok, well, let's forget the sequence but we can do that move. Great! Let's do it!" Imagine having to go through all that every time you want to have a dance! It might be fun and impressive to pre-learn a script and act out an amusing 'conversation' for an audience but trying to take the system by which that is achieved and imposing it on social dancing doesn't result in much fun. So, what's the alternative? A simple, powerful system of tactile connection; a mechanical grammar which allows two unfamiliar dance partners to achieve amazing things on the social floor without any shared preparation whatsoever. Dancers the world over pay good money to learn from instructors who have mastered this, and students with a passion for excellence spend months and years trying to put the teachings into practice.

I don't think I'm describing anything new here. I think dancers know that they need to learn general rules of movement and connection. I skeptical, however, that there exists a single, well-formulated grammar of dance connection, which is agreed upon by everyone. Different teachers teach different grammars and when their students try to dance together, it is analogous to two people who speak different languages trying to have a conversation. The languages aren't usually all that different; it's not like Mandarin and French coming together. I think it's usually something more like different dialects of the same language. Nonetheless, this can make things difficult. Sometimes the two partners can manage to figure each other's dialects out and have a great dance. Other times though, there is an ongoing clash. One might argue that there simply isn't a singluar 'best' grammar and there's no point trying to find one. I think this is too strong a statement. I think that there are good reasons to argue for a single, optimal system of connection - a single, most effective grammar - which, if learned by everyone, would facilitate 'better' (according to our definition) dancing. Sure, there will always be dialects but perhaps the goal should be to leave them behind, or least be aware of them so that one can choose one's particular, quirky dialect consciously, rather than because it's the only think one knows how to do. I am not arguing here against individual styles; far from it! I'm arguing for a clear system of communication. Two people who speak exactly the same language can certainly have fun, meaningful, creative, exciting conversations!

In what follows, I will attempt to describe what I believe might be the optimal dance connection grammar, which is used by the world's best dancers. I should make a small qualifying point here that Lindy, blues, Bal, etc, are definitely different dialects. But they are NOT different languages from a biophysical standpoint. I cannot emphasise this strongly enough. The systems of muscle control used by Blues dancers are the same as those used by Bal dancers. The two dances differ only in so far as those systems are subject to historical constraints. Bal dancers only 'talk' (ie. have tactile discussions on the dance floor) about the topics which are accepted by the Bal community, and vice versa for blues dancers. But the language they speak when having those topical discussions is the same. The (relevant) nerves attached to your muscles do not know whether you are dancing Bal, Lindy, Blues or Polka. All they are able to tell your brain is how long/stretched each muscle is, and how much load/force it is bearing. Your brain accepts signals of this type from every skeletal muscle in your body constantly, synthesises them, interprets them in the context of whichever dance you are choosing to do, decides what to do next, and then activates the relevant muscles when required. This is not to say that there are not different systems of shared body control out there. There are. But as far as I can tell, the systems used in all of the various improvisational partnered jazz dances are fundamentally the same. The differences between them are less than fundamental.

In the next post we will get down to business and begin describing the simple, fundamental rules of connection, the rules which relate the shapes in dancers' bodies to the forces they are applying on their partners.

Carl Joseph  – (October 20, 2009 at 8:36 PM)  

Interesting introduction to the topic Drew.

Thinking about Balboa for the moment, how does the basic step fit into this? Moving in/out of that and varying it is certainly involved Newton. Would you consider the "basic step" however a "routine" of sorts?

Drew Ringsmuth  – (October 21, 2009 at 2:35 AM)  

Thanks, Carl :-)

In the context of connection, the key feature of all 'basic steps' (Bal basic, Lindy swingout, Blues weight changes) is that they are *oscillatory*. Each partner starts somewhere, temporarily goes somewhere else (via whatever footwork pattern history has dictated - this is the arbitrary, routine part) and then comes back to where (s)he started. The oscillation I'm focusing on here is not the vertical 'pulse' but the horizontal movement. In the next post, we will begin to explore the physics of elasticity (springs), which is the physics underlying good connection. It turns out that any elastic system in nature will display oscillatory behaviour when energy is added to it (eg. hold a 'slinky' spring up by one end, give the other end a pull and let it go). I think of the various basic steps as basic oscillations played out by elastically connected dance partnerships. They form the 'home base' dynamic, which can grow into all the various, more complex dynamics of other 'moves' (most of which are oscillatory also, but in more complicated ways). There's a bit more to it than this as well, I think - some physiological issues about the limits of the nervous system's ability to detect changes in muscle tensions (detecting such changes is what gives rise to the feeling of connection), and therefore needing a basic oscillation with a certain amount of energy, which provides a repetitive change in tension in order to repeatedly establish connection between partners. But this deserves more explanation (speculation!) and I'll go into it down the line.

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