My dancing tends to be an exploration of my inner state. So often I go through life barely acknowledging the things brewing within myself. I am working toward the next goal, getting stuff done. I think that this state of being was who I am long before I moved to NYC, but it is an attitude that is well matched to this city. When I put on my jazz shoes and there is music and a floor, everything changes. I, the massive klutz, become graceful. I slow down and my mind stops planning every little detail of the upcoming week. Suddenly I am aware of my own inner life.
At different points this has been a curse. I deal every day with unusually high levels of anxiety. For the most part I ignore it until I need to take medication for the tension headaches, and then I push on and ignore it more. Dancing breaks that down and I feel it viscerally. There is no ignoring and no getting away from myself. When I first began blues dancing this inability to ignore my own state, and my desire to be good at this thing while being just a beginner combined into a terrible spiral. I was doing something to provoke anxiety. I was feeling all of the anxiety all at once for the first time. I didn’t know how to handle it. I learned that I would become more and more stressed as the night went on. Stress would make my muscles clench and my body rigid, which ruined my frame and my following. Knowing that my following was worse than normal would cause me stress and this would become a repetitive loop. It took a few panic attacks where I shut myself in the bathroom to hyperventilate to learn that there would be nights that I would have to pull myself out of the dance. I could go home even if it meant that I had only danced half an hour.
As I’ve improved, both at dancing and at managing my anxiety, things have shifted. Sometimes I would have a moment where everything was shut out but the sound of the music and the feeling of my body. I could focus so clearly on where I was and what my partner was asking that there was nothing else. These moments were addictive. Beautiful shining moments that kept me coming back. Eventually they would get longer; from a moment to a phrase, from a phrase to a song, from a song to a series of songs. I’ve recently begun mindfulness meditation, and when I’m doing well with that, it is not unlike those moments.
This weekend past was a triumph for me. I’ve usually taken a long time to resolve my anxiety once it is the state I am in. For me it is not as simple as something anxiety producing being done, I usually spend some time still being wound up and worried for a while. I had a week of finals and a last looming final on Monday. Yet I was able to go to the Saturday late night and have perfect amazing moments of dancing. Moments that I was perfectly in tune with myself and my partner. Moments that make me happy and soothe. I had a night filled with these moments, entire songs with new partners and familiar partners. If all dancing felt like this, I would never need a break for it is so refreshing on its own.
The best thing to me is to have people thirsty for knowledge that I can share. At my home scene, I’ve helped the pre-dance lesson often by being a demo partner. This past weekend I did that, then had several people find me later and ask for tid-bits of clarification. I probably spent a good five dances in the hall way talking about things. The next day I traveled a few hours away and taught a class of my own. The way I had structured it, the first part didn’t seem very much like dancing at all. Then there was a moment where suddenly everyone, even the first time beginners, was legitimately dancing with someone else.
These are the moments that are addictive. The sudden understanding. The shift from not dancing to dancing, from lack of knowledge to knowledge. I seek out these moments all over the place. I recently spent a portion of a night teaching someone how to find knots and was rewarded with the look on his face when he first felt one release.
One of the things that I love about capoeira is that it was one of the first places that my brain would realize potentialities. I would be watching others in the roda and notice that the thing they were doing right then could very easily turn transition into a different move. I think part of this is because a huge amount of time is spent in capeoira training taking the basic few kicks and dodges and stringing them together in drill after drill. I got used to the feeling of using momentum and redirecting. I got used to selecting one movement as appropriate to what my partner was doing and having that suggest to my body the next place to go.
Shortly after I had this break through in capoeira I started to lead in blues. Very quickly the same sort of discovery was apparent to my mind. I would get to a movement, and as my follower was finishing it, I saw possibilities arise. Their position, or momentum or even some movement flair would suggest sometimes one and sometimes a dozen things to do next.
I have attended hundreds of beginner lessons for blues dance. I think that in blues dancing giving beginners a sequence to try out is out of favor, if it was ever in. I’ve had discussions and the feeling toward connection and improvisation is always brought up as why we shouldn’t teach sequences. However, in light of how capoeira drills sequences and then expects you to break them, I think improvisation can be learned from there. Someone else once compared teaching sequences to creating sand art. You follow the direction of someone else until you get it. Then you erase it and use the same rules to make your own.
When I worked for Mad Science there was always like 6 ten to twenty minute activities. We had the kids for an hour. Include the time that I had to spend talking about the concept and explaining how to do the actives, that is way way more than needed. My trainer explained that he wanted to make certain that no matter what the class, there was some activity that everyone could enjoy. It was my job as a teacher and part of classroom management to chose activities on the fly that would fit the group.
Planning for a dance class I’ve adopted this method. In my planning stages, there’s a dozen things that I think should be said for each of the handful of exercises or movements I choose to cover. I never get to to do all of the movements, and not all of the things that could be said should be said to the group that is in front of me. At that moment in my life I was learning so much about learning and teaching both on the job and in classrooms. I’ve carried that forward, and I feel lucky that I’ve had these opportunities.
In motor learning I learned this interesting idea: as a person is learning a new movement they don’t have the attentional capacity to keep track of and control all of the moving parts. Instead they’ll focus on some portion that they deem important and “freeze the other degrees of freedom” leading to movement that is not the most efficient, but capable of being attended to. As we learn more, some parts of the movement can become grooved in and require less attention. We call this reaching automaticity. Ideally once automaticity on one portion of the movement happens the other degrees of freedom are opened up and we can work on that portion. I feel like the
Jazz Lindy Hop Steps Made Easy series takes advantage of this idea quite a lot. Once you are comfortable with one layer, another layer is added.
I fear that sometimes it takes a lot of self awareness to notice when a person has stopped halfway through the process. They’ve gotten some part of the movement automatic, but they haven’t gone back and worked on the other degrees of freedom. I see this most common in leaders. They are so concerned with how to get a follow to do a move that they concentrate very much on their arms, shoulders and chest. Once they’ve got that down, they are confident with their move, but forget to dance themselves.