From the Ballroom
Elizabeth & Arthur Seagull
In dancing, we
"staying on our own side." In a basic dance position, we
are slightly offset to the left as we face our partner. This prevents
us from stepping on each other's feet, allowing the moving leg to
swing between the partner's legs. Just as we have to stay on our own
side to allow our partner to move and avoid stepping on each other's
feet physically, we have to stay on our own side to allow our partner
to move psychologically.
Let the teacher do
teaching, and don't try to help. The simple fact is that most of
our efforts to help our partner are not helpful because our partner
is having a different experience. This is so difficult to believe
that we ask you to take this on faith for now. And the corollary is
the most difficult of all to believe: This is true even if what
you are telling your partner is correct.
responsibility only for yourself. Stay on your own side and be
empathic with your partner. Your partner is having a different
experience. Allow your partner the physical and psychological space
to experience and grow.
How To Be
The two best ways to be helpful to your partner are: (1) do your own
part as well as you can, and (2) say positive and encouraging things
to your partner. If you can only do one of these, the first is the
more important. Doing your own part well is the greatest contribution
you can make to the partnership. The second is important not only
because we all need a pat on the back when we are trying to learn
something new, but because it gives you something to do instead of
helping or criticizing.
Our brains don't
process negative information very well. That is why every program
designed to help people stop smoking or overeating provides ideas for
behaviors to do in place of the behavior they are trying to
decrease. Just saying, "Don't smoke," isn't very helpful.
It works better to offer a series of alternatives to do in those
situations in which people habitually smoke. Many people chew gum,
for example, when they are trying to stop smoking. It gives them
something to do instead.
In the same way,
instead of criticizing or coaching your partner, pay attention to
things your partner is doing well and improvements he or she is
making. Focus on the positive and look for things about which you can
give your partner a sincere compliment. Then practice giving and
for giving and receiving compliments will enhance your skill in all
of your relationships. The more you practice honestly giving and
receiving positive feedback, the better you, and everyone around you,
So, "stay over
your own feet" (take responsibility for yourself) and "stay
on your own side" (allow your partner to experience and execute
what is his/her responsibility). And then something unexpected may
Separateness -- An unforeseen bonus of practicing separateness is
that after a while you will begin to enjoy it! Instead of having to
take responsibility for two people, you only ave to take
responsibility for yourself. This is actually a relief.
The only behavior
can directly change is your own. Practicing separateness while
dancing will spill over into your non-dancing relationships in
positive ways. Instead of thinking, "How can I get this person
to change?" when there is a problem, you will develop the habit
of thinking, "What can I do to improve this situation?"
If you are someone
has tended to over-function in relationships, doing more than your
half, you will learn to back off and let the other person step up and
struggle with fulfilling their responsibility. And if you are someone
who has tended to let others do more than half the work, you will be
more aware of the need to do your part. Finding ways to have a more
equitable division of responsibility in all your relationships will
bring you into balance in life, as well as in dancing.
Practice is one of
few things in life that cannot be successfully delegated. The only
way to get better at anything is to do it over and over. But
repeating any action incorrectly only serves to perpetuate and
strengthen error. So, to be useful, practice must be done with the
best mental attitude and physical technique we can muster at that
moment. At the same time, we must accept that at a later stage we may
have to unlearn some of what we learned earlier in order to move to a
higher level. This is the natural process of development. If you can
accept this, you will not lose heart when it happens. (Or you won't
lose as much heart . . . )
Responsibility for Your Practice -- Often, you cannot wait for
your partner to be ready, for the floor to be available, or for a
myriad of other obstacles that crop up in real life to prevent you
from practicing with your partner on a dance floor. If you want to
improve, you must take active charge of your own learning. The good
news is that, regardless of your life circumstances, you really can
practice something every day, if you want to. Here are some examples
of dance skills you can practice as you move through your daily life:
While Walking: Moving with a lifted torso; rolling through your
feet; allowing the moving leg to swing; smiling; lining up your head
over your spine; looking straight ahead and a little bit up; breathing
with conscious awareness.
While Driving: Toning abdominal muscles; straightening your spine,
lifting your torso up out of your waist; pulling your shoulder blades
down; smiling; breathing with conscious awareness; identifying the beat
of songs on the radio and deciding what dance you could do to the music
(all while keeping your eyes on the road).
While in a Meeting: Rotating and flexing your ankles under the
table; toning abdominal muscles; straightening your spine, lifting your
torso up out of your waist; pulling your shoulder blades down. (Good
posture can be practiced even if you are chairing the meeting!)
While Waiting for the Elevator: Patience; positive attitude;
smiling; posture; balance; and, while you're at it, take the stairs for
some work on your stamina!
at Home: Standing on one foot at a time to improve balance (you
can do this while talking on the phone); practicing your heels and toes
or other small sections of footwork; practicing posture, sway, and arm
positions in front of a mirror; smiling; and breathing with conscious
Practice: In addition to physical practice, there are also many
opportunities for daily mental practice. This is particularly useful
when you are learning a new routine. You can use otherwise "wasted"
time by running a routine in your head when you are waiting for an
appointment. As you picture each movement, picture the "coaching" that
goes with it (for example, "Keep your left side up!" "Compress!" or,
counting a syncopation, "1, 2 and 3;"). If you get to a "stuck"
place where you can't picture what comes next, this tells you that you
have not yet learned that part of the routine. Make a note of this, and
take it to your next lesson so you can be sure to work on it with your
You will get the most benefit from practicing with a positive mental
attitude. We all have times when we just want to sit and read a book
or relax in a hot tub. Accept that, and do what you enjoy. You will
feel better and be able to bring a better attitude to your practice
if you do not beat yourself up over it. But when you do decide to
practice, smile and decide that you're going to have a good time.
segments is another way to feel good about practice. If you stand on
one foot and rotate your ankles ten times in each direction every day
when you get up, it will take you less than two minutes. You will
improve over time, and you will feel good that you have practiced
something that day that will contribute to your dancing. If you
remember to stand up straight, breathe, and smile at some later point
in the day, then you will have done two practices in one day.
Wonderful! Whatever you can do will contribute to your development.
Pat yourself on the back and give yourself credit for what you can
do, rather than focusing on all the things you don't have time for,
or have not yet learned to do. Over time, you will be surprised to
see how even small segments of ongoing practice lead to visible
High achievers are
often perfectionists. Some amount of perfectionism can have a
positive effect if it leads to a willingness to try repeatedly. But
if it leads to unrealistic expectations, with anger, depression, or
withdrawal in the face of mistakes, it is not helpful. Better than
perfectionism is persistence; the willingness to try and try again,
with the assurance that if you just show up and try, you cannot avoid
Respecting Your Partner's
One of the really
things about dancing is that the very thing that makes it appear
romantic to the onlooker creates a major problem for the dancer --
the close physical contact between partners. Think about it. If you
go to a social dance venue and watch untrained dancers attempting a
"slow dance," what do you see? Couples cling to each other
in a semi-bearhug with their upper bodies, but then their feet have
no space. Because they are trying not to step on each other, they
pull their pelvises back and shuffle from foot to foot. This position
produces a lot of stress on the upper body, causing each member of
the couple to disturb the balance of their partner. With poor
balance, they are falling over, so they lean even harder on each
other. Watching this makes our backs hurt. No wonder they find
When we are first
learning to dance, the crowding problem in the dance partnership is
addressed in two ways: (1) the initial hold that is taught is farther
apart, with contact at the level of arms, shoulders, and hands; and
(2) the lady is offset to the gentleman's right (her left), so that
there is room for the moving leg of the person dancing forward (man
or woman) to swing between the legs of the partner. With increased
proficiency, dancers are allowed to move closer so that the lady's
right hip/torso and the gentleman's right hip/torso are in contact.
This makes possible higher-level figures with more rotation, such as
pivots. Without such close contact, it is impossible for the partners
to get around each other. In other words, we have to move closer
together in order to get out of each other's way!
The physics of
partnered dancing is truly counterintuitive. Without training, we
want to pull our hips away to create more space. It also seems more
respectful to the partner. But, in fact, the opposite is true. We
actually create more space for our partner by bringing the hips very
close so that we can feel the partner's moving leg and respond with
the correspondingly appropriate movement. Rather, it is taking the
head far away from the partner and stretching it toward the left,
together with shaping the torso-shoulder complex, that creates space
in the partnership and, with that space, the freedom to dance.
Lead and Follow
Teachers who have
kept up to date with the most current teaching methods are,
unfortunately, still teaching men to "lead" by exerting
pressure on the woman's upper body with their hands and arms. This
style of leading is very uncomfortable for the woman. She feels like
she is being pushed around -- because she is ! And she doesn't like
Men typically have
upper body strength than women, so if they are taught to "lead"
using the outdated push-and-pull system, they are likely to use much
more force than they realize. To the woman, this easily feels like a
microcosm of abuse. A natural and healthy response to feeling like
you are being pushed is to resist. So the woman resists, and often
feels angry in the process. Then the man, who realizes that his
partner is not "following," tries even harder to "lead"
by exerting more force. The woman feels even more abused, and resists
more. Nothing good can come from such a system.
and Follow" -- To a man, the idea that "the man gets to
lead" seems right, or, at best, seems like no big deal, but this
is an important barrier to partnered dancing for many women.
Furthermore, the "brute strength" method of leading simply
does not work. When we were first taught by this method, we found
that we both came home from an evening of dancing with pain in
our arms, shoulders, and back, as we tried to deal with the forces of
pushing and pulling.
The current system
training replaces the upper-body "brute" lead with a "move
yourself" system. In this system, the man moves his own
body without exerting force on the woman, and the woman moves
herself to fill the space he creates for her. The "lead"
is still communicated partly through the man's "frame,"
(torso-shoulder-arm complex), which has tone but is flexible, rather
than rigid. The woman's frame is correspondingly toned and she is
attuned to shifts in the man's body as he shapes and moves himself.
The more important part of the lead, however, is communicated by the
lower body. For example, when the man bends his knee or settles his
hip in a compression, the woman learns to feel that and understands
the message it sends, "Get ready, we are about to move!"
She can then be prepared to respond by moving herself.
leading and following may sound pretty challenging. Well, yes, it is.
It takes time and patience -- and this may be a reason why the old
"brute" method is still being taught. That method can
provide a "quick fix," but it is like repairing your broken
muffler with chewing gum and duct tape. The "fix" won't
last long and it isn't safe!
is wonderful training for girls; it's the first way you learn to guess
what a man is going to do before he does it. -- Christopher Morley
More Ways to
As you gain skill,
will begin to realize that, in reality, during the course of a dance,
leadership within the partnership changes from moment to moment. The
teamwork in a two-person canoe is a good analogy. In canoeing, the
person sitting in the stern supplies more of the power and does more
of the steering, but is very dependent upon the person in the bow to
read the water and call out obstacles in the stream ahead, while
shifting his or her strokes to avoid them. Over time, the paddler in
the stern learns to read the body movements of the partner in the
bow, and can anticipate what the partner will say even before it is
said -- a great advantage in rapids, where it is hard to hear. Is one
of those team members more important than the other? Is one of them
"leading"? Each needs the other to move smoothly and safely
through the water.
One way to think about "leadership" in the dance
partnership is to regard the person supplying the power as the
leader. The partner supplying the power is the one who is "behind"
the couple, facing forward. That dancer supplies power by taking a
step heel-first down the floor (in a smooth or standard dance). This
is known as a "heel lead." A heel step is a power step.
At the beginning
waltz or foxtrot, for example, the man will set up facing in the
general direction of the line of dance. He bends his knee and takes a
step; the woman takes a corresponding step back, responding to what
she feels from him, matching the size of her stride to his. Now let
us say he decides to go to promenade. This puts the woman behind the
man; therefore, she supplies the power. Now she is leading, and he
has to match her. In other words, each of them must be attuned to
what they are feeling from their partner, and respond accordingly.
This is also true
the rhythm/Latin dances. At the beginning of the dance, the man is
usually the person moving forward. He settles his hip as he prepares
to dance, then communicates the "lead" through his toned
frame as he releases the energy from his hip, stepping forward. The
woman responds by stepping back. But just a moment later, it is her
turn to go forward, putting her in the power position, as the man
steps back. They must be closely attuned to each other as they
rapidly pass power back and forth between them.
leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when
people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him . . . But of a
good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
they will say, "We did it ourselves." -- Lao Tzu
Down the Floor --
Another way of thinking about leading is that the leader is the
person who is "first down the floor" (for example, the lady
in the start of a typical closed dance figure, where she dances
backwards; the gentleman in a promenade position or semi-closed).
Why? Because the person behind cannot run their partner over. The
partner in front is the one vacating space for the partner behind to
fill. This sets a limit on how much the partner behind can move.
return to the waltz example. The man sets up to waltz, bends his
knee, and takes his first step, but he feels that his partner does
not move as much as he had in mind. Rather than knock her over, he
backs off and moves less. He
adjusts his movement to hers.
So we could say she is leading. Or we could say he is responsive
to what he feels from her.
with the example, let us say he leads a twinkle or whisk to
promenade. Now the woman is in the power position, and as she tries
to move down the floor, the man does not come with her with the vigor
she had hoped for. She cannot drag him. So she has to back off. In
reality, they take turns leading, but then each has to constantly
adjust to the movements of the other. The same principle operates in
the Latin/rhythm dances.
Goes, She Goes --
Another way to think about what it means for the man to "lead"
is to think of it as meaning that he has the first turn. According to
the rules of the game of chess, white always takes the first turn to
move. In the rules of the sport of ballroom dancing, the man takes
the first turn to move. He goes, and then, only a split second later,
she goes. They take turns. The fact that he gets to go first doesn't
mean he gets all the turns! This is a common misconception. Many men
think that leadership in the dance means that the man gets to go all
the time. This is far from the case. He moves in a way that opens
space for his partner. This invites her to dance into it. Then
he has to wait while she does what he invited her to do.
goes; then she goes. Then he gets another turn. The time in which
this occurs is telescoped enough that there are no big pauses to an
onlooker, but a woman can certainly feel rushed or overpowered if her
partner invites her to do something in the dance and then does not
give her the time and the space to complete it. She responds
to his invitation; then he must wait and feel when she is done before
inviting her to do another dance figure. He must be responsive to
her, just as she is to him.
partner must respect
the other person's turn to go, and be responsible
for their own movement when it is their turn. So, skilled turn-taking
requires respect, responsibility, and responsiveness, the 3Rs
of Relationship Fitness.
Does Not Equal Forcing --
So, what is "leading"? If you are a man who thinks it means
you get to drag your partner around the floor, or force her to do
something she does not want to do, we can assure you that no one will
want to dance with you. If you are a woman who thinks that
"following" means being passive, you, too, will have
trouble finding and keeping a dance partner. Like a modern marriage,
the modern dance partnership requires active commitment, energy, and
partners in order to work.
sum up, "leading" is not
the same as "forcing." The gentleman leads a figure by
moving and shaping his
own body; then he
waits to see if the lady accepts his invitation. He cannot force her
to go; he can only invite her. The woman should strive to attune
herself to what is being "led," and follow through if she
she chooses not to go, however, there is nothing the man can do about
it. And if she does something he didn't have in mind, he should try
to do his best to follow her! Remember, one of the things we can
learn from dancing is to overcome our unrealistic perfectionism! So
if something goes wrong, don't get mad; learn to laugh about it! Then
talk it over later and try to figure out what happened. This
mutuality of attunement within the couple is the essence of the third
Dancing Is Not for Sissies, An R-Rated Guide for
Partnership by Elizabeth A. Seagull and Arthur A. Seagull, 2008,
pp 47 - 50; 136 - 139; 107 - 108, 54 - 64.
If you would like to read other articles on dance
position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit
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