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From the Ballroom

by Elizabeth & Arthur Seagull

Practicing Separateness

In dancing, we speak of "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 the 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.

Take responsibility only for yourself. Stay on your own side and be patient and 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 Helpful -- 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 receiving compliments.

Taking responsibility 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, will feel.

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 happen.

Enjoying 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 you 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 who 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 the 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 . . . )

Take Individual 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:

  • Practicing 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.

  • Practicing 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).

  • Practicing 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!)

  • Practicing 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!

  • Practicing 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 awareness.

  • Mental 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 teacher.

Enjoying Practice -- 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.

Practicing small 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 improvement.

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 improving.

Respecting Your Partner's Space

One of the really weird 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 dancing exhausting!

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 not 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 it.

Men typically have more 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.

Rethinking "Lead 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 of 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.

Learning this method of 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!

Dancing 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 Think about "Leading"

As you gain skill, you 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.

Supplying Power -- 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 of a 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 in 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.

A 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

First 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.

Let's 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.

Continuing 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.

He 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.

He 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.

Each 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.

Leading 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 responsiveness from both partners in order to work.

To 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 is able.

If 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 R, responsiveness.

From Ballroom 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.


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