At around 4 a.m. after a Saturday full of dancing, I had quite a memorable conversation with a dancer who had experienced a dance that they were hoping would go very right, but ended up leaving a negatively-tinged aftertaste because they and their partner weren’t on the same mental wavelength. It could have been one person not particularly being into the dance. It could also have been mental distress from a crowded floor, fatigue, or some sort of discomfort with the partner’s style.
This isn’t a unique scenario. Many of us have asked people to dance and experienced the dreaded ‘pity dance’, or began a dance on a high note only to have it go downhill. How do we stop this from happening?
There are two types of disconnected dances: ones you cannot control or fix, and ones you can. If both people in the partnership want to fix the disconnect, magic can happen. If one person is already set against the grain, it is a difficult fix. Sometimes, despite best efforts, it will not happen. We are going to focus on the tools at your disposal to give you the best chance of a salvage.
1. How you ask for the dance is important
In many situations, disconnected dances stem even from the act of asking for the dance. Particularly when the bad dance involves a professional, it is difficult to ensure that the desire to dance is an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ rather than a begrudging ‘ok’.
Speaking from personal experience, eye contact is a very good indicator of if someone wants to dance. If they are sitting by a bar, looking at a phone, talking, or you can’t seem to get their attention, chances are they’re currently not feeling ‘in the zone’ to connect to the dance. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a great dance with them, but you are already starting at the bottom of a small hill.
If you want to ask someone to dance but aren’t sure if they’re feeling it, give them an out that doesn’t trap them in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example:
- “Would you like to dance after you’re done taking a break?”
- “Will you save me a dance tonight?”
- “I would love to dance with you tonight.”
- “Are you taking a break, or are you up for a dance?”
All of these statements give a low pressure out because they do not assume immediacy. They give the individual a chance to decide if their head space is ready to go for a dance with you. If they’re taking a break, they feel less ‘required’ to say yes despite their body cues. If they’re not feeling the song, the idea of dancing ‘later’ may give them an opportunity to dance with you when the music is more their style. Once they give an answer, go with it. No need to reconfirm. If there is a hesitation in the reply, an ‘you sure?’ can work, but isn’t really necessary.
If the person is someone you really admire, feel free to tell them this before the dance. Compliments of the non-creepy variety (I don’t generally advocate using the words ‘sexy’ or ‘hot’ at first meeting) are a great way of breaking the ice and making the person feel great about dancing with you. My personal go-to if it is an instructor I’m nervous about or inspired by is to tell them that I really admire their dancing, and that I have been looking forward to dancing with them. I’ve yet to have this poorly received, and generally happy sentiments like this have a positive effect of creating goodwill between you and them.
2. How you start the dance is important.
The start of the dance is where you can most easily set the tone for the rest of the song. This means ‘calibrating’ with your partner. Invite the person into your space, but do not force them close. Be gentle with your beginning, and wait until you feel them finding synchronization with you before beginning the dance. This creates the comfort necessary to be open to the experience of the dance. It is easy to break a potentially potent connection by not letting it blossom before going full-out.
3. Make sure they stay with you.
Some people like a heavier connection, some like a softer connection. Some are smooth, some are sharp. Some want simple but pleasant movements, and some want to be pushed towards their physical limits. Some want to interpret the lyrics and tell a story through the dance, others just want to melt into the feeling.
The secret to finding out what your partner likes is to keep an eye on your partner’s face, body language, and connection. Ideally, the two of you will be on similar wavelengths or meet in the middle, but sometimes you’ll need to do most of the work to get on their page – whether a lead or a follow.
If you adopt a position in your dance that follows the ideology of “this isn’t my favourite style of music and lead, so I’m just going to ‘get through’ this dance”, it will be hard to create magical experiences with more than a handful of dancers. If you adopt a position of “what is my partner giving me, and what can I work with?” dances suddenly become much more bearable. So what if it’s not technically the best dance?
Of course, this isn’t advocating for doing dangerous things that are risky to try to please your partner. Dangerous movements are still dangerous, and there’s no reason to expect someone to follow through on something that makes them uncomfortable. However, if you are open to connection, many dangerous movements can be avoided and turned into something creative and lovely.
The other side to making sure your partner is with you is how they’re physically reacting to what you’re doing. This is easier to respond to as a lead than a follow, but both can maintain some control over this.
If you see a tight-lipped half smile, a frown, or a blank and disconnected face, something is wrong. Change it. If you feel tension, take the follow back to a state of relaxation. Maybe you’re going too fast. Maybe you’re dancing on pattern autopilot. Maybe you’re holding them too close, or touching them in a way they don’t like.
Play with changing the variables until you see a positive response. Slow it down, simplify the moves, give him or her more space, etc. If they want to be challenged, do something simple but unexpected – like a speed change. See if something changes. If nothing else, creating a change in dynamic will catch their attention and give you an opening to change the feeling and connection for the better. Pay attention if playing it ‘sexy’ on the music is closing them off. Maybe they would prefer to play fun and light, or deep and dramatic.
How you hold your partner, your willingness to share your space with them, and your willingness to explore and let yourself shine are your biggest assets. You can choose to try to deepen the connection, and you can tell them how open you are to being in line with their energy and vision. Does your leader favour deeper connection? Intense drama? Fun and flirty? Do they like speed or extensions? What are they listening to in the music? Do they like it when you add play, or do they prefer to lead everything? Assessing these things can help you determine where you can help to shape and add passion to a lacklustre dance.
You can also choose when you don’t want to do something particular, but it doesn’t have to be a negative impression. You can move your body to ask for the spacing you want and to create dynamics. You can experiment. These things draw the lead in. Rather than being a vessel for the leader to fill, bring what makes you unique to the dance. You will be more fun and more memorable.
4. Dance for the conditions.
Leads: A big cause of discomfort and lack of connection from follows is discomfort with something. It can be a technique that isn’t working quite smoothly, a lot of turns on a sticky floor, being forced to touch sweaty shirts, or doing a lot of complex movements in a space more designed for compact dancing. As a leader, part of your job is to be aware of where your follower is in space to make sure dancing is stress-free. If the follow feels like you’re not doing this, they may disengage simply because they are now fending for themselves on the floor. This means that you can’t be on the same ‘team’ as them, and are rather another obstacle for them to manage while keeping themselves comfortable. Trust me, people don’t connect to obstacles. They connect to partners.
Follows: If the lead is dancing compact to avoid smashing into people, match your dancing to this wavelength. Just like you don’t want a lead throwing you into other people, leads don’t want a follow who they have to corral just in order to make sure the follow doesn’t get hurt. Be aware of yourself in space, and if you have the opportunity to be a better partner by shouldering some of the responsibility for a safe dance, do it. It will show him you’re their partner, rather than their responsibility.
Creating a positive connection is a constant exercise in awareness, sensitivity, and presence with your partner. Connection can be made or broken at any time. It is not a one-setting one-time calibration, but a series of interactions that eventually evolve into the end product. The most important thing is remembering that if you focus on yourself and your experience, you may lose your partner’s energy. If you focus on how your partner is reacting and how you can adjust in real time, if you engage with their sense of a good dance, any dance can be a memorable one.