I’ve talked a lot in my blog about ‘connection’. It is such an integral part of dance, but very hard to understand for a large amount of people. In my experience with students, they often fall into two categories:
- The ones who already understand these things – naturally or through education; and,
- The ones who don’t.
It is OK to be in either category. Some people fall into the first category, but never learn the technique or don’t have the discipline to develop good technique. Some become a very strong technical dancer without ever touching on the ‘soft skills’ of true connection – but keep in mind that if you refuse to explore these skills, there will always be something missing in your dance.
Regardless of which category you start in, you can learn connection Even the most awkward or shy person can learn to be a great connected dancer. There is a big misconception in dance that you either ‘get it’ or you don’t. This is NOT true.
How do you Learn a Soft Skill like Connection?
The biggest hurdle with soft skills is that teachers frequently have problems teaching them. Teaching people how to feel and interact with one another is much more difficult than teaching a technical step. Why? There are a few reasons:
- Technical skills are observable; soft skills are a feeling.
- Technical skills can be replicated through exact parameters; soft skills will differ for every person.
- Technical skills thrive on logical thinking; soft skills require an understanding of emotional feeling.
- Technical skills do not require being comfortable with another person; soft skills require making yourself vulnerable.
There are more, but these are the ones that come up most often in my experience.
On the Teacher Level
Many teachers who really connect do so through feeling, and many find it difficult to verbalize or describe just what is going in their dancing that makes their partner so happy. Hence, the propensity for teachers to say ‘just feel it’. This is a Catch-22. How can someone ‘just feel’ something that they’ve never felt? Spoiler: they almost never can.
Teachers may also draw their ideas of ‘feeling’ from what works on their body with their partners. The problem with this approach is that every body is different. What feels good coming from one dancer may feel very weird and wrong from another. It’s like expecting every person to fit clothing the same way: it doesn’t work.
Tall follows dancing close-hold dances are a good example of this. I have met 6’0 follows who have been told to maintain a forehead to forehead connection – even when the lead is 5’7. This just doesn’t work. In order to get that connection, the follow is forced to hunch and cave her upper body, or to painfully bend her knees to obtain the connection. Of course, the by-product is that her discomfort is translated to her frame and to her lead.
However, if that same follow is given instructions to make a head-to-head connection with the part of their body that makes the most sense for the height, it allows her to stand tall and be comfortable. As a tall girl myself, I have occasionally had a chin-to-forehead connection (sounds funny, but it works and doesn’t feel funny) with some short leads, and it works much better.
Teachers who are strong at teaching soft skills like connection employ different strategies. I cannot speak for every successful strategy since I can never claim to understand every method used by every teacher who has ever successfully explained connection to a student… but I can explain what has worked for me.
What Has Worked (in my experience) to Teach Connection
1. A Safe Space
The first thing that I have found needs to happen to teach connection is the creation of a ‘safe space’. If there is a time that awkward stuff is going to happen, it’s during connection class. If a space is not created where all participants can feel safe screwing up, the students cannot learn to foray into this area.
This can be as simple as getting together with a friend to work on connection, or as complex as a large group of people who are all comfortable with one another. The assumption in a safe space is that everyone there is trying their best to learn how to connect.
…which means that there will be awkward moments. Some people may end up with their hips too far forward, which is generally an uncomfortable feeling. Some may hold too tight or too loose. Some may move their bodies too much in uncomfortable ways or feel aggressive. This is part of the learning process for many people, and leads us to Point 2:
There are going to be some awkward moments in learning to connect. To correct these, feedback is always required. Feedback can be “I feel like your hips are pushing into me too much” or “I feel like you’re holding me too tight”. It can also be “Keep your elbows up, I don’t feel frame” or “I need you to hold me more”.
If someone isn’t ‘natural’ at connection, body language is generally not helpful feedback – unless body language is first defined. If you tell your partner that a specific physical cue is a sign of discomfort, they’ll usually be able to pick up on it. For example, a follow who is uncomfortable with a dip may hold tighter. A lead who is uncomfortable with a close hold may try to create more room by moving to open hold. Concrete examples like this can help to teach what connection should be, and how to recognize when something is wrong.
If you are someone who is struggling with soft skills, it sometimes helps in practices or classes to ask your partner to tell you if there are connection habits that make them uncomfortable – as long as you are open to the feedback. Even if they don’t know exactly what it is, they will be able to articulate whether or not they were comfortable with your connection. It also gives you feedback to clarify with your teachers.
What about being ‘Creepy’, or ‘Giving the Wrong Idea’?
A truth about people who are learning to connect is that they may run through a ‘creepy/awkward phase’ – not to be confused with actually creepy people who are using dance as an excuse for less savory behaviors. This is also a big reason that many people do not endeavor to learn how to connect – they don’t want to become a ‘creep’. Alternatively, they may be worried about connecting ‘too well’ and giving the wrong idea. This advice still applies.
If you are one of these people (or think you may become one), I would suggest working on connection with trusted friends and teachers first – and ask for their verbal feedback. It is OK to go through the ‘creepy/awkward/wrong idea phase’ in your attempt to learn how to connect – as long as the people you are practicing with understand and are willing to work with you through these things. I would not advise practicing this on people who you do not know well, or who may be uncomfortable with your behavior. Connection and soft skills are very sensitive interpersonally, so it is necessary for both parties to understand the need to be sensitive to each other and to keep an open mind towards the end goal.
3. Slowing Down, and Keeping it Simple
Do you practice meditation or yoga? Does working on connection bore you?
Then this section is for you. Meditation and yoga have many things in common with connection. Breath, patience, and ‘going deep’ into oneself are all intrinsic parts of these practices. Learning to take time and to delve into awareness of the whole body is key – and in connection, this same feeling extends to encompass your partner.
Many people who have issues with connection seek to speed through the ‘boring’ stuff to get to the ‘fun’ stuff… but people who understand connection know it is not boring, just difficult to get ‘in the zone’ sometimes. In order to learn connection, sometimes you need to strip away everything – and often for a long time. If you can’t even feel a connection when you’re simply swaying back and forth, how will you ever discover connection during complex moments?
Build up from a base. Take your time. Start with the most simple, base movement you can think of, and ONLY DO THAT until you can maintain connection the whole time. If you lose the feeling, restart. It can be frustrating, but the return on being willing to work through the boring is that you will open a whole new dimension to every aspect of your dance.
4. Vulnerability and Trust
This is the hardest one.
Connection requires vulnerability and trust. That doesn’t mean you need to be vulnerable and trusting that person all the time, but you need to be during the dance. If you cannot find it in you to share yourself with your partner, then they will very rarely share themselves with you.
Hugs can help with this. Getting comfortable with touch does too (of course, not inappropriate touching). Being comfortable maintaining contact with an arm, a wrist, or even at times a neck or a back open us up to connection.
It is also just as important for the side that is being touched to accept and move in to the connection. If you receive connection by moving towards the touch, you open possibilities to feel more in sync with your partner. If you receive touch with rigidity or fear, then you will dissolve connection.
5. Leading People to their Own Way of Connecting
Everyone’s perfect connection is a little different. It is more constructive to develop your own ‘toolkit’ for connection than to try to use someone else’s. The same way that some people’s natural gift is humor, others are great at deep, intellectual conversation. But, if the intellectual tries to be the class clown, it can come across as awkward. The same thing happens with connection.
Asking dancers questions to deconstruct what works and having them try to find their own ways of accomplishing the same end is a good way to enhance their ability to connect and find what works for their body and partners – as long as it is combined with feedback.
In the End
It is entirely possible to learn how to connect – even if it is a super, duper unnatural thing for you. But, you need to want it, and you need to surround yourself with at least one person who is willing to go on the journey towards better connection with you. Connection is intensely interpersonal, which means that both partners need to be willing in order for someone to learn. Also, as a non-visual, non-technical arena, verbal communication is necessary to understand and learn proper behaviors for connection.
It is OK to go through awkwardness – or even unintentional creepiness – on the journey towards connection… but always ensure you have a willing and understanding group or partner (or teacher). Prepare yourself to be open to feedback and verbal communication, and make sure that you learn to divide the critique of your connection from who you are as a person.
No matter who you are, you CAN learn to be a great soft-skills dancer. You CAN learn how to give the ‘wow, that feels soooo good’ feeling to your partners. It may be a longer journey thank you would like, but it is not beyond your ability.