Each great dance we will ever have comes down to a few foundational building blocks. If all the blocks are there, a dance will be more successful and pleasant. But, if we prioritize certain building blocks over others, we end up with an unbalanced experience.
Those building blocks can be summed up as the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of the dance.
The Who: Connection
Connection (the “Who”) is your awareness and understanding of your partner. It encompasses how you touch, hold, or feel your partner’s body. It is important for understanding the what of a dance, because it determines your ability to communicate successfully with your partner. Connection is also what allows you to know if your partner is doing OK, if they like or dislike what is happening, or if you need to make further adjustments. In short: connection is your awareness of the other person (or people) you are dancing with.
In some styles, connection has been elevated on a pedestal above every other aspect of the dance. While connection is deeply foundational to every dance style, it is important to remember that it is not the whole dance. It’s great to do intensives, privates, and other training related to connection – but if it’s all you’ve got, you’re not really dancing.
The Who can be taught – and it can also be partially learned through experience and awareness. The more emphasis you put on being able to understand and interpret your partner’s body, the more successful you will be.
The What: Lead and Follow
The “What” of lead and follow of a dance is closely related to connection – but it isn’t the same. You can be great at holding your partner and not be able to successfully lead or follow. The lead and follow is knowing what the connection is supposed to be communicating – rather than just knowing that it’s communicating something. For example, the same lead in different dances may yield drastically different results based on the what of each individual dance. A lead that feels like a Zouk tilt may not be asking for any upper body movement at all in WCS.
The What is learned through a combination of instruction and social dancing. Each dance has its own language, and instruction and exposure are necessary for learning what is being asked (and how to ask it).
The Where: Body and Foot Placement
The Where is your understanding of your positioning within a dance. For example, where you step on a basic, how far an isolation needs to move, and if you’re supposed to walk forward. It’s also closely related to the what, but this is more about you knowing what your own body is supposed to do rather than what your partner is asking for.
For example, you may be able to lead your partner through all kinds of things very successfully – but have no idea what your feet are actually supposed to do. As a result, you may not be able to lead more complex variations or develop a good aesthetic. This is because you don’t understand where in space your body is supposed to be. For a follow, it may be the difference between stepping straight, or trying to step around your partner. You may know what your partner is communicating, but you don’t know where you should put your body to execute the movement.
The Where is best learned through classes and instruction. Some can be learned through observation, but it is sometimes difficult to understand what you’re seeing and why it’s happening through observation alone.
The When: Timing
Timing (the “When“) is a foundational concept of every dance. While it is possible to dance without it, it’s certainly not ideal. Timing is the guiding frame for all the other elements of a dance. If the other W’s work in conjunction with the When, you can create magic. You can ‘hit’ accents. You can express the feeling, vibe, or flow of the music.
Of course, if you’re missing one of the other W’s, your ability to express the When in highly compromised. For example, you can’t express the music if you don’t know where to step or what to do. You also may injure or otherwise irk your partner if you don’t consider the who in your dance.
The When is best learned by listening to and understanding the music – in conjunction with practicing movements during a song.
The Why: Understanding What’s Happening
The Why is the most cerebral component of dance. This is your understanding of why each item is important, and why it works that way. For example, why does a Zouk follow tilt at certain times, and not others? Why do WCS follows know when they can play? This is the difference between knowing a bunch of movements, and understanding why they work. The why turns your dance from a collection of random phrases you memorized into an actual ability to use the language of the dance to construct your own ‘sentences’.
It is possible to dance without the why, but it will impact your ability to be creative and musical. If you don’t understand the why, you won’t be able to adapt or adjust to things that fall outside the ‘typical’ parameters of your dance. This is why understanding the why is so important.
The Why is formed by understanding the dance, and carefully thinking about it. This can be taught, and it can also sometimes be learned through careful observations.
The How: Knowing How To Make It Happen
The How is more about your physical understanding of executing the other elements. You can understand where and when you need to be, why it works that way, and what is being asked for. But, if you can’t express that knowledge through your body, you won’t be able to utilize it. For example, I may understand what a lead is asking for with an isolation. I may understand why that is being asked for, when it is being asked for, and where I have to be. But, if I can’t physically do the isolation, I am lacking the How. I will have to make a modification to keep the flow of the dance without executing the movement.
The How is formed by self practice, drilling, classes, exercises, and experience. It’s your ability to manifest your dance knowledge through your instrument (your body). The only way to do this is practice.
In my opinion, all the W’s and the H are necessary to create a holistic, full dance experience. While it is possible to dance without some of these components, it does not create the best or most fulfilling expression of a dance. Sometimes, certain dancers (or even dance styles) make the mistake of prioritizing one element over all the others. This creates an imbalance in the dance, and neglect of some of the most important aspects of each style.
So the next time you dance, consider all the W’s and the H. Be a fully expressed dancer, who has access to all the knowledge you need to create a memorable experience.
Do you agree or disagree that all of these components are necessary for the best dance experience? Are there some you think are less important than others? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.