I love how many dance communities have a strong emphasis on technical foundations. It’s something that advanced dancers always loved, but social media made the importance of technical education more prominent. Dance scenes are growing and expanding. Some students take many classes a week, or invest thousands of dollars in privates.
But, are we overeducating our social dancers?
For the purposes of this article, overeducation has less to do with ‘taking too many classes’ than with an overemphasis on one facet of dancing at the expense of other equally-important components.
For example: if you take 200 hours worth of dance training and 199 of them are technique only, you’ll likely be seen as overeducated. But, if you take 2,000 hours that are balanced between technique, expression, culture, and flavour, would not be considered ‘overeducated’ for the purposes of this article.
Basically, it’s an unbalanced education that over-educates in one area (usually technique or patterns), while neglecting other important facets of the dance.
Forgetting the Roots
For many social dances, the roots originate in street dances. This means that there is a culture, vibe, and flavour associated with the dance. Some people forget that flavour in their pursuit of technical perfection. They are overeducated technically, and undereducated dance–culturally.
In Salsa, this ‘flavour’ is often referred to as sabor. It is the ‘essence’ of the dance, and is supposed to inform the movement and feel of the partnership and dance.
In modern social dance classes, concepts that are the equivalent of sabor are usually less emphasized than technical instruction or patterns. While ‘pattern junkies’ are widely disavowed, technique junkies are often viewed to be on the ‘top rung’ of dance dedication.
But, if these dancers don’t view flavour as a central component of dance technique, they lose something essential to their dance.
Sometimes, I see dancers considering the flavour to be an optional component of the dance – like styling. Instead, they view technique as the cornerstone of their genre. How you move your body through space and how you issue the question-and-answer relationship of lead-follow is what ‘defines’ the dance – rather than the flavour and culture.
Some technically-overeducated dancers also conflate connection with flavour. They view that the flavour is the same as the feeling you create by holding your partner properly. They work for years at how to technically move their partner just right, but fail to develop the depth of expression that is tied to the flavour of the dance.
The result is a sterilized – but technically superb – version of a dance.
If you can’t quite ‘put your finger’ on why a partner is lacking something, the person may be a technically overeducated dancer. For example, if the hold feels right mechanically, they’re ‘hitting’ the music, and the moves are complex and interesting, but there’s a ‘flat’ feeling, you may be dancing with one of these people.
Technical Overeducation in Other Arts
A technically overeducated dancer is the dance-equivalent of a person who produces superb technical drawings. Yes, they’re ‘officially’ drawing a picture – but there’s no ‘art’ within the image. It’s designed to convey information and accuracy. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with the drawing, but it’s rarely the type of picture you hang on your walls. It’s not ‘art.’
By contrast, an artist is someone who generally has both a high degree of flavour and technical proficiency. You may hate it or love it, but the ‘flavour’ is there. Depending on the style of the artist, that flavour may have certain characteristics, like bright colors, sharp lines, or hyperrealism.
This is similar to the contrast between technically overeducated dancers, and dancers who have a balanced education.
Note that this is different from an amateur who simply sprays paint over a canvas because they ‘feel like it’ and are ‘expressing themselves’. Actual artists have a solid grasp of technique and color – and use this to ‘break’ the rules. This is why education is still important… it simply has to be balanced with teaching personal expression and flavour.
The Relationship between Mistakes and Flavour
Flavour is very often at its most evident when people are trying new things. For overeducated dancers, those deviations are frequently put into a ‘mistakes’ box since they very often violate the ‘official’ technique of a dance.
For ‘flavour’-oriented dancers with no education, the reverse often happens. They very often view technique as a stifling presence for flavour. They feel like technique neutralizes that freedom of expression.
Neither of these are true.
The best dancers are those who have a grasp of technique and flavour. They prize balancing their technical education with emphasis on developing flavour and expression. They learn how to break the rules, without putting their partner at risk.
This is why their dancing is so entrancing to watch. If they didn’t have that flavour to move outside of the pre-defined technique, all dancers would look the same (or similar). There would be no ‘personal’ feeling to the dance. There would be no ‘signature moves’. There would be no evolution. Dance would be static and dull. It would be a technical spec. sheet rather than an art form.
Basically, I summarize the three states like this:
- Flavour + No Technique = Dangerous; ‘Messy’ Dancing
- Technique + No Flavour = Sterility; ‘Flat’ Dancing
- Technique + Flavour = Beauty; ‘Expressive’ Dancing
Street vs. Studio
Typically, the more ‘street’ a dance is, the more ‘flavour’ it has. Conversely, the more ‘studio’ the dance, the more ‘technique’ is prized. But, I don’t think these two elements have to be exclusive of each other.
When our social dances become more academic, we need to be careful to preserve the ‘flavour’. We need to maintain flavour (which is sometimes called ‘expression,’ ‘vibe,’ or ‘feeling’) part of our dance as an important part of our education. Studios owe it to students to protect and teach improvisation, creation, and ‘giving’ oneself to the dance.
This means encouraging expression. It means creating classes where the flavour-minded don’t feel sterilized by classes. Rather, we need to create environments that foster personal expression and flavour in line with the dance’s culture.
If we prize expression in studio classes, the ‘driven’ dancers will put more emphasis on developing their flavour – rather than only technique. Similarly, more ‘flavour’ dancers will begin taking classes (and fixing their technical deficiencies) because they will feel like they are growing their personal voice – rather than being silenced.
We need to create a balanced education that prizes both technique and flavour. We need a full dance education – rather than an over-abundance of technique or patterns.
Very nice article!
As someone who has taken an abundance of technical classes, I think this nearly articulates the problem with teaching only technique or patterns. I think it’s far harder to find a teacher who can teach flavor than one who can teach technique.
I did a lot of technique class this summer in west coast and feel like it has been more sterile. What are good ways to learn flavor?
My favorite example comes from a never-ever intro to Argentine tango class I observed. A couple was moving nicely, and seemed to be enjoying each other and the music, but something about the guy’s posture offended the instructor, who stopped them and gave detailed corrections. You already know the ending, everything started falling apart from that point. I felt so sad for that couple.
Wow! Powerfully & flavorfully expressed!
I am just coming from the party and the article hits the mark of one of my problems. So I am with Michael asking whether you could expand a bit the last part of this article on the ways to learn flavor.
I absolutely agree with seeking (on the part of students) and offering (on the part of instructors) a balanced dance education between technique and flavour/expression. However, the success of such an education depends heavily on the student involved. Those with a dance background, those coming from a movement-centric culture, those learning salsa and other social dances at a younger age, and the kinds of people who are comfortable throwing themselves into a salsa social without knowing anything beyond the basic step their cousin showed them while getting dressed for the night will likely benefit from a mix of flavour and technique in their dance classes.
However, as an instructor I can tell you that a great many of our beginner students walk into our studio with none of the above. Many are adults who have never danced a day in their lives, and while they like the *idea* of dance as a form of expression, they’re terrified of embarrassing themselves; they ask questions like “how good should I be before I can go to a social?” and can’t fathom going out before they can dance “well enough” (in their minds) to avoid embarrassment. They are the product of the North American culture that de-emphasizes movement and stigmatizes mistakes, so they need a strong technical structure to quiet the anxiety of possibly making fools of themselves (again, in their own minds more than in anyone else’s eyes).
For these dancers, expression and flavour is something that needs to emerge from within, much later, and usually through personal exploration rather than structured classes.
Another way to think about it is as a progression: much as in any other form of structured movement, the “sterile” technique stage is a necessary step between the chaos of our pre-education state and the flow of finding one’s personal blend of technique and expression. (My partner wrote about this in an article about adapting the philosophy of Bruce Lee to salsa dancing: http://www.azucarottawa.com/flow-like-water-applying-the-philosophy-of-bruce-lee-to-salsa-dancing/ ) Perhaps the “flat” dancers we encounter aren’t at that third stage yet?
As someone who is North American by birth and culture, and taught theatre, I don’t necessarily agree that there is a ‘stage’ without expression before it magically appears. Accessing the ability to express and create flavour is something that happens gradually – with training.
To me, ‘flavour’ doesn’t come from within. The reason that people from movement-centric and expressive cultures access flavour more readily is because they were educated in an environment that prizes and focuses on these things. They are important, so they absorbed that knowledge.
This doesn’t mean a student must have expression from Day 1. Expression is a process. Learning about culture, flavour, and all the other components is a process. I think teachers should start that process from Day 1.
This can be as simple (in the early stages) of encouraging small bits of flavour you do see (like: they moved their hips in a nice way; emphasizing how to ‘breathe’ to music, and talking about where certain movements come from in the culture of the dance. When people understand the why – not just the how and what – they begin learning about expression automatically.
For example, we see similar problems all the time in theatre – specifically in improv. But, over time, the expression emerges through education. The difference is that theatre is very focused on expression rather than straight technique, which means we teach in a way to help people inhabit and express rather than just mechanically do a thing. And, no matter how awkward the student, they can learn how to embody this.
Of course, the student may be stuck in ‘technique brain’ for a while as a ‘stage’. But, when other aspects of dance are taught and introduced earlier, they become part of what the student internalizes as ‘dancing’. By the time they have the ‘tools’ to break free of their inhibitions, they already understand and appreciate the other things – rather than viewing technique as the holy grail.
To me, that is the teacher’s job.
I don’t think the problem is over education. Rather i feel they are taking all these classes because they are not learning anything. They are being taught all these patterns but it still does not click in their minds and are looking for answers. Hoping that the next class finally answers all their questoons. I see it so often with a lot of new to intermediate dancers. You can tell they are following a set pattern because that’s the only way they know how to lead. They don’t know how to break away from it for fear of not knowing what to do next. They don’t know how to break down parts of the routine and and make different combinations. What they end up doing is taking more classes to learn more set routines. They want to get better and join performance teams hoping that helps but only ends up for them practicing more routines instead of going out and social dance.
I’m specifically speaking about technical over-education, not pattern over-education. Pattern over-education are classes with an endless stream of choreography or moves.
Dera Laura, interesting thought. My question is, what exactly do you mean by technique. As I understand it about how to move my body properly: easygoing and efficiently in total control and with freedom of my movement, meaning no unnecessary tension in my body. So for me (coming from the ballroom an doriental dance) after years of technical learning and improvement of the width and easiness of my moves, I begin to feel the flavour….so for me, the technical emphasis is a way of getting to the flavour (as dances on the street or old dances usually are created by people who move more naturally due to less sitting, maybe less shoes and the academic way addresses people who are not used to how to move)
Good article, but I think there may be a chicken and egg situation here. Those who spend all the time and effort on learning technique, often do so because of a lack of natural talent or flair – which would allow them to progress and learn on their own, find their own style etc.
I’m not a great believer in one being able to teach everyone the non-technical side of skills. You can open people’s minds to the possibilities, but fundamentally it has to come from within themselves. I’ve spent time teaching and learning in various areas such as dance, photography and martial arts and you can only bring out or nurture what is there to begin with when it comes to flair/natural ability/artistic expression or whatever you wish to call it. A chap I know summed this up quite well I thought. “If it was just a matter of practice, anyone could be as good as me” – he was a world champion in his discipline of downhill mountain biking. We all vary in our limits and abilities, I’d love to be able to ride a bike like Steve Peat does, but am fully accepting that was never going to happen. The same happens in all areas – we have our own natural limits and what good teaching or learning practice can do is maximise them.
A very nice article indeed. I feel it is really important to have a good instructor who emphasizes on the flavor as well as technique when teaching the students. In most of the Latin countries, social dancing is a type of fun activity usually done during gatherings where more emphasis is given on enjoying the music, dancing / expressing it and having fun. Even though technique is an important aspect of dancing, an instructor should always work on inspiring his students on how to be creative in their own way from the little dance steps they know. For me, I feel loving and knowing the music is really important. Instructors should always take out some time and teach their students the background about the music, the instruments, the artist, etc. and also talk about the history of the dance. It takes time, but once it happens you can actually see the dancers enjoying the music.
I have learnt from a few good instructors. They’ll spend a whole hour going through the basics of body movement but in the end they’ll always tell us to have fun on the dance floor and practice the body movement techniques in the free time so that it slowly gets incorporated in your dance. I feel that’s the best way to go.
Excellent article – something we all know and it’s nice to see it validated.
I believe that good art requires a good knowledge of the technical aspects. Mastery of technique allows better expression of the artistic aspects.
I think you touched on some really interesting and worthwhile messages here. In particular I enjoyed the paragraph on the importance of roots. I do believe you can spend thousands of hours perfecting your technique, but can still come across as rigid or ‘flat’ as you mentioned in your movements because you’re not truly FEELING them, and to feel them you need to know the story behind the dance.