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Learning to Dance on Youtube

My friend Stu Sweetow, videographer extraordinaire, sent me the picture at the right with the excellent phrase, “Real men take dance lessons, because you can’t learn connection on youtube!”  This inspired me to once again take up my blog, which my many fans have no doubt noticed I have let slip for several months due to more pressing matters in my life.

The Question

The blog-worthy question is, of course, what is connection and why can’t you learn it on youtube and maybe also, if not connection, what can you learn on youtube?

 

Connection in partner dance is the skill of leading and following.  It is how the leader communicates to the follower what to do, without telling her in advance what the step will be.  It is how two people can move around the floor as if they are one without choreographing and practicing a routine ahead of time.

 

Connection is a right brain skill and you have to feel it to know what it is and if you are doing it right.  That’s why you can’t learn it on youtube.  Different dances have different kinds of connection, but the basic principles are the same. Once you have learned how to connect to a partner in one kind of dance, it’s a lot easier to learn how to do it in another.

 

What part of dance don’t you understand?

 

So is there anything you can learn on video?  Yes there is!  Once you’ve learned how to dance (connection) you can pick up new steps on youtube if you’re a visual learner and you work at it.  But if all you know are the steps, not the connection, you’ll be hard to dance with and dancing won’t be much fun for you or your partner.  You know something’s missing but you don’t know what it is.

 

Connection Vs. Steps

So here’s my advice if you are the kind of learner who has the discipline and learns well from videos.  Take private lessons FIRST.  Learn what your strengths and weaknesses are and learn connection.  Then find cool steps on video that you like and practice them.  If you fall in love with a step and somehow it isn’t working, take a private lesson and ask a teacher what you’re doing wrong.  There’s probably something tricky about the lead in that particular move.  Have fun!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Using Your Dance Skill for Free Cruises and Parties

ballroom dancers on a cruise

Crystal Cruises on the Cunard Line is one cruise that offers dance hosts to single travelers.

If you’re a man who enjoys the company of senior women, can dance, and likes to be of service to others, you’re in luck!   Older women vastly outnumber their male counterparts on the dance floor, and people who organize cruises and parties for seniors are on the lookout for dance partners for their guests.

 

Sometimes you can get paid for your services.  Sometimes you get a free cruise, or free admission to a party, or a vastly reduced ticket price to an expensive cruise.  In all cases you get to make a lot of women happy.

 

The downside is you probably will spend a lot of time dancing with unskilled dancers.  This is definitely a personality issue and is not a problem for everyone.

 

A lot of men, regardless of their own skill level, love to dance with women who don’t know the first thing about how to follow.  There is a lot to be said for the pleasure of lighting up a woman who rarely if ever gets to dance.  You get to be a hero.  She feels like a dancer and experiences tremendous joy at the simplest little turn.  Your skill at finding her skill level, finding steps she can follow easily and enjoy, without making her feel inept, is rewarded by her immense joy.

 

The other downside is that if you meet someone with whom you’d like to pursue a relationship, you’re out of luck.  Showing preference for one woman is always against the rules.

But if the perks appeal to you, and you can dance, go for it.  There will always be a need for you.  And if it really appeals to you, and you can’t dance, what better reason than this to learn?

 

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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My Favorite Students, Part 1

I’m not going to talk about specific students in this post, but rather the kind of people I most like to work with, and why.  In other words, as marketing people like to say, my target market.

I like to work with people who think they can’t learn to dance.  This isn’t everyone, of course.  I do have students who come to me without the baggage just because they heard I’m a good teacher and they want to learn to dance, but the majority have some kind of issue to get over.

Sometimes they are people who have always wanted to dance and have finally reached a point in their lives when they are willing to take on this huge challenge.  They’ve been attracted to, and terrified of, this enticing activity for as long as they can remember and here they are, giving themselves up to someone who does FOR A LIVING this thing at which they feel totally incompetent.  Could anyone possibly be more vulnerable?

They often begin by assuring me of how competent they are at whatever they are good at, least I mistake their ineptitude at dance for general stupidity.  If, as is remarkably often the case, what they are good at is technology, it gives me a perfect opportunity to put them at ease because how they feel about dance is how I feel about what comes so easily to them.  I still have phones that don’t do anything except make phone calls as you would know if you’ve ever tried to text me.

Dancing has always come easily to me but that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to my student’s experience.  I studied Jujitsu for eleven years and not only did I totally suck at it, but I still couldn’t fight my way out of a paper bag.  We’ve all got things we naturally do well and things that make us cross eyed.  I love seeing people take on the challenging stuff and truly feel honored that they trust me to guide them through it.

Because I specialize in teaching people who are dance phobic, the one thing a lot of my students have in common is a conviction that they are terrible dancers and will be difficult if not impossible to teach.  “I’ll bet I’m the worst student you’ve ever taught,” I hear from almost everyone except the worst students I’ve ever taught.

So why do so many people self identify as hopeless dancers?  Many of them are not only not hopeless, but are perfectly normal.  Sometimes people think they can’t dance simply because nobody ever taught them.

So when they tried, of course they failed miserably and were mortified.   They assumed the problem was not their lack of education but that something was just wrong with them.  They just can’t dance.

There is a popular myth about leading and following in dance.  The assumption is that it is natural for men to lead and women to follow and that they should just kinda know already how to do it without any instruction.  The truth, of course, is that not only is it a skill like any other, but it is not even gender specific. In fact most people are naturally inclined toward leading or following and you have about a 50 50 chance of falling into the category that society has assigned to your gender, not unlike the rest of life. You may remember a past post or two about that.

OK, so how about the people whose self image is on the money, the ones  who really DO have a tough time learning to dance?  Well, they fall into all kinds of categories.

Some of them have difficulty finding the beat, and I’ve devoted entire posts to that in the past.  But most of the people who have the most challenging time have a kind of physical dyslexia, and I encounter this phenomenon all the time.  It’s as if they understand how to follow the instruction, but by the time it gets to their feet, it gets twisted into something different.  They do get it eventually through perseverance, but it takes dedication and a lot of practice.  And a very patient teacher of course.

I once had a student who took a month of dedicated practice to learn the box step, something my average student can learn in about 10 minutes and a quick student can learn in about one minute.  Next week I’ll talk about some other reasons people might fall into the category of my target market.  Stay tuned!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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When Your Partner Dances Better Than You

 

nerdy guy asks for a dance

Asking strangers to dance takes courage, but it’s the only way to learn!

Swing dancer consults Abby

“I’m a very good swing dancer,” wrote a woman to Dear Abby, “and my boyfriend doesn’t dance.”  She goes on to say that while her boyfriend is willing to learn, she doesn’t want to stop dancing with partners at her skill level while waiting for him to catch up.  He doesn’t want her to dance with other men because it makes him feel jealous and insecure.

A common dance couple conundrum

This letter generated a huge flurry of responses from readers, most of whom were not dancers but a few who were.  I read it all with interest not only because I’m a Dear Abby addict, but also because I run into this situation all the time.  The guy is willing to take on an activity in which he has no real interest so that she won’t have to give up something about which she is passionate.  In return, he wants her to dance exclusively with him.  She is happy to dance with him, but she also wants to dance sometimes with other partners.

What is the missing information here?  Unless you are a natural, leading is not an easy skill to master.  It takes commitment and effort, and the reward for all this hard work is the light in your partner’s eyes when you delight her with a really fun move.  It is fun to light up another person, and it’s especially so when you are in love with that person.

But what about all the time it takes you to get to the level of being a good lead on the dance floor?  Is it fun for her to dance with you as a beginner?  Well, up to a point it is.  Depending on her personality, it may be exciting to see your progress and touching to see how hard you are working to share this special activity with her.  She may get a lot from supporting you in your goal, but at that stage it’s still what a friend of mine refers to as a “mercy dance”.  It can’t compare to the joy of dancing with partners who are already competent at leading.

Also, in the swing dance community, the custom is to dance with a variety of partners.  Even couples who are at the same skill levels don’t usually dance any more with each other than with the rest of the crowd.  A lot of the fun is the variety of dancing with a lot of different people.

 So is there a solution?

So what is the solution?  Well, every couple has to find their own way around their particular relationship issues, but I always suggest to my students that as a beginner you dance as much a possible and with as many different partners as possible.  When you are practicing at home, the advanced dancer can help her struggling partner out as much as she can without feeling resentful.  Again, everyone is different about how much patience they have with beginners.  But when you go social dancing, if you are the beginner take responsibility for that and practice with other beginners.  Dance once each with a variety of intermediate and advanced dancers, but don’t make a pest of yourself.  Be grateful for the mercy dances and be gracious.  And that goes for the help your girlfriend bestows upon you as well.

Also, remember that it’s not a game of how can I ever catch up to her.  It’s not about how many steps you know.  It’s about how well you lead them.  Once you’ve nailed the skill of leading, you become a fun partner.  You’ll want to increase your repertoire or you’ll get bored, but your partners will be happy with just a few steps if you lead them well.  Concentrate on learning to lead, take private lessons at the beginning to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and make use of your dance community to get in your hours of practice without burdening your partner.

If you are too insecure to do this, the problem is not with dancing, as Abby was quick to point out.  Use this new challenge as a challenge to work on the challenges of your relationship skills as well, and add couples counseling to your dance lessons.  Your personal relationship and your dance relationship are more connected that you think.  Work these issues out on the dance floor and your relationship will be more secure and more loving.  If you don’t, your girlfriend just might take Abby’s advice and dump you!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff
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A Spiritual Definition of Following in Dance

Some wise teacher once said the definition of freedom is not needing to know what comes next.  I can’t remember the originator of the quote but no doubt one of my readers will recognize it and come to my rescue.

When I saw the quote I thought, that’s a perfect definition of following. Both the joy and the challenge come from being able to let go and let someone else do the driving.  If you are following, you DON’T know what comes next.  Every move is a surprise even though it’s often familiar.

Letting go is a phrase that is common in spiritual speak.  Organised religions as well as non-denominational  practices like yoga and meditation all refer to “surrender.”  In dance it means to stop trying and to let the flow of the dance and the music take over.

Of course you must first learn to do it right so that when let the music take over you are still connected to your partner.  But once you’ve learned the skill of following, it indeed becomes a meditation.

Are you one of those people who hates meditation?  Me too.  That’s why I was struck by the opening quote when I first read it.  I realized that I do have meditation in my life.  Every dance I share with a competent lead allows me to turn off my brain, take a thinking break, and surrender to the dance.  Not only do I not need to know what comes next, I don’t want to know.

If you are resistant to meditation and you want to find a way to make it fun, learn to follow.  Sheer joy in motion!

by LaurieAnn  Lepoff

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Dance Like Your Partner is Injured

 

An easy way to improve your lead

The other day a young man asked me to dance.  I could tell immediately that he was either a beginner or had never learned to lead because he was a yanker.  I have an old shoulder injury that I need to protect, so I told him to go easy on that shoulder.  He promptly adjusted his lead and his dancing improved dramatically.  “If you pretend that everyone with whom you dance has a shoulder injury, you’ll be a much better lead.” I told him.

First learn to lead

Because he knew he wasn’t a very good lead, he told me he thought he had to lead extra hard to get his meaning across and that he was trying so hard to remember his moves that he couldn’t think about his lead at the same time.  My advice to this earnest youth who really did want to learn how to be a good partner was the same as I tell everyone.  Learn to lead a few moves very well and forget about expanding your repertoire.  A few basic moves led well will make you a sought after partner.  A lot of steps badly led will make you the guy everyone avoids.

It happens all the time

This guy is far from the only dancer whose lead improved when he was concentrating on not hurting my shoulder.  I see it all the time.  I can’t stress this enough: Learn to lead FIRST.  Then add more moves to your repertoire.  Nail your basics before building your step list.  It’s not the variety, it’s the skill that makes everyone want to dance with you.

Take a private lesson to find out where your lead is lacking and practice what you learned until the feel of the right lead is in your body.  The rest of the dance will fall into place much more easily once you’ve done your due diligence and meanwhile you’ll be rewarded with happy partners who tell their friends to dance with you.  I guarantee it!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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When Is It OK to Say No to a Request for a Dance?

animation

How it feels to be turned down for a dance

At a recent outdoor dance event I was approached by a couple wanting to know if this event was open to anyone.  I chatted with them briefly and after learning that they didn’t know anything about dance, told them that there would be a lesson in about half an hour.  Then they asked if I would teach them something.  They didn’t know I was a dance teacher, so this wasn’t a rude request.  I taught them a basic step and danced briefly with the woman to show how the basic was all she needed to know in order to follow this simple dance.

Getting stuck with new dancers

A woman who had been watching us immediately jumped in and took my hand in indication that we would dance together.  It was obvious after the first step that she didn’t know anything either.  She clearly wanted to dance and didn’t know how, saw that I more or less instantly turned another newbie into a competent follower and wanted the same experience.

 
I’ve mentioned before (see how to tell if you need dance lessons)  that a mark of a great leader is the ability to instantly assess the skill level of the follower and lead a dance that she can follow without feeling stupid and that makes her feel like a great dancer.  I can do this, but unless it’s a friend I’m fond of, it’s not much fun for me.  In this instance I did dance with her, but I did have the thought that if another would-be dancer was waiting for her turn that I would have to come up with a polite excuse to turn her down.

Rules of  Dance Etiquette

Generally speaking, if the music tends to be short numbers and the custom is to dance once with each partner as it is in the swing community, it’s ungracious to turn down a dance.  However, if the request is from someone who is dangerous, drunk, or inappropriate, it’s definitely OK to do so.

You can say “no” to drunk dancers

Several years ago I was at a dance in a club.  A family was having dinner, celebrating a birthday.  They were all drunk and the birthday boy asked me to dance.  I have long curly hair that’s very distinct and seems to be a magnet for drunks.  I didn’t want to put a damper on the occasion so I accepted, but afterwards he informed his family that I was great and they should all dance with me, which is how I ended up dancing with an entire drunk family.  I was too polite to say no, but I don’t recommend this.  Being too polite to say no has gotten me in far worse trouble than this, so I suggest practicing in situations like this if you have this problem too.

 
In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been hard to simply excuse myself saying I had promised the next several dances and had to get back to my friends.  It can be hard to come up with a good exit line when you are taken off guard, so I also recommend practicing in advance.  You don’t have to be rude to say no, but if you don’t prepare, it can come out that way.  “Ask me again when you’re sober.” will get you out of there, but is unnecessarily rude.  Think up a few good excuses to have at hand for emergencies and you’ll be able to get away without creating a negative vibe.

 
And if you’re an advanced dancer, do be nice to the newcomers and grace them with an occasional dance.  They’ll remember you when they gain more experience and you’ll be rewarded in the future!

 
by LaurieAnn Lepoff
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More Thought on Fat Dancers

John lindo dancing

Champion Swing Dancer John Lindo in action!

A great dancer to watch

I’ve written before on the topic of fat dancers, but I realized I left out a glaring omission, especially since I talked about partner dance but used video examples of performance dance.

Anyone in the west coast swing community knows the glaring omission is John Lindo.  One of the best Swing dancers ever to grace a floor, John Lindo is well known for breaking the stereotype of what a dancer’s body “should” look like.  Youtube is full of videos of this fabulous dancer, so if you love watching the following example, feel free to spend even more time enjoying other clips.  This is one of my favorites:

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Dance is the great social leveler

I often speak of partner dance as the great leveler.  There are few attributes more sexy than a great leader.  Height, weight, hair loss, age, even personality, doesn’t matter.  If you can lead well, everyone will want to dance with you.  Over and over and over again!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dancing with Strangers: a Way to Intimacy

teaching with Frankie

A joyful dance, as always, with the inspirational Frankie Manning

Intimacy without dance

I was at a conference a few weeks ago run by Bill Baron in which  I participated in a very interesting process.  We split into groups of 5.  We each commented on whatever our intuitive hits were about each other.  We learned a lot by what we heard each other say as well as what we picked up just from the person’s vibe.  Then each person completed the sentence: “If you really knew me, you would know this about me…”  The examples given set the tone to say something revealing about something traumatic that helped to shape who we are, but no rule said it couldn’t be positive.  When someone was particularly courageous, it inspired others to take risks as well.  Then we did it again, and the second time many of us felt inspired to say something more positive about ourselves.  I was astonished at how seen I felt by the intuitions 4 strangers were able to express about me.  By the end of this 10 or 15 minute exercise, we all felt as if we had made 4 new friends whom we could trust with our innermost thoughts.

Intimacy with dance

Intimacy is so difficult to achieve in our society, yet it’s right at our fingertips in so many ways.  Needless to say, my favorite is through dance.  Frankie Manning used to say that every dance was a 2 minute love affair.  “For two minutes,” he would say, “you’re in love with this lady.”  Every time I danced with Frankie, I felt the truth in that.  I felt appreciated.  I felt his joy in the connection.  I felt honored by him as much as I felt honored to be dancing with such a legend.    I felt loved and I also felt in love with him for that space of time. He was absolutely right.

Connecting through dance

I’ve spoken before about the importance of connection in partner dance.  I don’t mean just the physical connection of good lead and follow skills.  I also mean eye contact, showing appreciation for your partner, and allowing yourself to be totally present in the joy of the moment.  When we share such an experience with another, we often find that elusive human connection that we all crave.  When we participate in a dance community where we see the same people regularly over time, we also have community in our lives.  A circle of friends with whom to share laughter and support and conversation.

I have this in my dance community and it’s what I wish for all of my students.  It’s humanity at its’ best!

 

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dancing blind

blind-folded dancer

Dancing blind opens up all kinds of new insights

When my dance students are learning the skill of following, I often suggest they close their eyes.  Closing your eyes takes away a lot of the urge to back lead, and it brings forward the senses you use to feel the lead.

Even when social dancing, I often close my eyes because it’s relaxing and feels good.  Leaders, however, are in the driver’s seat, so they need to keep their eyes open. 

That’s why I was blown away by this video of a West Coast Swing performance with a blind-folded leader.  OK, this is a rehearsed routine, but it’s STILL pretty impressive even though I doubt they used the blind fold before they had mastered the choreography.

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Even though the lead is in charge, there is a certain degree of sensing what’s happening with your partner, especially with a jazz dance like West Coast Swing or Lindy.  Practicing with your eyes closed is a good exercise for leaders, too.  Just make sure you have plenty of room, and unless you have a LOT of room, not a good idea for you both to be blind-folded at the same time.

Dancer Rebecca Niziol talks about performing  blind when she lost a contact right before a performance.  Although she never would have done so on purpose, she was surprised to find out how tuned in she was and what came out of her when forced to rely on her other senses.  For the full article, see Dancing Blind Taught me to Be Present.

You may find yourself surprised at what you get in touch with when you can’t use your eyes.  Try it just for fun, and if you discover something interesting, let me know!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Why Learn to Dance on Valentine’s Day

What’s the most romantic thing you can do on this day of romance? Well, yeah, go dancing of course! And if you don’t know how to dance?

Well, if you’re a guy who’s with a woman who loves to dance, then take her out for a romantic dinner and give her a gift certificate for dance lessons. No, not for her. For you. Just taking lessons together can be very romantic, but the real gift is your willingness to learn a skill that you can do together for the rest of your lives.

There’s not much that’s more romantic than dancing together, unless it’s taking a risk to leave your comfort zone to give her the gift of yourself. Of yourself recognizing what she gave up to be with you, and wanting to give it back to her.

That’s the romantic part. The transformative part is what it will do for you to find out you can do something that you thought was off limits. Love gave you the willingness to try. Taking on the challenge will give you so much more.

I may have told this story in a previous blog, but it’s a good one so in case you missed it, here it is again! Years ago I took a class in dance lifts with a favorite partner who happened to be a rather soft and sweet natured gay man. Afterwards I said to him, “It’s obvious why this is fun for us. We get to feel like a little girl being tossed into the air by our daddy. But what’s in it for you to be the lifter?”

“Oh,” said Jody. “We get to live out our fantasy of being the big macho hero!”
That was the moment of an epiphany for me. If Jody had a fantasy of being a big macho hero, then every man on the planet must have that fantasy.

So that’s what’s in it for you. Learn to dance and be a big macho hero for the love of your life. When you give this gift, it changes you into someone who loves being a dancer. Don’t you want to find out who that person will be?

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Switching the Lead and Follow in Partner Dancing

Switching the Lead and Follow in Partner Dance

classic painting of 2 women dancing

Same sex dancers were common at the Moulin-Rouge

When both partners know how to lead as well as follow, dancers can switch roles during a dance.  This is truly the ideal solution for people who are worried about sexism in the roles of lead and follow, but not everyone wants to learn both parts.  Yes, it does make you a better dancer, but so does constant practice.  We each do what works for us with whatever commitment we have to the learning process.

 

That said, switching roles is fun when you both know what you’re doing, but it is definitely not traditional.  You can only do it in a community where it is normal for both people to know both parts, or if you dance with a particular partner who can do it with you. 

 

It’s most common, not surprisingly, in gay dance communities where the roles are not defined to begin with.  However, it’s also common in the Lindy Hop community in the Bay Area (but not any other dance for some reason) and in the waltz community at Stanford University.

 

Dance teachers have a lot of power when teaching beginners who not only know nothing about dance but also nothing about dance culture.  Sometimes students ask me if it’s traditional for men to lead and women to follow and it’s always tempting to say “Not at all.  Do whatever you want.”  I can’t do that because when they get out in the real world to go dancing they would find out I lied.  But Richard Powers, who heads the popular vintage dance program at Stanford, does exactly that.  He teaches a lead switch in Cross Step Waltz as if it’s a traditional move.  It flows easily in Waltz because the footwork doesn’t have to change with the switch.  As far as I know, Richard is the only one who does this, but his students don’t know this.  They all are part of the same community and they all learned from the same teacher.  Here’s a clip of Richard and his partner Angela Amarillas demonstrating Cross Step Waltz.  You can hear him call the partner change along with the other steps as if it’s a natural part of the dance.  And of course, since he teaches it that way, it is.

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 It also has something of a history in Lindy Hop, as women often danced together when the men were off at war, and so did the men, while off at war without the women.  I doubt that that has anything to do with the popularity of role switching in today’s Bay Area scene, but it is interesting.  Here’s a wonderful clip from the 1944 movie The Canterville Ghost with Margaret O’Brien.  I don’t know who the dancers are, but they are doing classic Lindy Hop.

If you’re intrigued by the challenge of knowing the lead as well as the follow, give it a go.  I recommend getting solid in one part first, however, before tackling the other. Leading and following are very different skills with their own challenges and it’s not easy to learn them both at the same time.  This is particularly true in Swing dance where the foot work is also different. 

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Have fun, you all, and tell me about your own role switching experiences in partner dance!

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