I mentioned in my last post that Samantha and I had been thinking a lot about rhythm lately. In terms of technique, we’ve been focusing on keeping our rhythm consistent throughout our dance. Obviously this is desirable. But it’s also one of those tasks that get assigned to us somewhat early on, we work on it a bit, see improvement, pat ourselves on the back, and adjoin to the public house for celebratory quaffing. Or maybe your process is different from mine. More fool you. The point is, it’s very tempting to work on it a bit and check it off a list, to be greatly surprised and maybe even offended when someone recommends that we work on it again. But I already did that! Can’t I get to the next level now?
No. You can’t. ‘Cause here’s the dirty little secret: our weaknesses are like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. You can’t just give them a drop of blood and walk away. Hey newbie, congratulations! You just found yourself a hobby that’ll bleed you dry and try to eat your girlfriend.
Anyway, back to rhythm. Most of the specific things we’ve been working on with regard to rhythm were inspired by particular things that various teachers told us at Herräng. Peter and Naomi, for instance, talk about it a lot. I really like the way they describe it as a responsibility; each person in the partnership has the responsibility to be true to their own dancing. What this means is that what many of us learned at the beginning – that if a leader has awful rhythm a follower has to match it – is completely bunk. While the different roles of the dance come with specific, complimentary duties, the responsibility to dance is not given, taken, or shared. No matter what crazy shit I do or ask my follower to do, I have the responsibility to maintain my connection to the music, and the follower has the same. Even if I do change my pulse to reflect something in the music, it’s not my job to make sure that they do the same thing, and it’s not their job to jump on board. I should be clear, and the follower should be aware, but whether or not they join me is their deal, not mine, and can be motivated by several things. I also really like Naomi’s point that, no matter what kind of move the leaders are working on in a class, the followers have no excuse to just sit back and wait for it to work, thereby giving the leaders complete responsibility for their success or failure. What I got from it was that our success as dancers, or as a partnership, doesn’t hinge on whether or not a particular move is accomplished, but on whether or not we were dancing when we tried it.
Another thing that really influenced the way I’m thinking about rhythm is something Skye said in one of his classes. He was asking us to maintain our basic footwork and to take our rhythm from, of all places, the rhythm section. This was particularly difficult because we were listening to a Billie Holiday song and she was taking great liberties with the rhythm, as is her wont. Somebody asked what was wrong with taking your rhythm from a soloist, and Skye’s answer gave me a lot to think about. He said that when the rhythm comes from a soloist, it becomes a very leader-centered dance. He didn’t expound, but I found it intriguing and keep coming back to it. Hopefully it’ll become clearer with time.
I’ll wrap up with an insight of my own. Like the others, it isn’t the kind of advice that will immediately be applicable. In fact it’s not really advice at all. It’s just a way of framing things that may or may not be useful in guiding your practice.
If you’ve taken a decent number of classes, chances are good that you have heard someone compare dancing to language. It comes up when people want to illustrate the improvisational aspect, the difficulty of learning, the regional differences (as in dialects), or the importance of basics. However, I’ve never heard anybody use the language metaphor while talking about rhythm, and it came to me as an epiphany during a class in Herräng. When we think of rhythm, we are often thinking of the nice, consistent pulse that we rely on to tap into the energy of a song. Or we are thinking about the swung beat that encourages our triple steps. Maybe we’re even thinking about wowing the judges by rushing a beat with a well-placed stomp on the floor. These rhythms govern our individual dancing. They govern the stuff that Peter and Naomi and Skye and Frida like to talk about. But there’s a rhythm that governs our partnering, too. That’s the rhythm of language. The rhythm of conversation.
Here’s an example of a conversation, and I don’t think it’s difficult to imagine how this would translate to a dance context:
”Hi, how’s it—“
“Going? It’s going well, how are you?”
“Oh, not bad. How was your—“
“Summer? It wasn’t so good. I got in a car accident.”
“Oh no, that sounds—“
“Awful! It was! Let’s dance!”
I’m sure we’ve all had conversations like that. It’s not really that fun to talk to a Sentence Finisher. Even when they’re right about the end of a sentence, which is rarer than I wanted to illustrate in the above example. In dance this is at least as annoying. It’s just harder not to do. Certainly it comes from the same place as it does in conversation. The person wants to show that they are paying attention, that they care about what you’re saying. Oh, did you want me to rock step after this? Is this gonna be a swing out? I love those!
So if a dance is like a conversation, doesn’t it make sense to be a little behind? If I’m leading, does it make sense to be impatient with my follower if he or she waits until I’ve finished my request to reply? If I’m following, does it make sense to start doing something before my leader finishes asking me to do it?
Again, none of these points will transform your dancing overnight. They certainly haven’t transformed mine. But I have gotten several comments, from dancers that I really respect, that my dancing is better since my return from Herräng, and the only real difference I can see is that I’m focusing more on how I connect to the rhythm of the song. So perhaps these aren’t shortcuts on the path to wherever it is we want to go as dancers, but they may at least serve to make the path clearer and easier to follow.
Do you have any big-picture insights to share? Do you think mine are stupid? Or do you have a better way to express them? Please respond and let me know what you think.