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I have been teaching jive and salsa for ten years and there are some things that are common to all the best dance partners I have had. They are first and foremost neutral. This may seem like a strange term to use in the context of dance but a few examples may make my point clear.
I teach my class that when they follow they should do just that. I rely on my partner not to anticipate the move before it is lead. If I draw my partner close, I rely on her being close. It is quite likely that if she is too far, then any move I lead subsequently will not work well. If I lead a double spin I rely on my partner to execute a double spin. If she then attempts a triple when I have led a double, the outcome will most likely result in the spin being completed too late, and the next move starting too late. This never looks good to the trained eye. There are of course circumstances where the leader / follower relationship breaks down, and it is not the fault of the follower (usually the woman). But I am going to address the leaders in a seperate article, so hold your breath ladies.
Indulge me some more while I am talking about spinning. If I lead a spin I hope my partner will finish the spin where she starts it. If she does not I will have to chase her across the dance floor to wherever she stops, and again any move I try to lead next may be affected. Some partners "travel" across the dance floor so far when they execute a spin, any subsequent move will be difficult to lead. Travelling is often the fault of the leader, but I will address this in another article.
I like my partner to have a straight back. This is not a relic of my years of training as a ballroom dancer, because I did not have any. Straight backs just look so much better. Dancers have straighter backs, and excellent dancers have the straightest. Have you ever seen a ballet dancer slouch? There is of course a more mundane reason for this stipulation.
When a follower spins their capacity to injure their partner increases dramatically. When their back is not straight during the spin, their chances of toppling are increased, and at the same time the amount of space they take up is increased. Women spinning with straight backs spin faster and are more stable, and if their arms are tucked in their partners can get close to them without risk of injury, and this proximity is a necessity of some moves anyway, so straight backs are good for that reason.
The above examples should make the idea of neutrality clear. The best followers are the most neutral dancers and vice versa. Of course if the lead is vague, late, non existent, then the best follower will struggle. In the following I suggest some ways in which a follower can ensure she is neutral.
A woman cannot be neutral unless she is in control of her own weight ( is balanced). Generally when a woman spins she will balance her weight on one foot, and spin on that foot. If when she commences the spin and she is not balanced, she will topple, and her lead will be required to support her. If a woman is balanced she requires little or no support from her partner. Typically a beginner has poor balance and requires lot. The best dancers have excellent balance.
This may seem like a contradiction after the last few paragraphs, but it is not. From the moment a move is lead to the moment that move has finished ( lets called it the time frame) a good follower can not only execute the move that has been requested by the leader, but can also add their own embellishment. What that embellishment is can be anything from a roll of the shoulders, a kick or whatever (use your imagination). You could call this embellishment style. The best dancers style their dance in such a way that even the most mundane moves become exciting and compelling. Styling might be something that you have learnt from a workshop, or it could be something you have copied from someone whose dance style you admire. I try to encourage my students to improvise, to add something to the dance that is unique to them. The trick is to improvise without preventing the leader from leading the next move. Mostly that means finishing your move (with added style) without encroaching on the next time frame.
The leader of the dance is in complete control of whatever moves are executed and so improvisation is in some ways easier for them. They know what is coming next and how much time they have to play with. However, they must finish their improvisation ready for the next move too. No follower wants to dance off time.
The best dancers are also not afraid to innovate. They analyse a move they know well, and then play with the execution to see if it can be improved. Perhaps a stronger turn works better, or a lower hand hold. We are all individuals with different shapes and sizes and these adaptations are necessary to make moves flow and work well with the bodies we have. More than that we all need to play with the timing of a move.
I believe that the difference between a fantastic dancer and novice is a few milliseconds of timing. In salsa I teach my expert dancers to try to execute each move later but faster. Salsa should never be danced early on the beat. The later the better as long as both partners finish in good time for the next move. If jive or salsa is danced early it tends to look as if you are in a rush to leave the dance floor and get it all over with.
The best dancers move with complete conviction. They know exactly what they are doing and they do it to the best of their ability. They know the moves both from their point of view and their partners. Confident dancers look so much better.
Like most things done well, it is necessary to put your heart into the dance to make the most of it. If you feel the music, feel the dance and engage yourself with it, it will always look better.
Dancing is a dialogue between two people. It can bridge the gap between complete strangers who have never met before, striking up a harmony that could never exist in conversation, or reflect some conflict between friends. When two people dance without dancing with their partner it looks cold and lacklustre.
Occasionally I find a dance partner that does all these things (and more) and I am reminded why after twelve years I am still teaching and dancing at least twice a week.