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When I teach jive or salsa and when I watch dancers perform there are things that seem to be common to the best male dancers I encounter.
As a male dancer becomes more experienced, two outcomes are possible: either he will move/style less as he strips away all unnecessary movement to minimise his effort, or he will move more (add his own style). There is a tendency in salsa for example to do the former. In this case the man has a static role in the dance while the woman does all the work. Whenever I have seen this I am tempted to imagine the man removed from the dance altogether. He seems to serve no apparent purpose after all other than to make the woman look more interesting. In jive the situation is worse.
There is no prescribed footwork in jive and if the dancer does the absolute minimum necessary to lead the dance, he will be doing almost nothing. Do men do this out of laziness, or boredom or arrogance? It certainly looks boring.
The male lead should have an equal stake in the performance. He should contribute to it. If he does so it is much more interesting.
The best dancers move. The best example of a salsa dancer of the latter category in my humble opinion is Lee hunter who teaches in Derby. What makes him so interesting to watch is the passion and energy in his movement/style, quite the opposite of the minimalist style discussed above.
If its desirable for a woman to follow her lead in a confident manner, then it is twice as important for the man to lead in a confident manner. He after all directs what happens on the dance floor. A lack of confidence will reflect in the lead given and confuse the follower who will not know what she is required to do. In short good dancers are confident, (but not to the point of being arrogant).
Any lead if executed badly could be mistaken for some other lead. I think spins cause the most confusion. A poorly led spin may not be understood by the follower to be a spin at all, and confusion arises. For the man to look good, his partner must look good, and this will only happen if the follower knows what she is required to do at all times. A good lead makes sure this is so. I try to teach my leaders to begin leading the move as early as possible, and finish that lead when required. This gives the followers as much opportunity to prepare for the lead as possible, and makes the dance look fluid and natural.
If you are leading the dance then clearly you need to know what each move entails. More than that you must know how your partner will respond to each move, where her feet will be placed, on which foot she is standing on. If you know this, then you can prepare for the next move, whatever it might be. You should not need to look down at your partners feet to get some bearings! If you have a good idea of where your partner should be at all times, and she is not there, this is an opportunity to improve her dancing and yours.
When you dance with someone that does not know your moves, it is necessary to make compromises, and possibly restrict the set of moves you try to lead. The only alternative is to stop dancing when a lead fails and show your partner what is expected of them. Many people will not have the patience (or ability) to do this. Restricting the moves is by far the easier of options. It is surprising how uncompromising many men are on the dance floor.
It is a cardinal sin in dancing to ignore the beat and move at odds with it. In salsa you can only get away with dancing on the one or the two, but anything else is frowned on. Worse by far, than dancing on the wrong beat is to not dance on any particular beat. No matter how exotic the moves you are performing this always looks bad. In jive you can start on any beat, but each move must still be executed within the time alloted to it.
The difference between an excellent dancer and a competent one is a few milliseconds of timing. In Salsa, skilled dancers dance late, but execute their moves fast. In Salsa or Jive a move that is executed early looks hurried - as if both partners have a bus to catch.
I think it is important to appreciate that each move has different phases, each with a different relative speed. A spin for example is nearly always fast, but the lead that comes before it is slower and more deliberate. An excellent dancer plays with the timing of each move, finds that which suits the move best, and then sticks to that. Timing is possibly the single most important determinant of the quality of a persons dancing.
At all times the leader of the dance determines the distance between his partner and himself (if he does not he is probably in trouble). Some moves require leader and follower to be close, a few require there to be a fairly large but manageable distance between the two. A good lead will know just how much "encouragement" is required to draw his partner close or push her away. You can sometimes tell when this has not been successful because the leader and perhaps the follower are straining to reach each other and/or their backs are bent.
The best dancers have the straightest backs. The only exception to this is when a move demands a bent back. Straight backs look so much better. I am six foot five inches tall and the only time I aim to have a bent back on the dance floor is when I put my dance shoes on. Bent backs usually mean you are too far away from your partner, or are struggling with your partner for some reason.
Some moves are more complex and demanding than others, but regardless, both leader and follower must finish each move with ample time for the lead of the next, or the next becomes hurried. There are occasions when you can get away this, but I will leave you to think about this.
Compare a couple dancing that never look at each other, with those that do. The latter looks so much more interesting. I understand that this can be difficult in the UK where to draw a womans gaze is tantamount to flirting, but it just looks better. If you can manage to smile at them at the same time then all the better. At a recent national ballroom competition in Sheffield only one couple amongst the contestants smiled at each other, and they deserved their success.
If things go wrong on the dance floor, and you think it is not your fault, then you could try to get to the root of the problem in the most constructive and tactful way. This is always desirable if you later discover that the fault was all yours. I tell my class that if somethings goes wrong it is the mans fault. This is cruel but largely true, you are the leader after all.
By improvisation I mean changing a move (perhaps subtley) in a way that makes it more fluid, interesting or workable. You might call this styling. This can be taught in a workshop, and you see plenty of people styling in exactly the same (boring?) way, or you can be really brave and make something up. The latter requires confidence and imagination, but can look really good. The best dancers make even the most simple move more interesting.
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. Men seem to have far more problem with this than women. Is it seen as unmanly to really enjoy dancing?
I once watched a couple dance at Baldwins Omega in Sheffield to a moderately fast jive track. The male lead seemed to know only about five moves, but he lead these expertly with style and flair, and he looked better than anyone else on the dance floor. Men often make the mistake of assuming that more moves are better than less, but this is not necessarily the case.
Some moves that you are taught will seem contrived (believe me they are contrived), and some will not work for you by virtue of your build. Others work better, and are more fun. I think it is good to know what works best and ignore the rest. I admit that sometimes it is possible to adapt a move so that it does work, and this is always rewarding, but I would stress that dancing is not just about moves.
We live lightly, but dance is the celebration of life and some of our most lived moments can be spent on the dance floor. Sometimes when I look at a crowded dance floor in Sheffield, I see a couple dancing with laughter punctuating big smiles. This is something that experienced dancers so often forget: that dancing should be fun. The best dancers certainly look as if they are enjoying themselves.