Why Ballroom is an Expressive Dance

expressive dance

Ballet. Hip hop. Jazz. Contemporary. By comparison, ballroom dance is often found wanting, described as ‘stiff, flat, and lacking real self-expression.’ But an expressive dance is defined by more than range of motion alone.

expressive dance
We're expressing!

True, you are compromising for your partner, sacrificing some movement so you can move better together. But there’s plenty of character that can still be conveyed, not only through each of you separately, but in the story you tell together.

Expression is more than dramatic kicks, jetés, and tumbles. It is the act of conveying one’s humanity to the world. It is not just seen, but felt, both in yourself and the people you are. Of course, that’s hardly where you start from.

There is a learning curve.

It’s unavoidable that you will initially feel ‘stiff’ together, as you focus on rigid concepts like frame and posture. But don’t be fooled - these techniques simply lay the groundwork for more creative movement later.

expressive dance

You see, before ballroom can become an expressive dance, you must learn how to move together. This can take several lessons initially, but you’ll eventually develop a sense of your partner within a few seconds of social dancing.

Most ballroom dancers make learning to connect with each other their entire goal, never realizing it isn’t the end - it’s where the fun really begins.

Ballroom is both of you.

If you are in a relationship with someone, do you lose your own individuality to that person? Hopefully not! Sure, you change some things for each other, but who you are remains untouched - and your partner will even give it a new dimension.

expressive dance

Likewise, not only is ballroom dance an expressive dance style, it’s arguably more expressive because the two of you are working together, combining your personalities in unique ways.

You can choose your music.

If you like expressive dance, it’s almost guaranteed that you love music! Fortunately, ballroom dance encompass a huge range of music, so there’s something for everybody. Just pick the music you like most and start taking courses in the corresponding dance!

Or maybe you’re coming at it backwards, and prefer certain kinds of movements. With over 12 different styles of ballroom dancing and music to match, odds are there’s at least one that does it for you.

Expression through conversation.

Because many forms of expressive dance are performance-based, the people you are expressing to are usually sitting comfortably in their seats. Ballroom dance gives you another person who can share in your conversation: your partner.

expressive dance

The problem with performances is that there often is no real interaction between the performers themselves; the people who share a passion for dance and know how to convey themselves with it. With ballroom dancing, it’s not only possible, it’s mandatory.

Ballroom dancing isn't just a showcase dance, but a social one as well. With a partner to share your movement, you can express yourself more ‘honestly’ than you could with a crowd of strangers. And connecting with each other is after all, what it’s all about.

expressive dance

About the Author

Ian Crewe has been dancing ballroom for over 18 years, and has a Licentiate in American smooth and rhythm. His passion for dance eventually led him to blogging and the World Wide Web. Ian currently teaches at the Joy of Dance Centre, Toronto, ON, Canada. Click here to see when he's teaching.

How Increasing Awareness Helps Your Dancing

Increasing Awareness

Dancing is like learning to cook. The steps are the ‘recipe’ you read from, but over time, you learn to add the ‘spices’ that are uniquely you. We’ve discussed how increasing awareness of thought patterns that hold us back can help us reprogram them. Now, we’re ready to explore how to add our own authenticity to our dancing.

The book The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield illustrates this concept of authentic mastery brilliantly. The golf caddy Bagger believes there is an ‘authentic swing’, that is unique to every person on the planet, and all golfers are unconsciously trying to find it. To reach it however, they must ultimately learn to ‘surrender’ to their increasing awareness of their authentic self, which is a culmination of the training they’ve received and a deep understanding of who they truly are.

Increasing Awareness

We likewise each have an ‘authentic dance’. How do we know this? Because our body can tell which movements feel ‘good’ and which feel ‘bad’ - and it will automatically guide us towards the former. Over time, and with increasing awareness, we reach a place where training can no longer help us. Only by surrendering to this instinct can we go further, bridging the last gap to dancing with authenticity.

We can hasten this surrender by using your increasing awareness of your body during practice. To do this, we must enter each dance with as few attachments as possible. Social dancing is a particularly excellent way to train your natural spontaneity, while testing your ability to detach from the opinions and judgements of others.

increasing awareness

If this is very difficult for you, you can begin by dancing alone, but try move where at least one or two others can see you. Not only will this help push your comfort zone, but you will give others unconscious permission to do the same.

‘But what if my authentic dance is something nobody else likes? I still want people to dance with me’, I hear some of you say. The truth is dancing with increasing awareness will draw more people to you, even if some of your movement is unusual. Remember that potential dance partners want the same thing you do, even if they don’t know it: To connect to a sense of authenticity within themselves. I’ve seen many performances that were technically brilliant, but they might as well have been danced by cyborgs - there was no life or joy to it. Increasing Awareness

When you dance authentically, you radiate that joy that comes from being in touch with yourself and your partner, and others will want to connect to that as well.

First and foremost though, remember that dancing with increasing awareness to impress others is not dancing with awareness at all. You may dance for judges, for an audience, or for your partner. But nothing will feel better than when you dance for yourself.

Raise Awareness, Raise your Dancing

raise awareness

We’ve been talking about how to avoid getting distracted by thinking during dancing, in order to make it more natural and fun for ourselves and our partner. When we raise awareness of what’s happening in our body, we remove focus from the part of our mind that’s constantly judging others, regretting mistakes, and planning for the future. This is not to say that planning the next step is bad, only that it will be replaced over time by the body’s intuitions - that is to say, it’s trained sense of what can naturally flow from the previous movement.

raise awareness

Trying to raise awareness can be a scary experience however. Many of us carry destructive thought patterns or ‘beliefs’ which we learned in childhood: ‘I am not enough.’ ‘I can never be a good dancer.’ ‘I have two left feet.’ ‘I am ugly.’ These voices often get louder when we raise awareness in our body, so we may have to weaken them before we can dance with greater confidence. In order to get there however, we must first understand the difference between who we are and what we identify with.

When we identify with something, it means we’ve tied some part of ourselves to it - things like the friends we keep, the car we own, and yes, the thoughts we hold. You can tell you’ve identified with something if the thought of losing it fills you with fear.

raise awareness
Not you Betsy! DON'T LEAVE ME!!!

When we have the things we identify with around us, they make us feel safe. Even if some of those things are destructive to you, like fear-based beliefs. Losing something we’ve identified with can feel like we’re losing a part of ourselves. But here’s the paradox: Are you really defined by the money in your pocket, the house you own, and the beliefs you hold? These may all be great descriptors of you, but are they really you?

Here’s another way to think of it, and raise awareness at the same time: try watching your thoughts. Follow them, stalk them like a hunter in the jungle. Avoid forming opinions about them, but just allow them to be. Now, if you are your thoughts, then who is observing those thoughts? In truth, you are not your thoughts at all. Perhaps the best description is that you are a silent observer, a consciousness that watches with no thoughts at all.

raise awareness
You've got to come out sometime mate...

This might seem like a roundabout way of explaining, but it’s necessary to arrive at a central truth: If you are not any of the things that you have, or think, then you have nothing to lose. This is the beginning of freedom, where we can start to dance, and live, with greater authenticity.

So at last, how can we raise awareness to stop the flow of negative, fear-driven thinking? Start by observing your thoughts, as you did earlier. You can do this while meditating, or working out, or doing any activity that slows your thinking at least temporarily. If impatience or frustration arise, just observe them like everything else - this is not a race to ‘get it’ as fast as you can.

As you raise awareness, you’ll find the stream of thinking slows, and even stops at times. You’ve created a ‘gap’ between observing and thinking, between who you really are and the filtering, judging, rationalizing mind. This gap gives you a chance to make a different choice when destructive thoughts arise - for instance, instead of reacting with shame, guilt, or anger, you might replace the thought with a more positive one, or even laugh at it for being so ridiculous. In this way, your mind, like your body, can be retrained to act in a way that comes from love rather than fear.

raise awareness

‘This is all well and good’, I hear you say, ‘but I still don’t see how raising awareness can improve my dancing.’ Next week, we’ll come full circle and explain how we can infuse this greater awareness into our dancing, so we can move fearlessly and authentically.

Body Awareness in Ballroom Dance

body awareness

‘Kids: They dance before they learn anything that isn’t music.’
- William Stafford

Thinking in dancing is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it helps us plan the next step, and interpret what we learn in a lesson. But too much thinking can stifle our body’s natural movement. You can tell if someone is dancing more in their mind then their body; their movements are stiff and robotic, and they seem unaware of their partner, or the music. Virtually all of us suffer from over-thinking sometimes, but we can counter it with the body awareness.

body awareness

What is body awareness? It is the ability to stay in the present, connected with the music and your partner. It also means that the mind goes silent, because our thoughts are only occupied by the past or future. Consider: Even if you are cursing yourself for a recent misstep, your attention is still directed into the past. To dance on the cutting edge of NOW, we must remove most of our thought from dancing.

We all learned how to dance, spin, jump and roll, as children. As we grew older however, we lost touch with our bodies. We were trained to use our minds for everything - look before you leap, don’t make assumptions, if you plan to learn, learn to plan. This doesn’t mean our minds aren’t an important tool in our day-to-day lives. But when we start using it on the ever-changing dance floor, it only slows us down. The tool has overtaken the master.

body awareness
I OWN you! Now make me a sandwich!

Here’s just a few kinds of thinking that can distract us from a great social dance:

  1. Ruminating about a mistake
  2. Anticipating or guessing at the next pattern
  3. Thinking about the work-day
  4. Worrying about the opinions of others
  5. Trying to remember our technique
  6. Planning five or ten steps in advance
  7. Internally judging your partner, or nearby dancers

To increase our body awareness, we need to start trusting our body’s instincts again. Our body picks up on steps, technique, and usually music too, a lot faster than our brain does. This is why we usually dance better when trying a pattern or dance style for the first time: we allow ourselves to instinctually feel our way through the motions, at least temporarily. After a few repetitions however, our brain starts to reassert itself, and our dancing suffers until we’ve learned to make it automatic once more.

body awareness
'I don't want any gimmicks, just give me straight up dancing!'

‘But how am I supposed to dance without thinking?’ you might be wondering. The answer is to build trust in our instincts, and to train our mind to avoid ‘clinging’ to the inevitable bumps, jolts, and missteps that occur. For leaders, there may be brief flashes of thought as they decide on what to do next, but even this is a spontaneous interaction with the body. The rest of our attention is directed on what we feel, in our connection with our partner, and in expressing the music as it arrives. When you have body awareness, the only dance step that matters, is the one you are making right now.

body awareness

For many, the addiction to thinking can be too powerful to break simply by recognizing the importance of body awareness. Next week, we’ll take an objective look at where the destructive thought patterns that hurt our dancing come from, and how to eliminate them.