While I believe the following post can apply to all levels of dancing, I think it is particularly pertinent to intermediate-advanced and, by proxy, advanced dancers. More importantly, I think it’s something that a lot of int-adv dancers understand in concept, yet very few actually practice (including myself!).
I was watching A Word on Swing with Nina Gilkenson Pt.2, which is a great video project by Jerry Almonte and Bobby White to interview some fantastic people and see what they have to say about the lindy scene. Around 10:40, Nina starts talking about what it takes to improve as an int-adv dancer. Based on some personal goals and some recent discussions, this really hit home with me.
I find that many int-adv level dancers are complacent with their dancing. If you are truly happy where you are and only desire minimal additional improvement over the course of your dancing, then that’s fantastic. However, if you want to break into the “next level” of dancing, conscious self-improvement is necessary – no matter your level of dancing. For int-adv dancers, this can be a challenge: classes and privates are not necessarily the best way to improve any longer, and moving forward on your own can be both challenging and intimidating.
No One can Tell You how Your Body Moves
I believe that classes and private lessons can get you a long ways – particularly if you are an intermediate-level dancer on a budget who really wants to learn a few more variations and some basic yet challenging technique. However, if you are edging on intermediate-advanced and find yourself stagnating no matter how many classes and privates you take, you might want to consider taking a sabbatical from lessons to explore how your own body moves.
Let’s be honest – as Nina so concisely puts it, no one can tell you how your own body moves. The only way to figure that out is to find a room, a mirror, and a bit of free time (and maybe a dance partner, when applicable, of course). Spend some time trying a move, seeing how it works, and tweaking it until you like how it both looks and feels.
This does not mean imitating another dancer; in fact, Nina also points out that many of today’s dancers are often a Frankenstein-like-amalgamation of national and international level dancers – but that gets us nowhere new and interesting! Looking at videos of great dancers is a good starting point, but you should remember that your own body is quite different and may not ever make that really cool shape you admire in Peter Strom or Bobby White.
Exploring Your Own Body as a Vehicle for Improvement
So how do you explore your own body, you ask? It’s relatively easy, even if it’s sometimes a bit intimidating. I’ll tell you how I’ve been working on it, and you can at the very least start from there.
First, I started learning classic choreographies (and you’re in luck! There are some great instructional videos nowadays). Personally, I started with the Big Apple, moved on to a bit of the Gang Busters routine, and have recently been working on the Tranky Doo. Next, I plan on either learning Al and Leon’s Shim Sham or the Jive (links for all). You can also look at this great compilation of jazz moves.
Learning these choreographies teaches you basic jazz moves, but it also requires getting comfortable with those movements (rather than learning them once or twice in a solo movement class and moving on). The more comfortable you get, the more you can play with height, syncopation, and shape – and the more you play with varying the movements, the more comfortable you become with your own body.
Second, I’ve been working on my solo movement. It’s a direct correlation with the first step – if only because knowing all these great jazz moves would be worthless if I couldn’t put them together in my own way. You don’t have to be a solo jazz master (I certainly am not!) – but part of becoming comfortable with the movements is being able to mix it up and have fun. If you’re nervous about jamming with others at social dances, I suggest picking a beginner-heavy corner on a mid-tempo song and jamming out – just be ready to turn down a few people if they think you dancing by yourself means you want to dance with someone else.
Third, I’ve been working on my ability to lead. This does two things: first, it teaches me what I like in other follows, which teaches me about how connection works from the other end, how to play around as both a follow and a lead, and how my idea of the next move might completely differ from my follow’s idea of the next move (and that’s okay). Second, and more importantly, it teaches me how to view movement from a different angle. It’s teaching me a lot of body control, as well as a lot of forethought in dancing (not the same as anticipation), which I have often struggled with.
I’d love to see how other people make a conscious effort at improvement in their own dancing. What is your motivation behind it, and how do you go about doing it?
For example, I have a hard time solo dancing in a social setting because 1) I get self-conscious, and 2) I start watching everyone else and forget I should be doing my own thing, too. How do you combat this?
Is there anything else in particular that you work on as an intermediate-advanced dancer to facilitate self-improvement? Sometimes, it’s necessary to have a dance partner for the purposes of feedback – but sometimes, that’s just not possible. As such, I’m really interested in ways you work on self-improvement for social dancing 1) without a person there to bounce ideas off, and 2) without making all your social dancing a drag by focusing too much on practice.