improving as an intermediate-advanced dancer

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.

Conclusions

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.

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8 thoughts on “improving as an intermediate-advanced dancer

  1. Hey fun post.

    To answer your first question how to get over being self-conscious solo dancing in a social setting, I would say do it as much as possible. When I first started getting interested in competing the idea of dancing in front of a crowd of people was a bit unsettling to me. My result was to dance at Downtown Disney in Southern California, where you would get a crowd of tourists and so-cal locals watching. After a few times doing this, having a crowd around became something I was used to instead of a outside factor that could affect my dancing.

    Something that has helped me a lot recently is defining to myself what is the vague concept of an “advanced dancer” and what I can concretely do to move in that direction.

    One thing I have noticed is generally among dancers I consider great dancers, most of them tend to be in good shape. In result I have been keeping myself to a workout program. While I don’t think you need to be ripped to be a great dancer, removing limitations such as fatigue or being inflexible gives me more options.

    The second thing I have done is trying to watch myself in mirrors or film myself more. I find dancers who tend to be on the upper-end of the spectrum have a very small gap between how they think they look/feel versus what it looks like to a spectator or on film. Closing that gap for myself and refining the skill of being able to discern how things look I think is a step in the right direction for myself.

    Lastly, I have a roommate who is a classical violinist and often is learning new music/improving his craft for auditions and performances. I have received a lot of valuable information from him of how to effectively practice, good ideas for goal setting, and other tidbits that relate to improving in a creative/artistic field. I think finding some sort of mentor (they don’t have to be a dancer!) who is someone one respects and has this type of knowledge can be very useful.

    • I think being able to tighten the gap between “what I think I look like” and “what I actually look like” is an important aspect to advancing one’s own dancing — and it’s something that’s honestly hard (and sometimes scary) to do. I hadn’t really considered videoing myself, though, so that’s definitely an option, especially when I’m lacking mirror space.

      I definitely want to start dancing in a low-pressure, public environment — meaning, one where no one else knows if what I’m doing is “right,” haha. Now to find a good venue in Atlanta with live music and at least a modicum of space in which to move.

  2. These are all great ideas. I also go through periods where I like to focus on the mind-body connection and energetic components of my dancing. For example, Eric Franklin\’s books on dance imagery offer excellent ideas on ways to think about moving in space. Delving deeper into the music always gets me, too. Finding different ways to hear and feel the music, and of course playing with different ways of expressing it physically, never become tiring when they are done in the spirit of curiosity. Thanks for the article!

    • I think one of the hardest things to learn in one’s own dancing is how to utilize space and / or create a shape — it can make your dancing so much more dynamic, but it’s hard to think about in the moment of actually dancing. I’m going to have to look at that book — thank you for the suggestion!

  3. I find myself feeling dissatisfied with my partnered dancing a lot lately, but relatively satisfied with my solo dancing. I think this is because I have put a lot of time into practicing solo dancing (both consciously and less consciously). As such, here’s a tip of mine that I wish people would put into practice more–

    Social dance–and especially, solo dance–out in public, to live music. Out at a bar, a band busking on the corner, anywhere else you can find live music. One thing live music teaches you is how to hear and interpret the general structure of jazz, so you become a more musical dancer (rather than just being musical to songs/recordings you already know) in all situations. Ideally, the live music will also teach you how or help you to appreciate live music if you don’t already :)

    Dancing out in public like this, with a non-dancing “audience” will help you learn how to relax and have fun, especially if you’re solo dancing. It might sound counterintuitive, but the fact is that people (especially bar patrons) will get bored if you are only dancing for yourself and as practice–if you learn to have fun while you’re dancing, it will eventually show on your face, and that is attractive to onlookers (and to dancers, too). You might also find that you discover new inspiration or even create new “moves” (movements, patterns, transitions, etc) that you might not have otherwise.

    The one caveat to this situations is that you have to be aware of your surroundings. This means watching out for less-sober bar patrons, paying attention to the band to make sure you’re not stealing any of their thunder–especially if they’re playing for tips, in which case you’d be useful as further entertainment to drive tips into their jar–, and making sure that you’re not blocking exits or staff.

    • Like I said above, I definitely want to utilize the low-pressure, public setting as soon as I find an opportunity — if only to explore that option and get in a little practice. One of the biggest ruts I get into is listening to the same songs over and over again; I don’t have a large collection of music, so it’s easy to get stuck. Of course, this means half the songs a DJ plays I feel I’ve never heard before (even though the likelihood of that is low) — but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m learning anything new. Thanks, Breanna, for the tips! I’m going to look out for more live music in Atlanta! And of course, there’s always the live bands we have coming up for workshops!

  4. Pingback: Improving as an intermediate-advanced dancer – finding balance « Lindy Hop variations for followers

  5. Pingback: dance posts: reference / archive | The Lindy Affair

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