Wednesday, June 07, 2006

How freestyle dancing is done

My friend Daniel asked me an interesting question: When I'm dancing, what constraints do I have on the moves that I make? Here was my answer.

I'm assuming we're talking about freestyle, unchoreographed dancing. A
huge constraint is, of course, the fact that I'm a human body working
in gravity. This eliminates a bunch of moves I might be able to do on
the moon or in freefall or if I was an octopus.

Since I'm keeping to a beat, the dance move I'm about to do must be
able to work with the previous move and still stay on beat. Sometimes
I just know I won't have time to execute this next move, so I try
something else.

In swing, I have to adjust my moves according to my partner's body.
For example, the amount of force I need to exert to hold her hand, or
to lift her arm for a spin, or to support her weight in a dip all
depends on my perceptions of her body's position, weight, and

Individuals vary in how they move. For instance, in a spin, I walk
around the woman a bit so that she does not have to spin as far.
Usually experienced dancers locomote a bit while they do this, but
inexperienced dancers do not. I have to remember when dancing with
beginners to adjust my movement to anticipate theirs. Of course, if
the dancer I'm with does not know a move, I have to decide if she is
good enough to figure out how to do the right thing based on context
(which is possible). But some moves require behaviour on the part of
the follow which breaks traditional swing rules, so they need to learn
how to react to the leading moves associated with it as an exception
to normal swing behaviour. I can't unleash that on an inexperienced

In all dance I strive to stay with the beat. The tempo has some
constraints on what moves I can and cannot do. Some beats are too fast
or too slow for certain moves. For example, many songs are too slow to
be able to do "the running man" to. In swing, some songs are so fast
that many swing moves would look crappy at best, and be dangerous at
worst. Sometimes if the move is good enough, you can do it anyway, and
just sacrifice, temporarily, staying with the beat. I'm loathe to do
this, ever, but sometimes it's worth it.

I do a lot of clubbing and swing dancing, so I know a lot of the
tracks that get played. This gives me a great advantage, because I
know the music well enough to be able to coordinate moves with bridges
and other dynamics of the track. In swing this is particularly
important. You want to dip so that she reaches the lowest point of the
dip on the last beat of the track. That's why I hate fade-outs on
swing songs. Also in swing, the music will speed up (rarely) or stop
completely. At a stop, it's good to freeze in some dramatic position
such as the one I'm in in this picture:

Learning to dance is a little like learning to drive stick. There's
way too much to concentrate on at the beginning, and you can't do
anything until some of the basics have become automatized. In hip hop
dancing, there are standard footwork patterns and then there are more
complicated moves. You must learn the footwork patterns well enough so
that you can think about the more complicated moves and plan for them.

In swing, there is the basic step, which you must get down cold to be
able to do much else. I'm often planning my swing moves a move or two
ahead. I can anticipate a part of a track coming up and plan how I can
get into a position to excecute just the right move when it hits. It's
hard-- it doesn't always work, and when it does it's thrilling for me
and my follow. I've been swing dancing for 11 years now, and I'm not
interested in really learning any new moves, and most of the moves I
do are so automatized that I can practically do it in my sleep. I can
hold a moderately deep conversation while doing a swing routine that
is so smooth that many people would think is choreographed. I'm not
trying to toot my own horn, but to demonstrate that even all the
contingencies described above can be automatized to a great extent.

When I talk about "moves" note that moves are organized hierarchically. Complex moves break down into simpler ones that can be executed on their own, or recombined into new complex moves.

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