Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.— Often attributed to Confucius
You’re at a bar or a nightclub or a wedding or a New Year’s Eve party. A slow song is played, and within seconds the floor is flooded with couples embracing and swaying. Standing alone and looking left out, you grow tense. With the heat rising around your collar, you eye a woman in the distance and make your move. You approach and, with a choked voice, utter one word: “Dance?” Unexpectedly, she accepts. If you were Travolta or Swayze or Secret Agent 007, you’d sweep her off her feet. What will you do?
When I was a beginner I found myself in that predicament many times. What kind of dance should I do? Is it okay to make body contact with a stranger? How close should I get? Does she think I’m flirting? Have I made too much contact? Have I made too little contact? Is she having a good time?
I’ll return to body contact in a moment. First, let’s look at the dance. I’ll finish this chapter by looking at some options for lessons, because it may be hard to find classes labeled “slow dancing.”
Slow dancing is a curious phenomenon. It’s not taught much at dance studios; you don’t get any good hits when you search online for it; it’s not easily defined; nor is there a widely accepted curriculum. Yet it may be the one dance that every guy wishes he could do. And while it’s not easily defined, most people, including non-dancers, probably know it when they see it. How can slow dancing be both mainstream and enigmatic?
Slow dancing can take many forms, and it changes over time. But most slow dancing has its roots in the foxtrot, and it’s just the mixing of single and double rhythm to slow music. The foxtrot is a smooth, elegant and versatile dance that fits easily to slow and romantic music. Much of the dancing that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performed in their movies during the 1940s and 1950s was a foxtrot, and I have watched their movies to steal moves for my slow dancing.
Whatever you call it, the key to slow dancing is to get comfortable mixing single and double rhythm, which is exactly what survival dancing is all about (Chapter 13, “Survival Dancing”). Basic slow dancing is just survival dancing to slow music, plus some sensual styling like body contact. The next chapter will introduce you to some different ways to use single and double rhythm, including the simplest of all dances, a sway, which is one way to get through a slow dance if you don’t know what you’re doing (check out my Freebie Video web page for a demo).
The Hug and Sway
On a casual dance floor, for example, a high school prom, you’re apt to see couples doing a hug and sway to slow music. The couple is squared-off. The guy puts his hands on her waist and she puts her hands on his shoulders. There’s copious body contact—it’s more hug than dance. A sway requires some technique and that you stay on the beat, otherwise you just get an awkward rocking back and forth. There’s more on the sway on page 119.
The one aspect of slow dancing that can’t wait until the next chapter is the body contact, the getting in close, the sensual embrace. For many, it may be why you want to learn dance. While body contact isn’t necessary for a slow dance—see box “How to Slow Dance with Your Mother-in-Law”—it’s fun and adds an unequivocal element of intimacy.
Some degree of body contact in partner dancing is not uncommon. In any dance that uses the closed position, body contact often happens naturally and effortlessly, especially if you have a good connection with a familiar or experienced partner. Certain dance positions and certain moves, like a dip, will put you in closer contact with your partner. In two dances, Argentine tango and Balboa, contact is standard technique. While contact can occur anywhere from thighs to heads depending upon the dance, the move, the styling and the physical size of your partner, when making contact in the closed position to improve the dance connection, contact is in the upper body, diaphragm-to-diaphragm. This is the area where you should “let it happen.”
For the reluctant dancer, making contact can be intimidating—too intimate, too awkward and too not-good-enough-to-pull-it-off. To my chagrin, I discovered that to do a graceful dance while stuck together requires some skill—from both partners. Before I could consistently keep the beat and give a decent lead, I had many awkward, forgettable slow dances. If both dancers don’t step on the beat together when connected, well, think bumper cars at an amusement park.
I like to start a slow dance with an unfamiliar partner with some inches of separation, and I’ll keep this separation for as long as it takes to establish a true dance connection. In particular, I’ll be conscious of her frame since, to do it well, to make contact not seem aggressive, you need her help by way of a relaxed or inviting frame. I find that if my partner is also entertaining the notion of a close embrace, our receptive frames will, mysteriously, close the gap. I sometimes test the water by ever-so-gently guiding her closer, but if there’s reluctance in her frame, any stiffness at all, I abort immediately. I check her face at this point: Any hint of discomfort and I know to keep some distance. My experience is that there will be many ambiguous situations where you won’t quite know what’s happening (ahem, just like in real-life relationships).
TIP FOR FOLLOWERS: If you want to resist a leader, let your left thumb strategically slip down to the front part of his right shoulder, which will allow you to apply outward pressure or, literally, push him away. Also, the crotch is not a legitimate point of contact for leading, so do not accept a “crotch lead” from a leader if it offends you.
How to Slow Dance with Your Mother-in-Law
Making body contact is not inherently sleazy nor necessarily sexual. It’s not unusual for two good dancers, dancing any style of any dance, to have some contact when in the closed position. But when a slow song is played, which will coax many couples into a close embrace, it’s not necessary, nor at times desirable—say, when dancing with your mother-in-law—to make contact to have a satisfying slow dance.
Depending upon the situation, I may close the normal gap of four to five inches, used in the closed position, to one or two inches to suggest more intimacy. I may close the gap so our clothes touch; at that point, there’s no daylight between us so the visual effect is body contact. Or I might make very light and minimal contact. In lieu of contact I might stylize the dance to suggest more intimacy, such as adding a few dips (if she’s not an experienced dancer I do it carefully—see below). If I want to avoid intimacy, I’ll do patterns that open us up, such as underarm turns. Fear not, if you’re called into service to slow dance with a partner you don’t want to get close to, you can do it and make it fit on a floor of slow dancing.
I believe there’s a benefit to starting a dance with some separation and establishing a connection to show her you know how to dance. By gaining her confidence before making contact, I believe you will get better results than rushing in with the immediate-contact method, which may get you rebuffed for the full three minutes. Besides, people often need deniability—well we started innocently and he was a good dancer and everything so we had this connection and one thing led to another. . . . Ultimately, whether to make contact is her choice, and etiquette dictates that we respect her wishes. Always be prepared to abort.
There’s an old saying that dance is a vertical expression of a horizontal thought. While I’ll leave further body contact, below the waist, up to your imagination, I do believe that full body contact, to improve the art, can be done, if not innocently, at least constructively. After all, if both partners are into it and if more contact makes the connection better, then the partnership can be strengthened and the dancing can move to a higher level. Of course, at this point, art may not be the only objective—but that’s why we’re all here anyway, right?
TIP: Empty your front pockets, especially the front right pocket. You’ll mostly do a slow dance in some form of the closed position. Your body will be slightly offset to the left so that your right foot is positioned between her two feet. As you move in it will be your right side that makes contact first. I find stuff in my pockets distracting. So, ritualistically, I empty them before I enter a dance. Or at least I move stuff from the right side to the left or front to back. For a serious night of dancing, I James-Bondishly put my keys, cash and credit cards in an ankle wallet.
While it’s possible to find dedicated classes in slow dancing, this may prove surprisingly difficult. They might go under a slightly different name, like “nightclub slow dance” or “nightclub foxtrot”; so it’s always worth calling a studio and asking. Here are a couple of other options:
- Slow dancing draws so much from foxtrot that it’s usually a good place to start, although the connection to slow dancing may not seem obvious right away. Perhaps request from the teacher a demonstration of how to apply the foxtrot to slow dancing and ask for tips on how to stylize the foxtrot to create a slow dance. Also, a foxtrot class will probably teach a six-count basic pattern (double—single—single or single—single–double), and it’s best to think of the slow dancing basic as an eight-count pattern (double—single—double—single) so it’s easier to stay phrased (aligned) to the sets of 8 in the music.
- I think rumba is another dance that would help in learning to slow dance, as it’s an easy dance, it’s romantic, it uses slower tempos and the rumba basic uses the preferred rhythm pattern, double—single—double—single.
- Perhaps the most interesting choice today to learn slow dancing would be classes in “blues dancing,” which is what the Lindy Hop community calls a type of slow dancing that has roots in the swing era of the 1930s. Blues dancing draws from dances like the grind and the slow drag (both have lots of body contact) and something done at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the 1930s called ballrooming, which was a slow, slinky and somewhat satirical rendition of the foxtrot. Blues dancing is undergoing a revival, and classes and weekend workshops are available. While the music is classic slow-dancing music—jazz and blues, with slower tempos, from around the 1930s—there’s no set dance curriculum; so you’ll see a wide variety of teaching. Also, with medium-tempo songs, it can look more like swing than slow dancing because so many people come from the swing movement, which uses a lot of the one-hand open position (that is, not much body contact). I’m not sure if classes in blues dancing would be a good choice for a total newbie, so if you’ve never had a dance class in your life, check with the teacher first. There are a number of blues dancing videos on YouTube; check ’em out (when I wrote this book, there was even one of ballrooming titled “Friday Night Blues—Ballrooming Demo”).
Slow dancing can be an easy dance to pull off because it’s so forgiving. It’s a loose form of dance; there’s not much curriculum and there’s not much competition, so there’s not much to judge. Goof around a bit and nobody will care; it may even get praise. If you do it with a stranger, just start with a little separation (between your bodies) and try to have fun. You might be surprised what develops.
Do a Dip
I’m not going to attempt to teach a dip in a book, but I want to psych you up to learn to dip. A dip is easy, it’s eye-catching, you can use it in every dance—especially a slow dance—and it’s great for expressing musicality. Did I mention that many women love to dip?
A dip may look hard, but for all the excitement it creates, I find there isn’t much to do. For a simple dip, there aren’t a lot of weight changes or twirling body parts, which makes it an easy move for me. The hardest part is phrasing and musicality, timing it to a good spot in the music, which will be easy once you can hear the sets of 8. While a dip is an obvious move to end a dance, you can usually slip dips in at other spots, whenever the melody winds down a bit. (ADVANCED INFO ALERT: Dip during the last set of 8 of a major phrase.)
To keep it simple, which is what you need to do when your partner or you are a beginner, you don’t have to do a full dip; you can do a one-quarter dip or a one-eighth dip and still create nice-looking lines with your body, while you avoid the risk of literally dropping your partner. I’ve never dropped a partner; but I’ve come close, either because I didn’t know what I was doing or I had a no-fear follower who didn’t know how to dip. (Ladies, there’s a correct way to dip that allows you to hold your own weight.)
There is a variety of dips, so choose one that’s easy to do. Practice doing a partial dip by just going into it 10 or 20 percent, enough to get a stretch in your body and create a nice line, but not enough that you could lose your balance and throw the whole experiment on the floor.
Caution: In addition to women who like to dip but don’t know how, there are followers who don’t like to dip and will resist—strongly, often by freezing their whole body rigid. This is understandable; probably some jerk in the past forced a dip and injured her. I do the first dip with an unknown partner slowly and gently, with the intention of not doing a full dip. I’m prepared to abort the move immediately if my partner turns stiff. I’m also prepared to accept her full body weight in case she wants to dip, doesn’t know what she’s doing and lunges into it.
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