One of my fave ballroom dance scenes is a bit from Saturday Night Live by Steve Martin and Gilda Radner called “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s a parody of a romantic Hollywood dance, like a foxtrot from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. Many elements help create a good dance, things like rhythm, timing, choreography, musicality, partnering and performance. This three-minute video is all about performance (UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2015: Unfortunately, the free version of the Steve Martin routine has been pulled from the web and I now think you have to buy an SNL video to see it. But you can get a worthy 10 second glimpse of it in this “Gilda Radner Montage” from 0:52 to 1:03 minutes):
Sometimes being good at one thing will cover or compensate for a weakness elsewhere. If you’ve ever watched Dancing with the Stars, you sometimes get a weak dancer who is a good performer. Head Judge Len Goodman will say something like, the dancing wasn’t much to look at but I loved the performance, and Len will proceed to give a good score. So a good performance can compensate for a lack of dance ability.
The problem is that if you fear dance, you probably fear performance. My solution is to do short bursts of performance and to do something that takes no skill: ham it up.
Ham it up: embellish your performance with 3-second bursts of dance ham
While ballroom dancing will take years to learn, hamming it up for the social dance floor is quick and natural. Find your inner comedian and just goof around in a charming way. Be a little ridiculous, a little over-the-top. Imagine you have a toggle switch and when you throw that switch you get a three-second burst of Steve Martin. That’s right, imagine channeling Steve Martin—three seconds of pure dance ham.
The next time you get lost on the dance floor, throw the switch. Put a Steve Martin grin on your face and goof off for three seconds. Try to tap into your natural sense of play—like how you acted every day when you were a kid. After three seconds, recompose yourself. I bet the energy of the partnership has changed for the better. I bet there will be a smile on your partner’s face. To survive a three-minute dance, add several three-second bursts of dance ham throughout the song.
Study Steve Martin. Learn to embellish your dancing with three-second bursts of Steve Martin. Become Steve Martin.
In this video Skippy Blair shows how the leader and follower can create a dance “connection” in the “closed position” by “matching resistance.” This is a very important video for followers!
In the closed position—the most common position used in partner dancing—the leader places his right hand over the lower portion of the follower’s left shoulder blade. To create the connection the follower must match the leader’s resistance by pulling her left shoulder back and down, pressing into the leader’s hand. If the follower does not match the resistance, the leader finds it much more difficult to lead.
It’s common for teachers to describe the process of matching resistance as meeting a push with a push and a meeting a pull with a pull. Beginners find that a difficult process as it’s counterintuitive; beginners tend to yield to a push or a pull, not resist them. Skippy says, “The resistance is not actually pushing or pulling. It is a matching reaction to the action of the lead. The natural tendency to yield to a lead rather than to match the natural resistance is a real problem for many dancers.”
I wish every follower would watch this video again and again. If you don’t press back into your leader’s right hand, you give us nothing to work with.
In this video Skippy Blair talks about the importance of keeping your elbows down. A lot of stuff in dance is wicked hard to do, this one’s a cinch. Well, it’s easy to do but developing the habit to always do it is a little tougher.
Keeping your elbows down affects your posture and frame. Posture and frame are important because they not only make you look good, they improve the dance connection with your partner. Pressing your elbows down will push your shoulders back and down, which helps to straighten your spine. It will make you feel light to your partner arms. There’s more in Chapter 10, Posture and Frame.
In this video Skippy Blair talks about how to move on the dance floor by moving your center first. Your “center,” short for “center point of balance,” is located in your solar plexus. All dance movement should start and project from your center. If you move your center first you will not only look better–like a dancer!–but it will feel better to your partner and make lead and follow much easier.
There’s an old saying in dance, “foot follows frame.” Move your center first—not shoulders, hip or foot. Especially don’t move the foot first, which is the mark of a beginner. There’s more in Chapter 12, Movement and Timing.