Connection and self-improvement. That’s it. These two things are the driving forces behind a person’s transformation from casual dancer into lifer. When blues, or any activity, continually provides people with opportunities to feel connected and feel that they are improving themselves, those people (provided they are not getting more of these things from other sources) will be hooked. Great, but what actual actions do we take, what areas do we build up, to continually reinforce these feelings for ourselves and for others?
Social dance venues are places where people gather together at least once a week. (Think: church or writing group or community center.) Everyone has people they hope to see whenever they go out dancing, people they have wonderful, playful, or deep dances with, people they would say they care about. These connections form a community, and the relationships in this community often transform into real friendships as people find themselves chatting over a breakfast platter and milkshake at 3 a.m. at Denny’s after a long night on the social floor or in someone’s empty dining room. Maybe someone has a birthday party or just feels like socializing, so you get together for board games or cocktails or an art walk or Super Smash Brothers. Social dancing is social. The more a person can build up and integrate themselves into a community of dancers, the more devoted they will be to dancing.
Of course, we can’t forget about the dance itself. Within each and every dance we have the opportunity for self-improvement and connection. When people go out to dance socially, they are not there to judge one another. They’re there ready and planning to have fun; this gives you a safe space to play in. As long as you follow basic tenants of dance safety, you have immense freedom to play around, to try new, maybe goofy or ridiculous or unintentionally not-so-smooth things, the freedom to improvise. If you do something you think looks stupid, laugh at yourself. Your partner is more likely to laugh with you than at you. Each person is just trying to express him or herself. It’s through this experimentation and the practice of those moves you kind of learned in that workshop you were in yesterday that you will learn and improve your dancing.
As for connection, well, you can connect with your partner and the music and the floor. Heck, you can reach up toward the ceiling. There are all kinds of options. It’s that connection with your partner that is often seen as the core of the dance. For many, maybe most, people, this is why we go out partner dancing. Blues gives us the opportunity to connect with a complete stranger or a friend in a way that can feel intimate for a few minutes. Then, the song is over. Maybe you dance to another one; maybe you don’t, but there are no expectations. You exchange a polite goodbye and move on to the next exhilarating experience, sharing the emotions of the song or what you’re going through with your partner, being vulnerable, connecting with someone.
Exchanges are those usually weekend-long social dance gatherings filled with people from around the greater region or the globe. These are opportunities for you to meet new people and see what other people are doing with the dance. If you’ve been getting into a rut, these give you the opportunity to mix things up and not so much be lifted out of it by others as be inspired by them to lift yourself out. These are opportunities to maybe take a road trip with other dancers from your scene and bond with them and with people who live in a place you might otherwise never have traveled to. Exchanges are opportunities to host out-of-town dancers or be hosted. These can be opportunities to wake up in a platonic pile of people and then dance with one of them in the living room as the smell of bacon wafts in. The cuddle piles are optional and not always present, but regardless, these are chances to be involved in something active and exciting, and if you want to be more involved and ensure that you’ll meet people, you can usually sign up to volunteer your way in.
Workshops are your opportunities to learn tangible new things, whether these are new ways of thinking about musicality, methods to get yourself to relax into that connection, or actual moves you’ve never encountered before or have never known quite how to do yourself. Workshops push you. They are one of your best resources for improvement as a dancer. Go out, try new things, take notes if that is part of your learning style, watch video recaps later if the workshop included them. Workshops are opportunities to see something, watch it broken down, hear it explained, try to put it into your own body (usually with mirrors in front of you to show you how that process is going), and get instructor feedback (as they address problems they see the group is having or answer individuals’ questions). If you or someone you know sees a workshop they think is beneath their skill level, encourage them to take it in their non-dominant dance role. Try to get your feet in every workshop you can. It can only help.
Practicas and Labs
The practica is a simple idea that doesn’t exist in every dance scene. A practica is basically a group of people getting together and working on improving their dancing. Want one? Start it. Invite people over, clear out a space to dance, pull up YouTube, and go for it. This is your opportunity to break things down with the aid of a partner, practice, and learn. Have spotters if necessary, be safe, and push yourselves. Not feeling inspired to learn something you’ve seen? Then, just dance with someone there with the agreement that one person will give feedback to the other. This is called a blues lab. Practicas and labs build communities and improve the quality of the dancers in those communities. Best of all, assuming you don’t have to rent a venue, they are entirely free!
Private lessons can be pricey, so maybe you can’t afford them all the time, but they can feel like a godsend when you’re up against a wall and nothing else seems to be working to move you forward. Look at the people you wish you could dance like, give them some money, and ask them to teach you how they do it. Be specific if you can. What is it you want to learn? Or what is it you want to unlearn? Ask for strategies. You’re not going to come out of it as a carbon copy of that admirable instructor, but that’s not what you really want anyway, and you will almost definitely come out of the experience with at least one revelation about how you dance or what you can do to improve your dancing. Instructors are people too, so this is a social experience as well, and maybe (hopefully) you’ll be less hesitant to ask this instructor to dance next time you see him or her on a social floor. (Side note: Always ask the instructors to dance. They are there to have fun too. They are not “out of [your] league.”)
Learning Different Dances
This last bit is especially useful for fusion dancing (also known as blues-fusion or alt blues), but it can be useful for traditional blues dancing as well. If you feel like you’ve hit a ceiling and can’t seem to progress to the next level in your dancing, go take a class in another style. If you are a fusion dancer, you may be able to fuse the new moves you learn into your dancing. If you are a traditionalist, you may learn or find more enforcement of fundamentals of posture, balance, floorcraft, body alignment, or other useful skills. Going out and learning something new allows you to look at your primary dance form from a new vantage point.
All of these areas are simply options for some of the ways you can build yourself and those around you into lifers. I’m sure there are more possibilities out there, so go out, discover, do!