“How long have you been dancing?” I’ve been asked that question hundreds of times while dancing with a new lead. It’s always stymied me why that would matter. A much better question to ask a newly met lead/follow would be, “When was the last time you took a class? What did you learn?”
Years of dancing frequently equate to better dancing, but that is not always the case. Once the first rush of passion for this new hobby (or new style of dance) passes, many people stop attending classes, stop improving, and reach a plateau of dance quality. Often, it’s scary and difficult to learn new things, and without the excitement and interest generated by the freshness of a new hobby, there’s no incentive to move past the discomfort of learning something new. People become content to dance in the same comfortable way for years. Frankly, I can’t deny that I fall into the exact same rut myself every couple years. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the comfortable approach, there are quite a few reasons why you should fight inertia and keep working on your blues dancing, whether that’s through classes or in other ways.
First, and let’s be honest here, most of us aren’t as good as we think we are. Judging the quality of social dancing is a subjective undertaking, so what works for one lead/follow might not work for another one. Classes, particularly private or small group lessons, are a good way to get honest feedback on the areas where improvement is warranted. More importantly, professional or semi-professional instructors can teach you how to improve. The better you are as a dancer, the more people will want to dance with you and, chances are, the more fun you’ll have while dancing.
Perhaps you already have a humongous amount of fun dancing and everyone is always lining up to dance with you. If so, good for you! But wouldn’t it be neat to learn something new? Whether it’s a very old move reincarnated by a dedicated instructor who searched through archive videos for months or crossover styling introduced by someone who’s an expert in another type of dance, it is thrilling to throw in a new move just at that amazing moment when the music calls for it. Classes or dedicated experimentation with a partner are both great ways to expand your toolbox so you’ll never be left hanging, wishing you knew how to truly express your reaction to the music.
I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, which has developed a thriving blues scene over the years thanks to some extremely dedicated folks, but in my travels I’ve met plenty of people who live in smaller towns or places where blues dancing is a niche hobby, at best. For anyone in that situation, I strongly encourage you to travel to classes, workshops, or exchanges to learn more about blues dance and bring that knowledge back with you. Alternatively, you can work with the growing cadre of traveling instructors to have them bring workshops to you. Classes are a great way to revitalize a small dance scene and build a strong sense of community.
If traveling or bringing in instructors isn’t an option, the internet has a plethora of dancing videos. Watch them, imitate them, add your own style. To get a sense of where you’re at with your own dancing, get someone to make a video of you dancing with different leads/follows and study the tapes of yourself. Where do you look goofy? Does your lead/follow ever look like they’re just putting up with you to be nice? Is there anything that looks really good that you want to continue doing or a place where it would be good to add a little polish? Practice, practice, practice, and then repeat.
Other reasons to keep working on your blues dancing have to do with age and injury. Let’s face it: nobody is getting any younger. As you get older, it becomes harder to ignore the fact that gravity, genetics, old injuries, and life in general can work together to make it harder to dance like you used to. Even if you’re still young and spry, dancing is a full body pursuit. Whether caused by dancing or something else entirely, an injury to any part of your body can wreak havoc on your ability to do certain things while you dance. Don’t let age and injury keep you from the joys of blues dancing and the amazing community that goes along with it. Yet another benefit of taking classes or working with dance instructors one-on-one is that they have a wide variety of experience at teaching dancers how to adapt to their personal, physical needs. Some instructors will do this better than others, and it’s important to remember that they’re not doctors or sports therapists (note: unless they actually are). However, there is no group of people more knowledgeable about how to adapt and keep dancing. If you have a problem with some part of your body not working the way you think it should, they’ve probably run across it before and can give you advice on how to work around it.
Finally, keep working on all kinds of dancing, not just blues dancing. Learning other kinds of dance—swing, tango, hip hop, ballroom, African, and beyond—can have a measurable effect on your blues dancing ability, too. The stronger you are as a dancer and the more you work on the craft of dancing in general, the better your blues dancing will be. The best blues dancers I know are the best overall dancers I know, too. It’s not a coincidence.
And whatever you do, keep dancing! I’ll see you out there.
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!