By Fred Bijster
Animals do dance. No question about that. If you ever watched animal behaviour you certainly will agree. Especially in the mating-season they show wonderful and complex patterns of formalized and stylised steps and movements, interacting with a possible partner. A distinct choreography that must be followed in order to be “successful” (whatever that may be). A perfect technique, strict in the way it is executed is obligatory and creates a certain style in the performance. A sound definition of dancing, isn’t it?
Walter Laird, the famous writer of his books on technique once used the lion as an example. His question was: “Do you think the lion was thinking for one single moment about his technique (“left foot forward, slightly to the side, toes turned in”) when he crept slowly towards his prey? No way, he was just very hungry and wanted to eat!”. And yet the technique was impeccable! Never read a book in his life.
This “dancing” reaches it’s pinnacle in animals with a sound genetic constitution, followed most of the time by a social education. If one of those terms is missing or incomplete, the dance will be deformed or even never surface! Interesting here is that they do not “practise” the dance itself.
A perfect example is the Black Widow spider: the male has to “dance” before he is allowed to come even near her. If his choreography or performance isn’t perfect, she will kill and eat him! Never a second chance, it must be perfect the first time he does it! And strangely enough very often it works. It is perfect to her taste and hence… we have new Black Widow spiders.
This leads to the insight that animals can do “dances” they have never practised or done before, initiated by inside and / or outside stimuli. Complex forms of movements, strict in choreography, strict in form, strict in style, strict in rhythm, and perfect in technique. They do not have a coach, they do not have a book, they can’t count, they do not practise. They just want to eat, mate or whatever.
The accepted explanation for this “dancing” is that it consists of a number of basic motivations (strongly connected to basic forms of behaviour), thriving for dominance inside the animal and shown by a combination of elements of these basic forms of behaviour. The combination giving a mixture of basic actions that take on a totally new form: the dance.
The animal is said to be “in conflict”. The better equipped, the longer he can stay in this situation. Long enough to show the complete pattern needed for the purpose in mind and show us the beauty in motion.
In essence it tells us that animals can perform dances because they are balanced, fully matured creatures, in harmony with themselves that have done and still do their “basics”.
From that the “dance” will surface in the right form at the right moment and give us a magical performance.
Not that the female animal in matingdances performed by the male is looking for a good show to enjoy just that. She just wants the best possible genetical ingredients and, where this is an issue, the best possible father for her children. Performing well means the basic ingredients are in order.
In some human cultures the dance has that same function: show your are “fit”. Different dances will show different ways of being “fit” (for whatever…….).
But, we are no animals. At least that is how most of us experience it. Biologist certainly disagree and with reason. On the other hand, we can clearly distinguish ourselves from other animals. We have a brain and some say that is a bonus. We think. And that is where it all goes wrong most of the time. The world around us is an analogue chaos (in more than one sense). But our brain has given us logic and this rules our life from the moment we decided that the world is a logical system. We no longer trust our instincts, don’t even realize we have them; we rely on logic. Everything must be digital and fit into this logic. We must “understand” and from this understanding we can move on.
We notice things within our logical framework and do not notice the rest. The magic.
The dominant role of the brain and logic in humanity has created a situation that we very often make the mistake of thinking (there we go again) that the brain tells us who we are, gives us identity. We have taken a distance from our instincts, from our feelings, from ourselves. Society interferes and prescribes who we are. Certain forms of behaviour are simply unacceptable in certain cultures and therefore we see strong cultural differences in behaviour.
Also affecting the ways we dance. In essence we focus on anything but ourselves. Thanks to the brain!
We’ve created music and embedded this in a logical system of beats and bars. We’ve written books on technique and, not considering all restrictions of the languages, lack of words, etc. call it the “bible” and spend our life trying to understand it, get our brains around it. These books are also a logical framework of an analogue entity: movement. “A picture paints a thousand words”. How many words would we need to describe a simple movement? So how much do you really know even if you can spell the book word by word? And what is missing?
Let us first realize that our dances are, as our music, all artificial. Created by the brain. Sometimes the variations are very clever and look “authentic”, sometimes just copied from one dance to the other. But the important pioneers in our dancing were true pioneers: they danced as they felt it was right and if you look at some of them, you can see it was not contemporary what they did; it was good then, it is still good now. Convincing, true and certainly not faked. They strongly relied on their personal emotions connected to the dances. And I know that some of them certainly knew and followed their instincts and emotions! What they wrote down was only a small portion; a framework and the boundaries.
To turn this around and state that studying the book will learn you how to dance is a major mistake. A famous pianoplayer once said it very clear: the magic of music is in between the notes, not in the notes. So is the magic in dancing. Those who know this are allowed to call the books on technique their bible. Because they know what is not written down and in their dancing they will reproduce all that is in the book and more. They have gone the whole way.
Donnie Burns & Gaynor Fairweather, a perfect example of magic in dance, have tried and tested many different paths and came to the conclusion that Walter Laird was their god and his books are the bible. They practised the basic steps millions of times before they were “satisfied” (if they ever where) and found the connection between themselves as persons, the actions and what was written down in the book. From that, as we all witnessed, they could dance anything in the required style. Not focusing on the book, but waiting (im)patiently for the dance to present itself in full from within, in accordance with the book. Not according to the book.
They managed to cross the gab between what animals do on the basis of natural movements, build up purely from inside and thus creating a dance, and what humans can do: turning essentially artificial movements into a second nature; getting it in your system, make it your own, so it can come out in a pure and convincing way: the dance in it’s own right, nothing more, nothing less.
Two other great people gave their brain the right position (not overruling the personality): John Delroy, once advised us to close our eyes, listen to and feel the music for one minute and then open your eyes and look at what you see. He saw no connection between the music and the dance and his own built up emotions.
Another great example was Benny Tolmeyer. If you asked him to count a variation, he started to sing it! The more complex the variation, the more he would sing. Filling in the gabs in the counting and by doing so calling the magic in. In his own way telling you that it is impossible to dissect an analogue action into a digital form. Or rather to create an analogue action from a digital format.
I would advise every dancer to start looking for their own personality first. Allowing yourself to discover the full extend of your emotions and trust your instinct. And accept who you are. That will cost you a lifetime, but it is worthwhile.
Stop thinking, it doesn’t help anyway. Your instincts are much more reliable to act upon and next to that it will give you more satisfaction. Your personality hides in your feelings, not in your brain.
Then take one of those books, practise the steps and try to find the magic in between. It will only come if you allow your personality to take over. Do not let your brain run the show, only use it to monitor.
Do not focus on what your brain knows; we are all tunnel-visioned and only partly aware. Most of what we know is out of reach anyway.
Do not count but sing, Do not copy but create,
Allow your feelings to take over, allow your body to speak from inside.
Have no fear to make mistakes. But don’t do it always and all the time.
Prepare yourself in the basics and find the magic there. A good coach can help you a lot. As Benny Tolmeyer said: you have to go all the way; there are no shortcuts.
The dance will come out if and when your body masters the basic principles. Almost by itself and from within. And it will allow you to make the dance more complex, showing an impeccable technical skill in the premeditated style. But even more important: showing the magic of dance. And on a bad night, when the magic doesn’t appear, your technical skill will help you through the night!
Society today is very open and new influences are recognized and embedded in the teaching and practising. Dancing became a sport, others define it as an art. Dynamics, breath-control, facial expressions, body-language and many other features (tools) became the focus of some coaches.
In some cases these tools or classifications took over and overruled the dance: Especially in the amateur-ranks the performance radiates “sport” and the dancing becomes a race in full speed. Some other couples you can see are pure art and should go straight to the museum. Again others are taught to use facial expressions and look like a freakshow on the floor. Breath-control results in hissing-sounds so loud that you can’t hear the music. Let’s not go into dynamics or body-language!
Here again, and to a great extend some coaches are to blame, the tools overrule the dance, the person and sometimes even the music. Again people have used their brains and think they found a shortcut.
They do not realize that good dancing will create dynamics, facial expressions, the occasional deep breath, etc. and your body will “speak” in the right tone. They simple put a layer over bad dancing and turn it all into a gimmick, a freakshow, a fake.
Many tools have come, many have gone, only one thing “stayed on the floor”: sound dancing.
In general I think the leading coaches of this world know the value of sound technique and the development of the personality behind it and work very hard to give this preference. They know it is a long way you have to travel in order to come home and understand the basic values, to make it your second nature and to find the magic. And even add more to it.
Hence my advise: Don’t think, just dance.
Response from Ruud Vermeij
Understand the argument that the body has wisdom in itself but disagree on the no-thinking concept. In order to learn anything we have to think. I rather would say, think before and after your performance not while you are executing.
From Michael Herdlitzka
In accordance to Fred’s thoughts I would say we see too many “thinking”, meaning “step-by-step-programmed dance robots” and too few “lions” on our dance floors. The young lion has to learn once but it learns concentrating on the “what” (the prey) and never takes the “how” (“left foot forward”) as equally or even more important.