Disclaimer: as with everything I post, I want to make it clear this very much autobiographical, thus some things I write will resonate, and some won't, don't take this to be anything other than a shot looking for its mark. I've been dancing just a year, almost exclusively as a lead, and a straight male lead, so some of my experiences I hope you find poignant, others you won't.
This article is going to be partly cautionary, partly confessionary, as I go through what I think holds us back as leads in the blues dance scene. I'll begin with something I touched on with my last article, and something that might be the easiest or hardest to "fix", depending on where you are.
My Job Is To Show My Follow A Good Time
In a nut shell, this is the unspoken assumption, and I think the first assumption, that someone makes when they start leading. Of course the very first assumption might be "am I doing this right?" and "oh shit, everyone is watching me", but I feel like that's actually less insidious, and goes away pretty quickly after a few beginner lessons.
This mindset is one that I find pretty fascinating because the roots of I think come from applying one bad mindset into a different sphere, and it's mainly this: American culture at large tells straight men over and over that their worth and success is tied to their ability to impress and provide for women. Going even deeper, it also tells men that this is their role in sex and that their sole job to perform well as a measure of their masculinity.
Applied to dancing, this creates a neurotic lead, one who is unfocused on themselves, the music, and essentially even his partner, because all that they can think is "am I good enough? Am I boring? Do they like me?"
They are not focused on interpreting the music, connecting to their partner, or expressing themselves. Oddly enough, I've even talked to non-male leads, and they told me that this mindset infected them almost immediately when they started leading, despite never really absorbing the same attitudes that American men often are raised with.
This is why I think this can be generalized into a "lead" problem, and for me the lightning bolt that finally solved it was realizing that this made dancing miserable for me. When I let go of those expectations, and connected to the music above all, and then my own body, I would walk away from a single dance or a night of dancing feeling great, rather than filled with worry and doubt.
A note on this problem: I've heard some people suggest that when leads get hung up on impressing their follows, they forget that a lot of what makes the dance enjoyable for follows is not big flashy moves or even technical excellence, that some of their favorite dances were very simple and intimate. While this is true, I want to say this should NOT be the primary answer when someone is hung up on impressing their follow. The answer shouldn't be "yeah but you can impress them doing a lot less", it should be a more emphatic "impressing other people isn't what dancing should be about, period."
Which leads me to....
My Job Is To Look Cool and Impress The Audience
This for me came chronologically after the first, and it was for a very simple reason: I replaced one insecurity with another. After I stopped approaching my dancing as a way to impress cute girls, I still hadn't really solved the issue of my self-esteem and being comfortable with myself, so I sought that validation by dancing to be watched and admired.
This meant that my connection with my partner suffered or only existed in the sense that we were both performing together for the crowd. My movements would be big and flashy, I would cover an entire dance floor twice over before an entire song finished, I would add more tricks, dips, and gimmicks into my move list.
None of those things are bad in and of themselves, but the source of the WHY was troubling when it was pointed out to me: I didn't believe in myself and my dancing unless I was getting validation from the audience, looking cool and knowing people were watching.
This brings us around to the same problem we faced before, now the connections suffer, we don't dance ourselves, the music, or with our partners, we dance to hide holes in our own psyche and to temporarily alleviate a lack of self-esteem. To return to an analogy I use often, it turns the dance into pornography.
When we find ourselves doing this, it's best to return to basics. Focus again, solely on the music, then your body, then your partner, and unless you are in a competition, everyone else doesn't matter beyond paying attention to floor craft. After moving past these two major issues, we arrive at something that is my hardest struggle yet....
The Trap of "Good Enough"
This is the hardest for me to write, and for a long time I had no idea whether I even had another post left in me to write, I thought I had said everything in my first article. I had the majority of this article in my head, but it didn't feel like enough, like it was finished. Then I realized this part is where I'm currently languishing, and thus this section is a description and a confession.
Good enough comes at different times to different people, and it can come rather early depending on how fast you progress and the skill level you are surrounded by. Good enough means you know the basics, you're decently musical, you don't put anyone in danger, you feel good, smell nice, and maybe even do reasonably well in low level competitions.
You get a decent amount of compliments and are stacked well enough in your local scene that the motivation to work harder gets dulled, but more importantly, the first two pitfalls start creeping in. When discussing recently why my dances have been good but not great, I found myself resorting to a defense of myself that was rehashing what I thought I had left behind, "hey, lots of follows love my dancing and I just won my first competition, I know what the fuck I'm doing".
And there it was, me saying, "other people find me impressive, therefore my dancing is good". Now for some, this will resonate as a place they come to when they feel the allure of being lazy, not practicing, not taking classes, not focusing hard on problem areas, and it absolutely applies to that.
For me though it was more personal, because what those excuses were doing was pulling me into the allure of a kind of emotional stagnation. I'm not longer really vulnerable with my follows, I'm just vulnerable enough, we have fun, I acknowledge their presence and skill and we play off of each other, but it's the difference between being a good friend and being a best friend, a casual relationship and true love. It was a connection with a limit.
Likewise, my connection to the music suffered. I'm no longer really listening to the songs I dance to, what I'm hearing is the FORM and STRUCTURE of the song, I know where the breaks are, I know to pay attention to when the voices rise and fall, or the instruments hit peaks, when the horns suddenly blare and I know it's time for some dramatic flair.
It's connecting to the music in a limited, shallow way. I'm not listening to the lyrics, I'm not feeling the emotion behind the instruments, I'm just dancing in a way that shows people I can hear the song and aren't dancing the wrong dance to the music being played.
This trap is a tough one, because most people don't notice unless they are really looking, and for most people other than yourself, they won't care. You can compete like this, you can even practice and get objectively better while dancing in this space, as you can still improve your movements and timing and instincts. You will have fun and get popular. But here's the thing this all comes down to, and for me it's the only reason I and I think a lot of bother with dancing: in this space, it becomes almost impossible to experience the thing we all want...the blackout dance.
Different scenes call it different things, whether it's magic, whether it's "flow", being "in the zone", "blacking out", but it's that dance that afterwards you almost need to sit down and take a breather. While it's happening you are totally lost in it, and when it's over, you don't remember anything you did, just how you felt. These dances require us to shut off our thinking minds, they are dances that cannot exist while the dancer is lost in their insecurity and neurosis, or when a dancer has put a limit to how much they can let go and be present. That moment of meditating while dancing, it's what I strive for more than anything, and everything else serves that master.
Ok But What’s The Point?
You may notice I don't have a great solution to the third pitfall; the first two honestly wash away as soon as you give them a name, and realize how ridiculous they are. The third takes some work, but like the first two, the majority of the work begins with just recognizing the problem. As you, whoever is reading this, and me, go out into dancing, we have to force ourselves to check in and really ask ourselves if we're hearing the music, listening to ourselves and our partners, and not just going through the motions, hitting the breaks, and walking away feeling decently happy.
It's my belief and the underpinning of our project here that dance needs more conversations that focus on the emotional and dare I say, spiritual side of us artist dancers, that our problems and motivations don't come from our body mechanics, the speed and precision at which our legs execute the steps. What we are dealing with is the problem of self-expression, the very issues of what it means to be a person and one involved in relationships.
One thing that nags at me finally cleared itself up in writing this, and it’s a kind of play and conflict between who are as individuals and who we in the community. When we find dance we also find the people in the dance, we find friends and events that suddenly feel like home, sharing our weird interests and styles of interaction. We feel a little less alone in the world.
With this though, it occurs to me that even as great as the community is, it’s not the point.
If, like, me, you came to this dance to find catharsis out of a tragedy, you may also have reached the point where you were healing, or thought you were healing. The event is in the past, you’ve discovered all these cool people, a new self-confidence and fullness of expression. But getting lost in the superficial gives a false picture of progress; you may deep down be the same fucked up person except you have friends now.
In the end, it’s ourselves that we take with us, so when we go out, meet new dancers, go to new events, that’s still the scariest new connection to make, to make this dance work is not about finding our place in a larger scene, national, local, or even the two person partnership of the individual dance: it’s about finding ourselves. That’s the eternal project; it’s the project of all projects.
If this sounds a bit self-centered, it’s because on some level it is. My approach is not everyone’s, I fully put out there that I’m an existentialist, I don’t think there’s anything beyond us and I’m always aware that even our deepest connection are transient, and fleeting. This is not to discount the connections I’ve been talking about, to partners, community, and music. But those connections are only possible when we connect to our humanity, we have to confront and connect with ourselves first.
“But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests. Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself! And your way goes past yourself, and past your seven devils! You will be a heretic to yourself and witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and villain. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?”