Collaboration: a musical conversation

Dancing as equals fosters deep human connection. Collaborative dance partners share power and creative control equally: no one's the boss. The music rules: partners work together to embody the music as fully as possible. Each partner gives everything, all their skill and musicality. Each partner eagerly receives the other's gifts and dances with them. This page is a series of meditations on collaborative partner dancing:

Playful, not perfect

Learning to dance takes thousands of hours of dedicated work, but the goal is play: the searingly beautiful play of two passionate, skilled dancers improvising together right at the limit of their abilities, with jaw-dropping connection and musicality. Two artists improvising like that are uncowed by "perfection," instead creating an unexpected work, something new; creation is by definition new. John Ruskin's famous quote applies in spades when two artists create together.

When I teach, I encourage dancers to play more, to try things out, to trust their instincts, to go ahead and take that step the music's begging for, whatever role they're dancing. And I encourage dancers in the leader role to play with whatever their partners offer them, happily following when roles shift unexpectedly. A role's not who you are, it's just a hat you happen to be wearing at the moment. Give it up gracefully!


Music keeps us together. Music moves us, it gets us going, and music keeps us together as we move. It's a lot easier to move together if we're both moved by the music. Music helps connect me with my partner: we connect inside the music, the shared element we dance in. To dance musically I have to surrender to the music, which means I have to love or at least like it. I can't dance musically to music I dislike.

Music is not just the beat. Yes, the basic beat is crucial, but music is so much more: mood, melody, dynamics, structure. If all I pay attention to is the beat, treating the music like a metronome for timing my moves, my dancing is mechanical and shallow. Dancing musically is dancing to the whole song, surrendering to it. Moving the way the music moves: soaring when it soars, stretching when it stretches, stopping when it stops. Especially the bit about stopping.

Musicality makes dancing delicious; nothing else does. I can learn a zillion moves, and my dancing can be technically awesome, but it doesn't begin to be delicious until I surrender to the music. I have to learn to surrender and follow the music, and follow the music in my partner, particularly when I'm leading.

The music rules, not anyone's ideas about what to dance next. Dance based on thinking is awkward and disconnected from the music and my partner; stringing a bunch of moves together is not the same thing as dancing. Dancing is an art, not merely the serial execution of moves. Art demands sensitivity, and taste; less is almost always more.

Collaborative leading and following

Collaborative leading and following is the liberation of partner dancing. It strips away the paternalistic trappings from the past: autocratic leading that expects obedient following; unequal power sharing. It reengineers our dance inheritance, the rich vocabulary, technique, and deep wisdom about how bodies can move together, keeping all that's useful and leaving behind the cultural crap, the violence against women. Collaborative partner dancers learn both parts as a matter of course.

The goal of collaborative leading and following is to make all the dancing voluntary, respectful, and mutually creative. This is not a new thing; it's what many advanced dancers naturally arrive at. There are four key elements:

Leading is inviting, following is responding - not merely interpreting!

Collaborative leading is inviting, rather than ordering, pushing, pulling or cranking my partner around. Collaborative following is responding freely to the invitation without being limited by it: as a collaborative follower I'm free to accept, decline, or creatively move the dance in a different direction.

Responding is not the same as interpreting. Interpreting is expanding on something given. A response, by contrast, is free to go in any direction, including "yeah, I got a better idea..." That kind of response is pretty standard among collaborative dancers; it's indicative of the kind of playfulness and equality that collaborative dancing engenders.

Collaborative following is active, creative, and free of submission;
collaborative leading is sensitive, responsive, and free of domination.

To follow collaboratively, I dance myself; I don't wait to be danced, to be moved. It's not my partner's job to move me, I move myself. I don't obey my partner, and I don't struggle with my partner. Instead, I receive my partner's lead and do everything I can to dance with it, actively and creatively. Up to and including outright refusal, if I have the need or desire to refuse.

As a follower my default is to take it and run with it; give it extra oomph. I follow with power steering, amplifying and extending what my partner has led. But if I don't like a suggestion, for whatever reason or none, if I have a different idea, I'm free to refuse or redirect: let's do this instead. A collaborative leader will welcome my inspirations and be delighted to hear my voice in the dancing. If a dancer is unwilling to collaborate I stop dancing with that person.

To lead collaboratively, I never try to move my partner. I move myself, invite my partner, and I play with whatever response I get, collaboratively. I never insist on whatever it was I expected. Gentle pressure can be part of extending an invitation, but it should always be quite gentle, merely suggestive; not at all strong enough to move my partner off balance or in any way change my partner's momentum; it's my partner's job to change his or her momentum.

Moving my partner off balance is jerking or shoving. Gentle pressure is simply part of how I communicate my suggestion, my invitation, my idea, and my partner should be free to move in that direction, or another direction, or not move at all. In leading I cultivate the equivalent of shear pins in all my strategic joints: if my partner doesn't follow my suggestion, I give way immediately. Whatever my partner does, I follow that: I respond in a way that keeps the dancing going.

Embrace vs. frame

Embrace, don't frame. Embrace and frame are the two main words used to describe the connection between two partner dancers. They represent two profoundly different schools of thought. We teach embrace, not frame. Frame makes creative collaboration impossible. An embrace is a hug: you and your partner draw close and gently hold each other; an embrace is a gesture of love. Framing calls to mind two by fours and steel girders: the necessarily rigid framework that supports a structure.

Different dances and schools of dancing have tended to go one way or the other: the basic stance or starting point is either a gentle hug, or holding your partner firmly away. Framing generally keeps your partner away, but an embrace can be either open or closed. Collaborative dancers move fluidly through many degrees of open and close embrace.

Overusing arms. Beginning dancers have a tendency to overuse their arms anyway; being taught to have "good frame" compounds this bad tendency. I still have chronic arm and shoulder pain from overusing my arms as a beginner. I was taught to be very firm indeed; "arms like steel bands" were words I heard spoken admiringly in class. Not a happy memory.

Don't give weight. My partner and I were also supposed to lean or settle back into each other's arms and counterbalance, to give weight as they say. Don't do it! That was really hard on my shoulders; I don't think shoulders were meant for that kind of stress. Learn from my mistakes and keep your shoulders happy and healthy

Dynamism yes! However, there can be plenty of dynamism - compression and elasticity - in even the closest of embraces. Zydeco and balboa are close embrace dances that feature lots of dynamic tension. Tango uses a much softer touch overall, but strong dynamism is still there, especially in modern movements like ganchos, big boleos, volcadas and colgadas.

Three uses for embrace. A collaborative embrace is not for moving my partner or being moved by my partner. It has 3 purposes: communicating ideas and suggestions back and forth, stabilizing the spatial relationship between the 2 dancing bodies, and offering support for my partner's voluntary movements.

The leader makes a suggestion; the best leading come from the core. The follower feels what's happening in the leader's core via the arms, and simultaneously sees the leader's movement, grasping the intent of that movement and moving in response. The embrace helps coordinate and stabilize the partners' independent but connected movements; each partner offers the other firmness and support, when asked for, to make the movement easier. "When asked for" is the key phrase here: there's no pushing or pulling. Instead, each partner is ready and willing to offer responsive support.

Collaborative leading requires following. Ordinary good leading requires knowing where your partner's weight and balance are, and what kind of step will be easy and natural. Collaborative leading is suggesting movement like that, and then following whatever actually does happen in response without resistance, fluidly adapting, always ready to offer support to make the movement easier and more musical.

Using a light touch

When my partner asks for responsive support, there can be a lot of strength and intensity in the embrace, for that moment. But for the other 99%+ of the dance, let your embrace be featherlight. A light touch is much more conducive to collaboration than a heavy one. Beginning dancers typically use a heavier touch, with more muscular exertion in the embrace. This make coordination more predictable, and helps with balance; beginners tend to rely on each other for help with balance.

Skilled dancers learn to use a lighter touch, and maintain their own balance. A heavy touch is fatiguing, and can easily feel overbearing. Common sense dictates using no more force or pressure than necessary to communicate back and forth and dance together; unnecessary pressure just wears me out, and my arms and shoulders often get especially sore; I have a repetitive stress injury in one shoulder from lots of unnecessary dancing as a beginner. Now I aim to err if anything on the light side, using just the amount of strength needed to communicate and keep the dance going, and being perfectly happy if the dance goes in unexpected directions as a result.

I don't move my partner, I move myself

This is one of the great secrets of partner dancing, equally true in leading and following: I use my strength to move myself, not my partner. By moving myself in the right way at the right time to the right spot, I create a delicious somatic invitation into whatever comes next. That kind of invitation, combining my own body position and posture, in relation to that of your partner, with just the right musical moment, is the essence of truly musical leading or following.

Role swapping and blending

Ideally, no one is "a leader" and no one is "a follower." Leading and following are activities, they're like roles in a play: anyone can play any role as long as they're willing to learn it. You can label yourself one or the other if you want, but don't label other people; a lot of us don't want to be categorized as one or the other.

I like to think of partner dancing as a conversation: leading is like speaking, following is like listening. It's a lousy conversation where one person always talks and the other always listens; that's a lecture. A real conversation is an exchange between equals; there's no such thing as authority, being in control, directing, or "guiding the discussion" in a real conversation. In a real conversation, both parties are free to speak up, with absolute equality. And both listen, genuinely and generously.

The core principle of creative collaboration isn't speaking, it's listening: each partner listening to the other. Intently, all the time, listening more than speaking. Listening is first, listening is crucial, listening is primal. Of course both partners speak, but sensitively, respectfully, never overbearingly. Both partners are quick to shut up and be responsive, quick to avoid both speaking at once. Both of you listening to the music together is sweet and connected; both of you talking at once is noisy and disconnected. Listen.

This is an exhilarating way to dance: playful, creative, humane, egalitarian and absolutely ecstatic. What makes it possible is a deep grounding in the language of leading and following: the skills, trained reflexes and vocabulary that you build up over the years as you take dance classes and go out dancing.

Dance both parts! This is advanced conversation; to do it requires that you and your partner both speak partner dance, with all its nuance and complexity, in a particularly nuanced and complex way: speaking both parts at will, skillfully blending them into a real conversation, a genuinely cooperative egalitarian art project. You need to accumulate quite a lot of those skills, reflexes and vocabulary if you want to go deeply into this, and you need to accumulate them on both sides of the embrace, leading and following.

As you become reasonably competent in both roles, you also begin learning the skills and responses that are specific to swapping and blending, the skills of fluid transition and blending of energy. This is a fairly radical departure; plenty of dancers would call it heretical. Guilty as charged. But I will say: OMG, is it ever worth what you pay for it.

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