Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall – The Value of Reflection to Improve Your Dance

More often than not, when I hear of another Zouk festival with an amazing line-up of artists, I look at my bank account and let out a sad sigh. Yet, despite being too broke and financially decadent for most of the past few years to make use of all the opportunities to grow my Zouk skills, I consider myself a lucky dancer. I was lucky to have had one Irina Kapeli as my salsa instructor, who drilled into me the difference between performance moves and the need to contain myself and protect my partner during crowded social dancing situations rather than fling my arm at someone’s face. I was lucky to have my first Bachata lesson from Carlos Cinta and Kavitha Seth, which consisted of us sitting around the floor, listening to music and talking about the music to understand its structure and the concept of musicality, including comparing the structure of Bachata to that of Zouk and Salsa.  Music comes before dance and you dance to music, so it made sense to learn about the music before getting into the steps of the dance. Not only did this make me a confident Bachata dancer in a short time and able to adapt Zouk moves to the music once I got the basics right, but it helped improve my Zouk musicality beyond measure as I learned to analyse and understand the music. I was lucky to have Shannon Ring and Trajano Leydet as my Zouk teachers, learning to dance with heart and emotion, and to have the pleasure to learn from Zouk stalwarts like Adillio Porto and Roderigo Delano within the first 12 months of starting. So here I am, the dancer that I am, for better or for worse.

I don’t consider myself a brilliant dancer. Learning is a life-long process and I still have much to learn. But I am confident, and can normally have lots of fun Zouking, which is the whole point anyway. Yes I taught Zouk for close to two years, but that was out of necessity in order to grow the Zouk scene in San Diego and because I was asked by multiple parties that I couldn’t say no to. I was not ready and would not and should not have done it if it was avoidable. I realize now how little I knew then. In any case, I only had a handful of “students” and I’m happy to not be teaching, although the consequence of all this is that I’m stuck competing as a semi-pro versus people that actually deserve that title. This is both a curse and a blessing; a curse because I get my ass kicked, a blessing because nothing pushes you to learn to swim fast than being thrown in the deep end. On any given Thursday or Sunday, the main Zouk nights here in Auckland, New Zealand, I push myself, try to work with a new feeling, test the response of my partner to a certain type of lead or pressure applied to a certain part of her body (avoiding the no go zones obviously) and I have fun.  I have fun because I love Zouk and I can dance it reasonably well. I love Zouk and can dance it reasonably well because I can have fun doing it.

Walking into Casa Do Zouk – the biggest Zouk event in this part of the world – still fresh after a 3.5 hour flight to the not-so-sunny Gold Coast of Australia and being stuck for a whole day in our apartment due to the rain, you can understand how excited and buzzing I was. But to put it mildly, I was floored (or my ego was rather) at the Friday night party, the first of three during the event. I had two wonderful dances, with Becky Neves and Mathilde Dos Santos, as well as a few reasonably good ones with other Kiwis attending, who I was very familiar with Zouk-wise. Even then, I felt there were things I could have done better, and differently. As for the rest, I felt like my dancing was horrid, and the night was essentially a write off, as I trudge back to my apartment in disappointment, and an amount of sadness, for a moment wishing I never came. At least then I would be better able to Skype my girlfriend. But here I was sitting in a room wondering what happened to the excitement earlier in the day, the energy from the amazing workshop by Alex and Mathilde, the anticipation (just a few hours ago) of the amazing dances to come, walking in to my first Australian congress dance party. Where were those dances? I looked around time and again, watching others, and it was beautiful. There were so many very high calibre leads from all over Australia and New Zealand, and beyond, and so many beautiful followers that these leads converted into works of art. But in my hands, they were not works of art. I could not get that feeling, the feeling I have said before that puts me into an auto-pilot like trance of ecstasy.

Maybe it was because many of these women were strangers to me and I have yet to build a connection with them or understand their preferences like other leads already would. This was partially the case as I was marginally better with Kiwis and I did have a great time on Saturday and Sunday night. But it didn’t explain the story fully, as the music was exactly the kind I prefer, with good energy and a nice bouncy rhythm, and I still made many mistakes with Kiwi followers, including my friend who I had briefly even partnered with. I dug deep and referred back to my dance philosophy. I have previously written about the importance of having one, and a benefit is that you can always refer back to it to reflect after a good day or a bad one like the one I was having.  So reflect I did… and there were a few revelations. I didn’t like some of it, but given this is an open and honest opinion piece designed to get others thinking, here we go.

Comparisons of Doom

Sometimes we take what we do too seriously, even if it is meant to be a hobby or a stress relief exercise – especially when we are expected by ourselves and other to be good at it. This leads to scrutinizing others, even while you dance and compare what you do, to their dance. Sometimes it is deliberate, at other times it is subconscious. There are benefits to this.  For an example, if you are a serious dancer, comparing yourself to others may motivate you to improve, inspire new moves that you can add to your repertoire, and help you pick out things that you may be doing wrong, or conversely, that you do better, which you may or may not share with those others for everyone’s benefit.  But this has to be done within a framework of controlled critique and carefully channelled conclusions so that you may focus on continued growth while avoiding demoralisation. Some personality types do this better than others and it is possible otherwise to head into a spiral of detrimental thinking and style adjustment that could completely destroy one’s uniqueness and allure.

It turns out that I was observing and analysing others too much instead of focusing on what I was about. Now, there is nothing wrong with people watching, and nothing wrong with wanting to adapt something that others do that you might think will go well with your style, or watching a professional and being inspired to one day be “that good.” However, watching everyday dancers and comparing yourselves to them or wanting to be as good or better, or putting yourselves in competition with them subconsciously might cause you to lose track of who you are and stop focusing on growing yourself.

This might not always happen, but such comparisons do carry the danger of putting you in to a state of depression due to negative perceptions of your own dance, with the belief that one wants to be “better” than X, Y or Z, because they are less experienced or because one has a better teacher, etc. Also one might begin to “chase” X, Y, or Z trying to do the same moves better or more complex moves, be more expressive and therefore lose their own style and connection with their partner. The latter didn’t happen in my case (luckily), but the first definitely did, where I got too comparative and analytical while watching others and it made me feel like I was lacking.  This could ruin your entire night as it did mine.

Personally I believe that this is most prevalent when you are in a new environment as I was, having never before been out dancing in Australia. So it is important to remember that being better than another doesn’t mean you are good, and being good doesn’t mean you have to be better than X, Y or Z. Instead, if you focus on improving your connection with your partner, you’re feeling for the music, and growing and refining your style you will grow as a dancer that everyone would love to dance with, whether you are a lead or a follow. So I decided to stop watching others. On Saturday, I went out dancing. My ego had already taken a beating as I was knocked out in the first round of the Jack and Jill competition thanks to a couple of silly trip ups. But it didn’t get in the way of me focusing on my dance partner, which was good, as I danced with more emotion and feeling than I have in some time (probably since LA Zouk in May 2015).

When I was tempted to look at another dancing beside me, I just ensure they don’t bump into me and close my eyes, or look into my dance partners eyes. I convinced myself; all that mattered at this time was her, giving her a clear lead, listening to her to pick out what she liked and didn’t, and ensuring she was safe before going into a complex move – modifying my plans if something was unclear for her to follow. I had so much fun that night, and came home not wanting the night to end. The next morning I bumped into a couple of ladies I danced with the night before who even said they enjoyed our dances. So I suppose I must have done something right!

Lesson: apart from making sure you don’t bump into them, don’t pay attention to others on the dance floor, but focus on your partner, yourself and the music. Treat your partner like they are your biggest asset, because at that point in time, they are. Also, by all means watch others and get new ideas or be inspired. However, when you see a good dancer and feel like you want to be them, deconstruct that thought and identify what it is about them or what they do that inspires you. Then think of it in terms of “I want to be able to do this like Freddy,” as opposed to “I want to be Freddy.” This way you separate the individual from what they do, because at the end of the day, unless your name is Freddy you will never be Freddy. You don’t need to be.

Core Values

I learned in business school that the most successful ventures should cut out all activities except for the ones that they are the best at and add value to their brand. So I thought what my dance partners have said about dancing with me, what they liked. Generally the three most common positive remarks I hear are:

  • I have a reasonably good musicality;
  • a clear lead in body movements; and
  • a caring connection (most of the time).

I know my major weaknesses are balance, physical strength and posture as well as experimenting too much at times. There are others too, but now I know what I need to focus on and what I need to actively mitigate.

On Saturday night, I focused on my strengths, avoided any movements that required a high level of balance or strength, and cut down on experimentation. I did push myself a bit, as I do want to improve on these weaknesses. However, if I experimented with a move, I executed it when I could do it slowly, prioritising the comfort of my partner more than my desire to complete the move, and always being aware of a safe “way out” through a basic movement if the experiment had to be abandoned. If I used counter balance, I made sure to not execute anything quickly, starting small and only making the movements bigger as we both became confident. Again I was prepared to end the move safely if there were issues. The dances and connections felt so much better.

Lesson: When social dancing, focus on what you are good at, what others and you like about your style, and build on that. Think of the partner’s safety, even if you are a follow.

Dancing Without Ego

We all know this, some Latin dancers got egos the size of a truck; it comes as you grow competent and start winning praise. Funnily enough, out of all the dancers I know, Zouk dancers seem to be the most humble and down to earth, but every human has somewhat of an ego.  I’m no different. It’s important to park this outside before walking in to dance. Someone who was a Latin dancer but fairly new to Zouk once told me after a weekend socialising with Zoukers; “some Salseros have an ego not justified by their ability, but it seems most Zoukers have an ability understated by their ego.” I think this is true and would love it to stay that way. One’s ego drives them to compare against others, forget about one’s partner’s limitations, think someone is not good enough for them, or wish they had another lead/follow instead of just enjoying the dance.

This is especially so from a lead’s point of view, as a good lead can always improvise to create a good experience for both themselves and the most basic follow as long as the follow is willing to listen and give the lead a chance. However, some of this is true for follows too. As human beings (and I like to think I’m no different from others) it is a continuing struggle to keep ones ego in check. But it does get the better of me often. As with many other problems, admitting you have one is the first step towards mitigation, so here I am. I have a massive ego, and it got the better of me a few times, which made me want to “show off” and forget to look after my partner. Nothing happened safety wise, but there were a few near misses.

Again, as I admitted this to myself, I became more self-aware and mindful, especially of my partner’s needs. The next day, I was careful. I had the one of the best dances I’ve had with my favourite Kiwi social dancer and my close friend. According her that was THE best dance we’ve ever had. The point is that as you leave your ego behind and become more selfless and focus on your partner, and they do the same for you. The beauty of the whole experience grows to a magical level. When I have a good dance (I’ve said that soon after I start dancing the music sort of puts me into an inexplicable trance) I move with her as one. At the end of it, I don’t always know exactly what I did or how I led those moves. But it is an indescribable joy and a sense of total mutual satisfaction. This has not happened much since the 2014 LA Zouk congress and not at all in the last few months. On Saturday the 25th of July, it happened. Oh how I missed that feeling.  Zouk, when it’s good, is a drug.

Lesson: Leave your ego at the door, and focus on your partner. Social dance, like sex is better when done with another, with whom there is mutual affection.

This is entirely my own experience. It is not just from one weekend though, but that weekend was the catalyst for me to actually reflect and think about this, which I haven’t done in a while. I am not saying that everyone will feel this way, or that this is what a good dance should or should not be. This is different for each one of us. It is exactly because of this, that it is good to reflect and think about who you are as a dancer once in a while.

I will leave you with a quote I saw on Facebook, that someone posted. It was an international Zouk artist/ instructor, but I can’t remember who, and really can’t be bothered trolling through my Facebook news feed for the next two days to find who that was. So if you know who you are, then thanks, you inspired me. Anyway, here is the quote (the wording is not exact):

“A good dancer would be willing to learn from someone less experienced or skilled, because there is always something that we can learn from others.”

Photo by Danidu Wijekoon.

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About: Danidu Wijekoon

Engineer, Environmentalist, Foodie, and Passionate Zouker. I love writing (anything, especially if I care about the topic), painting, food experiments and deep and meaningless discussion with friends.

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