How to dance with a partner: body, not feet

(Diane and I have been teaching partner dancing our own way for nearly two years now. It’s a method we have developed from the filtered down essentials of all the dances we know, and as far as we know, no one else around here teaches this way. I think I’ve been at it long enough now to start writing about our ideas, and hopefully offer a bit of guidance to anyone who is wondering how to start learning the art of partner dancing with or without taking lessons.)

Let’s start with the tremendous illusion that has been cast throughout the world of dance instruction: that the dance is in the footwork. There’s a street in Seattle where there are actually metal footprints set in the sidewalk representing different dances: this pattern is the waltz, this pattern is the cha cha. The lady’s feet go here, the gentleman’s here. Dancing, thus, is clearly in the feet, right? This is also how almost every dance class begins: “Okay class, ready, and – step, step, triple-step, step, step, triple-step.” Thus the illusion is upheld.

But if dancing were only in the feet, wouldn’t walking also be only in the feet? Try this: stand with your feet a few inches apart, directly underneath you, with your weight balanced equally on both. Stand perfectly still. Without moving anything else at all – not your head, your chest, your shoulders, your arms, nor your hips – try lifting one foot (including that leg, of course) and taking a step.

If you don’t cheat, it won’t work. You’re anchored to the spot. If it does work, you cheated and moved! You see, you can’t even begin to take a step with just one foot until your entire body shifts sideways or forward onto the other foot. Try it. Let your body shift to one side, and suddenly your other foot will be free to move.

Walking begins with tipping the body forward, putting all your weight on one foot, and using the other foot to catch your body’s forward momentum before you tip too far and topple over. The process then continues. Stop moving your weight from foot to foot, and you’ll stop walking.

Dancing involves the same process, only the feet move in different patterns on the floor. This is true enough, but if we return to our previous exercise in trying to take a step, we will begin to understand how dancing is actually the movement of one’s entire body above the feet, with the feet simply following along. Whether I am dancing swing, salsa, or the waltz, I must shift my entire body from foot to foot in order to let my feet move in the proper pattern.

This is where connection begins. The very first movement, before any sort of basic pattern begins, is a slight, subtle, gentle shift, usually sideways, over to one foot. My partner will mirror this, following my connection, and then when I begin the first move, she will feel, rather than guess, anticipate, or even intellectually know, what foot to start on.

So, go now, and pay attention to the weight of your body above your feet, and let your body do your walking, and let your body do your dancing!