“You are the best-kept secret in this room.”
In my 9 years as a social dancer, amongst many cold Thank Yous and tepid That Was Nices, this was the most unique verbal exchange I’ve received after a first dance.
It was a Salsa night. At the time, I couldn’t quite fathom his words or understand the earnest look on his face as he held my hand and expressed his gratitude. He was clearly far more experienced at the time, and we were surrounded by ladies that I’d watch in awe from the sidelines as they slithered sensually across the floor, their arms painting flawless invisible lines in the air while their feet sketched intricate mosaics below.
My own technique was not so refined. My arms were newly-store-bought pencils scribbling eager yet uncertain drafts. My feet, bashful, maintaining a solid but modest basic beat. A mere Suzie-Q was my version of being daring. I got the “secret” part, if anything.
So, what was the big deal about me? I wondered.
In retrospect, I realise that was the wrong question to ask. The act of dancing with a partner is many things but, ultimately, it’s just another enjoyable method for two people to communicate. A 4-minute conversation without words. The polite introduction. That slightly awkward phase getting to know each other’s quirks, sensitivities and accents. The leader driving the banter and inviting topics while the follower engages. A connection.
So as an after-thought, I rephrase that question- “What was the big deal about us?”
Flash to those times, when you’re sat in a cafe hunched over your now-lukewarm drinks explaining Those Things and How You Felt and you’re both bouncing off each other’s feedback. The entire moment feels completely cathartic and natural. What makes these interactions so special? Could it be that a bunch of fundamental, no-brainer elements answer all of the above?
It’s not all about You
When good conversationalists talk at length about something, they ensure the topic is of interest to everyone. They pick stories the other can relate to and shy away from self-indulgence. Sharing intriguing experiences they’ve had overseas trumps subjecting the other to a slideshow of beach selfies!
In the same manner, good leaders refrain from dragging a follower around their big showy moves and instead focus on the other’s enjoyment and comfort. In turn, good followers don’t get too absorbed in flashy styling at the expense of neglecting the lead or emoting with the music.
Pay attention; give each other time and room to express yourselves
Nobody likes talking to a brick wall or someone with a miniscule attention span. A good conversation flows due to the energy and engagement of both parties. If someone speaks, it’s common courtesy to wait for them to finish and not interrupt. If you can interpret and respond in a way that shows you understand them, the effect is powerful.
This is the undervalued art of Listening.
A good follower has mastered that art and should be tuned in at all times; their frame and tension consistently applied, like little assuring “Yep’s” and “Aha’s” reminding the lead that they’re paying attention.
The lead, surprisingly, has an even larger listening role. As much as they’re commanding the dance, they’re also responsible for interpreting the music and being attentive to their partner. An experienced lead understands the musical tides; swaying calmly when it’s soft and melodic and bringing up the energy when the beat kicks in. They know not to give too much information with their bodies, as the follower will be reading every tiny movement they make.
After initiating a move, a good lead will wait for their partner to complete it before imposing the next. It’s a common faux pas on the Zouk floor for leads to catch someone mid-head-roll and jerk them uncomfortably into a new step. Continuity and patience go a long way. A strong lead will also learn to observe the differences between their partners and respect their unique nuances and comfort levels.
Be yourself and don’t exaggerate
Finally, the best communicators are themselves. People can see someone trying too hard to be something they’re not from a mile away (or at least in this case, the bar!). Honesty is the best policy in any form of communication.
Beginners need to focus on their basics, not choreographies. So much so that their feet should recite them with the same discipline their lips did the alphabet. If you are an experienced dancer but can admit your basics are weak, revise them. Spelling mistakes are acceptable but subjecting your partner to risky moves without the vital techniques needed to ensure they’re performed comfortably and safely is not.
Progress with patience. After all, there’s a big difference between someone who talks about one topic brilliantly, and one who blabs on loudly and vaguely about everything, no?
So, in summary – what makes a dance awful or amazing? It’s a topic that’s sparked many a long conversation, and funnily enough, may not be anything fancier than the simple elements that fuel that engaging chat in the first place.
Connect. Listen. Keep it humble. Keep it selfless. Keep it real.
Be somebody’s best-kept secret in the room.