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Ballroom Dance

J M (Mike) Nelson
Phone: 612-810-0157

Partners in Parody

This is an attempt to step back and look at social partner dancing from an anthropological perspective, limited, of course by my own experience and bias. Even so, perhaps it has some merit. Whether truly anthropological and, as hoped, unbiased, it does seem to explain some of the behaviors encountered on the dance floor.

It appears that the typical social dancer is a parody of the formal ballroom dancer with unintended comic effect, much as children of yesteryear used stick horses and toy pistols to pretend to be cowboys. Like the child playing "cowboy," the social dancer has some of the form and little of the substance of the trained dancer they mimic, often while disdaining the formal dancer, and oblivious to their parody.

The primary evidence for this argument is that the tenor of the social partner dancer tends to model that of the ballroom dancer. Though the form might be deficient in many aspects, the intent is unmistakable and, to the uninformed, indistinguishable. Even so, there is little or no functionality to the social dancer's endeavor, whether in orientation, step, muscle tone, or utility.

Orientation. Though quite close to the ballroom dancer, the typical social dancer's stance is as likely to be toe to toe as it is slightly offset, which might be the cause of their errant step.

Step. The social dancer rarely steps normally, yet the step of the ballroom dancer is essentially a normal step. Thus, the social dancer marginally imitates the step of the ballroom dancer. Apparently, because of the lack of torso offset, the social dancer often steps diagonally, especially the follower, in order to avoid being stepped on.

Muscle tone. Usually there is little or none in social dance, save occasionally for the leader having to hold up the limp arm of the follower. Rarely does one find horizontal tension conducive to the detection of a lead; rather, the social follower typically misinterprets attempts at leading because they are too limp to detect directional signals. They are also so inattentive to arm position that a return to either closed or open position can be a challenge.

Utility. With little or no awareness of the role of arm and torso position in dance, there is only vague allusion to the utility of the frame of the ballroom dancer. Thought somewhat present in social dance, the lean/follow mechanism is distinctly different from that of the astute dancer. Most lead and follow in social dance seems dependent of the partnership discovering commonly learned "steps," short patterns from some dance class or pre-dance lesson that they both recall and can each replicate their part. Lacking common cognition, the partnership flounders in search of commonality, often confusing each other by misinterpretation of intent, with the leader attempting to initiate a "step" they think they know and the follower executing another.

It seems unfortunate that this state of affairs has evolved, for the typical social dancer has spent an inordinate amount of time learning "steps" and little time mastering the fundamentals of dance that enable efficient execution of those "steps." Further exacerbating the misfortune, lessons on "steps" tend to be repeated incessantly from style to style with the dancer in a seemingly endless cycle of learning and forgetting. This is, of course, good for the teaching community, for it provides continuing opportunity to teach. Thus, it is of little benefit, and perhaps an economic detriment, for the provider to teach those aspects of dance that give permanence and confidence to the dancer/learner.

In addition to deferring fundamentals, the typical dance teacher is also likely to engage in two, well-received yet pedagogically indefensible practices that minimize retention and insure future business via cognitive overload. The mechanism for imposition appears in two, distinct forms, sometimes in tandem. One is the tendency to build sequences of patterns within the lesson, presuming that stringing a series of "steps" together, and always going back to the beginning of the string each time a new items is added, will enhance learning. It does not. The second is the tendency to provide quantity as a substitute for mastery, moving on to another "step" as soon as most of the class can replicate the one at hand. If the intent is to provide "the most for the money," it does not. If the intent is to insure that the learner will retain little or nothing and appreciate a repeat of the lesson later, it does that predictably and effectively. The key to this phenomenon is the limited capacity of short term memory. The human brain can only retain about five items at a time, and since, whether by knowledge of research or intuition, we all know this, the aforementioned is even more perplexing, more on the part of the student to tolerate it than on the part of the dance teacher for capitalizing on it.

This unfortunate, yet pervasive and evidently unintentional, parody of the ballroom dancer should come as no surprise in the anti-intellectual climate of our culture. Though the trained anthropologist might explain it, it takes little more than cursory observation to see comparable disregard for detail in our culture as we increasingly prefer "sound bites" to comprehensive explanations and immediate gratification to patient pursuit of quality. Thus, as in most other aspects of our existence, the dancer flounders in an incessant cycle or learning and forgetting the superficial while never delving into the fundamentals that would insure greater mastery and the ability to deduce from a rich and productive knowledge base that which most attempt to carry in superficial memory.

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