Becoming a Better Dancer
(This post is aimed articularly at English country dancers, but contra and square dance enthusiasts may also find food for thought.)
One of the challenges that callers face is that of teaching style to dancers. Note: by “style” I'm not talking about the over-the-top mannerisms that some dancers affect. Rather I'm thinking of moving gracefully, with ease and flow, connecting one figure to another, interacting with the other dancers. Style is as simple as the way we carry ourselves when standing still, and it also involves moving with intentionality, with precision, with energy.
In most dance settings, people are there to move and they resist (appropriately, in my mind) standing around listening to a caller natter on and on. But country dancing—and I include contras and squares along with English in this category—is more than just plodding through a series of prescribed figures.
Indeed, when I first was introduced to English country dancing, I resented the excessive time callers spent on imparting style points. In time, though, as I grew comfortable with the basic figures, I noticed how certain dancers moved on the floor and tried to emulate them. At that point, I was also more interested in what the callers had to say about how to move.
So, is there anything that interested dancers can do off the dance floor to improve their skill and style? Indeed. A series of six articles, Pills to Purge Mediocrity, provides a detailed set of ideas and exercises (both mental and physical) for dancers to consider, all wrapped in the notion of Personal Responsibility. He starts with the basics, how to stand and how to take the first step! A second essays looks at “developing a heightened sense of consciousness to dancing figures. Every figure consists of timing and shape, brought to life with expression.” Here, he focuses on one simple figure, the cast. Subsequent essays look at circles (connections, giving and releasing hands, timing), heys, preparing the step and working in ensemble, and the relationship between music and dance.
The six essays are a lot to read and to ponder, but I encourage serious dancers to make that effort, one at a time.