This post is guest-written by The Girl With the Tree Tattoo, a wonderful dancer, blogger, and creator who helps aspiring dancers through her popular workbooks and journals. Check her out!
Like many of you, I'm serious about my dance journey. I work hard in my private lessons, plan out my solo practice sessions to be as effective as possible, and give it my all on the competition floor. Ballroom dance isn't just a hobby for us; it's a passion. Passions deserve to be taken seriously.
However, a dancer who is only serious and focuses solely on perfecting their craft misses a key piece of the dance journey: play.
One of the greatest achievements of a dancer's journey is to make dancing look easy. We all know ballroom dancing at its fullest expression is NOT easy, but we don't want our audience to see how hard we're working. We want them to lose themselves in the moment and be swept up in the music and movement. Mastering our craft goes a long way toward creating this illusion of ease, but it’s the addition of play that really sells it.
Imagine you’re at a competition and there are two professional couples dancing on the floor in front of you. Both of them have solid technique, beautiful costumes, great timing, and impressive choreography. What would draw your eye and make you want to watch one couple more than the other?
For me, it’s the couple who engages with the audience and each other. They respond to unique accents in the particular song that’s playing or even the lyrics. They appear to be dancing in the moment, not just performing a routine they’ve rehearsed a thousand times. Most of all, they look like they’re loving life out on that dance floor.
We can take our dance journey with all of its training seriously, but we don't want to take ourselves too seriously. Otherwise, we miss the point. Dancing is not just about the physical movement. It’s an emotional experience as well. You can’t tap into emotions through a strict training regimen though. You have to let yourself explore and play without a particular destination in mind.
Exploring play in dance where there is no predefined right or wrong can be scary for us dancers who are always striving for perfection. It’s one thing when you’re on break, at home, or hanging out with friends. A song comes on the radio and you bust out some improvised moves, no problem. But incorporating play into your serious training for the next big competition? That’s different. Play at its core is imperfect. It’s not something you can drill. It’s not something your coach can tell you how to do. You have to feel it, and it won’t feel the same every time you do it.
Before I was a competitive ballroom dancer, the only dancing I did for years was improv at a club or in my living room. I didn’t care about impressing judges or coaches, I just loved feeling that groove in the moment. Dance was freedom and escape. It was a way for me to express myself and channel my emotions.
After I discovered my passion for competitive ballroom, I became extremely self-conscious about my emotional expressions through dance because I knew every movement was being watched and critiqued. I could express just fine when I wasn’t worried about choreography or technique, but being a good student, I focused on dancing “right” and resisted movement that wasn’t pre-approved. As a result, I quickly grew into a very strong technical dancer at the Bronze level in Pro-Am, but there was something missing as I advanced.
My dance teacher tried to encourage me to explore different ways to express myself in my dancing, such as through arm styling or facial expressions, to layer on top of my strong technique. I was so afraid of doing something wrong that I actually had anxiety attacks during lessons that were focused on the emotional expression of the dance. My technique became a security blanket for me and I clung to it like a desperate toddler.
Finally, we tried a different approach to exploring expression that didn’t create so much anxiety for me. We went back to technique and used it as a tool to nudge me out of my dance comfort zone. What physically needed to happen for me to shape bigger here or contract there? What movement feels good with this piece of music versus that one? Instead of beginning with the emotion, i.e. be flirty in Foxtrot, and letting that dictate the movement, I found my way into play and expression by beginning with the movement and its connection with the music. From there, the emotional expression, whether it was in my face or my hands or some other body part, revealed itself naturally.
Did it work? Well, I did dance away with a World Champion title at the Silver level in Pro-Am American Smooth, so I’d say yes!
Work and play in dance are like two sides of the same coin. Our dance craft gives us strength, balance, and grounding in our movement. It’s the physical part of dancing. Play connects us to the emotion of the dance. It gives us freedom to create and explore new or different ways of moving to music. It’s also the key to mastering musicality, for those studious dancers who still need some kind of goal or destination. You can rehearse three to four facial expressions for your Jive routine that you can put on repeat while you compete, but you won’t hold a candle next to the dancer who knows how to use play to connect with the music in the moment and let their expressions come out from there.
Aside from helping you shine on the dance floor, play has another incredibly important role in your dance journey - it gets you out of your head.
Serious dancers put serious pressure on themselves. That pressure can take its toll leading to stress, anxiety, burnout or even physical injury. Personally, I’ve experienced all of these things! I’m really good at putting pressure on myself. Allowing time in my dance training for play, when I don’t have to think about getting every little detail correct, provides a critical mental break. Sometimes this looks like putting on music and just letting my body move without any sort of plan. Sometimes this looks like putting on a favorite song and lip syncing in the mirror while trying to make the most outrageous, exaggerated facial expressions until I can’t stop laughing. Sometimes this even looks like listening to music while lying on the couch and just letting my mind dance.
Taking a break from the pressure and just playing with your dancing will not only make you a better dancer, it will make you a healthier dancer. We can get so focused on the physical aspect of dancing because that’s what people see. The emotional aspect is just as important and should not be neglected.
So go out and play, dancers! Make your next practice a play session. Forget the technique and let your imagination take charge.
Remember, you learn more about Katie at The Girl With the Tree Tattoo!