In life and in dancing we consistently observe how we feel. Feelings that you perceive while practicing, performing or evaluating dancing give you a feedback and an orientation for future development. What do you do when you notice a sense of emptiness or sameness? Naturally you would try to fill the emptiness and cut the sameness with a change. But there are various aspects of emptiness and sameness and when you acknowledge them, you can accept or change them.
Many of you enjoy watching videos of the greatest dancers in the past, admiring their skills, styles and unique interpretations. Past achievements together with some exquisite dancers of the present time are one source of your inspiration and stimulation towards your own improvements and growth. Reflections from the past help you recognize your current state and shape your own future vision. But only your presence here and now will enable you to find your own path.
Without labelling anything, only by attentive observing, you will become aware of those areas of your dancing that you want to improve and upgrade. You will need to do some changes on the way, let go of unnecessary attachments, habits, clichés, and refill some empty or emptied spaces.
Your feeling of emptiness can be related to a lack of sense and meaning. It may also appear after squeezing everything out of yourself during practice or performance.
Another aspect of emptiness – Zen emptiness – is a state of complete inner silence, empty of any ego influence. Zen emptiness lacks nothing, the emptiness is filled with infinite potentiality.
Here is a short Zen story with the title Empty the cup.
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” Like this cup, Nan-in said, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?
Do you ever feel empty after a competition? If this is the case, the feeling of emptiness is good and necessary. Even a cup of tea has to be emptied before you can pour it again. With your way of dancing you are filling in the empty space, with your ideas, decisions, actions and ability to translate all that in your way of sensing and expressing. By expressing you are pulling it out and sharing all your content with the external world. When the cup is empty, you are ready to fill it again.
In the process of refilling your cup, you may start from Zen emptiness, meaning, go for a while to your inner silence and recognize your infinite potentiality. Try not just repeating what you already know, continue your journey of discovery. When you scan through your choreography, you would instinctively change little things. Listen to your inner voice, make notes of what it is saying to you and go for it. This can be your way of writing the story, coming from your subconscious, always unique and different. Normally we don’t like to read a one week old newspaper. Dancing is repeating without repetition, it is re-experiencing and re-creating.
Repeating, although at certain stages of mastering the movement necessary, can create a false feeling of stability and safety. As a top performer you need to take a risk of not being in your comfort zone, but at all times in a full-presence zone. And keep asking yourself if the empty space is empty because you keep it empty unconsciously or because you emptied it deliberately in order to refill it with fresh flow and new upgrades.
Avoid sameness, it is tiring and transforms quickly into automatic pilot. Your dancing then loses its sparkle and liveliness; it is not the truth of the moment anymore.
Another challenge that I'm offering might enable you to avoid sameness by rejuvenating the dialogue of your movement with music and being aware of the kind of music you are using while practicing.
Here is a short explanation about what happened in the world of music over the past century in the sense of tonality. Some music experts considered the last century as the death of tonality and music in general. What happened? By moving towards atonal music, they lost the music they knew (classical Western music), therefore a rediscovery, re-acceptance of tonality was necessary.
Tonality is the arrangement of differently pitched tones and chords in a ranked system. This arrangement allows us to perceive relations, stabilities, attractions and maintenance of direction in music.
The tonic note feels like home or a resting place and returning to it provides a sense of completeness. Tonality in music is a fundamental component which establishes trust. Like in speech, if your voice has the right sound, you will easily get your message across.
Atonality, on the contrary, lacks a tonal center, has no hierarchies, there is an absence of functional harmony. Atonality is breaking the rules of stability by making all notes more equal in importance and the outcome is sameness.
Most of popular music today is computer composed, using electronic drums and drum machines, with less and less tonality. Electronic music started to enter dance music in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It can produce sounds which are different from the universal 12-tone tonality and thus might invite you to new movement behaviours. Electronic music has expanded to the degree that dancers use it more for their practicing than original (human-played) ballroom dance music.
You may use traditional Latin American and ballroom music while practicing, but what happens when you dance a competition where music being played is electronic or techno-flavoured? If the music being played has no contrast in sound dynamics (only loudness and no softness, no 'piano'), if there is no melody and harmony, if there is a lack of variety of instruments, so no density in texture, no variety in timbre/sound colour, if there are no relations, then your dancing can also start becoming the same – sameness...
Do a little experiment. First try original Latin American or orchestra-played ballroom music to a choreography, then try electronic music to the same piece of choreography and see how different the dance feels. Which feeling would you prefer to embody? Possibly the nostalgic, inborn qualities will always want you to yearn for the sound of the nature. The sound of percussive instruments made of wood, animal skin, seeds, the sound and vibration of the strings, the sound of the air blown into brass or wind instruments – the sound of instruments played by humans. You all know the difference in your feeling when you dance a competition to live music, played by an orchestra, or the recorded one. Live music keeps you here and now, goes under your skin and into your heart differently.
The following ideas might help you when you start feeling that your dancing is monotone in energy, too loud, too direct and attacking, interrupted by many stops. First thing to do is to explore the opposite of that. Apply contrast in energy and all other dynamic factors, dance more quietly at times, try softer and much slower movements, play with flexibility in the body and the space, explore your body rhythms. There is so much you can do in order to preserve the movement flow. Too many stops and positions where you try to impress the audience, asking or even begging for attention, just take spectators away from your dancing capacity.
Being a change
The measure of intelligence is ability to change. Deep down you might feel ready for making some changes. Whatever change is being made on your personal or professional level will reflect on a collective level.
Don't just go with the flow. Respect traditions, the fundamentals of our dancing style technique and all other tools of the dancing trade, but carry on with your vision, dare to make changes. Even with the set choreography, performances in a row will allow you to slightly modulate the line.
There is a resilient side within you that can support all your attempts towards building new values, taking action and contributing to the world of ballroom dancing by putting your story into the empty space.
As Confucius said: "Roads were made for journeys, not destinations."
Sources of inspiration
Leonard Bernstein - Harvard lectures 1973
Laban, Rudolf. Mastery of Movement. MacDonald & Evans, Plymouth, 1980