– Who are you?
— Don’t puzzle me.
(Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy)
I’ve been musing on some differences between training and dancing, for followers. Lately, I’ve been acting as a class partner in private lessons with a friend. The arrangement is quite clear and explicit: the lessons are for my friend. He is working with his teacher on his leading skills. I am primarily there to help his teacher demonstrate movements and for him to practise them on, the idea being that I am a competent enough follower to respond appropriately to the signals they are sending, a kind of radio receiver, a mirror that might have a few silvered age spots but still reflects you back faithfully enough to shave by it. (Don’t worry, I also study, separately, with my own teachers; I receive a lot of professional feedback on my own dancing). In these classes, I attempt to follow as precisely as I can. I still wouldn’t describe this as passive: it requires a degree of concentration and attentiveness that seem to me to be the opposite of any kind of relaxed zoning or blissing out or just being carried along. It feels more like marking an opponent in netball. And I have to employ my full tool box of technical skills as a follower to be able to do justice to the teacher (the wonderful Carlos Boeri)’s dynamic, exciting, but minutely precise dance and my friend’s attempts to follow his instructions and reproduce the movements with pedantic exactness. Later, he will incorporate them, of course, into his own way of dancing, his own personal style. But, for now, we’re not dancing, we’re training.
Following this way is a high level listening skill, one I think is highly worth developing. And I enjoy the classes a great deal too. But it isn’t dancing. My friend Deborah Bowman describes this kind of following as being like reading someone’s words back to them, so they can see how they sound. And I do feel a bit like a proofreader. I’m there to scour the text so carefully that I will spot the tiniest missing comma or typo. But it’s not the way I *dance* — even with my friend or his teacher, both of whom I also frequently dance with socially. Dancing as a follower feels more like being handed a poem to read aloud: of course, I’m not going to just drone out in the words in a robotic voice; of course, I’m going to add feeling, accents, inflections. I’m going to put body and soul into it, as any good actor would. I’m going to take those words and make them my own. And that’s before I add decorations, which are like little interjections and commentaries on the text, more than that, they are little contributions that will be incorporated into it, suggestions for how it might continue. Because, in fact, this isn’t a poem that’s been handed to me. It’s a poetry slam and we are jamming it. We’re writing this piece of verse together, as we go along.
When you’re dancing, really dancing, as a follower, there are a million moments at which it’s actually hard to tell whether something was led or not. I’m not talking about the directions and the steps. I’m not referring to mistakes and confusions. I mean, for instance, that when I pause very emphatically, right there, at the end of that phrase, for instance. Did I do that because you did, because I felt your body preparing to do so and I responded unconsciously, as I’ve been trained to do and which is the way of least resistance and feels as natural as water flowing downhill? Or did I do it because the music told me to, because I was responding to that? Did you, the leader, pause there because you felt me do it? Were you responding, consciously or unconsciously, to my movement? Or were you going to pause anyway, but gave it a little extra oomph, a little additional rootedness, because you felt that movement in me? Or was it the other way round? Neuroscience experiments have demonstrated that we begin preparations to move our hand just a fraction of a second before we take a conscious decision to do so, suggesting the eerie conclusion that it’s the movement of the hand itself that makes us decide to start moving it and not vice versa.
So I would say that the two things — responding to your partner and responding to the music — can be separated out for training purposes, to a certain degree, but not when dancing. The dance is way more complex than that. In good dancing, they fuse and blur all the time. When I’m doing certain kinds of training, as in the lessons described above, my conscious aim is to mirror and copy without adding input of my own. I’m trying to reproduce what the leader is signalling. When I’m dancing, my feeling is frequently *primarily* of moving with the music, of adding as much feeling and musicality as I can, of letting the music be my leader and guide, letting the musicians tell me exactly when and how to step. But, oddly, I often find that it’s when I feel most lost in the music that I also feel most together with my partner. As in the neuroscience experiment, none of the dance really feels like a choice — it feels like a willing response: to the needs of my own body, to my partner, to the song. But, although I’m letting myself be guided all the time, I feel completely free — as free as I feel when I ‘decide’ to move my hand through the air. It’s richer and more complex than a simple active/passive dichotomy would suggest.