Dance Without Touch

Due to a complicated set of circumstances having to do with that delicate intersection between being silly and being stubborn, I got a chance recently to dance with someone without touching them at all.

Specifically, we were partners in a contra dance (a form of dancing where long lines of couples progress up or down the hall, repeating the same set of figures with each new couple. You dance constantly with your partner, and generally once or twice with everyone else in the set.) We were both allowed to touch anyone else in the set, we just wouldn't touch each other. This was a mutual decision based on our own amusement, rather than a spite decision one of us made against the other.

And it was fascinating. I'd previously only witnessed no-hands dancing between very good couple dancers, stepping through a one-step or swing based on very good eye contact and knowing each other very well. I'd never gotten a chance to do it on my own, and certainly not in a dedicated way like this. Of course, my partner is a talented dancer --I would have never tried this with a new dancer, as not being able to give them weight or help steer them would be a huge detriment to everyone involved.

The first thing I noticed was that dancing without hands has to be a little more precise. You don't get the physical cues from your partner that let you know you're in the right place. You have to pay better attention, and you have to adjust your body just a little more to compensate, especially if there's only one non-touching pair. (I refer specifically to things like a circle of four, which benefits from everyone being strong and well-balanced. When there's a broken link, it makes the circle that much weaker.) Most importantly, when swinging with my partner, I had to pay enough attention to pull away myself when I was in the right place. I couldn't rely on my partner steering me to the correct position like I often do.

The second thing was something I was already familiar with, at least in passing. Dancing without touching is arguably more intimate. Because you can't steer with physical cues, you have to do it entirely through eye contact, expressions, gesture, and if possible, verbal cues. I wouldn't dance like this with someone I didn't already know and trust to be a strong enough dancer to keep up. Having to trust someone not to be confused or led astray, paired with having to trust yourself not to mess up can be an enlightening moment --or an utter disaster.

Of course, contra's a lot easier than most dances to do without touch. The steps have already been decided by someone else, so you don't have to worry about leading or following successfully. Additionally in our case, we were still getting the necessary physical cues from everyone else in the line. If neither of us were touching anyone it may well have ben a more difficult dance.

I did enjoy the experience, and look forward to getting to try it again sometime. My mind is already trying to work out a more interesting way to swing when all you have to go on is eye contact --you can get the motions pretty easily, but it's impossible to get the speed without something to anchor against. And of course, I fully intend to get good enough at couple dancing to pull a strong partner around the room by just a clever smirk and a tilt of the head. And if nothing else, touch-free dancing has a wonderful effect on those watching, as the audience tries to figure out just what it is you're doing, and how much you've practised.


Historians and Michievians

A dance historian friend of mine hosts quarterly invite-only dances. For her, they're a chance to work out some of the figures that she can't quite get perfect without watching actual people. For us, it's a chance to dance a lot of very interesting figures and footwork, in a reasonably experienced setting. I went to one of these recently, and found myself having to coin a new word, to describe the difference in how she and I approach dancing.

She is very much a historian. She spends her time looking through ancient dance manuals and resources, reconstructing dances that no one has done in two hundred years, and getting every small detail as perfect as she can. For her, accuracy is the chief goal. She is trying to bring back to life dances no one has touched in years, and she wants them to be as exact a recreation of the nineteenth century experience as she can get. This results in very precise footwork, arguments over hand-holds, and endless repititions of figures as we try to figure out how the great dancemasters would have split setting-traveling-setting1 over eight bars.

And the dances she teaches are beautiful, and exciting, and accurate. I've been to some of the balls she's hosted, and it's a joy to watch a room full of period-costumed dancers whirl through a period-accurate dance.

But I can't do that.

I am too dramatic, and too distractible. I want my dancing to include flourishes, I want to show off. I want to be silly, I want to goof-off, and I want to do whatever is the most fun over whatever is the most accurate. Most importantly, I want to take the good pieces out of every dance form, and put them into other forms. My perfect dance has the intimacy of a waltz, the flirtation of Scottish Country, the solos and fancy footwork from Regency, and the mindbender from squares. And most importantly, the gender(s) of the people dancing doesn't matter a whit to what role they start (or end!) in.

Perhaps the simplest example of this comes from my favourite couple dancing group, hosted down in Maryland. At Oella, they dance a lot of vintage dance forms, to a lot of modern music. Sure, you can get period music for some stuff (or have it recorded, as my historian friend does), but there's a lot of great modern music that just happens to make a good waltz, or one-step, or even schottische3. Dancing the dances I love, to the music I love? What could possibly be wrong with that?

Ultimately, the two of us are just going to have to work around each other. This is where that ever-important relationship skill of "communication" comes in --knowing whether a dance will be strictly historical or a looser interpretation beforehand will help the dancers adjust their expectations. If it's really important to you to have mischief, you can ignore the historical sector. If it's really important to be accurate, skip out on the more ridiculous balls. For me, it's not particularly a problem --I like dancing, and helping her to create accurate dances ensures that they'll be around for the next generation of dancers to enjoy.

And for her? Well, I'll limit my compulsion towards doing the macarena during boring set dances to cases when it would be amusing rather than insulting. Chaos is fun, after all, but only when it's controlled enough to keep the dance coherent. If I combine my differing dance ideologies and come out with something less than the parts, I will consider myself to have done something wrong.

1: I'm not actually joking about this. I think we did eight bars of dancing at least a dozen times, going back and forth between "set for 2 bars, travel for 2 bars, set for 4 bars" and "set for 4 bars, travel for 2 bars, set for 2 bars". (No one liked my suggestion of "set three, travel two, set three"2.)

2: For good reason --I tried dancing that and it was horrible in every possible way. Don't set for an odd number of bars. It's terribly awkward.

3: I have been told quite firmly that Sweet Home Alabama is not _actually_ a schottische. I continue to be unsure of this fact, and think you just need a pairing willing to do a damn fast schottische. Any volunteers?

Cross-step at Splash!

Every year, MIT is host to an event called Splash, in which various college students and other low-lifes from around the community are encouraged to come and teach a class on anything they want. These classes are attended by 2500 middle and high school students, who spend the weekend gorging themselves on higher mathematics, the ins and outs of boffer weapons, arguments about nazi imagry in the Star Wars movies, how to make a cake that isn't a lie, and -of special interest- several different kinds of dancing.

When I learned of this nonsense, I knew immediately that I should be a part of it. So I promptly signed up to teach some classes in Cross-step waltz, and then forgot all about it until today. Since Splash is this weekend, I've chosen to spend today frantically coordinating all the various bits and bobs I need. Never let it be said that I am organized about my instruction.

As it is, I've settled things down some (with well over 24 hours to go!) and now have a pretty good sense of what I'll be trying to teach, and how I'll be trying to teach it. Best of all, I've spent the day ferreting around the internet, googling every possible combination of words to get myself some cross-step music that won't be, well, boring to me or my students.

Hopefully, I'm ready for this. I'll try and remember to post back with a report, or at least a list of the songs I used and how well they worked. And if this goes at all reasonably, well...I have dreams for dancing in this city, and being able to teach people some little things fits in well with those dreams. But that's a post for another time...