Dance essays - Rhythm and Race
Many times I have heard it said that people from one country or another have got "natural rhythm", or "natural movement", and this is used as an explanation for why they can dance better than we Brits. The implication is that there is some genetic predisposition the British have to being bad dancers, or that there is something in the water in foreign places that causes people to grow up as great dancers. I think that this is rubbish.
I have been teaching dance for a fair few years now, and I have taught people from all across Europe, from Russia, Ukraine, China, Africa, India. I have taught tall people and short, big blue-eyed and narrow brown, dark skinned and pale. True, I haven't knowingly taught Eskimos or Australian Aboriginals, but I am satisfied that I have taught a wide enough variety of people to draw a conclusion. My experience tells me that no race is any better than any other innately at dancing. I have taught members of the supposedly dance-gifted races who couldn't tell which foot they had their weight on, and I have taught pale Brits who have picked up the moves in a trice.
I have a theory to explain the myth. There are countries where people in general seem to have a better grasp of social dancing. The general standard of social dance is high, and people in social gatherings are comfortable with dancing, and move with rhythm and style. There are still people in these places who are poor dancers, but the average person seems to be able to move with some assurance, and seems to be expressing the music. My belief is that this is because they learned to enjoy dancing first, and then learned to dance properly, not the other way around.
One of the best pupils I ever had was culturally and racially British. When she came to me to learn Lindy hop, she had had one lesson, and knew almost no moves, but she already had cracked the essence of the dance. She already moved and thought like a Lindy hopper. All I had to do was teach her moves, and she picked these up very fast. Perhaps she was above averagely talented, but the main reason I believe that she was so strikingly good, was that she had enjoyed the dance before learning it.
She told me of her first brush with Lindy. She was on holiday in Western America, and her hosts took her along to a swing dance night. She said that she walked in to a huge hall and that her jaw hit the floor when she saw that it was filled with people dancing very well indeed. The guy she was with then suggested that she go and ask people for a dance. She protested that she didn't know how to do the dance. The next thing, a guy came over to her and said "Look, it's easy - it's like this," grabbed her hands, and led her into, "Triple, triple, rock step; triple, triple, rock step. That's it. You've got it. Now off you go." With just this tuition, she started dancing, and had a great time.
Of course, she didn't really know the proper steps, or any of the finer points of following, but she learned very quickly how to have a great time. She went with the music, went with the lead, and when she didn't know what to do, she just hung onto the guy's hand and shook to the beats. She learned, perhaps subconsciously, that the thing to do was just keep going, try one's best, and have a lark. Not knowing all the steps didn't stop her from having fun.
So I had an easy time teaching her and dancing with her. She already had the right attitude of mind, and this gave her confidence, and her ability to enjoy the dance and feel the music as she danced affected the way she moved. In a social dance, she always looked good, because she always felt good. If she'd had dark skin, then doubtless someone somewhere would have said, "It's in her blood".
In stark contrast with this girl, is the typical British dance pupil. The general attitude seems to be that people who can dance are special and unusual, that one has to be born with the ability to dance in order to be able to do it well, and that only when one has learned all the steps properly can one start to enjoy it. Most Brits first encounter Lindy hop and social dances like it in lessons, rather than on the social dance floor. Rather than starting by having a go and liking it, they just watch at first, and then decide to go for lessons before daring to do it socially. This is a shame, and quite counter-productive. In other countries, this is not the case. People in bars in Cuba hear salsa music, and bop around to it, having a good time, and develop a way of moving to the rhythm that is comfortable, relaxed, and fluid. If they get serious about the dance, then perhaps they will go for lessons, but if they go for lessons, then they arrive already able to have a good time with the dance, and already knowing how to hold themselves, and get into the "groove". Any Brits in the same classes will look across enviously at their fellow beginners, and say "It's in their blood".
When recruiting for the Newcastle University Swing Dance Society at the annual societies' fair, people back away from my invitations saying "Oh sorry - I don't know how to do it," as though only people who already are good swing dancers could possibly join. I tell them that before Fred Astaire got any good at dancing, he wasn't any good at dancing, but usually this doesn't help. These same people go on to the Parachute Club stall, where the following conversation never takes place.
Recruiter: Would you like to join the Parachute Club?
Potential Recruit: Oh, I'm sorry, I don't know how to parachute.
Recruiter: Oh that's all right, neither did any of us at first. We just chuck you out of an aircraft at 40,000 feet, with a parachute strapped to you somehow, and you'll find that you've got ages before you hit the ground to work out what to do.
Potential Recruit: I'm in!
Of course you don't know how to parachute! That's why you join a parachute club: to learn. No one seems to think that there are people who just innately are natural parachutists, and who never need any training. They do, though, seem to believe that there are people out there who can dance brilliantly without a single lesson, and those who will never be any good despite a thousand lessons, because they haven't got the right genes. Rubbish.
So, start by enjoying some social dancing. Whereas the consequence of failure in a debut untrained parachute jump are quite dire, no one ever dies from missing a step in a partner dance. Men will have to start with very simple stuff at first, but they are still learning to feel the music, and to move with it. Women can get a bit further, by learning what a lead feels like. Muck about, experiment, make mistakes, laugh when things go wrong, and then keep going. Then, when you go to lessons, you will already have the most important skill: knowing how to have fun with the dance. People who see you will assume that you are a natural.
Here are links to my other dance essays: