Thursday, August 19, 2010

What does it mean to be light on your feet?

You might think that being light on your feet means your feet are off the ground a lot. But that's not true. In fact, being light on your feet goes hand in hand with being grounded. You need to actually spend MORE time with your feet on the ground to be light on your feet.

Huh? How is that possible? Doesn't being grounded mean you are stable on the ground like a strong foundation? Yes, but you aren't immovable. Being grounded actually gives you the ability to switch your weight from one foot to the next with very little effort and time. And that is what being light on your feet really means. Being able to change your weight in an instant.

Well, there is more to it than that. You also have to be able to check your momentum in an instant. You are in control of your balance, your weight and your momentum. That is what makes you light on your feet.

How do you get light on your feet? Well, first off, you have to forget your feet. LOL. Seriously. Too many beginning dancers think everything about dance centers on the feet. While we do use our feet to dance, the feet can't do anything if our bodies aren't moving. Beginning dancers have difficulty turning because their bodies turn so slowly.

So the first thing you have to do to become light on your feet is to conquer this inevitable difficulty: make your body lead your feet. You learned how to do that when you learned to walk at 2 years old. Everyone on the planet moves not by moving their feet but by moving their body. Don't believe me? Watch yourself walk in a mirror.

Still not convinced? Record yourself and play the video in slow motion. You will notice that you actually move your body first, not your feet. One foot pushes your body forward and the other foot keeps you from falling down. That foot catches up to your body, then the momentum/inertia of your body moving allows the first foot (the one that originally pushed the body forward) to catch up to the next step. Meanwhile the second foot pushes your body forward. Well, it can't very well push you forward if it's moving, can it? See? Your feet move last! In fact the foot that starts the pushing motion is the foot that moves at the very end!

So, when you dance don't forget how to walk. Move your body. When you turn or spin, get your body around first. Your feet will follow. Consequently, you'll be lighter on your feet.

Now when I say get your body around, I don't mean push yourself off. I don't mean wind up like a spring and explode yourself into a spin. Forget that. That is BAAAD technique. Turns and spins don't happen that way. I'll cover spinning later but certainly turns are done slowly, changing your weight fully with each step, as your body TURNS, not spins.

(Read the article on the difference between turning and spinning.)

So, turn properly. Change your weight with every step. Now you can't be in control if you are doing this while taking large steps. So the simple answer is to take small steps. Well, teachers have been trying to drill that mantra into students noggins forever, but it doesn't change things but only slowly. The students still take big steps. So how do you make yourself take smaller steps? Clearly there is something causing you to take big steps. What could it be? Your momentum. You aren't in control. So you have to put less energy into your movement. Make each step deliberate, the same as when you walk. So, don't just take smaller steps. Move slower. Yep, moving slower can actually help you to get around your turns FASTER!!!! HAHAHAH!!!

It seems so illogical doesn't it! But not if you think about it this way. If you push yourself off, you're more likely to be off balance more often. You are more likely to step wrong. You are more likely to get off time. And you are more likely to tire. But if you make your movements more relaxed, then you will be in more control. And THAT is where speed comes from. Speed doesn't come from energy. It comes from control. You need to be in control of your body and your feet. YOU. Not the other way around.

So, how do you know how big of a step to take? Well, if you move your body instead of your feet, the answer becomes very simple. Keep your feet under your body. Just move your feet to where your body is. Easy. Keep the time. In LA Style salsa the guy's steps are Left, Right, Left; Right, Left, Right. And the girls steps are opposite. Maintain that rhythm. You might need to count. Keep your feet under your body, and move your body first. It's that simple. Do that and you'll be grounded and light on your feet too.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What's the difference between a spin and a turn?

We get so confused. And it's our (teacher's) fault. We'll tell beginning students that they are going to learn how to spin. We teach students to do a "cross body spin." We teach more advanced students how to execute a "free spin." But those aren't spins. They are in fact turns. And it's not just a question of using a different word. Sometimes teachers do teach a spin when they should be teaching a turn, and vice versa. So let's examine this just a moment.

So what IS the difference between a spin and a turn? Think of your car. If you turn your car, the car is in control. It's moving forward. But if your car is spinning, it's out of control. The wheels aren't locked onto the pavement. Which one can you stop your momentum easier? The turn.

So is turning the more stable? Not necessarily. One of the most stable instruments known to science is an object that spins: a gyroscope. The Segway uses gyroscopes to stay balanced. NASA uses gyroscopes to keep orientation. And remember toy gyroscopes? Once they get spinning you can't knock them over! And they are spinning on a point! And what happens when they start turning? THAT is when they fall over. They are designed to spin!

See? When you are supposed to be spinning, turning knocks you over. When you are supposed to be turning, spinning knocks you over. So it's important to understand the difference between turning and spinning and it's important to understand when you should be executing the one instead of the other.

The big difference between a spin and a turn is the pivot point, the center of that arc you are rotating around. A spin's pivot point is contained within the mass of the object. A turn's pivot point is outside the mass of the object. This is true for a car and it's true for a dancer.

Ok? Now you know the difference between a turn and a spin. So recognize which one you are trying to do in a movement and execute that movement properly. If you are turning, turn. Don't spin. If you are spinning, spin. Don't turn. Kay?

Here are a few rough rules of thumb. If you are doing a 180 or more, you are probably spinning. But if your movement is 180 or less, you are probably turning.

Also, if you are traveling, you are turning. None of your steps should be greater than 180 degrees. And finally, if you are staying in place, then you are spinning.

Is this just a question of semantics? Absolutely not. You can see how utterly important it is because people execute spins when they should be turning and vice versa. Let's examine the cross body spin... er... turn. How do you know that you are supposed to be turning and not spinning? Well, are you traveling? Yup. Then you should be turning. Remember the rule of thumb? 180° and less is a turn. A cross body turn does include a 180° movement, but you are traveling so it is in fact a turn. When you execute your cross body spin turn, move your feet down the slot. Change your weight with each step and make sure you keep moving down the slot. If at any point one of your feet starts to move back up the slot, you just executed a spin. Correct that and you'll find your cross body turns improving dramatically.

How about the other way: people doing turns when they should be spinning? How do you know if you should be spinning? Are you staying in the same place? Yes? It's a spin. So don't change your weight until the spin is complete. You may peddle to check your balance or even provide a smidge of momentum, but do not change your weight from the leg you are spinning on, and DEFINITELY keep both feet completely under your body.

Now, how about the special case of a single right or left turn. Aren't they spins? You're in place, right? These appear to be executed in place, but if you pay attention they are not. You return to your point of departure but make no mistake, you do depart from the home position. That means it is not a spin. A spin is when you remain in place and spin like a top. Stop executing your turns like a spin!

Ok? Got that? Once you recognize how important this question is, and make the adjustments to your dancing (and teaching) technique you will see yourself improve dramatically. DRAMATICALLY!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Strong Lead is not a Good Lead

Guys guys guys. I see it all too often: guys pushing girls into their moves. Overleading. Please understand the difference between a strong lead and a good lead guys. If you use your muscular strength to overpower your partner and force her to execute your moves, she'll follow. Some girls even like being manhandled, but make no mistake, that doesn't make it a good lead. The girl you are dancing with is your partner. Your equal. She's not your subordinate. You aren't her boss. She isn't your plaything. Please stop throwing her around like a Rottweiler throwing around a ragdoll. I don't ever TELL my partner what to do. I ASK her to do something but I always allow her enough wiggle room to say no. Your partner knows how to do the moves you are asking her to do. All you need to do is to communicate to her what move you want her to do, provide assistance when she needs it, support her so she won't go off balance, give her energy when she needs it, then back off and let her complete the move you asked her to do. Don't micromanage her. She knows how to do the move. Let her do it her way. Your job is to decide what to do. Her job is to decide how to do it.

The key to a good lead is timing and clarity, not strength. Understand the precise moment you need to begin your lead. Pay attention to her weight transfer. Her momentum and direction in combination with the foot she has her weight on will help you to pick out that precise instant in which to ask her to move. As a general rule, she turns to her right on her right foot and left on her left foot. There are certainly exceptions, like when you check her momentum to get her to turn opposite, but if you are just starting out, pay attention to this rule. It's great for the four cross body lead with turn moves. And it's generally those moves that the problem of overleading manifests itself. Practice your lead on those moves. Try to ask her to do moves and try to resist forcing her to do them.

Remember, a good lead is a well timed SOFT lead. I'll go into lead (and follow) a bit more later but for now I suggest you read my earlier article The Mechanics of a Good Lead.