Most of us remember the first dancer who inspired us to want to express ourselves through the form of dance, who awakened us to the possibilities for communication and expression that dancing promises. When I started learning salsa, my first partner dance, I remember very vividly the first salsera I looked up to. Her name was Katya.
Every dance form has a distinctive design, a look and a feel that make it different from any other dance. Katya definitely had this salsa-ness in her dancing. But what captured me when I watched her was seeing salsa that had a Katya-ness about it. Of course salsa looks different on everyone. But with Katya I saw a unique, specific, nuanced, and creative manifestation of salsa in the world. The way she moved, the way she improvised within the music, the way she interacted with her partners – it was a full expression of her body and her personality. Watching her didn’t make me want to dance like her. It made me want to dance like myself, the way she did. It made me want to find my own style.
I took my first styling class in another city a few months into my new salsa life. A room full of salsa dancers copied shoulder shimmies, head flicks, and footwork to the count of 1-2-3, 5-6-7, with a salsa song playing in the background. In that hour the teacher explained several techniques in great detail, but I learned nothing about the music, nothing about how my own body wanted to move, nothing about how to improvise new feelings in the flow of the music. That weekend much of what I saw in the community I was visiting matched what I saw in class: Men and women performed precisely choreographed solo movement, the same regardless of where it happened in the music, the same as the movement on a very different body dancing just a few feet away. Most of the dancers looked the same. To see a dancer with their own unique style was rare. I left the weekend and the city feeling discouraged.
The frustration I felt with that first styling class was actually quite motivating: I spent countless hours on my own playing with the music and experimenting with my movement, following my curiosity and finding my own way of grooving within the form I was learning. The result of this process is that I feel expressive and creative. My personality shows when I dance. Not only is my dancing characteristically salsa, but the way I dance salsa is characteristically me. I may not be as skilled as Katya, but I too have my own unique style that others have told me inspires them.
I believe the time and energy I put into this personal exploration is absolutely essential for any dancer in finding their style. After all, style is personal expression, not objective skill. But even though style is not a skill, it does require skill to find expression within the language of salsa, swing, tango, or any other dance form. Styling classes can’t do all the work. But they can give students inspiration and guidance, rather than frustration or misdirection, in their pursuit of personal expression through the dance.
Teaching Styling Skills
I went to a west coast swing ladies’ styling class earlier this year and discovered a teacher who, to my delight, was teaching valuable skills to help her students develop their movement and music personality within the form of west coast swing. Here are three skills she emphasized in class and how she emphasized them:
Relating precisely to the music. First, the teacher played the song and asked the students to reflect on and share what they felt or heard, before teaching any of the movement. Second, the choreography itself was intricately tied to the music; it would not have made sense with a different song. Third, the teacher made minimal use of counting. In fact, she made it clear that she wasn’t thinking about the count; she was moving to the sound of the singer’s voice, her feet marking the rhythm of the melody (in that particular section). So instead of becoming reliant on counting, the dancers in class had to listen and feel more attentively to find the relationship between the music and their movement.
Making and evaluating choices. The teacher struck a balance between offering specific feedback to encourage proper form and guiding students in finding their own way of dancing the movements. She emphasized that there is always more than one way to dance a movement, and she often showed several different options. But she also explained what she was choosing to do, how she was doing it, and why, which was usually a specific nuance in how the movement felt in her body with the music. When explaining why a technique worked well, she would explain both the biomechanical benefit and the visual effect, offering students a way of evaluating what they were seeing and feeling so they could make their own adjustments.
Feeling and improvising. Although the class taught a choreographed sequence, the expressed goal was to find new ways of hearing and feeling the music in one’s body and to find new ways of moving within the form of the dance, both of which are essential building blocks of improvisation. The teacher specifically stated that her improvisation comes from a particular mindset that isn’t focused on technique but on feeling good in her body, luxuriating in the feel of the music without self-consciousness or judgment. What struck me about this class was how the teacher was able to communicate all of these things using choreography. While I believe there are ways to teach styling with improvisation, this class reminded me that choreography can also be used effectively, as I wrote last year in my article, What Choreography Taught Me About Improvisation and Individuality:
Learning choreography is not about copying or imitating movement. It’s about finding the connection between the movements of the form and your unique body, between the artistic vision of the choreographer and your unique expression. This is a constant ongoing process. To a good choreographer, learning the steps is missing the point entirely. To him/her, you have ‘learned the choreography’ when it has made its home in your body.”
Style: Where Form Meets Personality
The dictionary tells us that style is “a distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed.” In the case of dancing, style is determined by both the principles of the dance form and the principles of our own movement-music personality, our personal groove. Style, then, is at the intersection of self and form, where form meets personality. Stephen Nachmanovitch expresses this beautifully in his book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art:
When [the artist] has to match the patterning outside him with the patterning he brings within his own organism, the crossing or marriage of the two patterns results in something never before seen, which is nevertheless a natural outgrowth of the artist’s original nature. A moiré, a crossing or marriage of two patterns, becomes a third pattern that has a life of its own. Even simple moirés made from straight lines look alive, like fingerprints or tiger stripes.
Teachers have often come to the point in their dancing where they have discovered their own style, the marriage between their internal patterning and the patterning of their dance form. But many teachers pass on their style to students as a technique instead of guiding students in the process to discover their own. Learning how to take someone else’s movement and put it into one’s own body is a valuable exercise, but it will not necessarily lead a student to find their personal expression.
Dancers need to follow a process – spending time relating precisely to the music, making and evaluating choices, feeling and improvising – to uncover their own style. Teachers can inspire and guide their students by creating an environment in which this process can unfold, not just in styling classes but in all classes.
“[V]ariety in students’ style,” writes Greg Downey in his book Learning Capoeira, is “the very hallmark of a great [teacher’s] inspiration.” Teachers who draw out the personality of their students within the form are dancing with something beautiful and mysterious, the place where “the crossing or marriage of the two patterns results in something never before seen… a natural outgrowth of the artist’s original nature… a third pattern that has a life of its own.”