Finding Flow on the Dance Floor, Part 1: Social Dance as Sport

“Flow is a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred… This is because flow lifts experience from the ordinary to the optimal, and it is in those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing.”
– Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi

Note from the author, January 2021: This series of articles was among my first when I started Joy in Motion many years ago. When I upgraded my website, I didn’t republish these, but I am doing so now due to encouragement from readers who found meaning and value in these articles back then. Part 1 is being shared today, and the remaining three will be published in the coming weeks. Although I would write this series differently today, it is a sweet reminder of how this blog started and how these articles were a stepping stone to the way I think and write about dance now. Whether you are revisiting these articles or reading them for the first time, I hope you enjoy!

It has been called flow, peak experience, optimal experience, the zone, and deep play. The concept has been widely experienced and researched, and yet it remains elusive. Generally understood to be a rare, short-lived, and unexpected occurrence, it can’t be controlled, summoned, or grasped. However, the pure joy and freedom it brings prevents us from just dismissing it altogether. We continue to seek these moments because they hint at something greater and validate the time and effort we spend in their pursuit.

For the social dancer, flow provides the unrivaled feeling of deep connection with his or her body, the music, and another human being. Every social dance – from salsa and Argentine tango to the ballroom dances and west coast swing – requires physicality, musicality, communication, problem-solving, and creativity. These exhilarating challenges open up opportunities to experience flow. Although we can’t guarantee its occurrence, we can approach the dance in a way that will maximize our receptivity and, therefore, our likelihood of achieving that feeling of transcendence.

Because dance has so many layers or levels of meaning and understanding, it helps to approach flow in social dance from several different angles. Though there could never be an exhaustive or comprehensive list of approaches to the dance, my research of flow and the social dance experience have revealed four main approaches that can help illuminate and cultivate flow on the dance floor:

Social dance as Sport.
Social dance as Game.
Social dance as Conversation.
Social dance as Art.

Part 1 will address how social dance can be approached as a sport. Please see also Parts 2 through 4 for how to approach social dance as a game, a conversation, and an art.


Social Dance as Sport.

“…the zone does not exhaust our understanding of the secret life of sport. It is not an end point.
It is a point from which we depart with a deeper and richer sense of the inner landscape through which we travel.”
– Andrew Cooper

Sport is widely defined as a recreational activity that requires physical exertion. Although competition against others is often closely associated with sport, the real competition is with the self. Sport challenges the athlete to push their body and mind to progressively higher levels, testing the limits of their potential. So for those who view competition in a negative light, social dance as sport need not be an off-putting or intimidating concept, because what is life but a series of challenges, constantly pushing us to be better than we were before?

In any sport, the mastery of basics skills is required in order to put ourselves in a position to experience flow. This mastery can only be achieved when consistent practice results in the skills becoming second nature. In sport, this is often called muscle memory. Muscle memory means that the movements and decision-making required in the sport have become so natural that they are automatic and happen without thought. Once this happens, the athlete is free to carry out the demands of the sport with less effort and can reach a higher plane of achievement than was possible before. Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi express this concept in their book, Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances: “Because the experience is so spontaneous and effortless, many people think that flow does not require the use of skills. They don’t realize that, paradoxically, it is only when the skills are so well practiced as to have become automatic that one can abandon oneself to spontaneous action and experience flow.”

In every sport, there are basic skills that have to be learned in progression. As a child, you had to learn to crawl before you could learn to walk, and learn to walk before learning to run. In any sport, there are basic techniques that must be learned and mastered before moving on to intermediate and advanced concepts. These techniques are building blocks that lead to progressive mastery of the sport. When using blocks to create something greater than the sum of its parts, everyone knows that if the bottom blocks don’t provide a solid foundation, they will not be able to support the higher parts of the structure.

This applies to sport and dance as well. Sloppy technique in the beginning stages of learning will cause the rest of your dancing to fall apart if you attempt intermediate and advanced techniques too soon. There are so many exciting elements of social dance once you progress beyond the basics – advanced musicality, improvisation, physical tricks – but without the proper foundation, these elements fall apart and lead only to frustration. Good technique, however, opens up infinite possibilities for exploration and discovery. Good technique – control, balance, rhythm, quality of movement – provides you the tools you will need as you progress to the next level.

It is very common in the dance world to see examples where the rule of progression is ignored. Dancers who do lots of complicated moves but don’t know how to follow the music or communicate the leads smoothly to their partner, or dancers who try to improvise with the rhythm but at the expense of the connection… These are dancers who violate the basic rule of progression and therefore are less likely to experience flow or allow their partner to experience flow. Musician Victor Wooten summed this up well when he wrote, in his book The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music, that only when rules are thoroughly learned can they be thoroughly broken. Janet Carlson also beautifully expressed the same concept in her book, Quick, Before the Music Stops: “Control is a beautiful thing in ballroom dance, any kind of dance, because with it you can master technique, and that frees you to be the artist creating something spontaneously divine and wonderful.”

Many dancers may disagree with me here and say that I am discouraging creativity or exploration. Complex movements are such an exciting feature in the social dance world that many are often too impatient to refrain from them until they are ready. This impatience comes at a price: dancing that doesn’t feel or look good beyond the surface, dancing that is done for extrinsic reasons rather than intrinsic and, therefore, will not lead to flow. Victor Wooten wrote the following as it relates to music, and I believe the same is true for dance: “The use of flashy techniques can cause the audience to start watching and stop listening… The problem with it is, more times than not, it is the musician who stops listening and not the audience… They should develop a more solid foundation before they venture off in that direction. It doesn’t matter what the technique is; just make it solid before you make it flashy.”

In sum, the more advanced concepts in dance are fantastic and worthy of learning, but only once the more basic techniques it requires – the building blocks – are solid and consistent. Even when a dancer is ready for advanced techniques, they shouldn’t be the basis or the focus of the dance. They shouldn’t be done for their own sake but as an inspired response to the dance, the music, and your partner. Victor Wooten elaborates on this: “Here’s the difference… My techniques are not born out of a need to be flashy. They are born out of the desire to produce with my hands what I hear with my mind. Usually, if I keep my mind focused on Music, the technique will create itself.”

In addition to allowing spontaneous creativity and self-expression on the dance floor, the building blocks of technique also provide an opportunity for greater communication with your partner. Being able to hear the music and follow the rhythm, having good balance and being centered, dancing with quality of movement, leading or following with responsiveness – all of these qualities allow you to have a conversation and form a connection with your partner. Alex Krebs, in my interview with him in 2008, emphasized this as well: “Consistency is the word. When dancing with another person you always have to adjust, but you have to give your dance consistency so that the other connections can come through.”

Ultimately, the concept so beautifully expressed by Victor Wooten and Alex Krebs is that the technique serves the dance, not the other way around. We will learn more about this in Part 4, Social Dance as Art. For now, enjoy learning the technique at the level you are at because, ultimately, it will serve and inform your dancing as you progress to the next level and seek to form connections with your dance partners. For what is the purpose of learning technique? You will love this answer…

The purpose of learning technique is to forget about it. You might want to read that again, so let me repeat: The purpose of learning technique is to forget about it. Part of the essence of flow is immersion or absorption in the activity. Immersion entails inclusion and exclusion: focusing on what matters in the dance and ignoring the rest, filtering out extraneous stimuli and maintaining a “relaxed concentration” (another characteristic of flow) on the dance as it happens. Mastery of the skills and techniques of the dance teaches you to do this until it becomes second nature, so you don’t have to think about it. The thinking itself becomes automatic. In other words, technique and skill becomes intuitive to your body and your mind.

Intuition is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as “the immediate knowing of something without the conscious use of reasoning.” In other words, being in the moment, in the zone, in a state of flow. Flow is a higher level of being and knowing and doing. It is acting intuitively – dancing intuitively – without the need to analyze or intellectualize. Indeed, even thinking becomes so second nature that it is effortless and transcendent. Michael Novak stated it well, using the word instinct instead of intuition: “This is one of the great inner secrets of sports. There is a certain point of unity within the self, and between the self and its world, a certain complicity and magnetic mating, a certain harmony that conscious mind and will cannot direct. Perhaps analysis and the separate mastery of each element are required before the instincts are ready to assume command… Command by instinct is swifter, subtler, deeper, more accurate, more in touch with reality than command by conscious mind.”

Sport requires the use of discipline and control to attain the ultimate freedom, that feeling of flow. Developing mastery of the basic skills and techniques of the sport is necessary so they become automatic, freeing the athlete to become immersed in the activity and push the limits of their potential. It is the same in the realm of dance. During this immersive experience, the dancer is able to reach a level where they move and think intuitively, acting in the moment without over-thinking or analyzing. This higher level – flow – is the ultimate liberation and brings spontaneous creative movement with a partner that leaves the dancer wanting more.

The remaining articles in this series are coming soon., so stay tuned!

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