Sunday, June 10, 2012

Breathing 101

Let’s cover some basics about breath. Being better about your breathing will allow you to do more physically, make your dancing look much better, help you find more natural looking movement, and give you better presence. It’s not just enough to breathe, but actually to know some of the components to breath and how to change it. I caught myself the other day teaching and telling someone to breathe – but it’s not like they weren’t breathing and turning blue and passing out – it’s just that they weren’t breathing well.

Breathing parts

We’re going to break breathing into 3 parts. Your breath could be one of these parts, two, or all three.

Part 1 : Belly breath

Part 1 is the deep belly breath – like a baby’s breath. This is the diaphragm (the muscular division between your rib-cage compartment and your abdominal compartment) pulling down (it’s got two little fingers that attach lower down the spine). In pulling down it expands space for the lungs pulling in air and pushing out the organs in the belly. Of the three parts, this one can expand the lungs the most. In a good dancer you’ll see a nice expansion out of the belly (the rectus abdominis muscles will be relaxed – the body gets real support from the transverse and obliques on the side). Various exercises can be done internally working the diaphragm against the transverse abdominis or timing it with the transverse (things like yoga fire breath etc).

In the average population you see a lot of people never use belly breath and they need to be retaught it.

Part 2 : Rib cage breath

Part 2 is rib cage breath. This involves expanding out the ribs. It doesn’t get at much volume to the lungs as belly breath but it’s what a lot of people will do thinking they’re doing a big breath. This can be a very nice breath and many exercises can be done to expand the rib cage in different directions to stretch out the intercostal muscles (the muscles in between the ribs) and strengthen them. Some nice exercise I like to do with students in learning to expand one side (left and right) more than the other.

Part 3 : Scalene muscle breath

Part 3 is scalene muscle breath. These are small muscles in the neck that reach down to the top of the rib cage to the tops of the lungs and pull the tops of the ribs upward. This is the weakest and smallest of the three breath parts. There’s no way it can deliver the oxygen you need to do even minimal exercise, but it’s amazing the number of people just breathe with just this part all the time. People look kind of tense just breathing with the scalene, if you ask them if they’re breathing they say and think they are, but it’s really not an effective breath.

A Nice breath

A nice breath would start with part 1, then do part 2, and then some part 3. Then release those in that order. Not that is what you’re going to do all the time – it’s just a really good breath to practice. It doesn’t take into account the lobes of the lungs and it’s relation to forward flexion of the spine or backward extension, or times you might want to hold your breath (like building inter-abdominal pressure), or different breath timings (exhale time, inhale time, and holds on both ends) – that’s all for later lessons.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

How are your Questioning Skills?

Our lives are led by questions. What should I wear today? What should I have for breakfast? Should I take that dance lesson? Unfortunately we don’t use our built in questioning skills to our advantage. Asking good questions can get us out of ruts that we might be stuck in, it can help us to have better relationships, it can get us past learning plateaus we don’t even see that we’re in. Asking good questions will change your life.

Western Teaching

Unfortunately we have a tradition of teaching that kills creativity and good thinking. The teacher comes in, they explain stuff, they babble on for an hour or two. Students have to take notes and repeat back the information on a test. The whole process is very one directional. It’s no wonder students get disengaged, uninterested, bored, and tuned-out. When do they get to actually think about the subjects? When do they get to feel something about it? Some will, but probably in spite of the teacher’s methods, not because of them.

Neil Postman the famous educator once said, “Children enter our schools as question marks and leave as periods.” Our society un-trains people from asking questions. It’s always amazing to me that when I stop class and ask people if they have any questions, no one is brave enough to ask any – even when they’re having difficulties – even when I know from talking to them personally that they’re curious.

Make-up a Question

Lately in class I’ve been asking people to make-up questions. Go around the room and each person has to make-up a question. (It’s not quite practical if you’re teaching a huge class, but if you’re teaching a typical sized class, try it out.) It’s not for the faint of heart, what you learn about your students will amaze you, and use your best judgment if to do it. Most people come up with amazing great questions, questions that will huge benefits for their dancing. Things that they’re interested in, engaged in, curious about – and now more involved in the class about.

Unfortunately some people come up with questions that just reveal that they’re just not there to learn anything. They’ve already closed their minds.

Becoming great comes from within

In the end, the reality of the situation is that teachers really don’t do much through giving information. In the end, you have to learn everything yourself, the teacher is really just a facilitator for it. The best teachers know this. A great teacher doesn’t have to do much teaching at all, they really have to build curiosity, passion, engagement. Students really teach themselves.

Dig Deep

Someone once wrote “you will only be as good a coach as to how fundamental the questions you ask”. Fundamental questions have driven my life. Not just simple questions like, “how can I dance this step better?” but bigger – How can this improvement apply to other movements? Is there a universal technique? What are the fundamental parts to good movement?

  • What does it mean to move from your core?
  • “Got belly?” How does that really help me to learn about the core? What is really going on with the muscles?
  • What are the muscles of the core? How do I use them? How do I train them? Why should I train them?
  • How often should I practice? Is there a point at which practice is not useful? Is there a point where practice makes things worse?
  • Is there do enough, but not too much rule to practicing in dance? Is it something like over practicing acting?
  • What makes good dancers good?
  • What is artistic about dancing? What is art? What are the fundamental components of any art? How do they apply to dance?
  • Is there a “genetic” component to being a good dancer? Or can it all be learned? Do you have to start at a young age?
  • Is body shape genetic – or is there something else there at play? If you’ve seen someone go through good dance training and their feet change shape, their shoulders and arms change position, their rib cage changes, their back changes, with-in just a few months, can you really just explain things away as genetic? And “some people have it and some don’t”?
  • Why do some people take lessons for years and never get better?
  • If it’s clear to see that a dancer from outside the ballroom world (ballet, modern, whatever) is much better, can start doing ballroom and win right away, or not ever do ballroom and still dance awesome, why do people get so sold on thinking their coach knows everything, or you must be a US or World finalist to know what you’re talking about?
  • What makes a dance a dance? Is it the music? What is character?
  • How much of you do you express on the floor? How much should you? What does it mean to express you on the floor? How do I change that?
  • What is theater? What makes good theater?
  • If coach A says to do such-and-such always or never, but I can watch the world finalists on YouTube and they break that rule all the time, what does that mean? Is there something more fundamental being hidden here?
  • If coach A says to do one thing and coach B says to do something else. Why? Is one right? Is there a way for both to be right?

Ask questions, change your life. It changed mine.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Improve your Sexiness Quotient with Boundaries

Boundaries in relationships are hugely important, but greatly messed up. Whether it’s a relationship with a friend, romantic relationship, family member, acquaintance, teacher, student, co-worker, whatever. Problems with relationship boundaries leads to losing friends, losing business, boring performances, fizzled love relationships, fighting, isolation, feeling threatened, and many more problems.

Relationship boundary skills are not taught as a class for everyone. Most people learn through observation of their parents. Maybe that’s not the best thing in the world. Perhaps you’re inheriting a divorce rate. There is lots of information in psychology about these skills, but our historical-national view on psychology (among other things) is to use this information way too late after there’s already huge problems instead of using this information early on and for improvement of everyone’s lives. And you can learn these skills from a good ballroom dancing teacher – because teaching ballroom dancing is often like being a couple’s councilor.

There’s something to learn here for everyone. For people who have really good boundary skills to learn to be more observant of boundaries in other people and why you react to them the way you do. For people who are dating or looking for someone to date. For people in long term relationships. For improving storytelling and dance quality.

People can get really messed up. And it’s not so much really that they’re messed up, it’s just that they’ve never really seen good relationship boundary skills up close. Perhaps they grew up in a home with just a single parent, or with parents that had no boundary skills of their own. Their parents fought all the time, or were distant, or alternated between the two. When did they ever get a chance to learn the tiny, subtle, joyful, fun interaction of the setting of small minor boundaries and breaking them and renegotiating them.

The Wus/Dullard/Wall flower

The problem of the wus is the problem of not setting boundaries – of not reacting soon and often enough. They don’t set up boundaries and so people step right in and they don’t respond, and things progress, and they don’t respond, and they don’t respond, and they don’t respond. But then they do respond – they go postal. They yell at their husbands, they make wild accusations that they’re being threatened, they whine that they are the victim. They lose friendships, marriages, connection with people.

The Speedster/Slut/Easy girl/Salesman/Slimy guy

The problem of the speedster is the problem of brushing past boundaries and the negotiation of boundaries that would normally happen. Instead of paying attention to the subtle negotiations of personal boundaries they just go in and take or do. They come of callous, not caring. They are kind of unaware of the people they are interacting with.


What if you put an extreme wus and an extreme speedster in the same room together? Just wait till the explosion happens! Put either of them with someone who has good boundary relationship skills – the wus or the speedster might just think the good skills person was just boring or inert or dull… the good skills person is probably thinking “red flag! red flag!!!”. (Want some entertainment, watch the SNL perfume ad spoof “red flag”.) What if you put these different type people on dates?

Learning to Negotiate

Developing good boundary skills is about subtlety. It about doing small simple harmless actions and observing the small reactions. On the course level it’s about protection and safety, but really if you’re doing it on a course level, it’s already too late. On the subtle level, it’s about flirting and leads to any number of things based on the situation: business deals, job offers, relationships, romance, hot sex, great dance performance, or just great friendships. It gives you full control of the relationships in your life.

Romance and Seduction

Perhaps this is easiest first to see in the example of romance and seduction. There are multitudes of small interactions and information to observe in situations of romance, many people are very aware of and thus a great place to start. First, the eyes, is someone awake, aware, looking around? Or are they closed down, distracted, or “not there”? Are they smiling? What emotion are they in?

There is always a boundary between you and other people, sometimes small, sometime great. You start distant. Observe the starting condition. Now instead of just barreling up to this someone and saying, “hey you’re hot, let’s go on a date”… Instead of that, just move slightly closer. Not a whole lot. This person you are interested in, what is their reaction? Again, move closer. What is their reaction? In this method, you have started to set up a dialog. A question and answer response, a series of boundaries that is the key to communicating and negotiating intention. You know right away if someone is interested, distracted, ready, not-ready, busy, or whatever. No blood needs to be shed, no one needs to be caught off guard.

Everyone’s personal distances (distance to acknowledgement, distance to casual conversation, distance to intimate conversation, distance to friends, distance to lovers) is influenced by culture, but still hugely different amongst a culture. If you can’t read exactly where those distances are just by walking up to someone, you can improve your relationship boundary skills.

The Poking Experiment

A popular favorite amongst high school boys is the poking their finger into the abdominals of a girl. It can be done as a surprise or with total awareness. It can be done platonic-ly or non-platonic-ly. It even works well into adulthood. It’s an initiation. In the communication and developing of boundaries, there is always a boundary, someone must initiate the crossing and then observe the interaction afterward. Initiating and not observing? That’s the speedster. Not reacting to something that’s clearly an initiation? That’s a wus. Initiating again and again and again and getting negative or no response? That’s just obnoxious.

By building up a catalog of initiation actions and reactions to them we build up a repertoire of communication with someone. You need to rebuild that with everyone you meet. It’s called relationship building. You create a gentle chase, you interact with them, they interact with you. Look for a balance. (Tennis gets really boring really fast if your other player can’t volley back the ball and you learn nothing and neither of you get better). You respect and give space to the other person by waiting for their response.


There are a lot of great dancers out there. Beautiful technique, interesting choreography, but some have no chemistry. They may dance great, but they hold very little interest for me. They are not interacting with each other. There is no timing of waiting for the reaction of their partner after they have initiated something. If a couple has great interaction with each other, it changes everything, timings are now interesting and varied instead of boring, movements have cause. For couples that have great interaction, they could do a basic all day and it would still be interesting.


So go out an observe people now. And observe your own actions and reactions. And then take a moment for peace to observe the neutral and then wait for an initiation or even better – initiate something yourself. You can learn so much by just playing the game, experimenting, having fun. Take times to take breaks, rest, heal if you have to. But then get out there and mess around. Pay attention to others reactions carefully, respect them. Work small. Negotiate boundaries and actions and then renegotiate them again and again.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Create a Great Atmosphere

I’ve been to a lot of different social dances. Some are good, some bad, some fun, some not, some just down right horrible. Whether you want to create a great dance environment, or great work place, or great dance studio, it doesn’t matter, some of the same basic principles apply. The environment that you create is far more important than how good you dance or any technical skills you might have whatever the situation is. People might be attracted in the beginning for the technical, but they’ll only stick around if there is a good environment.

Need for human connection

Everyone has a need for human connection. The Non-Violent Communication group ranks connection as one of the seven needs of a human. Forms of connection account for 5 of Professor Steven Reiss’s 16 basic desires. People will go to extreme lengths to satisfy this need, to the point of sacrificing other needs including romance, happiness, peace, independence, or even their own health. Sadly people even do some classically really bad social mistakes where they’re trying to get more connection only to drive people away.

Some people will say anything just so that they can be part of the group. Even if they don’t believe what they are agreeing with. Even if what they are saying is mean and spiteful and they’re a “nice” person, they say it or agree to it just to fit in.

Bashing others or bashing a common perceived enemy is a common tactic people use. (Gossip can be a form of this.) It kind of works to bond you with someone else in your group, but has some serious draw backs. It probably worked better centuries ago, but we live in a connected world, people eventually hear everything. Actually, it probably didn’t work long ago in small towns either. It also sets up an atmosphere of judging. What if you don’t believe the same things? What if you want to go against the judgment in the rumors? Will you trade your independence / knowledge / happiness to keep your connection with your current group?

Being judgmental

We’ve all know and seen people like this. They’re perhaps too vocal about “I like this…” and “I hate this…” and “This is no good…”. (Perhaps a bit self centered too.) Some people have an opinion about everything, which in itself isn’t bad, but they feel they need to share it with the world. All the time. Again, this creates an air of judging.

Many people’s first reaction to being judged is to be defensive or at least cautious. If dancing is at least part about being expressive, do you think they’ll be more open and expressive in this kind of a situation? Are they going to become great dancers in a studio like that? Or worse, the social dancers that feel they need to correct everything someone is doing. What about just having some fun? Why would anyone in their right mind go into a dance situation like that?

If you’re a dance teacher or a dance student, please, save the corrections for the appropriate venue: lesson time.

The judgment concept is actually much bigger than this. People have judgments going on inside their head all the time. To turn the judgment thought process into a thought process of perception and observation is the main key to get people expressive in their dancing (or anywhere else in their life).

A story: I started my dancing at a studio that was hugely judgmental in attitude. I look bad, I think it was horrible. That poor teacher, he was a total wreck when it came time for him to compete. Anyway, further down my path of discovery and learning about dancing, I took my first acting class. (I’ve taken many more since then.) I was stunned that first time though about how they all behaved. About how much it was about observation and not judgment. Everyone should take some acting classes.


We are as people wired for fairness. When things are unfair, we are acutely aware of it. If you’re at a dance (or whatever the situation) try to spend some time with everyone. This is especially important for the leader of a group. One of the main qualities we all consciously or unconsciously attach to leadership is fairness. If you’re running a dance, you own a studio, whatever, don’t spend the entire night dancing with just your partner. Dance with everyone in the room. Systematically, one by one go through everyone in the room and dance with them each once, then lather, rinse, and repeat.

Try not to favor anyone in any of your classes. Even if you think you’re being private and just telling one student that “they’re so talented”, other students will hear. Don’t do it.


If we work together, we can all easily get all of our need for connection fed. We can all be more successful. Working together can be more enjoyable. Create a friendly environment in which the community can grow.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Straight vs Extending

What do you see when you see a good* ballet dancer? Wait! It’s a trick question. Kind of like one of those black and white pictures (a Rubin vase)  that could be a vase if you look at the white parts and a pair of people’s profiles if you look at the black parts of the image. When you look at the limbs of a ballet dancer, do you see the straight lines, or do you see the stretching and extending?

*Note, I said “good” ballet dancer, because this difference of what you see makes a big impact on how you dance and what the final result is. This difference is probably one of the most misunderstood parts of dancing.


(image by Bryan Derksen, Wikimedia Commons license)

Straight is a static description, it’s not moving. There are many ways to create straight lines with the body, but few that are healthy for the joints. Humans are not robots. Without proper training for how to make straight through extending and stretching, the straight lines people produce in their bodies are stiff, awkward, weak, and have a slight tinge feeling of “gosh that looks unhealthy”. Often students will lock their knees, lock their elbows, popup their shoulders, or stick out their hip just to “make a line”.

If we get that same straight line by stretching and extending we get a different look. With the arms, shoulders pull back into the body. (Have you ever had a ballroom instructor or ballet instructor tell you to lower your shoulders? Can you picture the beginning ballet dancer with their shoulders way up by their ears when their arms are up?) With the legs, the hips stay more stabilized underneath the torso instead of popping out the the side or the front. (Have you seen people walk and they have to swing their hips all over the place to just extend their legs? Or that awkward looking hip popped out to the side tendu?)

So, here’s part of the problem. Forcing the lines with out extension is unhealthy for the body. It causes stresses on joints in odd directions that the body can’t support. It’s one of the reasons that it looks “awkward”. Sometimes to the confusion of someone looking at it – “it’s a straight line and that’s nice, but it still looks awkward, but it’s straight, but it’s odd, it kind of looks like what the good dancers are doing, but it’s different…”.

Doing it nicely with extension and stretch is more work. We have a sedentary society and all that sitting and lack of exercise really works to misbalance the muscle groups in the body. To a point that many people just starting out dancing can’t actually get to the true healthy straight line of the arm or leg. Usually the shoulder or the hip socket is too tight to actually straighten the arm or leg with out pulling against it in a healthy position. Then, as a teacher you have to take time to strengthen the right muscles (latissimus dorsi, serratus, psoas, periformis, etc) which, once strengthened, allow the arm or leg to freely straighten. And there plenty of good exercises in yoga, ballet, modern dance, weight lifting, and many other areas to help with that.

There are plenty of groups out there (especially in ballet and ballroom dancing) that just focus on the line and not the healthy extension and stretch, to the point where they are mocked about it. One of the dancers I knew went to a Lindy Hop Swing lesson and the teacher started mocking them about being in Ballroom and that they just do “Lines” and then proceeded to dancing all mockingly “oh, I’m doing a line here, I’m doing a line here.” And then on the other flip side of the coin, I’ve heard one (kind of arrogant) ballroom dancer (big into doing fake unhealthly lines) say that Lindy was for sloppy dancers.

And it’s kind of sad. Two different groups both kind of right (straight lines are good and nice too look at artistically, and straight lines done poorly looks awkward and is unhealthy). But neither of them seeing the full pictures and realizing both are right. Both could learn from each other but both just fighting each other.

So, be open minded. Start to see the full picture. Take some time to just observe dancers. Are they “doing lines” or are they stretching and extending to get to, to reach, to perhaps not quite even get there for their movements? Get on the internets and watch some youtube videos.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Obsessed with Winning

Are you obsessed with winning? Do you know somebody who is? “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” is a famous quote from Henry Sanders, a football coach from the 1950’s. Do you love that quote? Or do you feel it exemplifies bad sportsmanship?How does this effect dancing? Does it making your dancing better or worse? Are you obsessed with “looking good”? Is image all that matters?

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic

Understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and motivation is hugely important. Extrinsic rewards are external rewards: winning a competition, looking good, fitting in with other people, it’s about obtaining an outcome that comes from outside the individual. Intrinsic rewards come from inside the person, it’s about enjoyment of the task itself or interest or knowledge or self development.

Psychologists have studied intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation for decades. Some basic stuff comes out of this research. People are motivated for longer amounts of time and end up being more successful in the long run if they have more intrinsic motivation. People who are intrinsicly motivated tend to be happier. As a teacher, if you focus on result based criticism (“That was good”, “That was bad”) you train extrinsic thoughts and students do worse over time. If you focus on effort based criticism (“You worked really hard”, “You need to work harder”) you train intrinsic thoughts and students to better over time.

To learn to dance well, it takes a long time to learn. So, if you’re a savvy ballroom dance teacher and you want your students to dance a long time, you should de-emphasize the results of competitions and applaud the work and effort for preparing for the competition.

But now you’re saying, wait a minute Chuck, that’s not what my dance instructor does, or you’re an instructor thinking, that doesn’t motivate students to buy as many lessons as emphasizing results and image. So here’s the catch 22 – by emphasizing the results students get worse, or just stay the same, but they’re being taught stuff, so the logical conclusion is to take more lessons! Some teachers are just naive and just teach however, some teachers actually know and just teach that way to sell lessons.

One time in a group class I went around the room and asked them all to share some of their motivations for dancing. One by one they all came up with extrinsic motivations: “they want to look good dancing”, “they want to look better physically”, etc. So then I explained to them the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Then I asked them all again to come up with an intrinsic reward, it didn’t even have to be their own reward, they just needed to describe an intrinsic reward that you could get from dancing. Then one by one we went around the room again. And again they all came up with extrinsic rewards. Ooof. It was going to be a difficult time teaching that group.


One of the things you think you might get from competition is measurement. If you’re going to do anything in life it’s good to have some metric to measure what you’ve accomplished. That way you can tell if you’re getting better and what you might need to adjust. Unfortunately competitions provide a really horrible measurement for the feedback of your development. A large part of that comes from the huge variation of who you are competing against.

You could go to a competition and there could be 20 people that are all much better than you, and rightfully so if they’ve spent the time and done the work to develop their dancing. You could go to a competition and those 20 other people just haven’t worked on their dancing as much as you. You never know who’s going to show up. Couples break up, good dancers get together with other good dancers. Sometimes there are a whole bunch of couples that have been together for ages and are all very experienced. At any one point in time it might be really easy or really hard to do well in competition.

Some days you could be dancing really great and just make it to the quarter finals. Some days you could make it to the finals and be dancing horribly.

Finding Good Measurement

In the study of flow in sports, the idea comes up of reframing your mental perspective on competition. The idea is that you find a different goal for doing competition than the competition itself. This new goal needs to be something measureable and something that’s completely within yourself. Ideally you choose a goal that is both obtainable, but will also take work to accomplish. Examples of good goals for dancing in a competition might be: just getting the choreography danced; adding laban dynamics to your entire routine and making sure they were all clear in your video; or having something specific for your arms to do all the time.

Separation of Mind and Body

In dancing, our instruments are our bodies. Our subconscious minds have difficulty separating what we do and who we are. Separating internally between how are dancing is and how good a person we are takes some skill. Some people get really mentally beaten-up when they compete. I’ve seen plenty of dancers totally psychologically torn apart by competition. Until you accept that your dancing and how well you move is just a result of knowledge and training. You are going to be however good a dancer you’re going to be at any one point in time. Some people just have had more time or better knowledge and some people have had less. You can control your own effort and learning, but there’s nothing you can do about someone else’s. In that respect competition is almost just total random craziness that just causes drama.

What makes competition good?

So, Chuck, what are you saying here? Competition in dancing just sounds like a bad idea. Why should we compete? There are several aspects of competition that are good. Competition sets goals and deadlines. It could be social. It could be a way to cheer, encourage, help, and praise your fellow competitors.

So, if you go about it for the right reasons. To compete purely against yourself (intrinsic rewards). Help others to realize the same. Dance for others so they might see the courage you have in facing your own personal challenges. Be social, be polite, realize everyone is at their own level that is right for them in that moment.

Winning is not everything. Winning is nothing. Sportsmanship and self development is the real value. Everyone wins when no one focuses on winning.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rhythm 101

Some people say they have no rhythm, that they’re rhythmically challenged. And it’s true. They’ve got no rhythm. But have no fear! A better understanding of rhythm is just a few moments away. And with it, something to play with and practice and incorporate into all your dancing. Like many of the things I teach, it’s something that is obvious once you hear it, but not obvious until you hear it.

This is something I knew to do dancing from before I started dancing. I don’t know where I learned it or picked it up. No teacher ever taught me it, and as a teacher myself I didn’t think to teach it. Until one day I read a book about note grouping. I thought “Oh my gosh! I’ve done this forever in my own dancing and never realized to teach it and it’s something some of my students are missing.”

Many people I’ve taught who say they have no rhythm can hear the beat of the music, clap or tap or do what ever perfectly to it. Some of them have near perfect internal metronomes (maybe that’s something that screws them up). And that’s all great, but not really what rhythm is.

They can also all speak fine. What? Why is that important you might ask. Language has an important skill that they’re not applying to their dancing. And many people, especially if they learned dance later in life don’t apply right away to their dancing with out some direction or instruction.

All languages have rhythm. Each language has a different rhythm. It allows us to understand word breaks. It’s why for a language we don’t know we can’t hear the word breaks. And why for a language we do know, we can hear the work breaks even if we can’t understand the words. And it’s why it’s recommended to take dance lessons or listen to the music when you move to a new country so that you can pick up the language faster.

What’s important about language is what needs to be done to your dancing. Not all syllables or in the case of dancing beats (or movements) should be danced the same. English and the romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, etc) have a particular up-down pattern to the syllables. One syllable is accented, then the next not, then the next after that is accented. And this is half way to understanding rhythm.

In dancing (and playing music) we need to group notes together. Grouping them together into groups of 2s or 3s on the lowest level and then grouping those groups into bigger groups. Here’s a super important point – in dancing (or playing music) – we need to increase the intensity or strength of the accent as we go.

Let’s take a look at Cha Cha. On the basic level we have:

1    2    3    4 &

In the Latin dances (Cha Cha, Rumba, etc) we group across the measure boundary to end on the 1. (In the American dances – like Swing – we group staying within the boundary of the measure.) That will give us a very different feeling for the music.

So let’s re-arrange a bit…

2    3    4  &  1

Now let’s group them (into a group of two and a group of three), and increase the intensity and accent of the beats…

2    3        4  &  1

So now we have something very different to dance. We’ve all seen dancers that dance every step the same. Maybe you cringe a bit when you see it (I cringe a bit). Maybe you realize what you’re seeing, maybe you don’t, maybe it just looks wrong, or feels wrong to you. If you’ve listened to computer generated music and it just felt dry, un-alive, un-feeling. Yes, the notes are all there, the playing was all the same though.

This is not just for ballroom or latin dancing. This is important for modern and ballet too. I saw a performance just recently. In this performance there was a section where all the dancers were out on stage doing a sequence of things. And most of them, just were don’t a very even rhythm, except for one. That one was doing this beautifully grouped and accented version of what everyone else was doing. It was beautiful.

Now, all rules in art you should have, you should follow most of the time, and sometimes you should just break them. As one of Wally’s student’s quoted of Wally: “You know all my rules, this is not an exam, go break them, break them all!” (Wally being Walter Laird – that cool dude who wrote the Latin syllabus). Understand note grouping. Use it most of the time – build a rapport with your audience through the music. And then break it and take them on a wonderful intellectual and artistic journey. Entertain, enlighten, and educate all at the same time.