How Did “Technique” Get To Be A Dirty Word?

by Gerald Cosby

For some dancers, the word technique seems to have sunk to the status of a four-letter word – that is, not something to be mentioned in polite company. I’ve had dancers tell me they weren’t interested in the technique part of lessons because “all we want is to learn to dance.” I’ve seen eyes glaze over in classes when I’ve attempted to bring up technique. Sometimes I’m reminded of the movie “Strictly Ballroom,” and the stuffed shirts who insist that the hero stick to their strict limits on his steps. THOSE are the people who would insist on technique; ordinary people who want to have fun and enjoy their dancing would never consider such a thing. Right?

Wrong! Technique is good for everyone, especially social dancers! Technique allows two social dancers, who have never danced together before, to dance a flowing Waltz or a simmering Rhumba. Technique allows a couple to move through a crowd on the dance floor, without colliding with other couples, or cutting others off. Technique allows a leader to lead without physical force, and a follower to follow with grace and precision!

So how did technique get such a bad name? While there are many contributing factors I think the primary reason is a lack of understanding of just what is meant by dance technique. Most people believe it refers to “heels and toes” and CBMP, and a lot of other esoteric stuff that numbs your mind, and turns you into a stiff automaton.

Actually, the four main categories of technique are extremely practical for social dancing. The first has to do with posture and carriage. Every technique book begins with several pages on the correct posture and carriage, which most people skip right over so they can learn new steps. Ironically, in order to do the steps you have to master that stuff up front. Posture allows the dancer to stand and move easily, allows the leader to lead without force, and the follower to dance with the leader without hesitation. Yet most people don’t believe it’s necessary to spend lesson and practice time learning how to develop correct dance posture, preferring to be “natural” instead. Well, no matter what anyone tells you, there is NOTHING about ballroom dancing that is NATURAL! If we walked around with another person in front of us, usually one walking backward while the other walks forward, moving at varying rhythms in strange looking patterns, we’d be considered really strange! Yet we want to do these very things on the dance floor using the skills we use in everyday walking, and think they should work there too. Well, they don’t!

The second category of technique has to do with the relationship between the partners. If a leader does not understand the correct dance frame, then the leader will resort to using strength, forcing the follower to move a particular way, which may be awkward or even dangerous. A proper dance frame allows the leader to indicate the desired movement clearly but without force, which allows the follower to move properly and safely. Likewise, if the follower does not understand the correct dance frame, the leader has no method to communicate the lead.

It is also important to understand that that much in ballroom dance is counterintuitive. For example, in some figures a couple turns not because the dancers turn individually but because one partner remains relatively still, while the other partner moves past, causing the partnership to turn. Many other aspects of dancing are also counterintuitive, and without a thorough grounding in partner relationship technique, the dance can become an arm wrestling match set to music.

The third category of technique involves appropriately applying the character of the dance. For example, take the term “rise and fall”: Waltz has graceful rise and fall, while Foxtrot glides across the floor with very little rise and fall. Though the two dances share many figures, those figures will be danced quite differently for each of the two dances. Applying the appropriate technique to capture the character of each dance, rather than blindly trying a “one size fits all” approach, is one of the most joyful aspects of learning to dance.

Finally, there is the technique associated with each figure; the “heels and toes,” amount of turn, sway, etc. However, what’s often overlooked is that these are actually descriptions of what the finished product should look like, not prescriptions for how to achieve it. Most instructors discourage students from referring directly to a technique book, because it was never intended to be a teaching manual. The techniques described in books were developed by watching good dancers perform, and describing the result. Without a trained instructor to provide information about the actual method of achieving those results, the technique books can seem overly legalistic and extremely cryptic. It’s understandable that someone whose exposure to “technique” consisted of dealing directly with a book would have a bad image of technique.

So, whether you are a competitor or a social dancer, dancing is about enjoying yourself. Dancing technique is not meant to take away from your enjoyment; its purpose is to enhance it! The more you understand about the four categories of technique, the more enjoyable dancing will be for you, and the more enjoyable you will be to dance with!