How many times have you had an instructor tell you, ‘you’re thinking about the steps too much! Just let go and feel it!’ Maybe you got frustrated, because how are you supposed to dance without thinking about it? Who is right?
I’ve heard it said that dance is motion and emotion. We think about the motions, then learn to feel the emotion that the movements convey. (Don’t think your movements can change how you feel? Try slumping in your chair and frowning for 60 seconds, then tell me you don’t feel sad.) Since we can’t simultaneously think and feel very well, what are the benefits and drawbacks of using one over the other?
Thinking the Dance
- More attention to detail – When we are thinking the dance, we can focus on each little movement, giving our dancing greater control and precision. Every brand new step needs to be thought out carefully to commit it to muscle memory.
- Catch bad habits – Since you’re watching the movement carefully, you can also spot what is helping or hindering the movement. This allows you to start experimenting to see what works better, or at least telling your instructor your observations, so they can correct it faster.
- Easier to remember – Of course, you need intense focus to commit anything to memory long enough to practice it further later. This becomes less important if the movement is a very simple one (for you).
- Wooden movement – Thinking about movements serves us best when done slowly; speed up to music tempo, and you’ll quickly find your brain can’t keep up. As a result, the movement becomes stiff and sporadic as the muscles wait for the labouring brain to ‘catch up on the action’.
- Less enjoyment – A poem may be beautiful, but if you analyze every word, it loses much of its power. Likewise the enjoyment of dance can be reduced to a series of drills that improve you technically, but don’t capture the ‘life’ of the movement.
Feeling the Dance
- More natural movement – There’s a difference between an person who dances, and a dancer who is the dance, who embodies and is possessed by it. Like an actor who is ‘authentic’ versus one who is ‘scripted’, letting go of the technique and trusting your muscle memory makes your movement more believable, more real.
- Capture the ‘feel’ of the dance – The grace of the waltz, the romance of the rumba, the passion of the tango… Arguably, the greatest joy one can get from dancing is when they let themselves go and experience the emotions that are conveyed with the character of the dance.
- Greater motivation to improve – Letting your emotional defences down can be scary at first, but the more you let yourself get carried away, the more you can enjoy every step, however subtle, instead of rushing on the next step, and the next. This shifts your focus from dancing more to dancing well.
- Harder to remember steps later – The one drawback of feeling the dance is it’s more difficult to remember them later when your practicing. Fortunately, you can work around this one if you can film yourself practicing, to review later.
So, the verdict? It’s best to listen and think carefully while learning new steps or technique you are adding to your repertoire. However, try ‘just dancing’ the movements from time to time to see if you can nail it on instinct as well. And when it’s time to perform or dance at a social, learn to blank your mind and trust your feelings – they’re what dancing is all about.