Thursday, 12 November 2015

Keep Dancing!

I watched the first season of Strictly Come Dancing, loved the dancing but hated the way the results were given so much that I only dipped in and out of subsequent series' Saturday night shows. For some reason, I started watching the latest series and am completely hooked!

Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman, what a team! They are so sympathetic and the presentation is slick, even some of the terrible puns and one-liners crack me up. Don't get me wrong; Sir Bruce Forsyth is great, but I love that the presenters are all women. I also thoroughly enjoy Strictly - It Takes Two with Zoe Ball on week nights, with the insights into costume design and dance technique, as well as all the behind-the-scenes shots of dance training and interviews with the dancers. Saturday's show consistently refers to the Sunday night show as 'tomorrow', but of course it's filmed later on the Saturday, after the voting closes.  It has to be, so that the dancers can stay dressed and made up. So the group dance and the dancing which accompanies the guest singer must happen and be filmed out of sequence, to allow the professional dancers to change. I note the presenters and certainly Darcey Bussell out of the judges change their outfits for the 'results' show. I caught myself wondering whether any of the presenters, or Darcey Bussell, wear the same outfit twice throughout the series. And if they don't, how many dresses is that each?  How many wardrobes ...?

The viewer voting still brings the element of a popularity contest, which is a shame. However, it does reflect a sort of popular vote on the entertainment value of each piece. It must also bring in some revenue for what must be a terrifically expensive show, with a heavy cast of dancers, live orchestra, singers, camera/sound/light/production crew, wardrobe, hair, make up, judges, guest performers, costumes, rehearsal space, studio overheads, and so on ad infinitum. Possibly the expense is the reason why it's an elimination contest, but it would be so lovely to see all the couples dance all the dances, see the improvement in the celebrities as dancers, and see weekly and cumulative leader boards of the judges' scores and the viewers' votes. The tension-pause before each couple's names are announced as 'safe' has lengthened from a ten count to twelve or more. Why would you do that? All of the dancers have mentioned what torture it is, and it's long enough for any suspense to evaporate into sheer annoyance. It's what turned me off Strictly in the first place. Count to eight if you must, but just get on with it!

We are at the half-way point of the series now, and it's started to get silly, with a couple who have been dancing brilliantly suddenly in the dance-off against the couple who sadly were at the bottom of the leader board. The look on everyone's faces when they knew the inevitable result even before they danced, and then after dancing before the judges' verdicts, had me in floods of tears, softy that I am. How the dancers held it together must be down to their sheer professionalism.

The viewer vote aside, it's really not about the celebrities being celebrities, but their weekly struggles to learn each new dance with the different techniques and styling. Or perhaps it's that the celebrity-dancers are all genuinely interested in learning to dance and are working really hard. I did a little ballroom dance in the past, but it was strictly social. Very basic steps, no mention of the finer points of footwork, hold positions and top line. I'm learning a lot from the judges' comments, which are generally fair and to the point. My internal critical voice now sounds like Craig Revel Horwood, which is an improvement. Yes, really! It's brought a new objectivity, making it easier for me to watch video of my dancing without beating myself up and feeling bad. It's like having a teacher I like and respect telling me what needs to be improved. ('Well, I'm sorry to say, darling, that there was so much wrong I don't know where to start. Hands, shape, definition, technique, and increase your choreographic content. The intensity was there, but you have to stop yourself getting too carried away and losing focus. And stop singing along.') So I can work on getting my internal critic to say 'Fab-u-lous, darling! A-ma-zing!'

Watching the show has brought up something which has long puzzled me: why are some people better dancers than others? There are plenty of scientific theories about 'beat deafness', insufficient GABA, and undeveloped neural pathways.  The first two to be eliminated in this series were both sportsmen. They were slim, fit, strong, should have a decent amount of coordination and body rhythm from their training and reasonable proprioception and control. Sportsmen should be fine with making their body do what they want it to, to follow instructions. It's clearly not enough to be slim, fit, young, strong, have great stamina or have the best one-to-one teacher and training time in real studio space with mirrors. The continual improvement of all dancers, however, shows just how important practice is. So what goes on? Setting aside conditions which affect proprioception, such as hypermobility and dyspraxia, and physical or motor problems, why should some people find dancing harder than others?

I've noticed that sometimes, women who are otherwise very fit and toned have a lot of trouble with belly dance, particularly finding it difficult to access soft, smooth movement in certain planes, especially using the core muscles. Having been an avid gym and aerobics bunny myself once (I know, hard to believe), I wonder if the two-beat, contract-release, on-off movement style becomes the muscle memory default. This is usually accompanied by a degree of tension, which stops full, fluid movement. Tension can be made worse by self-consciousness and self-criticism, over-thinking and trying too hard, until your mind is whirling and your brain has no processing power left to direct your body to dance.

Dance generally includes a wide range of dynamics; slow and fast, sudden and sustained, jerky and fluid. It also needs connection with the music, not just the beat, but an embodiment of rhythm. There are lots of other little details which need attention too, but they can be learned and improved with practice.

I'm giving a workshop in Cardigan this Sunday afternoon on graceful movement, to explore the dance elements which make the difference between gawky and gorgeous. So if you feel you lack grace, come to the workshop! You know you want to! And in the meantime ... Keep Dancing!

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