There’s more to dancing than “left, right, cha, cha, cha”

Strictly Come Dancing – Psychology Style

By Peter Lovatt

I recently had the pleasure of being invited on to the British TV programme “Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two” (the precursor to the US version “Dancing with the Stars”) to talk about the pro-celebrity couples during their training. As someone who specialises in dance psychology I was delighted to see how the couples worked together.

I had a total of four and a half minutes to talk live for 30 seconds on each of the couples so I couldn’t say much. Also, I was told that I had to frame everything in a positive way and I wasn’t allowed to use technical language that the general public might not understand. So what kinds of things did I talk about?

There were many things that I wanted to talk about. When you see people dancing, out of their comfort zone, learning, teaching, preparing to be judged, going through the early stages of forming relationships and dealing with complex power dynamics there is so much to talk about that I could have spoken all day. Dancing, and perhaps especially couple dancing, offers a unique window through which you can see so much.

For the uninitiated, the format of Strictly Come Dancing, and Dancing with the Stars, is fairly straight forward. Professional dancers are paired with celebrities. Each week the professional dancer teaches the celebrity a new ballroom (e.g. Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep etc) or Latin (e.g. Rumba, Cha Cha, Samba etc.) dance. The couples then perform these dances in front of a live audience, a huge television audience and four judges. At the end of each dance the couples are given a score, and comments, by the judges and then the TV audience then phone in to vote for their favourite couple. Each week the couple with the lowest combined score is eliminated from the competition.

The professional dancers are out of their comfort zones because they have to teach a celebrity who often, but not always, has no previous dance experience, and they might be criticised either for their choreography or for their ability to teach a certain style to their celebrity.

The celebrities are out of their comfort zone because they are having to learn a new skill and perform it in front of a potentially hostile judging panel. The celebrities have typically been very successful in their chosen field (e.g. sport, journalism, acting etc), they have high status and are often well respected by their peers.

When the professional dancers and the celebrities come together the dynamic between them can be very interesting.

I spoke about three areas in the few minutes I had. There were a dozen other areas I wish I had time to cover. I spoke about the relationship between the dancers and how this effected their training environment. I spoke about how the celebrities dealt with characterisation in the dance and I spoke about dance confidence and overcoming performance anxiety.

Relationships and the Training Environment
I saw couples where the professional dancer set up a wonderful training environment for the celebrity and others that were a training-environment disaster. Where this worked I saw a wonderful connection between the pro and celebrity. I saw the pro adapting the training environment based on the individual needs of the celebrity. This was often a self-less act on behalf of the pro and it contributed to a great connection between the pro and celebrity on the dance floor. When you see a thoroughbred competitive ballroom dancer let go of their ego and help a celebrity, who has realistic chance of surviving for more than a couple of weeks, with the most basic steps it becomes easy to see how wall flowers blossom in the arms of a dance partner.

Characterisation and Personality
It was interesting to see how some of the celebrities were able to “act” the character with the different dances and some were not. For some of the dancers they found it impossible to suppress the natural elements of their personality within the context of dance. This was the case even for some of the celebrities who were successful actors. On the other hand, those male celebrities who could take on and consistently express the character of, for example, the Matador in the Paso Doble did better in terms of the judges vote, even when their footwork was less than perfect, than those celebrities who got the footwork right but who couldn’t take on a believable character. Watching the professional dancers and the celebrities deal with characterisation during the rehearsal process was very interesting.

Dance Confidence and Performance Anxiety
Of course, we all know that performance anxiety can be crippling. The physical, behavioural and psychological effects of performance anxiety can be seen in sharp contrast in the way people learn and perform a dance. The tense muscles leading to restricted movements, the clowning around and avoidance of training and practice, and the self-doubt that fills your head with unnecessary noise that stops you taking in the information you need to learn the routines. Where these symptoms of performance (and rehearsal) anxiety were recognised and dealt with the celebrities and professional dancers used a fantastic array of techniques to counter them. However, where these symptoms were not recognised and dealt with they appeared as bright beacons of distraction when the couples performed.

What a joy, and a privilege, it was to watch the intimate rehearsals of pro-celebrity dance couples. There is clearly so much more to dancing than “left, right, cha, cha, cha”.

https://www.peterlovatt.com/movement-in-practice 

 



 
Contributor
Brigitt Mayer-Karakis is the author of the award winning book "Ballroom Icons", and chief archivist for the WDC Dance History project.
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