Technique: A Theoretical Approach I

Alexander Hoffmann speaks about how technique is supposed to set the dancer free and why it has the opposite effect at times

By Alexander Hoffmann

Part 1 in a 2-part series

Ballroom Dancing, like any other athletic activity, is in a constant state of change. Change that causes more and more sophisticated performances. It is human nature to be continuously looking for transitions and developments, thank goodness. Where would we be without our ambition and curiosity? Some results of this path might be painful, others might be wonderful. What role does Technique play in this process? Technique: friend or foe?

Alexander Hoffmann

Last year in March, Ruud Vermey introduced a very interesting discussion on technique. The following four questions were raised:

  • What is the role of technique?
  • What are the freedoms and limitations of technique?
  • What is technique?
  • How did it change over the years?

What was probably thought of as an important, thought-provoking impulse quickly turned into a controversial discussion. The general opinion seemed to be that technique has a restrictive character. Obviously there was a widespread belief that technique in itself is limiting. Apparently it restricts the dancers’ freedom of movement and prevents them from developing there full artistic potential. Stop! Something shocking had happened.

Technique is supposed to have the opposite effect – it should set free the dancer physically and artistically.

How could this happen?

Not once in all the years that I have been actively occupying myself with sport science and motion studies did I come across a discussion like this. In no other sport would the necessity and legitimacy of technique ever be questioned. How is it possible that such a discussion at all became necessary? Shouldn’t it be out of question that technique is an elementary educational criterion for every athlete and every artist?

Without an elaborate technique, no skier would achieve a personal best, no footballer would be able to master the ball with expertise. And athletes are not the only ones who depend on technique; artists also rely upon it in order to find their work respected by critics and the public. Take for example painters, singers and ballet dancers — technique forms the basis for their artistic expression.

As Ballroom Dancing forms a unit of sport and art, the necessity of a movement technique ought not to be questioned. This would have far reaching consequences for our sport.

Nevertheless, there was this lively debate on the WDC education wall. It has been and still is a necessary appeal, since it shows that not all questions have been answered yet about how we as dancers deal with technique, with art, with the means of expression available to us, and with how to educate our young athletes.

With this article I’d like to answer the four questions posed by Ruud on the basis of scientifically valid findings. I am also going to try to provide possible solutions and practical training advice for problems and challenges that may arise when dealing with technique.

What is Technique? An explanation

In order to come to an objective definition of the meaning of technique I am using a scientific approach. This enables me to find universally valid answers to the question raised.

What is technique in general and what makes our ballroom technique so specific?

“Athletic technique in general is a collective term for a number of technical skills used by a particular or used in a particular sport. Technical skills are tested, functional and effective series of movements that provide solutions to a given task in a sports situation.” (Hohmann & Lames, Letzfelder, 2002)

In my opinion this definition, though scientifically valid, does not fully capture the meaning of what we regard as technique in ballroom dancing. Our technique has a strong cultural background, a cultural history as well as an important aesthetic component (different from most other sports). This is what makes our technique special.

In order to fully understand the meaning of our ballroom technique and to grasp its significance for the performance, let us take a look at the model ‘Categories of Sports’.

This model shows that all sports grouped together in one of the categories share a common relationship in the meaning and the appliance of their technique. Making this distinction between different ‘Categories of Sports’ can help us to understand that sports of a given category share the same problems and challenges in regards to learning, teaching, developing and the use of technique.

The ‘Categories of Sports’ are:

  • Combination sports (Dancing, figure skating, diving, etc.)
  • Speedpowersports (Sprinting,polevaulting,dowhillskiing,etc.)
  • Endurance sports (Long distance running, cross country skiing, etc.)
  • Games & martial arts (Football, basketball, karate, etc.)

Dancing is a combination sport. In combination sports, more than in other categories, the outstanding and prominent role of a movement technique is what all disciplines have in common. The technique in combination sports is called and described as ‘process oriented.’ On the other end of the spectrum we find the so called ‘target orientated’ (purpose driven) technique which is interpreted in a variety of ways in the other three categories.

In ‘target orientated’ techniques we see a functional movement with a clearly defined target to perform (throwing the basketball into the basket). Here, it is not judged how a movement itself is executed. However in combination sports, technique is not just the means to end on but a means of artistic expression and — this may be even more important for our discussion — a criterion for judging.

Accordingly, it can be argued that technique in ballroom dancing also means:

In sum: Technique is a collective term for a number of movement skills that enable us to resolve movement tasks in the most effective, economical and aesthetically pleasing way. Additionally, it has to be taken into consideration that our technique is an aspect of the performance that is subject of evaluation by the judges.

It is because of its being a judgment criterion that technique in ballroom dancing restricts the dancer’s freedom of movement. After all, form and precision are considered a sign of athletic skill and quality. Since it might be interpreted as a “breach of the rules”, dancers tend to abstain from individual interpretations, especially at the beginning of their career, and sometimes even beyond.

Conclusion: Technique may, indeed, restrict many dancers (as much as any other athlete in combination sports), since it is in its nature to limit the possibilities of expression and interpretation.

Technique = Restriction?

Finely coordinated movement always means narrowing our seemingly infinite range of motion.

When gripping a cup or climbing a flight of stairs, our movement is purpose driven. This limits our full range of motion severely: In order to grasp the cup, we extend our shoulder, arm and hand/finger joints; to climb a flight of stairs we extend and bend our knee, hip and ankle joints. Hence, our movements are reduced to a minimum number of necessary actions; each additional movement would be uneconomic and useless. Technique training therefore is vital for attaining maximum fine coordination and for paring down movements in order to achieve the most efficient and optimal execution.

Even though any form of athletic movement and mastery of technique requires a generally high level of flexibility, it has to be employed in a well measured and controlled way. If the dancer were to loose himself in his maximum range of motion, finely coordinated movement would no longer be possible.

Ouch … Acquiring technique therefore means restricting and strictly controlling our range of motion, so that we are able to perform a technically correct execution of movement.

Consequently, technique in itself is highly restrictive. This is bad news: The dancer is correct, after all, when he feels restricted by learning and applying technique.

Unlike gripping a cup or going up a flight of stairs, executing a highly coordinative technical movement requires in depth study, understanding, training and awareness.

Important information: In motion research, technical skills therefore are referred to as ‘deliberate actions. This means that they were largely established by repeated practice and have become partially automated. They can be performed without full concentration and attention. Their counterparts are automatisms. Automatisms are basic movement patterns such as walking, running, jumping, etc. These require no specific concentration or attention, they are called ‘generalized motor programs’ (GMP) and lay the foundation for our basic motor skills. Technical movements can never be automatisms, they always remain partially conscious. This is yet another reason why, depending on the level of technical training, the dancer feels restricted in his or her freedom of movement.

The good news is that we as dancers are not the only ones encountering this particular problem. Motor and sport science have been devoted to this subject for decades. Most of the solutions for our problems are already there. We only have to use them!

Conclusion: It is in technique’s nature to be limiting and restrictive. This is because only well controlled and guided movements will satisfy the demands of an athletic technique, such as our ballroom dancing technique.

What is the role of technique?

Up until a few years ago, our technique could have been considered to be exclusively process oriented. But this has changed. By increasingly higher frequencies of movement and changes in dynamics as well as more complex choreographies, the demands on the dancer’s body are constantly growing. The body has to perform more and more precisely, and therefore our technique is more and more target oriented/purpose driven. It is now more important than ever to employ biomechanical, motor and physical principles in order to be able to reach a higher precision in assigned movements (e.g. spins, changes of direction, leading actions).

Important information: This shift toward a ‘hybrid Technique’ due to an increased requirement profile can be observed in all combination sports. Principles from ‚Endurance sports’ as well as ‘Speed Power Sports’ have found their way into all ‘Combination Sports.’

By this change in content which may be seen as a departure from a more ‚traditional’ aesthetics to a more ‚acrobatic’ use of physical and technical skills, dancers have to take into account that a ‚technically’ performing body (now more than ever) needs to adhere to biomechanical, physical and fitness principles. Its point-and purpose-specific application presents a further challenge and therefore yet another restriction for the dancer.

Conclusion: The recent change of style in ballroom dancing has also changed its demand on fine coordination. This may be another reason why it has become more difficult for dancers to achieve, feel and show artistic freedom in their sport.

What we can learn from these facts

The quest for the ideal way to acquire and use the perfect technique is not specifically dance sport related – athletes and teachers in all sports are facing this problem. In many ways, ballroom dancing is a sport like any other. Dancers as well as gymnasts, floor gymnasts or figure skaters are concerned with the laws of biomechanics, biochemistry, motor skills, physics, learning- and training theory. In every sport we have to master gravity, momentum, balance, speed, mechanics, etc.; only the specific movement technique employed varies.

Sport and training science as well as motor and learning research have developed successful strategies for effective and creative learning and execution of technique.

These research results can be transferred one-to-one to our own wonderful sport, which is itself a combination of high performance sport and art. This is a great opportunity to make everyday training more effective and more interesting through proven concepts and training programs.

Is technique, then, a necessary evil, a friend, or a foe? The major challenge is to remove its limitations. I will provide a variety of instructions on practical training methods in Part 2 of this article.

Alexander Hoffmann

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