Athletes or Artists?

By Barry Gasson The competitive dance floors of the world have become battlefields where strenuous exertion is apparent in most couples, and young men seem to think that it should look difficult and you should appear to be trying and striving. So ask yourself these questions: Are you and artist or an athlete?  What is the difference?  Does it matter?

By Barry Gasson

There is no doubt about it, the competitive world of Ballroom Dancing has always been a subject of controversy as to which style should hold sway, and generally the style has been set by the opinions of the Judges, who tend to be of an earlier vintage than most of the competitors. 

However, Ballroom Dancing needs youth and beauty not only of style, performance and class, but also young, virile, attractive people moving to music displaying beautiful shapes and attitudes — dancing was invented for them. 

Sadly, it is these very beautiful people who generally insist on distorting the very shapes that they seek to command. This push and pull has gone on for eons and in the past there is no doubt at all that it is these pioneers of the art that have created new fashions and styles of dancing.  After all, what a conquest it must have been when men were actually allowed to take a woman in their arms and assume any form of contact in public – oh my, what a game-changer that was.

But Pioneers aside, our earlier-vintage Judges, in their infinite wisdom and experience, tend to view favourably the couples who are able to move smoothly, with little or no apparent effort but with maximum effect.  This has nothing to do with the popular impression that Judges frown on any new variation of shape or dance, but rather that the new variations and shapes are simply not attractive. 

Generally what we see today is basic technique being sacrificed and the quality of movement dies on the floor.

In a discussion with a young A-Grade Dancer this past year we debated the pros and cons of designing new choreography.  His opinion was that a little ‘collateral damage’ was viable given the greater cause.  This was an interesting comment and I was intrigued to understand what the greater cause was.  I would have thought it was to produce seamless, smooth dancing in which case technique should be preserved at all costs.

But no, no I was quite wrong (again).  His greater cause was to expose his back to the Judges as much as he could whilst circuiting the floor.  His idea was that his choreography should be such that he ‘flew’ around the floor, taking the eye of every Judge as he went – he mentioned that ghastly term ‘body-flight’.  After 50 years of teaching, examining and judging, I am still at a loss as to what that really means.

We earlier-vintage Judges see the musical dancers, who exercise restraint, good floor-craft, and seldom become involved in collisions.  You know the couples I mean, the couples who can actually complete a circuit of the floor without stopping, without having to wait for the music to catch up with them, without heads that look like a ping-pong game on a dance floor.  I always have a chuckle when I see some young lad throw his Lady into an  Oversway as he nervously watches the veins popping in his arm.

What is being judged?

Judging is, of course, a subjective process and is very much a matter of opinion as to what constitutes a winning performance, if it wasn’t we would only need one Judge per event.  But contrary to the young man’s modern philosophy victory does not go to the couple who are first past the post, or can leap higher than their opponents, can cover more measurable distance in 64 bars of music, or engage in outrageous contortions, even if it is to the uproarious delight of their supporters. 

If this were the case, victory would only go to the very young, athletic performers to whom the strategy of bigger, faster, taller and further is the secret of success. Well perhaps there is a little merit in that — after all we wouldn’t need all these stuffy old Judges cluttering up the floor, we could just have a starter’s gun and a finishing tape. 

To those exponents, musicality, rhythmic interpretation, subtlety of movement, floor-craft and technique with all its many facets, count for little. For them it is helter-skelter for the next corner, overtake the other couples at any cost, and keep the elbows stiffly held in case of collision. They are easy to pick (and discard) – they are the ones with the horizontal tails on their suits. Too rarely one sees couples actually dance into a corner and ‘dress’ the corner with a well-chosen expression of line, timing and grace.

What a shame, they curve the line of dance in order to get more progression in the mistaken belief that ‘More is Better’ and ‘Further is Best’.  Some of them actually win!!  Generally because every other couple on the floor has adopted the same attitude and therefore they are the least offensive.  I always thought all this money and hard work was invested to become the best, not the least offensive.  Oh just give me one, just one with that elusive movement involving grace and style, the effortless ease of swing dancing, without undue urgency.

The competitive dance floors of the world have become battlefields where strenuous exertion is apparent in most couples, and young men seem to think that it should look difficult and you should appear to be trying and striving.  But I am not sure that it is the dancers fault, one sees so much of this and often there will be a common ‘effect’ that is strongly associated with specific dance studio’s, perhaps one should conclude that it is not designed so much by the dancer, but by the Teacher and the dancer simply knows no better.

Dangerous teaching methods

These days, very few lady dancers are taught in a one on one situation. It is expedient for a teacher to pair up a boy and girl and teach them their routines as a couple — now there is a word that springs forth nausea — Routine!!  

Another popular method of teaching these days seems to be to show them a DVD of a Champion couple and tell them to copy that grouping, and then while watching the couple practice in the studio any so-called passionate Teacher of today can always be heard enthusiastically bellowing out words like “Thrust” and “Move”!  The poor girl seldom learns dancing from the transmission of feel.  Mind you, the teacher does have more time to talk on his cell-phone and time is money, there are more lessons to be booked!!

So ask yourself these questions: Are you an artist or an athlete?  What is the difference?  Does it matter?

I have for many years harboured the essence of a theory that I have nurtured and can finally try to articulate in print so let’s explore this topic a little further.

Spending a considerable amount of time with my grandchildren now I observe the children playing and running barefoot and note that their feet land underneath their bodies, invariably their weight is naturally cushioned with the knees, ankles and foot structure combining to accept the stress of landing on various textures of surfaces. I have a Grand-Son and two Grand-Daughters — irrespective of their sex or age they all do the same thing.

When I was young, sprinters and runners wore what were called “Spikes”. These were a lightweight ballet style, shoe with a bunch of spikes on the ball of the foot to provide a grip on the grass surfaces on which they ran. Once again, there was a natural action using the feet in the manner for which they were designed, and the feet landed under the body – so these shoes were designed to complement the feet in the common or ‘natural’ fashion of running. 

However the world is full of people with finely tuned skills that are constantly looking for ways to part people with their money, and launching a new product or idea usually manages to bypass any challenge from the unwitting investor. 

In the 1960’s, a famous American running coach, Bill Bowerman, reasoned that if he could design a running shoe that provided more foot support, the runner could take a longer stride, which would enable him to cover more distance in the same amount of time, therefore faster – at least this was the theory. To make this work the style of running had to be adapted to the shoe (rather than the shoe complimenting and enhancing the style of running), it meant that the runner had to land on the heel of the foot, with the leg ‘pulling’ the body forward instead of landing on the ball of the foot with the body in advance of the stride.  Thus was founded the Nike company, and the multi-million dollar business that has grown since then, all  making shoes bigger and better to provide greater support for athletes feet.

Now that the natural movement of running has been changed, athletes NEED shoes to take the impact, stabilise and transmit – all the things that the body used to do when running was a natural action.  Wow!  What a two-way killing!  First you bring out a new product or a new style, and then you constantly improve that product to cater to the problems that developed from the introduction of the product in the first place.  Well done Mr Bowerman.  Despite all this wonderful technology which launched a multi-conglomerate company the phenomenal athletes from Kenya and East Africa who have dominated world running for the last two decades still run barefoot and their feet land underneath their bodyweight and on the balls of their feet. The natural action may have involved taking more steps per minute but they are still beating their rivals with the special shoes, the longer strides and millions of dollars of technology at their toe-tips. These are the true athletes of the world. 

The spill-over effect

Throughout many varieties of athleticism a total body package is employed to achieve the desired result: body-building, personal training, diet, stamina-training, impact-training, etc.. etc.. I believe this has spilled over into the world of Ballroom Dancing.  I remember being horrified to hear that a 16 year old competitive dancing Lady was ‘allowed’ to have an orange for her lunch – that was all she had.  I do know several young competitive Lady Dancers who strive for greater strides and greater sways and have to take Voltaren (anti-inflammatory drugs) each time they dance or prior to practice sessions

Dancers around the world are striving for greater distance around the floor against the advice of all the pundits.  We all know that speed is simply distance divided by time, so a longer stride (more distance) taken in the same amount of time will create more speed. But we must remember that speed around the floor is only one small facet of dancing and indeed the speed must be determined by the music. It is not a race, we are not athletes.  We are artists moving to the rhythms and melodies of music.

There is now a growing movement afoot (sorry) around the world for barefoot running – funny how things go round in circles.  No doubt barefoot running will become the ‘new move’ and someone will actually find a way of selling it to the millions.  I have always taught that the foot goes DOWN, not beyond the line of body, because our shock absorbers are designed to cushion our weight change.

And we try to improve on nature? You must be joking! She has been working on this for years.

Barry Gasson

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