Natural versus Artistic

By Daniela Novak

For people that don’t know me personally let me explain first that my initial involvement with

dancing was through classical ballet, which I studied since my very early childhood.I used to be a professional ballerina, dancing in Ljubljana National Theatre.Because I wanted to learn other dance forms, I went to the USA, where I studied various dance techniques from modern, jazz, tap etc. in a very famous Gus Giordano Dance Centre in Chicago.Ballroom dancing was my “other” choice.I did it for fun and never thought that it would become my professional career.

Why am I explaining this? Ballet dancers, and people involved with theatre have probably slightly different views on dancing as strictly ballroom people.

My experience as a dancer was such, that the ballet and some other dance forms that I did, were designed to be danced on a stage for the audience.These dance forms are based on a very accurate technique that dancers have to start studying at a very early age, because they are difficult and demanding.The dancers have to work very hard for years and years and years to develop their bodies to a degree, which allows them to execute correct movements, which the technique requires.There is nothing natural in the way, how the body is used in classical ballet! The maximum turn-out of the legs that is the base for everything else is already far away from being natural!

Ballroom dancing, on the other hand, was taught in social dancing schools! People who came to the dance school, learnt how to move together with a partner and the main attraction to dance socially was in my understanding to enjoy moving to the music in unison with another body. So, two things made it special to me:1- the movements were based on the music and 2- you moved together with your partner. The people who were considered the best dancers, were the ones, who responded well to both: the music and the partner. In my ballet “training”, the emphasis was on getting your body able to do things that  “normal people” could not do. In social dancing, it was all about enjoying what you can do with your “normal body” in interaction with the other two “partners”: the music and the dance partner.

Of course we also danced to music in the ballet class, but the primarily goal was never how well you connect to the music.The most important aspect was the physical one: to get your body better and more capable!

If we look at the competitive ballroom dancing (“dancesport”) today, we can see that nowadays it has very little resemblance to social dancing. The competitive dance forms of “Latin” and “Standard” have both their own development and are moving more and more away from the social dancing, where they originated.

But how far away it is going to go?

The influence of other dance forms has always been present in ballroom dancing and I think there is nothing wrong with that.Some strange and not so successful additions faded away naturally and didn’t continue to affect the development of competitive ballroom dancing.(For instance,there was time, when the Latin started to look quite “funny” because of some trendy disco movements and when you check some videos from the 80’s, you can be very pleased to see the development of Latin moved away from that).

What I wanted to write about this time is something that has been bothering me for quite some time.

I keep hearing from my students when they come back to me after having lessons with some top teachers of today, that they look “too natural”!?

“Too natural????”

I always took pride in studying how our body functions and how we can move in the most effective way by understanding the basic mechanical principles of locomotion.

I am aware of course, that moving together with another body (in contact or without contact) is not something natural and that in competitive dancing we don’t just move for our personal pleasure, but I always thought of Latin and Ballroom  in terms of “social dancing of the highest level”.

Apparently, today, that is not good enough any more!

It is not artistic enough, it is not entertaining enough, it is not competitive enough!

My understanding of competitive ballroom dancing was always based on the idea, that my body, my partner’s body and the music should form a perfect harmony and that the quality of dancing is measured by how close to perfection this harmony is. Every other aspect is less important! Not irrelevant!!! Just LESS important than the harmony between two bodies and the music!

In the situation that we have today, there are clearly two different paths people see for the future of competitive ballroom dancing.On one side we have people who desperately try to push dancing into sports and onto the Olympics, and on the other we have those, who believe that dancing will (and should) develop into more artistic direction.The “sporty” aspect of the dancing has clearly affected the development in the last decade a lot.The dancers are fitter, faster, stronger, they all have beautiful bodies, they eat healthy, exercise more, etc. I think that the “sporty” attitude brought many positive effects to competitive dancing.Unfortunately it also brought some negative ones! Especially young dancers like this physical side of the dancing.It gives them pleasure to be physically active and they like to compete.The problem that I see is, that majority of these people never evolve to the point, where “the dancer” inside takes over “the competitor”. The enjoyment of the “sporty” elements of the dance becomes the main motivational factor and a natural consequence is, that the result of the competition becomes the most important goal.

People, who see the future of competitive dancing as being “artistic”, “theatrical”,”expressive”,….would still pursue the goal to be the best in what they do, but would be more involved with the dancing emotionally and spiritually, not just physically.Such a dancer is willing to explore many options that the chosen dance form is offering him in terms of expressiveness of the music, the emotion, the mood, the story etc.The competition result will not be the prime motivation, but more like a bonus for a successfully shared and presented “artwork”.

For the dancer- artist it is vital to be an explorer! He will explore the chosen dance form, as well as many other styles of dancing, the music, his own identity and the way how his body responds to different stimuli either from the music, from the partner, or even from other dancers, audience, venue,.. He will experiment with various ideas to be able to bring something fresh, exciting and surprising into his every performance.He will have to spend hours, days, months and years to come up with as many options as possible, so when the actual performance starts, he will be ready to impress by expressing whatever he chooses to.

I love the idea of a competitive dancer -the artist! My concerns are based on the fear of over designing every move and being too “artificial”  in the desire to dazzle  the audience.My fears are, that if dancing should become too theatrical, we might lose the magic of creating the dance on the spot, which for me has the most magical appeal!

Just think when do dancers get the warmest and most genuine admiration from the audience? When something unexpected happens and they use their expertise and relaxed reaction to solve the tricky situation to their advantage.Dancers interacting with other dancers on the floor or even “stealing” a partner for a few seconds is always a great moment to witness, because it is spontaneous and real (as long as it is not pre-planned for the audience sake, which we sometimes witness lately and which I find in bad taste!).

The dancers who always stay true to themselves and don’t “put on an act” for the audience always impress me the most.

They are the ones, who invite you into their dance with their total dedication to what they are doing at the moment and don’t feel the need to use cheap tricks to get the appreciation from the audience.You know how the children in general all like the sweet taste of food the most.It happens only later in life, that we start appreciating also other tastes, like salty, sour and even bitter, and mostly the delicate combination of these tastes.I believe that in understanding the quality of the dancers we are also developing the ability to perceive them in more subtle way with years of experience.That is what I think is the main difference between an adjudicator (or ex-dancer with experience in the audience) and a common spectator, who will always react to the tricks, which is the sugar the dancers are offering.The reason why I don’t enjoy watching some of the highly ranked Latin couples in WDSF today is, that they are not subtle enough. In more than one aspect! The biggest issue for me here is the aggressive attitude towards the audience and towards the partner (physical connection is almost non-existent, but when there is one, it is generally too strong!).

The audience  (and the judges!) are with these couples treated as children : “Let’s give them something sweet, because that’s what we know they will like!” Everything what they do, is done for one reason only and that is to win the competition! They study what they need to do, to achieve that.The formula is made with the only goal in mind and that goal is winning! Dancing suffers! There are dancers who are far more deep and subtle in their approach, but unfortunately they are not rewarded for it enough, so they either stop competing, leave, or start using the formula that obviously works.I think that is a shame!

Another issue is the desire to put more emphasis on the form, the design, the “look”, the picture, in order to be more impressive. As I mentioned, for me Latin and Ballroom (Standard) should still be based on the idea of social dancing, where it is all about the interaction between the man and the woman while moving together to the music. Of course it has developed to such a degree that it is difficult to make this comparison when we watch competitors today. But don’t you think that it will become more and more difficult for our audience to relate to the dance, if it all becomes too artificial, too theatrical, and dare I say: too artistic? A total fake?

Daniela Novak

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