First Co-Creative Social Dance Explorative Workshop Recap!
Since deciding to venture past the confines of traditional social dance etiquette and experiment with gender roles, switching roles and blurring the lines between leading and following I have truly been re-inspired by social dance. After research, interesting conversations, surprising dance explorations and deep reflections I have come up with an idea of what I would like to explore and a name, Co-creative Social Dance, which I think fits best what I am aiming to create. The word co-creative alludes to the fact that both partners are allowed to be creative in the dance, but does not focus only on one of the roles, like, for example the more commonly used term co-leading.
After feeling like I had enough material under my belt, I decided to have a workshop. To be honest I wasn’t sure how it would go, who would come, how open people would be, but I truly felt like this is what I should be doing now, so I just trusted that everything would work out. And did it ever, we had 14 people show up for our first workshop, more than I ever expected. But also 14 people who were open to the ideas I was presenting, 14 people who were willing to share their thoughts and experiences and 14 people who were ready to explore and try new things. I want to truly thank every one of the participants, you made my job so easy and although we touched on important and controversial subjects, you all took it in stride and had so much fun in the process. Although I feel we only touched the surface of the subject and of the possibilities, in other ways we truly went deep into the inner workings of social dance, not only in the physical sense but also in it’s social construct.
Here is a recap of what we did in the workshop as well as the ideas that came out of the experience. With the help of my friend Jessie who helped me prepare the material for the workshop, we decided to start the workshop sitting in a circle and by asking 3 questions: 1. Who are you and why are you here? 2. In your experience what makes a good lead and follow and are they the same things or different? 3. What is your experience with gender roles in social dance? These 3 questions sparked an animated conversation that lasted over an hour. We were not expecting such an animated or long conversation, but it truly felt right and needed and we laughed, some cried a little, but mostly we shared ideas and feelings that felt like they were there for a long time, maybe just had not had any place to be expressed.
The first question, who are you and why are you here? Brought to the surface that everyone present had a different dance background. Some had danced their whole lives, some only had a few weeks of classes. Others were kizomba, salsa, swing, blues, or contact improv dancers. Some were women, others men, some were different ages, race, backgrounds. But everyone of the people sitting in the circle all had something in common, an experience with leading and following in a non traditional role, switching roles or degendering that sparked their interest on the subject at hand and in attending the co-creative workshop. So, right off the bat we realized that we didn’t need to convince anyone of our ideas, people were already open to them, we just had to share them and expand on the subject.
The second question, in your experience what makes a good lead and follow and are they the same things or different? This was an interesting and lengthy conversation that became more about what skills do people need to be good social dancers, the skills talked about included listening and a level of sensitivity, an awareness of the dance, the ability to adapt, the building of trust between partners, empathy, respect, and the ability to communicate. There were also interesting stories from people who have danced both roles on how learning the other role first gave them a better appreciation for the other role, but also made them better in their original role and helped them understand the dance better. Perhaps the most interesting was how leads who experienced following started to better understand what lacked in their leading and how it made them focus more on how they were leading their moves. From there we also discussed if there were skills specific to leads, what we came up with was the ability to prepare/think a few steps in advance, other skills mentioned were conviction, leadership, support and confidence to shape the dance and give clear signals. Also, an awareness of the level and comfort level of each follow they dance with. The last thing was musicality and creativity and dancing on the beat. For skills specific to follows we talked about interpreting signals, surrendering to the dance, and following the lead, and styling within the confines of the space the lead gives and music. Through that conversation we also talked about how in a co-creative dance we would strive to have the skills that are common to both roles as well as the skills that are more particular to the specific roles, making the dance more complex than usual, but definitely attainable. For example when we are co-creative we always have to be ready and have the confidence to act with leadership while still being open, sensitive and listening to take direction.
The third question, what is your experience with gender roles in social dance? Was by far the question that sparked the most emotions as, as it turned out most people attending had experiences around this subject that marked them in some way. One of the conversation point was around (especially in Latin and Africa social dances) the subject of the hyper sexualization of women in these dances and the pressure many women feel to look a certain way and to dress a certain way to get dances at socials and when performing. Also, how when you are older or not of a certain body type it is harder to get dances. But we also talked about the positive effects of learning to follow, which included for some of us, who were tomboys growing up, learning to be more in touch with our feminine side, which was a positive experience. We also talked about the etiquette of social dance that says men should always be the ones asking the women to dance and how that made people feel, and if at the root of it if there was any truly good reason for it past the fact that that is how it has been in the past. We came up with the answer that past social constructs there was no other good reason for it and that as a whole it made women feel down and inferior. In the Canadian society, as women, we would not put up with these ideas outside the conventions of social dance. This also brought us to discuss in the same way if there is any good reason (other than historic and cultural) why men should lead and women follow. We had an interesting story around this about one of the attendants bringing his visiting dad to a social dance class (which was open to role reversal). His dad comes from a country where there is no partnered social dance, after his son explaining him how it works and what the different roles do (without designating them by gender) his dad decided to do the class as a follow as he thought it would be the easier role to start learning with as he wouldn’t have to think as much. This and other accounts helped us come to the conclusion that really there was no underlying existential reason why leads had to be men and follows women. This brought us also to discuss how it feels to dance with a women lead or a man follow. We came to the conclusion that it had a lot to do with our comfort level around social constructs, but more than anything else it had less to do with gender and more to do with our connection, if we “clicked” with them and comfort level with each individual partner. I was really surprised but happy to see how the attendants were open to questioning socially accepted constructs that date back to the beginnings of social dance. It really made me feel less alone in my frustrations with social dance, despite my deep love for this art form.
We then proceeded to the dance/movement exploration section of the workshop. We started by challenging people to take a partner and to dance with them without gender roles, without direction and in a co-creative way, to see what would happen. People were open to it and found it interesting, fun and challenging. We then proceeded to talk about how the first connection we have is to the floor even before our partner. In the first exercise, the Obstacle Course Dance Exercise, we quickly arranged an “obstacle course” with a blanket, pillows, chairs, powder and bubble wrap and participants had to walk/dance through the obstacles. (To be honest we didn’t know how this exercise would go, but we here happy to see that people went all in and had fun with it) Through each surface people instinctively changed their movements, adapted, rolling their feet on the bubble wrap to make it pop, jumping from pillow to pillow, skating on the powder… We then discussed how just like the surface we are dancing on can influence how we move, so can the connection with our partner affect the dance.
We then challenged people to do a shadow exercise, which is pretty common, where one person leads movement mostly stemming from the hands and the other follows like a mirror image shadow, but this time we challenged partners to both be leading and following at the same time, so anytime they could choose to follow or lead the movement. Let’s call this exercise the Co-creative Shadow Exercise. People found this exercise fun, but more difficult than the traditional exercise. We then challenged people to keep the same idea, dancing and moving around the room independently, but inspiring themselves from the movement they see around them without touching anyone and moving around the room, changing their inspiration. Let’s call this exercise the Inspired Movement Group Exercise. This one was a lot of fun and we had little groups that formed around a movement, then broke away to create different groups. People liked the exercise, but were a little sad to have to keep changing their “inspiration”.
Since at that point we were running low on time we introduced the concept of a neutral frame in social dance, where both partners put their right hand on the partners shoulder blade and the left hand resting on top of the partner’s shoulder. We asked people to walk/dance around in this position, switching roles. We suggested that a good way of changing roles was for the person following to resist a step and change the direction, taking over the lead. People were really intrigued by the neutral frame, as they had never thought of dancing in this kind of frame before and they found it worked well. For the next exercise we introduced the concept of taking the lead by opening (or hinging) the frame and leading the movement from the right hand on the shoulder blade, the other partner being open to releasing their right leading hand. We also introduced the idea that by swinging the arm down when coming back into a closed position versus the typical swing up, we could come back easily back into a neutral position. We also talk about the fact that the neutral frame is just a starting point and an easy way to reconnect and change roles in a completely seamless way. We really loved seeing everyone exploring these ideas. And also to see that naturally people decided to partner up in different ways and everyone even the few that were in typical male/female couples, were able to switch from one role to the other seamlessly. It was messy, explorative, funny, good, interesting and everything in between. But it flowed and was fun and creative and made everyone feel good. Which has also been my personal experience with co-creative social dance, every time I have an open and willing partner. For sure more understanding of a specific social dance as well as knowledge of both roles can really bring co-creative social dance to the next level, but even the first time trying, it really was successful. Out of this exercise we had some really interesting questions come up, some which had never even crossed my mind. Like for example why do we lead with the right hand on the shoulder blade, could we reverse everything and lead with the left hand on the shoulder blade. I have to say that really the only good reason I can think of is that we are use to dancing that way, but if people are open to it, there is no real limitation stopping us from dancing opposite than what we are used to.
That was a rather lengthy recap of the workshop, but I really wanted to take the time to talk about what I feel were the important points we discussed/experienced… I definitely realized that 2 hours was a little short, so next time I will plan for a 3 hours workshop and I am already excited for the next one. I was already practicing and had a meeting about it… so get ready we already have interesting things planned 🙂