Sunday, 6 February 2011

The pursuit of Elegance - or not

I've always deliberately disregarded any instruction in a dance class that justifies itself based on making something look better, because I just find that such instructions are totally useless to me.

If you get good at something that has a form and function seperate from its looks, you're going to look pretty good doing it, automatically. Making efforts to make a thing look a certain way, before getting actually good at it, just doesn't make any sense at all to me as an approach. It distracts me from the function of what I'm doing, confuses me and leaves me not knowing what the hell I'm trying to do. And the results whenever I've attempted it have been awkward, artificial, and in bad taste.

It doesn't achieve the goal, and most of all, trying to implement arbitary rules of movement based on looks immediately messes up my following, which is far too big a sacrifice to make even for five minutes.

Form follows function: people who dance efficiently, with balance, stability, comfort, ease, precision, speed, without straining or wasted effort or artificiality or exaggeration or pretension, expressively, musically, softly, feelingly, considerately, enjoyably, look wonderful. And they look good directly because of those things, without any need for ornament or arbitrary rules that serve only looks. When I see "elegance" in someone else's dance, I'm seeing the same sort of elegance I see in an "elegant solution" when I'm looking at software, or the cut of a dress, or the design of a bridge. A sincere and perfect fulfilment of purpose.

I need to let my body find its elegant solution. It has to come from the inside.

And also, I find a focus on 'elegance' alienating and depressing. That's not what I'm dancing for. It's what I'm dressing for. I'm right behind the idea of looking great while dancing, and an outfit that perfectly fulfils its social and practical goals with the perfect economy of effort, is as automatically elegant as a dance that does the same. But I can put an outfit on anytime. I'm dancing because it feels great, for the same sort of reason that some people play golf or climb rocks. Looking good, if I do, is a bonus, but it's not the goal.

I guess I take the same approach with my knitted animals. They generally don't have any features or surface decoration that don't contribute to the form, and the more successful ones are more that way than the less successful ones.

I'm sure the elegance-approach makes some people graceful, if it inspires you and motivates you and helps you grasp what you're trying to do, then go to it, but it doesn't work for me.


londontango said...

I agree with you for the most part, however a little bit of styling can go a long way to attracting more dances. How that fits into AT, while in a close embrace, I don't know, but it comes in handy when dancing salsa or ceroc!

The most important thing is to be comfortable with your dance before adding anything else. With Tango, for ladies, all embellishments are going to come from the feet. As long as one has good posture, foot placement and musicality, you really don't need anything else. However, adding a bit of elegance to your placement won't hurt. Although we are meant to dance to the music and with our partner, it is a myth to say that we don't also dance to the audience. We may not dance for them, but we are hoping that people will see what they like and that we will attract a certain type of dance partner. That's why people go to classes, to improve their dance.

Granted, learning an embellishment can take away from the process of just enjoying the dance as the brain is having to think about something else, but as with all things (like actually learning the dance in the first place) it becomes a habit, and then you don't think about it anymore.

I don't know what was being taught or if it was even relevant, but as far as AT goes, one doesn't need to do much to look good.

My bellydancing classes are another thing altogether! Starting with a hip movement, try adding a walk, and then arm placement. It is enough to make your head explode!

ghost said...

The reasons given about halfway through this


are all things I’ve heard leaders cite as reasons for choosing a follower. Conversely I’ve never heard a leader cite a follower’s embellishments as a reason for dancing with them. Heard it given as a reason for not dancing with them quite a bit though…

There’s also a danger of elegance = hard to control. Eg I don’t care how pretty long back steps and high boleos are, if I’m in a packed milonga I don’t want the follower to do them.

“same sort of elegance I see in an "elegant solution" when I'm looking at software, or the cut of a dress, or the design of a bridge. A sincere and perfect fulfilment of purpose.”


Joy in Motion said...

I agree with you for the most part, Ms. Hedgehog. I think beautiful movement usually comes from what feels good. But I will say that oftentimes we have bad habits that feel normal to us. So a more efficient way of moving actually doesn’t feel good at first. In those instances, it’s helpful to see how it looks to identify imbalances or little quirks in our movement that can be worked on until they start to feel good in our bodies. Of course we don’t want to confuse this with constantly trying to move the way we think looks good, but in the beginning it can be helpful to train our bodies to move more efficiently. Hopefully from the inside out, but sometimes the external can indicate what’s going on internally and provide us with guidance.

Overall though, I love the gist of what you are saying. It reminds me of something Alex Krebs said in an interview I did with him a couple years back:
“Don’t just do the step because it’s the step. You have to learn to feel… I recommend dancing on your own and then when you get with your partner sort of bring back that spirit of how you would dance in your kitchen alone if you put on tango music… Because this dance is about how it feels, not how it looks. If it feels good and you move well, it’s going to look good. And the elegance comes more from a connected movement than from a pose or a certain line you’re creating.”

msHedgehog said...

@Joy: yes. But you don't need a mirror for any of that, you need feedback from someone who knows what they're talking about, and the goal is still not the looking good; that's a secondary result at most. If no better reason can be given for something than looking good, then my assessment is that the person telling me either doesn't understand the real reason either, or thinks I can't.

@Arlene - I'm broadly with Ghost on this one. I agree that if you dance well you will look good, and people will obviously notice that. But they're using it as a proxy for the quality of dance. And I'm not really thinking about embellishments, I'm thinking about technique.

If looking good is given as the main or only justification for doing something then I immediately suspect that one of two things is true: either there are far better reasons for doing it, or there's no known reason at all.

Anonymous said...

Sadly some people do need to be told to consciously appear neat and elegant - it's their only hope of being comfortable - or more comfortable than they normally are.

However the blessed ones don't need to be told as they are nice and comfy anyway. And the trained observer can see this, whereas untrained observers may see a boring or less than rigidly geometry dance.

Joy in Motion said...

I’m not disagreeing with the motive, Ms. Hedgehog. But I have used mirrors and videos of myself to take a look at my dancing from another angle; I know quite a few things that I can look at myself without needing an instructor or someone else to give me their feedback, although that certainly helps as well. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using those methods as long as the motives are the right ones and perspective isn’t lost in the process. There are people who might get discouraged and start focusing on the external if they were to use mirrors or videos, but that doesn’t mean these methods aren’t useful. Again, I like what you’re saying. I just think there are quite a few nuances there. I also think that the influence between internal and external can be bidirectional. An interesting question to ask: If it looks good, is there is any way it can’t feel good? I think if we develop the proper sensitivity in our ability to watch and perceive, the answer would be no. But of course we are all at varying degrees of perceptiveness when it comes to the externals, so we typically answer yes to this question.

msHedgehog said...

@Joy - that's fair. The opportunity to look at yourself is certainly useful for picking up quirks and deciding what to leave out.

msHedgehog said...

@Anonymous: I don't think shortcuts work very well, but that may be an approach that works for some people; perhaps generalisations aren't fair, as it's not like you can test two approaches on the same person.

David Bailey said...

"elegance" <> "embellishments", of course.

And I agree that far too many people spend far too much time, far too early in their learning, on embellishments, decorations, and the like.

But that doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong to think about or work on "the visuals" in any way, any more than it's wrong to think about or work on any other aspect of dancing.

For example, obviously, visual elements can be a way for the follower to express interpretation and musicality - so followers can use some decoration techniques to work on their musicality.

I agree with the general principle of the article though - if you dance well, you look good (elegant) automatically.

londontango said...

Hmm, I am not too keen on adornments or doing fancy stuff with your feet (I have tried everything OK), though sometimes things happen on their own when I get into the groove and I think there is a big difference between elegance and styling.

One may be able to dance AT perfectly well and in time to the music, but they may not necessarily look polished or elegant. It doesn't mean that they are doing anything wrong.

One of my first Tango teachers (an Argentine) is very big on having everyone look good. It isn't about just the walk, but how you do the walk. Foot placement is very important and one must be extremely conscious of it before it becomes natural and that takes a lot of practice for both parties. He will make you walk and walk until he thinks you are doing it right.

One will be able to dance ok without that extra bit, but it won't look as nice.

The problem with a lot of classes: they try and teach you things that you really don't need to know and very rarely are you corrected if it doesn't look right.

Feeling it is only half the story because I don't care how much one is feeling it, or thinks they are, if you are not doing it right, the feeling won't pass through. All dance is a combination of feeling and technique. It is just when one is more focused on technique, then the dancing becomes wasted IMOP. If it is only about feeling, then you might as well dance alone freestyle.

AT is not a difficult dance for the follower, but it is important to have everything set up in the right place and move accordingly. It took me ages to learn to walk without being pigeon toed! My natural backward walk. I had to learn to walk straight. That is what makes a move look elegant. I am not sure how much it changed my dance because I now can't do it any other way because I had it walked out of me. :)

msHedgehog said...

All this is off the point, for me. I'm not saying anything about how much technique is needed or not needed, or about whether visual information is useful to someone who knows what they're doing.

I'm just saying that I (and possibly other people) don't make anything better by trying to look good when we don't know what we're doing.

londontango said...

@ Ms H
Surely by this time you should know what you are doing as there really isn't much to do. You just need to get on and do it.

If there is a problem, maybe people are doing way too many classes or not the right classes. Just a thought.

I have seen you dance. What more you think you need to improve, I have no idea. It doesn't hurt to go back to basics once in awhile, but as for the rest I really think it may be unnecessary. But that is me watching from the sidelines.

msHedgehog said...

I'm talking about my experience as a whole, not necessarily today.

My point is: if I already dance well then I don't need to think about looks, because it is already taken care of. If I don't already dance well, then I don't believe it helps (unless perhaps, like Joy, you have a lot of other relevant expertise from previous experience).

My opinion is that looking good is an effect, not a cause, of actual quality. And if I look good now, that is a result of NOT paying attention to the wrong things.

I don't take a regular class these days, I just have a checkup with Jill now and then, otherwise it's all fun adventures ;)

But thank you for the compliments.

ghost said...

“Surely by this time you should know what you are doing as there really isn't much to do. You just need to get on and do it.”

It’s funny people complain about taking 7 years to learn to walk. Then they quietly cut it back to 1 year for a follower. Meanwhile zen practioners spend a lifetime working on a single movement.

To get beyond a certain point you run into the problem of not knowing what you don’t know.

“What more you think you need to improve, I have no idea.”

To me, asking someone who does know makes sense. Otherwise you can end up with the reverse of this

“My opinion is that looking good is an effect, not a cause, of actual quality”.

Ie that looks elegant – I’ll do that, but focussing on the end result rather than what actually makes it work. I had a recent discussion on leading a giro in a certain way. The answer was literally several layers down in fundamental movement, but I needed to talk to people who understood both my question and the fundamentals to show me “the answer to your question is actually waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay over here. This is where you need to look.”.

TwoToTango said...

Sounds a lot like something I read in a book about Bushido (codex of the Samurai) to me: Elegance is the result of the most efficient way of doing something. Take every unnecessary movement away and you reach the most simple and most elegant way of moving.