Four Key Competencies in Blues Dancing

At a recent Burn Blue meeting I had a conversation with a fellow officer which got me thinking about skill level in dancing. In discussions about dance skill level it can be very difficult to see eye to eye on what makes a beginner, intermediate or advanced dancer. I think part of the problem is that there are multiple facets and multiple areas that one dancer values and ascribes to their assessment of another dancer.

I see a natural grouping of dance values into four major groups, which I’d hazard a guess exist in all partner dancing. Technique, partnering, musicality and showmanship; graphed for your pleasure:

Let me describe what I mean by each of these:

Musicality: responding to the music, using rhythm and body movement to translate aspects of the music into physical form.

Technique: your ability to control your own body and use it effectively, including having a vocabulary of moves. (At some point learning more moves reaches a point of diminishing returns, and focus then has to be applied to improving the execution of moves as well as basic movements.)

Partnering: connection, your ability to convey/receive movement instruction and make it a gooey, feel-good experience. This includes social considerations (i.e. not creeping out your partner) and floor craft to the extent that one doesn’t crash their partner into other people.

Showmanship: making the dance look good; aesthetics, lines, flashy moves, etc.

Perhaps these could be sliced or diced in other ways; from my perspective these seem to be the most divisive dividing lines.

I think that every person has a natural inclination towards one or more of these areas and a disinterest in others. I also think one’s interest in these areas can change over time.

In my own dancing I can see that I first focused on partnering and musicality. I learned some technique, but only to the extent that it allowed me to partner better or be more musical. For the past few years I’ve been focused on technique and only recently have I begun even thinking about showmanship. So here’s how my dancing might be represented:

I think when advanced dancers start talking about “good” dancers, or any dancer describes their favorite people to dance with, we invariably make this judgement through a lens of which of these areas we find most important. For example, if a beginning dancer partners well and has good musicality, their technical skill can be barely existent and I’ll still love dancing with them. I tend to find technique focused beginners as neither good nor bad, and showmanship focused dancers as downright intolerable. I’ve heard other dancers speak highly of showmanship focused dancers, but I fail to agree until that dancer’s technique and partnering come up to a certain minimum level.

When it comes to assessing a skill level like “beginner” “intermediate” or “advanced” I think all four areas should be taken into consideration. In my graph, each quadrant is significant enough that most people consider me an advanced dancer, or are willing to overlook what I lack in the “showmanship” area, and still round up to advanced. (However, I believe I don’t do well in competitions because of what I lack in the “showmanship” area, since competitions necessarily look for that and necessarily cannot see partnering skills.)

If a ballet dancer started learning how to blues dance, much of their technical skill would be easily adaptable to blues dancing, however, their partnering would probably be lacking. A graph of their skill might look like this:

(The scale on these graphs is totally not standardized, and is purposefully arbitrary for sake of this post.)

My motivation in bringing up this topic is that I feel like the egalitarian in all of us doesn’t like the idea of saying “that person is a good dancer” and “that person is a bad dancer.” However a fair assessment of people’s skills is the only way for people to progress in their dancing. If you don’t know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, then you have no idea what you need to work on to be a better dancer. (Even more problematically, you might not even realize that you need to advance, or that advancing is even something you could do!) Having a massive check-list of every dance skill known to man is not a very usable tool. Grouping skills into these four areas allows statements like “That person has great showmanship, and good technique and musicality, for which I’d count them as an advanced dancer, however I don’t enjoy dancing with them because I like someone who partners better” which is a much better, informative statement about a dancer than “I don’t like dancing with that person.”

I could see a more in-depth investigation of the skills and the range of competencies in each of these areas as being valuable, especially for instructors and their students.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this idea, these four groupings, and other ways to incentivising dancers towards improvement without crushing individual expression or reducing a culture of acceptance in the dance community. I’d like to see dance environments where people who want to improve can, and people who are happy where they are can be recognized for their strengths and comfortable with that too; maybe even recognized for improving when they don’t intend to.