2016 marks the first year I'm beginning as someone who's learning to dance. All being well, I should end the year being a much better dancer than I am right now - well, in one style of dance anyway. I don't know whether adding another style to my repertoire, if it were possible, would help or hinder the learning process.
What I do know is that, from an early age, I learned a specific mode of movement. At the time of writing, I'm still actively participating in martial arts and, though it's a different art to those I've learned before, certain principles remain the same. It's these principles of movement which slow my progress in modern jive.
A defining characteristic of partner dancing, as the name would suggest, is the presence of a partner. Given that I'm not learning line dancing, or synchronised swimming, I'm learning a dance which requires one partner to lead the other through the dance. I'm a man - at least I was the last time I checked - which means that, unfortunately for my dance partners, I have to lead. This is where practice would be useful, but there's a catch - to practise dancing with a partner, you need a partner.
Away from martial arts classes, it's possible to train alone. In disciplines like wing chun, there are set sequences of movements, such as chum kiu, for example.
There are other forms of solo training as well. If you practise a discipline which lacks set sequences, you might practise certain kicks, hand strikes or other movements multiple times. The whole point is that you become familiar with the basic movements and, importantly, repetition makes it more likely that your brain will store them for later use.
Outside of the modern jive class, well, there are freestyle dance events. This is where I get to practise my moves with a series of different partners, should they be willing to tolerate my relatively limited experience of modern jive. How can I improve at my own pace? The short answer is that I can't.
Let's start looking into the differences between dancing with a partner and practising, particularly making practical use of, martial arts. When dancing, you have a partner, who should be aware of your every move, so they may respond appropriately. In martial arts, whether fighting competitively or outside your local fast food outlet, you have an opponent, and you certainly don't want them to be aware of your every move, at least not until it's too late already.
I didn't realise what was happening until I saw various partners losing their balance or failing to respond appropriately. I started thinking I was doing something wrong. In reality, I was doing something right, but in the wrong setting. Years of learning to conceal my movements, to move at a speed at which an opponent had little chance to respond, counted against me when leading a dance partner. It happens less now, but I still occasionally get the odd confused look, or have to correct a partner's balance (that's where those supposedly lightning fast reactions are actually useful).
The solution actually lay in previous experience of martial arts. I spent some time learning tai chi, and the way in which the slower form is trained provided a framework for learning modern jive - less swift, less sharp, more flowing.
The application of force
Okay, this one's a biggie. I don't want to send a dance partner spinning out of control, across the floor, or injure them. That short, explosive power which I've trained for so many years, and especially when learning wing chun, should not be used here. The implication is that I hold back somewhat, but the amount by which I should hold back will vary from partner to partner and, only this week, I found myself accused of being an ineffective lead.
I still haven't figured this one out, so I tend to err on the side of being gentle. I'll take the accusations of being a weak lead, for now.
You do THIS move, you catch the lady's hand in your left hand; you do THIS move, you catch the lady's hand in your right hand. Whatever hand you're using to hold the lady's right hand (usually) dictates what you are able to do next. Certain manoeuvres are used to change hands; certain manoeuvres end with no change of hand. Your partner has a fair idea, not only of what you're doing, but of what you might do next, and where you might lead her.
If you use the wrong hand for a move, what happens? At best, confusion; at worst, you tie yourself, and a partner, in knots. It's one of the ways in which I have to fight against being trained to be unpredictable in my movements. My mind rebels, and I catch with the wrong hand, going into something completely unexpected, and possibly not even a modern jive movement.
There is no way to counter this, other than to practise. More than anything else, this is the issue which has seen me going to every single freestyle dance event I'm able to attend, in an effort to correct this tendency.
Ah, music. Dancing just wouldn't be the same without it. Thankfully, I have a sense of rhythm so, in theory, I should be able to keep in time with the music.
In practise? Let's go back to the issue of predictability, and say that falling into a rhythm is a bad thing in martial arts, as any good instructor will tell you. Breaking that rhythm is necessary, so your movements can't be predicted. So, every time I learn a new movement, there is a conscious effort to bring it in line with the beat, and anything other than the familiar "four on the floor" rhythm gives me a problem.
Again, practise will correct this tendency. That's the hope, anyway.
Proximity (or, resisting the urge to defend, grapple, throw or immobilise)
What's this? I have to be close to people I don't know? Can I trust them? Yes, it's the age old problem of training to neutralise an attack, expecting that attack, and it leading to you having an issue with personal space. Seriously. Even in the queue at the supermarket checkout, I feel uncomfortable. As much as I know the possibility of a knife being stuck between my ribs, or a strike being aimed at specific vulnerable parts of my anatomy, is unlikely, the movements of the dance leave me feeling defenceless and vulnerable.
As I get to know (and trust, to varying degrees) the people in the class, this becomes less of an issue. When someone new joins the class, I'm automatically considering how much I should trust them, and slightly adjusting my movements to offer at least some protection to my vulnerable points. Worse, someone that I've known for some time in the class has given me some very good reasons not to trust them, so I tend to dance defensively with them, and I can't see this changing any time soon.
Footwork, balance and leaving yourself open
I try to follow a certain way of stepping, and my mind rebels against it. "What is wrong with you?" my mind screams at my body, "you could easily be pushed over, in that position, or struck, or thrown. Stop it!" An alternative way of stepping takes place, where I don't compromise my balance or my defence, and a confused look from my dance partner is my reward. Worse, this alternative way of stepping might completely mess up the thing I was actually meant to do.
Absorbing what is useful (or, limiting myself)
Simple, direct, efficient: even before I started learning wing chun, this was how I viewed martial arts and, as a result, it became one of the principles of how I move.
On a practical level, it means the basic hand strikes, kicks and elbows appeal to me. I've never been asked to perform a jump spinning back kick, but I'm pretty sure my attempt would cause more injury to me than an opponent. If I can do it easily, it becomes a favoured technique; if I struggle, it may be rejected.
When learning the moves of modern jive, this means I tend to restrict myself to a few of the basic moves. If they are simple, efficient and direct, I like them. It means that my repertoire is very limited, however. I suppose that becoming more familiar with some of the other moves will improve things, and that will come in time.