27. Artistry in Sport

By coincidence, I was drafting out an article on Body Conditioning and Style when I read Bryan Alien’s ‘INSTEP’ column (Dance News 1527), where he talks, as a perceptive observer of competitive trends, about the possible downside of the acceptance of dance as an Olympic sport. He comments on the emergence of stiff and hard bodies of competitors in the standard dances. Bryan thinks this vision of dance in the Olympic Games might already have given rise to an undisguised forceful physicality becoming the dominant feature of competition dancing in place of artistry in style and movement. This, if an increasing trend, could be an undesirable development to which adjudicators must remain alert. It should noi be encouraged!
As a competitor and a coach, I favoured an upright basic Stance (some called it ‘military’ in contrast to the London ‘crouch’, which was popular at the time). Weight would be poised over the toes for the ‘moving’ dances (weight more central in Tango). I would take care to ensure that the feet were ‘toned’ right to the very tips of the toes. When the feet were placed flat in this set-up, the whole of the foot would be in contact with the floor, from the heel to the tips of the toes.. I make this point because many dancers stand with their toes curled upwards off the floor. (Pixie feet!) I aimed for clarity of line in addition to foot strength.

When taking up the Stance, there would be a feeling of stretch in the body and legs but the knee joint must not be locked (nor locked at any time, in any dance, even when at the maximum stretch of Waltz rise). A smooth hydraulic’ knee action, combined with feather-light foot placement, is the key to shock¬absorbing resilience in the leg. The antidote to hardness of movement.

The vital focal point of muscular control of self and partner Is the abdominal area, the position where a belt or a cummerbund would be placed. There should be a feeling of firmness, of controlled tension in the muscles of this area. I emphasise that it is from this central control area that all movement originates; both in creating one’s own drive and in the ‘leading’ of the lady partner. It is also the key to the set-up of style. For the correctly poised upper body that is, chest, shoulders and arms the ideal concept would be one of lightness and relaxation. In fact, the very opposite of hardness and stiffness.

Warning: Unless the ‘middle line’ of the body – ‘muscle cummerbund’ is a most descriptive terminology – is stretched and maintained in this ‘tuned-up’ mode, the desired relaxation of the back and shoulders will not be achieved. Without this strong muscular base for the upper body, an unwanted tension, a stiffness, will develop in the the back, chest and shoulders.

But with the proper set-up, and with movement being generated by the muscles of the middle line, the two sides of the body and shoulders, free from stress, should be able to swing freely to-and-fro around the pivotal axis of the central column of the spine.

Another of the prime causes of stiffness is when a dancer rigidly holds his body square to the Line of Dance position, instead of allowing the continuous fluid shoulder action described above in accordance with the principles of Contra Body Movement and Shoulder Leads.

I imagine that Bryan is also talking about those dancers who feel that they have to look energetic in order to convey a dominant appearance. A Man can look dominant and commanding (desirable features) but should at the same time avoid all appearance of over-tension or rigidity of body (undesirable features). Nor should movements over the floor, no matter how dramatic or zippy, exhibit the muscular effort involved.
A true champion conceals effort!
The aim should be to highlight the masculinity of me maa ana me femininity of the female. Therefore, the man’s arms should look embracing, supportive, but relaxed. while the lady’s arms should look as soft, gentle and light as though made of chiffon. It is important to fix this male-female concept firmly in the mind. The Hold is part of the ‘body language’ of dance.

The worst excesses of the Ballroom Hold – prevalent a few years ago – though not entirely eradicated, have over the last two or three years mellowed into a much more ‘natural’ look. At its worst manifestation, the desire to achieve a wider-and-yet-wider look led to the man raising his elbows until they were level with his shoulders. I categorised them at this time as “the-nailed-to-a-cross” look. The lady, usually smaller than the man in the great majority of partnerships, had her elbows forced, willingly or unwillingly, into a most unfeminine inclining upwards position.
The very opposite to the aesthetic Ideal.

The question of why this quirky ultra-high Hold became fashionable at all defies rational answer, unless it was just a fad like the trends in clothes fashions. (These, of course, are designer inspired to stimulate sales.) What is certain is that in no way could it be called a ‘classic’ Hold. However, nowadays the better dancers have re-adopted the more artistic and natural, slightly declining, line from the shoulders to the elbows, with a continuation of the declining line from elbow to fingers of the Man’s right arm.
I repeat, a clean, unbroken, declining shoulder and arm line down to the elbows is the ideal.

The shoulders should not be lifted but remain seated. Some teachers like to stress this point by saying “the shoulders should be pressed down”.
But, a qualifying clause, there cannot possibly be any fixed angle of the raised elbows for all partnerships regardless of their respective heights.
If the lady is as tall or taller than the man, then his elbows must, of necessity, be placed higher than the norm. If she is smaller than the average height relationship for a partnership, then the man’s elbows must, correspondingly, be dropped by a suitable degree. The ideal, with all partnerships, must be for both pairs of elbows to point slightly downwards as a sympathetic extension of the natural shape of the shoulder line from neck to shoulder point.
The Man’s right forearm should be folded to permit his right hand to take up position on the lady’s back – and this is important – with the fleshy part of the man’s thumb just under the lady’s shouder blade. Not on the shoulder blade – this is the territory of the Latin Close and Closed Holds – but just underneath it, with the thumb just touching the base of the scapula.

The important point is that this Hold is the best position for allowing the lady the maximum freedom to make big pictures, by extending her Topline outwards during Spins, Oversways, Lunges, Contra Checks and the like, without distorting the man’s right side shape.
The championship ideal is one of a dominant picture projected by the masculinity of the man, complemented by the femininity, softness, poised serene elegance of the lady.

It is contrasting qualities like these which will enhance the man/woman picture.
My advice is: Concentrate on the most vivid projection of your own role. But never forget that, while Dancesport at Olympic level demands incessant training in physical fitness, stamina and endurance, the performance of dance champions will be always be evaluated on their degree of Artistic Interpretation combined with Technical Excellence.