Relationship requires communication, and communication requires a language. A language often consists of a collection of symbols to which a certain meaning is ascribed, and a system for using those symbols so that people can communicate. Spoken language uses audio symbols- sounds. In such a language, such as English or Spanish, the choice of sounds for a word is highly arbitrary. For example, I could say in English “I want you to spin.” In Spanish or French or Russian the same thought, when spoken, would sound completely different. The sounds and letters used don’t have much to do with the thought that it is conveying. The same with written language. The letters associated with an idea vary from language to language. How the letters of an alphabet are designed and even what sounds they are associated with is also arbitrary.
Dance, being a language, also has rules, but unlike spoken language those rules not arbitrary. In dance the rules are defined by our bodies and our spirits. The way that I tell my follower I want you to spin is defined by our bodies. There are not multiple ways to say it; there is only one way. This makes sense because dance, being the poetic expression of the body uses the language of the body, which is common to every person.
There are many rules to the language of dance, dealing with timing, balance, styling and connection. But when I teach I’ve found it’s helpful to understand the rules of connection through four broad principles- the four Principles of Good Connection
Principle 1: Never Grasp (AKA Never Use Your Thumbs)
Principle 2: Keep the Connection Clean and Clear
Principle 3: Leaders Initiate and Followers Respond
Principle 4: Small Leads and Big follows
Rule 1: Never Grasp (AKA Never Use your Thumbs)
Often times when you watch beginners dance you will see the man and the woman grasp each other’s hands tightly. Then you will often see that the man will quite literally yank the woman across the dance floor, in a way that is definitely not comfortable. When a couple does not know how to communicate then the only way a man can get a woman to go somewhere is to physically force her there. Because of the large amount of force and small amount of trust the man and woman need to hold onto each other. In return women use their thumbs because they are often not sure of both their balance and of the man’s ability or willingness to catch her should she fall. So she holds on to protect herself and maintain communication.
So grasping ensures a certain kind of connection and security, but it comes at a great cost-a lack of both comfort and freedom in the dance. The feeling from continuously clamping down on each other’s hands is uncomfortable. Also if we grasp one another we are going to find that many patterns become impossible to do and our pattern set will become very limited. If we were to try to do those patterns despite the lack of comfort we would hurt one or both of us (typically the woman is more likely to be hurt than the man.) So grasping makes dancing boring, uncomfortable and dangerous.
This means that the lack of freedom that results from grasping is not merely limited to the pattern set, but goes to the very basis of the dance relationship! When grasping the choice to be in relationship rests in the stronger partner. If her partner was hurting her, the woman could not escape by letting go, since the man was still holding on. Instead she would need to let go and to convince him to let go as well.
Sound bad? It’s worse. Most beginner men do not lead from the body, but from the arms. He moves his arms around to get her to do things. In a sense man is forcing her to be in relationship using only his thumb and finger, and the rest of his body can do anything else he likes to do. He’s telling her what to do, not leading her in something they are doing together. He is only connecting with a small part of himself; he is loving with only a small part of his body. In contrast to the ideal of being freely connected by continuous choice and the music, bad dancers are bound both physically and by the need for security.
So we start with a desire to freely choose to be in relationship. Awesome! But now we have a challenge. If we let go and use the proper dance grip, then if the man moves and the woman stays, then the relationship falls apart immediately. No dance can happen!
But this freedom comes with a responsibility. When we stop using our thumbs we will not be able to stay in the dance relationship unless we both know the language of dance and move with all of our being, body and spirit. To never grasp is a negative statement, but it has a corresponding positive statement: we must freely choose to remain in the dance with our partner, each and every moment, with our entire being. Accomplished dancers are bound only by their continuous choice and by the music. When we choose not to grasp in the dance then either dancer can leave anytime he or she pleases. They maintain their relationship by proper connection techniques, good balance and proper movement and timing. Now they remain in the dance because only in the dance do they find both the blessing and the freedom to fully express who they truly are. And they remain in relationship using their entire bodies. When neither partner is grasping the degree of freedom and spontaneity available in the dance jumps a thousand-fold. Spins and turns, hand changes, poses and stylings, and different connection points all become possible once we stop using our thumbs. The dance goes from boring, uncomfortable and dangerous to safe, comfortable and exciting. This first principle of good connection is necessary to master the next three. But we also have to master the next three to make the first principle meaningful.