As a dancer, I’ve pretty much got two left feet. Always have. (If my DNA source code is anything to believe, it’s partly because I’ve got a slightly worse motor cortex than most, making it harder for me to learn that kind of thing… I’m not sure whether I buy that or not). Although I’ve always had a blast making a fool out of myself on the dance floor, provided I had poured enough alcohol into myself to ignore the jeers, and the fact that I’d never be able to pull based on my “moves”. (Fortunately, my lack of coordination and finesse appears to be relegated only to dancing).
Last week though, I was playing Dance Central 3 with my wonderful wife Darci, and she said one of the most amazing things ever… (in between mocking my lack of skill). This is the one piece of information that totally clued me into what I was missing about dancing, and why she was more easily able to ape the dancers on the screen than I was. It was mind blowing, and has completely gotten me over the hump.
What was it?
”You see what they’re doing, right? They’re grabbing their other foot with their hand on each move.”
I’m pretty sure this is easier if you have four arms, like Vishnu, rather than two left feet, like me.
This will make more sense in a second.
I’ve had three great pieces of advice for learning how to dance, and one on posture from three wonderful friends in my life who wanted to help me out with this kind of stuff. These have been:
- “You see what they’re doing right? They’re grabbing their other foot with their hand on each move.” – Darci Morales (my wife, ex-blues singer, ex-truck logistics coordinator, ex-QA person extraordinaire, senior video game producer and mother of my child)
- “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re decisive about it. Mean it, and people will think it’s intentional, and if you move with intent, that’s dancing” – Evangeline Marzec (my good friend and founder of Piccolo games, and senior strategist at Ubermind – who used to be a dancer).
- “Focus on getting your footwork right first; ignore your upper body until you learn the foot moves, and the rest will follow” – Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom, Senior VP of Publishing at Harmonix, and VP of Production for Dance Central and Dance Central 2. She went to college for dance, ended up in the movie industry, and these days makes awesome games. (Sometimes, it pays to work in the games industry – you can get “cheat codes” directly from the source )
- “You know what your chest does? It holds your heart up” – Mia Morris (dancer, actress, dialect coach, event organizer). This is the posture advice – it’s really that simple. Your ribcage should hold your heart in the air. Remembering that makes it waaaaaay easier to maintain the correct posture – and it’s another key to understanding piece of advice #1.
I have a lot of artsy folks in my life. This is part of the solution to being a programmer for a living – I can’t be around that kind of thinker all the time, or I’ll got nuts. If I’m going to do it for 8 hours a day, the rest of the time I need to be around people who can nourish the other side of my brain.
So what did I glean from this?
Dancing involves intentional motion. It’s about balance (which is why your leg work is important; if your legs aren’t in the right place, you’ll be fumbling, so you have to move them in ways which let you keep your balance – and keep track of which leg your weight should be on). And most importantly as far as intentional motion goes, a lot of dance is about miming physical actions. Imagining that you’re doing something specific to an invisible physical object, and moving your body as if you were pushing or pulling on that object. There’s one other piece to remember, which is typically that you repeat your moves either for a single bar (less common), or an entire measure (most common) of the music. And motion is triggered by and happens on the beat.
This by the way, is why Darci’s advice made everything finally click for me – and it’s reminiscent of Mia’s advice about posture – it’s translating a sequence of actions into an imagined activity. So when I saw people dancing on the screen and was trying to mimic them cold, just matching my limb motions to what I saw, there was no way I could keep up – because I was missing the intent part.
There’s a move (can’t remember what it’s called, but I’ll update this post when I figure it out) where you kick your left leg back behind you, and pull your right arm behind to reach towards your kicked out leg. Then you alternate with your other side – right leg back, left arm back behind you.
I have a lot of trouble with these asymmetrical moves – I always want to do everything on the left side, or everything on the right, and I lose sync and get mixed up really incredibly easily. (And I hate tutorial modes… which is counter productive, but hey, that’s how I roll). So this was a really huge problem for me.
Darci’s advice – to reach back to grab the leg that was sticking out with my other arm – changed this entire process up. Instead of looking to mirror limb positions, I was now breaking down and analyzing the moves as actions – grab that leg!
No, not that other person’s leg! Your own! Your own! Party foul!
This makes a lot of sense. After all, you can’t grab your foot when it’s behind you while you’re moving with the hand on the same side as the leg that’s up – you’ll fall over, because you’re unbalanced. And hey, presto, it all of a sudden made sense.
Now the really awesome thing here is that this applies to any dance move you can think of, and it stuck. I was now learning to dance on a much more meta level – thinking “what are they trying to do?” rather than “what do I need to copy”. And the funny thing is, if you switch to this mode, your body will – on autopilot – do a lot of the hard work for you. Provided you copy the intent. The intent is the thing – don’t copy their motions, copy what they appear to be trying to do. There’s a difference – and while in text it seems subtle, it’s really not.
And ground it in physical actions with resistance against something, whether it’s imaginary or not. Move your muscles like they’re performing work, and yet another piece will click into place. You can ease off on this once you know what you’re doing, so that you’re not actually tensing your muscles, you’re just following the path – but it’s way easier if you’re really pushing them while you first figure out the moves.
Sliding along the floor while pushing in the opposite direction with your arms? Much easier if you imagine you are pushing yourself along by grabbing onto a fixed floating doorknob hanging in mid air – your body will do the rest.
Everything gets easier in dancing if you imagine there’s an invisible object that you’re pushing against (some moves don’t need this, but a lot do).
Which takes us right back to the “you’ve got to be doing something concrete, not just mimicking, and have intent” point. It’s like acting – except it’s acting only with your body.
Give it a try, and let me know what you think
 Hey, I worked on Kinect, so I got to meet the Harmonix folks back before Kinect was launched, helped them out a tiny bit, answered some questions, and made some awesome life-long friends. Those folks rock, and like most folks in the games industry, are some of the loveliest folks I’ve ever had the chance to meet. (Hi Tracy, Mike, Naoko! I wish I was going to GDC in 2013, but it doesn’t currently look meant to be).