Intelligent Dancing
Richard Powers

There are many benefits of spontaneous freestyle social dancing.  We can dance with partners who have not taken the same classes we have, it's playful, flexible and creative.

But there's an additional benefit we don't often hear about: it makes us smarter.

Many research studies have shown that we increase our intelligence by exercising our cognitive processes.  Intelligence: Use it or lose it.  Making hundreds of split-second evaluations and decisions while dancing freestyle is a lot of mental exercise!  And this helps us maintain and sharpen our intellect as we age.

But what exactly do we mean by "intelligence"?  How do you define it?

You probably agree that intelligence isn't a numerical measurement, with a number of 100 plus or minus assigned to it.  But what is intelligence?

To answer this we go back to the most elemental questions possible.  Why do animals have a brain?  To survive?  No, plants don't have a brain and they survive.  To live longer?  No, many trees outlive us.

Some theoreticians say that we have brains because we can travel to seek food, shelter, mates, and to move away from unfavorable conditions.  As Robert Sylwester notes in his work on intelligence, mobility is central to everything that is cognitive, whether it's physical motion or the mental movement of information.  Plants have to endure whatever comes along, including predators eating them.  Since we can move, we need a cognitive system that can comprehend sensory input and intelligently make choices.

            Isn't all dancing intelligent?

Semantics will differ for each of us, but according to many, if the stimulus-response relationship of a situation is automatic, we don't think of the response as requiring our intelligence.  We don't use the word intelligent to describe a banana slug, even though it has a rudimentary brain.  But when the brain evaluates several viable responses and chooses one (a real choice, not just following habits), the cognitive process is considered to be intelligent.

Jean Piaget suggested that intelligence is what we use when we don't already know what to do.

So yes of course, all dancing requires some intelligence, but I encourage using your full intelligence when dancing, in both the Lead and Follow roles.

            Doesn't everyone?

Some dancers and dance teachers do, and some don't.  Each is different.  Some teachers would rather train their dancers to respond in only one way to a given situation — the authorized "correct" way.   Steps and patterns are predetermined by authorities so that the dancers have very few decisions to make, if any.  A trainer may give dancers a choreography to perform, and they repeat it endlessly to work on molding their posture and style to the specific directives.  And the woman's role is doubly automatic, not only following the trainer but also her male partner.  Personal variations away from his lead are considered mistakes, and are to be eliminated.  Steps and styles outside the syllabus are deemed "incorrect."

This is authority-based ballroom dance.  The standardized syllabus, the studio and the trainer are all precisely specified authorities, carefully controlling every detail, every shape and nuance of one's dancing.  Here is what your dancing is supposed to look like.  These are the steps and figures you're allowed to use.  You must learn them in this sequence and perform them in this floor pattern.  Here are the judges who will determine if you are doing it correctly.  Here is the Silver Level certificate to show that you satisfied the authorities.  So right from the beginning they give you a blueprint of your dancing, and your job is to automatically follow that plan, that map.

That's what the word authority means.  It literally means they are the author of your dancing.  Not you.

That's okay.  Many people need that level of authority in their lives, so I'm certainly not saying that this approach to ballroom dance is wrong.  It's fine, and exactly right for many people.  And to give authority-based ballroom studios further credit where it's due, self-esteem may be boosted when these criteria are successfully mastered.

But you can also gain positive self-esteem from self-authored dancing.  Or better yet, co-authored dancing, where both dancers collaborate on creating the dance.

There is a fundamental difference between these two approaches.  If the stimulus-response relationship of a situation is automatic, as it is in authority-based ballroom dance, we can't, by definition, consider the response to be as intelligent as self-authored spontaneous freestyle dancing.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote, "Anyone who relies upon authority uses not his understanding, but rather his memory."

In freestyle social dancing, both men and women are spontaneously open to the infinite possibilities of the moment, responding to one's partner and to the music.  The flow of the dance is a three-way communication between the Lead, the Follow and the music, with each contributing something.  The dancers value the increasing skill of considering multiple viable responses at any moment, including nontraditional and creative possibilities, as long as they can be understood by one's partner.

            Art or craft?

This is essentially a choice between art and craft.  Art involves creativity, spontaneity and self-expression.  Craft is skillfully creating something which might be aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful, but without the emphasis on personal creativity and self-expression.

Picasso and Degas created art.  Painting by numbers is a craft.  So we think of freestyle partnering is the art of dancing, while following a syllabus or trainer is the craft of dancing.  Nothing is wrong with crafts.  They can be beautiful.  You might do a good job of coloring within the lines and the result might be very pretty.  But someone else is the author.

Ballet is another authority-based dance form, as it should be (you don't see much freestyle improv ballet).  Ballet is an art for the choreographer, but it's a craft for the dancers.  George Balanchine said, "Dancers are my instruments, like a piano the choreographer plays."  And the dancers are happy to accept that.  It's the same in some ballroom dance studios, while other instructors prefer to teach improvised partner dancing.  The term "ballroom dance" doesn't necessarily mean one approach or the other.  International Style (i.e. British) is certainly authority-based ballroom dance, while others may prefer the improvised approach.

You can read more on the difference between social and competitive ballroom dance here.

            It's your choice.

Both options are valid, and each has their following.  Choose the one which suits your personality the best.

Most of Stanford's social dance students prefer to fully utilize their intelligence in dancing, at all levels.  They love the way it feels.  Spontaneous leading and following both involve entering into a flow state.  Both leading and following benefit from a highly active attention to possibilities.

You may have already read my thoughts on dance partnering, where I mentioned that in the "dark ages" of ballroom dance the woman's role was to obey the man's leads as a puppet, with no option of making intelligent choices of her own.  But fortunately that attitude has mostly disappeared today, and the best Leads now appreciate the many options that the follow must consider every second, and he respects her input into the collaboration of partner dancing.  She is finely attuned to the here-and-now in relaxed responsiveness, and so is he.

Once this highly active attention to possibilities, flexibility and alert tranquility are perfected in the art of dance partnering, dancers find it even more beneficial in relationships, and in everyday life, than it is in dancing.

More thoughts and musings