Thoughts on Partner Dances

Some participants in Israeli dancing really like partner dances. They provide variety and challenge. I believe that some couples develop pride of partnership--the sense that together they are looking elegant on the floor. Partner dances also may provide single men and women with better opportunities to meet one another.

My favorite partner dance, by a wide margin, is Seret Shachor Lavan, choreographed by Shlomo Maman. Although videos of the dance tend to get shut down, I found one that as of this writing is available. Note that in order to watch the video below, you have to first click on the picture, and then when the black-and-white text comes up, click through to YouTube.

I do not do the dance correctly, and certainly not as elegantly as in the video. If I had a choice between doing the dance and watching Maman do it, I would watch Maman. He does it in a way that does not seem possible unless the music has been slowed down. Perhaps it has.

Some dancers find the pressure of arranging/finding partners to be frustrating and unpleasant. On the one hand, people do not like sitting out, but on the other hand many people would rather sit out than take on a partner who they believe will cause them frustration or embarrassment. Because I have Jackie, I am spared this issue.

I estimate that I know 10 circle dances for every partner dance I know. I make that estimate with care, trying not to exaggerate. I think that many dancers skew in that direction, although most advanced dancers do not skew that strongly.

What does it mean to "know" a dance?

Knowing a dance is a matter of degree. The highest degree is to be able to dance a dance even if everyone around you has forgotten it or is messing it up.

Just below that is a dance that you can do correctly only as long as the people near you are doing it correctly. But if they mess up, your peripheral vision and instinct will cause you to make the same mistake, or at least hesitate.

Then there are the dances that you almost know, so that you can do them without staring at other people. Your can fill in the bits that you don't quite get just by relying on peripheral vision and instinct.

Then there are dances where you know some sections but not others. For the sections you do not know, you need to stare at someone who does know the dance and try to copy.

Next, there are dances that you have to do entirely in stare-and-copy mode. And finally, there are dances that you cannot do no matter what--all you know about the dance is that you recognize that you don't know it.

Why are partner dances more difficult?

Partner dances tend to be more difficult than circle dances, for a number of reasons.

The main reason is that you have to coordinate your hands as well as your feet. In fact, if you and your partner do not know a dance and you want to copy the partners next to you, stare at their hands rather than their feet, and hope that instinct and peripheral vision take care of your footwork.

Partner dances also require that you have the correct orientation with respect to your partner. You might be face-to-face, back-to-back, or shoulder-to-shoulder.

In general, copying Israeli dances is easier if you are facing the center of the circle. In partner dancing, almost always at least one partner is not facing the center of the circle.

Choreographers of partner dances include more turns and changes of orientation than they tend to put into circle dances. Even if the hands were not a factor, partner dances would be more intricate and difficult.

If you need help following a circle dance, you can follow someone nearly anywhere in the room. The only challenge with copying someone across the room is translating from mirror image. Your eyes want to tell you that the person's right foot is the left foot. I find that it helps to say to myself "right" when the person steps on the right foot and "left" when the person steps on the left foot. That way, I will "hear" the proper foot, over-riding what my eyes want to suggest.

But with partner dances, it is very difficult to copy any couple other than the one dancing right next to you. Certainly, couples who are across the room are confusing. Their orientation and hands, as well as their feet, are in mirror image.

Gaining and losing dances

You gain a dance when a session leader teaches it and then repeats it often enough in subsequent weeks so that if you go a couple months without doing it, you still know it. You have lost a dance if you once knew it, but now it gets done rarely and when it comes on you cannot recall it.

Here is a circle dance that has gotten lost by pretty much everyone at the sessions where I usually dance:

I find it somewhat easier to gain circle dances than partner dances. That is, after five or six weeks I might know a circle dance. It might take eight to ten weeks to get to know a partner dance.

But the biggest difference comes with losing dances. I have lost relatively few circle dances. I have lost many couple dances, probably the majority of couple dances that I ever learned. I can speculate on the reasons for this.

I may be less motivated to retain partner dances.

Partner dances are not repeated as often as circle dances from session to session. Different session leaders favor very different partner dances. And even at any given leader's session, dances that were once popular will not get played for many months.

As I noted, with a circle dance, one can follow someone anywhere in the room. It only takes a few people completely remembering a circle dance to enable others to pick it up. With partner dances, if the majority of couples have forgotten the dance, then it degenerates into the blind leading the blind.

My bottom line

I personally could go a long time without doing partner dances and not miss any of them. The same is true for line dances.

Circle dances are more my thing. There are many circle dances that I really look forward to doing. The faster circle dances have the most energy. While dancing slow circle dances, I also enjoy watching the more graceful dancers.

During partner dances, I do not get the same level of energy. I am often conscious of my shortcomings in partners dances, which can be deflating. And if I am watching other partners while I dance it is mostly out of necessity to copy, rarely for enjoying their performance.

Other essays in this series