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Travels with my dance

Posted on April 27, 2011

New Dance Today blogger Andrew Stone (pictured dancing with Aila Floyd of the Bee’s Knees) travels all over the UK with his work and takes his dancing in whatever form he can.

This week: Should you cross over? 

Crossover dancing and events are usually born of a dance environment found in the more rural areas of the UK, where dance opportunities are restricted.

Although crossover dancing does occur in the major urban areas, it is more unusual in places where dancers have their genre and venue of choice within easy driving distance.

So what exactly is “crossover dancing”?

It’s doing two or three – or even more – different dance forms in the same week. At a crossover event you might get West Coast swing, international Latin, Argentine tango and lindy hop music – and be expected to dance all four!

When there is a shortage of venues in a particular style, keen dancers do whatever is available. The further you are from a major urban centre, the more likely you will be a crossover dancer.

Inverness (a four-hour drive from Glasgow) is probably the most remote city in the UK and the capital of crossover dancing. It’s one of the most enthusiastic dance communities I’ve come across: everyone in the dance world knows everyone else and often they share the same venues. Salsa dancers turn up at ballroom classes; modern jive dancers do Argentine tango; and everyone dances at traditional Scottish ceilidhs.

In such a situation it is very difficult to be exclusive or snobby about different dance forms and, perhaps better still, dancers often have a keen understanding of what makes one form different from another.

Dancers more attuned to one style over another tend to force a dance they’re less familiar with into a “shape” with which they feel comfortable. In doing so, they lose a lot of the feeling of the dance. Regularly performing different styles breaks down the barriers and we “relearn” the dance from a different perspective, arriving at the true heart of what dancing is.

The other day I was at a crossover event – lindy and ballroom jive in the middle of the floor, with quickstep circling outside – in Glasgow. A leading lindy hop dancer was in the amusing situation of “being taught” ballroom jive by a very competent, but rather less experienced dancer.

After a squeal of “You’re not following the steps” – to which she replied, “I don’t need to”  – she responded like an unbroken mare in the hands of a master horseman, petulantly tossing her head, before being brought under control. Two dance tracks later she was almost unrecognisable from the other lindy hoppers.

webby_andew_stoneDancing can require the precision of dressage, the speed and exuberance of a wild ride over the fences in a National Hunt race, or the fast twisting and turning of a rodeo rider. What makes a good horseman is understanding the relationship between horse and rider; what makes a good dancer is understanding lead and follow. Just as it is possible for an accomplished rider to persuade a horse to do tricks it has never done before, so a good dancer can lead a good follower – even if the follower is completely unfamiliar with the dance form.

Sometimes known as the “cerocho”, a well-known test is to put a modern jive or swing dancer into an Argentine tango ocho on the floor when the follower has no idea what is happening – it’s an excellent challenge for your leading skills.

However, to do that, you need to be an experienced crossover dancer. Indeed, crossover dancing makes you aware that all partner dancing eventually comes down to two simple concepts. To lead well, all you need to know is which leg your partner is standing on and how to get her to move the other, free one in the direction you want, at the speed you want. To follow well, all you need to know is which leg your partner is standing on and in which direction his free leg is going to move.

Everything else – steps, technique, routines, figures, and style – is secondary to that, but, too often, dancers are so focused on the specialist technique and style of their particular dance that they lose sight of simple leading and following.

Crossover dancing might not be for everyone: it won’t improve your performance in a particular dance form; it might even make it worse. However, if you are a crossover dancer, when you arrive at unfamiliar country town and they ask you whether you can do Carolina Shag or La Palomita, you’ll say: “I’m a dancer, I’ll give that a go.” And that’s something to be proud of.

Nicola Rayner was editor of Dance Today from 2010 to 2015. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Independent and Time Out Buenos Aires, where she cut her teeth as a dance journalist working on the tango section. Now acting editor of Discover Britain magazine, she continues to dance everything from ballroom to breakdance, with varying degrees of success.

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