Emma’s forward ocho miracles, and following a less industrial-sized lead

This evening was my first following lesson with Emma, and it was an amazing one!

So far, I’ve felt that the act of following itself is really starting to fall into place, but that I had a zillion technique issues to address with my pivots. That’s absolutely still the case, of course, but I felt like in the course of a single lesson my forward pivots went from 20% to 60% (where my current standard for 100% is “could pass for a halfway-competent beginner follower, given a sufficiently dark room”) …

I’ve talked before about the different potential teacher-student relationship models in privates.

At one extreme is the guru model. The teacher decides the what, when and how, and the student is a passive recipient of this wisdom. The opposite extreme is what might be termed the customer service model, where the student dictates everything and the teacher dutifully gives them what they asked for.

For me, a private is a 50/50 partnership. The student needs to communicate their goals – the things we feel we most lack, or would make the biggest difference to our dance right now. The teacher needs to see beyond the student’s current horizon, which will sometimes include things which might feel too advanced or off-topic, but which they know will actually move us forward in the direction in which we want to travel.

There are times when I feel like a teacher is being overly ambitious, but I’ve always gone along with it, and – surprise! – they are almost always right.

I’d felt so happy with the flow-state I’d achieved by my previous lesson with Diego. Part of the secret to this had been limiting pivots, and mostly sticking to linear movements, with the cross the main exception. I wanted to build on that, so suggested to Emma that we not introduce too many pivots initially, fearing that having to focus so much on pivoting technique that I’d lose the ability to smoothly follow.

She replied “Let’s dance one song and see” – and proceeded to lead me in a dance which was almost entirely pivots!

We did rather quickly agree on one thing: my back pivots need a lot more solo practice before we try to include too many of those in the dance. But she also said that there was nothing wrong with my following in pivots, it was only technique work that I needed, so we spent almost the entire lesson doing forward ochos.

Sometimes the obvious has to be pointed out …

The progress we made in the course of just one lesson blew my mind. One of the biggest challenges for leaders learning to follow, I think, is the vastly greater degree of dissociation required. Yes, the same degree of dissociation in a leader is amazing, but you can get away with rather a limited amount. Not so much when following!

Emma corrected a huge misapprehension on my part. I’d felt like, since maintaining my balance in pivots was already tricky, that I’d better get to a point where that was significantly improved before I threw in the additional challenge of dissociating more too. Emma said no, lack of dissociation is what makes balance difficult, because I’m essentially trying to swing/power my way through the pivot. In other words, I was using brute force and ignorance.

As soon as I focused first on the dissociation, and second on the pivot, it was a revelation! It was immediately clear to both of us how much more in my axis I was. I know every follower in the world will be thinking “Well, duh!” – and probably more experienced leaders too – but these things are only obvious when you know them! Who knew that making things harder would make them easier?

The other big technique issue was about relaxing the hip of my free leg. These things can again be counter-intuitive: when we’re worried about balance, we tense up, which makes us less balanced. Not worrying so much about losing my balance made me less likely to do so. Again, this made a huge difference.

Ocho heaven

Of course, this didn’t transform me into Noelia (maybe two or three more lessons, Emma?), but we spent the rest of the lesson dancing with many, many, many forward ochos. Small ones, medium ones, huge ones, some giro-like rotations, you name it, if it involved a forward pivot, we did it!

It was so lovely, and I was definitely in a flow state a lot of the time (inevitable stumbles aside).

The other thing that was great to see is that at least one technique issue seems to have made its way into muscle memory: I previously had a tendency to stretch up rather than dip down in pivots, and that appeared to have fixed itself in the course of my solo practice.

Responding to a far lighter lead

Diego had been giving me an industrial-sized lead, which I feared might have given me an overly flattering impression of my ability to follow. But this too appeared not to be an issue.

Emma’s lead was clear, but also very light, and she said that I was very responsive. She also said that I was good at waiting, rather than anticipating, so Diego’s insistence that I be ‘slow and late’ had clearly sunk in.

Back pivots next!

Emma ended the lesson by giving me my homework for solo practice: back pivots. Specifically:

  • Ensure I’m not crossing in the back step (maintain a parallel track)
  • Think about bringing my shoulder blade above my back heel (to bring me into axis)
  • Again, keep the hip of the free leg relaxed
  • Lift the heel slightly for the pivot, but only very slightly (and don’t lean forward)

That second bullet was another aha! moment when I practiced the next morning. I realised that I wasn’t transferring my weight quite far enough in the back step. I didn’t want to put my weight on my heel, because then I can’t pivot, but it was actually a case of shifting it further so it was partly above my heel, but not so much that I couldn’t lift the heel. Again, I immediately felt a huge improvement in my balance as soon as I achieved that.

Next lesson in a fortnight – but in the meantime, I’m off to The Feast again! See some of you there …

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