My friend James is a west coast swing dancer. He does it for fun, exercise, social activity, and simply because he enjoys it, much like the reasons I train in the martial arts. Every month or so, we get together for brunch and get caught up on each other’s lives and inevitably he ends up talking about dancing and I end up talking about martial arts. I used to do east coast swing dancing and other forms of ballroom for a couple of years back when I was in university, so I can also relate directly to his dancing experiences. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that partner dancing and partner-based martial arts training have quite a lot in common, despite their very different appearances on the surface. It’s no surprise to me that Bruce Lee was both a great martial artist and ballroom dancer. What the two things have in common really boils down to one thing: body control.
Compliance vs. Resistance
In ballroom dancing, the goal of the lead is to control the couple’s movements by giving signals for their partner to follow, but they both have the same goal; to achieve a synergy in movement that allows them to express themselves physically to the music that is playing. In partner-based martial arts training, even though we sometimes train compliantly to allow our partner to learn the application of particular techniques, ultimately the goal is to be able control a resisting subject. In a real self-defense situation, the “couple” in this relationship is combative. And yet despite this big difference, many of the body control tactics applied by either couple are analogous.
Use of Body Structure
In ballroom dancing, when the lead pushes the follower into a spin, for example, the lead doesn’t simply push with the strength of their arm. This can send the follower in a different direction than desired, particularly if the arm is pushing in a direction that isn’t supported by the movement of their legs, hips and rest of their body. It’s also more tiring for the lead’s arm and it looks clumsy and awkward. Conversely, if the follower doesn’t keep relaxed tension in their arm allowing the push to transfer into the rest of their body, they won’t have the sensitivity to respond to the lead they’re being offered.
This concept has direct correlations to what we do in partner-based martial arts training. While it is certainly possible to muscle your way into making a joint lock or takedown work, the most efficient and effective way is to use your body structure, as well as that of your partner for maximum effect. We aim to use our feet, hips and overall body positioning to support what our arms are doing. When we fail to do so, it’s more tiring, less effective, as well as clumsy and awkward.
Leaving No Options
In one conversation James and I had recently, we discussed the difficulty of a lead to work with a partner that is new to dancing. “They are less sensitive to your movements, and often incorrectly “guess” at what is expected of them, rather than letting the lead’s movements guide them,” he explained.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Sounds more like a fight.”
“I suppose it is more like a fight in that the lead has to “fight” to maintain control of the dance,” James considered.
After further discussion, James explained that when you work with a partner with little to no experience in dance, it’s about leaving them no option than to go the way you want them to lead. If you want a partner to spin towards their right, you position your body and arms in such a way that it is so awkward to turn left that they have no choice but to turn right.
I, of course, had my own thoughts on this. Dealing with a new dancer is like trying to control a non-compliant training partner, or a subject in a real situation. With joint locks or throws/takedowns, you lock up their joints and/or affect their balance and body structure in such a way, they have no option but to go the direction you want them to go. They will go where they have to go because it is the path of least resistance, whether it is due to body mechanics, gravity, or because they’re trying to move away from a pain point.
Below is a video of east coast swing dancing, the kind I used to do (though these people are way more advanced than I was during my time). *Correction: It’s lindy hop, though it has similarities to east coast swing.
Now compare this to the “dance” of Judo:
“Who Can Tell the Dancer from the Dance?”
Poet William Butler Yeats asked the above question, highlighting the performer’s importance in creating their art. The dances we dance are directly expressed by the movements we use. In both ballroom dancing and partner-based martial arts, the better your technique, the easier it is to keep your partner moving where you want, and the more fluid and “beautiful” the expression of the art. This is part of the reason why I recommend dancing as one of my Top 5 Cross-training Activities for Martial Artists.
Have you ever done any partner-based physical activities that have commonalities to partner-based martial arts? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas in the comments. 🙂