What Ballroom Dancing & the Martial Arts Have in Common

What Ballroom Dancing & Martial Arts Have In CommonMy 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.

Sound familiar?

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. 🙂

Comments (14)

14 thoughts on “What Ballroom Dancing & the Martial Arts Have in Common

  1. I once heard a story about a Jitsu couple that also did ballroom dancing. Apparently they did a performance once where the man (accidentally) dropped the woman on the floor. BANG! Perfect side-breakfall, then pulled her back up again like nothing happened. It apparently happened so fast some people were wondering if it was part of the dance or not…

  2. First of all I’d like to state I’m not trying to be a wise-ass here, I just happen to disagree with you on this (again, lol). It’s my opinion that dancing and martial arts have actually very little in common beside the fact that they’re both physical activities and (generally speaking) there are two people involved. There are far more differences than possible commonalities:

    1) Dancing is about cooperation, martial arts is about (learning how to circumvent the opponent’s) resistance. Training in its beginning stages is cooperative to learn the technique but obviously the goal is to be able to do it against someone who’s actually fighting back instead of going along with the flow and the training partner’s movements. The essence of both types of activity is opposite. In dancing you’re not forcing your partner to do anything (this would be unnatural), you let them do it. In martial arts you don’t give the opponent the opportunity to do anything else, as you said.

    2) Dancing (at least with a partner) is pre-arranged, martial arts is about learning how to deal with the unexpected and thus involves (hopefully) semi-free and free exercises (sparring). Pre-arranged martial arts training (partner based exercises and kata) is only useful for learning techniques, not in learning how to fight (actually putting the techniques to use in a combative situation) which is, or at least should be, the ultimate goal in training.

    3)Dancing is about a steady rythmn (at least in the dances I’ve seen), martial arts is about broken rythmn: anyone who’s ever seen a boxing match can attest to this. If you get sucked into the opponent’s rythmn you’re playing his game and you’ll be knocked out or thrown down soon enough.
    4) Dancing is about visual effect (‘looking good’), martial arts is not: if the main aim of your martial art is to look good you’re not doing true martial arts. If a technique happenes to look good it’s a mere by-product of its effectiveness, it’s not done for the sake of it except in pseudo martial arts like wushu or movie-fighting. Dancing usually consists of large movements: in martial arts the shorter, direct movements are usually the most effective.

    5) Dancing is obviously always done to music: no martial art is done to music except kapoeira which is half dance/half martial art (a martial art disguised as a dance to fool the colonial oppressors). In thaiboxing matches the traditional music they’re playing during matches is done for the benefit of the crowd (to enhance the drama of the fight) not for the fighters and it follows the ryhtmn of the fighters not the other way around. That’s why it can be quite unnerving and unpleasant for someone like me who’s used to harmony in music.

    6) Martial arts is about violence, dance is about peace.

    The fact that Bruce Lee did ballroom dancing doesn’t imply a relationship between the martial arts and it’s a mere coincidence: you might aswell say that if a martial artist played footbal there would also be a connection between martial arts and football (again no real connection except for the fact they’re both about the use of the body). I think he just did it to score with the ladies ;), or perhaps to balance his aggressive, competitive nature . Being good at dancing doesn’t imply you’ll be good at martial arts and vice versa.I’m a lousy dancer but a decent martial artist: if there was cross-over between the two surely my dancing would improve with my martial arts. Quod non. I hereby conclude there’s no reason for further embarassement by stepping on a dancefloor ;). I do like this swing music though and the dance is certainly exciting to watch.

    PS: body-control is a prerequisite for succes in all physical activities regardless of their nature (even walking involves having enough body-control to put one foot in front of the other without falling over) so the connection you mentioned is very broad. Ultimately everything’s connected to everything but how closely is another matter.

    1. I think you may have missed the point of the article. The goal wasn’t to show how similar martial arts and ballroom dancing can be, but to highlight the commonalities of two activities that seem very different on the surface to see what bases they share. This can be done with nearly any physical activity, from tennis to shot put, but I chose to do it with ballroom dancing because of my recent conversations with my friend.

      When you are able to do this, it helps you transfer things you learn from other activities into your martial arts training allowing you to improve your understanding of the body mechanics used in the martial arts no matter what physical activity you’re doing. Most people don’t only do martial arts as a hobby and have other interests, and it can be fun and enlightening to see how the skills from one can transfer to the other and vice versa. It also helps you to analyze the body structure concepts you use in the martial arts from another perspective.

      I hope that makes sense. Thanks for commenting.

      1. Yeah, or multiple leading to the phenomenon called ‘rolling on the floor laughting out loud’. It’s hilarious, especially when taken in conjunction with some of the comments on their videos: apparantly the concepts of fiction and satire are difficult to grasp for some people so they go off on pointless rants thus greatly adding to the overall comical effect of the show. “My art is better than your art, no mine”, “X-martial art sucks big time…”: lol. The humanity…

  3. Hah! I have danced with many of the people in that first clip. I had to scan the background to see if that was a night I happened to be there.

    1. Really? Cool! Do you also do martial arts training? I just love watching some of the moves those people do in the video, especially the one where the woman tosses the guy over herself. That looked awesome!

      1. I do MMA, and I do often find myself thinking about how many of the things I do and learn in dance are relate-able to MMA and vise versa. Anyone who has ever danced with someone that does not know how to follow (yet isn’t willing to lead), might benefit from some martial arts training. Our standing art is Muay Thai, for ground we do BJJ and some wrestling.

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