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Likeable or believable

Many years ago, when I had the honour to judge the International Championships in Royal Albert Hall for the first time, the couple who won the Professional Ballroom was not my winner. As a young judge I worried that I made a big mistake by marking another couple to win. I couldn’t sleep, I felt devastated and doubtful, although I knew I was sincere in my evaluation. I really liked 'my winner'.

After the competition I had a long talk about my concerns with Mrs. Bobby Irvine MBI. She explained to me that there are basically two types of dancers, 'public dancers' and 'true performers'. I realised that on that night I marked the 'public dancer' to win. It took me quite some years of practice and study so that I could see better, recognise all components of a dance performance and understand how they merge together.

'Public dancers' can win the hearts of audiences with their sunny, always 'happy' attitude, willing to impress and entertain.

'True performers' are aware of all components of the dance performance, the so called strands of the medium. Their focus is primarily the dance itself and their way of relating to their partner and music, but also being conscious about the world that surrounds them. Good performers attract the audience by being highly skilled, committed, present and most of all authentic.

Let's analyse how a performance can be viewed, witnessed or experienced.

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The strands of the dance medium

Valerie Preston-Dunlop, dance researcher and scholar, wrote: "The strands of the dance medium are stated in the first place as the performer, the movement, the sound and the space."

In our style of dancing the performer has a freedom to choose the costume, make-up, hair-style and partner. With a clever choice your appearance will enhance your performance rather than be a distraction. As a couple you have to develop your partnering skills to the degree that your connection is functional and safe.

Your movement is the primary medium of the dance. As each dance consists of specific movement structures, you need to make a selection (choreography) and treat the movement (interpretation) according to the character of the dance.

The space is the component of the performance that relates to many things - the venue, the size and shape of the dance floor, lighting and the positioning of the adjudicators and audience. And there are always other couples around that share the floor with you. It takes many years of experience to become aware of the entire setting and truly use it intentionally. Try to practice in more detail your walking on and off the floor, positioning, the way you thank your partner and audience and floor-craft skills.

The component of the sound takes on board the dance music being played for the competition and other sounds coming from all present in the ballroom - clapping, cheering, including a voice of the MC.

In Latin and Ballroom dance style you need to have control over your own movement and be aware of your partner at the same time. But you cannot influence the sound/music and the space/place as they are ever changing components.

That is the reason why top performers like to dance in known ballrooms with known orchestras, returning every year to prestigious dance competitions. Great organisers make sure that there is as little as possible external stress placed on the dancers, therefore they carefully balance the hits, provide sufficient breaks between the rounds and in general create conditions that are pleasant and respectful towards all involved.

As a performer you learn to accept what you cannot change and how to adjust to any situation. Even when the floor is slippery or too small or too big, when there are too many couples on the floor at the same time, when there is not enough audience, you can always find a solution and remain committed to your task.

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Step by step

Every house needs a solid foundation, that is what makes it safe. Designing the top floors and decorating the rooms comes later. Dancing is the same, you build it up by understanding the fundamental principles, technique, posture and coordination, balance; on your own, with your partner and music.

The response to all these qualities will be immediate approval. When your performance feels and looks safe and stable, you gain trust.

But for a sustainable career this is not enough. You need to spice up all the above with the sense of mastery, artistry and mystery; a kind of 'danger' that provokes the correctness. When safety is embodied, you start desiring its opposite. You start adding new layers to your performance that require novelty, a quest for the unknown that defines your personal style.

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What does it take to be believable?

The balance between correctness and effectiveness, safety and adventure, form and content will be perceived not just as likeable, but also more believable.

What really nails it is your authenticity. You know the feeling when you are really 'real' and not 'constructed'. Your realness makes others engage with you more, because they can believe you, your sincerity is convincing when you are free from pretence. Remember, when observed or evaluated, your authenticity breathes trust.

You know the famous “fake it until you make it.” But you can’t lie to yourself, you can’t make the stuff up or pretend, you need to stay genuine - as a performer, judge, coach or a spectator. The latest data from the field of neuroscience shows that when we pretend or deliberately fake something, the circuits in our brain and body will register that, as well as all that is given out wholeheartedly. The brain and the heart are talking to each other in both directions, to performers and to those who witness the performance.

You will never fool a good expert, nor the audience. An expert understands movement logics, characteristics of our style and can read your body language to perfection. The audience sees and feels it differently, they just want to enjoy your dancing.

I’m sure that you have witnessed the competitions where the audience expressed clearly who would be their winner, which couple receives the loudest applause or even a standing ovation.

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'Me' game and 'we' game

Being success driven can be a selfish game, it's a 'me' game. Some dancers pay more attention to themselves and audiences rather than to their own dance partner and it seems that the art of partnering is fading away. When performers are too busy with getting the audience's attention, their own dance quality and partner are at risk. I never feel that when I watch figure skating (ice pair dance) or Argentine Tango for example, the attention goes primarily to the partner.

The mission of a performer is to empower and lift others up with dance interpretation. There is greatness in a 'we' game, where a dancer is in service to their own mission and can put attention to the work rather than ego. You can always turn your 'lower' nature (envy, jealousy, competitiveness) into a 'higher' nature. The triggering point is when you start practicing gratitude.

Performer - audience connection

So you have to ask yourself how you want to perform. What do you wish to give to yourself and others? Are you selling your dance while performing or are you giving it as a present, wholeheartedly, unconditionally?

There are for sure some rough edges to be smoothed out. An audience expects that a dancer will dance, not act out the dancing. Rather than trying to impress the audience, let the audience decide. The attention that you get needs to be earned with your quality, without demanding or even begging for it.

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Re-engage the audience

Some of you have or had a loyal audience for decades. Your supporters and admirers are interested in your progress, growth, they witness your best and your toughest competitions, struggles, but most of all they have expectations every time they revisit the event. So you have to re-engage the audience each and every time. You can do that by consistently adding to your menu, not only with new costumes, but bringing new ideas and expressions, being truly present and aware of your mission.

It is proven that audiences engage more when they perceive a dancer being present, authentic or real. You 'being in the moment' changes how an audience connects with you - they connect more. Your true presence strongly engages the audience's attention and cultivates the audience's own sense of presence.

You have to give yourself that much courage and permission to be who you have to be at that moment. Invite the audience in a respectful, subtle way, emphasise your presence, humility and purpose.

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I would like to conclude this blog with thoughts of one of the greatest performers in Latin dancing, Michael Malitowski (a former 2-time World, 8-time Blackpool, 9-time UK Open and 9-time International Professional Latin dance Champion with partner Joanna Leunis). I asked Michael how he sees the performer - audience relationship through his experience. He answered: "Throughout my competitive career I had a clear idea that firstly, I have to be self-connected, fully present in my own movement, secondly, making sure that partnering skills are perfect and thirdly, that I embrace the world that surrounds us, which is space/performing area, audience, sound/music. Taking on board all strands of the medium was my strong side. The audience was a conscious part of my message as my art could exist only if someone was looking. I wasn't worrying if the audience likes me, what was important to me was that the audience responded to my messages. I always wanted to challenge the audience and re-engage the spectators from the first bow, setting the dance starting positions differently and consistently introducing new ideas in choreography. I'm aware that I was occasionally struggling with my own needs, but for me the partnering was a priority. Winning was never a goal for me, I simply wanted to set the stage with clear intentions and stay committed to the task. My agenda was my commitment and desire to be 'lost in the dance'."

Source of inspiration

Ruud Vermeij explained and adopted to ballroom dance style Valerie Preston-Dunlop's theory about the strands of the dance medium in his book Latin – Thinking, sensing and doing in Latin American Dancing. Kastell Verlag, 1994