By understanding how different dances styles are different from each other and how they are similar to each other, you are better able to get into the mindset each needs. Not only does this help you dance them better, but it helps you work out what you need to work on to improve how well you dance them as well.
Although I have not been able to find much about this explicitly elsewhere, I have noticed that dances can fall into one of two groups: ‘continuous’ and ‘discreet’.
The first group, which I have called ‘continuous’, could also be called ‘smooth’. This will make sense to American dancers who dance the American syllabus, and are likely familiar with the term “American Smooth’. The dances that fit into this category are dances like the tango (English/American), foxtrot and waltz; however, dances like the quickstep also fall into this category.
In these dances, there is no clear basic.
Admittedly, the waltz kind of has a clearer basic than the others, but I still add it to this group.
When there is no clear basic, the lead can’t go back to the basic step and just keep doing that while waiting until there is a chance to do another figure or they think of another figure to do. Instead, the dance must continuously flow smoothly from one figure to the next. In the case of waltz, one could keep doing the basic and then throw in another step when the time feels right. However, this transition is expected to occur smoothly and it is preferred that the basic not be used too much.
Certainly in the ‘discreet’ dances have a clear basic – think cha cha, samba, rumba, salsa and so on.
When dancing these styles, one can dance the basic while thinking what to do next. I have seen an excellent dancer from South America do nothing but a basic salsa figure for the whole night. He was so connected to the music that you didn’t realize that’s all he did. He could dance the basic figure in a way that expressed the changing music, which he looked to really feel, and thus looked like he changed figures. He never had troubles finding a partner so I assume the partners he danced with were happy with this approach to dance as well.
This is another way of categorizing dances, but what’s the point?
The point is that this can help you work out how to approach a dance. If you are working on a discreet dance, then you can afford to stop and start and work on different figures with little negative effect. However, when working on continuous dances, you are well served to focus on putting one figure after another (even if you do not do them perfectly) so that you can become better at thinking a few steps ahead and keep the smooth flow of the dance.
It’s still a good idea to work on being able to move from one figure to another in the discreet dances. That is a big thing that I have noticed in the salsa world, lots of people like one figure blending into another without a basic in between.
By being aware of which of these two categories a dance falls into, you can put yourself into a more suitable mindset. When dancing the continuous dances, I now think more about what figures will come next and which fit the situation I am in.
This can be an issue for both the lead and the follow. Leads need to keep thinking ahead and follows need to realize that there will likely be no breaks where only the basic is done for a brief period where one can get one’s bearings.
I only noticed this difference when I started to focus on my social dance ability as opposed to learning routines. If you have been dancing socially, and free-styling, for some years, then you might have already noticed this. However, if you have found that some styles do not seem to click for you, then it might be that you need to remember whether they are continuous or discreet and what that means for your approach when dancing them.