Connection is one of the most elusive yet essential qualities of partner dance. Dancing is a conversation between partners. When two people share a dance, through connection they become like one–moving together. Throughout subtle signals and changes in movement, they create and constantly change shape, speed and direction–communicating without saying a word. How is this possible? Only by the magic of connection.

When dance instructors talk about connection, they usually refer to pushing against and pulling away from your partner. Imagine a thin, flexible tire–like the kind that would go on a bike. It can be stretched and pulled a little outward, but when you release it, it goes back to a circular shape. You can also press its sides inward, and again, it returns to its normal shape when you stop.

Connection is the way of describing a similarly springy quality between partners. Pushing, or compression, draws them away from one another. Pulling, or tension, draws them back together.

Connection may also describe the points of contact between partners–where their hands are placed, and whether any other body parts are touching.

To understand connection better, it helps to also understand extension and flexion. Extension is straightening of the limbs, and flexion is bending of the limbs. Flexion allows the muscles to dissipate the kinetic energy used while dancing, and prevent shock to the nerves and muscles. Meanwhile, extension creates strong, clean lines that make the dance look good, and creates kinetic energy into the next dance move. For the most part, while you are dancing you will always have some amount of flexion in the arm connected to your partner.

Throughout the articles on moves there are connection tips specific to that move. Below is a rundown of the most useful points.

Main Points:

  1. Keep your chest lifted.
  2. Keep your torso upright at all times.
  3. Maintain the amount of extension between you and your partner by drawing your elbow back toward you at a relaxed, almost 90-degree angle–this creates a subtle amount of tension.
  4. If you find you are fully extending your arms, try taking smaller steps throughout the dance.
  5. Any time your partner is extending away, flex your fingers to make a hook for them to hold onto.
  6. Maximize points of connection for each move involving risk, such as dips and lifts.
  7. Make physics and leverage work for you so you don’t over-exert yourself or your partner.

Maintain upright posture.

If you lack tension altogether, there will be virtually no kinetic energy in your dancing and you and your partner will have to work extremely hard to make any movement happen. By maintaining your posture, you create a baseline of tension and how moveable you are. It’s like the difference between picking up wooden blocks or cubes of Jell-O.

  • Keep your chest lifted. Pull your shoulders back and down gently–avoid slumping your shoulders or pulling them back too rigidly.
  • No matter what your feet are doing below, keep your torso straight like a column until and unless it is needed for a specific move that requires you to bend over. In order to protect your ribs, avoid tilting or collapsing your torso to the side.
  • Avoid tilting your torso back (or placing your weight over your heels) to create tension where you have an excess of extension in your arms. If this is happening, chances are you need to take smaller steps. Also, see the paragraph below about jerking your shoulder.
  • Follows, do not arch your back into all dips. Instead, think about tightening your core. Although an arch might look good for a slow motion dip or a photograph (if it’s one of those, go for it), arching your back creates a whole slew of problems for your balance, muscles, ribs, and connection with your partner. Instead, straighten your back and tighten your core. Tilt your head back or turn your face outward.
  • Your head has little to do with connection, but while I’m preaching posture keep your head up! Or you might learn that hard way with your temple connecting with someone’s elbow!

Avoid yanking and jerking your shoulder to create tension.

  • One of the worst dance habits I see a lot of the time is yanking and jerking. Leads and follows are both guilty of this, and it happens when either one of both partners pull with their shoulder at the end of a move leading into the next one. The pull should come primarily from the bicep instead.
  • The lead is yanking or jerking if he rushes into the next move.
  • If a follow does not give the lead any tension or compression to work with, he will develop a habit of yanking and pulling the follow through the moves. You can spot a lead or follow with a lack of tension if their arm is ever fully extended when they are away from their partner.
  • If the lead or follow bring their shoulders forward or upward (remember, they are supposed to stay gently back and down as you lift your chest), chances are they are yanking.
  • If the lead or follow are taking too large of steps, they will have to resort to yanking and pulling to maintain control of the dance.
  • This practice will wear down your energy, create knots and pains in your shoulder the next day, possibly throw out your shoulder, and create long-term damage if done over an extend period of time.
  • Keeping your shoulders back and down to lift your chest up, engage your biceps by thinking of drawing your elbows back toward the wall behind you.
  • Believe it or not, flexing your fingers to make a hook actually plays a huge roll in maintaining energy in partner connection. It’s a much gentler and more immediately recognizable “Stop” cue to your partner because they are holding your hand almost all the time in the dance. Make a letter “C” or “L” bracket with your hands, bending at the third knuckle closest to your palm.

Maximize the points of connection on your body with your partner.

  • During dips and lifts, your points of connection include the hip, waist, forearm, thigh, and/or shoulder depending on which move it is.
  • The more points of contact you have, the safer the move will be.
  • Also, the more points of contact you create, the more you will be aware of your partner’s location and speed. A good example of this is on a Barrel Roll.

Find points of leverage with your partner–work smarter so your body doesn’t have to work harder.

  • For example, on the Princess Dip, the follow’s waist will sit on the lead’s hip. The curve of her hip and the shelf created by the lead’s thigh in squat position keep her from slipping.
  • Everyone’s body is different, but the points of contact you need to aim for are the same on everybody. Variables like height, weight, and physical fitness of each partner will determine how much power you put behind your lift, squat, thrust or jump in the dance move.
    • Story Time! I practiced and learned the Can Opener with a friend, and for a long time we only did that move with one another until it became muscle memory. It wasn’t until he did the move with a girl who weighed about 30lbs less than me and threw her airborne (nearly to the ceiling!) that he realized that the degree of force was drilled into his muscle memory as much as the move was. After some practice he can now make a judgment of how much force to use based on the size of his partner.
  • By working in this way, even leads of lean physique or short stature can dip tall and robust follows with confidence.
    • A note for leads dancing with follows who are taller than you: sometimes the follow will be tentative about dipping because there is less vertical change to indicate the dip is happening. Whatever you do, do not apply speed and force to strongarm your way into the dip. Instead, what I find has worked well for my shorter friends is taking a wider step to the side. Also, you might also find that fancier dips like the Princess Dip, Wrap-Up Dip and Proposal Dip work better for you because they provide more leverage.