One of my freelance gigs is coaching a competitive salsa team. Not in salsa, mind you. That is not my forte. But I use my Laban work and my theatre experience to coach them in performance quality and characterization. For this coming season, I have another goal for them- ensemble.
In the salsa scene, teams compete and they perform at Socials (events that include social dancing and performances). I recently attended a social, and I found I had a HUGE problem with many of the performances. These "teams" of dancers looked like anything but. They were all dancing the same choreography, at the same time. But they were not dancing together. There was a serious lack of ensemble.
Ensemble is a tricky thing to teach. It is also difficult to maintain in a high pressure setting. So I do understand that it is difficult to get students or those new to performing to grasp it. But it is part of the "it factor" that sets apart a performance. You can feel it when it's there, and you can feel it when it's not.
When a team is dancing together, they draw the audience in. We see connections and we want to be a part of that. When a team is dancing at the same time, they alienate their audience. The audience is constantly reminded that this is a group of people doing choreography, not dancing together. They are constantly confronted with faces and body language that says "look at me, doing this cool thing!" Every member is out for his/herself. The audience feels overwhelmed because they are trying to watch 12 soloists, rather than 1 team. Visually and emotionally, it's way too much. Each member of the audience ends up watching only 1 person, or worse, stops watching altogether and is checking Facebook on her phone.
When we dance together, we are part of a movement. We are part of tribe that rises, or falls, together. I can only look good, or do well, if I give you what you need to look good or do well. When we dance at the same time, I'm worried only about me, what I need to do or where I need to go next. And god help you if you are in my way.
There is no loyalty, or true teamwork, in dancing at the same time. It is simply an individual feat of memorization and execution. Dancing together, now, that is a different matter. I must still have my individual part, but I must be willing to sacrifice it at any time to the rest of the whole. Otherwise, the team ceases to exist.
Dancing, particularly social dancing, is about being together. It is about connection, and what connects us-- our bodies. We mediate this world in our bodies. In the world of dance this is very visibly true. When I dance simply at the same time as someone else, my body is not a means of connection. At best, it is a request to be seen. And that request is valid, don't get me wrong. Everyone wants to be seen, and validated, for who she is. But what is the good of being seen, if we don't see anyone else there to share the space with? At worst, it's a tool of self-indulgence. And there's a time and place for that, too. But it's not in partner dancing, where someone is trying desperately to connect to you. And definitely not on a team of partnerships.
Creating an ensemble is creating connection. I can feel your energy, find your path, use your momentum-- all without using my eyes. So my eyes are free to find yours, to solidify our connections. My eyes are free to look out for my team. Or to invite the audience to join the dance.