Sunday, January 2, 2011


This might seem like an odd post for a blog about women and horsemanship, but bear with me, please, while I write for a moment about the second great passion of my life. There’s a connection, of course.

Over the weekend I attended a couple of dance parties celebrating the New Year. Other than working with my horses, dance is what brings me the most joy in life.

Sometimes I think I was born dancing, and the waltz is my favorite: It’s something that comes completely naturally to me. I must have learned to waltz somewhere, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how. I’m fortunate to live in a city with an active dance community where, at least once a month, there’s an opportunity to waltz.

The waltz is a classic dance with as many styles as there are musical types in 3/4 time. Almost anyone can learn to waltz, though it takes skill, timing, balance, and lots of practice to do it well. And when done well, the waltz is breathtaking, in more than the physical sense.

Last night my favorite dance partner asked me for a waltz, and this morning, reflecting on the experience, I tried to figure out exactly what makes dancing with him different from dancing with other partners who love the dance just as much and are technically just as proficient as he is. I am an excellent dancer and a sought-after partner, but this particular gentleman brings out my potential more than any other.

This man is an artist of the dance: He hears the music and the patterns he creates for us as we dance reflect the mood and feel of each particular piece. How does he do it? We are two separate people, moving independently, and yet we move as one through intricate turns and twirls—and at speed. We start at the same instant, stop at the same instant, turn precisely together.

My partner is leading. But how do I know where to move? How does he communicate that to me?

We dancers are told that the lead must be firm and clear. Many men, hearing that, put a death grip on my back, fingers digging into my ribs or shoulder blade every time we turn or change direction—that’s unpleasant, to say the least. I end up squirming to avoid being gouged, and my steps aren’t free and flowing. When they want me to twirl, they crank my arm around or pull me off balance in the process. We will make it around the dance floor; they may even have enjoyed it immensely. As for me, I’ll try hard to avoid those fellows in the future.

My favorite partner’s hand on my back is firm, reassuring, and consistent. I think it’s this consistency that is key. Because there’s no random moving around, I trust that when I sense any change in the pressure, it’s significant, and I can respond to it appropriately. And there’s feedback: He makes a suggestion (never a demand), I feel the change and move, and he releases the pressure. I keep moving until I sense that his touch has returned to the consistent baseline.

He cues me not just with his hand on my back, but with his whole body, and always gives me a cue in time for me to prepare to move at just the right moment. Any cue, if given at the instant I am supposed to move, is too late, and puts me in the position of having to catch up, and catch my balance.

So: In addition to balance, physical ability, and knowing the moves, some very important elements of a great lead seem to be timing, consistency, and what my trainer friend Jay would call softness. A lead dancer should give cues that are as gentle as possible but as strong as necessary to make sure that his/her partner understands what he/she is asking.

Now, doesn’t that sound exactly what it takes to be a good rider? Isn’t this seamless relationship precisely what we all want with our horses when we ride? When I put myself in the horse’s place, what I would want from my rider, in order to bring out my best performance, is the same thing I as a dancer want from my dance partner.

So I just need to learn to ride like my favorite dance partner dances. Interesting! I’m going to think about this some more.

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