Horses and Dancing, yet again

20150421 G 5 piles (9)I’m back to dancing these days, and very glad of it!

We here in St. Louis enjoyed a dance weekend recently, and it included two mornings of waltzing. Once again I started out in a workshop to try to learn to lead…and once again I gave it up. There is such a difference between leading and following! One requires (apparently, at least in the beginning) a lot of mental planning and forethought; the other is all in the body, or so it seems to me.

Again I’m struck by the similarity with riding a horse—or rather, from my perspective in the dance, with what the horse might perceive as we ride.

What happens when you’re dancing—especially in a partner dance like the waltz—is non-verbal for the most part. In one of the workshops, my partner at the time said, “Now, watch with this hand—your right hand—watch for my right hand when we go around.” That was the only time, I think, that I’ve ever had anyone say something like that. If he hadn’t given me a physical cue—“this hand,” with a squeeze—I don’t think I could have figured it out in my head. If he had just led the move, I probably could have followed it without effort or thought—but put “thinking” and “words” into the mix and it doesn’t work for me. Or maybe it works, but there’s a time lag, and so the dance doesn’t flow.

The point is, it doesn’t take words for the dance to happen. I’ve always said that if I think too much when I’m dancing, if I try to figure something out, then I can’t dance. It just struck me again how similar that is to the way that horses must perceive our requests. They don’t necessarily understand the words we use. Galahad knows “cookie,” “kitty kitty kitty,” and his name, but that’s pretty much it, and it’s not his preferred method of communication. He gets body language and energy. If he’s watching me, I can “send” him (ask him to move in a certain direction) from across the pasture—quite literally—with a gesture.

And though I don’t ride these days, I do close-in groundwork and liberty work. When I’m asking him to pick up his feet, to back up, or to trot away from me, I may say a particular word; but what he more likely responds to is my posture, my energy, or the gentle touch on his chest, fetlock, or flank.

At one point during the waltz workshop I was dancing with this one chap who had really wobbly contact with his right hand on my back. I found myself turning back in that direction (not what he had in mind, as it turned out!), and realized I was “seeking” the contact, like people talk about a horse “seeking contact” with the bit—that’s where direction comes from. Part of the following is seeking to maintain a steady level of contact. When the lead’s hand goes back or forward (intentional or not), you as the “follow” adjust your body in motion to maintain that same level.

When you’ve got a partner who is rough, you’re going to be jerky in your response, and uncomfortable. For instance, this past weekend I danced with a gentleman who used curved-in fingertips to lead and kept unknowingly gouging my back—I found myself actually hollowing my back, just as a horse might, to pull away from him as we were dancing. It was so uncomfortable, and I found myself constantly anticipating the next gouge. It was not fun, and certainly not smooth. I can imagine the horse doing exactly that same thing with some riders.

Understanding this from having experienced it will make me a better rider and communicator, I hope. Because I know what it’s like to follow a lead, and what a really good lead feels like, will give me something to aim for as my equine partner and I learn to dance together.