What Makes a Stepper “the Best” Stepper?

I’ve attended stepper sets all across the country, danced in a variety of venues and seen several styles of Steppin demonstrated at these dance venues. I’ve heard terms like “good dancer”, “great stepper” and “heavy-hitter” bantered about by set attendees. I’ve always wondered what made a stepper a “good dancer” in the minds of others, but I’ve always had my opinion of what makes a person a good dancer. I had the pleasure of attending a major weekend event recently and the question of what makes a good dancer came up again. Today, I’ve decided to give my perspective on what I think makes one.

My notion of what makes a stepper a good dancer — significantly better than average, a popular or preferred dancer, or one possessing a unique skill set in the dance — has evolved significantly from when I first learned Steppin’…

When I first began learning the dance I thought the best dancers were the ones who could do moves I didn’t know how to do and lead/follow – moves that I couldn’t do because they were more skilled at doing so. Watching people participate in the dance applying techniques requiring perfect timing, coupled with intricate moves, became the measuring stick for my improvement and evolution in the dance. Initially, I wanted to be that good, to lead in the dance with a repertoire of intricate moves that would astound both my partner and lookers-on. My goal as I became better in the dance was to be able to dance/keep up with the “best” dancers (i.e. those that participated in the contests, those with a national reputation/anyone known to be exceptionally good, etc.): it was my gauge to tell how much my dancing was improving (being able to lead “smoothly and effectively”). Admittedly, as my name was being mentioned at times in the category of other distinguished and talented gentlemen in Steppin’ that I thought were the absolute “best of the best” gave me a great sense of pride. I always felt that the praise was unwarranted and I would insist that my name not be placed in the same category as those that I was mentioned with. I still do to this day.

It was only after I attended a World’s Largest Steppers Contest (WLSC) and spoke to a young lady that I knew well who participated in the contest (she didn’t win) that my concept of a “good dancer” began to change. I noticed during her competitive performance that she didn’t seem to be enjoying what she was doing. She wasn’t smiling at all and her movement in the dance wasn’t nearly as free-flowing as I had seen her dance in times past. I could tell she wasn’t herself at all during the performance. After she was done competing I made it a point to seek her out later in the evening. When I found her I asked her why she didn’t seem to be herself on the biggest stage she could possibly ask for to showcase her phenomenal skill, style and flair in the dance. I’ll never forget what she told me, particularly because what she told me was exactly what I was thinking while she was competing. The very first sentence she uttered (with great passion I might add) was: “He didn’t let me go, he wouldn’t let me be myself in the dance”. I asked her to expound on her statement for clarity to which she further stated: “He held my hands the whole time we danced, he never let me break to show my style and creativity. He never allowed me to feel the flow of the music. I couldn’t get into it, I couldn’t be me. I don’t know if he was making the dance all about him, but that’s how it felt and I didn’t want to take control because he was the lead”. Her response resonated with me because it was exactly what I was witnessing coming from her at the time of her performance. I fully understood what she meant.

I tell this story often because at the time that I experienced the above encounter I was looking for my “niche” in Steppin’, the way to define who I am in the dance; you know, a way to insert my personality and perspective in my dance in the hopes that I could create my own uniqueness as others have in the Steppin’ community. It seemed to me that the only route to overall acceptance as a good dancer was to take heed to the advice of my contest-losing friend. She helped me see the dance in a different light early enough in my tenure that I was not only able to reevaluate my goals and aspirations of becoming a better dancer, it also helped me assess others, including all of the dancers that before my encounter I had deemed the “best of the best”. What follows is my perspective on what makes the “best” dancers just that…the absolute best at what they do, from the perspective of  the people they dance “with”.

The best dancers do not turn anyone down, regardless of whether they had danced with them before, and regardless of their dance level. If they were already supposed to dance the next song with someone else (which they usually do), they would promise their next dance to the person who asked them, and/or will always go and find them and dance their promised dance with that person. These are dancers on an entirely different class/level of performance and execution. Getting a, “That was fun”, or “That was a great dance” from them gives you a shot of confidence and pride for the rest of your evening. Every dance after that dance you’re performing at a higher level because you feel good about what you’re doing. Every person that dances with you after your “raving review” (lol) gets the benefit of a great dance with you because you’re on a dance “high”.

Usually exceptional dancers in the Steppin’ community are placed on another level because they are the biggest names at the events. I would contend however, that what makes them the biggest names at the events is their ability and willingness to dance with anyone. It doesn’t matter to them who they’re dancing with because they’re such good dancers they know how to make themselves and whomever they’re dancing with enjoy the dance and look good while doing so.

The ability to dance and enjoy yourself regardless of your partner’s level or dance experience —the hallmark of “the best” dancer in my opinion — is what separates “wow” dancers from merely good dancers. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve witnessed so many of the dancers I know that are known for being “the best” on the local/regional or national scene who only dance with other dancers considered to be the best. They seem to ignore and turn down beginners to intermediates for whatever the reason, unless they are current or potential students. They like to show up and show out and sometimes won’t even dance with their own students!!

In my very humble opinion, if the only way you can enjoy yourself while Steppin’ is when you’re doing so with other high level steppers, then I honestly don’t consider you to be all that spectacular a Stepper. In fact, to depend so much on the level of your partner to enjoy the dance itself is really rather ridiculous. You don’t have to be a good lead to lead a good follow — I know because I’ve led both highly skilled follows and ones who just know the basics. I know from personal experience that with an advanced follow, you barely have to lead anything for them to know what they are doing and they’ll follow it perfectly and even add their own finesse to the moves.

I guess you can tell by now that I’m really tackling this topic predominantly from the perspective of the lead. I’m doing so because I don’t typically hear of problems cropping up with the perceptions of the great females dancers in the Steppin’ community. Women seem to have an air of dignified humility and are very patient when dealing with our pride and bravado in the dance. It’s we men that have the perception that we are larger than life or that we are “all that and a bag of chips”, as they used to say. Our arrogance/cocky/bad-attitude as leads can delude us into believing that we’re one of the better leads, but how can you really make an honest assessment if you’re always dancing with exceptional follows?

I think that when you to get to the point in Steppin’ where you only dance with the best dancers and think no one else is worthy of dancing with you, you’re lost as both a dancer and as a person. I feel most accomplished at times when I can lead dances with beginners and still make them follow the moves I’m leading with little or no effort. That’s not to say that I would probably prefer to dance with more experienced follows for the most part, but I know I can have incredible dances with beginners who only know a handful of moves, by adding my own style, flair, personality and flavor to the dance. Usually when the beginners see me enjoying the music and the dance they relax and do the same –and find themselves quite surprised that they’re having a great time – and the dance goes to a whole new level. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than to hear a partner say: “You made my night, I don’t need another dance”, or “You were my only dance tonight but it was worth the entire evening of sitting here”. Just this past weekend for example, I ended up dancing with a woman who said she was a beginner. As I lead her into moves it was apparent to me that she was no beginner at all and she was able to follow most of the moves that I led her into. I kept saying things like “Beginner my foot” and “You told me a fib” which helped to boost her confidence even more. I started playing with parts of the basic (holding “4”, pausing on “7”), swaying my body to certain rhythms in the song and singing along with the music. By doing so it caused her to relax, and because she relaxed in the dance I was able to have fun with different aspects of the dance and let her enjoy being able to fully participate in the experience without worrying about whether or not she was doing everything correctly. We danced two songs and when we were done she gave me the biggest hug! I live for those moments because I know that she will leave the event determined to stick with the dance and become an even better stepper!

In contrast, I’ve seen many a lead who’s sole purpose, it seemed, was to see how many moves they could lead a partner in, all while failing to feel the music, determine their partners true level of proficiency, or even look in their partner’s face to see if they’re enjoying the dance. I remember reading a post on Facebook once where one of my friends commented on the number of moves she counted that a lead performed in one single dance. I gathered from her sarcastic commentary that she found the performance both puzzling and unnecessary. I also gathered that the woman made haste away from the lead after the dance and that her facial expressions and body language served as a warning to other women to “proceed with extreme caution”. What I’ve learned in my brief Steppin’ tenure is that most women don’t want a barrage of complicated moves. They don’t pay for expensive hairdos, clothes and make up to attend a dance-off. They simply want to enjoy the dance, to be able to follow flawlessly and enjoy the dance. They want to sing to their favorite song. They want to interpret the song with their body language. If they have footwork, they want to be able to get it in, especially if they’ve attended a workshop or two to hone their footwork skills.

The best dancers know how to bring out the best in their partner, bringing out their full potential at the time of the dance experience. They provide the necessary balance to allow for the creativity to emanate from both the lead and the follow. They can quickly recognize the subtle nuances to the basic steps of their partner and give them the freedom to execute them with delight and surprise. The best dancers know how to flow with you, giving you the space and the freedom to interpret the music while adding your own flair, style and personality. You’ll never have to concern yourself with outshining a “best” dancer because he’s confident enough in his proficiency to help you do the shining. In short, you don’t get a show-off, you get a “showman”. The dance with them would be the same if there were only the two of you on the dance floor or the only two people in the room. Let me say for the record that I don’t discourage leads from performing complex moves, as long as their partner is ok with it. Some steppers like to perform a competition style dance at events as they recognize each other’s skill/proficiency level and that’s a good thing. But it is not for everyone, nor, based on my experience, the majority of women at events.

I don’t care to dance with people who dance to show off. I don’t mind complex moves and dancing to up-tempo songs — in fact, there are times when I can really enjoy them — but only when it’s what my partner is feeling in the music, not because I want to perform/show off for the audience. I also don’t care for people asking me to teach them on the dance floor, because my dance time is my time to let my mind go, not to think for my dance partner’s benefit.

For almost all my dances now, I can have enjoyable dances with even the most beginner of follows because I have learned to dance within my own body, so that, even if the follow is able to do no more than travel the lane in the basic steps, I can still enjoy myself, rather than being bored out of my mind and just waiting for the song to end so that I can run away. While it is true that I don’t want to dance an entire night with beginners, I’ll do my best to make sure that beginners get a great dance from me because the dance isn’t about me. As long as I’m dancing and feeling the music in my own body, it doesn’t matter what my partner is capable of doing. Every beginner I have danced with usually goes away extremely happy. If that’s the case, then I’ve done my job as one of the “best”. When you love the music so much and feel the music so much that that you never stop dancing and making the dance your own – no matter who you’re dancing with – I think that is the mark of the very best dancer lead (and follow).

I’m sure that some people will interpret this post the wrong way. Some may say (and they have) that I am a cocky dancer who thinks I’m the greatest (it amazes how people can mistake confidence for arrogance).  I know, however, that I have a long, long way to go as a stepper, and I never plan to stop learning and growing, because Steppin’ is an integral part of my life. It has gone well past the hobby stage for me, and I no longer do it just for fun (although I always, always, always want to have fun). In many ways, Steppin has given me a new lease on life and provided the perfect venue for me to be the person I really want to be. I look forward to further growth and development because there are so many facets to this dance. Let’s keep getting better, let’s stay positive and let’s keep growing this dance!

I’m sure you have your own opinions about what makes the “best” steppers. Add yours to the list of “best” stepper attributes. Leave a comment below and share your perspective on the subject. Let’s expand the dialogue. Feel free to share this post with friends. Let’s go to work steppers!!



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