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Martial Arts and Dance

Cross-training Comparisons
Copyright © 1999 Mike Strong
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Pictures from a Friday nght dance party at American Ballroom with Louis Bar at which martial artists from three dojos demonstrated various skills. Louis wanted to show points of similarity between different physical disciplines not to mention the satisfaction of accomplished movement..
Center Picture, Left to Right: Al Harris, Sarah Stone, Louis Bar, Alyssa Kim D.C., Bob Blaney, Steve Mackey
Contact with the ground means control.  In dance sliding and gliding rather than stepping allow you to maintain ground contact in any pattern. It looks smooth and stylish (watch Fred Astaire as his toes move across the floor) and gives you the traction to instantly change direction or speed. To help your concepts don't say dance steps. Say dances and dance patterns.  In martial arts full-foot contact with the ground allows you to dodge quickly, strike harder and change direction fast. This is your foundation. Those fancy aerials (such as in the movies) mean that the all the fighter still on the ground has to do is aim a fist upward and wait until you come down (slight exaggeration but you get the - ouch - point).
Compact patterns increase control and options at any speed.  First-time learners tend to step much too large. When your dance step is too large you can't keep up with the beat and you wind up falling over yourself and you wonder why your turns, spins etc. are out of balance.  Legs are normally under your rear end in most dance moves. When your sparring step is too large you tend to lose balance and timing as well as movement options such as the ability to move out of the way or to follow up on an attack or in any other way re-position yourself. In addition it makes it easier to hyper-extend a limb causing injury to yourself.
You move when and because you are balanced (rather than to recover balance). 
Regardless of whether you are balancing off the balls of the feet or the flat (to the rear) of the foot your center of gravity is either between and over your feet or directly over one of your feet. Your center of gravity should not be outside your feet. That is called stumbling.
Breathing is the first requirement for endurance. Active physical activity demands a constant supply of oxygen.  To keep dancing for hours, especially a lot of fast dances you need to breath easily. Otherwise you tire too fast. You will spend more time at your table than you need to - unless you just really like those pretzels more than dancing. In the ring the first person to run out of gas doesn't have enough oxygen and will probably lose. 
You breath out sharply when getting hit to avoid getting the wind knocked out of you. But it is easy to forget to breath in. 
Breathing is so important in maintaining a constant source of energy that if a fighter isn't breathing right you can often tell within the first half minute of a fight.
Relaxing your body provides smooth movement and easier breathing. Remember that tension is another word for contracted muscles. Contracting muscles takes energy regardless of the reason for the contraction. Tension robs energy and attention from the muscles you are using on purpose. It is easy to find your shoulders getting too tense, robbing your frame of good form and causing your movement to slip out of balance or off time. Keep monitoring your muscles to relax them. For all the on-purpose tension in punching, blocking, or dodging it is a relaxed quality which allows you to move quickly and with intent. Tense muscles literally get in the way of intended motion and also siphon away needed energy. It takes oxygen to keep them contracted in their tension.
You need to be able to change to any move or pattern when the music or the situation change.  Most dancing in nightspots is not choreographed and what you do changes with the music. Whoever is following needs to be able to react intuitively and whoever is leading needs to be able to plan move changes on the spur of the moment as well as follow where the follower is well enough to quickly shift those "plans." In a fight you may have an idea of what you want to do but your opponent (partner with a difference) may react to change the situation as soon as you start any move. Expecting to execute a move which takes several choreographed steps is unlikley to work.
Movement is centered in the body to produce the most powerful, definite, smoothest and most controlled motion. Arms are basically an extension of the body. A dancers "frame" moves with the body. As much as it may look like arms are being used to guide a dancer's partner it is the body which controls arm position relative to body position (take a closer look at the very best dancers). Partners in ballroom normally move more smoothly and in better communication as a pair when their sternums (breast bones) are aligned to each other. In a punch the arms derive maximum strength from their connection with the body more than from their own movement. Some movements may even pretty much fasten the arms to the body as the body turns into an opponent.
Legs support the body's motion and are generally planted in position before any upper body movement takes place. Normally the body doesn't catch up to the legs.  Turning moves are usually combinations of quarter or half turns with specific foot placements. What looks like a continous round motion is often a set of on--the-beat foot placements. Even a "ronde" requires placement of both feet before the large round swing of the toe (in contact with the floor). Spins require placement before executing the spinning motion.  Legs provide a firm foundation from which to dodge, block or strike. The force of a strike may depend on the leg and foot snapping into a new position as a coordinated part of the torso and arm movement, but normally only after first planting the feet.
The martial artists and their dojos.