Negative Space in Dancing

Posted on August 31st, 2008.

Last night a few of us from Rochester drove to Buffalo for a swing event. There were three classes during the afternoon that were pretty fun. There was a dance in the evening which had a great turnout and plenty of energy. As nice as all that was, the real highlight of the day/night was the blues party after the dance. Matt and I ended up DJ'ing it and it was absolutely awesome. I got to meet and dance with a whole bunch of new people that I hope to dance with again soon.

One concept I try to use in my blues (and tango) dancing is that of negative space. I've found that a lot of blues dancers don't really seem to quite get that idea. I'm not saying that it's the "right" way to blues dance but it's something that's changed how I dance and I wanted to write something about it to share it with anyone interested.

What is negative space?

Negative space is a term used a lot in painting, photography, graphic design, etc. It basically means that for a given photo (or painting, whatever) the whole frame isn't filled with "things." Two examples of this taken from my flickr favorites are this photo and this one. In both of these images the subject takes up only a small portion of the frame. The expanses of even texture and tone add certain qualities to the photos that can't be achieved otherwise.

A photographer that takes this to an extreme is Hiroshi Sugimoto, in his Seascape series. He uses long exposures and darkroom techniques to produce images of nothing but negative space. The sea blends into a seamless texture and the sky becomes a single tone. Even though there isn't a physical object between the two, the division between them forms a subject of its own.

How does it relate to dancing?

Most of the blues dancers I know come from a Lindy Hop background. Lindy Hop is a dance of movement and momentum; that's part of what makes it so much fun. When blues dancing I think a lot of Lindy Hoppers never catch on to this idea: you don't need to be moving all of the time. It's alright to slow down and actually stop for one, two, three, four measures. It gives the dance a chance to breathe and lets you focus on your connection with your partner without movement getting in the way.

"Won't that be boring?" No. Absolutely not. Stopping can provide things that you can't really get while moving. It can add tension, release it, and completely change the mood of a dance. It really does have a lot in common with negative space in art, and it adds a lot to a dance.

Negative space does not mean "empty space," although it's often described like that. In the first photo I linked to the wall is indeed blank, but has color and texture that can give you plenty to look at. In the second, the expanses of white are just that: white. They are not empty; they have a distinct tone: white. If they were black, or even a light grey the photo would be entirely different.

In dancing, movement is important but not the only thing we think about. Posture and body positioning is one example. "Feeling" or "mood" is another, more elusive, one. Just because the movement is gone doesn't mean all these other things go away automatically; they're still there until you let them go.

Taking it to the extreme like Sugimoto's Seascapes is also emphatically not boring. In some of the best blues dances I've ever had there were parts where we didn't really move for several measures at a time. When this happens, both of you create your own negative space through your posture, etc. Neither of these spaces are empty.

Where these spaces meet is your connection. Like the horizons in Sugimoto's photographs it becomes the main subject. By eliminating motion you're free to focus your attention on other aspects of the connection. Sometimes these aren't obvious at first. One example Mihai likes to talk about is breathing. Another is understanding where your partner's weight is.

By giving yourself time to really feel the connection with your partner you have time to examine it much more closely. You can introduce tiny movements (like the waves that fleck the surface of the water in Sugimito's seas) that interrupt the absolute flatness of the spaces and let you explore the interactions between them. Not only does this let you learn about how your partner is connected to you in a more in-depth way, it's very, very fun.

I don't have a particularly amazing ending for this post. The main points I wanted to get across are these: Negative space in dancing is removing most or all of the movement for a longer-than-normal about of time. Negative space is not empty space unless you ignore all the other aspects of the dance like posture, mood and connection. Negative space can add things to a dance that you can't get otherwise.

Try it.