I’m involved in an interesting project in my practice that involves analyzing interviews with an organization’s leadership team. The purpose is to inform the thinking for a possible market repositioning exercise for one of the client’s main brands. There are several consultant groups involved (along with the obligatory, complicated political wrangling), as well as many internal stakeholders. (My role is that of a subject-matter-expert subcontractor, so I try to stay uninvolved in the intrigue.) In particular, there is contention between two of the consultant groups as to whether to approach the project “top down” or “bottom up.”
Top down starts with the big picture or overarching philosophy and works through to the particular implementation details. Bottom up, on the other hand, takes some particular examples, refines them, and then derives a general principle or philosophy consistent with the examples. It seems to be, for lack of a better word, sort of emergent (for students of complexity theory in the audience, I know it’s not really emergent, but you get the gist of the idea, right?)
I think of learning dance in similar terms. There is the big picture and overarching ideas that inspire partner dancing: connecting with three main anchor points—music, partner, and floor; matching the narrative flow of the music itself; meeting your partner where they are in terms of skill and capability; in-the-moment co-creation of an artistic expression; contributing to overall wellbeing in your life through the five wellbeing elements expressed on the dance floor, and so forth.
On the other hand, there is merit in learning individual moves and technical aspects, and how to combine them into either a planned choreography or an impromptu response to a musical phrase. Learning a routine introduces dancers to a variety of ideas that can be pulled out and inserted into different social dance flows. Over time, larger patterns of technique emerge for the practising dancer who eventually develops their own approach to when and how to use various dance elements. With sufficient practice, thoughtful reflection, and experience with a variety of dance partners, rote repetition of studio routines can well-evolve into a personal lived philosophy of dance.
What’s the right approach? At the risk of being accused of copping out, it seems to me that this is a “both-and” situation, rather than an “either-or.” As we do in our classes, it is important to approach dance with the framework of bigger ideas that hold irrespective of a particular song, or even dance style. At the same time, it is equally important to understand those ideas in a context of specific combination movements in response to music with a partner. Hopefully, the more one dances both in the studio and “in the wild” at socials and clubs, the greater the opportunity for top-down and bottom-up to meet, and create something wonderful when we…
See you on the dance floor!