Hello the Headtail Connection!
A little while ago I wrote a post called Fusion… What is it? and let me tell you the response was HUGE. I’m glad to say that it was also overwhelmingly positive! I’ve had some cool conversations about the specifics of wording and what I mean by them, but overall people seem open to the idea of fusion as an ephemeral style rather than a codified form.
That ephemerality has to be backed up by something if we want fusion to be communicable, and over the course of a conversation with Mark Carpenter we worked out that one of the things we’re both excited about is using a two-branch model of dance teaching as a method of communication, and as a way of identifying fusion techniques. Mark has generously agreed to collaborate with me on this post – I’ve done most of the writing but Mark has worked with me to make sure this reflects both of our ideas – and I’m excited to share where we’ve landed.
First of all, I’d like to isolate the Two-Branch Model from the huge range of definitions in the last post. I’m also going to start capitalizing it, since we’re making it a “thing.”
The Two-Branch Model is a way of visualizing fusion pedagogy. One branch deals with the material content of fusion – different dance forms and techniques that people can bring to their dancing – while the other branch looks at how we put that content together.
We first generated this idea at the 2018 Mile High Fusion instructor summit, where a pool of internationally known teachers* got together to play with some of the main dance forms we see in fusion and the technical elements that identified them. Our reasoning was that Blues, Lindy, Zouk, Contact Improv, etc. have provided significant movement data to the national fusion scene, and that by isolating those elements we might get a sense of how different dancers of different backgrounds might bring their skill sets to the fusion floor.
We can make an analogy between the Two-Branch model and painting. We describe the first branch of the model as the colours an artist might put on their palette: a Blues dancer brings a sense of grounded pulse, a Contact Improv dancer brings whole-body listening, a WCS dancer brings particular step patterns, etc. etc. Someone trained in, say, Blues and Tango will be able to access at least two very different ways of engaging their weight and moving with the music, and they can combine those methods as is appropriate to a given song, partner, or context. In a fusion classroom we can teach these skills in isolation, or as part of the dance forms they emerge from – more on that later.
The other branch of this model involves techniques of negotiation and combination – or in my painting analogy, brushwork. How do we put colors together on the canvas in a way that is satisfying and sharable? I’d argue that all dance forms have elements of brushwork as dancers come together, which might include combining dance forms, communicating with a partner, musical and emotional expression, etc. While many dance forms base their partnership on the understanding of a shared movement language, fusion works on the basis that partners will have to communicate across different dance backgrounds, musical affinities, preferences, etc. to create a shared sense of how that partnership works. This branch teaches not just the combination of colors, but how to shape that combination into a clear and satisfying stylistic vision.
What are some of the skills that we should put on this second branch? Postural shifting to create changes in weight and emotional texture is a brushwork skill, as are techniques that enable both a shared point of connection and radically different movements within a partnership. A lot of switching techniques feel like they fit here, in part because switching has always been welcome in fusion, but also because the physical skills needed to flow between different ways of leading and following are the same skills that facilitate flow between partners. Other skills that fit on this second branch include the ability to recognize stylistic elements in the music, or in your partner’s dancing, and to respond to those elements in a way that furthers the dance partnership.
There are some skills that might fall onto either one of these branches, or both, depending on how they’re taught. For example, tone matching is a very necessary fusion skill for communicating across a dance partnership, but its also a very necessary skill in a number of other dance forms, and so might be taught as an element of brushwork or as a colour.
Thinking about the Two-Branch Model can help us put words around the kinds of learning we seek out and how we want to build our scenes. One of the biggest failings of fusion pedagogy is that classes, workshops, and even whole events can focus entirely on one branch to the exclusion of the other, and to the detriment of learning. Anyone hiring instructors needs to consider the individual balance between branches that one instructor or another brings to their teaching. In my scene I tend to hire a lot of people who teach on the color branch so that when I teach I can do what I love – which is brushwork.
The Two-Branch Model is also compatible, although not perfectly, with pre-existing language for talking about different kinds of fusion. The color branch of the model translates roughly into the fusion-as-fusion mindset: fusion brings in content from different dance forms and styles. A fusion-as-philosophy mindset, which the Dancing Root describes as “Dancing in a way that expresses the music using whatever capacity for dance and movement the dance partnership has at its disposal” is more attuned to the brushwork branch. Interestingly I am a brushwork instructor who would usually identify softly with the fusion-as-fusion mindset, and this vocabulary allows me to explain myself. Mark self-describes as identifying most strongly with the fusion-as-philosophy mindset but teaches both colour and brushwork classes with regularity. He’s interested in finding a base set of colours for the fusion community, and in using colour-focused classes to share historical and cultural information.
What I love about the Two-Branch Model is that it gives instructors, event planners and students a way to talk about what they want out of fusion, and to identify areas of growth for a particular scene. I’m trying to find WCS and Zouk instructors for my scene because those colours are missing from our dancing. Another nearby scene has lots and lots of colour, but tend to communicate through super-high tone – they could use some different kinds of brushwork. I also love the space that the Two-Branch Model opens up for teaching the culture and history of dance forms on our colour branch – something I think that the fusion world could really pay more attention to. I think that an instructor prioritizing colour should a) know that, and b) be able to explain how they’re taking technical elements from a known dance form, and what the stakes of that are in terms of appropriation.
Our main goal for introducing the Two-Branch Model is to give people a very practical way to start improving their fusion. We’d like to empower organizers and instructors to look at the kinds of dancing they see around them and analyze how to make that dancing better, and in the long term design the classes and curricula that can level up fusion dancing across our community.
*Joe DeMers, Emily Webb, Mark Carpenter, George Longshadow, Heriberto Perez, Nika Obrosova, Rachel Farley, Rachel Stirling, Aimee Eddins, Jeannie Lin, Katrina Rogers, Kelly Howard and myself.