Prepare yourself for a massive understatement: the world of Ballroom dance can be fertile ground for conflict. Those reading this post from inside this tumultuous realm of passionate movement, torrid emotion, and insufferable ego know exactly what I’m talking about. In this post, I want to examine just one source of conflict within our stormy little micro-culture: conflict between dance partners.

When working very closely with others, it is easy for conflicts to arise, particularly when the collaborators in question are highly strung or strongly opinionated (as dancers, and artistic types in general are known to be). In the case of Ballroom dancers, this problem is compounded by the fact that the dancers themselves are almost always in close contact with each other. Many Ballroom dancers face continual conflict with their partners as a result.

Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas.
Donatella Versace

This excess of conflict can be corrosive to a successful dance partnership, but it doesn’t always have to be. In fact, when viewed in a positive light, conflict can in fact be used as a tool for development of ideas and refinement. When forced to defend your ideas, you are often compelled to deepen your understanding of the problem at hand. Convincing yourself that you’re right isn’t all that hard. Convincing someone who doesn’t initially agree with you is much more difficult and requires a bulletproof argument. Successful partnerships are the ones where the partners are able to learn not just from their coaches, but from each other. Just make sure that in the course of argument you’re defending your good ideas, not just your pride.

When in the trenches of conflict, one must also carefully consider the other side’s argument. To paraphrase Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, being wrong feels exactly like being right; up until the moment you realize that you’re actually wrong. It’s kind of like the cartoon character who runs right off the end of a cliff, but is able to keep running as long as they don’t look down. As soon as they look down though, they’re going down in a puff of dust. Be willing to try things the other person’s way in practice, even if you disagree with them. Many times it will turn out that they were right after all.

Another source of conflict can simply be conflicting vocabularies or methods of explaining things. I find that this happens often between people with strongly different learning styles or dance backgrounds (in jazz, we call it this, in ballet, it’s called that, etc.). In cases such as this, you may find that you weren’t really in disagreement at all, you were just misunderstanding each other. I’ve seen this happen quite a bit in misunderstandings between dancers from different countries, and dancers trained extensively by different coaches. Define your terms as a couple and try to consolidate your working vocabulary as much as possible to minimize misunderstandings such as this.

Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.
Saul Alinsky

There are also instances in which you may be in disagreement with your partner about a certain piece of choreography or technique that turns out not being too big of a deal. I know of a world-class dancer who used to get visibly infuriated with his partner if she breathed at the wrong time. You’ve got to know when to let things go. If your conflict is about something that isn’t very important, but it’s still causing problems, you can often move past the impasse by simply changing things up. I call this a “lateral change”. Lateral changes occur when you change a step or a technique in your routine that doesn’t really improve the routine, but it doesn’t make it worse either. If you really like the step, but your partner doesn’t, just find a step that you can both agree on that is just as good. Sometimes, making your partner happy is far more important than perpetuating conflict over something as interchangeable as a dance step.

When working with others very closely as in a Ballroom dance partnership, don’t let your pride and ego get in the way of what could be a fantastic collaboration. Remember that the dancing and routines that you create in a partnership do not belong to you alone. They are the intellectual and creative property of both partners. Make sure that you’re not defending your own ideas too vigorously, or you might miss out on a learning opportunity, or a chance to create something together that neither of you could have created alone.

Further reading: Check out this terrific book on creative collaboration by dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp: The Collaborative Habit