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Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance

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Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance

Post  Joy in Motion on Sat Oct 11, 2008 7:54 am

There are moments in dancing when everything - connection, musicality, physicality, creativity - comes together and creates a zen-like feeling within. In sports psychology, and increasingly in other areas of everyday life, researchers are taking note of that feeling of being "on a high" or "in the zone." It is often called flow, that effortless feeling that makes you come back for more.

This is one of my favorite topics to meditate on and research, but it is also so difficult to describe because it is so intangible and so subjective. So please read my article below for an imperfect attempt to describe the experience of flow in social dance, then share your own experiences of flow. How does it feel, when does it happen, where do you think it comes from, and what do you think is required (physically, mentally, emotionally, creatively) for flow to occur?

I can't wait to hear your responses!

Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance

“To feel completely at one with what you are doing, to know you are strong and able to control your destiny at least for the moment, and to gain a sense of pleasure independent of results is to experience flow. The flow state has many names - optimal experience, playing in the zone, feeling on a high, and being totally focused are some of the more common labels. Whatever words you use to describe flow experiences, they’re sure to be associated with the most precious moments in your memory.”

- from the preface of Flow in Sports,
by Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi

There has been a lot of research over the past two decades on the concept of flow in sports and other activities. Other writers have contributed to the literature as well with the concept of play, as with Diane Ackerman’s book, Deep Play. Regardless of what you call it, most people have experienced the rare and unexpected feeling of being “in the zone” or “on a high”. The fact that so many books have been written on the topic while the concept itself remains difficult to articulate testifies to the elusive and ephemeral quality of the experience.

Social dancing is such an attractive activity to so many because it is conducive to the flow experience and because it allows us to share that feeling of flow with another person. Anyone who has danced long enough will experience a dance in which everything - the connection with their partner, the rhythm and feeling of the music, the movement of their body - seems so right and perfect that they can’t stop thinking about the dance for days. Moments like these are addicting, and they turn the social dancer into a flow seeker, a person who pursues moments of bliss on the dance floor.

But what is so tantalizing about the flow experience? Why does it leave us wanting more? Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has written and co-written more than a dozen books on the flow experience in sports and art as well as work and everyday activities and is the foremost researcher on the topic. Borrowing ideas from Csikzentmihalyi’s books as well as Andrew Cooper’s Playing in the Zone, I have selected three characteristics of flow that I feel are the most significant and relevant to social dance.

Effortless Action.

The most common feedback I hear from beginner students of social dance is that there is so much to think about all at the same time. The rhythm of the music, steps and moves, lead and follow - all of these must be carried out at the same time on the dance floor. Even for more intermediate and advanced dancers, musical interpretation and improvisation as well as adapting to each partner is required. This means that partner dancing is very rarely boring, but it also requires much thought and skill.

But then there are moments when the movements feel effortless, almost second nature, as if your body was meant to move itself in that way. Your mind is able to receive input from your body, your partner, and the music and respond with little thought. And while you are most likely moving with more grace, fluidity, and creativity than you ever have, it all feels so easy and automatic. These moments of effortless action are characterized by an increase in skill and creativity on the dance floor with a corresponding decrease in conscious thought and deliberation.


By nature, dance is marked by time and space. The rhythm, melody, instrumentation, and syncopations of the music make us constantly aware that dance happens in time. The size of the dance floor, the number of people that surround us, the space the partnership is able to occupy, and the personal space between us and our partners make us constantly aware that dance happens in space. We are continually cognizant of how much time and space we have available to us. We think this song is too fast or too slow, or that we have too much space or not enough space.

In moments of flow, you feel as if your body was made to move at that particular speed. You move into and out of space with great comfort and ease. Your body no longer feels contained but rather has just enough time and space to feel free and yet not so much that you feel unsupported or unsafe. Time seems to fly by and stand still all at the same time. You move quickly and smoothly and yet it feels like slow motion. In these moments, you transcend the everyday limitations of time and space and feel uninhibited by temporal or spatial boundaries.


The biggest difference between flow in social dance and flow in most other activities is that social dancers are in constant communication with a partner. Even in team sports, teammates do not have the continual physical contact and mutual cooperation that partner dancers have. This means that flow for the social dancer requires a feeling of effortlessness and transcendence in relationship to their partner. Research is needed to determine to what extent one partner can feel flow without the other feeling it as well, but a certain level of fluid partnership is necessary.

Throughout a dance, both partners are continually sending and receiving messages regarding their connection, including the lead and follow as well as musical interpretation and the physical, and perhaps even emotional, connection. These messages provide much to think about during the dance. But in a state of flow, you again feel as though the partnership is effortless. Very little reaction time or thought is needed to lead or follow, as though you can read your partner’s mind and feel his or her interpretation of the music and dance. It is a feeling of synchronicity, two bodies moving as one. Out of all the characteristics of flow in social dance, this one is the most distinguishing because it very unique to, and indeed is one of the purposes of, social dance.

Despite our pursuit of moments of flow, it is an elusive experience. Perhaps the fact that is happens so rarely and cannot be produced by conscious effort is the reason for its magical quality and mystique. Although there are many other enjoyable elements that keep millions on the dance floor worldwide, flow experiences are so precious that they leave us wanting more of the same. The feelings of effortless action, transcendence, and synchronicity that happen in these moments are enough to make the true social dancer a flow seeker for life.
Joy in Motion
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Re: Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance

Post  AnandMajumdar on Sat Oct 11, 2008 11:55 am


you are a fabulour writer ..you seem to touch the heart .. its intangible.. very nice article..yes connection and flow are very very important in the dance.. i do hope the forum takes advangtage of thinkers like you..

how about we see a display picture of you ? moderator lounge visible now ?

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Re: Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance

Post  ashishsax on Sat Oct 11, 2008 2:33 pm

One of the most amazing and informative articles.. every time i read this article it makes me ponder over dance more deeply.. and the views of this article definitely gives some direction to my thoughts..

thanx Karin. Smile
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Re: Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance

Post  Joy in Motion on Sun Oct 12, 2008 2:57 am

Thank you, anand and ashishsax, for your kind words. Connection and flow are very dear to my heart. I think focusing on these concepts make for better dancing and a more enjoyable dance community.

I am able to access the moderator forum now, and I will be sure to post a picture on Monday.

I sure do hope that others will share their experiences for flow. I might have to post a journal entry from one of my personal flow experiences to get the ball rolling...
Joy in Motion
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