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Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance, Part 2

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Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance, Part 2

Post  Joy in Motion on Fri Dec 05, 2008 9:16 am

I just published this article in the December issue of the Joy in Motion newsletter.


Copyright © 2008 Karin Norgard

“Athletes in all sports, all over the world, seek moments like these. The feelings involved are among the most intense, most memorable experiences one can get in this life. The state they describe is what we call flow, or optimal experience. Once attained, flow experiences remain etched in the memory and provide the blueprint for returning to this optimal state.”

- Susan A. Jackson & Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi


In Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance, Part 1, I attempted to define the very elusive concept of flow. Even for those who enjoy every moment on the dance floor, flow is a rare experience in which the movement of your body, the connection within the partnership, and the internalization of the music all come together to create the feeling of being “on a high” or “in the zone.” These are tantalizing moments that stay with the dancer forever and provide motivation to explore the art and science of social dancing even more.

In Part 1, I provided three of six characteristics of flow that I feel are most applicable to the social dancer. The first three characteristics were effortless action, transcendence, and synchronicity. When a social dancer experiences flow on the dance floor, he or she experiences an increase in skill and creativity with a corresponding decrease in conscious deliberation, transcends the everyday limitations of time and space, and feels a sense of synchronicity with his or her partner. Here are three more characteristics of the flow experience in social dance.

Relaxed Concentration

Every sport and art – and social dancing, being a combination of both, is no exception – requires the ability to concentrate and the ability to relax. Concentration allows the dancer to draw upon their knowledge, training, and ability to continuously process, respond, and adjust to outside stimuli, including the music, their partner, and other dancers on the floor. Relaxation, on the other hand, allows the dancer to confidently navigate through the constant barrage of external stimuli without creating any unnecessary tension or undesired responses.

When the social dancer reaches a state of flow, he or she is able to balance concentration and relaxation so that the dance feels natural. The dancer is able to relax, not feeling the need to maintain control nor placing expectations on his or her partner, because they feel confident in their ability to adjust to the unique stimuli that present themselves at that moment. However, he or she also has the concentration necessary to use their skills to make these adjustments. In Flow in Sports, Jackson and Csikzentmihalyi call this relaxed concentration. Similarly, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, in his book In Praise of Athletic Beauty, explains: “Focused intensity encompasses not just the ability to exclude a multiplicity of potential distractions but also a concentrated openness for something unexpected to happen.”

Challenge-Skills Balance

The essentialness of a balance between challenge and skills to achieve flow has been brilliantly researched and explained by Csikzentmihalyi and Jackson. They maintain that we are constantly juggling challenge and skill in the pursuit of excellence in any activity. Most of the time, we have more of one than the other. For example, when the skills we possess are greater than the challenge presented by the activity, we become bored because it is too easy for us. On the other hand, when the challenge is greater than our skills, we may become overwhelmed and are required to work so hard that we are unable to truly enter the zone.

It is when challenge and skills intersect and are balanced that we are in a position to experience the state of flow. Social dancers know that when they are learning new concepts, they are required to concentrate a great deal and may even become frustrated when the challenge is more than they can handle. They also know that without a challenge, they quickly become bored or disinterested. However, experiences of flow for the social dancer are characterized by a challenge within the dance, yet an ability to rise to that challenge. Additionally, write Csikzentmihalyi and Jackson, “to experience flow, it is not enough for challenges to equal skills; both factors need to be extending the person, stretching them to new levels.” Regardless of the level of the dancer, every person is able to experience this based on the individual challenges they find at their level.

Autotelic Experience

There are as many reasons to dance as there are people. These reasons may include social interaction, exercise, self-expression, learning a new skill, performance, competition, or intimacy with a loved one. All of these are valid motivations and can enhance the social dancer’s experience. However, in a state of flow, the dancer is no longer focused on these extrinsic qualities. Instead, the dancer is intrinsically motivated, and dancing becomes what Csikzentmihalyi calls an autotelic experience.

Fancy words, but what do they mean? Webster’s dictionary defines intrinsic as “belonging to the real nature of a thing; inherent.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines autotelic as “having a purpose in and not apart from itself.” In other words, writes Csikzentmihalyi, “Intrinsic motivation describes getting involved or doing something for the love of it, with no expectation of future reward or gain . . . autotelic activities are those that need no other justification because they have a built-in goal. The goal is simply to enjoy the activity for its own sake, or, more precisely, for the experience it provides . . . for sheer enjoyment . . .”


Flow is such an elusive quality to describe precisely because it is so rare and precious. The six characteristics of flow in social dance that I have described in Part 1 and 2 of this series are by no means exhaustive, but they do summarize some of the many qualities that make up the flow experience. The concept of flow itself was developed and championed by researcher Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi in his many books, and I have borrowed from and been influenced greatly by his writings. Similar concepts from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty and Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play have also been influential in shaping and stimulating more of my thoughts on flow in social dance. I recommend you check out these books for more information on the concept of flow in sport, art, and other creative endeavors.
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Re: Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance, Part 2

Post  sangeeta on Fri Dec 05, 2008 10:43 am

Hi Karin, this is a great article and a very interesting topic.
Reading this article reminded me of what my Guruji (who taught me classical Indian dance for 13 years) once told me about Flow...she didn't use the term 'flow' but described it as a state of mind where you are at complete peace and harmony with yourself and your surroundings. She said that this state is achieved when your energy level has reached the highest 'chakra' (energy center) in your body (We have seven chakras in our body...and the highest is the Crown chakra).
My Guruji had explained to me this concept right before my 'arangetram', which is a graduation performance by the dancer who has just completed her training in the form of classical dance called Bharat natyam. I do not want to stray from the topic by getting into the details of what an 'arangetram' is but in brief; it is a solo performance by the dancer in front of an audience and the performance on average is for 2 hours. My Guruji had told me that many dancers, during the last few moments of the arangetram achieve this state of flow.
And indeed she was right...I have been fortunate to experience flow..and it was during my arangetram. I can not describe to you what exactly i felt...no words can do justice to explain this experience. All i remember is that during my last half hour of performance, my mind and body were in complete harmony with the music, surroundings, and audience. I can say that my body was 'flowing' to the rhythm of the music and I was completely in the moment. Despite having danced continuously for the past 1.5 hrs, I wasn't tired but on the contrary was relaxed and at that moment, I had no performance pressure...I was just moving to the flow of the music.
I have only once experienced flow...and I can say without doubt that it has been the BEST moment of my life. I hope I will be able to experience it again...this time while dancing salsa Smile
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Re: Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance, Part 2

Post  Guest on Fri Dec 05, 2008 3:51 pm

nice article karin.

glad to see you again and i promise you this time we won't let you leave or go away from this forum easily. Cool

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Re: Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance, Part 2

Post  AnandMajumdar on Sat Dec 06, 2008 3:01 pm

this is deep stuff. i needed to read it at least 4 times.. deep.. reading about it and experiencing it are two different things..
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Re: Flow Seekers: The Characteristics of Flow in Social Dance, Part 2

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