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Welcome Chance Intrusions!

Lateral and Vertical Thinking in Dance

Richard Powers

I once heard this theory:

East Coast dancers focus on definitions and rules, categorizing then standardizing the categorization. Does it belong in this box or that box? Which style is correct? So there is understandably an emphasis on technique, more specifically on defining and enforcing one correct technique.

West Coast dancers focus more on the way dance feels — the subjective experience of dancing. How does it impact us? How can we enhance the experience for our partners? West Coast thinking therefore embraces more creativity and flexibility, to adapt to partners who are different from our own style.

Is this theory true?

No. There are too many exceptions — many rule-based dancers living on the West Coast, and many adaptive, experienced-based dancers living on the East Coast, like the history of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem for example. And the theory ignores the dancers between the coasts.

The geographical division is an oversimplification. It's more accurate to think of it as a difference between vertical thinking versus lateral thinking, which can happen anywhere.

             Vertical and Lateral Thinking

These terms were coined by the theoretician Edward deBono who wrote:

• Vertical thinking is selective, lateral thinking is generative—generating new possibilities.

• Vertical thinking selects a pathway by excluding other pathways (leading to the jokes about "illegal moves" in strictly ballroom dance). Lateral thinking does not restrict, but seeks to open up new pathways.

Correctness is what matters in vertical thinking. Richness is what matters in lateral thinking.

• Vertical thinking moves only if there are directions on how to move. Lateral thinking moves in order to generate directions.

• Vertical thinking depends heavily on the rigidity of definitions. It often depends on identifying something as a member of some class or excluding it from that class. If something is given a label or put into a class, it is supposed to stay there. With lateral thinking, classifications and categories are not fixed pigeonholes, but signposts to help navigation.

Lateral thinking welcomes chance intrusions. With lateral thinking one welcomes outside influences for their provocative action. And a key word here is to welcome—not merely tolerate—chance intrusions into what you're expecting. The most innovative minds respond with enhanced curiosity—even delight— when something unexpected happens.

Welcoming chance intrusions is a fundamental component of creative thinking, and of social dancing. Lateral-thinking dancers see differences from what they expected to happen as opportunities, not mistakes.

             Are there two opposing camps on this issue?

I haven't found a conflict between vertical and lateral thinking mindsets because the camp of "anti-vertical thinkers" doesn't exist. We all use vertical thinking. It's impossible not to. But I have met a few "anti-lateral thinkers." If there are two opposing camps, perhaps there is an opposition between those who are comfortable with using both types of thinking, versus those who only recognize vertical thinking as valid.

The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung believed that we are all born with the capability to integrate both kinds of thought. Jung would argue that using all of our mind is natural, and that denying half of its capabilities is unnatural. But Jung and others recognized that Teutonic-influenced cultures (including German, Swiss and English) have attempted to breed a bias toward vertical, or linear thinking, and against lateral, cognitive and intuitive thinking. There are other cultures which do not contain this vertical-thinking bias, including some which have been assimilated into American culture, most notably African and Latin (including Italian, Spanish and Latin American) cultures. Perhaps it is the melting pot nature of the United States, with its fusion of vertical and lateral thinking traditions, which has enabled Americans to be especially creative and innovative.

The opening statement of deBono's book was, "Most people think that traditional vertical thinking is the only possible form of effective thinking." Then he proceeded to defend lateral thinking as if it were besieged by an onslaught of vertical thinkers. This is because deBono was an Englishman writing forty years ago. Lateral thinking was the minority mindset in Great Britain back then, as it was in Jung's Switzerland eighty years ago. But it tends to be seen as common sense in the U.S. today.

The point of deBono's and my notes is to encourage lateral thinking, in order to balance what remains of a cultural bias, not to condemn vertical thinking. Both work together.

             Vertical and lateral thinking in dance

Different dance forms require different mindsets. It should be clear from all of the essays on this site, that social dance forms require a lot of lateral thinking to be successful. Lateral thinking enables us to adapt to the constantly changing situations found on the dance floor, and to different partners. Lateral thinking enhances the creativity and self-expression of social dancing. And so on, going down deBono's list that defines lateral thinking.

But lateral thinking isn't better for all kinds of dancing. I believe that both vertical and lateral thinking are valid where appropriate. Rule-based vertical thinking is the dominant mindset in classical ballet and competition ballroom dance for example. You can't hold a competition unless everyone agrees on the rules, and the minute details that are being scrutinized by the judges.

However one of the strangest mismatches you'll find in the dance world is when someone applies a rigidly vertical thinking attitude to a lateral thinking dance form, like Lindy hop, Argentine tango, west coast swing, salsa or blues. Those dances were born and bred in cultures which valued spontaneity, flexibility and individuality. The original spirit of those dances is lost when their freedom is replaced by an emphasis on rules and restrictions.

            Word of the Day: Pedantic

Some advice from long ago is timeless, like this from a 19th century dance manual: "Never be pedantic on a dance floor."

pedantic  adj.,  1. characterized by a narrow, often ostentatious concern for formal rules; overly concerned with what are thought to be correct rules and details;  marked by a narrow, often tiresome focus on or display of learning and especially its trivial aspects.
2. narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned.
3. unimaginative, pedestrian.
Etymology: From ped, form of piede, foot, in meaning of servile follower.
    (Random House Dictionary)

Never forget that social dance is social.

According to original Whitey's Lindy Hoppers superstar Leon James (shown at right), "Want to dance Lindy hop correctly? Then don't be real concerned about 'correctness'!"

Skippy Blair wrote the following while describing West Coast Swing, but she could have been writing about any social dance:

     The most fascinating part of swing dancing is the individuality of the dancers. Stylings are flexible… the style one chooses should be as individual as the clothes one chooses to wear. The only problem that exists in swing is when someone decides there is only ONE WAY to dance it.  (The caps were hers.)

Keep the spirit alive!

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