Last week one of my favorite shows returned for a new season: Dancing with the Stars! Even when I’m not really a fan of any specific contestant, I always love the fun of seeing the contestants come alive as dancers, and following the careers of the pros who transform them. Watching how the pros develop their genius choreography and create amazing performances with total amateurs is my favorite part, as both a dancer and a teacher.
This week, there was only one performance I couldn’t stop re-watching: James and Sharna’s Paso Doble. (see below! quick fyi – it is about zombies, but not graphically.)
Besides just being an outstanding performance for week 2, I was surprised how well the Walking Dead theme fit with the Paso Doble. It really struck me how unique the Paso is in having a narrative of conflict and victory as an integral part of the dance.
Unlike Paso, the narrative of virtually every other ballroom dance style is somewhere on the spectrum of “let’s fall in love” to “let’s get it on.” In every style from Samba to Jive, if there’s going to be a narrative, it is almost invariably going to be “two people, romance.” Some styles, like Rumba and Tango, actually require a love story as an essential element of the style. In that setting, the Paso is a breath of fresh air.
Paso is unique in its more universal narrative. It is a story of conflict – power and poetic strategy. Based historically in the Spanish bullfight, the lead dancer is the matador and the follower is the iconic red cape, fighting together in a game of life and death. Every element of the style, from the positions of the arms to the marching beat of the traditional music, reinforces the story of victory through quiet control.
If you have seen “Strictly Ballroom,” an incredible movie and one of my absolute favorites, you may notice it’s no coincidence that Paso is the main characters’ final dance. It’s pretty powerful symbolism, considering that the entire film is a story of victory and conflict. In many ways, the plot of Strictly Ballroom is just a two hour version of the Paso Doble: man and woman united in a struggle against the world.
The fact that power, rather than romance, is the theme of the dance inherently invites the choreographer to tell a bigger story. Most styles are a dance between two people; Paso is us against the world. It pairs incredibly well with science fiction, and the two mediums have similar themes: humanity against nature, or even against the unknown. SciFi is at heart a genre of bravery and heroism, challenging oneself, seeing what you have of worth to overcome the the world/great unknown/apocalypse, and wonder of wonders, so is Paso Doble. United with Paso, there is no better way to tell this story through dance. This is why it doesn’t feel cheesy or out of context when danced to a totally out-there theme (…zombies), ages away from the Spanish matador. It’s the same story, just a different time.
Although technically any ballroom or Latin dance could be choreographed and performed as a non-romantic story (Mark and Willow’s “Alice in Wonderland” Foxtrot comes to mind), they do not lend themselves to it easily. Overall, this dance works. (see video). The quick steps and twirling nature of the Foxtrot are used to convey Alice’s bewildering tumble through Wonderland. It was, however, extremely stylized, and the costumes fight half the battle. One could even argue that the parts that tell the story best aren’t even Foxtrot steps at all, for example, the bit with the cards. My point is, nothing in the Foxtrot steps themselves inherently represented Alice’s journey of discovery and confusion. Without the costumes and music, would you still be able to discern the plot?
On the other hand, Paso is inherently combative. Even without the iconic music and costumes, a casual observer can see that the posture of the dancers is one of combat. The slow, contemplated, intentional pacing, the firm arms keeping the enemy at a distance, everything down to the all important facial expressions make it clear what this dance is about. To illustrate, another all-time favorite performance, Riker and Allison’s Paso, also from season 20.
Yes, the costumes and set are out of this world. But, I would argue, take that away and this would still be an absolutely brilliant dance, and more importantly, you would still get the story. The powerful arms, violent but absolutely controlled steps, the movement in hold – clearly this is a dance about power and survival, whether it’s swashbuckling, aliens, zombies or bulls.
So, way to go, Paso. Love is an incredibly beautiful and important story to be told, and I so appreciate the wealth of ballroom forms we have to do it. But, being the contrarian that I am, I think I like Paso a little better simply because it’s different. Not to mention the fact that I love a good story of victory and survival, AND, I love that two totally unrelated mediums, Paso and SciFi, are so unexpectedly wonderful together. So while I can’t wait to someday be surprised by a Quickstep or Waltz that tells the story of the battle of the forces of good and evil, until then, Paso all the way.