Frame — which refers to a quality of flexible rigidity in one’s body while dancing — is an important concept in Lindy Hop and many other dances, especially partner dances. Dance teachers talk about it all the time and when I started out I remember my teachers explaining it in almost mystical terms. Perfecting the feel of one’s dance frame was like the holy grail of Lindy Hop. This article is intended to shed some light on some of the mysterious aspects of this essential technical concept.
Why is Frame Important?
Frame is important in Lindy Hop and other lead and follow partner dances because it allows partners to communicate movement with each other and thereby execute moves. If two partners hold hands but keep their arms loose and dangling between them, one partner stepping around on the floor will have little or no effect on the other partner. This is dancing without frame. If instead the partners hold hands but stiffen up their arms, then one partner moving will move the other partner. This is dancing with frame. Without frame, you’re really dancing by yourself.
In the historical context of Lindy Hop, frame is a relatively modern addition to the dance most likely borrowed from ballroom dances including West Coast Swing. The first Lindy Hoppers in 1920s-40s Harlem New York City were street dancers which meant that they learned to dance by watching and imitating other social dancers rather than by taking formal classes. These dancers may not have talked about frame in technical terms or had exercises for developing frame but I’m certain that they could intuitively identify in lay terms which dancers felt good and which ones were more difficult to dance with. Lindy Hop faded from prominence in the 1940s and 50s and evolved into West Coast Swing, a dance which did become formalized over the years. It is quite possible that when West Coast Swing dancers began to revisit their Lindy Hop roots and revive the original swing dance in the 1980s, that they helped introduce the modern concept of frame to Lindy Hop.
Some purists may argue that we shouldn’t teach frame as part of the dance since it is a retroactive addition. I prefer to acknowledge this as part of the living history of the dance, and take a functional approach. Being able to define, discuss and practice good frame allows us to do some pretty awesome moves and makes teaching the dance in a group setting a whole lot easier. Furthermore, when asked what he thought about the modern evolution of Lindy Hop compared to its roots, I remember swing dance legend Frankie Manning answered that he was impressed with modern Lindy Hoppers and amazed with the things they could do these day, things he couldn’t do himself…and that he was happy to watch and steal their new moves!
1) The Basics
As a simple solo exercise in frame , you can extend both your arms out in front of your chest as if grasping a large box (or beach ball…stay tuned for Part 2). Your arms and body form a letter “C” in the horizontal plane. Stiffen up your arms, so that you maintain the position of your arms relative to your body even as you walk around the room in different directions or twist from your hips. This is a first approximation of good frame.
2) Qualities of Frame
It is useful to think of frame as having a range of rigidity from loose, floppy or “spaghetti” arms (no frame) to solidly-stiff, immovable arms (lots of frame). Various partner dances have different characteristic amounts of frame. Salsa dancers, for example, tend to have looser more flowing arms, while Lindy Hoppers tend to have a stiffer base frame. Still, even at a given base stiffness, one’s arms should have a flexibility to them. Think of your arms and chest as being made of wire coat hanger. They maintain their shape but they can still bend and flex. My teaching partner Cat likes to say that the arms should be like al dente pasta…not too hard and not too soft. Another teaching partner, Audrey, likes to say that the arms are like Barbie doll arms.
3) Frame and Partner Dance Connection
A very basic partner frame exercise is for you to hold hands with your partner and extend arms between yourselves, engaging your frame by stiffening up both of your arms a bit. Next, the leader can lean toward the follower letting the weight of their body press toward their partner through their arms. The follower should match this inward compression with equal and opposite force. The hands stay in the same position as your bodies flex inwards toward your hands in the center. You should both feel as though you’re pressing against an invisible wall, the wall that you are both creating for each other. Next, the leader can start to stretch and lean away from the follower, and the follower should match this stretch away again with equal and opposite force, counterbalancing his weight. You can practice transitioning from inward compression to outward stretch and, regardless of speed, the transition should be gradual and continuous, rather than an abrupt change.
Advancing the exercise a bit, you can use your frame to move your partner forward or backward. To move forward from the leader’s perspective, the leader should first compress toward the follower and wait for her to respond. Once that connection is established, the leader can walk forward pushing through his partner’s hands and toward their center of mass. The leader will have to overcome the follower’s inertia to get them moving. Maintaining the compression during the walk allows the follower to physically feel how fast the leader is moving and thereby move as a single unit. The leader will feel as though he is pushing through the follower.
To walk the partnership backward, the leader should first transition into counterbalance with his partner. Once the stretch away is established, the slightest step backward for the leader should pull the partnership over the tipping point and compel the follower to walk forward as the leader walks back. Again, maintaining the resistive counterbalance while the leader moves backward will allow the partnership to travel as a single unit.
I think it’s interesting from a physics standpoint that the partners maintain compression while moving forward or counterbalance when moving backward relative to the leader, because it means that the follower must maintain a forward lean while she walks backward and a backward lean while she walks forward. It sounds a little counterintuitive, but try it out and you’ll see how it allows you to maintain connection with your partner.
The last little note on this exercise is about transitioning directions. To make the changing directions (walking forward to walking backward or vice versa) as smooth as possible, the leader should gradually slow down in the direction he is travelling and release the compression or counterbalance and engage in the opposite force before walking in the other direction. This would be the cycle to walk forward and then backward and forward:
- engage basic frame with your partner
- leader compresses inward and follower responds
- leader walks forward pushing through follower; follower responds by walking backward
- leader eventually slows down forward walk
- leader releases compression and transitions into counterbalance, follower responds
- leader walks backward pulling follower along; follower responds by walking forward
- leader eventually slows down backward walk
- leader releases counterbalance and transitions into compression, follower reponds
- return to step 3
I’ve described these exercises from a leader-centric perspective, but in reality both partners share the responsibility for matching the amount of frame, compression and counterbalance. The leader just happens to initiate the movement. Practice both roles if you have a chance…it’s both fun and instructive!
Okay, that’s it for now…stay tuned for Part 2 and more frame exercises!