You don’t have to stop moving in table top — be an underdancer

At some point in the way distant past, perhaps in the 1980s, the story goes that Nancy Stark Smith was teaching a workshop in the Bay Area. Maybe it was in San Francisco. I forget all the other details of this story, but I will dig them up. But anyway, at that workshop Nancy invented the table top position which we know and love, and which I occasionally hate. (I know, I’m a terrible storyteller. It’s a constant source of shame.)

The position called “table” or “table top” consists of one dancer being on his or her hands and knees. Elbows are straight, knees and hips are at 90-degree angles. Hands are directly below shoulders, knees are directly below hips. It’s a strong, stable position for supporting the weight of a partner.

Somewhere in the years since that first workshop it’s also become an unnecessarily fixed position. Around once a jam, if not during most of my dances, my partner will go into table top, and I’ll be on top of him or her — and then my partner just stops. Arms straight, hips and knees at 90 degrees, staring fixedly at the floor. Just waiting for me to do something. And what might have been a lovely, dynamic, flowing dance suddenly becomes static and boring. This is a very “intermediate” trait, but I see it often even among advanced, experienced dancers, and I always find it a little disappointing.


Yes, that is the saddest crane in the world.

Everyone, you don’t need to do this! No one ever said that table top is a static position or a destination point. Stop thinking of it this way! Try using it as a way station. Try varying it in small ways — arching or rounding your back, tipping side to side, forward or backwards. There are several way to stick out a leg out which are hard to describe, but which I’m happy to demonstrate if you find me at a jam. Try moving through it, or avoiding it altogether. Blur or expand your sense of what table top is.

I think sometimes smaller people get locked in because they’re trying very hard to hold up someone’s weight without collapsing. Okay, that’s fine if you want to do that — but you don’t have to. What’s wrong with collapsing? What’s wrong with shifting and moving someone’s weight instead of just locking down and grimacing? What’s wrong with sensing my weight, and adapting to it, instead of just staying in the same position? You’re thinking about the position you think you’re supposed to be in, instead of responding to what’s there.

Gretchen Spiro and a number of others have championed the concept of the “underdancer.” (It may have come from someone before Gretchen, but that’s whom I learned it from.) The “underdancer” and “overdancer” simply occupy different positions relative to each other, the underdancer on the bottom, the overdancer on top. Neither is superior, neither is more or less important. The “overdancer” is not the star, the “underdancer” is not in service to her partner. Both have a role and a contribution to make towards the dance, and the roles change all the time, and can change quickly. If you become an underdancer while dancing with me, don’t go away, don’t tune out! Keep engaging with me, keep adapting to me, keep communicating with me. You don’t need to lock down or stop moving.

I know that these things happen somewhat unconsciously. Table top is taught as a point of reference in contact classes or in informal instruction at jams. It’s a great way to feel stability as a base. And then people start thinking of it as a place to get to, or a place to hang out, instead of a place to keep feeling from and keep improvising from.

Explore and explode table top.

2 comments for “You don’t have to stop moving in table top — be an underdancer

  1. richard
    2017/10/30 at 12:07

    Recently the big thing I’ve been telling people I dance with is to engage and wake up the spine when an under-dancer in “cat.” Let the spine be mobile — up and down, side to side. With a mobile spine you can suggest a lot of movements to the over-dancer, including initiating your partner to roll over to their other side, or slide off one way or another. There’s this game where you can tip your partner towards your head, then raise them up as they roll towards it, either stabilizing them to neutral or giving them a little boost to propel them off.

  2. 2013/01/29 at 14:02

    Some teachers (I believe I actually learned this from Gretchen Spiro) like to call this position “cat” instead of table, for the same reason.

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