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No enterprise is more likely to succeed
than one concealed from the enemy
until it is ripe for execution.
                       Niccolo Machiavelli

Shadow Dancing

On this page:
Foundation of The Shadow Dance | Shadow Dance | Shadow Dance and Physical Violence

After researching 10 different languages, we were disappointed to find no term exists for this critical concept. So we coined the term "shadow dance" based on the Indonesian tradition of shadow puppets. An art that you don't see the actual puppets, but only their shadows dancing across a plain surface(2).

In other words, what you see isn't what is really going on. And that is what makes the shadow dance dangerous.

At its core, a shadow dance is a complex and subtle set of maneuvers that have very real and dangerous implications. These maneuvers are, in fact, a set up. They serve as a means to put a potential attacker in a position where he can quickly and overwhelmingly achieve his goals. But they are done in such a way that not only disguise their real intent, but allow for deniability if countered. It is not a situation working up toward dangerous, it is dangerous already. The only question is: "Will it go down?

The answer is: "It depends on how good a dancer you are."

Foundation of the Shadow Dance
While a lion's roar can be used to freeze its prey as it charges, it is a very hungry lion that starts roaring a quarter of a mile from the herd. While we're on the subject Simba is going to be pretty hungry if it comes openly charging at the herd from the same distance. The herd will react and flee. So instead of alerting the prey to her presence, the lioness crouches in the landscape and sneaks forward until she is in attack position.

Although they don't belly their way through the tall grass, criminals also engage in this type of activity before they strike. They have to. Otherwise their prey will pull a gazelle imitation. Although it isn't the yet the dance, it is the foundation of the shadow dance.

In the process of setting up a crime, they attempt to conceal it with seemingly innocent or normal activity. A prime example is "casing" an establishment they intend to rob by coming in at an earlier time and posing as customers. This gives them a chance to assess security measures, escape routes and the likelihood of successfully committing their crime.

Another example is the robber, rapist or carjacker who hides his setting you up for an attack under the guise of walking up to you and asking you questions (e.g. directions). This process is explained in The Five Stages Of Violent Crime pages.

Even if you know what they are really doing, their actions are supposedly "innocent." Since what they are doing is preparatory, if you were to confront them, they can deny everything -- and absolutely nothing would stand up in court. But, despite the fact that it wouldn't stand up in court doesn't mean it isn't happening.

It is the process of developing an attack. And while you can't legally blow his head off just yet, being able to articulate these actions is important. Having said all this, this isn't a shadow dance either.

Shadow Dancing
It doesn't become a shadow dance until two people (or more) are doing the same thing ... on opposite sides.

Shadow dancing occurs when two "players" -- both of whom know what is going on -- jockey for strategic advantage. That is why it called dancing. And everyone is pretending that they aren't doing anything that isn't innocent(2).

A skilled counter-dancer will immediately recognize the significance of the other's maneuvering and proceed to do his own. Let's say there's a business that has been broken into several times. The perp isn't walking by looking for a chance to commit a crime (which he is). His story is going to be, he's just walking to the store. And if you ask him, he'll gladly tell you that. By the same token, you (the cop) aren't sitting there waiting for him either. You just parked there to do some paperwork, right? Now officially nothing happened. He kept walking and you kept on doing your paper works. But the reality is that a crime was prevented and everyone but the taxpayers knew it.

Big or small, Shadow Dancing is about strategic positioning, deception, misdirection AND communication. Yep, you heard that right, because a big part of the shadow dances effectiveness is that your would be attacker knows that you're dancing right back with him

Shadow Dance and Physical Violence
Where the shadow dance becomes dangerous is when it is heading for a physical confrontation. The stakes have gone up, and both players know they've treed themselves a bad un'.

Recognize that this is beyond someone merely getting into position to attack. That would be like a robber walking into a convenience and turning and twisting so he doesn't appear on camera. In that case, he intends to attack and is just getting into position to get away with it. Where it becomes a shadow dance is when a violent person subtly slides into position to attack you, and you slide into counter position -- and with just as much a pretext of normalcy as your would-be attacker.

Now everyone is roller skating on ice, because nothing is certain. In short, he might have wanted it to be an assault, but as of this moment, it's going to be a throw down. And that makes it a whole lot wiser for him to back off.

You do this not just to neutralize his attack potential, but to maximize yours. If you do not recognize this shift in location (positioning) as both a set up and an interview for an attack, his trap will be sprung. And with a good chance of success.  On the other hand, if he does not recognize that you've just turned the tables on him, he will fall into your trap. If he does recognize what you have done, then the odds are he will -- possibly after a few more shifts -- decide notto try to push this issue physically.

In these circumstances, it's about setting the other person up without being set up yourself or leaving yourself exposed. This means that both sides are engaging in subtle shifts and maneuvering to increase their chances of success if and when it goes physical.

And all the time, while not doing anything blatant that will provoke an attack, both dancers also are trying to prevent their opponent from gaining a similar advantage. This is a delicate balance where neither one wants to come across as too aggressive or too scared. Either response is likely to set off a physical confrontation. It is a potentially deadly dance of move, countermove and counter-counter move. On the surface, it can look like nothing is amiss, but both players know exactly what is going on below the facade of normalcy.

The shadow dance is very much a go/no go decision maker for people who use violence to get what they want. A savvy player will attempt to slip unnoticed into attack position. If you fail to see this maneuver for what it is, you will have passed the interview (see Five Stages) and, even if the perp doesn't attack, he will have counted coup on you (see below). In other words, he'll know he can get over on you, which makes dealing with him much, much harder. You never want a criminal or violent person to believe that he can easily get over on you. It will not only taint, but complicate, everything. If you don't know that you're being danced with, it's a form of failure.

Another failure is you overreacting to his probe. Yes, he is attempting to slip into attack position. But if you overreact by becoming emotional or assuming a fighting stance, he won't think, "Oh my, see how dangerous this person is." In his little pea brain, he will be sure he has gotten over on you and that you are scared of him ... which will be as likely to provoke an attack as not seeing him slip into position at all.

Shadow dances can come in many shapes and forms. The most obvious are when a potential attacker is in the middle of an emotional meltdown, and you are confronting him. In those cases, moving into and out of attack position while being ready to commit violence can be rather blatant. Most shadow dances, however, have at least the illusion of normalcy until the attack occurs. The illusion can come in many different variations. It can be silent, without a word being spoken. It can include conversation. It can even involve complex social protocols. Imagine a situation where everyone is smiling at one another while holding knives behind their backs, just waiting to see if it is going to turn bloody.

Generally speaking, the appropriate response to a shadow dance is like the diplomat at the embassy who is being probed by a spy, you counter his attempts ... all the while being as calm, smooth and normal about it as he is. As he casually slides into position, you, just as calmly, slide into a better one. He makes a seemingly innocent move to trap you, you make a just as innocent movement that destroys his trap. He needs to be in a certain position to successfully attack you, you never let him slide into that. And like the spy game, you both smile at each other while hiding daggers behind your back...because, after all, nothing is really happening now is it?

Having said this, shadow dancing is an integral part of violence de-escalation. Your dancing skills are a crossroads. Down one path you will  be attacked, and the outcome is doubtful. Down another path, even if attacked, you will come out victorious. Down two other roads -- where you aren't attacked the options include a) how hard it will be to de-escalate, b) what it will cost you and c) how much trouble you will have in the future with this person.

An experienced player will immediately recognize when someone is shadow dancing. Unlike professional spies and military personnel, shadow dancing serves as a deterrent with both criminals and people who use violence to get what they want. The reason is simple: Someone who is good enough to know how to shadow dance is someone, who not only knows what is really happening, but is also the kind who can offer a serious counter threat -- without hesitation. Those skills and aspects the crim or violent person relies on to keep him safe are not working here. He's up against someone just as good, if not better. And if he pushes it, the one walking away alive and intact is anybody's guess. As such, it is in his best interest to withdraw or, if in a closed situation, negotiate.

Which takes us back to verbal de-escalation and how to make it more effective. And for those of you in the line of work telling nasty people 'no' you are now ready to learn about applying control presencecontrol presence

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1) In Indonesia, there is a form of puppet show called Wayang Kulit, or the shadow puppets. This art is done with a sheet of cloth in between the audience and the puppets. The puppets are backlit so their shadows are cast on the cloth. You never see the actual puppets nor do you see the puppeteer controlling them. Because all you see is the dancing of the shadows, we felt this was an appropriate choice of terminology to describe the many levels of a shadow dance. You don't see what is really going on, or in the case of higher levels, who's pulling the strings. Return to Text

3) The best and biggest example of shadow dancing is found by looking at countries' embassies. If you were to move aside all the bright and helpful reasons given for embassies and look at what goes on underneath, you would see that spying makes up a significant bulk of embassy operations. Intel gathering, espionage, channeling information back home, counterespionage and other intelligence activities are daily SOP. Incredible amounts of time, money, energy and effort are invested in intelligence gathering and counter measures, and you will never see any of this if you walk in the front door. The thing is, everyone in the embassy knows about this spying, and everyone in the host country's government knows it, too. Both sides are actively involved in spying on each other -- but nobody talks to outsiders about it! Embassies also show the professional sophistication the art of shadow dancing can reach. These people are like predatory fish who hunt each other in dangerous currents under the water's placid surface, but at an embassy ball they just smile at each other while nibbling hors d'oeuvres. Return to text

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