Clicker training and positive reinforcement

I’ve recently been pushing to teach lindy hop using only positive reinforcement.
When the students are doing an ‘experiment with these things please’ session in class (and they do a lot of this independent, self-guided learning in class), we used to watch until we saw common errors or patterns of messed up movement. Then we’d stop and correct the students, saying things like “Instead of doing this, do that.” I had been advised by a teacher friend (Shane McCarthy in Perth) never to ‘correct’ a student in class in front of the group because it’s embarrassing and trashes their morale. But it’s taken me until just this year to realise that I never need to correct a student again.

‘Correction’ is another word for ‘telling students they’re doing things wrong, that they’re wrong.’ And this is shit for morale. Both students’ and ours. Because if you’re going to tell someone they suck, you feel terrible. Unless you are a somewhat shit person. I used to go home from class worried that I’d said the wrong thing, or taught them something bullshit.
Until I noticed that when I said, “Oh, you know what I saw that I really liked? ….” and then pointed out where someone specific had done something really nice, or in general when I saw something I liked, the students felt great, and I felt wonderful.

In our teaching pairs, we used to have a rule for reducing the amount of time we spent teaching: say one thing for follows, and one thing for leads. Thing is, these things were almost always ‘tips’ or corrections. So we were effectively making a rule: ‘say one thing to trash the follows, then one thing to trash the leads.’ Boo!
But then we started encouraging each other to say “Something that I saw that I liked…” And YES. The world got really really good. Yay!

So this year I made a rule for myself, which I’ve then asked all my teaching partners to do when the teach with me: if you want to guide students towards a particular behaviour, wait until you see a student or students doing that behaviour (or on the road to that behaviour), and then say, “I saw some people doing X. It was really nice.” You be very specific about what you saw, and if you think that student can handle the attention, name them: “I saw X and Y dancing away, then get into a tangle, and you know what they did? X said, “Can we stop for a tick so I can try again?’ And they stopped and chilled for a second, grooved til they found their timing, then they started it again. That was a really cool way of dealing with a mess.” If you see a bunch of people doing a thing, say that: “I saw a bunch of people doing X and I loved it.”

Or if you see ALL of them doing something – tell them! I tend to gush on this one: “Oh! That looked so nice and _grooving_ because you all took a bit of time to make friends with the music before you got going, and then you kept that groove!” I also like to point out how people have managed their own mistakes: “I really liked the way you guys started dancing, and it was nice, but a bit square” [demonstrate timing], “And then the music started, you all heard the musicians, and you all changed your dancing so it swung” [demonstrate swinging timing].

So now my rule is: no ‘corrections’, no ‘tips’. Just positive affirmations. If you don’t see the behaviour you need or want to see, wait. Because they’ll get there. If they don’t, then you need to show them again. And that’s ok.
Key to this is that you are looking at students looking for ways in which they are wonderful, rather than ways in which they are rubbish. It just made teaching so wonderful.

But let’s look more at this idea of positive reinforcement replacing correction in teaching.

Today, I read a book called ‘Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs’ by Karen Pryor, because we’re trying to teach our nutty, somewhat panicky rescue dog a few tricks, but also so she feels more confident and happy when we’re out, and when we’re around the house. This book is just lovely. Mostly because clicker training rewards good behaviour rather than punishing or correcting ‘bad’ behaviour. It also encourages you – the trainer – to look for goodness in your subject, not badness or errors. And hence, brings good vibes. As the book says

Once you get used to thinking the clicker way, you are much more likely to notice good behavior and reward it, instead of giving your attention to a child only when it’s doing something wrong.

More importantly for trainers, it’s much easier to maintain preferred behaviour with this method than with “physically correcting erroneous behaviour”.

Let me just note that point: it encourages teachers to actively look for good behaviour. It changes the teacher.

How does it work?
First, you encourage learning-by-exploring.
When your doggo does a behaviour close to what you want, you click your clicker and give it a treat. So if I want Frank to sit, if she stops, she gets a click and a treat. If she starts to lower her rear haunches, I click and she gets a treat. If she actually sits – click! And treat bonanza (lots of treats)! Important: you only click once, exactly as you see the desired behaviour. They then associate the click with approval for what they are doing _at that time_. You never punish or correct or tell them off. If they deviate substantially from what you want, you put the clicker and treats away. No more treats.

So we have the second point: you encourage learning by approval and positive reinforcement, not correction and punishment/disapproval.
I’ve heard of positive reinforcement, of course, but I’d never really thought about what I was doing as a teacher as positive reinforcement.

The goal: the doggo learns that their behaviour gets you to click and give you treats. So they start thinking: what can I do that will make the human click? And they start experimenting.

You can immediately see how this works for lindy hop: what can I do that will make my partner smile, and dance really well making for a good dance and fun time for both of us? You can also see that this approach forces you to shift the learners’ focus from you, the teacher, to each partners. Ha. Yes. Your ego will need to be set aside for minute!

But this approach also works for teaching: what sort of things can I try to that will get me a good result? What interesting things can we do to make the students and us happy? How much fun can we actually have in class? And I tell you, friends: it’s addictive. If you can have a little bit of fun once, you suddenly think LET’S HAVE A LOT OF FUN ALL THE TIME.
This encourages a happy, creative pupper, but also happy, creative dancer. Ta da! Lindy hop!

This book extends this approach to teaching other animals besides dogs (it was actually developed with dolphins), and then to teaching children. Apparently this method works particularly well with humans learning physical skills, because it’s so quick. Not only are you giving positive reinforcement, but you’re also physically making a nonverbal sound (clicking the clicker) when you see the behaviour you want. And retention of these skills is permanent, with learning happening twice as fast as with verbal instructions.

The question then becomes: can we use a clicker in a lindy hop class? If not, what non-vocal substitution would work?
As a clear example, when you learn African dance with drummers in class, the drummers signal a change in the exercise or step or rhythm with a very clear rhythmic sound. And if you’re doing a nonverbal warm up like i-go, you-go, the teacher moves on from one rhythm or one shape to another when you get it right. Hmmm. Close, but not quite right.

I have noticed myself that if I use words to signal my approval or to signal ‘Yes! you are on track!’ to students, the language itself interrupts their processing of information. This is no doubt because, as we know, humans can’t/aren’t much good at processing words and physical lead/follow information at the same time.
So let’s look at another example from black culture (which is where of course lindy hop began): the call-and-response “Amen!” of a congregation responding to a preacher. It is a word, but it’s used so often that it has become more of a ‘sound’ than an actual Word. It means ‘yes!’ and ‘I hear you!’ and ‘praise that/you!’
Even within a mainstream white culture, women talking in groups use non-verbal signals of approval to encourage speakers in conversation: the raised eyebrow, the exclamation of breath, a laugh-sound.

What sort of nonlingual verbal cues can we use?

The other key element in clicker training is to do with the trainers: you learn to

respond in new ways. You become used to the idea that behavior needs to be built in small pieces, not in big chunks. You stop expecting too much, too soon, and just look for what you can reinforce – and so in fact you get more results, and better.
If you see a behavior you don’t like, …instead of rushing in to prevent it or stop it, you take it as a training opportunity: what is it this learner needs to know? What’s missing? What can I add that would replace this bad behavior?… you have a better way – reinforcing what you like, instead of attacking what you don’t.
…The experience can lead to less stress and more fun in life in general.

This is another approach that we’ve really jumped onto in our teaching. The idea of slowly building up skills in pieces. So instead of starting a class by saying, “Today we will learn the swing out!” and then proceeding to show a move, then break it into pieces, then map it out, then have them do each bit, we start with a related foundational skill. We need a few things for swing outs: a sense of timing (ie the beat), a rhythm (ie a way of moving through space predictably), and a partner. To work with a partner, we need to know how to touch them, how to communicate with them (to know what they want/like and to tell them what we want/like), and to know how they feel the music.

So we begin with the first part: how do we move our bodies? Then we move on to the next part: how do we dance with a partner? Then we get them using all these elements (rhythm, shared beat, partnering skills, movement, etc) to do a simple task – move around the room randomly, experimenting. We ask them, “What helps? What makes this easier? What was the funnest part?”
Then we ask them to do a specific task: to dance a circle. But we literally say, “Now look here.” We show them. They watch. Then we say, “Please give your best approximation of this.” They do it. Boom circles. This has taught them not only a specific move, but it’s also taught them to experiment and try. And they get rewarded for that. But the move itself also teaches them to feel and experiment with rotational momentum… or, in human words, to feel that wonderful spinny roundy feeling.
Then we say, “Please let go half way.” And they basically recreate throwing a ball on a string. A swing out. And you give them TREAT BONANZA. Both in terms of praise, but you also point out: now you have a very fun move. And you set them loose to play with it to music.

All this plus a couple of jazz steps and warms ups and things is our first class. They have learnt a swing out. But they have learnt a million other skills as well as this one move. And the skills are more important.
For us, as teachers, we’ve learnt that a swing out isn’t a ‘thing’ that you give a student. It’s a thing that they discover through guided experimentation.

You want to keep doing positive reinforcement because it gives them the confidence to try, and to make mistakes, and then to see what happens when they do it in this way or that way. Which is, of course, how the swing out was born historically.

Clicker training in brief

– click the behaviour you want, exactly when it happens
– reward/treat after you click
– only work positively: reward what you want, or actions that get closer to what you want; never punish
– work in incremental steps towards a bigger goal

Key elements of clicker training:
– encourage the learner to experiment with all sorts of things until they figure out what behaviour will get a click (and a treat)
– you, the teacher, have to look actively for things to reward/click. This often means the learner does things you don’t expect, which gets them closer to the goal
– you, the teacher, get more flexible and learn more  
– the learner is learning experiment with doing all sorts of things with the goal of changing _your_ (the teacher’s) behaviour (ie to get you to click)

It is epic fun for everyone, because you focus on positive outcomes and reinforcement, rather than correcting and punishing.

Interesting thing:
The clicker is absolutely key because it is an aural, nonverbal cue. It gets twice as fast learning than a verbal cue. Because it side steps the longer word-processing-learning of verbal cues. It’s _faster_ because your brain doesn’t need to untangle the words. Your brain is faster with nonverbal cues.

It also works on doggos.

Challenge: clicking is kind of harsh, socially.

An example of a pretty structured tagteaching (which uses clicker training).

Some notes to bands about playing for dancers

I work with bands quite a bit for dance events.
The type of music you play and how you play it will depend on the dancers. Are they dancing balboa? Blues? Lindy hop? If the organiser has just said ‘swing dance’, then they usually mean lindy hop, with a sprinkling of balboa.

There are really two main issues for dancers:
1. How fast is the music, and
2. How long is the song.

1. Tempo
150bpm is about a jogging pace. So remember that when you launch into your favourite speedy song 😀 Experienced lindy hoppers with good technique can handle 5 minutes at 180bpm, but mere mortals… not so much.

For us, 120bpm is slow and beginner friendly, but kind of draggy. 140bpm is easy and comfortable. 160bpm feels like fun. 180bpm makes us work a bit hard. over 200bpm is fast.
So if you’re playing for two hours, you’d work the tempos like this (if you wanted to play a very safe set):

Balboa, however, is a much smaller dance. So they like to start at about 180bpm and can dance… well, they like to go fast.

Lindy hoppers can really vary. As I said, experienced dancers with good skills at a big event are very comfortable anywhere from 110 to 240bpm. Brand new dancers are also happy to do any tempo, but have zero stamina. The pickiest are people with moderate skills but plenty of opinions 😀 Their comfort zone is 120-160bpm.

2. Song length:
No more than 10 minutes. Seriously. I’d keep it to 5 minutes to be honest.
Here’s the thing: while sitting down audiences really enjoy each musician in the band taking a solo, that’s not how dancers work. They’re not sitting quietly and listening; they are right there with you inside the music. So my usual rule for bands is: only take a solo if you have something to say. A band is not a democracy; we don’t all get a solo just because we turned up.
And bassists and drummers? Soz, but your solos are the least danceable, so keep it to a phrase or two max.

So what do you play?
Lindy and balboa are members of the swing dance family. So play swinging jazz. Like Basie said, four solid beats to the bar and no cheating. Think mid 30s – mid 40s. You can stray into the 50s, but think Basie’s big band, and Ellington.
If your band is a ‘dixie’ or NOLA recreationist band, then that’s a different kettle of fish.

So far as instrumentation goes, the best options are:
– bass. Upright, not electric. You need this.
– drums, but lay off the high hat. Think like Jo Jones: fill in around the bass, don’t push the band forward
– guitar. You are Freddy Green. Think rhythm section.
-> you can do without guitar, but for my money, the best dance bands has this rhythm section.

– trumpet
– trombone
– reeds
-> it’s all good. If you want to impress dancers, they’re easily pleased by a muted trumpet or a big clarinet high note.

Some other things:
– At the end of the song dancers will pause, then thank their partner, then they’ll turn and clap you. So give them a breath.
They’re unlikely to clap a solo, because they’re dancing. Unless you are incredible. Then they will.
– If you engage with the dancers, they’ll engage with you. So don’t stare at sheet music all the gig. Look up, make eye contact, smile, and if you see something you like, make like a jazzer and let people know! Yell out, or applaud, or echo what they did rhythmically on your instrument.
It’s also ok to stop and talk to people during breaks. Dancers are so curious about musicians and their instruments – they’ll be shy and awkward, but so so interested.

So if you’re playing for two hours, you’d work the tempos like this (if you wanted to play a very safe set):

first set:
– begin at 120bpm
– 120bpm
– 140bpm
– 160bpm
– 120bpm
– 140bpm
– 180bpm
– 150bpm
– 170bpm
– 140bpm
– 190bpm

second set:
– 140bpm
– 160bpm
– 180bpm
– 130bpm
– 150bpm
– 190bpm
– 150bpm
– 120bpm
– 150bpm
– 180bpm
– 140bpm

It’s best to end a gig on a moderate tempo (about 140bpm) with lots of energy, so everyone can join in.

We call this ‘working a wave’, where you move up and down tempos in a gradual way. Bands can get away with more dramatic drops and increases than DJs can. But it’s a good idea to avoid going from really fast (eg 220bpm) to scary slow (eg 110bpm), because 110 reminds people that they’re tired. If you went from 220bpm to 140bpm, people’s energy stays up, but they still get a rest.
110bpm is often a real dead zone for lindy hoppers, as it’s harder to dance lindy hop that slow, but it’s not slow enough for blues dancing.
Experienced dancers make all tempos work, but newer dancers really struggle in the 90-120 and 170-250 zones.
You want to come in with a nice, friendly song. Right in the comfort zone. 140bpm is your friend. Nice and swinging, not particularly sexy.

As a general guide, 150bpm is average jogging tempo, and most new dancers aren’t very fit. Most experienced dancers are like runners. They can dance at 150 for 6 hours. But they like adrenaline, so they really enjoy the spike up into the faster tempos. And slower tempos give new dancers a chance to get on the floor and experienced dancers a chance to really work the rhythms.

As the night goes on, the average tempo can creep up. But it’s best to vary the tempos, so people feel inspired.
You can do one or two very slow songs (eg a blues at 80bpm), but one is really enough.
No latin rhythms, please.
We like to avoid crooners too (the only Sinatra I like is Sinatra with the Dorsey band.)

Sam’s black list:
Songs I’d prefer you didn’t play:
Fly Me to the Moon
In the Mood
Moon Dance
String of Pearls

We don’t really dig on boogie woogie, and jump blues can have mixed results.

We love Ellington. We love him bad. We also love Basie, Hamp, Webb, Lunceford, Slim and Slam, Django, Bechet, Kid Ory.

What if a jam happens?
A jam is where dancers feel really excited by the band, and see a couple feeling the feels bring their shit. They form a loose circle around that couple, clapping, and then other couples take turns coming into the circle to show off.
Faster songs usually stimulate a jam.
They rarely look at the band when they’re jamming, but at those moments, they are _really_ listening.
When the song ends, if they really feel the feels and want more, they’ll turn and look at the band and cheer and stay in the circle.
If they’re done, they drift away.
The best jams only last one or perhaps two songs, or a total of about 5 minutes max. After that people who aren’t showing off get bored and tired.
It’s best to follow a jam with a nice moderate tempo (but high energy) song (about 140bpm) so everyone can get back on the floor, and you can take advantage of the energy and excitement generated by the jam.

For us, the best dancing happens when the band feels the feels and is really responding to what’s happening on the dance floor. We hear the musicians get excited, and we feel it, and it makes for great dancing. So it’s important you guys like the music you’re playing.

Why you should not refuse pay in the dance world

Today on facebork, I wrote a semi-serious post listing ten opinions. One was

When you refuse to be paid for work (like teaching a class or DJing or running a workshop) you are undercutting the other workers in the market who rely on that money. Don’t voluntarily work for nothing in an industry where people are routinely underpaid.

A friend commented (and I paraphrase):
What if I have a well paid day job, but do some local teaching for money anyway, even though other people do this as a full time job and need the money. What are the ethics here?

This is what I replied.

*shrug* It’s up to you whether you do that work or not.
But if you do do it, and you don’t charge for it, you’ll end up destabilising the ‘market’ in that field. So if X knows he can get you to do the job for free, he’ll get you to do the job next time. Even if you’re rubbish at the job, or Z needs the job for the money.
Doing the work for free also suggests that the work has no value, or that doing it for free is more important than money. Or that taking money for work is somehow selfish. I see the ‘just do it for the community’ rhetoric used quite a bit in the dance world to pressure people into working for free.

As an example, a couple of years ago I wrote a nice bit of copy for a publication as part of my paid job for that publication/business. Another dance business owner saw that piece of copy and asked if they could publish that same piece in their own publication, with attribution.
[edit: I’ve just checked my emails, and there was NO offer of attribution. headdesk]
I said “I’m sorry, but no, I’d prefer it if you didn’t use that copy. I can however write a new piece for you at my usual rate.”

I had a fairly nonplussed reply from the inquirer, but my then-boss had been cc’d into the reply email (which I found highly inappropriate, but that seemed in keeping with dubious ethics at work anyway).
My then-boss actually wrote to me:

“That’s a shame you won’t let [redacted] use your copy. I’m a bit surprised. I get it, I understand, but simply take a different view. Share and share alike, community, goodwill and all those values that I strive to live by. ”

This reply made me very angry, but also made me laugh out loud.
This sort of emotional manipulation is quite common in the lindy hop world: powerful or more influential business owners often try to manipulate skilled workers (DJs, teachers, writers, illustrators, website designers, etc) into working for free using this idea of communitarian debt: that we somehow _owe_ the ‘community’ or ‘scene’ our unpaid work.

To my mind, true goodwill and communitarianism is about paying people for their work so they can then pay their bills and also feed money back into the community to pay other people to teach or DJ or play music.

So when we say “No, I will not work for free” we are also saying “Actually, I think my work is important enough to become part of the official paid economy of this community, and as a skilled worker/employee/contractor, I am worth paying with real actual money.”

I occasionally do gigs where I don’t want to be paid, and in those cases I explicitly say “Please consider my pay a donation to your event/cause.” I’ve also asked people to donate to kiva or other microloan organisations that work specifically with women, instead of paying me.

Cognitive load and lindy hop

Leah Jo linked up this interesting article, ‘Cognitive Load Theory
How the cognitive load of a learning task affects a person’s ability to memorize it’
on facebork.

It’s very interesting.

Fran then asked about the point that because processing more than one type of data increases cognitive load, we should avoid it.

I’m not entirely sure I understand the article’s point, as I haven’t read the original research. But that won’t stop me blabbering on.

I’ve just read that bit, and I reckon it means:

  • Different types of data are processed in different ways (eg auditory info – sound – and visual info – stuff we see).
  • Processing more than one type of info at a time increases cognitive load (ie it’s more work.)
  • Therefore (this article suggests) we should only present data in one form at a time.
    In our case, that’d be just scatting a rhythm, or just dancing a rhythm, not dancing and scatting.

I think I can dig this, especially for total beginners who are just learning to dance for the first time. They can be learning to process visual info (bodies in motion), auditory info (clapping), etc etc etc.
So what we’ve found (coincidentally – I’d never heard this theory before), is that we demonstrate one thing at a time. eg we dance the whole move. Then we clap a rhythm. Then we may tap the rhythm with our toes. Then we may step it out with no sound, but shapes. This way the info (ie the rhythm) comes to them as lots of different data types, but one at a time.

Having said all that, as we know, dancers are super good at processing a few different types of data at once: we can be led through a routine and see the shapes, we can listen to the music and hear the melody, we can feel the physical cues and respond with the shapes.

But these are skills we come to after practicing and learning for a while.
I think retention (memory) is under-emphasised in our skill sets. I mean, we learn complex rhythms (which are essentially like learning complex mathematical formula or series of words), retain them, and then repeat them back with or without variation. We also learn whole sequences of steps during our dancing years, and then recreate or revise them in real time.
So one thing we learn when we do a dance class is to see/hear/feel data in one way, then retain that ‘way’ and information while we’re watching and retaining a section, third, fourth set of data. Then we synthesise it all and do it with another human being surrounded by heaps of other human beings also dancing or playing music!

That’s some seriously heavy cognitive load. So one thing we need to do in classes is teach students how to cope with a) the pressure of increased cognitive load, b) how to actually carry increased cognitive load. And lindy hop is awesome because it’s so fun: it rewards increased cognitive load management with good endorphines and happy times. :D

We can also just start with simpler tasks, then increase the complexity. For example, begin with one type of data at a time, then gradually increase the combinations. I think we do this with our beginners. So we may just give them one rhythm in the baby version of i-go, you-go, but as they get more experienced, we increase the number of things they have to do during that task (eg the next step in this game is to have the pair take turns dancing a rhythm at each other, in real time, so they have to invent a rhythm while they’re watching and retaining their partner’s rhythm. The simple solution to this is to take something from your partner’s rhythm and build on it in your rhythm, so you don’t have to make something entirely different. This is what tappers do in jams. It also provides rhythmic coherency or consistency).

I’ve been interested to compare teaching in a quiet environment after teaching in a noisy environment with lots of distractions. The former is very much the marker of middle class, anglo-european teaching philosophy. The idea that we need a quiet ‘room of one’s own’ to do good solid thinking and learning. But if there’s one thing we know about lindy hop, it’s that it was born and thrived in loud environments full of information and noise and other people. One of the very first things you learn in a tap class, for example, is how to handle the cognitive load of a very loud learning environment. A lot of people simply can’t get past that first bit (I personally really struggle with this).

I also noticed that when we started welcome small babies and children (and doggos) in our teaching space, at first I found it impossible to stay focussed. Then I just learnt to ignore it (as I suppose mothers learn to ignore random kid noise, but respond to particular noises or lack of noise :D). So you learn to filter out extraneous data to decrease your cognitive load.

…following that thought on. We know that people learn best in environments where they feel happy and safe. This is probably because when we feel unsafe, we are ‘hyper vigilant’, taking in lots of information about our environment, _and_ keeping our bodies ready to fight or fly. Which is why anxiety or social phobias or trauma are so exhausting.

So while I dig this article, I think that it’d be really useful to compare it with learning in other cultural spaces. I haven’t checked the samples in this piece, but I wonder if they used predominantly white, middle class people between 18 and 25 (ie university students) in laboratory environments as their samples?

Perhaps one of the most important things about thinking of lindy hop as a black dance, is that we remember where and how people learnt to dance: in vernacular spaces. Everyday spaces. Spaces full of noise and stimuli and other people. Which is not only why we see the influence of everyday stuff in lindy hop (eg rhythmic movements borrowed from stuff like sweeping or hammering or ball games or playing hop scotch; familiar personalities like pimps and kids skipping; familiar animals like chickens and cows), but the ability to bear massive cognitive load while completing complex tasks…

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

How does this fit with our teaching ethos and values?
I strongly believe that teachers should be guides on students’ learning journeys. People who provide a space and some structure for learning and experimentation. This means dismantling a top-down hierarchy and replacing it with a student-centred learning space. In the case of lindy hop, this literally means getting teachers out of the middle of the circle, and giving students permission to use the entire dance floor.

It also means that I think we need to give students more responsibility in class. Make them responsible for finding the beat, counting themselves in, knowing when to stop or start a sequence, having the skills to speak and work respectfully with partners and class mates. Rather than funnelling all this work and communication through the teacher.

It doesn’t mean that we leave students rudderless, or that we let our classes become a chaotic jumble. On the contrary, classes need to be thoroughly planned out and structured. That structure might change (will change, probably :D) during the hour, but it should be thoughtful change. Teachers should be responsive to students’ needs, using their repertoire of teaching tools to address students’ needs and interests and willing to change and adapt their teaching.

Most of my thinking about class planning and structure and goals I’ve learnt from talking to Sylwia Bielec and Adrian Warnock-Graham from Montreal. I’ve never met them in person, but they’ve both been endlessly generous and patient with teaching materials and advice. I’ve also learnt a lot from Rikard Ekstrand and Jenny Deurell from Sweden, who are very thoughtful, gentle teachers who combine seriously old school content with modern pedagogic practice. I did my first tap jams with Tommy Waddelton last year at Herräng, and it blew my mind. His jams were the ultimate exercise is talk-less, dance-more teaching, taking the I-Go You-Go model to incredible heights. As a student, it was exciting, stimulating, creative, inspiring and FUN. As a teacher, it was truly impressive to see this approach in action with such a disparate group of dancers. Ramona Staffeld remains one of my greatest teaching influences. She works in the real spirit of historic jazz dance, but with modern sensibilities. eWa Burek and Lennart Westerlund have also been very important to my teaching practice. Lennart in particular opened my eyes to the idea of rhythm-first dancing, and first demonstrated that students don’t need to be counted in. And Marie N’diaye and Anders Sihlberg are my ongoing teaching inspiration, again combining thorough pedagogic theory and practice with historic influence and creativity. All of these teachers put music first. Jazz music.

Tell me and I will surely forget. Show me and I might remember. But make me do it, and I will certainly understand.
— Old Chinese proverb

(Quote from a teaching resource provided by Sylwia.)

This approach is echoed in the ‘see one, do one, teach one’ model that I’ve seen used in teaching kids about the environment. I can’t remember the name of the documentary, but in this project, they had the kids learn about an issue, try it out, then teach the entire group (including adults) in a big group session. They’d found that this engagement helped kids become and feel responsible for environmental education.

I really like this model:

  1. See one (teachers demo i-go, you-go)
  2. Do one (teacher lead i-go, you-go)
  3. Teach/lead one (they take turns being the caller in partnered i-go, you-go).

I mean, lindy hop basically is i-go, you-go, right?

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

How does this exercise scale up for more experienced students?

With the intermediate group after that one, we taught the same class structure:

1. the big apple was faster and harder (I led that one and fucked it up royally. PRACTICE!)

2. Then I-go, You-go with more complex rhythms.

3. Then social dancing lindy, with pauses to ask them to dance as though they’re still playing I-go, You-go.

4. Then we asked them to add on to their ‘basic’ rhythm with a stomp off on &8.

5. Then we worked on a rhythmic variation/shape thingy on 7812 of a swing out. This taught connection stuff, but also required them to stop thinking in 8 counts and start treating a dance like one long rhythm.

6. Then we taught a partnered solo jazz sequence we stole from Norma and Frankie. But they had to lead it and follow it. We looked at how close you stand to your partner, how you can lead a rhythm without touching someone (ie how to do I-go, You-go :D), how OGs used specific rhythmic sequences over and over again, so they developed a shared repertoire, etc. We were really STRICT about them all really dancing these rhythms. No mumbling their way through.

7. Then we asked them to mash all this stuff together.
This bit was wonderful: stomp off &8, clear basic rhythms (time steps), rhythmic variations that may or may not sync with your partner’s, and then these shared open position solo sequences.

Class goals (ie why we used I-go, You-go and the other exercises in this order):
This is my current bugbear: WHY do people stop dead on 3&4? On 8? For breaks? Why do they divide a dance into 8 count blocks?

We wanted to:
– Preserve historic sequences and steps;
– Get them to really partner dance in open position with jazz stuff;
– Use the call and response model to make their lindy hop more rhythmically precise;
– Really engage with the music as a long piece of rhythm, not lots of little 8 count segments.

I’m also really keen on leaders really thinking ahead and being very clear in what they’re about to lead, rhythmically. The leaders have to really LEAD. This is where I don’t really dig ambidancestrous stuff, because I think that leading and following are different roles. To really LEAD, a leader/caller needs to engage their muscles in a very specific way. It requires we engage our bodies and brains. We have to be really clear and precise. Which incidentally engages our cores and makes us easier to follow/lead. And that means making rhythmic sequences and shapes very clear and specific, and always being ready to do the next thing.

It was epic fun.

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

The I-go, You-go game is a tap exercise we’ve appropriated for our lindy hop classes and use in lots of different ways. The game involves a caller/leader who claps or dances a step or rhythm, and is then followed by the rest of the group/a partner, who repeats back that same sequence in the same timing.
The game is fun because the follower repeats back the rhythm immediately after the leader, without pause, and the leader then begins a new rhythm immediately afterwards. So you’re dancing back to back, in time, with no gaps or time to stop and fuss.
The sequences can be a bar long, two bars, a phrase. Whatever works for you and your group. Obviously the shorter the easier (though a tap bar is a lot more complex than a lindy hop bar :D ). If we keep the tap roots of the exercise in mind, the little sequence should be repeated – so two bards (8 counts), where the sequence is repeated is the best option. For tap.

But the game is wonderful because its simplicity allows you to vary it to meet your students’ needs. Or your partner’s and your needs.

For tappers, this is a good intro to tap jams. For lindy hoppers, it’s a good intro to lindy hop – partnered jazz dancing.

We have been using this game as a core part of our beginner (and now higher level) lindy hop classes for about two months. It’s successful not only for students’ learning, but also for our own learning, as teachers and dancers. I like it because it embodies the call and response of lindy hop, and in fact, we now present lindy hop as ‘a long call and response game’ to our beginners. This is a nice way to get around the political issues of using ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ as titles. Though we still use those terms too :D

From a musical perspective, you can listen to a pair playing I-go, You-go, and hear it as an AABB phrase structure. And when you begin to think of the game like this, you can imagine a million other variations for teaching other lead/follow and musical skills. It’s also a MASSIVE amount of fun. Students enjoy it because it feels like fun, and the quick pace means you don’t dwell on mistakes or errors, you just move on immediately to the next challenge.

What rhythms do you use when you’re the teacher leading the whole group?

Depends on the point of the exercise. With the total beginners in this class, we wanted them to just use one rhythm (step step triple step). Why?
– To really make them feel comfortable with this as a time step (so comfortable they get bored and long for improvisation or something different).
– They learn to hear the difference between a rhythm clapped straight or swung.
– We wanted them to feel confident in the rhythm so they’d then experiment with shapes, direction, other parts of their body.
– The main point is that they really focus on their partner: a ‘win’ is where the person responding gets it ‘right’. So the caller understands that being very clear and deliberate is the point (ie you don’t try to trick your partner or be unnecessarily complex).
– I was fascinated to see that after starting this way, they incline their body towards their partner, then keep this orientation in closed/open. They really focus on their partner. So you don’t need to say things like ‘look at your partner’ or ‘check in with your partner to see how they’re going’. They’re already doing it.
– I learnt this from Rikard and Jenny in the Herräng teachers’ track, but I-go, You-go is a tap exercise. Except in tap you have to reproduce rhythm, pitch, specific part of the foot, AND shape.
– This game is also an exercise in mindfulness. So we begin with a big apple warm up (a fun, simpler I-go, You-go game, then consolidate and concentrate the same skills in the teacher led and then partnered versions. By the time they get to actual partner dancing, they are really using these skills intently. That gives them the ‘take care of your partner’ and ‘take care of the music’ elements of lindy hop. When you shift to closed position for gliding, you can say ‘we’re still playing the game. But now you can’t seethe whole of your partner. Use your sense of touch, and the shared sense of timing from the music’. It’s better not to actually articulate that stuff, but to just get them to learn by doing.
– This game also teaches you to learn-by-watching (eg “I’ll do it three times then you do it,”) so you don’t need to break stuff down or talk a lot when tackling specific moves.

The I-go, You-go game can also be played with the teacher using different rhythms (and you match complexity to skills). But you need to be constantly assessing their progress. Repeat something slower if they don’t get it. Do a straight version then a swing version if they’re flattening out the rhythm. Get more complex as they get better. Push them until it gets too hard for them to do successfully (so they recognise challenge), etc etc.

A lot of tap teachers teach whole classes like this. It is FANTASTIC fun. No talking, just call and response.

When they glide with rhythm, we do ask them to do their ‘basic’ rhythm (the one we worked on), but we don’t really mind if they do other stuff too. We basically want them to learn how it feels to move with deliberate rhythm across the floor attached to another person. Maintaining perfect rhythm is just a lovely extra.

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

Last night we taught a group of complete beginners their first lindy hop class ever. And the first time they danced to music with a partner, they STARTED THEMSELVES WITH NO COUNTING IN and they were ON TIME!!!1
They also started at the beginning of the phrase.


We did the class structure like this:
1. Big apple warm up (teacher leads, and makes sure there are a few of the elements of the steps in the warm up; emphasis on starting new moves at the beginning of phrases)

2. the I-go, you-go way of teaching the rhythm (teacher leads, students ‘respond’: 8 counts of clapping rhythm, students come in immediately after and echo that same rhythm. Begin with clapping, then move to using different parts of the foot (as in a tap exercise), then adding in direction for steps (eg a rock step), then moving bodies around floor)

3. play I-go, you-go with a partner (as above, but now they are calling and responding for a partner) without music

4. I-go you-go with a partner with music (and we ask them ‘is it easier with music? why?’ -> because the band keeps time, they know when to start and stop, etc etc)

5. learn to do closed position

6. learn to glide without rhythm or music

7. when they rotate we point out that each partner is a different size and shape, so you can’t just approach your partner with Barbie arms; you need to adjust your embrace. And we demo’d how to talk to your partner about adjusting, and they all tried that a few times.

8. glide with music, but no set rhythms (though they do tend to start adding in rhythmic elements)

9. glide with rhythm to music -> this is where they pwnd all and we didn’t need to count them in!

At about this point we paused to explain about spending a bit more time grooving before they start to move (we had demo’d this but not articulated it yet). We explained grooving as making friends with the music, making contact with a partner (do you hear the music the same way? how do you know? etc etc).

10. grooving again with music -> they are social dancing

11. questions from them: how do you change direction? how do you know which foot to start on? how do you know what your partner is ‘leading’ or ‘calling’ in terms of rhythm? etc etc. This is where I used the phrase “You listen with your skin” in closed instead of watching with your eyes in open. I will never forgive myself for this hippy-ness. I’m sorry.

12. They dance on all this stuff.

By this point they’d been dancing hardcore for 50 minutes. We didnt’ count them in once.

We would ordinarily have introduced another specific shape or two by this point – promenades, circles, whatever. But we had a rowdy group. They were actually enjoying mucking about by moving and traveling the floor, etc.

13. We introduce crazy legs/cool breeze in the knees as a new rhythm. They add it into their dancing.

So they’ve done a loooot of social dancing in this class, the rhythms are tight, and they’ve also learnt nice partnering skills (and connection), they can count themselves in on time on phrase, they have swinging timing rather than straight, etc etc etc.

It was a very fun class. They had a lot of fun, and so did we.


  • My Baby Just Cares for Me – Nina Simone
    It’s a goody for pointing out the role of the bass, plus the piano actually sounds like step step triple step, there’s that little delay/break that makes them stumble, then learn to listen to the music more, etc.
  • Blip Blip – LCJO
    Warm up song, because it’s energetic, hi-fi, vocals and fun for the very first song.
  • Easy Does It – Big 18
  • Stepping into swing society – Ellington 1938
  • Easy Going Home – Hodges 1953
    At the end, to get them experimenting with varying crazy leg/basic rhythm stuff, and to make them laugh.
  • Keeping out of mischief now – Louis Armstrong all stars 1955

Ethnicity v race

Why do I want to hang onto class when discussing race and ethnicity in dance?

A friend, Superheidi, noted recently that she’s not entirely ok with the way some white dancers use the word ‘race’. She made the point that ‘race’ isn’t accurate; we are not different races because we have different skin colour. We are all one species.

But the social or cultural concept of ‘race’ is still important. I actually use ‘ethnicity’ more than ‘race’. ‘Racism’ is often about skin colour and appearance.
But ethnocentrism is about more than skin colour: it’s about culture and identity.
If we talk about ethnicity, we can distinguish between west africans and east africans, african americans and africans. And so on. The important points become cultural and social: who a people are rather than just what they look like. This becomes super important for first nations people who have been displaced from their homelands, especially in Australia after the stolen generation.
‘Being Black’ is about identity, culture, who we are inside.

This approach also gives us a hook for talking about whiteness, and presenting different types of whiteness as ethnicity. eg white australian = largely anglo celtic; vs white dutch. Same colour skin, different culture. Different ethnic identities.
It’s a standard distinction to make in feminist studies.
And the concept of ethnicity helps us talk about things like ways of moving your body or talking, which are learnt not biological.

For me the word ‘race’ is highly problematic. I really don’t like to use it.
Unless we are talking about racism specifically, and then I need that word. Racism is a specific issue: the hatred of a particular group of people for irrational reasons (eg simply because they look different or act differently). Ethnocentrism is a more complex concept. It’s about prioritising and privileging your own ethnicity and own lived experience. It can allow us to talk about anti-semitism, where a person might not look physically different, but be culturally distinct.

If we aren’t different races (or species) at at genetic level, how do we account for tropes in particular populations? For example, the overrepresentation of indigenous Australian youth in prisons? Or higher instances of diabetes in some African American communities?

This is where intersectionality gets really useful: class is the bigger factor in black women’s high infant mortality rates. Clearly, gender is also important, as it’s women’s bodies which are regulated by anti-abortion laws or subsidising abortion under public health care acts.

And there is some interesting work on the way trauma has a physical effect on bodies (with potential genetic damage). I remember reading about something to do with aboriginal women’s experiences with malnutrition + trauma = ill health for future generations. Starvation can cause genetic or inheritable damage too. And while these symptoms might be prevalent in black women, it’s not because these women are black, but because being black in modern American or Australian society means you’re more likely to experience violence (including sexual violence), poor educational outcomes, and other economic disadvantages, not to mention poor health care services.
In Australia, these latter symptoms are a direct result of racist government policies which reduce community-centred health care services and support services.
All of these points make it clear that while ‘being black’ or ‘being white’ has clear physical effects that are inheritable, these biological elements are the product of social, environmental factors. To be clear, then: we are the sum of our biology and our culture. Who we are is the result of nature and nurture. Ethnicity, then, is a more useful word than ‘race’, because it allows for variance, for the role of environment and culture.

When I say ‘class’ I’m also referring implicitly to education: women with a lower education level are more likely to have more pregnancies, to have higher infant mortality rates, to be in lower paid work, and to die younger. No matter what their ethnicity. But when you combine class markers with ethnicity and gender, you see a more severely disadvantaged group. Why do we see particular ethnic groups caught in these intersectional binds? Well, this is where the concept of patriarchy comes in handy: it helps us see how ideology (ideas about the world) and discourse (the way these ideas are communicated) shape institutions (like schools, hospitals, governments) and society.

So ‘class’ isn’t just about how much money you earn, it’s also about other economic advantages – the suburb you live in (and the services it has), the type and length of education you get, the health services available to you in the public system (which again are often worse, and over-stretched in black areas), the food available to you (see discussions about ‘food deserts’ in urban america), broken family networks (which leads to children leaving school to care for younger siblings, etc) and so on.

This is why capitalism is a key part of patriarchy, why Cierra’s point about vintage wear being ‘expensive’ is so important, and why I think it’s essential to hang onto intersectionality when we talk about race in lindy hop.

How to be an ally: talking about women’s health care

My friend has a male work colleague who thinks of himself as a feminist ally. He has a ways to go yet, but he listens carefully and is open to new ideas and information.

He recently said something about how there are women who repeatedly use abortion as contraception. He then expanded, telling this story of being a teenager in Wangaratta in the mid-80s and listening to his parents in dinner party conversation with the town obstetrician who told them that he’d just seen a patient who had come in for her eighth abortion.

My friend, in conversation with feminist friends, wanted to know where she might go from here in addressing the many issues raised by this highly problematic anecdote.

My first feeling is:

  • Why does he assume this is a true story, not an exaggerated one?
  • Is he sure is recollection is correct?
  • One anecdote is not a good sample size.

So he should begin by interrogating the premise of the question, rather than assuming that it is a legitimate claim. He should be asking himself “How many women have abortions?” And then “How many women have multiple abortions?” And finally “What demographic are these multiple-abortion women (if they actually exist)?”

This is the sort of research task that can easily be done by an ally (and should be).
Actually discovering data is a key part of untangling patriarchal myths. He has to understand that this tedious task skills him up (in terms of research skills), gives him an appreciation of the type of work and thinking feminists have to do to counter cultural myths, and also gives him useful knowledge.

This idea that ‘women use abortion as contraception’ is a persistent myth in our culture. It suggests that being sexually active outside of reproduction is morally wrong or self-indulgent. It also suggests that having an abortion is quick, easy, and physically just like taking the pill. All points that are easily disproved. Particularly if one is living in 1980s Wangaratta.
Acquiring an abortion requires knowledge (where to go, how to book an appointment, an understanding of termination as a real option), time (being able to go to an appointment, then get home, without dependent children or work demands), and money. If not money, then access to public healthcare. In Brisbane in the 1980s and 90s (when I was a young woman, and my friends had abortions), you also had to find a GP who would refer you to a specialist for the termination. It was illegal to acquire an abortion if you weren’t at immediate medical risk; you could go to jail for this ‘crime’.
Wangaratta in the 1980s was a regional centre. Finding a doctor for a termination in that town at that time would have been incredibly difficult. And as this anecdote suggests, maintaining confidentiality would have been hugely difficult.

But let us assume we do accept this increasingly unlikely premise. That one woman this one time had multiple abortions (ie more than 5) I’d be looking at other data:
Is she catholic or otherwise unable to use contraception (eg has an abusive, controlling husband/partner)?
Is she the victim of serial abuse by a family member where she’s desperate to terminate pregnancies and doesn’t have the autonomy to get the pill?
What was the time frame for these abortions? A year? 30 years?
The doctor had a duty of care to discuss the issue with her. Had he? Why not?

Multiple abortions don’t suggest that a woman is using termination as contraception.
They suggest she doesn’t have reproductive autonomy. Because we know abortion rates drop when education generally (esp of girls) goes up. We also know that access to good contraception decreases women’s pregnancies and number of children.

So if women and girls are educated and have access to contraception, they have fewer pregnancies. They are also, consequently, less likely to terminate pregnancies. Multiple terminations in one woman’s life then supports the theory that she does not have bodily, reproductive autonomy. In other words, she cannot make informed choices about her own fertility and body. Whether because she doesn’t have the education she needs, she doesn’t have access to contraception (which isn’t that unlikely in semi-rural Wangaratta in the 80s), or she isn’t free to choose whether or not to become pregnant.

So i think the other important point here for my friend’s male friend, is to recognise how issues like sex, reproduction, bodies, healthcare, etc are employed in patriarchal discourse. He should ask himself “Ah! A comment by a male professional with institutional power about women’s bodies which perpetuates a myth that can be used to control women’s bodies! This ticks some boxes; I need corroborative evidence.”

Of course, the fact that it’s hard to find the answer to this question tells us that this data may prove awkward for men who want to retain that myth of sexual woman = out of control hetero breeder.

Which should make us all the more curious: why hasn’t anyone asked this question before?

We do know that women’s reproductive health is a neglected area of medical research. We also know – and this anecdote makes this particularly clear – that men do not trust women to make decisions about their own healthcare.

Important note: decreasing access to safe abortion does not stop women having abortions. It stops them dying from unsafe abortions.