The Little Big Weekend with Lennart and Georgia has just happened. I am overcome by my feelings.
If you ever have even half a chance to learn from Lennart Westerlund, to have a conversation with him, to dance with him, to listen to him speak about dance, take it. Don’t hesitate. Don’t think about it. Just get right in there. Ask him to dance straight away. He is the kindest, gentlest, most giving man. And he is the best listener. That is what dancing with him is like. It’s like speaking to the best listener. And he is quite possibly the wickedest, naughtiest man alive.
This photo is by Andy Firth, who took some really charming photos during the weekend. He apologised for not taking more, as he was having too much fun dancing. This is the best excuse I’ve heard.
I love this photo because you can see me and Alice just beginning to bust in on the jam where Georgia and Lennart are rocking it. It pretty much embodies the way Alice and I felt: we just wanted to _dance_ with Lennart and Georgia. Because they are dear people, and so much fun.
I dunno. It’s probably because I have a limited vocabulary. Or because I’m a lazy writer. Or because I went to a dodgy school in a dodgy area. Or because I like to shock.
(pic by Beth Evans)
My first instinct, when discovering I’ve fucked up, is to hide the fact. You know, cover it up.
When I was first learning fall off the log, I’d been quite ill with flu, and it was a really hot, humid Brisbane night. I don’t quite know what happened, but everything went black, and I’m suddenly on my arse on the floor. I leap to my feet and carry on like nothing ever happened.
I’m fairly certain that everyone was onto me.
Since then, I’ve made huge, public errors in many ways, and in front of many different audiences. I’ve been the only person in a solo jazz performance fucking up the choreography (I’m usually the only person in a solo jazz performance fucking up the choreography). I’ve sworn loudly into a microphone at a large, public gig. And there was that time when I was at the end of a semester, lecturing for the first time, on my own, pounding out a lecture a week on a range of topics I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. We get to week 10, on The Media In War Time, and I realise, in an exhausted, confused and overworked daze, the night before the lecture, that there hasn’t just been one ‘gulf war’. Furthermore, I have no idea where Afghanistan is, beyond the fact that it’s somewhere ‘in the middle east’. So I go through the lecture and carefully reword things to be precisely imprecise on the geography of the region. I remember, as I’m banging on in front of a group of 200 bored undergraduates, exhausted and strung out on powerpoint, looking up and seeing that row of middle aged women students in hijab making the ‘what the fuck, young person?’ face. Madames, I’m afraid I had no idea what the fuck was up. And I apologise.
More recently (and most embarrassingly), in fact just this year, I realised that the dancer in this photo that I had thought was Al Minns, was actually Leon James:
Fifteen fucking years of lindy hop, writing and talking about jazz dance, teaching solo jazz and pontificating about uses of history, and I find out NOW that that guy is NOT Al Minns, he is LEON JAMES. Face fucking palm, right?
At the end of the day, though there are really only a couple of ways you can respond to all this. You can leave, immediately, and never look back, retreating to some sort of solo jazz cave in the far western suburbs of Sydney. Or you can quietly continue teaching and crapping on, just with new facts, and never acknowledging your mistake. Who, me, not able to identify one of the most famous dancers of the age? No way, man, I am a SPECIALIST.
But all that kind of sucks. You just carry the shame of mistake around with you, feeling embarrassed and kind of anxious about the whole thing.
That’s all very tempting. But it’s also crap.
This is my preferred method:
Discover the Facts.
Groan. Shout a bit about my own stupidity. Scrabble around, double checking. Get confirmation from someone who Knows (aka a mentor type person whose opinion you respect). Suffer in my jocks for a bit. Then tell people, because it’s both excruciating and also hilarious. There really isn’t anything funnier than pride taking a fall, and usually the circumstances of that fall are totes funny. My general feeling about public humiliation is that it stops being painful and humiliating when you tell someone about it and make yourself laugh.
The freeking middle east, Hamface.
AL MINNS, Hamface.
But what if you are teaching a group of people you’ll be working with every week for the foreseeable future, and you realise you’ve given them wrong information, or you just don’t know the answer? And you’re trying to contribute good knowledge about dance history to your local scene, so we can stop listening to Wham at dances and making up horseshit about lindy hop history?
Probably the most helpful thing I’ve learnt about teaching was in a tertiary education teaching skills seminar, where we looked at the idea of teachers not as reservoirs of all knowledge, injecting it into students heads, but as guides to learning. The students are the ones doing the learning, and our job is to make that work easier for them.
With this in mind, it gets much easier to say, when a student asks a question and you’re flummoxed: “Sorry, man, I have no idea. But I reckon we could find out if we consulted X source. Or why don’t we have a go now, and see how it works?” and then you try that thing, and see if you can figure it out together.
In a dance context, this approach is made easier by adding in an extra element: make mistakes confidently. As Ramona says, a dance class is a laboratory, and this is where we experiment. We are here to try new stuff, and when we’re trying out new things and discovering, there really isn’t any right and wrong. Just various shades of new and interesting.
So what do I do when I discover I’ve taught something that’s completely wrong?
First, I ask myself, ‘Was it all completely wrong?’ Sure, that stuff I explained about the way your hips work in shorty george mightn’t have been strictly accurate when it comes to the mechanics of a shorty george, but was that general approach to biomechanics and rhythm completely wrong? I don’t think so.
Secondly, I remind myself: you are a guide to learning. You’re there to facilitate students’ learning. This isn’t all about you. So you need to stop assuming that they’re all focussed on you. You need to remind yourself, that we’re all there to focus on our own learning, on having fun, and on making mistakes.
Thirdly: just fucking tell them. They really don’t give a shit. They’re worried about the cut of their trousers, or whether that hot person likes them, or if their house mate will have eaten all the bread. They got other priorities. I mean, YOLO, right? Life’s too short to carry around a bundle of anxiety and worry about one tiny fucking mistake. Move on!
In summary, then, I find it both frightening and powerful to approach teaching as thought I will mistakes, and I will be incorrect. That’s the whole point. I’m here to learn too, and if I already knew what I was doing, the whole thing’d be super boring. My goal should be to change and grow and learn as a teacher. Or pontificator.
In practical terms, this is how I handle these things:
- When my teaching partner and I are explaining something, and I just don’t know what I’m doing, I say so.
And I turn to my partner and I say “I’m not sure how to explain this. Do you have an idea?” and they usually do. If they don’t, then we all LOL and we just move on. Yolo, right? And we’re here to dance, not fret about something we don’t know.
- Don’t try to make your class a seamless, perfect engine.
It’s actually great to say to your teaching partner “I think we should try this to music, what do you think?” and for them to say, “Mmm, maybe just one more time without music?” It’s great because it takes the pressure off you (you don’t have to be perfectly right all the time!), it models problem solving and partnership interaction for the students (this is how you work on stuff in class with your partner), and it lets the students see how you think about teaching and learning – you’re letting them see the sausage being made. So to speak. You are inviting them in, and not presenting a polished, impersonal facade.
- If you find something hard or challenging, you say so. “I find this bit tricky. So let’s go through it slowly, and we’ll figure it out.” Usually they find it easier than I do, which I find very helpful, because I suddenly do understand. And again, you’re modelling helpful learning and in-class behaviour strategies. It’s all good.
- If you teach something, then realise you were all wrong, it’s ok to come back and tell your students.
Sure, it feels like it’s going to be humiliating to admit you were wrong, but dood – you aren’t really the centre of their universe. They’re not going to be crushed because you fucked up that one time. Tell ‘em. I do it like this: “You know how last week I said that we start on the left foot/that was Al Minns/Afghanistan is in ‘the middle east’? Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate.” And then I explain what I’ve learnt, and how I learnt it: “I emailed blahblah and got the good oil” or “I compared a bunch of videos and photos from these reliable sources” or “I looked at a goddamn map.”
And then everyone groans, you LOL a bit, and then you revise what you did last week. You can be sure that this particular dance step/conversation/point of geopolitical history will stick in their brains forever. And ever.
…and so on and so on. It’s ok to make mistakes, yo. But it’s not really ok to expect to be perfect, and to not acknowledge your own mistakes. It’s also not ok to stew on your errors and let them consume your thoughts. Dancing, unlike the history of digital media practices in the gulf war, is fun. So let it be fun, and don’t seek out ways to freak yourself out.
NB: I spent quite a bit of time on Mindlessmunkey’s tumblr this week, and it shows. The man makes gorgeous, thoughtful internet, and it inspires me.
“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” -Charles Mingus
I am currently obsessed with simple, perfect basic rhythms and movement. Without them, improvisation is just noise.
name artist bpm length album year
Intro / Time’s Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough – Jimmy Witherspoon with Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Woody Herman, Earl Hines, Vernon Alley, Mel Lewis – 134 – 3:35 – The ‘Spoon Concerts – 1959
Splanky Count Basie and his Orchestra – 120 – 4:15 – Breakfast Dance And Barbecue – 1959
Roll ‘Em Pete – Big Joe Turner, Joe Newman, Lawrence Brown, Pete Brown, Frank Wess, Pete Johnson, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Cliff Leeman – 186 – 3:45 – The Boss Of The Blues – 1956
Wee Baby Blues – Count Basie and his Orchestra (Mahalia Jackson) – 64 – 3:14 – Live In Antibes 1968 – 1968
Cherry Red – Big Joe Turner, Joe Newman, Lawrence Brown, Pete Brown, Frank Wess, Pete Johnson, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Cliff Leeman – 96 – 3:25 The Boss Of The Blues – 1956
Every Day I Have The Blues – Count Basie and his Orchestra (Joe Williams) – 116 – 3:49 – Breakfast Dance And Barbecue – 1959
St. Louis Blues Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Nottingham, Lawrence Brown, Pete Brown, Seldon Powell, Pete Johnson, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Cliff Leeman – 154 – 4:20 – The Boss Of The Blues – 1956
Big Fine Girl – Jimmy Witherspoon with Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Woody Herman, Earl Hines, Vernon Alley, Mel Lewis – 156 – 4:55 – The ‘Spoon Concerts – 1959
Stormy Monday Blues – Count Basie and his Orchestra (Mahalia Jackson) – 121 – 3:50 – Live In Antibes 1968 – 1968
Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho – Mahalia Jackson – 130 – 2:13 – Live At Newport 1958 – 1958
…Skye read(s) my blog and I felt like this
only with more squeeing in my pants*.
(image c/o carrionlaughing)
On a completely different tack, but still here in this post because yolo, bro, yolo…I play quite a lot of Big Joe Turner and Count Basie when I’m DJing. That’s like saying “I do a lot of Frankie moves when I lindy hop”, as though there was any other way of doing it. But there’s something about Turner shouting his guts out over some stamping fucking piano. That shit gets me hot. Hot in the ‘dances like a fool til she dehydrates’ way. The only way that really means anything, right?
‘Boss of the Blues’ is not a pretentious album. It’s not particularly sophisticated. It’s not rare, it’s not unusual. It’s not delicate, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s loud, it’s shouty. Sometimes Turner shouts so loudly into the microphone the sound distorts. And while he’s shouting that loudly, the brass section is blowing their guts out and it’s just all noise. The sort of noise that gets into your guts and makes you feel extremely strong, inarticulate feelings. This is party music. Loud, shouting party music. And slow, night time party music where you’re pretty sure you’re gonna get a really good fuck by the end of it. **
This is the sort of album that beckons in rock n roll with a stamping, shouting jump blues rhythm. It’s not some shitty modern day neo band. It’s a bunch of dirty old musicians playing dirty old music in a way that lets us know that things are changing, and yet still exactly the same.
This is not the sort of album that will impress your old scratchy DJ nerd friends, or score you any snobby pants old school dancer points. But it’s an album every lindy hopper, every blues dancer, every swing DJ, every blues DJ should have.
If I’m playing a song from ‘Boss Of The Blues’ (which I do most sets), set up by a bit of new testament Basie, I like to follow up with something from the The Spoon Concerts:
Why yes, I do like a dirty old man shouting about big legged women and money and being hard done by.
And if I still haven’t gotten it out of my system, I add something from this:
Because ‘Breakfast Dance and Barbecue’ was one of (if not the) first album I bought specifically for DJing for dancers. It’s all live, it’s all recorded late at night, everyone is trashed, but everyone is truly great.
I feel that the 1950s were a truly great era for good, solid lindy hopping music. The technology had finally gotten good, musicians weren’t being lynched in the street, bop and rock and roll were pushing jazz about in the playground, forcing it to get its shit together. People like Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon, Count Basie pushed back.
*If there’s one thing I’ve never pretended to be, it’s cool, calm and sophisticated.
**Listen to that version of ‘Cherry Red’ and tell me you don’t agree.
[edit: soundtrack for this post here]
I’m writing some notes for our students on FB, so I figured I’d let the content free, here in the unfenced part of the internet.
Stearns was a jazz music and dance historian and reseacher, who was involved in the founding of the Institute of Jazz Studies.
Most modern day lindy hoppers and jazz dancers would know him for his book Jazz Dance: the Story of American Vernacular Dance, which he co-authored (and researched) with his wife Jean Stearns.
Jazz Dance is an invaluable resource if you’re interested in the history of jazz dances (including lindy hop), and it includes extensive interviews, biographies and descriptions of dances. There’s even a section of labanotation in the back, where each dance is carefully described in detail.
But even more importantly, Marshall Stearns features in some of the most useful archival film footage of jazz dance that we have available to us today.
You can see him calling the steps for Al Minns and Leon James in this television program:
Marshall Stearns worked with Al and Leon and other African and African American dancers and musicians, recording their stories, dance steps and knowledge of dance and music.
(Poor John Lee Hooker, workin’ for the man.)
Marshall and his wife Jean, who was also his research partner and co-author, spent hours and hours and days and days working with musicians and dancers, compiling the book Jazz Dance, but also expanding their collection of music, film and documents, which eventually became the Institute of Jazz Studies Archive. They describe this process in Jazz Dance.
Then Marshall (who was a university lecturer and researcher) and Jean set about sharing this knowledge with other people.
They published books and papers, appeared on television, and were involved in projects like The Music Inn, where (mostly white, mostly rich) people could come to learn about jazz music and dance.
The Stearns write in Jazz Dance:
In the early 1950′s, during the first years of a summer resort in the Berkshire Mountains called Music Inn, we tried an experiment. Our aim was to entertain – quite informally – a handful of guests in the lounge after dinner, but our host Philip Barber was carried away with his theory of instantaneous talent combustion. “Throw gifted performers together,” he said, “get one of them going, and watch them all discover talents which they didn’t know they had.” With various jazzmen of supposedly separate eras, the idea had worked well.
That evening we had dancers from three different countries: Asadata Dafora from the Sierra Leone, West Africa; Geoffrey Holder from Trinidad, West Indies; and Al Minns and Leon James from the Savoy Ballroom, New York City. All of them were alert to their own traditions and articulate, eager to demonstrate their own styles.
So we began with the Minns-James repertory of twenty or so Afro-American dances, from “Cakewalk to Cool,” asking Dafora and Holder to comment freely. The results were astonishing. One dancer hardly began a step before another exclaimed with delight, jumped to his feet, and executed a related version of his own. The audience found itself sharing the surprise and pleasure of the dancers as they hit upon similarities in their respective traditions. We were soon participating in the shock of recognizing what appeared to be be one great tradition (Jazz Dance p12).
The Institute of Jazz Studies holds a collection of recordings of oral histories as well as countless books, papers, music scores and ephemera. You can access some of this online. A highlight is this great biography of Mary Lou Williams, composer, arranger and pianist in Andy Kirk’s band, whose music we often use in class. And you can listen to Nellie Lutcher talking about playing music and traveling on the road in the 1930s and 40s.
Al and Leon continued to dance, perform and discuss jazz dance with Stearns for years after the heyday of the Savoy. Al Minns later worked with the first of the lindy hop revivalists in the 1980s, including Lennart Westerlund.
My favourite part is just after that first quote:
Dafora finally observed with some asperity that although the Fish Tail came from Africa, dancing in the European fashion with one arm around your partner’s waist was considered obscene. (“The African dance,” writes President Senghor of Senegal, “disdains bodily contact.”)
Solo because yolo, right?
While the Stearns rocked the kasbah, I can’t help but wonder how those nights at the Music Inn might have gone if there’d been at least one woman dancing, to talk about African women’s dances, and to demonstrate the badassery that is a woman dancing…
[edit: I've just come across this story about jazz education which mentions the Lenox School, which seems an extension of the Music Inn]