This Guardian piece fails to grasp how sexism works. It demonstrates how clueless people are about power in public places: the assumption is that the content of shouted addresses to women by men on the street is the problem.
When it’s not: the issue is that men in groups (particularly, as in this case, white ‘straight-reading’ aka hegemonic masculinity, men) feel that it’s ok to yell at lone women in public spaces.
The issue is not the content of public discourse, but who has access to and controls public discourse. And public space. So in this ad, these men are still the ones who ‘own’ this public space (dominating it aurally and vocally, as well as physically), and women are still the objects passing through that space, to be acted upon by male subjects.
…I am reminded of this.
This is a ‘quick’ post about some things I’ve been thinking about in my own teaching lately. I teach lindy hop a couple of times a week, and I teach solo dance once a week.
[off-topic ramble]I recommend doing that, by the way, if you’re into solo dance. Even if you only have five students in the room, that’s still six people in your scene who are working hard on solo dance, improving their skills and having a bunch of fun. And I can guarantee you, coming up with class content each week will make you a damn good solo dancer. Or at least a much better solo dancer. Do it. DO IT!
There’s a real difference between planning a class, learning a routine, understanding your own movement, and then then teaching it, and just practicing on your own. I think there’s something of a feeling in many scenes that solo dance is something you just work on on your own, and that it just has individual styling, that it isn’t a challenging discipline the way lindy hop is. Of course, you can do that, but if we approach lindy hop as something requires a degree of guided discipline, why don’t we think of solo dances this way? You needn’t structure your class in conventional ways – you can approach it as a guided practice session or a workshop, but there’s a real difference between ‘practicing’ and the discipline required to teach or run a structured session. And that difference will really lift your dancing. Also: FUN.[/]
Anyways, I do this every week, and have done for about two years now. I’m not the world’s best dancer, by any means. I’m not the best lindy hopper or solo dancer, and I’m steadily discovering the limitations of age, particularly as 40 is not so much on my horizon, as coming through my front gate with a shopping bag full of high-end chocolate and a 6-pack of Teen Wolf DVDs. So keeping on top of my own skills seems more and more important. I’m working on my fitness, strength, and mobility now, so that I can be like Frankie – still dancing in my 90s. And I love it. I love the fun of all this, and I love the challenge: it’s complex stuff, and I relish the mental challenges as much as the adrenaline.
My lindy hop teaching and my solo dance teaching are bound together. I can’t separate the two, and the more teaching I do, the less likely I am to want to separate them. I can’t imagine teaching a lindy hop class that didn’t have a significant emphasis on individual movement and dancing. You know that line, “If you can’t dance on your own, how can you expect to dance with someone else?” Well, it’s true. It’s so true. When I go into other people’s classes, I’m always stunned that the students spend the entire class touching someone else – they never dance without touching a partner! They’re missing half the fun!
I think, though, that many of us are on top of the idea that you can ‘add solo jazz to your lindy hop’ by doing a bit of partnered boogying-back and boogying-forward, or a bit of face to face charleston or whatevs. If you’re not… well, I don’t know what you’re doing.
When I started teaching, I was all ‘omg students need things really simple! We can’t mix rhythms, or they’ll freak!’ and then I started watching videos of Frankie Manning teaching.
(And one video that I’d like to talk about at another time, because it’s a brilliant example of how good social skills translate to brilliant dancing skills.)
That’s just two, but if you search for Frankie Manning classes on youtube, you’ll find a million of them. And he doesn’t pull punches on the rhythms. Students learn heaps, HEAPS of different rhythmic sequences in just one class – and that’s beginners. BEGINNERS.
When I saw that, I got my shit together, and I started teaching multiple rhythms in one class. That might include step-step-triple-step, a break step (step-step-hooold-a-diggety-diggety-da-stomp off!), a mini-dip (step step, down-clap, up-snap, hold, stomp off)…. HEAPS of things. And students just absorb them. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of rhythms humans can learn in one class. They’re capable of recognising and then reproducing complex rhythms from memory, with THEIR BODIES. That is just amazing. It’s like learning an endless list of numbers and then combining them in different sequences, but then doing aerobics at the same time.
And I haven’t met a student yet who couldn’t do this. Some peeps need a bit more time, or they need a slightly different approach, but everyone can do it. We start by demonstrating the rhythm with steps, or with claps. Then we get them to clap along. We don’t use counts, we use scats. Then we teach them the steps or movements that correlate to the rhythm. Then we might add on turns or movements through space.
And then, once they’ve learnt that on their own, they can learn to lead/follow it with a partner! FUCK! That is AMAZING!
I’m talking about complete beginners – first class ever people. And they LOVE it. They just love it. There’s something about dancing or clapping out a complex rhythm with a room full of people that makes people feel extremely big feelings. To me, it feels like singing in a choir – that moment when you are just a part of a huge, big beautiful thing that is beyond rational thinking. It is just magic. I see students have that feeling in classes when we’re clapping or dancing out a really nice rhythm.
Wait. Where am I going with this? I said I was going to list just two ways of ‘putting solo dance into your classes’. I’ve already listed two or three. But they’re not the ones I’m interested in. To my mind, this stuff should be your base line. Take Frankie as your model: your lindy hop should involve countless moments of ‘jazz dance’. You should have layers and layers of different rhythms happening in your dancing – because we are talking about a dance that is jazz made visible. Polyrhythms are us. Get on it. It’s fun.
So here are my specific items. This is what I take as my own personal rule. I don’t care what you’re doing in your classes, really, but this is where I get a sense of purpose, and how I find pleasure in teaching. I think it improves my teaching, and it brings me so much joy. So I’m recommending it to you.
1. Get serious about solo dance.
Lennart Westerlund told me that it’s worth learning to tap dance not necessarily to get good at tap, but because it improves all your other dancing. I reckon it’s because tap is really fucking hard, so everything else gets easier because you skill up. But I think the same applies to solo dancing. If you learn to dance on your own, your general skill level will increase massively.
Solo dancing is uncompromising. There is no partner to cover your mistakes or weaknesses. You will just become a better dancer. That means that your balance will improve (and balance is of course about core stability and control). Your reactions will improve (which is about being able to use the right muscles at the right time in the right order). Your proprioception will improve (which is basically your ‘body awareness’, and which translates to actually doing what you think you’re doing, which means you’ll be doing what you’re saying, which means you’ll actually be demonstrating the things you’re teaching your students). Your fitness will improve. Your sense of timing and rhythm will improve.
Timing and rhythm are different: timing is about understanding ‘the beat’ – that inexorable, consistent heart beat at the core of the song – and rhythm is about variations on that beat – layering up increments of time. Most solo dance is much more complex than lindy hop. When we teach solo dance, we don’t think in terms of 8 counts or even phrases much any more. We think in terms of parts of a beat. When you teach lindy hop, you might think ‘swing out, circle, charleston’ when you’re planning a class. But when you’re solo dancing, you think ‘hoo-ha, shakkety da, shakkety da, ba. ba-du-ba-du-ba DA’. So your understanding of timing, rhythm and music gets far more sophisticated.
Another key thing that solo dance improves is your ability to move through space. I find brand new students have most trouble with turning or spinning their bodies, and with moving their bodies, while they do a rhythm.
I’ve recently started teaching a group of teenagers, and their problems lie more with staying focussed and concentrating – they are endlessly energetic and athletic and have much better proprioception. Older people can focus and learn complex sequences, but their proprioception is weaker – they don’t know where their arms and legs are. A mixed group is the best option, because the two balance each other out – peeps with good proprioception provide good models for those without, and people with good concentration model good focus for those who don’t have it.
But dancing on your own before you dance with a partner helps you figure out what you’re doing, so when you then come to leading or following, you have a better idea of how your movements are affecting your partner, and you can sort of mentally set aside the information you’re getting from your own body, and ‘hear’ their body and what it’s doing.
So if you start getting into solo dance – even if you never teach it, never social dance it, never even bother practicing (much) – your lindy hop classes will improve massively. And, to be honest, if you can then go on teaching without any jazz elements in your classes, I’d be very surprised. Learning more about jazz dance opens up a whole new world of lindy hop. I feel as though getting serious about solo dance has suddenly added depth and richness to my understanding of lindy hop. It’s a bit like going from only seeing in black and white to seeing in colour – you don’t know what you’re missing, and then suddenly OMG, you’ve been missing SO MUCH! I started getting into solo jazz dance in a more serious way about 2004, but it’s only recently, with teaching, that I think I’ve actually really understood how essential it is to lindy hop.
And I want to add a caveat: doing other types of dance is very important. But historic jazz dance from the 1920s and 30s is what you really need. This dancing with its roots in jazz music, and you really need to get into thistradition. But, honestly, if you have a chance to do a dance class, take it. Doesn’t matter what the style. Dancing is good for you.
2. Do a big apple warm up
What? Do this at the beginning of all your classes:
I cannot imagine starting a class without a warm up. I was teaching three classes in a row last year, and we started each with a warm up. Why?
You need to warm up your body.
Even if you’ve been exercising the past hour, you need to get your body focussed and ready. Injuries are bad news. So start with less strenuous movements, and don’t go 100% just yet.
You need to warm up your mind.
Dancing on your own gets you focussed and improves mindfulness (which is about being in your body and present in the moment). A fun, relaxed warm up helps you relax and enjoy your body – to make friends with the music and your body!
A good, relaxing, fun warm up energises your body and energises your mind while it calms and centres you. In less hippy terms, warm ups where you do simple, repetitive movements that are less than full extension/energy help your proprioception (where are my hands now? where is my foot?), and they shift your focus from thinking your way through steps, to moving your way through steps.
I find a warm up helps relax a class. Brand new students, in their first ever dance class ever, are often a bit nervous or unsure about how to act in a class. A big apple is simple, repetitive and calming. It helps them get focussed.
Students and teachers often come to a class excited or distracted. A warm up helps you focus and brings your attention in to the group.
A circle is a nice shape, because it provides a nice, physical focus for your attention – into the middle of the room. There’s no one behind you, so you don’t have to worry about ‘covering your back’, and there’s no one in front of you, so you can see clearly. It’s also a nice symbol of equality and group-ness, which is helpful.
And just as when I was tutoring in universities I used the first class to model how we would treat each other, handle discussions and conflicts, the warm up models how we will be in the class for the rest of the hour – relaxed, fun, join in when you can, no mistakes, just fun.
In more nerdy teaching terms, the warm up is the most important part of a class, for me. That’s where I do most of the hardcore teaching work. I always make sure that the basic elements of whatever we’re teaching in that class are included in the warm up. So if we’re doing charleston, there are kicks and walking with kicks, and some pivoting. There’s walking in rhythm (because all dancing is really just fancy walking). And if we’re teaching a solo class which focusses on a particular step or rhythm, I make sure that’s in there too. But it’s fun, so no one really realises they’re doing the hardest part of the class.
When we begin the warm up, we always say “The goal here is just to get sweaty, to warm up our bodies. There’s no right or wrong, just get in and have some fun.” This actually sets the tone for the entire class: there is no right or wrong. Get in and have a go. Don’t think about it, just dance. We make jokes and do the funnest, funniest steps we know. Because they are awesome, but because they relax us all as well. Laughing, relaxed dancers are better dancers (watch that last video of Frankie above – he is all over that). The idea of ‘just join in’, where you begin the move and the students join in after watching a bit, or just join in straight away (whatever works for them) tends to carry on into the class: if I’m demonstrating a rhythm by clapping, or stepping, they just naturally join in after a while. This is fucking AMAZING, and so exciting when it happens in class. I get a thrill every time.
If you do a step or move for a whole phrase (and the length of time we do a step depends on the group – we spend longer on each step with newer students, make faster changes with more experienced dancers, and vary the tempos this way too), students naturally learn about musical structure. They start picking up phrasing and 8s and all that stuff, and you never even have to mention it. That’s also amazing. No more counting people in!
And finally, the transitions between the steps (which is often the hardest part), become low-pressure points in a warm up. They’re usually the point where people laugh (at themselves), and that is FABULOUS. There are no mistakes in this scenario: there are just points where we laugh as we try something new.
We usually spend about 10-15 minutes on these warm ups. The first part is a big apple style warm up, but then we often transition seamlessly into an explicit description of the key rhythm for that class. I might say, after the song has ended (and I don’t actually describe what I’m doing when we’re warming up to a song – just demonstrate), “ok, here’s one more rhythm I want you to try,” and I demonstrate the triple step. I usually try to clap it, scat it, and dance it. If they want to join in with each step naturally (and I want them to), that’s great, otherwise I prompt them. I get them to do it on both feet. Then I say something like “Remember this one?” and we walk, which is always funny. Then I might say “Ok, let’s combine them like this” and I demonstrate the step-step, triple-step rhythm (hoo-ha, shakky-dah; clap-clap, clap-clap clap). I find it’s worth taking a second to be very clear about this, and to articulate what I’m doing. It’s essential to do it on both feet.
All this is wonderful stuff, and, to be honest, I enjoy it so much more than the rest of the class. It’s like a game, where we learn really fun stuff. I am beginning to think that this might be the way to structure all our solo classes, and that we could shift our beginner solo classes in particular in this direction. My eternal teaching goal is to talk less, dance more. My second goal is correct less, let people practice and practice and dance through their problems until they figure it out themselves.
That last one is important because it means you’re not correcting anyone ever, which means your classes are much more positive. And I think it’s much more useful for students to discover how things work through experimenting, rather than having it all laid out for them. I do have to continually fight the urge to correct everything students do, to send them out of class ‘perfect’. But you have to remember that learning is a long process: you do not just insert a shopping list of items into students during a class. Students must learn to learn, to come to dance through their own process, and in their own time. Your job as a teacher is to be a guide to learning. So that means, in practical terms, that you need to give students quite a bit of time to work through steps or moves in class, practicing and trying stuff out. Let them dance a whole song with a partner or two. They will figure it out, and you won’t need to correct them.
Corrections are problematic because they tell a student, even if you are being really gentle, ‘You were doing this wrong’, which is bad news for self esteem. They also reinforce the higher status of the teacher, and rob the student of power and status. We want happy, confident students who enjoy exploring learning and dancing. As a friend of mine said, our job as teachers is to help students fall in love with dancing. As Lennart said, we must make friends with the music. That’s the most important thing we can do, so everything I want to do in class should be aimed at that goal. Joy. Happiness. As Frankie said, “For the next three minutes, you are in love.”
But I am a total control freak perfectionist, so that is really, really difficult to do. But I guess that’s my challenge as a teacher: let go. I suppose that’s the other part of all this, particularly my emphasis on improving my own solo dancing to improve my teaching. Approach teaching as a learning process for me. I can’t imagine I’ll ever know everything or have perfect teaching skills. And I really like that. It’s as though a whole new world of dancing has opened up for me. There’s a richness and challenge and delight that I hadn’t thought of before. And it’s classes of students who give me this opportunity, so that idea of ‘cherishing the students you have’ is a part of that: teaching is an opportunity for me. And I want to approach my teaching practice as a practice – a process of change and learning and development.
As I type this, I keep thinking about the way the Hot Shots teach. They’ve been teaching this way for twenty, thirty years. And I’ve been learning from them all this time. But it’s as though I’ve only just become aware of all these sneaky, student-centred learning techniques recently. I wonder if they figured this stuff out through practice, through working with the old timers (and Lennart said that the old timers would just say ‘hey, do this!’ and then they’d do that – no technical discussion at all), or through the benefits of coming from a socialist Swedish education system. A combination, I expect.
So, in sum, I think it’s really important to put solo dance into your teaching. And these are the two most important methods: become a solo dancer yourself; do a solo dance warm up.
I’m sorry I’ve not posted much lately, but I’ve been TOO BUSY!
So far this year:
- We ran a Hot Foot Stomp on the 18th January (and demonstrated why there’s so little lindy hop in Australia in January: it’s too FUCKING HOT);
- Our usual Wednesday classes started up again at the beginning of February (and I began working with a new teacher while my usual partner’s been doing a residency elsewhere);
- We launched our weekly solo class at a new venue on Thursday nights in February. Squee! A studio space! With mirrors!;
- We ran a social night at our Wednesday venue with a visiting American band, Underscore Orkestra, and it was GREAT. I thoroughly recommend them – they tailored their set specifically to dancers;
- I’m planning a dance with another visiting musician for my day job;
- I’ve done some booking and preliminary planning for the Winter Performance Ball for my day job, and it’s already proving drama-filled. Performances: they bring out the drama in lindy hoppers. Which is ok, really, because drama is much better than apathy;
- I’m booked to do some teaching up at the University of Sydney for their new swing dance club (!!), which so far hasn’t taken much physical time, but it’s borrowed some of my thinking time;
- We’ve started planning for some workshops we’ll be teaching in New Zealand at the Christchurch Swing Festival at the end of April, which Al and I are especially excited about;
- I had some health challenges in February, which I wouldn’t ordinarily mention, but it was very frustrating to have all my planning interrupted. ARGH;
- And, finally, I’ve started work on a solo dance weekend for here in Sydney in October! We’ve run solo dance workshop weekends here before, but this is a big one, and will host Lennart Westerlund and another international teacher for a weekend of solo dance FUNSIES. I’m planning to use a house band of local musicians, squeeze in a second band for the last night, run a bunch of parties with them, have the teachers do the strangest classes they can, perhaps do a solo dance battle/jam (I like that Al and Leon format they used at Lindy Focus last year, and generally have a jolly good time. I’m interested in more unusual structures for the classes, parties, and comps, but unusual and new means MOAR WORK, so I have to get thinking on all of that. Not to mention finish the goddamm website and promotional material. I’m really very slow off the mark on that this year, but the health stuff really slowed me down. ARGH. Anyway, if you’ll be in Australia 10-14 October this year, you should come. We are a great city to visit, even if you’re not dancing, and if you are, the music is great and the people are friendly.
More contentiously, Bobby White posted this status update on faceplant recently, and someone tagged me in the comments:
Casting call: For an upcoming Love & Swing article on Swungover, I’m looking to see if there’s anyone who is open to interviewing who
(1) is a heterosexual male who has chosen to follow as his primary role in dancing.
(2) is a male, leader or follower, who has chosen to dance with “feminine” characteristics to his dancing (for whatever reason, and with whatever definition of “feminine” they choose.)
(3) is a heterosexual female who has chosen to lead for her primary role.
(4) is a female who has chosen to dance with “masculine” characteristics (for whatever reason, and with whatever definition of “masculine” they choose.)
Please contact me at email@example.com if you know of anyone who might fill these descriptions, or, if you don’t mind, please like so that people will see it! (28 Feb
I have problems with the use of ‘female’ when we’re talking about anything other than meerkats.
I’m a woman who is primarily a lead, and sure, I’ll talk about it. If you can handle the snark. I think we’re friends if you want to pm me. (28 Feb)
Gee, wasn’t that snarky.
Then I added
….incidentally, your definitions of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are severely limited: there are many masculinities and femininities happening here (I reckon you need to read some Judith Butler), and these aren’t consistent across cultures. (28 Feb)
Sam, where did I define “masculinity” and “feminiity” in the above post and statement to make you think I have a limited definition? I have purposefully NOT defined them in order to see other people’s personal insight. Am I missing something? (1 Mar)
…This whole thing kind of pooped me, because it’s such OLD FASHIONED SEXISM. I just couldn’t be bothered. So I set it aside for a few days. I’d intended to just respond with a blog post, but then Bobby PMed me, so I figured it’d be rude not to reply. I was a bit snarky in those comments above, but, frankly, this comes up SO OFTEN and it’s SO EASY to find out why it’s not ok to describe women as ‘females’, for example, I just couldn’t be bothered.
But well, I had a bit of time.
Meanwhile, my twitter feed was full of unrelated conversations where women were making loljokes and laughing about blokes describing women as ‘females’ (again), so I figured it was something I needed to comment on.
Bobby asked in his PMs:
(1) How did I use “female” in a way that you have a problem with it; I felt I used it only in its scientific, factual sense, with no bias or implied meaning other than simply gender. I used “male” as well in the exact same wording. Am I missing something?
This question does make me lol a bit, because it’s such an OLD discussion.
The next question:
And (2) how did I mention gender in terms that made you think I have a limited view, especially when I clearly stated “whatever that definition means personally”to the person answering.
I’m truly curious.
Bobby was asking in the best spirit, and I figured it was worth answering. This is what I wrote:
I’m sorry, I’ve been super busy lately, so haven’t had time to write. And I don’t really have time to do any proper talk right now.
1. I’d go with Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’, as it’s most relevant. I used it as a starting place to talk about these issues in my phd. Basically, we’re talking about performing gender.
2. The problem with using ‘females’: we’re not doing science, here, so that’s not really the right approach. More importantly, there’s a difference between women and female: female is gender, women is biological sex. Gender is socially constructed, and sex is biological. In this context, you’re talking about people’s biological sex relates to their performance of gender, right?
Additionally, using ‘females’ in this setting makes us sound like meerkats – it’s not appropriate. There’s a wealth of feminist criticism of this, so I suggest you do a bit of googling on that one.
3. There are multiple ways of performing femininity and masculinity. Or, there are multiple femininities and masculinities, and these aren’t fixed or permanent. They are specific to particular moments in time, to particular cultures, ethnicities and demographics. Patriarchy tends to insist that there’s only one type of femininity and masculinity, and that these are the only desirable models. So femininity equates to delicate, sensual, passive, gentle, nurturing, caring, soft, hairless (except on your head), emotional, untechnological, natural, etc; masculine equates to aggressive, potentially violent, mechanical, intellectual/rational, etc etc. Both are necessarily heterosexual and interdependent.
In that setting, if you aren’t gentle/sensual/caring/etc, you’re not feminine.
Your questions implied that you see only one type of femininity and masculinity at work in the world (and in the lindy hop world specifically). When this is certainly not the case. We just need to compare Frida S and Sharon Davis to see two very different performances of femininity at work.
I personally wouldn’t engage with the discussion you’re presenting because I cannot accept the premise of the question: that there is one ‘femininity’ and one ‘masculinity’, and that women dancers must choose between these two. As a woman, and as a dancer, there’re many more interesting things going on in dance and gender than these two very limited options.
There is quite a lot of literature looking at how race and ethnicity work in these discussions which are particularly relevant for us, as we are dealing with dances which developed in black communities a century ago. This is something I’ve written about lots of times, and which I think is very important. It’s also something I have dealt with in classes with students.
As an example: hetero, middle aged men often find Leon James’ styling ‘effeminate’, and I’ve had them ask me (as I teach as a lead) “How do I style this as a man?” The problem isn’t so much that I’m a woman demonstrating a step, but that the type of masculinity Leon James performs seems ‘effeminate’ or ‘non-masculine’ to a modern day Australian man from this particular demograph. Leon tends to play with gender a bit anyway: he’s definitely not a woman, nor is he performing a femininity. He’s performing a different type of masculinity, which is quite specific to him, and to his moment in time. And there are more complex issues of race, class, and ‘theatre’ going on in his dancing.
4. There are also some problems with the way you’re linking sexual preference/identity with gender in your questions. In implying only two types of gender (masc/fem -> in patriarchal terms), and then asking for straight women who lead, and then looking for ‘female’ and ‘male’ styling, there is the implication that if you are a straight woman, it’s unusual for you to be styling ‘masculine’, and if you are a lesbian, it’s unusual for you to style ‘feminine’. Gender and sexual identity are far more complex than this: dichotomies are hopelessly limited, and there are more ways of being a dyke than just ‘butch and femme’. Lesbians don’t just map their relationships onto hetero/patriarchal models of a male/female dichotomy. In fact, straight women don’t either.
There’s lots more to be said on this. And your first response is probably, “Oh, I am actually just looking for these specific examples; I don’t have space/time to do all that other stuff.” But my response would be “We see these sorts of discussions of heteronormative/conventional gender all the time. By asking the same questions again, and by reproducing the same gender norms again, you are contributing to the maintenance of patriarchy. Why not try something new and interesting instead?”
For me, my dancing has gone a long way beyond ‘dancing male’ and ‘dancing female’. That dichotomy really is far too limited for just me and the way I think about my dancing.
When I started teaching as a lead (two years ago), I did worry about the male students not having a male role model to draw on for styling. But as a clever friend pointed out: “You don’t want students to dance like their teacher anyway, do you? Won’t they be seeking out other dancers to experiment with developing their own style anyway?” So I got over that worry.
Interestingly, I do wear trousers when I’m teaching as a lead, and try to wear a skirt or a dress when I’m (very rarely) teaching as a follow. When I’m teaching solo I just wear whatevs. I wear trousers when I lead because it sets up particular lines, and it helps me ‘get into character’, or remember that I’m leading. When I’m teaching I need to be hyper-aware of what I’m doing with my body, I need to be self-reflexive. When I’m social dancing, I don’t worry about any of that. But I find trousers give me a little mental reminder to help me remember what I’m doing. I also find leading uses a lot more forward-backward movement, while following uses more contra movement, and trousers work better for me for leading than for following.
So, for me, there is a degree of ‘butching up’ but dancing as a lead. But it’s ridiculous to say ‘men wear trousers, women wear skirts’, because HELLO, 21ST CENTURY. This is something for me, not a general comment about what women dancers should wear.
I’m quite fond of wearing waistcoats and things for dancing, but not necessarily because I’m thinking ‘masculine’. I’m thinking ‘dress up in practical fun clothes’. I wear dresses as well as trousers.
Look, basically, for, me (and I cannot speak for all women), gender is much more complex and interesting than ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. As a human being, I’m occupying a more complex place than just ‘feminine’. I am a woman, but I explore gender – femininities – in lots of different ways. As an example, in my professional role as an event organiser dealing (almost only) with men, I have to adopt particular mannerisms and approaches to make it clear that I know what I’m doing: confidence, a particular sense of humour, a way of standing, a way of making eye contact and shaking hands. None of these are particularly ‘girly’ or flittery-feminine. But I’m certainly not a man, and I’m not ‘masculine’. I’m just working with a different type of femininity. Which quite a lot of men find threatening, which is ok by me. I want a degree of intimidation when I’m negotiating work stuff with some men.
But this is just a professional persona, and one I use only at work, and only with certain types of men. As any second year women’s studies student knows, gender roles and gendered behaviour aren’t fixed, ‘natural’ or permanent: they are clothes we put on for certain settings and tasks. In the context of patriarchy, being chameleon in gender is about subversion and power for a woman. As a dancer, it’s exciting: being aware of how you change the way you move and hold yourself makes you a better dancer, and a better actor and performer.
I guess my main problem with Bobby’s article was that all this discussion was predicated on reference to a heteronormative romantic love. He’s looking for straight women and men who dance ‘unstraight’ (ie ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’) to talk about romantic love. As though it’s surprising for a straight woman to adopt ‘masculine’ mannerisms. At the end of the day, I reckon Bobby might need to meet a few more queer folk, or perhaps to spend a bit more time with straight women, to understand just how fluid and interesting gender is, and how sexual preferences don’t necessarily fit cleanly into gender binaries.
A couple of friends and I are running the second Hot Foot Stomp dance in a week or so, and I’m having a look at some music I might play. We’re going for more a rent party sort of vibe, as we’re using a studio space which is in an (tall, skinny) old warehouse.
title artist bpm year album length
The Harlem Stride Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra 199 1939 Live At The Savoy – 1939-40 3:29
Whoa Babe Casa Loma Orchestra 199 Boneyard Shuffle 3:00
John Silver Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra 155 1938 Swingsation: Charlie Barnet and Jimmy Dorsey 3:15
It’s The Gold Buddy Johnson and his Orchestra with Ella Johnson 159 1941 Buddy Johnson: Complete Jazz Series 1939 – 1942 3:01
Come On Over To My House Jay McShann’s Kansas City Stompers (Julia Lee) 143 1944 Kansas City Star (disc 1) 2:54
Open The Door, Richard Count Basie and his Orchestra (Ed Lewis, Emmett Berry, Snooky Young, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Ted Donnelly, George Matthews, Eli Robinson, Bill Johnson, Preston Love, Rudy Rutherford, Buddy Tate, Paul Gonsalves, Jack Washington, Freddie Green, Walter Page, 127 1947 Count Basie RCA Years In Complete (disc 01) 2:43
Free Eats Count Basie and his Orchestra (Ed Lewis, Emmett Berry, Snooky Young, Harry Edison, Ted Donnelly, George Matthews, Eli Robinson, Bill Johnson, Preston Love, Rudy Rutherford, Buddy Tate, Paul Gonsalves, Jack Washington, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones) 163 1947 Count Basie RCA Years In Complete (disc 01) 2:56
A Touch Of Boogie Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra (Emmett Berry, Benny Morton, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Williams, J.C. Heard) 186 1941 Boogie Woogie And Blues Piano 3:12
Two O’Clock Jump Harry James and his Orchestra 192 1939 Life Goes To A Party 3:17
Bugle Call Rag Metronome All Star Band (Cootie Williams, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Tommy Dorsey, J.C. Higginbotham, Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Toots Mondello, Coleman Hawkins, Tex Beneke, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Buddy Rich) 262 1941 Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic disc 06) 3:17
Deep Forest Earl Hines and his Orchestra (Walter Fuller, Milton Fletcher, Ed Sims, George Dixon, John Ewing, Ed Burke, Joe McLewis, Omer Simeon, Leroy Harris, Bob Crowder, Jimmy Mundy, Claude Roberts, Quinn Wilson, Alvin Burroughs, Billy Eckstine, Budd Johnson) 140 1940 Classic Earl Hines Sessions 1928-1945 (Mosaic disc 05) 2:31
Goin’ Out The Back Way Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra (Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Blanton, Sonny Greer) 155 1941 The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (disc 12) 2:44
Sweet Lorraine Metronome All Star Band (Charlie Shavers, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins, Harry Carney, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Bob Ahern, Eddie Safranksi, Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, June Christy, Sy Oliver) 127 1946 Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic disc 08) 3:13
Korea vs the jazzbros:
There are many ways of assessing the ‘success’ of a class. Because most lindy hop events work on a tight budget, we tend to assess the success of a dance class by numbers in classes, and how much money we make. But large class sizes aren’t necessarily a good gauge for other factors. And we’ve all realised that there aren’t buckets of cash to be made in lindy hop, particularly not if you’re in a nation like Australia, which has relatively low population density in the most active lindy hopping demographics.
We can assess the success of a class using all sorts of criteria, and these criteria are developed through our own teaching, dancing, social and political goals.
Rather than asking ‘”How much money did we make this week?” we could be asking:
- Are teachers happy with their working conditions?
- Are students demonstrating a level of ability commensurate with other similar cohorts (eg how do they measure up when compared to interstate dancers)?
- Are students social dancing, and if they are, are they happy to dance with strangers?
- Are students entering competitions?
- Are teachers voluntarily attending workshops and pushing their own learning?
- Are teachers competing?
- Are teacher or students traveling to dance?
- Do we have equal numbers of leads and follows?
- Do we have female leads and male follows in classes, social dancing and in competitions and performances?
- Are dancers demographically diverse: are they all one age, class, ethnicity, or are they more mixed?
I’m certain that we’d not all agree on which questions are most important, and that our questions would change as our own interests and our own scenes changed.
Despite these differences, most lindy hop scenes require a critical mass to be socially and economically sustainable. We have to pay our bills, and we have to provide safe, happy dancing environments. And, for most of us, a viable lindy hop scene has a strong, stable social dancing culture. In other words, there are happy, healthy dancers out social dancing, and the bills get paid each week.
But these goals – social dancing and financial viability – are often not enough for most of us. If each week’s class is a painful struggle to cover the bills, then teaching becomes a painful act of martyrdom ‘for the community’. Or financially frightening. And a small class becomes a source of shame or dissatisfaction.
Your specific goals – as a teacher, a student, a studio manager – will be dependent upon your local scene, and your personal priorities. It’s worth taking a moment to lay out some goals, and to think about the things you value most about a class or your local scene. And how you might contribute to their success.
For my classes, I found that my pleasure and satisfaction in teaching grew exponentially when I stopped worrying about the students who weren’t coming to class, and started cherishing the students who were. I now regard small classes as a luxury, and large classes as requiring a different teaching and social skill set. I also find developing class content and syllabus an exciting opportunity to put into practice the new material I learn in workshops. Or, conversely, I see workshops as a rich hunting ground for new ideas and exciting opportunities to expand and develop my own dancing skills and knowledge base – for my students, and for my own teaching satisfaction. Being able to absorb, comprehend, apply, integrate, and then communicate new knowledge has given me new interests and challenges in my dancing. Not to mention a great deal of pleasure.
The most important thing I’ve discovered about assessing a class, is: cherish every student. Don’t think about the students who aren’t there, think about the ones who are. Value their progress, their personalities, their delight in dance. Treat classes as a chance to share fun stuff, and to meet interesting people.
Below is a list of qualities or issues that I think about when I assess my own classes. This list isn’t exhaustive, these are just some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. And I’m finding that teaching solo dance isn’t quite like teaching lindy hop. There are different teaching skills needed, and these skills in turn shape my lindy hop teaching. Your list may be (and is likely to be) entirely different.
Looking at Students
Superficial assessment – Over the course of one class:
A weekly class (beyond the drop-in ‘swing intro’ class):
- Have most people ‘learnt’/’got’ the move (ie assessing technical ability)?
- Are people enjoying themselves?
The drop-in ‘swing intro’ class, the wedding class, the large public festival PR gig:
- Is everyone smiling and having fun (aka is it incredibly noisy in the room)?
One-off workshop with a group I mightn’t see again:
- Have people learnt some of the moves, most of the concepts, discovered something new?
- Are they taking away puzzles or concepts to work on in their own time?
- Do people feel good about the class?
Superficial assessment – Over 6 weeks:
A weekly beginners class:
- Have the students developed basic fitness (ie can they make it through a class and still be concentrating, engaged with content), and has this level of fitness slowly improved over the 6 weeks?
- Do they have basic core stability (ie can they charleston alone without wobbling, can they turn their bodies in space with confidence (eg circle), can they lead/follow (maintain connection with a partner) while doing charleston, circle or other steps?
- Have they begun to develop an awareness of how their bodies work, and how to use them (eg if we say ‘stand on your right leg and touch your left shoulder’ or ‘do this’ while demonstrating, can they do this)?
- Are they beginning to learn things faster? This speeding up usually happens at the ‘threshold point’ (about 6 weeks) where they move from stumbling between steps, to making a sudden leap forward in skill. This is always relative to each individual student’s needs/abilities/age/etc, so you’ll always have a diverse cohort (hopefully!), but the entire group should see improvements at a particular number of weeks. My goal for each class: some things should be ‘easy’, some ‘challenging’, and at least one thing should be ‘unfinished’ and needing some extra work or thinking. The pacing of individual classes (and how much and what type of content should be dealt with during what period of time) is a different matter, and requires masses of experience.
- Are they aware of ‘basic’ levels of leading and following (eg extension, shared bounce, relaxed upper bodies)?
- Are they making clear weight changes?
- Are they confident with basic rhythmic components (eg step step, rock step in various directions, keeping feet under body; triple steps; stomp offs; charleston; jig walks)
- Are they confident with (or will they cheerfully attempt/explore) basic rhythmic sequences (eg step step, triple step; step step, triple step, triple step; charleston).
- Are they confident with (or will they cheerfully attempt/explore) basic rhythm breaks (eg johnny’s drop, mini-dip, Lennart break)?
- Do they have a fundamental repertoire of historic lindy hop steps (eg swing out from closed to open, swing out from open to open (lindy turn), circle, SBS charleston, basic 6 count shapes (under arm turn for lead and follow, moving from open to closed)?
- Can they count themselves in at the beginning of a phrase?
- Can they find the beat, bounce in time, match their partner’s bounce, and then begin on 1 (or wherever) with confidence and solid connection?
- Will they cheerfully attempt a range of tempos, and have moderate success at most (slow as well as fast)?
- Are they beginning to express an interest in the songs played in class?
A weekly ‘level 1′ class (ie the class after beginners)
- Are they discovering more complex leading and following skills:
-> shared bounce and matching bounce,
-> relaxed upper bodies,
-> not collapsing shoulders,
-> moving core as extension of connection through body (especially follows),
-> are they aware of and able to work with the follow’s delay, and to build this into the ‘swinging’ timing (especially leads)
- Have the students moved beyond ‘shapes’ and begun thinking about and applying broader technical themes (eg big themes: bounce, engaged body, clear weight changes, the ‘reciprocal connection’ (where follows return the lead’s pressure, and where leads learn to read this return of pressure), etc).
- Are the students starting to experiment with musical styles, and to explore the way swing, accent, phrasing, and beat vary?
A weekly workshop or practice session for intermediate solo students:
- Are students comfortable turning in space (eg dancing facing different directions)?
- Are students comfortable moving through space (eg FOTL)?
- Are students experimenting with and feeling ok about turns and spins (eg lock turns) and spin with some confidence?
- Are students comfortable with starting at 8 or 1 or anywhere?
- Are students making clear weight changes (thus facilitating transitions)?
- Are students comfortable making mistakes, and experimenting with the ‘wrong’ versions of steps?
- Are students solid with bounce, core engagement, not collapsing into moves?
- Are students remembering medium length sequences of steps?
- Are students comfortable with (or interested in exploring and experimenting with) substantially higher or lower tempos, more complex musical structures, and different styles of swing and jazz music?
Looking at venue/class viability:
- Is the class paying the rent?
- Is the class paying the teachers a minimum of $20 an hour each?
- Is the class paying the costs of promotion, administration, insurance, etc?
->what is the minimum number of students required to cover these costs? eg 20 students @ $15 = $300 for 1hr rent ($50), 2 hrs teaching ($40), admin and insurance ($10), PR ($10)
- At what point does a class become ‘too big’? Optimal teacher:student learning environment is 20:2. Do you add an extra class when the group gets ‘too big’, do you adapt your current format to accommodate larger groups, or do you just carry on the same way, regardless?
- Is there a solid cohort of regulars, and what percentage of the weekly income do they constitute (ie how many regulars do you need to make your class numbers stable – 10 from a class of 20?)
- How does the class weather seasonal variations – can you handle the inevitable numbers drop when daylight savings kicks in? If there’s a day of warm sun after weeks of rain, can you cover your costs? Are you ready for the jump in numbers at the beginning of the year?
- Do you have strategies in place for periodically boosting numbers and generally keeping a public profile (eg promotional coupons, public dance gigs, etc), and are they adding too much, too little or just enough extra work to your workload?
Looking at teacher work satisfaction:
- Have the teachers moved beyond nerves and ‘figuring things out’ to confidence, calm teaching vibe and a relaxed, pleasant teaching experience?
- Are teachers working with a regular cohort, so getting a sense of achievement and satisfaction from students’ development and progress?
- Is the teaching partnership happy, healthy and satisfying (do the teachers feel confident introducing new ideas, to giving and receiving feedback together)?
- Are the teachers both ok with managing time and class progress in class (ie are they running to time or over time?)?
- Are both teachers ok with ‘leading’ the class on their own if necessary, or in being the more active lead teacher if the other is feeling rough and needs to take a back seat that night?
- Have the teachers reached a point where both are contributing equally, both listen to each other in class (and do not interrupt each other), both demonstrate good working partnerships to classes (eg how to give and receive feedback, how to explore a challenge together, how to give and receive appreciation)?
- Do the teachers feel ‘inspired’ – are they experimenting with new content, AND integrating this into the syllabus smoothly and confidently?
- Are teachers balancing new content with ‘old’ content, so developing a sense of ‘core skills’ for LH?
- Are teachers managing injuries and physical pressure of teaching effectively – ie are they nursing injuries, feeling exhausted the next day, or not getting enough sleep, or are they in good physical condition, recovering well the next day and sleeping well?
Looking at venue-teacher relationships:
- Is the venue happy with the arrangement? How do you know (do you see them often)?
- Do yo know the venue manager/owner’s name and have regular contact with them?
- Is the class meeting the venue’s needs (eg financial, cultural, creative, political)?
- Is the venue ‘working’ for the class: is it too noisy for a class? Too small? Too hot? Well located for public transport? Decent sound gear? Too expensive for the class sizes?
Looking at class culture:
- Is there a regular core cohort of students who are peers/friends?
- Is there someone to work the door, who does so enthusiastically, and with a friendly, welcoming tone?
- Do teachers enjoy teaching (eg do they look forward to classes, or do they make excuses not to go, or have to convince themselves it’ll be good?)?
- Do students feel challenged enough by content (eg do they have clear goals for their learning, and clear pathways to those goals (eg moving from beginners through level 1 to level 2))?
- Is there a stable class culture (eg a shared sense of humour and values, a cheerful willingness to learn, an interest and enthusiasm for challenging content, patience (from teachers and students) with new and challenging content)?
- Do students and teachers seek out new ways to contribute to class (eg bringing baked goods, DJing, organising out-of-class outings (eg to social dancing), going to drinks after class, wearing particular costumes or outfits, bringing questions about particular dance issues to class, requesting specific class content)?
As you can see, these are far-reaching and often contradictory questions. Not all of them are high on my list of priorities, and not all of them have to be ticked off for the class to be considered ‘successful.’ I think my main priorities are safe classes, where the bills get paid (including teachers being paid), class content has some historical veracity (ie jazz and swing music are played, the classic lindy hop steps are explored, rhythm is at the core of everything we do), and people (students and teachers) enjoy themselves.
A word about successful feminist classes
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t talked about gender in any of these points. This is because I see gender equity as a natural consequence of safe, equitable classes. I approach all the events I run with the goals of good, safe, happy, healthy, inclusive, inspiring, interesting, friendly, accessible dance spaces for everyone. I’m continually asking myself ‘How can I do this better?’ and ‘How can we make sure that everyone enjoys what we are doing?’ And I’m asking these questions because happy, confident dancers are creative dancers. If you encourage a culture of innovation and creativity, supporting other people’s projects and sharing your own, you can make your local scene more interesting. To my mind, the perfect lindy hop scene is continually evolving, doing new things, discovering new music, trying new venues, choreographing new routines, pushing themselves to become better dancers or teachers or DJs or event managers or vintage fashion fiends. Just generally feeling creative and excited.
These priorities mean it’s important to be flexible and self-reflexive, willing to try new things, to entertain new ideas, and to untangle your own preconceptions about students, classes, teaching, music, events, and dance.
I think it’s also important to remember that sometimes people aren’t happy, that not everyone becomes a brilliant dancer, and that sometimes a class just falls flat. But all those things are ok: a weekly class that’s safe and friendly might be very important to that person who’s struggling with depression and deep unhappiness. Their goal might be ‘get out of the house once a week’, and if so, your class is a success for them. Students progress at different rates, and while some people might pick things up quickly and amaze you all, the student who doesn’t ever actually become a ‘star’ but who cheerfully comes along to class regularly, gradually adding to their list of skills or experiences is still achieving. Their goal might be ‘have some lols and maybe learn to clap in time.’ Achieving modest goals is just as satisfying as achieving huge ones. Not every class you run will be fabulous. Sometimes you just suck. Your jokes are forced and rubbish, your explanations are unclear, your own dancing is wrongtown. Shit happens. So long as you pick yourself up and carry on, work on the things you can change (work on your own dancing! stop telling jokes! stop talking so much!), and just enjoy the company of good people, you have fulfilled some fairly satisfying goals.
I think it’s a powerful way to approach running dance events: seek out delight. For yourself, and for others. It makes for better dancing (because happy dancers are relaxed dancers, and relaxed dancers are just better lindy hoppers), but it also makes for better communities. Because unhappiness, frustration, rage, disempowerment, resentment, all that stuff is just rubbish. I have no time for that shit.
In practical terms, this means being cognisant of the way I use language in class, of the way I do things like handle partner rotations, dividing the group into lead and follow, and so on. Luckily, lindy hop and jazz dance are naturally very good at enabling resistance. All vernacular dances are about change, mutability and active use-value. Jazz dance, as the product of a people who’ve experienced slavery and segregation, positively delights in breaking rules, in innovation, and in thinking against the grain. Jazz dance, as a response to jazz music, is about individual representation and innovation within structures and constraints. The thing that makes all this so interesting and so wonderful is that jazz requires new thinking, new thoughts.
For example, the idea that to become a good lindy hopper, you must be able to solo dance is exciting: it suggests that if we are going to teach side by side charleston, we must first be able to charleston alone. If we’re going to be able to swing out, we must first be able to find the beat, dance a rhythm and move through space on our own.
And when we dance alone, we get to know ourselves a bit better, to feel confident in our abilities, and so enter dancing partnerships with more confidence and joy. So it makes sense to structure your class in a way that puts solo dance first. To have your students make friends with the music before anything else.
In terms of a political project, developing each student’s sense of self worth and making it easier for them to hone their individual skills is an important way of empowering people. And for women and men exploring gender, knowing we are all important and valuable and capable of great creativity outside a heteronormative relationship is truly powerful and radical. It says to men that they can explore all the ways there are of being a man, as well as, and beyond, those ways that are a response to women. They needn’t be ‘in control’ of anyone but themselves. And women, of course, can see that they don’t ‘need a man’ to be complete; they can experiment with independence, bravery, physical risk and physical pleasure on their own.
So, I guess I feel that solo dance is essential to the success of socially sustainable lindy hop scenes, as well as lindy hop classes and individual lindy hoppers. I believe that we cannot teach successful partner dancing classes without a strong emphasis on individual confidence, ability and delight in dance. And if that isn’t a feminist manifesto, I don’t know what is.
And when it comes to assessing the success of a class, it helps to have a set of criteria, for yourself, your students, and your place in a broader community. Be kind to yourself, be kinder to your students, and remind yourself that every day you dance is a day well spent.