Ok, so most people reading this will know that I’m now teaching lindy hop and solo jazz once a week (and have been since February). We teach one beginner lindy hop/partner dance class, and one solo dance class each week. The solo class cycles through historic routines, drop in sampler classes and material we’ve choreographed ourselves.
Our approach tends to be driven by technique, historical accuracy, understanding music and dancers developing their own personal style. That means that we don’t rush through choreography, we take a lot of time to teach each step and make sure people are doing things safely and properly. We also encourage dancers to experiment with steps in their own way (rather than getting them ‘right’), and we emphasise the fact that ‘looking cool’ or ‘looking sexy’ isn’t the goal with most eccentric jazz steps. Sometimes you want to look really weird or unusual or intimidating. I’ve found this quite exciting, as we teach a lot of women students, and for women students to be exploring ‘looking weird’ with enthusiasm… well, it warms the cockles of this cranky feminist’s heart. Also, their wackiness makes her lol. Double win.
I haven’t taught dance in YEARS (since about 2002 or so), so there’s been a steep learning curve as I figure out how all these things work. Though I have stacks of uni teaching experience, and I did have that dance teaching experience, plus about fourteen years of lindy hop under my belt, teaching dance isn’t like teaching uni, and the way we used to teach in 2002 is so yesterday’s news. Now we talk about posture and weight changes and rhythm ffs. And dancing to teach isn’t like social dancing or competitions or performances – you have to be very clear in your movements, be cognisant of what you’re actually doing with your body, and then – most importantly – be able to articulate what you’re doing in very few words.
INORITE. It’s HARD!
I would have been writing lots of posts about this stuff, but my brain has been busy with other things this year (hence the relative quiet round these parts… well, the lack of substantive posts anyway), and because I teach with a partner, I don’t really feel I can blabble about our class preparation, politics and preparation on the internet. But mostly I haven’t been writing about it because I just haven’t been able to get my brain together. Though I have had lots of ideas and things to say!
But here’s something I’ve just found on my laptop which I wrote on the coach to Canberrang last month. I’ve written a few things on those three-four hour coach trips to our nearest lindy hopping neighbour, but this one had been forgotten. Reading it now, it seems extra relevant to the way I think about dance and music. The square bracketed bits are things I’m adding now.
Here it is:
(“Pearl Primus performing to “Honeysuckle Rose” played by Teddy Wilson at piano, Lou McGarity on trombone, Bobby Hackett on trumpet, Sidney Catlett on drums & John Simons on bass during jam session at Gjon Mili’s studio” – Gjon Mili – New York – 1943 linky)
One thing I’ve noticed about all this work on solo jazz [that I do for teaching] is that my sense of musicality has changed. When I want to add some sense of music, I now move to my feet. I want to step out a rhythm or the timing with my feet, rather than wiggling my body.
I’ve also found a new pleasure and interest in the way jazz steps embody (or articulate?) specific rhythms. So a kick ball change [KBC] is a particular syncopated rhythm, a little different to a triple-step. And a fall off the log [FOTL] can be in plain time, or syncopated. And I like the way a boogie back can be syncopated with a kick ball change at the beginning, or a simpler step step step rhythm.
[I've also noticed that these steps are the basic vocabulary of jazz dance. You really need to know how to KBC and FOTL and so on before you can really learn good, complex historical choreography. The old school guys built things from the rhythm up, whereas today choreography seems to start with the bigger shapes. I had thought that the 'steps' (eg 'the shorty george' or 'the scarecrow') were the building blocks, but they're not, really. The rhythms are the most important part, added to structures like 'the shorty george' or 'the boogie back'. The rhythms are the thing.]
Congruently (or inevitably), this has led me to a renewed interest in some of my favourite musicians, particularly the ones who make complex use of timing. I like Bennie Goodman’s small groups for their sharp, precise timing and organisation, and I like a smaller group for the way each instrument plays a clear, specific role in the rhythm. I’m liking larger bands as well, but more for the way they layer up rhythms and melodies.
For me, all this interest is rhythm is the product of getting a handle on the shift from waggling my hands or arms or upper body to be musical, to moving my actual weight. Which of course means that my dancing is now rhythmic in a very different way. My weight changes – my actual dancing – is now musical and rhythmical in a fundamental way, rather than in a decorative or surface way. I’ve found all this bloody hard to get my brain and body around. It’s a lot easier to just waggle your arms about in the air. But learning to change weight in a particular rhythm, and to combine weight changes with staying on the same foot, but jumping up and down, is really hard.
I think it’s made my dancing a lot stronger. Teaching has helped me understand that good ‘styling’ isn’t something you add on like icing to a cake. Fundamentally sound technique is its own styling. Movement which begins in your core, and with changes in weight, has consequences on the rest of your body. I have begun to feel that what happens in your arms, for example, should be a consequence of what’s happening lower down in your body. So twirling your hands about in the air should be a direct result of movement beginning in your core or in your feet, rather than icing you slap onto your cake base.
But as I write that, I can’t help but think about people like Al Minns, who would ice technically sound movement with twirly whirly type hand movements. I guess the difference is that he was doing the twirly whirlies and good body stuff. Whereas a lot of modern dancers focus on the twirly whirlies rather than on sound core and weight changes.
[The trickle down effect of all this for me, has been to change my lindy hop. I'd' thought that more solo dance work would mean that my lindy hop would get busier as I shoved more of these fun steps in. But that's not been the case. I'm also doing a lot more concentrated leading these days, as I'm teaching as a lead and needing to keep those skills sharp. And because I'm finding our class content so interesting, I'm leading far more on the social dance floor as well.
So by the time I get to following in lindy hop, I'm finding that I'm quite happy to just blank out and follow. I know. It blows my mind too. But all that solo work, all that rhythm-from-the-ground-up stuff (as well as my new passion - pilates) means that 'just following' is now a very different creature. The basic triple steps of a swingout - they can be truly wonderful, magical things if you make them the very best rhythms-from-the-ground-up. And all that control and awareness of how my own body works that I've developed through solo dance and choreographing for classes (and breaking down other people's choreography) has meant that my basic following is much more under control and at the same time a lot more relaxed.
I'd never have expected all this when I got so seriously into solo dance. But it's such a nice surprise.]