Why solo dance?

Best post over at VernacularJazzDance: So solo jazz – why bother?

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This post really says it all. So I’ll just add some crap on the end.

Things I have seen in my weekly solo jazz class (which we’ve been teaching for a year now):

  • Mad skills. Simply put, doing a weekly solo jazz class makes you a fuckoff good dancer. It makes you fitter, stronger, more flexible, more grounded, more centered. It gives you super control of your body, your balance is awesome. All the students who’ve been coming regularly to our classes have improved out of sight in their lindy hop. Even the dancers who’ve been dancing for ages and otherwise not seen much change in their dancing. The most amazing dancers, though, have been those people who started dancing from scratch last year. It’s given them a massive advantage over their peers.
    Solo dance teaches follows a particular set of skills: how to plan ahead and how to initiate sequences of steps. This is something leads learn in classes all the time, but follows have to learn this almost from scratch in a solo class. Many of them find it tricky to be at once really in the moment, and thinking ahead and preparing for the next step.
    Leads learning to solo dance have to learn about quick responses and faster reflexes (which follows tend to develop simply through social dancing with people with a range of abilities and habits). They also have to learn – and this is a weird thing – to be able to begin sequences on their right as well as left feet. Follows do this routinely (tandem and side by side charleston, for example), but leads are less likely to develop these skills. I see male dancers who’ve been dancing for more than a year really struggling just to charleston starting with their right foot.
  • Confidence. This is something I’ve noticed especially in our female students. There’s none of that apologising for mistakes rubbish you hear in lindy hop. If you fuck it up, you say “Fuck!” really loudly and then you get that shit done. No one judges you, no one’s comparing themselves with you (they’re working too hard), no one’s blaming you. So you get confident. You master really challenging stuff, you develop a kickarse repertoire of moves and you get really fit. So you feel like a freeking GUN. Because you are. And then you get up in front of your peers, with a little gang, but still ON YOUR OWN and you perform. And you are so fucking fly. SO AMAZING.*
  • All the learnz. Doing a solo jazz class weekly, you get about 40 hours of solo jazz repertoire in your brain during the year. You learn more about the fundamental structures of jazz dance than in any other type of class. Because solo jazz is just fundamental structures of jazz dance. It’s like pure technique. Pure history. Pure dancing. Because most of our students get really into it, they add at least an hour or two a week to their dance practice. Because they like the clear goals of learning a routine, and because solo jazz is something you can practice any time, on your own.
    This month I’ve seen students who struggled to master a triple step in their first dance class last year DOMINATE complex sequences of break steps. They think nothing of combining kick ball changes with fall off the log and skip ups and stomp offs and jumps. And then do it over and over and over again. They really master complex steps, and commit them to memory. Then they combine them in challenging patterns. And are still laughing at the end of the class.
    Solo jazz just fills up your brain with historic jazz steps. And it teaches you a LOT about musical structure. Our solo jazz students know the way phrases work, they understand about pulse/bounce and swing, they know how to start on 8 (and why), they know where and how to use a break step. Their solo jazz repertoire is vastly larger than their lindy repertoire. And yet their lindy repertoire is massively increased by their solo jazz steps. They not only know lots of break steps and rhythms and things, they’re not afraid to try and squeeze them into their lindy hop, and they’re confident enough to try and lead them too.
  • Hot. People who solo jazz dance a lot look really good dancing. Not only because they’re fitter and in better control of their bodies. But because they feel confident and smile a lot. And because they have mad skills. Their lindy hop really shines.

For myself, I’ve found teaching solo jazz weekly a real challenge. I’ve done my own independent solo dance work for years and years. But teaching it weekly has made the biggest difference to my dancing that I’ve ever seen, in fourteen years of lindy hop. Unlike lindy hop classes, when you’re teaching solo (as the blogpost at the top points out), you’re working damn hard all class. Usually at higher tempos. When we were doing the big apple over six weeks of classes (we are DAMN thorough in our teaching, my friends), I saw a crazy huge improvement in my own fitness, my abilities, and my memory.

Teaching solo dance requires different teaching skills. You have to remember that brand new students will not have the fitness or control that students who’ve been coming for a few weeks do, so they’ll be more likely to feel frustrated or disheartened if you don’t keep an eye on them. You have to break shit down really thoroughly, because students don’t have a partner to give them feedback.
In many cases, the students who’ve been doing lindy hop for a few years will actually have some pretty seriously bad habits that need to be broken. But this ‘breaking’ can really break a student’s self esteem if you’re not really careful. Many of the male leads in particular find it too confronting to suddenly discover that all their dancing ‘skills’ are actually dodgy habits which good follow turn into a workable dance. They find it really hard to start from scratch and be a beginner again. So you’ve gotta be gentle, but not patronising.

You don’t have all the changing partners and class interaction stuff to lift the energy in the room – you’ve got to keep people feeling happy and confident and good about themselves in other ways. You’ve got to provide the nice, friendly social vibe that partner dancing brings, but you gotta do it through other methods. I find that the solo classes develop a better sense of camaraderie (because we work as a team, not as a series of partnerships), but that it can be damn hard to maintain a good class vibe later in the evening when everyone’s tired and you’re dealing with challenging material. And if two of you are teaching, you have to find a way to develop a good to-and-fro and rhythm to your teaching-talk. Basically, teaching solo jazz dance and maintaining numbers, every single week, makes you a much better teacher.

Coming up with class content is also challenging. We get through stacks more material in a solo class than we do a lindy hop class, though we tend to average about three phrases in an hour. If we’re doing a historic routine, we have to transcribe it from the archival material (argh! the fuzzy black and white!). We usually cross-reference with other videos to be sure we’ve properly understood what we’re looking at. This takes AGES at the beginning, when your own repertoire is really small. But after a while, you start to recognise key rhythms and steps and shapes, and the transcribing goes faster. And by fuck you get a really good, thorough understanding of jazz dance vocabulary and history.

After you’ve written down the steps, you have to learn them. I mean really learn them. And then you have to figure out how to teach. If you’re a bullshit teacher you can just say “Do this!” and then do it a heap of times. But that’s not helpful. So you have to break the movement down into its constituent parts.
A suzi-q is really just a step step step, from right to left (and vice versa). What makes it a suzi-q is the way you then style that step. But you have to start with step-step-step to be sure the students have good weight changes. But you have to teach this concept in a really ‘natural’ way. You can’t make it into some sort of complicated algebra. You have to find ways of describing what you’re doing which everyone can identify with: walking, squatting as though you’re about to sit on a chair, etc etc etc.
And then you try that method on a class, see it fail dismally, and have to recover in real time. And then you rethink your approach later, so the next time you teach that move, you do a better job.

And on top of all that, you have to make sure that you’re actually doing what you’re saying, because students learn more from watching than they do from listening. So you’re going to need to spend an awful lot of time in front of a mirror or with a video camera.

But geez you’re gonna get good.

And then, after a few months of that, you get tired of just drilling students through routines. So you need other class content and structure. So you’re going to need to choreograph stuff. You’ll need to know how phrases work, how music works, and how to join steps together. It’s hard, especially at first. Then, after you’ve choreographed the damn thing, you have to memorise it. And then you have to share it with your partner (if you’re not choreographing together). More videoing.

These days, if someone tells me they don’t solo dance (for whatever bullshit reason) I know immediately that they are inexperienced or ignorant. You simply cannot be a decent lindy hopper without solo dance skills. And I don’t mean ‘good’, I mean decent. Because ‘solo dance skills’ are just dance skills. And if you can’t dance without hanging onto another person, you have a lot of growing up to do.

This has perhaps been the biggest impact of solo dance on my lindy hop. I teach lindy hop as if it were a solo dance first, and I build solo work into each class. As a necessity. There’s a lot of time spent in each of our classes working on rhythms, steps, balance, bounce, all that good stuff. And then we bring people together.

Solo dance because yolo. And anything that gives you a leg up in the lindy hop improvement stakes is worth its weight in gold, friends.

*Watching videos of my students perform solo routines makes me feel crazy proud. They are SO GREAT!

[EDIT: omg imagecreditFAIL. Props to FuckYeahSwingDance/vernacularjazzdance for the memalish. I totally stole her idea]

2 Replies to “Why solo dance?”

  1. I really love the passion in your post! I’ve been doing lindy for about a year and a half now, and I’ve started trying to learn as much about solo dance as I can for the same reasons as you’ve mentioned. If I can’t move my own body and make it look good, what hope have I got to do it with someone else? :)

    Unfortunately there are no solo classes in my city, so I’ve been doing random workshops and trying to learn from youtube. I’ve definitely noticed a massive improvement though.

  2. This is a good story, Steve.
    Yeah, I’ve never lived in a city with regular (or even semi-regular or even occasional!) solo jazz classes, which is why I started doing my own work. It’s especially good if you can get together with a friend, so share ideas and give each other feedback. And use mirrors or film yourself. Cringe-making, but invaluable.

    Rock on!

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