Do a circle, then the lead lets go of their partner half way.
I don’t know if I’ve told you already, but I’m going to be a staff DJ at Herrang this year. Week 2, if you’re curious. Which isn’t the ‘cool week’. Apparently week 3 is ‘cool week’, so it’s a good thing I’m not on that week, as one thing I’m not (nor ever have been) is ‘cool’. I’m too old, too fat, too hairy, too argumentative, and too likely to laugh at a bum joke. Which means that week 2 will probably be ‘old, fat, hairy, argumentative, bum jokes’ week at the DJ booth. Which is pretty much the same as saying week 2 will be ‘jazz week’ at the Herrang DJ booth.
I’m quite looking forward to being the ‘baby DJ’, noodling along in the shadows of the big name, experienced DJs who’re headlining. I’m also shitting myself a bit. Here: fear. Mostly because I haven’t done much DJing of late, what with all the teaching and event organising, and, to be honest, the hardcore dancing like a crazy person at social events. The last year or two has been the Time Of Crazy Fool Dancing for me: dancing until my plantar fascia explodes and my body dehydrates into a pathetic prune of a thing. But I figure I’ll get on top of it before July. And I’ve been DJing for ten years, so I can probably pull this off. Right? RIGHT?!
Part of me is quite worried that I won’t be playing music that’s ‘cool’ or ‘fashionable’ or ‘popular’ this year. But the most of me keeps reminding that little pathetic part of me that it’s no good trying to be something I’m not. “Just do what you do, Peer Group Pressure Me.” Just do what I do. Whatever that is. I’m also a bit worried that I’ll be playing music that’s too slow. Whatever that means.
So, of course, my response to all this terribly rational* worry is to listen to all my music at once. Because of course that’ll work. But when I calm down a bit, I figure I can just listen to my favourite artists, and just remind myself that I do actually have some good music, that I do like quite a lot of it, and that I’m not too bad at working a crowd.
Of course, I’ll have to DJ for hours and hours at a stretch, so I’d better work on my stamina. Hurrumph.
Really, the only possible solution to all this is:
BASIE. ELLINGTON. ARMSTRONG. LUNCEFORD. GOODMAN.
Alright. This is totally out of context, and we needed to set up a broader class culture that supports this stuff before we tried it. But here are some teaching tools that we’ve been using over the past few months, and that I’ve found extra excitingly fun and effective.
I am just learning to teach. I’m always looking for new ways to do things. My goal is to pare back my teaching to the bare bones: less talking, fewer desperate metaphors and boring technical discussions. I love working with new teachers and new students because they bring new ideas and energy.
So this isn’t a finite list. It’s just a bunch of things I’m working on at the moment.
Just Join In.
Warm ups. I talked about them in the post Two Ways I Put Solo Dance Into My Lindy Hop Classes, so you can read about them there if you’re curious.
This sets up a culture or class vibe of self-motivated participation. Or, in human words, if you start doing something, the students watch a bit, and then join in when they feel ok about it.
They decide when they’re ok with it, it suggests that watching a bit first is ok, and you actually find students just jump in and try shit straight away.
But this can mean that they just jump in straight away, even when you need them to watch the first time.
So: Say ‘watch one time’ when you want them to watch, otherwise, just start the movement and do it until they just join in. You don’t even need to say “Join in when you’re ready” after a while – they just do it. But saying “Watch one time” is important for teaching them to observe as well.
This is a new one for me, and I don’t have the process down pat yet. My poor students are guinea pigs, but I think they actually quite like this, especially if I tell them that that’s what I’m doing – trying a new way of teaching.
Demonstrate a step. Then say “Figure out how this works.” Then let them figure it out in their own time. I only do this with intermediate or level 2 people – not with total beginners. Your job is to keep the partners rotating (but giving them enough time with each person to learn something, before letting them take those ideas to a new partner to share), to model the step clearly, to demonstrate as many times as they need, and to step in if they need a bit of clarification – don’t just let them flounder.
We only do this once per class, because it can be super frustrating.
I don’t have the process down for this yet, so it’s still a bit clunky.
Do hard stuff
Don’t baby your beginners: humans are amazingly competent. Teach them complicated rhythms, because they can do it. But you need to be able to break it down and teach it in a very simple way. So you need to know exactly what your body is doing at all times, and to be able to articulate that in very few words. I find that I need to learn a dance step, then be able to think my way through it, then watch myself to see if I’m actually doing what I say I’m doing, then I need to practice articulating it – and only take 10 seconds to explain it. It’s not enough to just learn a step myself. Learning a step myself is not the same as knowing how to teach it. Just like Frankie: charleston is just step step step, kick, step. That’s it.
Talk One Thing, Do That Thing.
After answering a student’s question, or offering one tip, we dance on it immediately. Only give one tip at a time.
If you wait, they forget. I usually answer a question, then say “Ok, let’s test it out” and we all dance on the issue to figure it out.
I try to respond to every question as though it was a really interesting, useful question. And they always are: a student asking a question tells you when you need to clarify things, and it’s a gauge of where their understanding is at. So it’s fabulous.
Don’t micromanage their learning.
Let them improve through repetition and doing; don’t correct every little thing, or explain in superdetail before they start dancing.
This is a hard one for me. I want to correct everything as we go. But lots of corrections tells students they’re doing it wrong, and makes them dependent on you. Letting them dance and dance and figure it out makes them self-reliant, encourages communication between partners, and makes for much better, natural movement and learning.
The corollary is: students learn over many classes, not all in one class. So take a long view approach to learning.
Don’t correct one student in front of the group.
Shane McCarthy gave me this tip. It’s gold. Don’t shame a student publicly like that. Tell them in the group, perhaps, but even then, you better make sure you REALLY need to tell them something. Because corrections can be upsetting for new students especially.
Ask students their opinions, and ask questions.
“Again without music, or to a song?”
“What’s next, after we do the swing out?”
“What are the leads going to work on now?” “And the follows?”
Only ask questions to reiterate what you’ve just said. Don’t ask open-ended questions that can have any sort of answer.
The only near-exception is “What’s the difference between these two things?” and demo two very different things – eg a rotating basic and a basic on the spot.
Sometimes if we’re doing a routine or a set sequence, I honestly can’t remember, so I ask them to remind me.
Do we panic if we make a mistake?
I usually ask this just before we do a bunch of dancing where they choose what moves they do in what order, or when we dance through a sequence. The answer is: “No!” and I usually reply “Because YOLO, right? We’re just dancing. Just pause, get your bounce on, jump in when you feel ready again.”
Other similar questions/comments: “If the swivels/variations are freaking you out, just drop them and do the vanilla version. Basics are beautiful.”
“What if you’re really lost?”
Sometimes we’re just not up to it. And I tend to say that “Some days it’s just not working. So be cool.” And I tell a story about this jazz class I did with Chester at Herrang on only a couple of hours sleep. My usual minimum is to be facing the right direction at the right time. But in this class, I could only manage bouncing in time. So minimum: bounce in time. Next level: face the right direction at the right time. Next level: claps – the best part.
I find that after I say this they usually actually work harder and don’t settle for doing this. It gives them confidence to make mistakes. I’m actually 100% serious: sometimes it’s all I can manage to just face the right direction at the right time.
“Pretend I don’t know the rhythm, and you’re teaching me. You have to demonstrate it really clearly so that I can figure it out and dance along.”
We do this is the solo classes when the rhythm looks a bit messy and vague. I find we get brilliant results immediately. This is a really useful tool for getting students to be confident, but you don’t actually mention confidence. We just get them to imagine that they’re the authority on the step. And they just ARE!
I might also say, “Ok, you need to convince me that this is the rhythm. And make it super clear.”
In our partner classes, I quite like to have them do this with a partner just after they’ve learn the rhythm on their own. I say “Ok, now you need to face your partner, and I want you to dance this rhythm like you’re showing them how to do it. You need to be really clear, so that they can see.” And that’s actually really powerful. It’s also a good way of introducing the idea that leads and follows mirror each other’s footwork.
Another way of doing this is to do a call-and-response exercise. I’ve seen Frida and Skye do this: in the circle in partners, one partner does a jazz step for a phrase, and the other has to join in and copy. Then you rotate, or the other partner has a turn, and the watching person gets to demonstrate. It’s super cool. And it makes you learn to watch and pay close attention to your partner. You can level it up by having the watching partner then dance the same step back to the first partner, but with a slight variation.
This exercise does what our exercise does, but you don’t explicitly say what the exercise is all about. I find that the best teaching eventually gets to the point where you never explain what you’re doing with an exercise, you just have them do it, and be in the exercise. So they’re practicing mindfulness – being present in the dancing. With beginners at least. Level 2 or 3 students are often interested in that ‘behind the scenes’ thinking, though.
Don’t shout, don’t speak when other people are speaking.
When the students rotate partners, they take the first moments to say hello to each other. They’re just about to touch each other, so they need to spend a few seconds reestablishing their ‘permissions’. Or learning each other’s names. So when they rotate, the noise level will go up. Don’t try to speak over this or to shush them: new dancers are here for this – for the social stuff. So let them do it. But don’t let it get out of control. We have a particularly rowdy couple of classes on Wednesday evenings, where we do need to remind them that we’re here to dance.
So I let the noise rise, crest, and then as it’s dropping, I step up. I might get their attention by just going straight into a demonstration of the next part (this where you NEED really strong, clear rhythm – so you can grab their attention just with your movements). Or I might say something.
I never say “Shoosh!” or “Be quiet!” or any of that stuff. I’m not a school teacher, and I’m not their parents; I’m not responsible for their behaviour, they are. I just assume that they are here to learn to dance, so I assume that they respect the fact that we need to be a bit organised. And I respect them, so I’m absolutely not going to tell them off or shriek at them.
Never shout at people. I might call the rhythm loudly, or I might count them in loudly, but I NEVER EVER EVER shout at students or anyone else. I might shout out with excitement: “Wahoo! Fantastic!” but I never shout at them to tell them off! No! That’s AWFUL!
I try not to interrupt my teaching partners, and if I do by accident, I apologise and say “I’m sorry, I interrupted, please do go on.” And I don’t tolerate it in class – it’s not ok to disrespect other students or the teachers by talking over them. It’s ok to have a bit of run-on conversation where you need to finish a comment or feedback with your partner, but if people continue to talk, I deal with it. I usually walk over and stand next to them. If they’re still talking (and everyone else is usually watching by this point), I put my hand on their shoulder, very gently. It’s usually immediately effective and they splutter into silence because I’ve surprised them. The most common culprits: older white men mansplaining following to a female partner. And you know how I feel about THAT.
I quite like a rowdy class, where people are talking and figuring stuff out together. But when we come together as a group, we should all listen to each other.
Do it as a group, then in your own time.
We often put together a specific sequence of steps, which we all dance together. This makes sense when you’re doing things like swing outs, where you start with the rhythm on the spot, then you rotate it, then you let go half way (swing out!), then you come together (circle into closed!), then you take out the middle bit and swing out open to open. If you teach it cumulatively, the order of steps is kind of important.
So we often have the students dance it all as a group together, in the sequence, once or twice. Without music first, because the quieterness is calming. Then we all realise we need the music to help us stop rushing the beat. So then we do it to music as a group. We rotate partners in between a few times.
Then we let them do the steps in their own time, and in their own order. This is the most important part: you learn to lead and follow here. It’s important to let them do this to music, and to spend AGES doing it. You can walk about and offer tips, but I find it’s better to not interrupt – to just let them figure it out. I might interrupt a couple if I see someone is freaking out, or if they’re being a bit uncareful with each other, or if we have a bossy boots partner in the class. But mostly, you just let them do it.
I haven’t figured out how to do this with solo properly yet. Though I do like the ‘take one minute on your own to figure out the step’ approach Ramona uses.
Be like Frankie
Frankie Manning would aim for a class full of happy, laughing students. Not perfect dancing. He was a harsh task master when it came to running a troupe, or if he was drilling you in a routine, but when it came to beginners, the goal was to have people happy and laughing.
Your goal, teaching anyone – from beginners to ninjas – is to make it easy for people to enjoy themselves. Yes, dancing is a discipline, and this can be super complicated stuff. But it is meant to bring us joy. It’s lindy hop. It can be a fierce, fiery joy, but it’s a joy.
When I teach, I want:
I think of teaching as collaboration between people. Lindy hop is about working with other people.
To me, this is why lindy hop can be a feminist project: it’s about respect for each other, and valuing other people’s contributions to a big conversation or project.
There’s a moment when we listen to a song in class, and I say “There are 15 men all finding one beat and taking care of it together. Let’s get with them.” And then we all dance and bounce in time and I say “Now there are THIRTY (or forty or whatevs) people taking care of the beat!” and I think that that is what lindy hop is. We are all working together to keep a shared time, to take care of a beat. All listening to each other, and working in accord, yet still all able to improvise and contribute in a unique way. That’s what teaching jazz dance is to me.
You know, I do all this thinking and writing and talking about dancing before I get into the class and teach, because when I’m teaching my goal is to use as few words as possible. I find it the hardest part of dancing: to shoosh and let people DANCE.
I want to keep a record of world fair stuff I come across. Note to self: Lomax and his original plans for the world fair; Frankie and the Savoy dancers at the world fair; the Hot Mikado; Harry James’ live transcripts from the world fair; that video of women dancing together at the world fair; that video of the Savoy dancers dancing at the world fair; Frankie’s stories about how working at the world fair was pretty awful (and NB – find out about how this might have dovetailed with the way Lomax’s original plans were fucked over and changed by a third party).
Ok, so let’s say you want to encourage more women to lead, and more men to follow. Or at the very least, you want people to feel ok about choosing either role. How do you get brand new dancers feeling as though they can choose?
This is how we do it.
We begin each class by introducing ourselves, and we do it like this:
“Hi, I’m Sam, and I’ll be teaching as the lead tonight.”
“Hi, I’m XX, and I’ll be teaching as the follow tonight.”
That immediately makes it clear that we could be doing either role, and that our choice isn’t necessarily permanent. This is actually a very practical thing for us at our venue, because I occasionally teach as a follow (and I find that very challenging), and we have a range of female and occasionally male teachers drop in, teaching either role.
But if you’re a brand new dancer, these words ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ mean exactly nothing, because you don’t know how this dance works yet.
So we follow up with something like:
“This is a class for new dancers, and we assume you’re brand new, so you are very welcome if this is your first class. Tonight we are working charleston/lindy hop/(whatever it is we’re working on).” And then we demonstrate that. So if we’re working on swing outs, we do some swing outs.
That let’s the students see the partnership in action (though most people can’t really see how leading and following works before their very first class), and it gives them an idea of what they’re in for. It also lets them imagine that this is how they’ll be dancing during the class, which is a nice thing.
Then we do our warm up (all solo stuff).
Then we learn the basic step/rhythm for tonight – charleston, whatever. Again, on our own.
Then we say:
“Ok now you need to decide whether you’re leading or following. If you want to lead, then put your arm in the air.” Or we ask the follows to put their arms up, and then we have them pair up.
This is usually about 10 minutes into the class, so students’ very first experience with lindy hop is that being able to dance on your own is essential. They also learn that leads and follows do the same rhythms and steps. We teach them how to do the rhythm on both feet. So they learn that being able to do both ‘sides’ is really important for everyone. This, incidentally, gives people a chance to get used to being in a dance class on their own first, and it introduces them to learning, and our class culture, on their own. Before they have to do the most confronting part, which is touching someone else. Holding someone else in their arms.
If we’re teaching our level 2 class, we begin with “If you dance both lead and follow, please choose one and dance that for this class.” We don’t care what people do, so long as they stick to one for the entire class. If we have uneven numbers, we try really, really hard not to make dancers feel they need to change their role to suit the numbers. If I know someone is there to lead, and we have massively more leads than follows, I work with that – I don’t try to even the numbers. Uneven numbers is actually a benefit, and I articulate that in class. Our regular students know that if you’re on your own in a rotation, you use that time to work on your own dancing, and most people figure out it’s a real advantage.
I have had trouble when I do substitute teaching at other people’s classes, because the dancers standing out without a partner have to be encouraged more than once to keep dancing. But my feeling is: you’re here to dance. So standing about watching other people is a waste of your time. Unless of course you need a little break, which is ok.
And that’s it. It’s really that simple. If you treat it as normal, so does everyone else. And for us, it is normal. It’s important for us to identify who’s leading and who’s following in the teaching partnership, especially for brand new dancers, because they often can’t identify the role on their own.
We always say ‘lead’ or ‘follow’, and we never use gender specific terms. Because that’s dumb. And gender isn’t actually important. It’s much more important to talk about the role – leading, following – and to use the words ‘lead’ and ‘follow’, because it helps you develop an identity for each role, that isn’t about gender, but is about dancing qualities. So, in my mind, a lead leads – if I want to have a follow step towards me, I need to take a small step back (rather than yanking on our arms). If I want the follow to do a particular footwork rhythm, I need to do it too, and first, and with confidence. If I want my follow to be relaxed in their body, I need to relax my body. And so on. Similarly, following isn’t about ‘doing as you’re told’, it’s about maintaining momentum. I might say “I’m deciding what move we’re doing, but (follow’s name)/the follow is deciding how we do that move, and they’re responsible for maintaining the momentum. We’re both responsible for keeping time (with our bounce), and we’re both responsible for doing good, clear rhythms. We are both (as Ramona says), responsible for taking care of the rhythm.”
I find that avoiding gender specific language actually frees my mind and my teaching to explore the way leading and following actually work. If I can’t say ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’, I have to find other words that describe what we’re doing. And that makes me a much better teacher.
We didn’t begin with this model. When Alice and I started, we would say “Traditionally men led and women followed, but we don’t need to do that,” or something similar. And then, looking back through old photos, I realised that that was just plain wrong. Women have always led, men have always followed, and men have always danced with men, and women have always danced with women. For the same reasons they do today – a shortage of the other gender, a preference for the same sex (whether romantically or just because fronds), wanting to dance with friends, coincidence, dancing skills and preference, etc etc etc. So we stopped saying that, because it’s WRONG. And I think it’s extra wrong to tell a bullshit version of history when we’re dancing a historic dance.
So if you’re working on this stuff – good luck, and do let me know if you have other strategies! I will TOTALLY steal your ideas!
I am design fail.
Squeezed dry by too much promotional work, I made the least useful promotional item today.
Here is the design process:
Inspired by all this…
It’s the most deco thing I’ve ever (accidentally) made
Notice how the final postcard includes no actually useful information? Fuck me.
Such professionalism. Yes, I do get paid for this genius.
If you enjoy this sort of design brilliance, you might enjoy my instagram feed.
This is an exciting year.
Last weekend Alice and I taught workshops at the Christchurch Swing Festival. It was a really nice weekend: great music, top shelf dancers (and dancing), excellent (and very nice) hosts, an event with a relaxed feel, yet still with that professional edge that makes an event unstressful for workers. I recommend it, and I feel a fool for never having danced or even visited New Zealand before. It is a magical place.
This was our first international teaching gig, and while we were both a bit nervous at first, the actual workshops went very well. I was a bit ill on the Friday (vomiiiiting between heats while judging a dance comp: now there’s a feminist challenge), but came good and ended up having a great weekend. I was happy with the classes (really amazing dancers in those workshops), and even though I was trying to be sensible about overdancing at the evening dances, I still had a GREAT time social dancing. Sunday night, with no responsibilities ahead, it was ON.
I don’t know how teachers stay up to all hours then teach the next day: I’d be far too buggered. And I’m far too responsible about being rested for doing decent teaching. Being a hard core social dance and naturally loquacious, it was superhard being disciplined and not stay til super late. But I am still tired now, so perhaps not so hardcore after all.
The upshot: enjoyed, would definitely do again. I’ll certainly be returning to New Zealand for social dancing!
My other big news is that I’ll be a staff DJ at Herrang this year, in week 2. I’m a bit scared about the sheer quantity of DJing I’ll be doing, but I also figure: do it now, or you’ll never do it. And I’m looking forward to it, very much. This trip was a bit last minute, and I had planned to do the Frankie stream workshops in week 2, then solo jazz in week 3, but I can’t really DJ and workshop in one week, and I’m still waitlisted for week 3. There are 7 people ahead of me on the list and it hasn’t changed much lately. :( Waaaah! I’d really like to do solo, but if all else fails, I’ll register for lindy hop workshops as a lead and get my lindy hop on.
And, thirdly, I’m in the middle of organising a big weekend event here in Sydney, for the 10-12 October 2014.
Jazz BANG is a weekend with workshops with international guests (Lennart Westerlund and Marie N’Daiye – you heard it here first), and plenty of parties and social dancing. We’re also adding some daytime touristing activities on the Friday, because Sydney is a fabulous city and needs to be explored. While the workshops are focussed on solo dance, you can dance however you like at the parties, so come just for the social dancing if you’re not into solo. I have a bunch of bands on the program, which is proving challenging to organise (international bands = drama), but hopefully that will all turn out well. There’s been unprecedented interest in the weekend (I’m fielding a lot of email enquiries), which means I’m suddenly worried about venue capacities as well. But this is really all just par for the course when planning a big event. My sound guy is on board and ready to go, I have my (lovely, easy to work with) teachers booked, and I have a great musician putting together bands for most of the nights, so I feel ok. My priorities: good music. And some sort of dance floor. The rest is icing.
Perhaps the most tiring part is developing the website and art work for the promotional material as well as all the other organising stuff. I really like working in css, and it’s fun to update my skills, but it’s really a bit of extra work I could really do without. Ah well.
The weekend will be a lot of fun: Sydney does good parties, and my local team has experience running events now, after four Little Big Weekends in two years, so we are good to go. The bands here are very good, and have worked with dancers quite a bit now, so I’m confident in them. And I have a couple of nice venues on the program that I’m also feeling confident in. And I adore my sound guy: we have put a lot of work into getting good at doing sound for acoustic jazz in old, echoey spaces, so my good bands will sound good, which is my highest priority.
If you are interested in coming to Jazz BANG, perhaps consider arriving on the Thursday morning, as we will be having our guest teachers teach at our local Thursday weekly solo jazz class, and then doing a masters/challenge class on Friday night. Friday day is Cultural Activities day, and I’m talking to a local musician/teacher about an educational talk, and then we will all go to the beach, or to galleries, or site-seeing, or shopping, or eating, or whatevs people feel up for. And then the serious dancing begins.
Sydney is a great city to be a tourist, so it’ll be a good weekend for visitors, and hopefully fill local peeps’ learning and social dancing needs.
I’m a bit tired, you know. I’ve already, here at the beginning of May, run two large dances, teach three days of weekly classes each week, taught overseas, I have two big dances to run before October, I’ve done one interstate event as a DJ/punter, I’m planning another international trip, and then there’s this big event at the end of the year and the usual round of exchanges in Australia. I am a bit tired. But it’s all ok, really. I especially like putting together the musical programs, and I’m having a lot of fun working with musicians and music specialists around the place. A teaching gig I’m doing at the University of Sydney has put me back into the university world, which is quite nice. But coming at it with a phd in hand already, and no hardcore commitments, just interest and a sprinkle of professional impetus is really nice.
Ok, that’s the end. We’re all caught up. Let’s catch up in Europe, ay European friends?