Layers of rhythm in dancing and music

Here is a post just about dancing and music, because even though we’re thinking and talking about gender politics and good business practices in the scene, we’re also dancers. Hopefully. This post is kind of rambly, because that’s how I roll.

This post is about the ‘rhythm centred‘ approach to lindy hop that a few teachers are really digging on at the moment. And music.

What is this ‘rhythm method’? Basically, we’re talking about prioritising the rhythms at the heart of a dance step, rather than the shapes. Shapes are important, yes, but the rhythm comes first.
This isn’t a new approach. People’ve been into this forever. People like Norma Miller, other old timers, the Rhythm Hot Shots… pretty much anyone who’s legit.

I think this is a bit like another approach that got around in the early 2000s: work from the ground up. In both cases, the emphasis is on what your body does, and on the foundation of good dancing. Committing your weight properly, understanding how you make contact with the ground, and how you initiate movement from your core. In other words, good lindy hop, as a partner dance, is like good solo dancing: you have to move your arse if you want to actually be dancing with someone.

Anyhow, I was in a class this week, taught by Bec and Alice at our regular Wednesday night intermediate class. They began the class with an exercise we’d picked up from Ramona and from the other Sea of Rhythm peeps (all of whom are tap dancers): in a circle one person does a rhythm, then the next person has to do a step inspired by that rhythm, and so on round the circle. Then the class continued with a fairly simple idea: you use a pass by (where the lead goes under the joined arms) as a ‘space’ for improvising, or adding in a rhythm. You can either do call and response (where one parter does the rhythm first, and the other copies on the next go through), or you can both do your own rhythms at the same time.

Nothing new, right? We’ve done this approximately one million times, though we might say ‘do your own jazz steps’ in that bit where you walk past each other. You might shorty george under there, or swivel around. It’s a nice, simple example of how jazz and lindy hop are structure + improvisation. But when you shift the emphasis to the rhythm, it gets a bit more interesting.

And I actually found it a bit nicer as a lead-follow exercise. Because if you focus on the rhythm, not the shape, you focus on how your feet strike the floor, and with what sort of emphasis. Where are you pausing? Where do you speed up? Is it a straight step, or is it syncopated? If you are doing call and response, you have to be as clear as you can, so your partner can recognise the rhythm and then repeat it back to you (this is my favourite). And in an under arm pass by situation, it’s not easy to see your partner all the time, so you have to feel the rhythm through your connected arms.


Of course, for this to work, you need to have a) an understanding of swung timing, straight timing, syncopation, and how to keep time while ‘paused’ (ie gotta have bounce, and b) a relaxed connection, because a hugely tight pair of arms don’t let messages (weight changes) through.
And to get those things, you need to focus on the rhythm of your basic footwork, and on leading by moving your body rather than yanking with your arms.

And, the best bit of this, is that you have to really pay attention to your partner to catch the rhythm, then repeat it back. You have to watch and listen and feel them, and then you have to watch and listen and feel them responding to see if you’re getting it right. The other best bit is that you assume from the beginning that both partners – lead and follow – can call, and both can respond. This immediately undoes the idea that follows always react and leads always initiate. It reminds you that both of you are partners, and that both good leading and good following requires listening very carefully to your partner, and responding to what they’re doing.

[Segue: if you set up this model of dancing relationships, you are undoing the bullshit power dynamic that encourages sexual harassment (which is where one partner exploits their higher position of power). In this model of dance partnership, each partner is important and powerful. You listen to each other. You respect each other. Higher power and its exploitation is detrimental to both the dancing partnership, and to the social partnership.]

Ok, so where’s the music in all this?
This is where we get amazing. This is where jazz dancing gets fantastic. We are doing polyrhythms, here. There’s the band, doing what they do. And then there’s the dancers, dancing a rhythm on the top. They might be dancing what they hear in the music, or, because lindy hop is wonderful, they might add a complementary rhythm to what they hear. Something that’s not in the music at all. Yet.
As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, if there are two of you having a rhythmic conversation like this, you’ll be adding two layers of rhythm on top of the music. Because you two aren’t in sync – you’re doing call and response. And that means that while you’re responding to your partner, they’re already adding in another rhythm. So you have to listen to and recognise that new rhythm while you’re responding with the previous rhythm! Wow!

Wait, no, we’re not done.

This is where it gets fantastic.

You don’t have to play the call and response game. You can just rock out doing whatever you like, not syncing up with your partner. So you’re doing a whole heap of rhythms all at once, on top of the music. Boom. Of course, the challenge here is to make all this actually be rhythmically sound. It can’t just be a bunch of noise and rubbish. This is why I like the call and response game: it makes you be super clear and definite in your movements. I actually like it when you have to do a rhythm, then repeat it, and then your partner repeats it. Because that way you get clear feedback about whether your rhythm is legit, and not just a bunch of banging and jumping about. If you can’t do it twice in a row, then you suck a bit and you need to clean it up. Usually that means simplifying.

The extra wonderful part of this, is that this is a game brand new dancers can play as well. And as you get more experience, and more control of your body, your rhythms can get more complex. To me, it feels like leading and following on a micro-level. Am I leading clearly enough for a brand new dancer to pick it up and follow? If not, then I suck. My partner shouldn’t have to be a superstar to recognise and repeat my rhythm.

Tell me about the music!
Right, lets talk about the shout chorus at the end of a song. Wikipedia puts it like this. The shout chorus is

characterized by being the most energetic, lively, and exciting and by containing the musical climax of the piece. A shout chorus characteristically employs extreme ranges, loud dynamics, and a re-arrangement of melodic motives into short, accented riffs. Shout choruses often feature tutti or concerted writing, but may also use contrapuntal writing or call and response between the brass and saxophones, or between the ensemble and the drummer. Additionally, brass players frequently use extended techniques such as falls, doits, turns, and shakes to add excitement.

I like ones by musicians like Sidney Bechet, old school NOLA people. Or Fats Waller usually brings good ones. That last chorus often feels more chaotic and shouty than with a big classic swing band. And there’s probably going to be some improvisation in there too. Here, check out ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ by Waller and his Rhythm, from about 2.00:


[DJing note: I often use a song with this sort of ending to build the energy in the room. From here I can ramp up the tempos and excitement level, because the shout chorus has primed the room for something more.]

Ok, so here’s my thinking: that last shout chorus is just like when you’re playing call and response rhythms with your partner. The rhythms and notes just pile on up. It sounds a bit like chaos, but it’s not, because everyone has to really listen to each other.

This is jazz.

And this is why that idea that ‘follows do what leads say’ is just rubbish. It’s not only sexist and dumb, it’s not jazz. It’s creatively BOOOORING.

Ok, let’s look at some dancers.

Marie and Skye at GSDF in 2014:

Not much in the way of shout chorus to that song, aye? In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s a quieter, calmer, sparser arrangement and performance. The tempo is nice and relaxed, it swings like a gate, and it has a nice clear, consistent rhythm. Perfect for lindy hopping.

Then let’s look at Marie and Skye. They’re doing the same shapes, they have the same beat in their bodies, but they often aren’t doing exactly the same rhythm. I don’t want to say ‘footwork’ because ‘footwork’ is misleading: it suggests that it’s your feet doing the work. It’s actually your body that’s doing the work, and your foot placement and emphasis is a consequence of choices you’ve made with your body. That’s why it’s so much easier to see Skye and Maria’s rhythms. It’s almost as though Skye in particular has velvet covered feet. Velvet covered bricks, because though each step is perfectly and gently places, the commitment of weight is very solid and definite. And he understands that he has more than just one flat surface to his foot – there’s lots more to work with. And then, to make it more awesome, he lifts his feet from his hip or his knee… the movement begins higher in his body, not just with his feet.

Again, though, the rhythms that they bring, even to just the last 2 beats of a swing out, where you might triple step habitually, are very clear decisions, and they are working with the music. They aren’t just ramming some random combination of steps that they love on top of the music. They’re building it in. Watching Skye (because I’m a lead, that’s what I’m doing right now), he’s also working with all the instruments. There aren’t many of them, but he makes very clear that it’s the combination of instruments that make the band.

I really hate ‘musicality classes’ where teachers say something like ‘now dance to the saxophone!’ Because there’s a whole band there, and the sound they make is a combination of all those instruments and sounds. So why would I just take out one instrument? What I like about Skye in this particular video is that he’s moving between instruments, or dancing to all of them at once, and creating a series of shapes and patterns and rhythms that join them all together.
And Marie is with him, working with his overall pattern, but adding stuff by shifting the emphasis here and there, by adding in completely new sequences, by taking out sequences and paring things down. I particularly like the way her moments of stillness and simplicity (something I see Naomi Uyama do a lot) are essential for Skye’s busy-ness. If they were both going hardcore, you’d get more of a shout chorus effect, but for the whole song, and it’d be a bit much. It certainly wouldn’t suit this quieter, pared back song.

Okay, let’s contrast.

Frida and Skye at Snowball in 2014

Ok, so you see straight away, that there’s a different rhythmic relationship going on here between these two people. I’ve written about Frida before, in reference to this same issue: she brings the shit. She also has a very active, engaged and exciting edge to her dancing that isn’t like Marie’s. Watching this, I’m struck by the way Skye becomes the ‘simpler’ dancer, when Frida adds the vajazzle. Not that he’s necessarily doing simple steps; it’s just that the layers of rhythm and timing and emphasis are different in this partnership. By dancing with a different partner to a different song, his dancing is changed. Partly because he’s a very good lead, and changes his dancing to suit the music and his partner. But also because dancing with a different partner frames his approach to music in a different way.

Theres’s something more exciting about dancing to a live band, and I think it’s because anything can happen. Jazz wants improvisation, and in a recording, the improvisation is over: the sound is fixed. But when it’s live, it’s not fixed. And when dancers and musicians work together, that degree of the unexpected increases. Much more can happen now. So there’s an edge of anticipation and risk to improvised dancing to a live, improvising jazz band. Which adds excitement. And with Frida, you know that her reflexes are so good, and she is so fast, that she can not only respond really quickly to a new lead, but she can respond quickly to a new sound in the band, and add her own thoughts to both or either. And yet still make the partnership work.

Anyway, I wanted to jot all these thoughts down while they were still fresh after a couple of days of interesting dance work. Bec and Alice also led a session in our practice group last night where they taught us how to do one particular move that Skye leads in both these videos. Bec and Alice came to practice all excited because they’d realised Skye dances that same move in many ways, with many partners. And it’s always different. Our challenge in this session was to be able to dance two versions, and to understand how changes in timing (rhythm) were about changes in how you use your body, as both a lead and a follow. One thing we realised was that if you overcommit – if you get too ‘deep’ into a pause or a stop, your timing changes, and you can’t respond as quickly. It was very interesting.

So I guess this post is about layers of rhythm, and how we can think about lindy hop as sequences and layers of rhythm, both between partners, and between musicians and dancers. Long live lindy hop. You are the best.

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