How I think about rhythm and leading and following

Soz this post is a bit long and jumbly. I’m a bit busy atm, but I want to get this down fast, while I’m thinking about it.
Key points: I think the ‘conversation’ metaphor for lindy hop partnership is boring and limited. I think turn taking is boring. Here, in this post, I use some ILHC 2015 jack and jill videos to talk about how leads and follows can use layers of rhythm to move beyond call and response. Rhythm is about timing, and that means more than just how many times and in what order your foot taps the floor. It’s about how you use your whole body, and how you do that in connection with another person. This is how lindy hop is not like tap dance.

I have problems with using the image of ‘conversation’ as a metaphor for lindy hop and improvisation. Because most people use the word ‘conversation’ to mean formal turn taking. You speak, then I speak. But this is a highly gendered, and quite formal way of talking. It’s how we’d talk in a formal debate, or on tv. Or if we were middle class men at a dinner party. But jazz dance is vernacular dance, so is should look the way a real conversation sounds. A conversation between women. There should be interruptions, there should be layers of talk and idea, there should be shouting and quiet moments of empathy. All working together in collaborative meaning making. I’ve written a lot about language and gender here on this blog and elsewhere. There are some useful references in this post. Basically, I think we need to address the way men and women ‘do’ conversation and group talk. There are clear, documented differences in the way men talk in groups, women talk in groups, how mixed gendered groups talk, and how same-gendered groups talk. This is directly applicable to discussions about vernacular dance. I am not the first to say that vernacular dance is an embodiment of vernacular music, nor am I the first to say that vernacular music is pretty much vernacular talk in action.

Let’s have a little look at the ILHC jack and jill videos.
So far I’ve only watched about three – Laura and Remy, Laura and Skye, Jo and Peter. I’ve been seriously fucking irritated by the way both couples are introduced men-first, and the MC makes a joke about the male dancer only. But my sample size is too small. Hopefully this pattern does not continue with the rest of the MCing.

The dancing is fantastic.
I’ve only watched each video once so far, this morning.

Watching Laura and Skye, I had some issues.

It feels a bit like a dance fight. As though Laura is trying to solo dance while she lindy hops. I’ve got no issue with that – it’s a totally legit approach. But I do feel as though she’s trying desperately to fit in her improvisation where ever and where ever she can. I know that I do this when I follow. Or did, until I started leading more. And boy, she is fully legit: she is a freaking athlete of awesome. But I don’t like the way this dance looks. I feel as though they’re not dancing together. I want Laura to:
chill and take some time to get on the same page as Skye, at the very basic level of finding a common sense of timing or bounce. She may not be a bouncy dancer (ie she mightn’t be down with using ‘pulse’), and that’s cool, but when you’re in a jack and jill (or social dancing), you should find a common ground with your partner. I can see Skye looking to make that most basic level of connection (ie how do you use the beat and the floor), but it’s just not working.
chill and work within the shapes and energy Skye is giving. Skye is both a very clear and leading lead (ie he isn’t the ‘boss’, but he’s very definitely setting the shapes and tone for the dance), and a very accommodating, collaborative lead. I like his dancing, because I like leads to lead.
That’s how lindy hop works: one of us is making bigger structural decisions about what moves and shapes we’ll do; one of us is making those moves and shapes work, and adding texture and definition. A good lead isn’t just ‘calling’ the steps and having the follow ‘respond’. A good lead is working with what the follow is doing and how they move and feel the music. A good lead isn’t following; this isn’t like following. It’s about listening and building on what the follow is doing. Building in unexpected things. Just like a very good lead uses the floor and ‘floor craft’ to build a dance that isn’t just responding to obstacles on the dance floor, but incorporating them in a creative way to make new things. Floor craft is craft; it’s not just damage control. It’s creative and improvisational art in itself. It’s real social dancing.

Anyhow, I feel as though Laura is desperately stealing every moment she can to squash in some sort of flourish extra bit of whatevs.

In contrast, Jo works with her partner, and what he’s doing. Peter is quite a ‘strong’ and assertive lead. I don’t mean ‘strong’ as in ‘manhandling his partner around the floor’, I mean ‘strong’ as in having a clear personality and vision for the dance. I think that you need to have this in lindy hop. This isn’t a dance for introverts. If you’re dancing old school style, both the lead and follow are bringing clear, confident personalities. The leads are very clear and strong. The follows are equally clear and strong. Again, I don’t mean in terms of physical strength (though that can be involved). I mean in terms of attitude and confidence. I think Peter brings some of that. And Jo brings that as well – she is the Norma Miller to balance Frankie Manning. Not in terms of dancing style, but in terms of self confidence and willingness to clearly be present in the dance. Neither Frankie nor Norma would quietly coddle their partner. They’d both step up and just assume their partner was going to bring it too. They’d have confidence in their partner’s ability to bring the shit.

I think this is the main problem I have with what’s happening with Laura and Skye. I feel as though she doesn’t trust Skye enough to build in responses to her dancing, to work with her. I know I do this too, with leads who don’t listen to me when I’m following. I feel as though I have to physically force my own voice into the conversation. Perhaps Laura’s been dancing with some overly domineering leads lately? I wouldn’t know. But I think that follows should trust the lead to listen to them.

When I watch Jo and Peter, I see Jo taking time to figure out what Peter’s doing, and how he feels and how he’s feeling the music. And he does the same with her, but at the same time, he initiates the steps – he takes the initiative. That’s the definition of leading, right? Going first? But once Jo has figured out this common ground, she builds in her own responses. They don’t interrupt what Peter has planned; they work within the structure he’s building. And he pays attention to that.

All this is all well and good. I think though, that a lot of dancers stop at this point. They see this to-and-fro as formal turn taking. Just like in that board meeting, or at a formal dinner party. Where speakers take turn saying things. Calling and responding. But I don’t think this is a properly vernacular discourse. I think this is very much an anglo-celtic middle class* heteronormative patriarchal structure. I think we should remember that this is jazz dance. Let’s think about jazz in New Orleans, before swing went solidly mainstream. We can hear multiple instruments improvising at the same time at various points throughout the song. The melody is still there. The structure of the song is still stable, if not formulaic. In fact, the structure is so formulaic it’s predictable. Which is essential if you’re improvising, right? You all need to be able to predict where the structure and melody will go, so you know when to come in and go out. But the improvisation is unpredictable. Yet harmonious. Except when it’s deliberately not.

Both couples are amazing dancers, physically amazing with stunning reflexes and control of their bodies, a deep understanding of the music they’re dancing to, and a thorough understanding of leading and following. This is some shit hot dancing. But it doesn’t quite feel like jazz to me. It doesn’t feel like vernacular jazz dance. It needs a little more chaos. It needs more interruption, more polyphony, more layers of rhythm. Those layers and interruptions can’t be interruptions for the sake of saying something. They need to be responses and interactions. And both speakers should be building those responses in. Sometimes when a group of women friends are talking, they are interrupting continually. They’re shouting “YES!” and “OMG NO!” in response to something their friend is saying. And in a group, there may be two people speaking at once, but all of the group is keeping track of everything everyone is saying at once, so they’re having parallel but interactive conversations. This is what happens in jazz. Many people speak at once, there’s interruption, and it’s rowdy. But everyone is still ‘with’ it, and aware of what other people are saying and doing. They know when to go still and silent. They know when to shout out or laugh or talk. Just as in a jazz band.

I want to see more of this in lindy hop.
In fact, this was something that came up in the Harlem Roots stream in Herrang this year, and in the Frankie stream last year. The teachers who were strongest proponents of this approach were Asa and Daniel, Jenny and Rickard, and Ramona (who I saw take this to her teaching with Remy). Asa and Daniel articulated it most clearly: leads, each ‘lead’ is only a suggestion. Do not ‘demand’ your follow dance everything you ask. As Ramona puts it: follows, you have a responsibility to look after the beat, and to look after your own rhythm too. To paraphrase her, it’s not ok to ‘just follow’ (as if you could anyway). Follows have a responsibility to feed energy into the dance through keeping time, and through bringing rhythm in a clear, coherent way. We are partners, here.

This is exciting, because when follows realise the leads are listening, and aren’t demanding, they become more confident. If you move away from social dancing as a series of perfectly executed steps with rhythms performed in unison, lindy hop becomes more like jazz. You can have layers of rhythm, and it’s ok. Leads don’t have to ‘lead’ every rhythm with a complex combination of body lead, weight change, and so on. The physical connection between partners can become at once more relaxed (we don’t need to see the follow’s right biceps pop out), and more solid (the lead’s right arm around the follow becomes more important, and the follow engages with that through their back and torso). And you have to LOOK at your partner a whole lot more.

What we found in practice in Herrang, was that leads on the whole used much simpler moves. Swing outs. Circles. Under arm turns. Time in open without touching, or touching. Promenade. Closed position. Even charleston became a bit too complex. These simple shapes allowed us to dance in more interesting ways, and to dance with anyone to any tempo. Because the ‘interest’ came in how you executed these steps. Your step step triple step could become a more complicated (or simple!) rhythm step. And you and your partner needn’t do the same rhythm simultaneously. In fact, you usually didn’t, and when you did, it was a happy coincidence.

The trick then becomes how to dance rhythms that are open to complementary rhythms. A bit like in musical improvisation: you should be in the right key and time signature, so you don’t get dischord, and you can stay in time with everyone else. At Herrang, each night when we were social dancing, when we danced with this rhythmic variation and polychromatic approach, we had to first find a shared time signature – we HAD to have a shared bounce or sense of time. And it was ESSENTIAL that both partners, lead and follow, maintained that sense of time. Both partners must bounce, or be able to move in and out of bouncing in time. It’s both a physical and visual way of staying ‘in time’ with your partner. Musicians don’t need to physically bounce, and lindy hoppers needn’t either, but you must always have an awareness of the timing, and bouncing is fun. The musicians mightn’t bounce, but the music does, and dancers are the music made visible.

The wonderful part of this approach is that anyone can do it. Total beginner dancers can find the beat and keep it.

Where is the ‘key’ in this? I think that the key is the pitch of your dancing. Or the ‘feel’. And you figure it out together. It’s a kind of shared sense of how you will dance together. And you need that moment in closed position at the beginning of the dance to find that shared sense of pitch before you begin dancing.

When I watch Laura and Skye, I feel as though Skye immediately sets out how and who he is, before they even begin. But that Laura doesn’t do that straight away, she doesn’t feel confident enough, so she feels she has to do it over and over again by stealing moments to add her notes. In contrast, Jo and Peter do find this common time and common key, but then there’s still those moments of turn taking, rather than polyrhythm. It’s not a bad thing. It’s fantastic. It’s definitely not a matter of both leads being too autocratic or domineering. I think that it’s more that the follows could use the leads’ clearness and stable ‘leading’ in a different way.

Ok, let’s look at a very clear and simple example of what I mean by layers of rhythm and mutual, collaborative meaning making.

Asa and Daniel do a class recap here:

This is a nice example because it is a class recap, not social dancing, so they are very clearly demonstrating the concepts. In a social setting, this stuff often isn’t this simple. Particularly when you see very good dancers doing it. And I want to make it clear: ‘good’ can be anyone. The skill you really need to pull this off is social skills: communication.

A few simple examples:
0.10 Asa initiates a break step, and Daniel doesn’t do it perfectly in time with her. He doesn’t yank her into stillness, he doesn’t force her to do something else, he doesn’t try to sync up with her. He lets himself be still (which gives her a contrasting stillnes to work with), and then he joins in with the stomp off on ‘and 8’. This little moment works because they share a sense of timing. He’s not ‘bouncing’ hugely and visibly, but his core is engaged, his arms are relaxed, and he clearly shares the timing with her. He is listening, and yet prepared, so when it comes to the end of the 8 he’s ready with the stomp off.
More interestingly, they have a shared sense of jazz conventions: they both know where 8 is, they know that a stomp off is a conventional way to end an 8 (or begin a move – why is 8 the end of a move, instead of the preparation for the next!? It needn’t be!), and they both ‘get back together’ for the final 8 of the phrase. Asa pulls out her rhythm in the penultimate 8 of the phrase, then clearly listens to Daniel as he ‘finishes’ the phrase with a simple circle, and a synchronised rhythm.

BUT

It gets better. There is a temptation in choreographing and dancing to let the phrases be unbreachable barriers. You do feel as though you have to ‘finish’ a move at the end of a phrase, then start something new for the next one. Similarly, we often feel we need to ‘start’ on 1. But Frankie didn’t start on 1 all the time – he started where the music said start. If you’ve done the ‘Frankie 89’ choreography, danced to ‘Wednesday Night Hop’, it starts on 7. Because that’s where the music says start.
When we watch Asa and Daniel in this little section of the song, they respond to what’s happening in the beat and the phrasing, but they work across the phrases by continuing jig walks from the last 8 to the first of the next phrase. But the timing of the step changes in the next phrase.

Right here, we see some really complex rhythm work happening, passed back and forth between the lead and follow. It looks and feels a bit like the shouty chorus in a nola jazz song: lots of layers of rhythm and sound. But it all works because both partners share a sense of timing and ‘pitch’.

But things level up.
At 0.30 they dance in side by side, but both dancing completely different rhythms. They don’t sync up again until about 0.41. But they maintain connection. Note how Daniel’s arm around Asa’s back stays connected, but is less intense and demanding. He allows her physical space, but also space in the connection so his body doesn’t demand she dance the same rhythm as him. So they both understand how the points of physical connection allow partners to hear and share where a partner’s weight is (and what the rhythm is – you feel this through the way muscles engage in your partners’ body, a relaxed, rubbery connection clears the line so you can ‘hear’ this, but it all often happens at a subconscious level – you just feel and respond), but they both also understand that you don’t have to be in a state of intense connection all the time. You can be listening and dancing, but not synced up. And then after this, Daniel initiates a different move, and asks for more connection from Asa, and she agrees, and they work the same rhythm together.
If you listen to the music, it’s building in intensity – the melody introduced earlier is emphasised, the little tinkles are joined by a more intense brass section.
The phrasing is important, but it’s not everything.

And, then, when we get to 0.54, we get a very familiar couple of moves: a curl (or around the world) and then points. It happens at a very climactic moment in the music. It’s as though all that rhythmic play before culminates in a couple of 8s of very structured, historic, authoritative movement. Finally, synchronised rhythm. This is the money shot. But then it ends with both partners varying the shapes and energy – so it’s not perfectly synchronised after all. I think this part makes it most clear, and it clearly identifies the sort of revivalist project I want to be involved in.

My revivalist project:

learn and preserve historic steps

understand and practice the values of historic jazz dance: improvisation and jazz music

innovate, change, and bring your own style and personality: polyrhythms and improvisation within musical structure, and with reference to historical steps or a ‘canon’ of authoritative steps

-> in this way we can both recognise and preserve the history of this dance, and yet do something new and innovative
=> in this way we embody the tension of vernacular dance: be in the past, the present and the future at once; embody mindfulness, but also be intellectually active and predictive; innovate and change, but preserve and respect.

You can see here how ‘musicality’ is a complicated thing. It’s about understanding tempo, timing, phrasing, and syncopation. But it’s also about understanding the way an arrangement works across phrases, how different instruments contribute as individuals and as groups and so on. If you allow this sort of polyrhythm work to happen in a dance, you invite the music in.
As we say to our students, the most important parts of lindy hop are taking care of the music, and taking care of our partner.

One of the most obvious results of this approach to lindy hop that I have noticed, is that partners give each other more attention. You HAVE to! Because anything can happen! I have noticed that partners look at each other more, and interact more. Frankie has been telling us this all long: you are in love for three minutes! This is the queen of the world! Doods: YOUR PARTNER IS IMPORTANT. They’re not there to provide/execute a perfect sequences of steps and moves. They are there to be there with you. Whether your dance is a lovely sequence of simple ‘basic’ rhythms, or a storm of rhythm.

I hope you’ve already figured out that this approach is far more than just the formal turn taking of a ‘conversation’ between colleagues. It’s much, much more than ‘I do a variation, you do a variation’. That’s boring. That’s easy. That’s not feminist, either. That’s equality. I don’t want equality. I don’t want to be ‘equal’ or have ‘the same’ as my partner. I want us both to bring what we each have and want in that moment, and I want a shifting, changing relationship. Or else it is TOO BORING.

So how do you level up this approach? In the Harlem Roots track at Herrang, I was in the advanced stream, and after the first day I asked myself: “Is that it?” because we had basically done the same stuff as last year in the mixed level Frankie track. This ‘stuff’ was: listen to your partner, leads don’t demand follows do as you ask; leads expect and allow for follows changing what you are dancing. Follows: bring your shit; you’re not passive in this dance, be present. Stuff we’d all done last year. Yes, it was fun, and it had blown my mind last year, but I wanted more. I figured I’d mastered this.**

I thought that this was just the basic, beginner level stuff. Surely we’d be doing something harder and more challenging in the advanced stream? But then I figured it out: it really is this simple. This is how we play lindy hop. As Lennart says, lindy hop is really a very simple dance. What makes it challenging is what you bring to the dance. Having top shelf physical skills makes you more present. Having a very good understanding of jazz music makes you more present. But because the game is this simple – listen, respond, talk, play – anyone can play. You can have an excellent dance with anyone, so long as they are present and using this approach. Beginner, old timer, international teacher – they’re all great dance partners in this game.

And when I figured this out, it was like I’d been given the best present ever. I got over myself and my ‘is this all there is?’ and I started playing properly. Tempo isn’t an issue, because you don’t have to execute a series of perfect swing outs with the step step triple step rhythm. You can do ANYTHING. I think this is where we have to really LISTEN when we hear old timers say young lindy hoppers don’t do enough half time at higher tempos. The old timers aren’t saying ‘dance half time when it gets fast’, they’re saying ‘stop following these arbitrary rules about how you dance, and start playing with timing and with your partner.’
Rhythm is the best fucking fun ever. And this is why we have to learn to dance on our own. It’s coming at things the wrong way to say ‘you should learn to solo dance to improve your lindy hop’. It’s more that we learn to dance on our own, so that we learn who we are, and what we want to bring to the dance. We develop the skills to contribute to the dance. A musician learns to play their instrument so they can play in a band. I can dance on my own all the time, and that’s great. But it’s dancing and improvising in a band, or in a partnership, that makes it really fun. I think it’s because humans are both highly social, and also really good at pattern matching and problem solving. Improvised jazz music is immensely satisfying and intensely challenging. It ticks our boxes. For me, it grounds me, utterly. I have to be present, utterly and completely present in the moment if I want to lindy hop like this. I can’t be thinking about other things, or wondering about my next dance. I have to be right there with that partner. All the time. They have to be the centre of my world for 3 minutes.
And best of all, this game will never be over. Each dance step or rhythm break I learn becomes another pencil in my pencil case. Each dance is as important as each class, as I learn new things with each partner or teacher or class.

To sum up, I guess I should just show you a video of two dancers doing some mad shit. In this video Ramona and Nick show, in a very simple, obvious way, how you can do both turn taking and layers of rhythm. But, in a demonstration of much more skilled dancing, they move beyond this, building up interest. Best of all, we see how a very good follow can work within a set framework or structure from a clear lead, to build trust on his part, but also to innovate and bring the shit on her part.

They begin (and continue) with clear moments of taking turns with the rhythm, and then doing a little moment of layers of unsynchronised rhythm. This is a clear and simple articulation of what the music is doing.
They then use this musical theme in their broader body movement – a series of pass bys/turns/swingouts where Mona does most of the turns, with moments of extended stretch to match the longer notes in the melody, culminating in Nick doing a couple of tight spins on the spot. It’s excellently simple and effective. But if they’d continued the dance like that, we’d have died of boredom. But they level up.

As the music moves into the next section, they change up how they take turns, and they add more moments of layered rhythm. I think that Ramona is utterly fantastic in these moments. I really, really like the way she responds to Nicks’ smoother less bouncy approach to timing, but doesn’t compromise her own solid pulse or employment and articulation of the beat. She uses gorgeous moments of extended stretch and timing, but also quicker, more concentrated and intense smaller movements.
Nick is initiating these to a certain extent, but it’s as though Mona takes these ideas and this broader framework, and then exaggerates or extends or highlights them. In this way she is working within his clear, solid frame work (ie following a leader), but she does not compromise her own rhythmic variations, nor the way she actually uses her body.
As an example, she takes extended, stretched moments in open, but because she’s a physical machine, she can also respond quickly when she needs to, because she understands how to use graduated modes of engagement. To the audience, this gives us moments of calm and rest to contrast with the intensity. Her body seems calm and restful (because it is – she uses only the muscles she needs), but it can also seem intense and excited (when she engages more muscles in graduated ways, moves faster, changes her timing). I think this is the clearest difference between her dancing and Laura G’s. Laura always seems ON; I’d like to see more gradations of energy, and hence a more textured approach to timing and rhythm.

*middle class: I think most Americans use this term in a different way to we use it here in Australia. What I would term the ‘working class’ is closer to what the Americans call the middle class. So middle class in my discussion here, means having a degree of disposable income, owning a home (with a mortgage), probably tertiary educated (though not necessarily so), having a stable income, living above the poverty line, having a degree of privilege that all this accords. Working class, though, means that you are perhaps struggling more to make ends meet, though you can put food on the table, and pay your bills. Just.

**Oh, the arrogance of the intermediate dancer. I got served, that’s for sure.

One Reply to “How I think about rhythm and leading and following”

  1. Yes! Friggin great article! I’ve been struggling through a similar line of thinking that this post has really helped with.

    In my mind, the term ‘conversation’ isn’t really applicable to lindy for the reasons you mention. The idea instead that I’ve been working on is that it’s more like the interaction between rhythm and horn sections in a jazz band.

    As a rhythm player, your job is to lay out the general structure (rhythm and chords) for the lead instruments to play the melody over. In my thinking, my job as a lindy lead is equivalent to what I do on bass, in that I’m laying down a structure. There’s a balance to strike between giving enough ideas to be interesting, but not so much that you’re not leaving space for the horn players to add interesting input. All of this is done while listening to the horns and riffing off what ideas and vibe they’re kicking out.

    I thought this might give you an interesting alternative way of thinking about the lead-follow dynamic, although I’m not sure there’s a single word as simple as ‘conversation’ that describes it.

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