Teaching and joy

We’re doing some quite interesting classes on our Wednesday nights at the moment. They are all by-request, which means the topics are quite varied. We did a ‘big apple contest’ class open to everyone (most excellent fun), we’re doing a ‘Social dancer’s history of jazz’ class next week (open to everyone again), a ‘steals’ class the week after, and this week we’re doing a class on how to combine 6 and 8 count steps.

I’d ordinarily avoid a class on ‘steals’ because it feels like one of those gimmick classes. But as one of our other teachers said, “If we want to foster those lindy hop traditions like birthday jams, we have to teach them how to steal.” And because our classes are more like structured self-guided learning a lot of the time, it’s the perfect chance for people to experiment with the concept.
The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became. Especially when I thought about it as just another example of how to understand phrasing, and to read another dancer’s body and feels. So while we’ll be looking at how to get into a birthday jam and ‘steal’, we’ll be talking about how to prepare for the beginning of a phrase, how to read a couple’s dancing to see if it’s time to interrupt or not (eg don’t butt in on a big rhythm break), how to ‘cut in’ in a respectful, efficient way, etc etc. And it’s really just a dancing game that teaches us how to partner dance.

The one we’re doing this week is about combining 6 and 8 count moves. More specifically, a follow requested we look at how follows know whether a move is 6 or 8 count. I’m always a bit surprised by these questions, because I simply don’t think about it when I dance. When I lead, I am absolutely not thinking ‘Here is an 8 count move, now I’m doing a 6 count move.’ I just move through space responding to my partner and to the music. If a triple step is nice here, I put it in. If I need to turn or move quickly, I use a triple step. If I’m hitting a break, I might add in a bit of rhythmic flourish. I leave it to the follow to decide whether they need to triple step or kick ball change or step or kick or whatever. This isn’t 2003: I don’t micro-lead. As if I ever did.
But then I thought about what I do when I’m following. Again, I don’t think ‘6’ or ‘8’ as I’m moving through steps. But what I do do, is use the steps that get me through the shapes most efficiently (or most pleasingly). So I might use a triple step to move quickly through a turn (I rarely spin), I might use a kick/bounce combination to get through a pivot. And so on. Again, I use what gets me through the space I need to cover. I’m moving through the music (ie through time) at the rate my partner asks. And a 6 count move is just moving through a shape 2 beats faster than in an 8 count.

What it made me realise was that perhaps we’d over-emphasised the ‘basic rhythm’ as an 8 count. Perhaps we’d given the impression that an ‘8 count move’ has to be a particular rhythm. When we all know that a move can be any count, and we regularly use 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 count steps in our lindy hop. So there may be a couple of issues here that we need to address.
First, that the steps you dance (ie the rhythm ‘blocks’ – triple steps, steps, etc) are really whatever gets you through the shape most efficiently (or pleasingly). As a follow, your lead begins the move, suggesting a speed at which to move through the move. Because the connection is a two-way thing, the lead can ‘ask’ you to maintain that particular speed throughout the move, particularly if they hear something in the music and have something planned. But a good lead is listening to the follow, and a good following listening to the lead, so you’re paying attention to the connection. And if the lead asks you to maintain that initial speed and direction (or intensity!) it’s nice to do that. Because lindy hop is a partnership. But as a follow, you get to finish the move, and if that means you take 2 more counts than they’d suggested, that’s ok. So long as you keep to the ‘spirit’ of the move, or the vibe the lead is setting down.

[NB Ramona talked about this in classes the other week: the lead begins the move, the follow finishes it. So leads need to let follows finish the move.]

[Other NB I’m beginning to be convinced that leading and following are very different things. It’s not just the same issues of biomechanics applied differently. Leads have a different timing to follows; leads are closer to the beat, a little ahead, the follows a little behind. So to me, the lead is the cab of a semi trailer, and the follow the long trailer. So as a lead, you need to account for that delay when you lead – the follow will get there a tiny bit later than you. I’ve also discovered that it’s this that I find really, really difficult to change when I swap between roles. I’m beginning to think I need to specialise in just one role to really improve. And you have to be as good as Ramona to do both really well.]

I think this is where the real problem comes for a lot of our follows who go social dancing with leads who work in other paradigms. Those leads think ‘ok, I’m doing move X’ and then they set it in motion, but are already thinking about or moving on to the next move before the follow has completed the first move. They don’t allow for the follow’s slight delay in addition to the ‘time’ it’ll take to do the move. In other words, they can’t think beyond their own experience of time during a song.
This means that you get a lot of leads who rush follows through (for example), the final triple step of a swing out, so the follow starts rushing in on 1, instead of really using that last triple step to get momentum into their body. Even more upsettingly, you get a swing out that stops and starts in hard breaks at 8 and 1. And of course the ‘swing’ falls out completely, as everyone rushes rushes rushes to get through the move.

Secondly, the rhythm blocks you use are both functional and creative. So a triple step is great for moving through space quickly (eg on the turn of a swing out), but also wonderful because it’s a syncopated, swinging rhythm that works so nicely with swinging jazz. It’s not like a cha-cha-cha rhythm. Triiii ple-step. Or tri-PLE-step. Varying the accent on a triple step is super fun, and understanding the difference between a triple step and step-stomp-off is also super fun.

Thirdly, this ‘8 count’ structure is something dancers enforce on the 4/4 timing of jazz. The musicians don’t think in 8s. The 2, 4, 6, 8 is a structure that we either build into the song, or we force on top of it. I think it’s better to build it in. So we listen to the music, and find ways to emphasise what’s going on in the song, using our different rhythm blocks, combined over particular lengths of time. And we use even numbers/counts because that’s where the emphasis is in swing. I prefer to think about a song as one long series of beats in time. Some of the beats are emphasised. Some groups of beats are emphasised. Some musicians only play some of the beats. And so on.

So the most important part of dancing is that you carry that consistent beat within your body all the time. All your movements must come from this, both in a creative sense, but also in terms of biomechanics. You use the ‘bounce’ or engagement of core muscles to make a pivoting kick work. You use the ‘groove’ to connect with your partner and the music.

Anyhoo, because I find it so difficult to understand why people have trouble distinguishing between 6 and 8 (or want to distinguish), I’m really looking forward to the session. We have some fun exercises set up, and that group has lots of opinions, so I’m really keen to learning more about how they’re thinking about music.

Teaching. Could anything be better? No.

2 Replies to “Teaching and joy”

  1. I love reading your thoughts on this! I do frequently feel conflicted about the balance between making things very clear and straight-forward (this is the 8-count basic, this is how it’s danced) vs. testing students’ learning styles with a more Socratic approach (here are the building blocks of movement, where can we use or not use them in this phrase?).

    Also, I’d want to hear your thoughts about how you integrate lead “listening” skills in a beginning class.

    1. Lori, it’s like you were at our last teaching meeting: you’ve picked out our two main teaching concerns at the moment.
      1. Making sure students (beginners especially) have a clear idea of what they’ve learnt/are learning.
      2. Encouraging leads to think about follows as contributing, therefore learning how to listen to follows.

      With 1, we had some concerns that students would come away from classes thinking they hadn’t learnt anything. We had make the switch from thinking about ‘content’ as a series of concrete moves or steps, and to thinking about ‘content’ as concepts or skills. But did our students see this?
      We knew our first beginner class taught students how to: find the beat, swing the beat, start on their own on 1 at the beginning of a phrase, use bounce/groove to develop a good connection at the beginning of a dance, touch their partner in a way that developed good ‘connection’ so they could lead and follow, how to lead and follow, floor craft and floor etiquette, social dance skills like how to ask for a dance, and how to interact with a partner on the social floor, collaborative problem solving skills, follows actively maintaining the beat and carrying the rhythm, how to see a new step, then learn by trying it, learn a couple of solid syncopated rhythms, a basic on the spot, a rotating basic, a moving basic, and perhaps a swing out or break step, etc etc etc.

      This all sounds quite amazing to us, if you’ve been dancing for a while, because these seem such abstract skills. But humans can really just do all these things before they reach a dance class. We just let them figure it out.
      But new dancers don’t know that what they’re doing is amazing. So:
      – we signpost their accomplishments for them during class: eg we say “I saw someone do X and I loved it” and then we explain why that is a great thing.
      – at the end of the class we list all the things they’ve done: social danced whole songs, learnt x number of moves, learnt to social dance, etc etc etc.
      – we give them one really hard thing to do.
      – we are honest about their progress – if they’re not quite nailed it, we tell them. If they nail it, we tell them. If it’s technically accurate but lacks swing, we tell them. If it’s wonderful, we tell them.
      – we address them as a cohort/group, and only give individual feedback when they’re social dancing as a group. This helps them think as a whole group, and keeps self esteem high.

      One big problem with this approach: they come away thinking the class was too easy. Because Lennart was right: lindy hop is a very simple dance. And teaching and learning this way is pretty easy and fun. So they often find (esp if they’re looking for conventional learning bench marks – eg grades) that they think this is too easy. They don’t have a list of concrete ‘achievements’.

      So the biggest challenge is making the shift from conventional learning and achievement markers to more useful social dancing markers.
      It’s been a challenge for us at teachers to adopt this approach as well!

      2. Encouraging leads to ‘listen’ to follows.
      This is a tricky one, because it involves a complete revision of everything we usually think about lindy hop.
      Things we do:
      – we ask partners to ‘get into this position’ and then we stand there and they look and recreate it.
      – we note ‘points of interest’ eg where the lead’s hand and arm are on the follow’s body. But if I’m leading, I say “I don’t know Alice’s body as well as she does, so I’ll ask her: Alice, is my hand in the right place on your back?” And then Alice will move it up or down, and say “Hmm, could be a bit higher… yep, that’s great.” Then we get them to turn to their partner and try it with their words. And we say “You can’t just say, ‘yeah, it’s fine.’ You need to give them a real answer.” The room explodes into noise. They learn from the very first moment that partnerships require communication and collaboration.
      – we explain the physical contact as a way of giving and receiving information with your partner: lines of communication. Then we demonstrate. eg I say “Look at your joined hands. Are you knuckles white? Then you’re probably squeezing your partner’s hand too tight. And remember that’s a way of saying “Eeee! I’m stressing out!” So check in with your body now and then: what are you telling your partner via these lines of communication?”

      We have a few of these. The other is when we say to follows, “Have a look at your left hand on the lead’s shoulder. Do you have the claw of panic happening? If you do, you’re saying to your partner ‘eee! I’m freaking out!’ So check in with your body. How do you feel? Are you ok?” We have some of these for leads, and some for follows, and because we address them as something we all do, it makes both partners realise that we both send and receive information to our partners all the time.
      One I really like is when they’re moving about the floor or just getting to know the rhythm, we say to them, “It’s not just the lead who’s responsible for keeping the rhythm. Follows, you’re not just a passenger along for the ride. You’re both responsible for keeping time and finding the rhythm. So leads if you’re feeling a bit lost or overwhelmed, use those lines of communication to listen to your follow: they’ll let you know where the beat is. You’re both responsible for looking after the music.”
      That last one is really incredible – it soothes stressy leads, and it stops follows blaming leads for ‘not getting it right’. It makes them both _partners_ and both responsible for working together.

      [Side track: We dole out these bits of info over a class, not all in one blob at the beginning. eg I have started only teaching the rock step at the end of the third quarter of the class. Before that it’s a step step under them. So when they have it sort of together, they start asking questions like “How do I know when the rhythm starts again?” or “It changes feet – I start on my left, but then it goes to my right.” These questions tell me they’re a bit confused about the progression of time during a song. So they need some markers. Then we say “Ok, let’s look at that step-step which is where we begin our rhythm. Let’s make it a little different, let’s make it a rock step, where we step in a slightly different direction….now we have a marker.” This is important because it stops them putting the emphasis on the rock step (on 1 in particular) in a swing out (when the emphasis should be on the triple step, and on 2 rather than 1). We also add in information about ‘giving the triple step more attention’ when we’re looking at letting go in a circle (ie a swing out) – they learn to see parts of the rhythm as the cue or sign post for when to do things or how to move their body.]

      [side track 2: I’ve recently made a big shift from the idea that we need to teach beginners ‘everything useful’ in the first 5 minutes of a class. No, that’s how an experienced dancer thinks: “These are all the essentials.” But a beginner has different priorities. First they need to make friends with the music. Then they need to know how to introduce themselves to a partner. Then they need to learn a rhythm. etc etc etc. So I’ve started adding bits of info slowly during the class, as their questions indicate their interests/concerns.]

      – I like an exercise (esp for a group who’s really struggling) where we have them face their partner without touching, and they imagine they are showing their partner how the basic rhythm works. As though they’re teaching them, so they have to pay attention to see if they’re getting it. We see immediately clearer, better rhythms, but they learn to watch and pay attention to their partner straight away

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