We are all good dancers: in praise of jazz and critique of jargon

Lindy hop is a social dance. That means that ordinary people already have the skills they need to do this dance.

Our job as teachers is to just to remind them of this. Because they knew this when they were children.
If we ‘correct’ students and use jargon to make something simple complicated, they feel bad and think dancing is really hard. Dancing isn’t. Lindy hop is really simple.

So I just don’t use that ‘tension/tone’ paradigm for understanding lindy hop. I just have three rules:
take care of your partner
take care of the music
take care of yourself.
Done.

Sheryl asked this good question on fb (as part of a discussion about rough leads and safety):

What difference do you think different terms like tone/ tension/ activate/ turning off make? Honestly to me the main difference I think of between tone and tension is how muscles feel when exercising vs when my muscles are sore. Which is tension is my muscles doing the same thing just one is when it shouldn’t be.

I don’t really know how to address that issue using those terms (I’m just not good enough at this stuff). Mostly I just reject that entire paradigm. I don’t think of dancing that way, so I don’t use those words.

But from the POV of teaching new dancers, when you say ‘tension’, they interpret it using their own experiences (and many of them won’t have done any serious or consistent exercise or training). So they’ll think ‘tense’ as a bad thing, and recreate a tense, tight muscle. Same with the word ‘frame’: they’ll think of a picture frame, or the frame of a chair – something fixed, solid, unmoving, unchanging. And that’s absolutely not what we want in lindy hop. Or humans.

I don’t like ‘tone/tension’ because it’s applied to all muscles and all actions in the same way. It also makes it clear that students know nothing and must rely on their teacher 100% to learn to dance. It also makes classes very wordy and focussed on talking rather than dancing. I want students to figure things out on their own. I want them to know that they have the skills they need to learn to dance: they know how to hold someone in their arms, how to find the beat in music, how to stand on one leg, how to walk, how to look at someone, how to take care of someone. They’re also brilliant pattern matchers so they’ll figure out rhythms and patterns quite quickly. And most importantly: this is FUN. It’s dancing, not maths.

So I prefer to come at it from the opposite direction.

What do you want them to do?

Hold hands? Then ask them to hold hands, but hold hands like they’re holding hands with their elderly nanna who needs some support, but is still an independent human being. So gentle, but reassuring. Or like they’re holding hands with a little kid who needs direction because they get distracted, but knows how to walk. Or hold hands with someone they want to move around a small confined space with to music. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THEY’RE DOING.

People know how to do this. And they understand the difference between holding hands like that and holding hands so tight it hurts someone. In our classes we then follow up this sort of instruction by saying “Check in with your body. Look at your hands. Are the knuckles white? Too tight a grip. Are your shoulders sore? You’re working too hard.” And we say “Check in with your partner. Look at them. Do they have a scared face on? Are they angry? Is their hand clenched really tight? Change what you’re doing and see what response it has.”
Or as Frankie would say: “You are in love for 3 minutes.” So you look at them, you look at them with admiration. Which orients your body towards them and gives you good ‘dance posture’ and connection, but also tells you how to hold their hand. You wouldn’t yank your beloved’s arm out of the socket. You look at them and interact with them.

We know how to do all this.

So we want them to hold hands with intention. We always use the example : you want your follow to come with you. So you lead them. It’s like you’re saying ‘hey, let’s go to the snack table!’ and you lead them to the snack table with purpose.
This way you get to the important stuff: moving your body first, holding hands, moving with purpose, making sure you take them with you. And there’s corresponding stuff for follows.
The rhythm is just the tool for moving you around the floor. If there’s no room to move, you dance on the spot. A fancy rhythm is just a fancy way of walking. And the music tells you what rhythms are nice, and paying attention to your partner gives you inspiration and marks the parameters of this dance.
The other people on the dance floor give you limits: a crowded floor means you do smaller shapes. A floor full of noobs and drinkers and kids tells you to be super safe. An empty floor lets you stretch out. You adapt.

Too many dancers learn a set of figures in class in a ‘perfect’ studio environment. Then when they social dance they just try to reproduce those moves in the same way on the social dance floor. Which isn’t sociable at all.
We need to use all our potential as flexible, responsive, reactive, creative improvising humans. Not just reproduce the same figures the same way all the time, regardless of song, other people on the floor, or our partner.

(This is where I rant about leads who only like follows who execute their moves perfectly: they’re not good leads. They’re very limited leads. So those guys who hurt you demonstrated an inability to change what they were doing to suit their partner’s needs and body and creativity. Same with follows who think a ‘good lead’ is a lead who only leads complex series of moves that work perfectly.)

I think that in lindy hop we focus too much on our arms, rather than thinking of our arms as a medium for a message. They’re like the cables that signals coming from our core pass through to reach our partner. They’re not the place where signals begin. Our arms join us together. They’re just one of the ways we share rhythms: we use our eyes (which is why I don’t like exercises where we close our eyes in class), we use our bodies, our ears, our connection with the floor, and then we use all the points where we touch, not just our arms or hands. And then finally (or first of all) the music connects us: we have a shared sense of time that keeps us together. Even when we’re not touching and can’t see each other, we know when to come back together – the 1 or the phrase or the bridge tells us!

So in nerd terms, I want relaxed, alert but not alarmed arms. Much more importantly, I want my weight on the front part of my foot (but not tippy toes), I want a neutral spine (so my bum muscles can relax unless they’re needed), which means my bum can be ‘out’ (to give me better ‘squat’ posture to engage my core and protect my knees), my knees are soft, my upper body is open and directed towards my partner. My embrace (closed position) is an embrace, where I touch my partner a lot (ie the follow isn’t clamping my bicep with a vice like grip) and our bodies make a v-shape at the closed side.
I’m aiming for relaxed contact, as relaxed as I can. But my pelvic floor is ON.
But these are ideal conditions. If I’m constantly working towards this ‘ideal’, I’ll never get there and I’ll never enjoy dancing. I’ll never be ‘good enough’. We are all good dancers, and we can all do this, right from our first class. We need to accept that we are all different, with different bodies (not this mythical ideal), so we see these variations as creative posbilities, not limitations.

To be honest, I don’t think a dance class is where you learn this muscle stuff. I think you need to do pilates or good strength training with a trainer to learn how to turn muscles on and off, and to be more efficient. Then you go to dance class. Just as the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers all had active physical jobs and lifestyles (because young, working class, African American people) during the day. Most lindy hoppers today have desk jobs, or less active lifestyles, so we’re working with a different physicality.
But none of that matters if you’re not focussed on becoming a competition winning queen.

Because I’m rhythm-focussed rather than move-focussed, I want that relaxed connection to let the signals move through my and my partner’s body so we can communicate. I don’t want to have to micro-manage my partner’s movements. I can have a most excellent dance with just circles, closed position, gliding. We needn’t even get into open position. And you can do that with anyone.

But when I’m talking to beginner dancers, I don’t give them all that talk. It’s just a bunch of words and too much info.
We demonstrate how to do closed position by hugging our partner then turning slightly. They mightn’t do that (too intense for a first class), but they see the example.

We demonstrate open position by holding hands then moving away; the connection is made by the distance, not by ‘tensing’ our muscles. It’s an active connection because our cores are on, and we have a 3/4 orientation to our partner (ie not facing away, not squaring up).

I don’t say all that, though, I just say, ‘look at your partner as you move into open’ and that keeps them at that 3/4 orientation towards their partner, and keeps their heads up, which keeps their shoulders open and the signal from their core through their arms unimpeded. If they’re comfortable with the rhythm by then (which they usually are), doing that rhythm will turn on their core and allow their upper bodies to relax a bit. If they’re having fun they will be relaxed.

If the follow doesn’t move into open, I ask the leads, “Did you stop moving? If you stopped moving, the follow will stop too.” And they realise they’d stopped the rhythm and were standing still.

If I want more core engagement, I don’t say ‘turn on your core’, I get them to do a one-legged jazz step (charleston), or ‘shake it down’ (ie Frankie’s bum jiggle into the ground). Because those steps require core engagement for balance and control – you can’t do them without your core on. Or I distract them with a joke so they relax and laugh and suddenly: core is on. Laughing: core activation. If they’re super tense so their partners can’t feel their core, I let them dance for a veeeery long time with that partner so that they stop being worried and relax. Talk. Enjoy the music.

If they’re too tense in their upper bodies and dragging their partners around, it’s because they’re relying on their partner for balance, and are not hauling arse. In other words, a rough, yanky lead is not moving their body enough, and is relying on their arms to drag the follow into position. If instead you haul arse and move yourself, the follow will come with you because it’s just the easiest option: “Come to the snacks table – they have ice cream!” Skye is a good example of this, so is Sakarias, and so is Frankie. They achieve great shapes by moving their own bodies first, which creates interesting shapes by the time the follow moves.

I think jargon works as exclusive language. It shuts people out of dancing. It gives power and privilege to the people who ‘know’ these words. And I don’t like that.

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