Key skills: rhythm, timing, jamming

Rethinking lindy hop via tap and African dance.

Some of the skills I think are essential for lindy hop:

  1. Having a sense of time.
  2. Having a sense of swung timing and straight timing.
  3. Being able to hear a rhythm once and then repeat it immediately.
  4. Jamming: Being able to communicate very clearly your sense of time in order to improvise.
  5. Jamming: Being able to keep track of where bars and phrases are so as to improvise.
  6. Jamming: improvising in real time with other people.
  7. In summary…

1. Having a sense of time.
Knowing where ‘1’ or ‘4’ is, or where a phrase ends or begins.

  • In a tap jam, this means being able to clap on 1 of the beginning of a 2-bar sequence (or 4-bar sequence), as well as tapping lightly on the even counts all the time, and tapping an improvised rhythm on top when it’s our turn.
  • ie knowing how long a bar (4 counts) is in a particular time. Without counting in your head or out loud, really.
  • I now find thinking in bars more useful than thinking in 8s. In my head, a ‘swing out’ is 4 counts of a rhythm on one foot, then that same 4 count rhythm on the other foot).
  • For lindy hop, this means that both partners understand which beats to emphasise (eg not making a rock step really huge/long on 1, or kicking on 8 for a fall off the log); both partners are carrying the beat in their bodies, but also a sense of the whole song as hear it (eg a ‘groove’); and both partners trust each other to come back to those basic structures after improvising.

2. Having a sense of swung timing and straight timing.
Knowing a rhythm or step (like a stomp off or a shuffle), but being able to dance it straight or swinging.

  • In lindy hop that might mean the difference between doing a triple step as 1-2-3 (as in cha cha) and 3 &4. Both of these are legit, but only if you choose the one you’re dancing. Being able to control this then means you are better able to stop it being a hoppy-uppy feeling when you want downy-groundedy feeling.
  • In lindy it also means trusting your partner to be able to dance swung and straight rhythms, and to have a sense of the basic beat while experimenting with syncopation, swinging, straight etc etc timing. Both of you doing different things at the same time!

3. Being able to hear a rhythm once and then repeat it immediately.
For example, as in the game I-go, you-go.

  • Being able to hear a rhythm and repeat it immediately, in time.
  • Being able to see a rhythm and reproduce it with the same part of the body/foot immediately.
  • The better a dancer, the longer a sequence they can repeat immediately. So memory, understanding, reproduction, and recognition skills are all key. And then of course being able to hear and then reproduce two rhythms at once is the next step.
  • In Herrang 2017, we did this in lindy hop classes as solo dancers, in tap classes, in african dance classes, and in solo jazz classes, but it has clear applications to lindy hop.
  • This means scatting, clapping, tapping our feet, flexing our muscles, patting our bodies, turning our bodies, nodding our heads, all of these are ways of communicating a rhythm.
  • => It takes practice to get good at doing this, and at reading this in a partner’s body.
  • A lot of people talk about this in terms of following, where a follow recognises a lead’s rhythm, then joins in immediately. But that’s a very simple, boring way of thinking about leading and following. And these skills are absolutely essential for tap and solo dance. ie dancing. If you can’t do this, you can’t pick up a time step for a tap jam.
  • I think that this skill is severely under-emphasised in lindy hop. It’s not about ‘footwork’ per se, but as understanding a rhythm, then being able to reproduce it with your body. Any and all parts of your body.
  • I don’t think enough leaders can do this. They see themselves as dancing rhythms at follows, which a follow then dances back or not. Or rather, they don’t even get that far: they think ‘I am swinging us out’ and just assume the follow will do the shape they want. And they think of ‘swing outs’ as having one fixed basic rhythm unless it has a ‘variation’. And if the follow doesn’t magically join in, they see it as ‘not following’ or ‘hijacking’.
    This ‘magic following’ is often discussed as ‘just following’. When I think it’s really ‘just copying’. And as we all know, copying is legit, but it is just the very first step in creative work and joy.
  • Instead, I think of leading and following as sharing rhythms with a partner, where you can dance a rhythm over the basic, which your partner then joins in or echoes, or you can both dance rhythms at the same time which are complementary. And the best thing of all things ever.
  • I do this with my tap friends. I’m a bubb tapper, so I lay down a basic rhythm, which I have to keep steady and consistent while they improvise on top. We both find it immensely satisfying, creative, and challenging. Even though one of us is a bub, and one of us is a ninja.
  • In lindy hop, this communication of rhythm isn’t just about footwork (which is where I see a lot of modern lindy hop thinking about rhythm). The timing of a tuck turn, for example, is also a rhythm. The use of stretch from a cross-hand hold where you turn your body into your own crossed arm affects timing and can create a delay that then is followed by a faster sequence as you ‘unwind’ into something faster. And so on. All this on top of footwork.
  • Footwork is functional: yes it can have fancy rhythm, but it really is just a way of getting from A to B. So a follow doesn’t need a magic spidey sense to know whether it’s a 6 or 8 count shape. They just do the steps that get them from A to B. And in a 6 count shape we just get from A to B in less time – 2 fewer counts – than in an 8 count shape.
  • I tend to think of ‘styling’ as always coming from the rhythm.
    eg when I jump up REALLY high, it takes a longer time than if I jump low, and my arms may want to fly up higher, creating a ‘flying’ shape. So my ‘eagle slide’ arm shape (styling) may come from how high I move the scoop/side part of the eagle slide. As an extremely fashionable and cool person, I might want to add some sweet 45* angles to my wrists and some nice flat planes to my hands. Boom. Styling.
    And I always, really think that the best styling is just your own personality pouring out of you. Which is why beginners are the best: they just feel feels and don’t know how to ‘style’ their feels yet.

4. Jamming: Being able to communicate very clearly your sense of time in order to improvise.
What and where is ‘the beat’.

  • Being able to work within a specific structure.
  • In a tap jam or a band, you all agree what the time is. In lindy hop, you take a few breaths to find a shared sense of time and ‘groove’ before you start swinging out or whatevs.
  • In lindy hop you need to use your body and the way you touch someone to add to this communication. So we often talk about relaxed muscles, energised muscles, arms touching backs, backs touching arms, ‘returning connection’, etc etc etc. I think we do a lot of that ‘naturally’ as humans holding hands or embracing someone. But obviously we refine these lines of communication as we do more dancing.
  • => even though a beginner may not have a nuanced sense of physical connection/touch, they have a very good visual communication skill set (they can see when someone is happy or excited or whatevs), and they can hear the music, and they can scat. They’re also good at recognising patterns. So we don’t start from ‘nothing’ when we do lindy hop.

5. Jamming: Being able to keep track of where bars and phrases are so as to improvise.

  • These are traditionally places to pass a turn in a jam to someone else, or a place to begin or end, or a place that frames a rhythmic sequence.
  • I have since started thinking of leading as laying down a time step (eg step step triple step, or step step kick step, kick kick -> lindy hop, or charleston) which the follow then says ‘Ok, yeah, i’m into it’, or not, depending on how they feel.
  • We share that time step with our bodies, but also visually, and verbally with scatting. I strongly believe that we should use all our senses in lindy hop. And we should all signal to our partner that we dig it, hear it, are into it: nodding, saying “Yeah!”, picking it up and repeating, it etc. So a follow is saying, “Yeah!” when they pick up the leader’s lead for a move, and a leader is saying “Yeah!” when they work with what a follow is putting down.
  • Then we use that same rhythm to move through space. When we have that rhythm established as our time step (or ‘basic’), we are free to improvise on top of it. Or jam together. As a lead, I suggest shapes and rhythmic variations to the follow. As a follow, I may or may not choose to do those shapes or rhythms. But both of us need to be very clear in what we are suggesting.
  • I think of lindy hop as jamming, now. That means we touch, don’t touch, stand close together, stand far apart – all that stuff – just like in any other creative communication. Sometimes we synchronise rhythms, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we’re both swinging, sometimes we’re not. We watch each other, we listen to each other, we pay attention and try to pick up the rhythm. And try to keep in time with each other, and give the music our love.
  • => if we focus on our dancing as an attempt to show someone/teach someone a rhythm, we get really clear with it.

6. Jamming: Social dancing = improvisation; jamming = improvisation = social dancing.
You do it with friends because it’s more fun. More inspiring, more invigorating, more challenging. And you can make bigger things.

7. In summary…

  • These are obviously all skills leads and follows need.
  • If you focus on rhythm and timing and music, you tend to focus less on shapes and moves. I’m personally a strong advocate of simple shapes with varying rhythms. eg a circle, dancing on the spot and moving around the floor in closed, then letting go and being in open, dancing in open facing a partner holding one hand, dancing with a partner without touching very close, moving towards and away from a partner without touching. And so on.
  • But then there is also a joy in a complex shape with a complex rhythm pulled off in just the right part of the music with a live band. Right? It’s just a bit boring if that’s all you do. Because swinging jazz is sometimes a very simple, lovely thing. A 32 bar chorus with a bit of improvisation in the bridge, all in a nice swinging timing.
  • In shifting my focus from moves-based teaching and dancing, I found I was a better dancer, and a better teacher. We will never learn all the lindy hop moves. But we can start dancing day one of classes, or the first time we hear a song.
  • If we don’t think of lindy hop in terms of figures, we change the way we think of leading and following. In a moves-based paradigm, the lead suggests moves which the follow may or may not do/complete. Booooring and limited.

If, however, we think of lindy hop as rhythms, music, and partnership first, partners have similar roles, but the skills are still quite specific. I think that leading and following are different but I don’t hold any truck with the unnecessary verbiage and danceplaining we see in a lot of classes. Lindy hop is really simple: you and I dance together to some good music. We improvise when we feel like it. We touch or we don’t. But we are dancing together so we interact. Sometimes we hold each other real close because we love it.
Anyhoo, so if I think like this, I’m not left thinking “But what can I teach follows?” because this is what we teach every student, lead or follow.
That’s the ideal, anyway.

 

In the next post, Key skills: rhythm, timing, jamming and FOLLOWING I’ll work through how I might use these ideas while teaching follows lindy hop.

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