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October 12, 2008

liveblogging showdown... from sydney...

Posted by dogpossum on October 12, 2008 12:06 PM in the category lindy hop and other dances

[EDIT: sadness of sadnesses, the clip I was referencing has been taken down from youtube already. I wish I'd downloaded it :( ]

The Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown is on right now, as I type. Check out that website for interesting site design, sweet pics, interesting judges' essays, outlines of competition formats.

This year is interesting, not simply for the dancing (which I shall set aside with the aside that it is really quite GREAT), but for its teknikkal mediation.

I have faceplant friends whose updates are letting me know that they are at Showdown, getting ready, resting up, watching clips, catching up with friends and about to go dancing (one of the frustrations of faceplant's updates and twittering is that you can never tell people, honestly that you are actually dancing at that moment - you are always about to dance or have just been dancing or are thinking about dancing). And I've just been watching some of the very first bits of footage from the event on Youtube. Here's one:

(J&J finals, ULHS 2008)

This is the finals of a jack and jill competition. Jack and Jills are perhaps the most interesting competitions if you're looking for real leading and following. These guys don't usually dance together (though the pool of dancers frequenting this event is really quite small at this 'elite' level), and they're certainly not dancing choreographed sequences - everything you see is improvised. There is, of course, a large shared pool of steps - both 'modern' and 'historic' - which each dancer knows. And each dancer is of course expected to bring their own particular flavour.

The competition involves a number of heats:
- dancers enter as individuals
- dancers are paired up with a partner, randomly (usually a die is thrown)
- dancers dance with that partner
- dance partners are 'shuffled' randomly and the new partners dance together
- dance partners are shuffled again and paired with a final partner, with whom they move through too the finals and will dance with for the rest of the competition.

The number of shuffles and new partners depends on the specific competition, though a couple of shuffles is usually required - one isn't really enough (you want to see people dance with at least three partners).

The fun of this competition lies in the partner shuffling. And in seeing just how well dancers adjust to and work with their new partners. Familiar partners offer an immediate - or faster - pathway to creative rapport. But an unfamiliar partner must be adjusted to. Will the lead allow the follow to 'bring it'? Will the follow know when to bring it and when to 'listen'? There are moments when both partners are 'listening', when both are 'shouting' and when the happy conversational midground is met. Jack and Jills can be awkward, they can be magic and they can be just plain old good fun.
They're my favourite type of competition, and I enter them whenever I can. I find it's much easier to lead than follow in a Jack and Jill - you're setting the tone and choosing the steps. You can leave the follow some space if you feel her wanting to bust out. As a follow, you really have to wait and wait and wait for your partner to hear your contribution, and it's more than likely that he won't. Or that when you finally get some space, you come in shouting and it all dissolves into one of those bad arguments you have at 1am when you're overtired and really should be in bed.

Any how, back to Showdown and some really nice Jack and Jilling. The one thing I've noticed about Showdown in recent years is how similar the dancers are all becoming. I wonder if it's because they're all dancing and working together now more than ever? But at any rate, the diversity in dance styles has diminished in recent years - even Frida is looking like 'just another follow', when she always was 'FRIDA' (this is not to suggest that she sucks: she is still the Queen, the Boss and my favourite).

If you check out that clip, you'll see some interesting things going on in the filming and competition structure, both things which mediate your viewing or experience of the competition from a distance. If we were there to watch, we'd be caught up in the adrenaline of the live performance. There is no sitting calmly and objectively by in this type of competition: dancers need your energy, your shouting, your vocal and visual feedback. The band is live, and they're also in on the performance - they're responding to dancers, to the audience, to what they see and hear. And as a member of that audience, we're caught up in that loop. We're also all dancers, so we're 'dancing along' with the people in the competition.

But when you're watching via youtube, from the other side of the planet from the other side of the day, the experience is a little different. If you're still a dancer, and used to this social competition format, you're still 'living' the competition along with the dancers and audiences, especially if you're watching without fast forwarding or pausing, and if your interwebs connection is speedy. You're reading what you see as a dancer would - you're watching for the highlights, for the points of connection between partners, the missed leads, the dancers' reactions to these errors and moments of miscommunication. Do they laugh? Do they cringe? Do they panic? Do you laugh with them? Do you cringe in sympathy? Do you panic with them?

And where is the camera in all this? I read an article* on the Warlpiri media collective the other day where the author described the ways in which the camera itself must be given a 'skin' (or at the very least a specific, proscribed viewing position) when filming important stories. For the persons being filmed and involved in the filming process to know how to relate to the filming process, and for the final film's audiences to know how to watch the filming, the camera must be slotted into a specific social position and set of relationships within the community. When we watch a dancer's amateur filmclip of a dance competition, we are similarly identifying with the 'author's' social viewing position. We are 'the audience' - both at home in front of the computer, and squished into a spot on the dance floor watching the competitors. We are also dancers. It's been interesting to see how the technicalities of filming a competition like this affect the way we inhabit these positions as audience. When I say that we are watching as dancers, it is not just that we are watching with the physical, social, emotional and musical memories of our own dancing experiences.

Let me take one example.
This type of competition is a relatively recent incarnation of the lindy hop competition format. Let me describe an earlier, alternative format. Over the SLX weekend I participated in and watched some 'serious' lindy competitions. Dancers would dance to one song, all together on the floor in an 'all skate' 'warm up'. Then they would be seated along the back of the 'stage' area, watching as couples took turns dancing for one minute, alone in a 'spot light' to one song. Then there was another all skate, and we were done. As an audience member, the format was not only seriously dull, it was also frustratingly lifeless. The seated competitors provided no visual or emotional interest: they couldn't dance or move along with dancers, filling in the background with extra layers of rhythm and visual interest. They couldn't interact with the audience and competitors - there was no cheering, no visual or physical 'response' to what they saw. As a competitor, I found it stifling to sit so inactively on the sidelines, waiting for my turn to show off. I also found it emotionally confusing - first I was 'on', when I was dancing, then I was 'off' as I waited for my turn. It was, in the sense of spoken discourse analysis, a very 'white', very masculine example of formal turn taking. There was no collaborative meaning making or supportive 'interaction' as you might hear from a group of women gossiping. There was no logical and cumulative emotional development as each heat progressed - we couldn't build energy and emotion from the start to the climax. We were up/down/on/off. Boring and frustrating for both audience and dancers.

But compare this with the Showdown format in the clip above. All dancers begin on the floor in an 'all skate'. Four phrases - 8 bars - later (at about 1.08) all but one couple move off the floor. This is, I think, a new development - usually the first couple begins at the first phrase while the others watch and wait in an line in order of entry. I like this new version. Immediately, the couples must show that they a) understand phrasing, and b) that they have the visual and spatial sense to know how to move themselves (and their partners) off the floor and out of the way of the first couple. This isn't a trick for new dancers, but it's certainly something any dancer should have if they've been dancing for a little while. It's interesting, musically, because it suggests that the band should be using a 4 phrase introduction: "hello, here's the head/theme, here're the instruments, here are the dancers." It's a lovely way of bringing everyone together, musically, thematically, physically. It's also very much a marker of swinging jazz structures.
The first couple then dances for four phrases (until 2.06), coinciding with the first solo (a trumpet). Sweeeeet. I'm not sure if there was a confusion in how long each couple had to dance, as that lead looks up at about two phrases and makes as if to clear the way for the next couple. Either he didn't realise he had four phrases, or the next couple failed to make their entrance after the second. Musically, it makes more sense for a couple to have four phrases rather than two. It's more common for a couple to take one phrase (in a traditional 'jam' format) if the music is slow, and two if the music is faster.

The part that interests me is the way the camera begins to turn at the end of the second phrase 'looking' for the next couple. Is it following the first lead's lead? Or does it also know that the couples were to have only two phrases and an error has been made? The camera's movement encourages our thinking - from the other side of youtube - that there's been an error or miscommunication. Whether there has or not.

Either way, the fascinating part of all this is the way the format is sufficiently flexible that it can adjust for these errors and miscommunications. It's all still 'fair' because each couple will have a few turns, and their later 'turns' will be more interesting, as they and the audience 'warms up'. It's also fun - as audience and competitor - to see how a couple adjusts to these on the spot changes. They must be sufficiently cool and relaxed to not get all freaky and anal about the changes. They must have the musical skills to hear and respond to these new changes (if I were leading, I'd think 'ok, we're using 4 phrases now, not 2' and adjust my leading and combination of moves to suit), and they must also begin listening for new things in the musicians' playing to suit these new parameters.

[I have to point out: that first lead, Todd Yannacone, would have to be my pick for most musically amazing lead. He not only embodies the smaller musical embellishments, but also the broader structures of the song. He can hear and dance and lead the phrasing, the notes, the musicians' emphases and embellishments... and he functions as an instrument in himself, bringing another layer of rhythm and chromatic interest to what he hears. As a dancer, it's like synesthesia - we see what we hear and feel. And when it works, it's like taking a hit of ecstasy it's so pleasurable... which of course implies that a dancer's ignoring the musical structures is jarring and uncomfortable - both aesthetically and socially. And it is.]

At 3.05 that couple leaves and the next enters. But if you watch the competitors lined up in the background, you can see that they're all dancing with the competitors - they're completely invested in what they see. This is in part because they're 'on' - they're about to compete and they've already begun working and listening to the music. It's helpful, when you're competing, to be 'dancing' to the music, invested in the structures and relationships within the band, and so already 'dancing' and 'making' music. You're not starting cold. For everyone - audience, competitor, musician - the mood can be developed, cumulatively, over the course of the song. The band can pass around solos, everyone having a go at bringing their thing to the song (sounds a lot like the dancers - who take turns doing 'solos' in the 'jam', bringing their thing, contributing to the general 'dance' or 'song'). Each lead - each couple - brings their own, unique style and visual embodiment of the music. The couple would not work if the follow didn't also contribute to the lead's contribution - she not only adds her own styling, but maintains the momentum of his moves, carries his rhythm in her body, reflecting it, adding to it, developing and re-working it within his creative structures. It's not that he's the boss, but that they have to work together to make it work - left and right hands on a piano, two musicians within a band, etc etc etc.

It's interesting at about 4.05 that you see how a jack and jill pairs up two dancers with disimilar personalities. The lead is exuberant, exaggerated, comedic, big. The follow is less extroverted - her following is wonderfully accurate and reflects what her lead follows. But when it comes to that moment when he looks to her and asks her to do as he does - large, exaggerated, silly, comedic arm and leg movements - she hesitates. She no doubt has a moment of 'omg'. She likes to watch him, to see his styling, but she's not quite ready to commit to that level of uninhibited performance. She's obviously really enjoying dancing with him, but this moment, this type of movement... it's not really her thing. But I like it that he 'asks' her - he looks to her, moves and then invites her to join it. It's not an error or a screw up, it's a nice moment of 'would you like to...?' and 'oh man, this is crazy!'

This is the sort of public negotiation of leading and following that makes jack and jill comps so interesting and so much fun: we get to see new couples negotiate the terms of their relationship in public. It's kind of like getting to watch a new couple dating - will she laugh at his jokes? Will he know when to stop teasing her? Will they laugh at the same things? These are all things that I wrote about at length in my thesis. When we imagine dance as public discourse, and social dance (or improvised dance) as social discourse, we can read dance as a space in which public social identities and relationships are negotiated.

Throughout this, it's interesting to watch the camera work. The camera shakes and moves more when the dancers are doing larger, more emotionally exuberant movements. If this were a 'proper' film, we'd say that this was to emphasise the emotion of the moment. But this is not choreographed camera work - it is a dancer filming dancers, and we can almost feel their emotional and physical response to what they see - the camera moves with the dancers. The dancer filming is moving with the dancers they're watching.

I was reading somewhere (goodness knows where**), that one of the satisfactions of watching elite dancers dancing is being able to work through the complex movements with the people we watch, feeling some emotional, problem-solving pleasure in their (superior) ability. I'd argue that it's more than simply the pleasure of seeing a movement competently executed; it's about the pleasure of a social conversation resolved without conflict or embarrassment. There is a special pleasure in watching a lead leading their follow kindly and with social sensitivity - they do not allow their follow to be publicly embarrassed by an inappropriate or socially discomforting step. They allow their follow to 'speak' and do not frustrate them by speaking 'at' them for the duration of the dance. This is something that follows in particular respond to when they watch leaders with good 'social dancing skills' - they will remark that that leader looks 'fun' or 'gives the follow space' or 'nice'. This positive reading of accomplished social interaction (in a public space!) might be transferred to or complimented by an acknowledgement of their physical appearance and appeal. In other words, a lead who is reasonably ok looking will get hotter by the minute if he's leading generously. More generally, I've heard women dancers remark many times that they didn't like a lead until they danced with him. I myself have felt previous animosities or resentments mediated by a 'nice' dance with an attentive lead. It's not too surprising, really - it is all social interaction, really. And we are social animals.

I have to point out a lovely moment in the phrase beginning about 4.34. The leader moves into a wide, sliding slide. The follow follows. Often, at these moments, there's not a lot a follow can do beyond watching and letting the lead have his moment to 'shine'. There is some interesting gender performance at work here: women as crutch to male performance in public space? Lindy hop is, thankfully, a dance that requires both male and female 'performance' - the swing out is fundamentally dependent on both partners taking advantage of the time in open to 'bring it' - swivels, jazz steps, whatever. So when we see this lead (and I think it's one of the Italian or French leads - his movements scream European masculine swank) pull his stunt, it could have been a moment all about him: she could simply have stood and waited, doing something small to showcase his showing off. Or she could have done the (socially unthinkable) less nice ignoring or defusing of his movements by bringing her own fancy shit. But as it plays out, there's some nice cooperative play happening here.
He pulls his stunt. She lets him complete it, then echoes his posture with a wide legged on-her-heels pose (both of which, incidentally, nicely echo the sustained note of the violin), which she concludes with some funny foot-waggling. She's looking down at her feet (and his, initially), and this draws our attention down with her gaze, as does her lifting her skirt (international lindy hop symbol for 'look at me!'). As she wiggles her feet, he's giving her time to stand there (offering some support with his stable upper body), complementing with some stomp offs. His moving lower body reminds us that the music is moving on, our gaze moves up, following his arms, and we see his lovely 'twittery' hands echoing her twittery waggling feet and the twittery waggling violin (in a call and response). And these two 8s (just 16 bars!) conclude with some nice 'together' movements, her lifted head and moving gaze freeing us from her feet, his calm waiting bringing us back to his (lovely, stable) body, and then there's a little flourish from them both, and it's done.

The crowd dig it. It feels really nice. This is the magical part of lindy hop - the dancers make shit up. The musicians make shit up. People listen to each other, talk to each other. The audience signals its approval and participation. And then it's done and we move on. That's the stuff that brings me back to lindy hop. And this isn't even the most amazing or fabulous stunt. It's just a little something that makes jack and jills fun - they don't dance together, it's not rehearsed, it's just lovely cooperative musical creative play. And we're all there with them.

Unfortunately this clip ends before the end of the competition. But, as in the Revolution finals, there will have been an all-skate to finish it off. One last chorus where everyone - dancers, musicians, everyone - comes together to finish off the song. The energy usually peaks just about there - the music is pumping, the dancers are all dancing - our eyes and minds and bodies are super-stimulated by all that sound and movement. It feels really good. It looks kinda messy and jumbled if you don't read dance, but it sounds sweet.

I'm looking forward to watching the rest of the clips from the weekend. I'm very sorry we can't have live streaming Showdown to watch here in Sydney, but delayed youtubing will have to do (and goddess bless the folk who post their stuff on youtube).
This post is, I guess, an example of the type of work I did in my thesis, and the type of things that pound through my brain when I watch footage of dancers (though I'm very rarely thinking at all when I'm dancing in these things - when I was leading in the J&J final at SLX all I could possibly think was 'don't pass out now and let your follow down' as we passed over 230bpm and my systems started to shut down. Sometimes all that you have room for in your body is sensation.

*That article was one of these, probably the second one (I can't be arsed checking):
Michaels, E. (1987) “How Walpiri People Make Television”, For a Cultural Future, Artspace: Melbourne, pp 18-28.

Langton, M. (1993) “Cultural Specificity in Aesthetics and Production”, from Well I heard it on the Radio and I saw it on the Television, Australian Film Commission: Sydney, pp59-73.

**but probably here (thanks to Dust For Eyes for original linkage)

Posted by dogpossum on October 12, 2008 12:06 PM in the category lindy hop and other dances