All posts by dogpossum

Pedantry

Vintage: something that is actually old

Retro: something that looks old, but may not necessarily be

Repro: something that looks old, but isn’t; made to exacting specifications to reproduce something old

Old: probably the best word

banjo vs Basie

The perennial argument about big band/classic swing vs small NOLA-inspired bands for lindy hop is in fruit again*. Moldy figs for all.

I have opinions of course, but for now, I’ll just post this:

linky

banjo in a small band with shouter vocalists playing Sent For You Yesterday. It’s NT Basie big band meets the moldiest banjo pluckin small band. How even? Is it wrong? Is it right? Who can say!

*This argument will never die, because people are basically arguing: “We should dance to this type of music because it’s the best!” and both types of music are actually the best.

Another teaching/DJing rant

There’s a discussion about DJing for dancers happening on the facey, and I’ve been doing some pretty hardcore ranting. I need to spend less time in Jive Junction – it’s making me too stroppy.

Anyways, I was ranting about how new DJs often don’t actually play any decent music, and then I was thinking about how that’s usually because they don’t understand what makes a good song, and then I was ranting about teaching lindy hop and how classes need to teach people about the music and how that then helps us get decent DJs.

I wrote this today, and I want to keep it here, because, for once, I actually wrote something with some degree of brevity. Well, brief by my standards.

I’m always a bit sad that people don’t make it easy to love swing music in classes. This music is super fun and super funny, and it makes you feel really good.
Things I wish teachers did more in class (besides just playing more and better music) with beginner students:

  • Play the song the whole way through, and let people dance to it the whole way through.
    How’re you gonna learn to recognise 32 bar chorus or 12 bar blues structures if you don’t hear the whole songs all the way through a lot? How’re you going to learn that swing is _so_ formulaic (and so quite ‘safe’ and unscary to dance to) unless you get to hear the whole song’s whole structure in a safe place like a class?
  • Stop teaching strict patterns or sequences in class.
    If you teach a range of developing steps or feels, then let students dance their way through them in their own time, for a whole song, they get really good at social dancing straight away. They learn to work with a partner, to relax and enjoy the music, to lead and follow, to see how steps work together. They get on top of the ‘moves’ and then start to add their own flavah flave because they’re relaxed. They start listening to the music to find something new and interesting. Then they win lindy hop.
  • Use just one or two songs in class, and play them over and over again, from the beginning to the end.
    It can be a different song each class, but if you work with one song over a whole class, you start to know it really well, and get comfortable with it. You make friends with it. And it has to be a good song, or you’ll go nuts. Classic swing is robust enough to be listened to so many times – hence its overplayedness.
    I think the ‘teach a set sequence of steps’ thing means you then have to do things like push the tempos up to make it interesting. So you then work through a heap of songs in the class, and you don’t get to the song the whole way through.
  • Talk about the song while you’re teaching.
    eg make a joke about a tinkly vibraphone solo, or use Fats Waller’s nicely complicated 4th 8 in a phrase to demonstrate how the break steps in the shim sham hit the breaks in a song. Use different types of music to demonstrate different types of bounce/pulse.
  • Let students count themselves in.
    Do it the first couple of times, but then let them do it. Humans can do this, even in their first class. And it is SO EXCITING to see it!
  • Start students dancing at the beginning of phrases in class.
    So they can hear where phrases start and end. Again, humans figure out how to do this in one class.

If you teach this way, you realise that musicians like Buble or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy don’t do what you need them to do. You realise that My Baby Just Cares For Me (Nina Simone’s) is a great teaching song because it has that nice steady bass line and those weirdo tempo changes. And you realise that Splanky isn’t so great for the very first moments of a very beginner class because its dynamics are so intense, but it is great for dancing it out later in a class.

Naomi Uyama is kind of the business

A little while ago I wrote a review of this album by Naomi Uyama and her Handsome Devils. I was all set to love this album – a fabulous band, a band leader who really knows dance music. But I didn’t. I didn’t like Naomi’s voice, and couldn’t get past it.

So I left it, and didn’t listen to it very many more times. Just enough times to actually be sure I didn’t love it.

But every time I’ve DJed since then, I’ve played this song: Take it easy greasy.

Every. Single. Set. And each time I’ve played it, I’ve found something new and good in it. There’s a moment somewhere in the first third that I noticed when I first DJed it at the MLX late night. I suddenly realised: Naomi has a rhythmic sensibility that only a very good jazz dancer could bring to a song, and it’s quite fantastic. The rest of the band really do pay attention to her, so her voice is really treated as a part of the band. I still don’t really like her voice, but I do like the way she sings. If I think of her as a part of the rhythm section, it’s all good.

I need to repeat the points I made in that first review of the album: Naomi is a really, really good band leader. And being a good band leader is what makes a band great for dancing. Someone has to give this whole collective improvisation enterprise some direction, some structure. And Naomi is one seriously hardcore arse kicker.
It’s also worth noting that she arranged some of the songs on the album. So she’s not just singing songs. She’s managing a band off-stage, she’s arranging the music, she’s leading them on stage (ie keeping that shit together in the moment), she’s selecting the right songs for the audience, AND she’s singing.

Oh, and did you know she can dance? She’s kind of ok at that.

You can smell the drive and focus on her.

process not product in learning dance

Valuing the process rather than the product
I’ve been thinking about this again.
Two of my teaching buddies like to quote Ramona: “As soon as you ‘have’ a step, it’s dead.” The implication being that you should never be ‘done’ with a step, never have ‘learnt’ it.

We use this idea in our approach to our own learning and workshop attendance. You don’t go to a workshop to ‘learn the content’, tick it off your list, add it to your repertoire and so kill it dead. You go to workshops for all sorts of reasons. To work with that teacher. To see how they teach. To be with that group of people, learning with them. Most importantly, to participate in that class, to feel how that teacher manages a class, and to experience that class in that particular moment.

When you approach workshop weekends like this, suddenly every weekend is very exciting, and you never come out of workshops bored or frustrated. Beginners or introductory classes become particularly interesting. Because teaching beginners is the hardest thing in the world. Which is why I don’t understand why people have their least experienced teachers teach beginners.

The content becomes just one part of the learning process: you learn about how to be in a class, you learn about how that teacher manages a class, you learn about how the coincidental grouping of people in that moment create a particular, fleeting learning environment. It’s quite wonderful. It can also be quite confronting, because each time you go into a class, you have to be open, and assuming that you know nothing. You have to be really ready to learn, and to try to set aside what you ‘think’ you know.
To me, this seems the logical extension of a rhythm-based learning or teaching or dancing process. You treat each class as though you were sitting in with a band. Everyone in that band has a heap of useful skills, but they may not all blend perfectly at once. But you have to make the music together, so you have to make it work. So you have to come in determined to work with people, and open. Very open. You have to be ready to change the way you do things. To have your opinions changed. And that can be so confronting for someone who’s been dancing for years and years.

This is also a lot like Frankie’s approach to social dancing: you are in love with that person for 3 minutes. They are the queen or king of your world. So be there, be present. Whether they are the best dancer in the world, a poop person, a wonderful person, a really physically frail person, a brilliant conversationalist. Whatever it is that they are, you work with them to make a new dance. And you have to be prepared to be something, yourself.
I don’t mean this in a condescending tone: it’s not like you approach a dance with a total beginner or a ‘terrible dancer’ as though you are the best dancer ever and you have to ‘make it work’ with that person. That’s a terrible way to approach partner dancing. There’s a very good chance that you actually suck. Your attitude certainly does. Total beginners have something you don’t have, and will never have again: they have that moment where dance is totally NEW and fantastic for the very first time. It’ll never be like this again. You could only dream of feeling dancing like this again. So pay attention, they’ll teach you how to be right there in the dance.
More importantly, this is a partner dance. You are both working together.

I think this is why I’m so fond of multi-level partner classes. They’re really hard to teach. And they require your complete attention. You have to be there.

So classes and learning can’t just be a matter of ‘collecting’ all the moves. You have to approach dancing, all the time, as though you haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet. You have to keep looking, because you won’t find everything in a step or a song or a sequence in just one through.

My favourite example is in learning a routine. Memorising the steps is just the first step. It’s only then that you can really start working on the dancing. And you realise you have to actually start all over again, because by ‘learning’ the step and fixing it in your memory, you’ve killed it dead.