An issue of Scholar & Feminist Online devoted to Josephine Baker: Josephine Baker: a Century in the Spotlight, edited by Kaiama L. Glover.
This Philadelphia Folklore Project exhibition is fantastic.
Note to self: chase down Lee Ellen Friedland’s latest work, as her project on tap dancers in Philadelphia was so important to my own work. And apparently she’s done work on jewish folk dances, which is important for talk about NOLA music and dance. And this exhibit’s host is based in Philadelphia.
NB I don’t have to explain why this exhibit is important, do I? Ok, I will anyway.
1) Women dancers. BOOM.
2) Chorus line projects are tres chic in the lindy hop world. The most interesting one I’ve seen so far is Marie N’Diaye’s project in Stockholm, where they’re based in the Chicago studio, and perform at Herrang, week in and week out. I had no idea just how intense and hardcore this project is until I saw Marie’s footage and spoke to her about their training and choreographing work load. This shit is intense.
3) A lot of the biggest name women dancers began in chorus lines. Josephine Baker. Marie Bryant. etc etc etc.
4) These women dancers were insanely fit and strong. They would be performing multiple times during the day, learning new routine every week, singing, dancing, tapping, jazzing, etc etc etc. These were dancing machines. And yet they were often dismissed as bits of fluff.
5) Managing chorus lines was a way for women dancers to participate in the entertainment industry as professionals with serious industry power.
6) Running chorus lines today is just as important for women dancers now as it was then: women working together, running serious projects, training bloody hard, learning to choreograph, run a troupe and dance business, generally be awesome.
7) Being in a chorus line is hard work, and a way for modern women dancers to get mad skills: fitness, strength, memory, quick learning skills, choreography, etc etc etc.
8) Chorus lines are a way for modern women dancers to sidestep the bullshit power politics of dancing and competing with male partners in the lindy hop world. And yet still get mad dance skills that improve their lindy hop.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about why people teach, and what they get out of it (for obvious reasons).
There is this idea in the lindy hop world that we should all sacrifice lots ‘for the community’. As though ‘the community’ was this really huge thing, larger and more important than all of us, and yet somehow not including us at all. I’m not sure where this idea that we should sacrifice our own health and spare time for the sake of other people’s dancing came from. I sometimes think it has to do with the revivalist impetus: that we have to keep lindy hop alive no matter what. Which is problematic for so many reasons. Starting with a) It wasn’t actually dead before busy white people started getting into it in the 1980s; b) If the communities that developed it have moved on to other things, perhaps a vernacular dance has lost its utility, and social dances should be useful and relevant above all else.
This is what I think:
- communities must be sustainable. Culturally, socially, economically, environmentally… and so on.
- The people in the community are that community. That includes the teachers and volunteers and event organisers and so on… all the people who are working their bums off to ‘keep the dance alive’. This means that their lives and work have to be sustainable: they have to earn enough money to pay their bills; they can’t ruin their health and relationships and lives with overwork; they have to find joy their work – it cannot be a burden. ie NO MARTYRS.
- The ‘community’ is not a discrete bubble. All ‘communities’ overlap and interact with other ‘communities’. So the ‘lindy hop community’ is also a part of, or overlapping with, the ‘jazz community’, and the ‘vintage lifestyle’ community, and the ‘live music industry’, and the ‘wider local community’, and the ‘national community’, and so on. We are no better or worse than the people who don’t dance lindy hop. Lindy hop doesn’t make us special; we are already special. And so are the people who don’t dance lindy hop.
I know that a lot of lindy hop teachers I’ve met and worked with in Sydney and Melbourne feel as though the value of their teaching is assessed by the number of students in their class. As though they somehow fail to be good or important or useful teachers if they aren’t funnelling hundreds of new lindy hoppers onto the floor every year. I used to feel this way. But now I don’t.
I think that we all realise that huge classes are not good learning or teaching environments. Students don’t get the time or attention they need from teachers, nor do they develop the social bonds that help make a good community. Their learning and sense of ‘group’ is focussed on the teacher, and often, on the larger school identity. Rather than on the smaller, more important relationships with other people in their class, and on the social dance floor. Further, classes that focus on rote learning, on running through a sequence of steps over and over again until the students have it ‘perfect’ is not great learning.
It’s as though this sort of class deliberately undoes the culture and practice of social dancing. If you are pushing through a rote sequence of steps, no matter what, you cannot stop and listen to your partner, you cannot adjust your dancing to work with your partner and make it work, and you definitely cannot listen to and respond to the music. And that is very sad. It is also the opposite of lindy hop: this is not preserving a vernacular dance.
I see students come out of dance classes unable to ‘start’ dancing on the social dance floor until someone ‘counts them in’ or helps them ‘find one’. As though there was this rule that we HAVE to start dancing ‘on one’, or that steps have to perfectly align with an 8 or 6 count sequence. More importantly, those same students haven’t learnt how to make a real connection with a dance partner, because their attention in class is so focussed on the teachers; they’ve never learnt that it’s ok to just bop about on the spot with a new friend, chatting, and enjoying the music. They feel that they have to execute that series of prescribed moves perfectly if they are to be ‘good dancers’. And of course, those prescribed moves are only available (for a price) from a dance class.
This isn’t the students’ fault. Or even the teachers’, really. It’s the fault of a pervasive ideology of ‘learning through memorisation’, and a push to acquire huge class numbers as an indicator of ‘success’ – primarily financial. It’s also accepted that the retention rate of any class will be low – that people will find lindy hop really hard in their first class, and that they won’t ever come back. And, to be blunt (as though I was ever anything else), I’d be scared off by a huge class focussed on rote-learning a series of strictly ‘perfect’ steps.
The saddest thing about all this, is that this is not what lindy hop – or jazz – is all about. It makes me sad that teachers feel they have to push their classes to become bigger and more ‘successful’, instead of taking time to enjoy the time they spend with students in class. They are so intent on acquiring the ‘sexiest’, most ‘sellable’ steps from the latest round of competition videos, that they forget that dancing is actually lots of fun, particularly when the steps are simple and the focus is on the music and your partner.
I’ve recently shifted my own focus – in a very determined way – to classes which are all about social dancing. That means great music. That means learning to work with a partner – and not just for a 30 second rotation in class, but for a whole song in class. I don’t teach fixed patterns of steps; I teach a pattern, and then build on it, encouraging the students to figure out their own combinations. With Marie and Lennart’s example in mind, after the first few partner rotations in class, I don’t ‘count students in’ any more. I let them find their own way into the music. To me, these are the real skills social dancers – lindy hoppers – need. Nobody needs that latest trick that Famous Dancer X pulled out in a comp. A competition is not social dancing; the skills are quite different.
The nicest part of this shift in focus is that I find teaching so much more satisfying, and so much less anxiety-making.
So why am I writing this post now? It’s because this story about Stefan Grimm has been making the rounds in my academic network. I used to work in academia, but gave it up because it just wasn’t any fun. The students were neglected by shitty class environments, the research wasn’t fun any more because it was squeezed into restrictive grant-getting processes.
Reading this piece about universities as anxiety machines, I was struck by the similarities between the ‘dance class industry’ and universities. And not just because they’re both centred on pedagogy (or are they? What university still prioritises learning – whether through research or teaching?) The discussion about unpaid labour (normalised by the idea that ‘that’s what you do to get ahead’), sounds a lot like the exhaustion and exploitation in the lindy hop world justified by ‘doing it for the community’. The
…normalised surveillance of performance in class through attendance monitoring, learning analytics, retention dashboards and text-based reminders about work/labour/doing, and in the entrepreneurial demands of attending careers fairs and employability workshops and cv clinics, and in attempting to find the money to eat and live.
…sounds a lot like lindy hop today.
Get bigger classes. Where are you on the leader board? Have you hunted down the latest marketable step or move from the latest round of competition videos on Youtube? Did you go to that workshop and ‘collect’ moves?
And for ‘professional’ lindy hoppers (as though we aren’t professional unless we are traveling the world every weekend), the pressure is far higher. Not teaching on a repetitive injury? Not working hard enough. Not disguising disordered eating as ‘eating healthy’, ‘the paleo lifestyle’, or, most ironic of all, ‘keeping well’? Not truly committed to dance. Haven’t taken up a dozen ‘strength and maintenance’ exercise regimes on top of your lindy hop training? Just aren’t trying hard enough.
…this form of overwork and performance anxiety is a culturally acceptable self-harming activity. …My culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value…
(all these quotes are from ‘Notes on the University as anxiety machine’)
This is, of course, the bottom line. Because teachers (especially the highest profile ones) don’t spend quality time with anyone other than other teachers for extended periods of time, this stuff is all normalised. And they aren’t allowed the time and quiet to question the working conditions of their ‘jobs’. They are expected to work and work and work ‘for the community’. And if they do ask event organisers for things like, oh, a quiet room with a door that closes and a real bed to sleep, there is this niggling perception of them as ‘difficult’.
I don’t know where I’m going with this, really. Beyond arguing that we should shift our focus to more socially sustainable practices. And we should question the ‘for the community’ ethos that justifies socially and physically unsustainable work practices. Also, we should teach lindy hop like a vernacular dance, not like you’re going to be sitting an SAT test.
This is a post that continues my thinking from that previous post about Basie and Jazz BANG, but here I work specifically with Count Basie and his influences. This post is a product of some discussion on facebook about Basie (and my previous 8tracks post), and really has grown out of this Basie session at Jazz BANG. It does of course, also develop the theme of innovation, improvisation and impersonation – step stealing and cultural appropriation/transmission in vernacular music and dance culture. And we all know how obsessed I am with THAT stuff. Love love love.
This post is shaped by some useful comments and references supplied by Andrew Dickeson on the Facey, in response to my 8tracks post, and more specifically, to my question about Fletcher Henderson’s influence on Basie and other musicians.
I’ve written about this version of Honeysuckle Rose many times before (here and here), I find myself using various versions of this song for teaching all the time, and I DJ with it a lot. I am very obsessed. I’m also fascinated by Fletcher Henderson, and the way he went from big name arranger and band leader to ‘joining’ Benny Goodman’s band. His life (which was somewhat tragic), and the role John Hammond played, really catch my interest. Also he had fucking MAD skills.
So here is an excerpt from a useful book Andrew hooked me up with, and an 8track set I put together to illustrate this section:
The early Basie book was casual and frequently borrowed, either in bits and pieces or, sometimes, whole. The ultimate sources was often Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. Basie’s arrangement of Honeysuckle Rose is a slight simplification of Henderson’s. Basie’s Swinging the Blues comes from Henderson’s Hot and Anxious and Comin’ and Goin’*. Jumpin’ at the Woodside (as Dan Morgenstern points out) comes from the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s Jammin’ for the Jackpot, with perhaps a glance at the arrangement of Honeysuckle Rose that Benny Carter did for Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt. Jive at Five from the same ensemble’s Barrelhouse. The Mills’ Blue Rhythm Band was a Henderson-style orchestra.
*A more complete history of this piece is interesting and revealing. The 1929 Ellington-Miley Doin’ the Voom Voom, in AABA song form (an obvious Cotton Club specialty), became the 1931 Horace Henderson-Fletcher Henderson pair of pieces called Hot and Anxious (a blues) and Comin’ and Goin’ (partly a blues). those pieces all added the riff later called In The Mood. These, in turn, became Count Basie’s Swinging The Blues. Meanwhile, Doin’ The Voom Voom had obviously inspired the Lunceford-Will Hudson specialties White Heat and Jazznocracy, and these in turn prompted the Harry James-Benny Goodman Life Goes to a Party. In the last piece, the background figure (an up-and-down scalar motive) to one of the trumpet solos on Voom Voom had been slightly changed and elevated into a main theme.
(Williams, Martin. The Jazz Tradition, 1992. p117-118.)
[Edit: I’ve added the Fletcher Henderson version because I’d FORGOTTEN it. It’s currently my favourite.]
Honeysuckle Rose 1937 Count Basie and his Orchestra (Buck Clayton, Joe Keyes, Carl Smith, George Hunt, Dan Minor, Caughley Roberts, Herschel Evans, Lester Young, Jack Washington, Claude Williams, Walter Page, Jo Jones) 3:00 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 01)
Honeysuckle Rose 1939 Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (Jimmy Maxwell, Johnny Martel, Ziggy Elman, Ted Vesely, Red Ballard, Vernon Brown, Toots Mondello, Buff Estes, Jerry Jerome, Bus Bassey, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Nick Fatool) 3:04 Classic Columbia and Okeh Benny Goodman Orchestra Sessions (1939-1958) (Mosaic disc 01)
Honeysuckle Rose 1932 Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra (Rex Stewart, Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, J.C. Higginbotham, Sandy Williams, Russell Procope, Hilton Jefferson, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Freddie White, John Kirby, Walter Johnson, Katherine Handy) 3:14 Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic disc 03)
Swingin’ The Blues 1938 Count Basie and his Orchestra 2:48 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 02)
Hot And Anxious 1931 Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra (Rex Stewart, Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, Claude Jones, Benny Morton, Russell Procope, Harvey Boone, Coleman Hawkins, Clarence Holiday, John Kirby, Walter Johnson, Bill Challis, Don Redman, Horace Henderson) 3:25 Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic disc 02)
Comin’ And Goin’ 1931 Baltimore Bellhops (Fletcher Henderson, Rex Stewart, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, John Kirby) 3:12 The Fletcher Henderson Story (disc 02)
Doin’ The Voom Voom – Take 1 1929 Duke Ellington and his Orchestra 3:08 The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (disc 02)
White Heat 1939 Jimmie Lunceford 2:31 Rhythm Is Our Business
Life Goes To A Party 1938 Harry James and his Orchestra (Buck Clayton, Vernon Brown, Earl Warren, Jack Washington, Jess Stacy, Walter Page, Jo Jones) 2:52 Life Goes To A Party
Life Goes To A Party 1938 Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Chris Griffin, Red Ballard, Vernon Brown, Hymie Schertzer, George Koenig, Art Rollini, Babe Russin, Jess Stacy, Allen Reuss, Harry Goodman, Gene Krupa, Horace Henderson, Edgar Sampson) 4:17 Benny Goodman Live At Carnegie Hall (disc 1)
Jumpin’ At The Woodside 1939 Count Basie and his Orchestra 3:10 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 02)
Jammin’ For The Jackpot 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band (Charlie Shavers, Carl Warwick, Harry Edison, Al Cobbs, Wilbur DeParis, Tab Smith, Eddie Williams, Ben Williams, Harold Arnold, Billy Kyle, Danny Barker, John Williams, Lester Sonny Nichols, Chuck Richards, Lucky Millinder) 2:30 Mills Blue Rhythm Band: Complete Jazz Series 1936 – 1937
Honeysuckle Rose 1937 Coleman Hawkins and his All-Star Jam Band (Benny Carter, Andre Ekyan, Alix Combelle, Stéphane Grappelli, Django Reinhardt, Eugene d’Hellemmes, Tommy Benford) 2:47 Ken Burns Jazz Series: Coleman Hawkins
Jive At Five 1939 Count Basie and his Orchestra 2:51 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 03)
Barrelhouse 1936 Mills Blue Rhythm Band (Lucky Millinder, Henry ‘Red’ Allen) 3:05 Mills Blue Rhythm Band: Harlem Heat
Jumpy Nerves 1939 Wingy Manone and his Orchestra (Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, Conrad Lanoue, Zeb Julian, Jules Cassard, Cozy Cole) 2:53 Classic Chu Berry Columbia And Victor Sessions (Mosaic disc 05)
In The Mood Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys 3:19 The Tiffany Transcriptions (vol 9)
This is a ‘quick’ post about some things I’ve been thinking about in my own teaching lately. I teach lindy hop a couple of times a week, and I teach solo dance once a week.
[off-topic ramble]I recommend doing that, by the way, if you’re into solo dance. Even if you only have five students in the room, that’s still six people in your scene who are working hard on solo dance, improving their skills and having a bunch of fun. And I can guarantee you, coming up with class content each week will make you a damn good solo dancer. Or at least a much better solo dancer. Do it. DO IT!
There’s a real difference between planning a class, learning a routine, understanding your own movement, and then then teaching it, and just practicing on your own. I think there’s something of a feeling in many scenes that solo dance is something you just work on on your own, and that it just has individual styling, that it isn’t a challenging discipline the way lindy hop is. Of course, you can do that, but if we approach lindy hop as something requires a degree of guided discipline, why don’t we think of solo dances this way? You needn’t structure your class in conventional ways – you can approach it as a guided practice session or a workshop, but there’s a real difference between ‘practicing’ and the discipline required to teach or run a structured session. And that difference will really lift your dancing. Also: FUN.[/]
Anyways, I do this every week, and have done for about two years now. I’m not the world’s best dancer, by any means. I’m not the best lindy hopper or solo dancer, and I’m steadily discovering the limitations of age, particularly as 40 is not so much on my horizon, as coming through my front gate with a shopping bag full of high-end chocolate and a 6-pack of Teen Wolf DVDs. So keeping on top of my own skills seems more and more important. I’m working on my fitness, strength, and mobility now, so that I can be like Frankie – still dancing in my 90s. And I love it. I love the fun of all this, and I love the challenge: it’s complex stuff, and I relish the mental challenges as much as the adrenaline.
My lindy hop teaching and my solo dance teaching are bound together. I can’t separate the two, and the more teaching I do, the less likely I am to want to separate them. I can’t imagine teaching a lindy hop class that didn’t have a significant emphasis on individual movement and dancing. You know that line, “If you can’t dance on your own, how can you expect to dance with someone else?” Well, it’s true. It’s so true. When I go into other people’s classes, I’m always stunned that the students spend the entire class touching someone else – they never dance without touching a partner! They’re missing half the fun!
I think, though, that many of us are on top of the idea that you can ‘add solo jazz to your lindy hop’ by doing a bit of partnered boogying-back and boogying-forward, or a bit of face to face charleston or whatevs. If you’re not… well, I don’t know what you’re doing.
When I started teaching, I was all ‘omg students need things really simple! We can’t mix rhythms, or they’ll freak!’ and then I started watching videos of Frankie Manning teaching.
(And one video that I’d like to talk about at another time, because it’s a brilliant example of how good social skills translate to brilliant dancing skills.)
That’s just two, but if you search for Frankie Manning classes on youtube, you’ll find a million of them. And he doesn’t pull punches on the rhythms. Students learn heaps, HEAPS of different rhythmic sequences in just one class – and that’s beginners. BEGINNERS.
When I saw that, I got my shit together, and I started teaching multiple rhythms in one class. That might include step-step-triple-step, a break step (step-step-hooold-a-diggety-diggety-da-stomp off!), a mini-dip (step step, down-clap, up-snap, hold, stomp off)…. HEAPS of things. And students just absorb them. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of rhythms humans can learn in one class. They’re capable of recognising and then reproducing complex rhythms from memory, with THEIR BODIES. That is just amazing. It’s like learning an endless list of numbers and then combining them in different sequences, but then doing aerobics at the same time.
And I haven’t met a student yet who couldn’t do this. Some peeps need a bit more time, or they need a slightly different approach, but everyone can do it. We start by demonstrating the rhythm with steps, or with claps. Then we get them to clap along. We don’t use counts, we use scats. Then we teach them the steps or movements that correlate to the rhythm. Then we might add on turns or movements through space.
And then, once they’ve learnt that on their own, they can learn to lead/follow it with a partner! FUCK! That is AMAZING!
I’m talking about complete beginners – first class ever people. And they LOVE it. They just love it. There’s something about dancing or clapping out a complex rhythm with a room full of people that makes people feel extremely big feelings. To me, it feels like singing in a choir – that moment when you are just a part of a huge, big beautiful thing that is beyond rational thinking. It is just magic. I see students have that feeling in classes when we’re clapping or dancing out a really nice rhythm.
Wait. Where am I going with this? I said I was going to list just two ways of ‘putting solo dance into your classes’. I’ve already listed two or three. But they’re not the ones I’m interested in. To my mind, this stuff should be your base line. Take Frankie as your model: your lindy hop should involve countless moments of ‘jazz dance’. You should have layers and layers of different rhythms happening in your dancing – because we are talking about a dance that is jazz made visible. Polyrhythms are us. Get on it. It’s fun.
So here are my specific items. This is what I take as my own personal rule. I don’t care what you’re doing in your classes, really, but this is where I get a sense of purpose, and how I find pleasure in teaching. I think it improves my teaching, and it brings me so much joy. So I’m recommending it to you.
1. Get serious about solo dance.
Lennart Westerlund told me that it’s worth learning to tap dance not necessarily to get good at tap, but because it improves all your other dancing. I reckon it’s because tap is really fucking hard, so everything else gets easier because you skill up. But I think the same applies to solo dancing. If you learn to dance on your own, your general skill level will increase massively.
Solo dancing is uncompromising. There is no partner to cover your mistakes or weaknesses. You will just become a better dancer. That means that your balance will improve (and balance is of course about core stability and control). Your reactions will improve (which is about being able to use the right muscles at the right time in the right order). Your proprioception will improve (which is basically your ‘body awareness’, and which translates to actually doing what you think you’re doing, which means you’ll be doing what you’re saying, which means you’ll actually be demonstrating the things you’re teaching your students). Your fitness will improve. Your sense of timing and rhythm will improve.
Timing and rhythm are different: timing is about understanding ‘the beat’ – that inexorable, consistent heart beat at the core of the song – and rhythm is about variations on that beat – layering up increments of time. Most solo dance is much more complex than lindy hop. When we teach solo dance, we don’t think in terms of 8 counts or even phrases much any more. We think in terms of parts of a beat. When you teach lindy hop, you might think ‘swing out, circle, charleston’ when you’re planning a class. But when you’re solo dancing, you think ‘hoo-ha, shakkety da, shakkety da, ba. ba-du-ba-du-ba DA’. So your understanding of timing, rhythm and music gets far more sophisticated.
Another key thing that solo dance improves is your ability to move through space. I find brand new students have most trouble with turning or spinning their bodies, and with moving their bodies, while they do a rhythm.
I’ve recently started teaching a group of teenagers, and their problems lie more with staying focussed and concentrating – they are endlessly energetic and athletic and have much better proprioception. Older people can focus and learn complex sequences, but their proprioception is weaker – they don’t know where their arms and legs are. A mixed group is the best option, because the two balance each other out – peeps with good proprioception provide good models for those without, and people with good concentration model good focus for those who don’t have it.
But dancing on your own before you dance with a partner helps you figure out what you’re doing, so when you then come to leading or following, you have a better idea of how your movements are affecting your partner, and you can sort of mentally set aside the information you’re getting from your own body, and ‘hear’ their body and what it’s doing.
So if you start getting into solo dance – even if you never teach it, never social dance it, never even bother practicing (much) – your lindy hop classes will improve massively. And, to be honest, if you can then go on teaching without any jazz elements in your classes, I’d be very surprised. Learning more about jazz dance opens up a whole new world of lindy hop. I feel as though getting serious about solo dance has suddenly added depth and richness to my understanding of lindy hop. It’s a bit like going from only seeing in black and white to seeing in colour – you don’t know what you’re missing, and then suddenly OMG, you’ve been missing SO MUCH! I started getting into solo jazz dance in a more serious way about 2004, but it’s only recently, with teaching, that I think I’ve actually really understood how essential it is to lindy hop.
And I want to add a caveat: doing other types of dance is very important. But historic jazz dance from the 1920s and 30s is what you really need. This dancing with its roots in jazz music, and you really need to get into thistradition. But, honestly, if you have a chance to do a dance class, take it. Doesn’t matter what the style. Dancing is good for you.
2. Do a big apple warm up
What? Do this at the beginning of all your classes:
I cannot imagine starting a class without a warm up. I was teaching three classes in a row last year, and we started each with a warm up. Why?
You need to warm up your body.
Even if you’ve been exercising the past hour, you need to get your body focussed and ready. Injuries are bad news. So start with less strenuous movements, and don’t go 100% just yet.
You need to warm up your mind.
Dancing on your own gets you focussed and improves mindfulness (which is about being in your body and present in the moment). A fun, relaxed warm up helps you relax and enjoy your body – to make friends with the music and your body!
A good, relaxing, fun warm up energises your body and energises your mind while it calms and centres you. In less hippy terms, warm ups where you do simple, repetitive movements that are less than full extension/energy help your proprioception (where are my hands now? where is my foot?), and they shift your focus from thinking your way through steps, to moving your way through steps.
I find a warm up helps relax a class. Brand new students, in their first ever dance class ever, are often a bit nervous or unsure about how to act in a class. A big apple is simple, repetitive and calming. It helps them get focussed.
Students and teachers often come to a class excited or distracted. A warm up helps you focus and brings your attention in to the group.
A circle is a nice shape, because it provides a nice, physical focus for your attention – into the middle of the room. There’s no one behind you, so you don’t have to worry about ‘covering your back’, and there’s no one in front of you, so you can see clearly. It’s also a nice symbol of equality and group-ness, which is helpful.
And just as when I was tutoring in universities I used the first class to model how we would treat each other, handle discussions and conflicts, the warm up models how we will be in the class for the rest of the hour – relaxed, fun, join in when you can, no mistakes, just fun.
In more nerdy teaching terms, the warm up is the most important part of a class, for me. That’s where I do most of the hardcore teaching work. I always make sure that the basic elements of whatever we’re teaching in that class are included in the warm up. So if we’re doing charleston, there are kicks and walking with kicks, and some pivoting. There’s walking in rhythm (because all dancing is really just fancy walking). And if we’re teaching a solo class which focusses on a particular step or rhythm, I make sure that’s in there too. But it’s fun, so no one really realises they’re doing the hardest part of the class.
When we begin the warm up, we always say “The goal here is just to get sweaty, to warm up our bodies. There’s no right or wrong, just get in and have some fun.” This actually sets the tone for the entire class: there is no right or wrong. Get in and have a go. Don’t think about it, just dance. We make jokes and do the funnest, funniest steps we know. Because they are awesome, but because they relax us all as well. Laughing, relaxed dancers are better dancers (watch that last video of Frankie above – he is all over that). The idea of ‘just join in’, where you begin the move and the students join in after watching a bit, or just join in straight away (whatever works for them) tends to carry on into the class: if I’m demonstrating a rhythm by clapping, or stepping, they just naturally join in after a while. This is fucking AMAZING, and so exciting when it happens in class. I get a thrill every time.
If you do a step or move for a whole phrase (and the length of time we do a step depends on the group – we spend longer on each step with newer students, make faster changes with more experienced dancers, and vary the tempos this way too), students naturally learn about musical structure. They start picking up phrasing and 8s and all that stuff, and you never even have to mention it. That’s also amazing. No more counting people in!
And finally, the transitions between the steps (which is often the hardest part), become low-pressure points in a warm up. They’re usually the point where people laugh (at themselves), and that is FABULOUS. There are no mistakes in this scenario: there are just points where we laugh as we try something new.
We usually spend about 10-15 minutes on these warm ups. The first part is a big apple style warm up, but then we often transition seamlessly into an explicit description of the key rhythm for that class. I might say, after the song has ended (and I don’t actually describe what I’m doing when we’re warming up to a song – just demonstrate), “ok, here’s one more rhythm I want you to try,” and I demonstrate the triple step. I usually try to clap it, scat it, and dance it. If they want to join in with each step naturally (and I want them to), that’s great, otherwise I prompt them. I get them to do it on both feet. Then I say something like “Remember this one?” and we walk, which is always funny. Then I might say “Ok, let’s combine them like this” and I demonstrate the step-step, triple-step rhythm (hoo-ha, shakky-dah; clap-clap, clap-clap clap). I find it’s worth taking a second to be very clear about this, and to articulate what I’m doing. It’s essential to do it on both feet.
All this is wonderful stuff, and, to be honest, I enjoy it so much more than the rest of the class. It’s like a game, where we learn really fun stuff. I am beginning to think that this might be the way to structure all our solo classes, and that we could shift our beginner solo classes in particular in this direction. My eternal teaching goal is to talk less, dance more. My second goal is correct less, let people practice and practice and dance through their problems until they figure it out themselves.
That last one is important because it means you’re not correcting anyone ever, which means your classes are much more positive. And I think it’s much more useful for students to discover how things work through experimenting, rather than having it all laid out for them. I do have to continually fight the urge to correct everything students do, to send them out of class ‘perfect’. But you have to remember that learning is a long process: you do not just insert a shopping list of items into students during a class. Students must learn to learn, to come to dance through their own process, and in their own time. Your job as a teacher is to be a guide to learning. So that means, in practical terms, that you need to give students quite a bit of time to work through steps or moves in class, practicing and trying stuff out. Let them dance a whole song with a partner or two. They will figure it out, and you won’t need to correct them.
Corrections are problematic because they tell a student, even if you are being really gentle, ‘You were doing this wrong’, which is bad news for self esteem. They also reinforce the higher status of the teacher, and rob the student of power and status. We want happy, confident students who enjoy exploring learning and dancing. As a friend of mine said, our job as teachers is to help students fall in love with dancing. As Lennart said, we must make friends with the music. That’s the most important thing we can do, so everything I want to do in class should be aimed at that goal. Joy. Happiness. As Frankie said, “For the next three minutes, you are in love.”
But I am a total control freak perfectionist, so that is really, really difficult to do. But I guess that’s my challenge as a teacher: let go. I suppose that’s the other part of all this, particularly my emphasis on improving my own solo dancing to improve my teaching. Approach teaching as a learning process for me. I can’t imagine I’ll ever know everything or have perfect teaching skills. And I really like that. It’s as though a whole new world of dancing has opened up for me. There’s a richness and challenge and delight that I hadn’t thought of before. And it’s classes of students who give me this opportunity, so that idea of ‘cherishing the students you have’ is a part of that: teaching is an opportunity for me. And I want to approach my teaching practice as a practice – a process of change and learning and development.
As I type this, I keep thinking about the way the Hot Shots teach. They’ve been teaching this way for twenty, thirty years. And I’ve been learning from them all this time. But it’s as though I’ve only just become aware of all these sneaky, student-centred learning techniques recently. I wonder if they figured this stuff out through practice, through working with the old timers (and Lennart said that the old timers would just say ‘hey, do this!’ and then they’d do that – no technical discussion at all), or through the benefits of coming from a socialist Swedish education system. A combination, I expect.
So, in sum, I think it’s really important to put solo dance into your teaching. And these are the two most important methods: become a solo dancer yourself; do a solo dance warm up.
I’m sorry I’ve not posted much lately, but I’ve been TOO BUSY!
So far this year:
- We ran a Hot Foot Stomp on the 18th January (and demonstrated why there’s so little lindy hop in Australia in January: it’s too FUCKING HOT);
- Our usual Wednesday classes started up again at the beginning of February (and I began working with a new teacher while my usual partner’s been doing a residency elsewhere);
- We launched our weekly solo class at a new venue on Thursday nights in February. Squee! A studio space! With mirrors!;
- We ran a social night at our Wednesday venue with a visiting American band, Underscore Orkestra, and it was GREAT. I thoroughly recommend them – they tailored their set specifically to dancers;
- I’m planning a dance with another visiting musician for my day job;
- I’ve done some booking and preliminary planning for the Winter Performance Ball for my day job, and it’s already proving drama-filled. Performances: they bring out the drama in lindy hoppers. Which is ok, really, because drama is much better than apathy;
- I’m booked to do some teaching up at the University of Sydney for their new swing dance club (!!), which so far hasn’t taken much physical time, but it’s borrowed some of my thinking time;
- We’ve started planning for some workshops we’ll be teaching in New Zealand at the Christchurch Swing Festival at the end of April, which Al and I are especially excited about;
- I had some health challenges in February, which I wouldn’t ordinarily mention, but it was very frustrating to have all my planning interrupted. ARGH;
- And, finally, I’ve started work on a solo dance weekend for here in Sydney in October! We’ve run solo dance workshop weekends here before, but this is a big one, and will host Lennart Westerlund and another international teacher for a weekend of solo dance FUNSIES. I’m planning to use a house band of local musicians, squeeze in a second band for the last night, run a bunch of parties with them, have the teachers do the strangest classes they can, perhaps do a solo dance battle/jam (I like that Al and Leon format they used at Lindy Focus last year, and generally have a jolly good time. I’m interested in more unusual structures for the classes, parties, and comps, but unusual and new means MOAR WORK, so I have to get thinking on all of that. Not to mention finish the goddamm website and promotional material. I’m really very slow off the mark on that this year, but the health stuff really slowed me down. ARGH. Anyway, if you’ll be in Australia 10-14 October this year, you should come. We are a great city to visit, even if you’re not dancing, and if you are, the music is great and the people are friendly.
More contentiously, Bobby White posted this status update on faceplant recently, and someone tagged me in the comments:
Casting call: For an upcoming Love & Swing article on Swungover, I’m looking to see if there’s anyone who is open to interviewing who
(1) is a heterosexual male who has chosen to follow as his primary role in dancing.
(2) is a male, leader or follower, who has chosen to dance with “feminine” characteristics to his dancing (for whatever reason, and with whatever definition of “feminine” they choose.)
(3) is a heterosexual female who has chosen to lead for her primary role.
(4) is a female who has chosen to dance with “masculine” characteristics (for whatever reason, and with whatever definition of “masculine” they choose.)
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you know of anyone who might fill these descriptions, or, if you don’t mind, please like so that people will see it! (28 Feb
I have problems with the use of ‘female’ when we’re talking about anything other than meerkats.
I’m a woman who is primarily a lead, and sure, I’ll talk about it. If you can handle the snark. I think we’re friends if you want to pm me. (28 Feb)
Gee, wasn’t that snarky.
Then I added
….incidentally, your definitions of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are severely limited: there are many masculinities and femininities happening here (I reckon you need to read some Judith Butler), and these aren’t consistent across cultures. (28 Feb)
Sam, where did I define “masculinity” and “feminiity” in the above post and statement to make you think I have a limited definition? I have purposefully NOT defined them in order to see other people’s personal insight. Am I missing something? (1 Mar)
…This whole thing kind of pooped me, because it’s such OLD FASHIONED SEXISM. I just couldn’t be bothered. So I set it aside for a few days. I’d intended to just respond with a blog post, but then Bobby PMed me, so I figured it’d be rude not to reply. I was a bit snarky in those comments above, but, frankly, this comes up SO OFTEN and it’s SO EASY to find out why it’s not ok to describe women as ‘females’, for example, I just couldn’t be bothered.
But well, I had a bit of time.
Meanwhile, my twitter feed was full of unrelated conversations where women were making loljokes and laughing about blokes describing women as ‘females’ (again), so I figured it was something I needed to comment on.
Bobby asked in his PMs:
(1) How did I use “female” in a way that you have a problem with it; I felt I used it only in its scientific, factual sense, with no bias or implied meaning other than simply gender. I used “male” as well in the exact same wording. Am I missing something?
This question does make me lol a bit, because it’s such an OLD discussion.
The next question:
And (2) how did I mention gender in terms that made you think I have a limited view, especially when I clearly stated “whatever that definition means personally”to the person answering.
I’m truly curious.
Bobby was asking in the best spirit, and I figured it was worth answering. This is what I wrote:
I’m sorry, I’ve been super busy lately, so haven’t had time to write. And I don’t really have time to do any proper talk right now.
1. I’d go with Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’, as it’s most relevant. I used it as a starting place to talk about these issues in my phd. Basically, we’re talking about performing gender.
2. The problem with using ‘females': we’re not doing science, here, so that’s not really the right approach. More importantly, there’s a difference between women and female: female is gender, women is biological sex. Gender is socially constructed, and sex is biological. In this context, you’re talking about people’s biological sex relates to their performance of gender, right?
Additionally, using ‘females’ in this setting makes us sound like meerkats – it’s not appropriate. There’s a wealth of feminist criticism of this, so I suggest you do a bit of googling on that one.
3. There are multiple ways of performing femininity and masculinity. Or, there are multiple femininities and masculinities, and these aren’t fixed or permanent. They are specific to particular moments in time, to particular cultures, ethnicities and demographics. Patriarchy tends to insist that there’s only one type of femininity and masculinity, and that these are the only desirable models. So femininity equates to delicate, sensual, passive, gentle, nurturing, caring, soft, hairless (except on your head), emotional, untechnological, natural, etc; masculine equates to aggressive, potentially violent, mechanical, intellectual/rational, etc etc. Both are necessarily heterosexual and interdependent.
In that setting, if you aren’t gentle/sensual/caring/etc, you’re not feminine.
Your questions implied that you see only one type of femininity and masculinity at work in the world (and in the lindy hop world specifically). When this is certainly not the case. We just need to compare Frida S and Sharon Davis to see two very different performances of femininity at work.
I personally wouldn’t engage with the discussion you’re presenting because I cannot accept the premise of the question: that there is one ‘femininity’ and one ‘masculinity’, and that women dancers must choose between these two. As a woman, and as a dancer, there’re many more interesting things going on in dance and gender than these two very limited options.
There is quite a lot of literature looking at how race and ethnicity work in these discussions which are particularly relevant for us, as we are dealing with dances which developed in black communities a century ago. This is something I’ve written about lots of times, and which I think is very important. It’s also something I have dealt with in classes with students.
As an example: hetero, middle aged men often find Leon James’ styling ‘effeminate’, and I’ve had them ask me (as I teach as a lead) “How do I style this as a man?” The problem isn’t so much that I’m a woman demonstrating a step, but that the type of masculinity Leon James performs seems ‘effeminate’ or ‘non-masculine’ to a modern day Australian man from this particular demograph. Leon tends to play with gender a bit anyway: he’s definitely not a woman, nor is he performing a femininity. He’s performing a different type of masculinity, which is quite specific to him, and to his moment in time. And there are more complex issues of race, class, and ‘theatre’ going on in his dancing.
4. There are also some problems with the way you’re linking sexual preference/identity with gender in your questions. In implying only two types of gender (masc/fem -> in patriarchal terms), and then asking for straight women who lead, and then looking for ‘female’ and ‘male’ styling, there is the implication that if you are a straight woman, it’s unusual for you to be styling ‘masculine’, and if you are a lesbian, it’s unusual for you to style ‘feminine’. Gender and sexual identity are far more complex than this: dichotomies are hopelessly limited, and there are more ways of being a dyke than just ‘butch and femme’. Lesbians don’t just map their relationships onto hetero/patriarchal models of a male/female dichotomy. In fact, straight women don’t either.
There’s lots more to be said on this. And your first response is probably, “Oh, I am actually just looking for these specific examples; I don’t have space/time to do all that other stuff.” But my response would be “We see these sorts of discussions of heteronormative/conventional gender all the time. By asking the same questions again, and by reproducing the same gender norms again, you are contributing to the maintenance of patriarchy. Why not try something new and interesting instead?”
For me, my dancing has gone a long way beyond ‘dancing male’ and ‘dancing female’. That dichotomy really is far too limited for just me and the way I think about my dancing.
When I started teaching as a lead (two years ago), I did worry about the male students not having a male role model to draw on for styling. But as a clever friend pointed out: “You don’t want students to dance like their teacher anyway, do you? Won’t they be seeking out other dancers to experiment with developing their own style anyway?” So I got over that worry.
Interestingly, I do wear trousers when I’m teaching as a lead, and try to wear a skirt or a dress when I’m (very rarely) teaching as a follow. When I’m teaching solo I just wear whatevs. I wear trousers when I lead because it sets up particular lines, and it helps me ‘get into character’, or remember that I’m leading. When I’m teaching I need to be hyper-aware of what I’m doing with my body, I need to be self-reflexive. When I’m social dancing, I don’t worry about any of that. But I find trousers give me a little mental reminder to help me remember what I’m doing. I also find leading uses a lot more forward-backward movement, while following uses more contra movement, and trousers work better for me for leading than for following.
So, for me, there is a degree of ‘butching up’ but dancing as a lead. But it’s ridiculous to say ‘men wear trousers, women wear skirts’, because HELLO, 21ST CENTURY. This is something for me, not a general comment about what women dancers should wear.
I’m quite fond of wearing waistcoats and things for dancing, but not necessarily because I’m thinking ‘masculine’. I’m thinking ‘dress up in practical fun clothes’. I wear dresses as well as trousers.
Look, basically, for, me (and I cannot speak for all women), gender is much more complex and interesting than ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. As a human being, I’m occupying a more complex place than just ‘feminine’. I am a woman, but I explore gender – femininities – in lots of different ways. As an example, in my professional role as an event organiser dealing (almost only) with men, I have to adopt particular mannerisms and approaches to make it clear that I know what I’m doing: confidence, a particular sense of humour, a way of standing, a way of making eye contact and shaking hands. None of these are particularly ‘girly’ or flittery-feminine. But I’m certainly not a man, and I’m not ‘masculine’. I’m just working with a different type of femininity. Which quite a lot of men find threatening, which is ok by me. I want a degree of intimidation when I’m negotiating work stuff with some men.
But this is just a professional persona, and one I use only at work, and only with certain types of men. As any second year women’s studies student knows, gender roles and gendered behaviour aren’t fixed, ‘natural’ or permanent: they are clothes we put on for certain settings and tasks. In the context of patriarchy, being chameleon in gender is about subversion and power for a woman. As a dancer, it’s exciting: being aware of how you change the way you move and hold yourself makes you a better dancer, and a better actor and performer.
I guess my main problem with Bobby’s article was that all this discussion was predicated on reference to a heteronormative romantic love. He’s looking for straight women and men who dance ‘unstraight’ (ie ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’) to talk about romantic love. As though it’s surprising for a straight woman to adopt ‘masculine’ mannerisms. At the end of the day, I reckon Bobby might need to meet a few more queer folk, or perhaps to spend a bit more time with straight women, to understand just how fluid and interesting gender is, and how sexual preferences don’t necessarily fit cleanly into gender binaries.
There are many ways of assessing the ‘success’ of a class. Because most lindy hop events work on a tight budget, we tend to assess the success of a dance class by numbers in classes, and how much money we make. But large class sizes aren’t necessarily a good gauge for other factors. And we’ve all realised that there aren’t buckets of cash to be made in lindy hop, particularly not if you’re in a nation like Australia, which has relatively low population density in the most active lindy hopping demographics.
We can assess the success of a class using all sorts of criteria, and these criteria are developed through our own teaching, dancing, social and political goals.
Rather than asking ‘”How much money did we make this week?” we could be asking:
- Are teachers happy with their working conditions?
- Are students demonstrating a level of ability commensurate with other similar cohorts (eg how do they measure up when compared to interstate dancers)?
- Are students social dancing, and if they are, are they happy to dance with strangers?
- Are students entering competitions?
- Are teachers voluntarily attending workshops and pushing their own learning?
- Are teachers competing?
- Are teacher or students traveling to dance?
- Do we have equal numbers of leads and follows?
- Do we have female leads and male follows in classes, social dancing and in competitions and performances?
- Are dancers demographically diverse: are they all one age, class, ethnicity, or are they more mixed?
I’m certain that we’d not all agree on which questions are most important, and that our questions would change as our own interests and our own scenes changed.
Despite these differences, most lindy hop scenes require a critical mass to be socially and economically sustainable. We have to pay our bills, and we have to provide safe, happy dancing environments. And, for most of us, a viable lindy hop scene has a strong, stable social dancing culture. In other words, there are happy, healthy dancers out social dancing, and the bills get paid each week.
But these goals – social dancing and financial viability – are often not enough for most of us. If each week’s class is a painful struggle to cover the bills, then teaching becomes a painful act of martyrdom ‘for the community’. Or financially frightening. And a small class becomes a source of shame or dissatisfaction.
Your specific goals – as a teacher, a student, a studio manager – will be dependent upon your local scene, and your personal priorities. It’s worth taking a moment to lay out some goals, and to think about the things you value most about a class or your local scene. And how you might contribute to their success.
For my classes, I found that my pleasure and satisfaction in teaching grew exponentially when I stopped worrying about the students who weren’t coming to class, and started cherishing the students who were. I now regard small classes as a luxury, and large classes as requiring a different teaching and social skill set. I also find developing class content and syllabus an exciting opportunity to put into practice the new material I learn in workshops. Or, conversely, I see workshops as a rich hunting ground for new ideas and exciting opportunities to expand and develop my own dancing skills and knowledge base – for my students, and for my own teaching satisfaction. Being able to absorb, comprehend, apply, integrate, and then communicate new knowledge has given me new interests and challenges in my dancing. Not to mention a great deal of pleasure.
The most important thing I’ve discovered about assessing a class, is: cherish every student. Don’t think about the students who aren’t there, think about the ones who are. Value their progress, their personalities, their delight in dance. Treat classes as a chance to share fun stuff, and to meet interesting people.
Below is a list of qualities or issues that I think about when I assess my own classes. This list isn’t exhaustive, these are just some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. And I’m finding that teaching solo dance isn’t quite like teaching lindy hop. There are different teaching skills needed, and these skills in turn shape my lindy hop teaching. Your list may be (and is likely to be) entirely different.
Looking at Students
Superficial assessment – Over the course of one class:
A weekly class (beyond the drop-in ‘swing intro’ class):
- Have most people ‘learnt’/’got’ the move (ie assessing technical ability)?
- Are people enjoying themselves?
The drop-in ‘swing intro’ class, the wedding class, the large public festival PR gig:
- Is everyone smiling and having fun (aka is it incredibly noisy in the room)?
One-off workshop with a group I mightn’t see again:
- Have people learnt some of the moves, most of the concepts, discovered something new?
- Are they taking away puzzles or concepts to work on in their own time?
- Do people feel good about the class?
Superficial assessment – Over 6 weeks:
A weekly beginners class:
- Have the students developed basic fitness (ie can they make it through a class and still be concentrating, engaged with content), and has this level of fitness slowly improved over the 6 weeks?
- Do they have basic core stability (ie can they charleston alone without wobbling, can they turn their bodies in space with confidence (eg circle), can they lead/follow (maintain connection with a partner) while doing charleston, circle or other steps?
- Have they begun to develop an awareness of how their bodies work, and how to use them (eg if we say ‘stand on your right leg and touch your left shoulder’ or ‘do this’ while demonstrating, can they do this)?
- Are they beginning to learn things faster? This speeding up usually happens at the ‘threshold point’ (about 6 weeks) where they move from stumbling between steps, to making a sudden leap forward in skill. This is always relative to each individual student’s needs/abilities/age/etc, so you’ll always have a diverse cohort (hopefully!), but the entire group should see improvements at a particular number of weeks. My goal for each class: some things should be ‘easy’, some ‘challenging’, and at least one thing should be ‘unfinished’ and needing some extra work or thinking. The pacing of individual classes (and how much and what type of content should be dealt with during what period of time) is a different matter, and requires masses of experience.
- Are they aware of ‘basic’ levels of leading and following (eg extension, shared bounce, relaxed upper bodies)?
- Are they making clear weight changes?
- Are they confident with basic rhythmic components (eg step step, rock step in various directions, keeping feet under body; triple steps; stomp offs; charleston; jig walks)
- Are they confident with (or will they cheerfully attempt/explore) basic rhythmic sequences (eg step step, triple step; step step, triple step, triple step; charleston).
- Are they confident with (or will they cheerfully attempt/explore) basic rhythm breaks (eg johnny’s drop, mini-dip, Lennart break)?
- Do they have a fundamental repertoire of historic lindy hop steps (eg swing out from closed to open, swing out from open to open (lindy turn), circle, SBS charleston, basic 6 count shapes (under arm turn for lead and follow, moving from open to closed)?
- Can they count themselves in at the beginning of a phrase?
- Can they find the beat, bounce in time, match their partner’s bounce, and then begin on 1 (or wherever) with confidence and solid connection?
- Will they cheerfully attempt a range of tempos, and have moderate success at most (slow as well as fast)?
- Are they beginning to express an interest in the songs played in class?
A weekly ‘level 1′ class (ie the class after beginners)
- Are they discovering more complex leading and following skills:
-> shared bounce and matching bounce,
-> relaxed upper bodies,
-> not collapsing shoulders,
-> moving core as extension of connection through body (especially follows),
-> are they aware of and able to work with the follow’s delay, and to build this into the ‘swinging’ timing (especially leads)
- Have the students moved beyond ‘shapes’ and begun thinking about and applying broader technical themes (eg big themes: bounce, engaged body, clear weight changes, the ‘reciprocal connection’ (where follows return the lead’s pressure, and where leads learn to read this return of pressure), etc).
- Are the students starting to experiment with musical styles, and to explore the way swing, accent, phrasing, and beat vary?
A weekly workshop or practice session for intermediate solo students:
- Are students comfortable turning in space (eg dancing facing different directions)?
- Are students comfortable moving through space (eg FOTL)?
- Are students experimenting with and feeling ok about turns and spins (eg lock turns) and spin with some confidence?
- Are students comfortable with starting at 8 or 1 or anywhere?
- Are students making clear weight changes (thus facilitating transitions)?
- Are students comfortable making mistakes, and experimenting with the ‘wrong’ versions of steps?
- Are students solid with bounce, core engagement, not collapsing into moves?
- Are students remembering medium length sequences of steps?
- Are students comfortable with (or interested in exploring and experimenting with) substantially higher or lower tempos, more complex musical structures, and different styles of swing and jazz music?
Looking at venue/class viability:
- Is the class paying the rent?
- Is the class paying the teachers a minimum of $20 an hour each?
- Is the class paying the costs of promotion, administration, insurance, etc?
->what is the minimum number of students required to cover these costs? eg 20 students @ $15 = $300 for 1hr rent ($50), 2 hrs teaching ($40), admin and insurance ($10), PR ($10)
- At what point does a class become ‘too big’? Optimal teacher:student learning environment is 20:2. Do you add an extra class when the group gets ‘too big’, do you adapt your current format to accommodate larger groups, or do you just carry on the same way, regardless?
- Is there a solid cohort of regulars, and what percentage of the weekly income do they constitute (ie how many regulars do you need to make your class numbers stable – 10 from a class of 20?)
- How does the class weather seasonal variations – can you handle the inevitable numbers drop when daylight savings kicks in? If there’s a day of warm sun after weeks of rain, can you cover your costs? Are you ready for the jump in numbers at the beginning of the year?
- Do you have strategies in place for periodically boosting numbers and generally keeping a public profile (eg promotional coupons, public dance gigs, etc), and are they adding too much, too little or just enough extra work to your workload?
Looking at teacher work satisfaction:
- Have the teachers moved beyond nerves and ‘figuring things out’ to confidence, calm teaching vibe and a relaxed, pleasant teaching experience?
- Are teachers working with a regular cohort, so getting a sense of achievement and satisfaction from students’ development and progress?
- Is the teaching partnership happy, healthy and satisfying (do the teachers feel confident introducing new ideas, to giving and receiving feedback together)?
- Are the teachers both ok with managing time and class progress in class (ie are they running to time or over time?)?
- Are both teachers ok with ‘leading’ the class on their own if necessary, or in being the more active lead teacher if the other is feeling rough and needs to take a back seat that night?
- Have the teachers reached a point where both are contributing equally, both listen to each other in class (and do not interrupt each other), both demonstrate good working partnerships to classes (eg how to give and receive feedback, how to explore a challenge together, how to give and receive appreciation)?
- Do the teachers feel ‘inspired’ – are they experimenting with new content, AND integrating this into the syllabus smoothly and confidently?
- Are teachers balancing new content with ‘old’ content, so developing a sense of ‘core skills’ for LH?
- Are teachers managing injuries and physical pressure of teaching effectively – ie are they nursing injuries, feeling exhausted the next day, or not getting enough sleep, or are they in good physical condition, recovering well the next day and sleeping well?
Looking at venue-teacher relationships:
- Is the venue happy with the arrangement? How do you know (do you see them often)?
- Do yo know the venue manager/owner’s name and have regular contact with them?
- Is the class meeting the venue’s needs (eg financial, cultural, creative, political)?
- Is the venue ‘working’ for the class: is it too noisy for a class? Too small? Too hot? Well located for public transport? Decent sound gear? Too expensive for the class sizes?
Looking at class culture:
- Is there a regular core cohort of students who are peers/friends?
- Is there someone to work the door, who does so enthusiastically, and with a friendly, welcoming tone?
- Do teachers enjoy teaching (eg do they look forward to classes, or do they make excuses not to go, or have to convince themselves it’ll be good?)?
- Do students feel challenged enough by content (eg do they have clear goals for their learning, and clear pathways to those goals (eg moving from beginners through level 1 to level 2))?
- Is there a stable class culture (eg a shared sense of humour and values, a cheerful willingness to learn, an interest and enthusiasm for challenging content, patience (from teachers and students) with new and challenging content)?
- Do students and teachers seek out new ways to contribute to class (eg bringing baked goods, DJing, organising out-of-class outings (eg to social dancing), going to drinks after class, wearing particular costumes or outfits, bringing questions about particular dance issues to class, requesting specific class content)?
As you can see, these are far-reaching and often contradictory questions. Not all of them are high on my list of priorities, and not all of them have to be ticked off for the class to be considered ‘successful.’ I think my main priorities are safe classes, where the bills get paid (including teachers being paid), class content has some historical veracity (ie jazz and swing music are played, the classic lindy hop steps are explored, rhythm is at the core of everything we do), and people (students and teachers) enjoy themselves.
A word about successful feminist classes
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t talked about gender in any of these points. This is because I see gender equity as a natural consequence of safe, equitable classes. I approach all the events I run with the goals of good, safe, happy, healthy, inclusive, inspiring, interesting, friendly, accessible dance spaces for everyone. I’m continually asking myself ‘How can I do this better?’ and ‘How can we make sure that everyone enjoys what we are doing?’ And I’m asking these questions because happy, confident dancers are creative dancers. If you encourage a culture of innovation and creativity, supporting other people’s projects and sharing your own, you can make your local scene more interesting. To my mind, the perfect lindy hop scene is continually evolving, doing new things, discovering new music, trying new venues, choreographing new routines, pushing themselves to become better dancers or teachers or DJs or event managers or vintage fashion fiends. Just generally feeling creative and excited.
These priorities mean it’s important to be flexible and self-reflexive, willing to try new things, to entertain new ideas, and to untangle your own preconceptions about students, classes, teaching, music, events, and dance.
I think it’s also important to remember that sometimes people aren’t happy, that not everyone becomes a brilliant dancer, and that sometimes a class just falls flat. But all those things are ok: a weekly class that’s safe and friendly might be very important to that person who’s struggling with depression and deep unhappiness. Their goal might be ‘get out of the house once a week’, and if so, your class is a success for them. Students progress at different rates, and while some people might pick things up quickly and amaze you all, the student who doesn’t ever actually become a ‘star’ but who cheerfully comes along to class regularly, gradually adding to their list of skills or experiences is still achieving. Their goal might be ‘have some lols and maybe learn to clap in time.’ Achieving modest goals is just as satisfying as achieving huge ones. Not every class you run will be fabulous. Sometimes you just suck. Your jokes are forced and rubbish, your explanations are unclear, your own dancing is wrongtown. Shit happens. So long as you pick yourself up and carry on, work on the things you can change (work on your own dancing! stop telling jokes! stop talking so much!), and just enjoy the company of good people, you have fulfilled some fairly satisfying goals.
I think it’s a powerful way to approach running dance events: seek out delight. For yourself, and for others. It makes for better dancing (because happy dancers are relaxed dancers, and relaxed dancers are just better lindy hoppers), but it also makes for better communities. Because unhappiness, frustration, rage, disempowerment, resentment, all that stuff is just rubbish. I have no time for that shit.
In practical terms, this means being cognisant of the way I use language in class, of the way I do things like handle partner rotations, dividing the group into lead and follow, and so on. Luckily, lindy hop and jazz dance are naturally very good at enabling resistance. All vernacular dances are about change, mutability and active use-value. Jazz dance, as the product of a people who’ve experienced slavery and segregation, positively delights in breaking rules, in innovation, and in thinking against the grain. Jazz dance, as a response to jazz music, is about individual representation and innovation within structures and constraints. The thing that makes all this so interesting and so wonderful is that jazz requires new thinking, new thoughts.
For example, the idea that to become a good lindy hopper, you must be able to solo dance is exciting: it suggests that if we are going to teach side by side charleston, we must first be able to charleston alone. If we’re going to be able to swing out, we must first be able to find the beat, dance a rhythm and move through space on our own.
And when we dance alone, we get to know ourselves a bit better, to feel confident in our abilities, and so enter dancing partnerships with more confidence and joy. So it makes sense to structure your class in a way that puts solo dance first. To have your students make friends with the music before anything else.
In terms of a political project, developing each student’s sense of self worth and making it easier for them to hone their individual skills is an important way of empowering people. And for women and men exploring gender, knowing we are all important and valuable and capable of great creativity outside a heteronormative relationship is truly powerful and radical. It says to men that they can explore all the ways there are of being a man, as well as, and beyond, those ways that are a response to women. They needn’t be ‘in control’ of anyone but themselves. And women, of course, can see that they don’t ‘need a man’ to be complete; they can experiment with independence, bravery, physical risk and physical pleasure on their own.
So, I guess I feel that solo dance is essential to the success of socially sustainable lindy hop scenes, as well as lindy hop classes and individual lindy hoppers. I believe that we cannot teach successful partner dancing classes without a strong emphasis on individual confidence, ability and delight in dance. And if that isn’t a feminist manifesto, I don’t know what is.
And when it comes to assessing the success of a class, it helps to have a set of criteria, for yourself, your students, and your place in a broader community. Be kind to yourself, be kinder to your students, and remind yourself that every day you dance is a day well spent.
to write about the connections between:
(linky c/o Wandering and Pondering)
Australian modernism and plays with perspective:
Al and Leon doing demos in the 1950s, Spirit Moves, 50s Duke Ellington, bop and the polyphonic qualities of early NOLA jazz.
Update on using gender neutral language in class:
I like it.
It’s no big deal.
So now I’m taking it a step further. Yes, there is a point beyond gender neutral language.
I find that I don’t like referring to ‘the follow’ or ‘she’ as though they were some sort of universal object or being, while I’m teaching. I prefer to use my teaching partner’s name. For example, I might say, “If I want *partnername* to move straight ahead, then my right hand pushes (gently!) in that direction, and *partnersname* moves that way. What does it feel like for you, *partnersname*?”
I think that this stops me making massive generalisations about leading and following and dancing, and encourages me to think about how each dance is a unique interaction and negotiation of space and time and rhythm and creativity with each partner. Which if course is the point, right? That’s why we go social dancing – to really sample as wide a range of experiences as possible? Or is that just the hippy in me?
I mean, last night we were teaching double top turns to complete noob dancers, and I found myself explaining in abstract terms why you don’t (as a lead) hold your partner’s hand too high above their head: because it’s uncomfortable. I reached a point where I was just annoyed by myself and said, “Look, this is just common sense, right? You’re gentle with your partner and don’t twist their arm behind their back because that’d hurt them? Stay with them, watch out for them, watch them, because that’s the nice way to dance.”
Sometimes we (meaning me) seem to pursue these abstract essential universal qualities of ‘good dancing’ as though they were divorced from the actual humans involved. I mean, the reason why we make sure the follow’s hand isn’t too far above their head isn’t mostly about good technique. It’s mostly because we are trying to stay ‘connected’ (in a social sense) with our partner, and not hurt them. We want to be with them in a personal as well as technical sense. The pragmatics of this (ie where you actually position your joined hands), is a consequence of this recognition that your partner is a whole, complete human. Someone you want to get to know, if only for three minutes. And as a lead, the follow is trusting you to watch out for them. So it just feels like the right thing to do is to justify that trust by not being a dick.
There is no universal, fixed ‘correct’ way of dancing (ie you don’t hold your joined hands an exact 170cm above the ground and 80cm in front of your face). Partner dancing is about negotiating a series of ongoing, constantly changing relative positions and relationships. My partner takes large steps because I take large steps. I lift my right hand higher on their back because they are taller than I am, and than my last partner. I stop dancing like a crazy adrenaline fool, and take more care and pay more attention if my partner is heavily pregnant, or feeling a bit unsure. I begin each dance with some time in closed, so we can get connected and ‘get in tune’. If I feel them disliking what I’m doing, I stop and try something new. I’m constantly alert to the possibility that they might bring something consciously, or that their change in weight or timing might inspire me to try something new. And that I can then integrate that into our dance. This is much more than a conversation (and what a boring, limited idea that is). This is a dance.
And this is why I think I’m happier saying “I do blah blah if I want *partnersname* to do X” rather than “I do blah blah if I want the follow to do X.”
Let’s put the gender back into the description: “I do blah blah if I want her to do X” or “I do blah blah if I want the woman to do X”, then this depersonalising and essentialising is made even clearer. My partner is defined by her/their gender, rather than their role or even their individual personality. And this essentialising discourages you from thinking of all of your partners as unique people, and each dance and dance partnership as a series of compromises, adjustments, active engagements and meetings of mind.
So, you know, adopting gender neutral language is just a tool, or a gateway to much more exciting thinking and dancing.
As I re-read this, I wonder if this bizarrely abstract, technical approach to teaching is culturally specific. I’d suggest began in the 2000-2003 period, partly because some people got obsessed with technique, micro-level leading and following, groove (and the slower tempos which made all this possible) and blues dance. And most of these dancers came to lindy hop with no dancing, and almost certainly no partner dancing experience. They also tended to be people from technical or academic backgrounds: IT workers, programmers, etc etc. People who like to logic their way through problems. People who mightn’t (and here is where I make a gross generalisation) have much experience touching and interacting with other humans in a physical way. Beyond sex. So they needed to invent a ‘technology’ for partner dancing.
When if you had grown up with touching other humans, with partner dancing and dance in everyday, normal, ordinary spaces, as part of your ordinary day, you’d be all “Well, durh, if I do this dick like thing, my partner won’t want to be my friend/gf/bf and that’d be crap.”
Now, however, as we move into what’s really functioning as the second or even third wave of lindy hop revival, partner dancing has become so normalised, so much a part of normal life and social interaction, you don’t need to explain every little thing in tiny detail. You can be much more pragmatic and socially oriented.
I mean, one question we get repeatedly from brand new dancers in class is “We did this move, now the handhold is weird – how do we fix it?! [paniiiic!]” I love this question, because the answer is beautifully simple: “If the handhold feels weird, just change it.” And everyone lols, because it’s funny that we’ve gotten so caught up in the mechanics of what we’re doing we’ve forgotten how to hold hands. Of course, the nicest part of all this talk about hand holds is that if you preface all your thinking about hand holds with “Have relaxed, gentle hands, and be cool with letting go of each other,” then you quit worrying about hand holds and get on with feeling the good adrenaline feels.
This all really brings me back to that point: if you’re used to holding hands with people, you’re pretty comfortable with figuring out how to make a hand hold work. But if you’ve never walked down the street holding someone’s hand, or never touched someone casually, or never partner danced, then you are acutely aware of hand holding and are paralysed by HOLYFUCKHOWDOESITWORK!?! panic.
[aside 2]You know why my posts get so long? Because I start writing and thinking, and write as I think, and one idea just prompts another, and another and another, and suddenly the post is a million words long and my brain feels like it on fire with ideas. A long post is the sign of a happy and excited brain.[/aside2]
What people really look like is kind of how I think about bodies in dance classes, except it’s a gorgeous bit of writing.
There really isn’t anything more wonderful than a room full of people in that last 10 minutes of a class, laughing and shouting and dancing like fools. Doesn’t matter whether they’re any ‘good’ at it or not – it’s the sheer joy that makes it just so exciting and inspiring. It’s really, really, great to demonstrate a cool break step, hear the students say “ooooo” and then five minutes later see them rocking that step themselves, with that confident “I am the best!” expression on their faces.
Humans are just so amazing.
(At the moment my new favourite thing is watching men who’ve never danced, ever, and who are quite blokey, do their first dance lesson and move from incredibly uncomfortable to unconscious glee. In those moments, when they’re flinging their arms about and laughing really loudly, I think of Frankie and get the feels real bad.)