Category Archives: learning

Uses of history: Frankie as teaching tool

A discussion came up on the facey the other day about how leads can deal with rough follows. It caught my eye, because I’d just had a dance with someone the night before which was particularly rough. I was leading, and the follow really moved herself through steps in a fierce way which left me feeling a bit sore. It also dovetailed nicely with my ongoing thinking about how to prevent sexual harassment in lindy hop.

On that last topic, I’m approaching this with a different strategies:

  • Developing a clear code of conduct for behaviour
    – (in progress)
  • Teaching in a way which helps women feel confident and strong, and provides tools for men looking to redefine how they do masculinity.
    – using tools like the ones I outline in Remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer
  • Teaching in a way which encourages good communication between leads and follows.
    – I am keen on the rhythm centred approach as a practical strategy. Less hippy talk, more dancing funs.
    – I like simple things like talking to both men and women about being ok with people saying no to you.
  • Developing strategies for actually confronting men about their behaviour.
    – I talked about how I do this in class in Dealing with problem guys in dance classes
    – I am totally ok with telling men to stop pulling aerials on the social floor because it’s a clear ‘rule’, but more ambiguous stuff is stumping me
    – I’m trying to figure out how to do it in other non-class settings
    – I’d like to find a way to skill up men so they can do this stuff too; ie it’s not just women’s jobs to deal with men sexually harassing women.

I seriously believe that feminist work needs to be practical. High theory and abstract conversation is very important, but for me pragmatic feminism means actually doing things. It’s important because it powers me up and makes me feel strong, but it’s also important because you know – actually DOING something. It can be quite hard and scary sometimes, because you are agitating, you are disturbing the status quo and you will attract some shit. Men don’t like to be told they’re doing dodgy stuff (and lefty men get particularly upset by this), especially when it’s a woman telling them. They often respond with physical intimidation, which is scary. And there can be social consequences for women which suck in a social dance community like lindy hop.
So, for me, I try to do this work in a way which isn’t too confronting or frightening for me. And which isn’t too confronting for other people. Feminism by stealth.

Where does Frankie Manning fit into all this?

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or are just new to lindy hop), Frankie Manning was one of the best dancers, choreographers, and troupe leaders of the swing era (1930s-40s). He’s generally positioned as ‘second generation lindy hop’, and credited with inventing the first public air step with his partner Freda Washington.
More importantly for modern lindy hoppers, he came out of retirement in his 60s to ‘teach us how to dance’. He taught people to lindy hop from the 80s until he passed away at 94 in 2008.
He wasn’t (and isn’t) the only old timer to do this. But most significantly, he had a very joyful, accessible approach to dancing, he didn’t mind that we all sucked, and he was prepared to work with complete amateurs, even though he really didn’t have any experience teaching total noobs or of teaching in a formal classroom context.

So Frankie holds a special place in many modern lindy hoppers’ hearts, and many of us take his example as near-gospel.
There are a range of problems with this approach, and I talk about them in Uses of history: a revivalist mythology. I basically say that I think we should be wary of uncritically using Frankie and his approach when we teach and talk about lindy hop. There are a host of political issues to consider when we appropriate his image and approach, both in terms of race, ethnicity and class, but also in terms of gender. Basically, he wasn’t perfect, and we have to be careful we don’t literally use him and his work for our own ends. And we have to be careful about how we use historical discourse in our classes.

So that’s my disclaimer, really: the next bit of this post is written with an awareness that I am a white, middle class woman writing in a developed, urban city in the 21st century. I am taking the words and teaching of a black, working class man of the early 20th century and using them for my own ends. I try to couch that with respect to Frankie’s memory, by name checking him and giving him credit for his work. I direct students to footage of his dancing, and to his own words.
I also make it clear that I am framing his work from my own POV and goals as a teacher and dancer. I didn’t know Frankie, and I only met him a few times and learnt from him a few times. So I tread lightly in his memory, and I try not to speak for him. But I am inspired him – by his dancing, by footage of his classes, by the mark he left on dancers who I learn from now and admire very much. I try to work with respect for his memory and for his work; he is an elder in our community, a custodian of knowledge, and important.

So here is something I wrote on the facey.
It’s about how I ‘use Frankie Manning’ in class to counter misogyny and sexism and to promote a type of connection that privileges creative collaboration, mutual respect, joy in dancing, and flat out badarse dancing.

I have trouble with rough follows every now and then. Especially ones who’re in troupes or do a lot of performing. They’re used to really physically strong leads (I don’t have the upper body strength of a man). I’ve had some bad shoulder and back twinges lately, despite my best efforts to improve my own technique, core stability and so on. As with dealing with rough leads when I’m following, I figure a rough follow is a partner who isn’t listening or paying attention to me because they’re stressing. At least I hope that’s what it is – it’d break my heart if rough follows were deliberately rough.

So the first thing I do if my partner is a bit rough, is to get us in closed position and tell a joke. But not too close a closed position, especially if they’re a woman who’s obviously weirded out by dancing with another woman. I’ll try to do something to distract the follow from being fierce and doing what they think I’m leading. Once we’re both chilled, and paying more attention to each other, I do super simple steps with a lot of emphasis on jazz feels and call and response – they do something, I echo it. That helps us both get on the same page. Then I build it out from there, adding in open position, etc etc.

So my first response to a rough follow is to become a really clear, yet incredibly gentle, responsive lead. And I make my basics the very best I can, so they feel confidence in me.

I’ve been using Frankie Manning as a good guide for safe dancing lately when I’m teaching. He would usually teach from the lead’s perspective, so I find it very helpful as a lead working to make a dance with a follow really comfortable and nice.

FrankieRepImage

That means I’m emphasising:

Looking into your partner’s face.
This is the most important thing I know about lindy hop. LOOKING into your partner’s face. It was the one big thing I learnt in the Frankie track at Herrang last year (where all the classes were taught by people who’d worked closely with Frankie). Once I noticed it, I was stunned by how infrequently partners look into each other’s faces.

It’s good for your alignment and posture relative to your partner, but it’s also good for making you connect with another human as a person, it helps you learn to observe your partner and recognise when they feel pain/scared/happy and it’s good for making you lol.

-> follows are less likely to throw themselves through steps if they’re looking at your face and seeing you flinch in pain. They’re also distracted from the move by the genuine human connection, so they stop pre-empting or rushing or panicking.

Call and response rhythms as fun steps.
They make you pay a LOT of attention to your partner, visually and physically, so you can ‘hear’ what they’re doing rhythmically. This is good for interpersonal communication (how is my partner feeling?) and learning how to recognise physical signals (what does a suddenly-tight arm tell me when I combine it with their facial expression?)

-> this is the next level of looking at your partner. So follows stop pre-empting and are really there with you. And because you’re really listening to them (everyone calls, everyone follows), they feel like you’re listening to them, so they feel more confident and worry less about ‘getting it right’ and rushing or hurting you.

Your partner is the queen of the world.
We say this a lot: your partner is the queen of the world (whether they’re leading or following, male, female, whatevs). This means that you have to look at them (and we model how to be impressed by/respond to your partner positively), and the ‘queen’ should then feel confident enough to bring their shit.
This teaches you to be connected emotionally with your partner, and to recognise how your positive response to a partner’s dancing can make them feel good and then bring their best shit.

-> follows bring incredible swivels and generally become the queen of the world. They pay more attention to you as a lead, and they feel like you’re really listening to them, so they reciprocate.

Scatting.
Brilliant for improving your dancing, but when your partner is scatting, you can hear them, so you’re connected with them in an additional way.

-> makes follows lol.

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Frankie thought the most important lindy step was the promenade*.
It’s in closed position, it requires lots of communication to walk together without kicking each other, and it has lots and lots of variations with lots of different emotions. It teaches you to communicate with someone, and you have to look into each other’s faces a lot, and be ok with that.
You get to hold someone in your arms, which means you have to be respectful.

*Lennart says so, so it’s probably true :D

-> I find some follows aren’t so ok with being so close, so I have to pay really close attention to them to find the ‘comfortable’ distance/connection. This makes me do my very best dancing. I try to put me in front first, so the follow feels more comfortable (follow first means they’re walking backwards – eeek!). I do pecks to make them lol, or rhythmic variations. I respond to the variations they bring.

You’re in love for 3 minutes.
Doesn’t have to be romantic love. But for that 3 minutes, this person is the most important person in the world. You look at them, you lead steps you think they’re like, you do your best to realise the step or move their aiming for, you work to make this dance work.
To me, this is excellent mindfulness. It makes it hard to be rough with your partner. And when someone is feeding all those good vibes back at you, you smile and do your very best dancing.

-> follows become the queen of the world. They listen to you, and even better, they bring things to the dance.

I think it’s worth looking at a video of Frankie teaching to see how he did this stuff:

Frankie Manning’s Class part 2

I don’t think his approach is 100% excellent. He does drive the class, he uses gendered language, etc etc. But he is the ‘star’ teacher, and his teaching partner partner is his assistant – this is very clear. He uses gendered language because he is explicitly thinking about male leads and female follows, and his talk about respectful dancing uses this gendered dichotomy. I’m not excusing this, I’m pointing it out. And here I can make this point: while I dig a lot of what Frankie is doing in this video, he’s not perfect, and I actually find that reassuring. He wasn’t a saint, he was a real person, and when we idolise dancers, we need to keep that in mind: we don’t excuse their faults because we love their dancing.

A couple of things I like about this class:

at about 4.44: “If you find yourself falling, and he does not stop you from falling…. take him with you.” I LOLed when I heard this. But it’s a nice, simple way of saying ‘look out for each other!’ and reminding women that they aren’t passive objects here.

11.48: Frankie tackles inappropriate contact “Fellas, don’t take advantage…. we are just dancin’
Nuff said, really.

With all this talk about Frankie, I think it’s worth pointing out:
When you watch footage of younger Frankie (ie in his 60s, and 20s), he seems quite ‘rough’ or ‘strong’ compared to modern dancers. Is this in conflict with this ethos of mutual respect in lindy hop?

whiteys-ladies
(photo credit: I found this pic via an image search on google, and it’s hosted by Swungover, but chrome crashed and I couldn’t find the page again! argh! So I don’t know who the photographer is!)

This is a tricky one, but I think it’s where we’re really done a disservice by the lack of attention to the original women lindy hoppers who danced with Frankie teaching us today. I suspect that women followers were a different breed too. When you watch historic footage, you see that they fiercely took space, and matched their partner’s intensity. So Frankie might have had a partner who was confident enough to take space, and to be a little less submissive and a little more determined to shine.
I have no evidence for this, and it probably reveals my own lack of dance knowledge and skill. But I’m wondering if we need to have a look at old footage in a new way. I’m thinking of the way Janice Wilson used to talk about Ann Johnson, and the fierceness of her swivels. And of course, you have to think of Norma Miller when you think about fierce women lindy hoppers.

At any rate, this brings us back to the idea of how we might use history when we talk about lindy hop partnerships. And I have no real, final answers, of course, just a bunch of poorly practiced ideas.

Heroes Of Jazz and other Visible Mythologies

angela_davis_otu_img
(photo by Andy Friedman from The Nation article linked below)

There was an interesting (and particularly stroppy) discussion about the ‘lindy hop career’ on the Jive Junction facebook page a little while ago that I keep thinking about.

I have real problems with stories about jazz music and jazz dance (both historical and contemporary) that present it as a series of stories about heroic figures. Particularly heroic men. Who aren’t burdened by caring for children or partners. Or otherwise engaged with their local communities.
I get really shitty about this approach because it ignores all the other labour that makes art possible: cooking meals, earning money, cleaning houses, paying for doctors, networking with venue managers, agents, producers, and recording record labels, etc etc etc. And it ignores all the ways in which artists are engaged with and participate in their local communities, and how all these relationships shape their creative work.

This was something that the Ken Burns Jazz documentary did, and which I’ve written about a bunch of times, in posts like:

I was reminded of this today by a quote-pic (don’t you hate those? Can’t search them!) getting about on twitter. This is the bit that interested me:

Frank Barat: You often talk about the importance of movements rather than individuals. How can we do that in a society that promotes individualism as a sacred concept?

Angela Davis: Even as Nelson Mandela always insisted that his accomplishments were collective—also achieved by the men and women who were his comrades—the media attempted to sanctify him as a heroic individual. A similar process has attempted to dissociate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth-century US freedom movement. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.

“A Q&A With Angela Davis on Black Power, Feminism and the Prison-Industrial Complex” – The Nation 27 Aug 2014

I’m a bit of a fan of Angela Davis, and have written about her before in A long story about blues, women, feminism, and dance.

My policy on comments

Hello!

Once again, I’m getting a lot of traffic via discussions about gender and sexual assault and all that stuff.
So here is a reminder about my policies for commenting on this blog:

– if you post something upsetting, I will delete your comment
– if you play the feminist, not the ball (ie you attack me, not my ideas), your comment will be deleted
– if you fail to grasp the basic tenets of feminism, you comment will be deleted (you can do a bit of googling to figure out the basics)
– I will favour comments by women. Because.

etc etc

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I’ve outlined my thinking about comments policies in this post, trollday. The upshot is that this is my blog, so I can do what I want. You don’t have a right to free speech here; this is a feminist space, and I am the boss of it. If you disagree or want to argue or rant, get your own blog.

Why did I get so strict? Because I CAN! I CAN!
And because I routinely get horrid comments and emails from randoms who want to school me.
Note: I will not hesitate to report your arse to the police. And please remember: anonymity is not that easy on the internet; we can discover who you are via your ISP, etc etc. And I will not tolerate bullying in MY space.

Total bullshit

All you need to know about the ‘learning styles’ myth.

Two other myths that shit me: ‘right brain/left brain’ and ‘muscle memory’. The second is particularly irritating. Your muscles do not have memory. They are _muscles_, not brains. So when you are learning a new dance step (for example) you don’t repeat it a heap of times to fix it in your ‘muscle memory’. You repeat it a million times* to improve fitness, balance (core stability), even to make your muscles stronger. But they don’t remember anything. Your brain does that.

*We could also argue that repeating anything a million times without some degree of mindfulness** isn’t terribly helpful. Like those jocks in the gym using momentum to lug weights into the air, rather than recruiting the right muscles, you can do something a million times and still not be achieving your goals.

**By mindfulness, of course, I mean an awareness of what you are doing with your body in that moment. And by awareness I mean knowledgeable awareness.

Imitation and Innovation 8tracks

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.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 1.11.39 PM

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.)

8tracks linky

Imitation and Improvisation from dogpossum on 8tracks Radio.

[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)

Two ways I put ‘solo dance’ into my lindy hop classes

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.

link


link

(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.

Specifically:
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:

link

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.

photo

(One of our students made this fab shirt. You can see more of his stuff on etsy and on madeit)

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.

Assessing the ‘success’ of a class

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:

-> compression,
-> 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.

More than gender neutral language

Update on using gender neutral language in class:

It’s easy.

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.

[An aside]
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]

[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]

Amazing

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.)