Dealing with Problem Guys in dance classes

If you’ve ever done a lindy hop class ever, chances are you’ve come across a Problem Guy. Problem Guys are just that – problems. They interrupt the teachers. They talk while the teachers are talking. They instruct the follows in class (usually incorrectly) and they just. won’t. shut. up. They often move themselves up class levels before they’re ready. They quite often pull out lifts and other inappropriate shit on the social floor with follows who are too shy to tell them to fuck off.
They also tend to be a bit socially awkward, but not in a charming way, so men find them a bit difficult to hang about with as well. They may touch women more than they’d like (even if it’s not sexualised touch), and they’re usually not the best dancers. Sometimes they are nice people, but just totally socially clueless ones. I’d argue that it’s not possible to be entirely socially clueless and nice. Social skills are part of what make people ‘nice’, or make us feel that they’re nice. Which is why the Problem Guy is often invisible to many men – those men just aren’t on the receiving end of a lot of the Problem Guy behaviour.

There are also Problem Girls, but that is not what this post is about. I want to talk about how masculinity works in this context. We spend a lot of time policing women’s bodies and behaviour, even in feminist discourse, so I want to talk about men and masculinity. I want to talk about masculinities in dance more in the future (I do want to get back to that point about ‘styling it like a man‘ eventually as well). So this is a post about Problem Guys.

So how do you deal with them? Wait, let me rephrase that. How do I deal with them? Before I ramble on, let me say: these are strategies I use, and they may not work for you, particularly if you’re not in Australia. Because intra-scene politics, gender politics and dance cultures are quite unique. But, well, fuck, maybe they will work for you – try them! And if you’ve got other strategies – please do let me know, as I’m determined to deal with this stuff!
Please note: I do not speak for my teaching partner. This is my understanding of what we do, and I know she has lots of different ideas. So this is me talking about my thinking, and I am NOT speaking for anyone else.

We’ve had a few Problem Guys this year, and we’ve dealt with them in different ways. At first, when we were just setting up our class venue and getting shit under control, we weren’t so confident in dealing with them. But as we got it together, we got it together. I think that as two women teaching together, we found our Problem Guy challenges were not the same as those faced by most male-female teaching couples. We had to be ten times more confident, and ten times more assertive. We had to deal with poor behaviour from Problem Guys much more aggressively, and we had to do lots more work in-class to prevent Problem Guys popping up.
But shit, we’re fucking guns, we can totally pwn that shit. And so can YOU.*

What do Problem Guys do, and what are the effects of this behaviour? Or, why should you give a shit about Problem Guys?

Problem Guys:

  • Question follows and ‘instruct them’ in the class: this makes follows anxious and self-doubting. That means these women won’t come back to class (who would?), or they stay and become more anxious and self-doubting, which is fucked up, and also fucks up their dancing;
  • Problem Guy behaviour in class sets the stage for later stuff on the social dance floor or in comps where the lead can get away with mistreating the follow (rough leading, aerials without consent, etc).
  • Problem Guy behaviour towards women disempowers women dancers right from the get-go (by making them question their own dancing). This makes them quiet timid dancers, and it also means they don’t feel ok with properly expressing themselves. And this is lindy hop – that’s not how we roll – we do all the emotions!
  • Problem Guys distract women from the teachers, and this undoes the teachers’ authority, and this in turn means the class flow is disrupted. This makes for poorer learning, but it can also make for clunky, boring classes or classes with fucked up social dynamics.
  • Problem Guys often make loud, inappropriate jokes that are often a bit sexy, while the teacher is talking. These jokes are usually at the expense of the female teacher (so they may make some comment about how the lead can’t put their hand there because omgsexy, or they may joke about how the lead has to be assertive because women don’t like being told what to do.) Conversely, they may make self-depreciating jokes about how men can’t multi-task and need a woman to do that for them. Whatever it is they’re joking about, those jokes demand you respond and interact with them, and this makes them the centre of attention and distracts everyone.
  • Problem Guys clearly think they are as important or know as much as the teachers – they don’t listen to the teachers, they talk over the teachers, they instruct the students as teachers do.
  • Finally, Problem Guys take up far more than their fair share of time in class. This means poorer learning outcomes for everyone else, and a fucked up social dynamic, where everything revolves around one person, rather than around everyone else. It discourages other people from speaking up in class (because they are often interrupted or pre-empted), and it sets a bad example for other Problem Guys. Problem Guys breed more Problem Guys.

So what does all this mean? There are clear financial challenges posed by Problem Guys: they scare off students and that loses you money. There are pedagogic problems: they interrupt the teaching and learning. And there are occasionally more serious issues, where Problem Guys bully teachers and other students in a physical sense, and make them feel afraid.

So how does all this work culturally, or in terms of interpersonal politics?

Firstly, let’s note that this behaviour by Problem Guy is really quite acceptable by mainstream Australian social standards. We see this sort of behaviour in talk-back radio, on the Footy Show and in television drama. I think this is often very white, straight Australian man phenomena: they are playing out hegemonic masculinity, and our culture encourages that sort of behaviour from men. There is also a congruent dominant femininity that’s required to make this sort of masculinity work: women must be compliant, passive, sexual objects, non-confrontational ears for these men’s words. And as most of us know, it’s quite easy to make your lindy hop reflect those roles. If you’re into terrible lindy hop.

Secondly, if you’re a guy who’s not into being a problem, or a sister who doesn’t want to be an object, our culture makes it really difficult for you to get along in mainstream spaces. If you’re a guy who loves to dance with huge, flamboyant abandon, you’re not going to get a terribly positive reception in some jock straight guy bar. If you like listening to women and enjoy their company without trying to screw them, or their wearing sexytime dresses, you’re not going to feel hugely ok in a mainstream singles scene. You’re going to need to seek out alternative spaces. Lindy hop scenes can be those spaces. But those spaces need to be nurtured.

When Problem Guys come across women performing the non-traditional femininity or men performing the non-hegemonic masculinity, they tend to want to reassert the dominance of conventional gender relations. In other words, they don’t like this non-traditional stuff, so they try to fix it. Or they take advantage of what they perceive (even on an unconscious level) as a power vacuum, because they don’t recognise the other, more complex power dynamics at work in spaces with multiple types of gender going on.

So, the Problem Guy functions in three ways:

  • They disempower the women students in the class;
  • They deconstruct the power of the teachers (especially the women teachers);
  • They re-construct their own power and status in class.

This is all bad because it means we end up with frightened women dancers who have no confidence, who apologise all the time, and don’t want to express themselves or take creative risks with their dancing because #shame.
This is all bad because we end up with disorganised, malfunctioning classes where learning is interrupted or stalls completely (and students get shitty).
This is all bad because we see unpleasant people dominate what could be a very pleasant space.
All this means students leave, money stops coming in, and teachers get really frustrated and unhappy. Bad news.

Why do Problem Guys do all these things?

  • These types of men find it difficult to be students and accept the (perceived) lower status of students in a class (this is often a problem in a class that emphasises hierarchies instead of valuing students as peers);
  • They compensate by finding other ways to shore up their own status and power (to make themselves feel good): by instructing other students; by assuming they’re right all the time; by not interrogating their own assumptions about their dancing; by constantly interrupting the teachers with jokes or comments;
  • They see knowledge as a list of possessions to acquire, rather than as an ongoing, changing process;
  • They’re not challenged by teachers in class (who don’t want to cause a scene, who don’t know it’s happening, who don’t like conflict), so they’re effectively getting positive reinforcement for their behaviour.

Things we know about Problem Guys:

  • These men are often not such great dancers;
  • They don’t improve (they tend to stagnate), because they don’t accept instruction, they refuse to accept that they’re not great (they often say things like “this is just my style” or “I don’t like X’s style, I like Y’s style which I learnt years ago”, or “I don’t care about that stuff – I just want to have fun”). These men often perceive themselves as among ‘the best’ in a scene, or not having anything left to learn, or their teachers as not having anything to teach them. Because they are often quite ignorant of broader cultural and social forces, and of the nuances of partnering technique, they feel that because they’ve done all the classes or been dancing for X number of years they’re ‘finished’ with learning;
  • They see teaching, learning and dancing as hierarchal, and this hierarchy as static (ie it’s not changing). This means that they tend to assume once you’re a ‘good dancer’ you stay a good dancer, or that men are better leads than women or that there are certain ‘right’ ways of doing things;
  • They aren’t constructively self-reflexive (they can’t and don’t reflect on their own dancing in a constructive way, but they are often quite hard on themselves and inside have quite low self esteem, despite their blustering);
  • They and their behaviour is often challenged by other students in class and on the dance floor, but then these challengers avoid them (or are avoided), and the Problem Guy just dismisses these challenges as ‘bitchiness’ or ‘too serious’ or ‘stupid’;
  • These men then target younger/more vulnerable women to dance with/instruct on the social floor/bully. Because these women won’t challenge them on their behaviour and are more likely to let Problem Guys do as they want. These women often just leave dancing altogether rather than confront these guys, or they tolerate it, because they have their own issues going on.

These issues are important because they establish power dynamics that persist into a dancer’s dancing career.
These conditions enable sexual harassment (where women are encouraged to think it’s ok for men to comment on their physical person and what they do with it); they isolate women dancers and prevent them from seeking support from other women (because they’re only dancing with men).

There’s this expression: ‘threatened people respond with fight or flight, with aggression or avoidance’. Teachers and other students do the same with Problem Guys: they confront or they avoid. Most of us avoid, because confrontation isn’t something Australians do a lot of, because women tend to deal with anti-social behaviour obliquely rather than directly, and because we’re there to dance, not work. I suggest that we needn’t think of this as fight or flight. As a dear and very clever friend of mine said when I was worrying about talking to a male dancer about a Serious Dance Issue: it’s not a confrontation yet. It’s just a conversation.

What do Problem Guys need? My first response is ‘a kick up the pants and told to fuck off’. Because I am NOT here to correct this shit. Part of feminism, for me, is about not taking responsibility for men’s behaviour. I won’t accept that a man sexually harassing me is my fault because I wore a low cut blouse, and I certainly won’t accept that a Problem Guy is a problem in my scene because I wasn’t a good enough teacher.**

[related rant]
I’d also add that we need to STOP promoting our dance as ‘a return to simpler times where men were men and women were women’, because that shit attracts Problem Guys to classes in the first place. And we need to work really hard to prevent journalists writing that shit about lindy hop when they do those regular ‘what is swing?!’ human interest pieces in the local press. So we need to think carefully about how we brand lindy hop when we’re doing our promotional activities.
[/]

BUT
As a community, we need to deal with this rubbish internally, to make our scenes safer, happier places. Or even just to improve the standard of dancing in our scene, or make our classes more financially sustainable. I’ve also found that practicing these skills in a dance context, where I learn how to deal with Problem Guys in a familiar environment, is excellent practice for the rest of my life. The more experience I have dealing with this shit here, the more confident I become. These are just very useful life skills. So, you see, lindy hop and jazz dance can fight the patriarchy off the dance floor as well!

What do Problem Guys need?

  • They need assertive teaching from teachers (but this sucks as this means they get more than their fare share of attention from teachers);
  • They need to be challenged by teachers, but in a non-confrontational way;
  • They need to stop teaching others and start challenging their own dancing (which they are unlikely to do because it is scary and threatening) so they can rethink their role in our scene.

What do we actually do?
First, and most unsubtle option: confront them. Confronting students in class can be unsettling and difficult for everyone involved – teachers, Problem Guys and students. So you need to have a clear, well-thought out strategy. Both teachers need to be on the same page and supporting each other. And there needs to be a minimum of conflict. Everyone involved needs to save face, the rest of the students need to not feel embarrassed, and everyone needs to feel safe.

  • Make a script for the conversation (remember, it’s not a confrontation yet – it’s a conversation). Both teachers talk about it and know what will happen.
  • Be very clear in your own mind, and with your teaching partner, about what you want. Do you want the Problem Guy to go away and never come back? It’s ok to want this – some guys who come to dance classes are creepy, unpleasant pervs and bullies. Get rid of them. You’re not the right person to ‘change’ them, and having them in your class will scare away students. Do you want them to stop talking while you’re talking? To stop instructing the follows? Make a list, and then make these into clear, concrete requests. So rather than saying “Stop hassling the follows” say “Stop telling the follows what to do.” Keep it brief. One or three points is enough.
  • Plan out the role for both teachers for the confrontation/conversation. It’s often best to have the male teacher or lead teacher (whoever the Problem Guy will perceive as ‘most important’ – this will almost always be the guy) do the most talking, and for the other teacher to stand right there with them, clearly supporting them.
    We’ve made these sorts of plans for our class, and allocated roles according to our personalities. I’m ok with actually saying these things (though I can get pretty scared, I can do it if I know someone has my back), but my partner is not. So I do the actual speaking and my partner does the ‘moving right along’ part, where we immediately get back into the class content afterwards: I stop the group, tell the Problem Guy to stop doing whatever he’s doing, then my partner starts us off again. It’s a well-oiled process. You might like to both speak, taking turns listing requests. Or you might gradually change things up in your approach, as you develop skills, confidence and inclination. Whatever you do, make a plan first. And practice saying your script out loud. That way you’ll be cooler when you put it into play.
  • Decide where you’re going to do this talking. In front of a class is very powerful and very effective, but it can be a challenge. It’s a public forum that can make some Problem Guys extra aggressive because they’re embarrassed. And many women dealing with this sort of aggression will immediately back off.
    Margaret Atwood puts it like this: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It’s not likely that a Problem Guy will physically attack you in class, but aggression can take other forms. No one wants to have some nutcase shouting at them in front of a class. But then some Problem Guys are far more aggressive and confrontational in private spaces, where they think they can bully and intimidate you.
    So judge your Problem Guy carefully, then choose an appropriate forum. Don’t do it in a dark car park. Maybe do it in a quieter part of the room, in sight of the group, but mostly out of ear shot. Don’t feel that you have to do it on your own to help him save face. Your teaching partner is your wing (wo)man, and you are a team. Present that way. And remember that almost all of your students will support your decision to confront Problem Guy and really appreciate your doing so.
  • Practice delivering the script with your teaching partner.
  • Finally, it’s always better to nip this stuff in the bud, and make it clear to potential Problem Guys that you are the bosses here, long before a real conflict develops. After all, the longer you let Problem Guy shit you and your class off, the more students he drives away. And the more upset you’ll get. So get in there sooner rather than later. You’ll find that thinking about Problem Guy is far more upsetting than the five seconds it’ll take to shut his shit down.

Other strategies:
As two women teaching together, we have found that some men simply don’t respect us or listen even when we address them individually. I’ve had similar experiences teaching in universities, a problem exacerbated by the face that I’ve always looked about ten years younger than I am.
So I have a range of strategies for managing Problem Guys in class: I stop talking and stare at them. I stand very close to them in class. And I even walk over and place my hand on their shoulder if they just. won’t. shut. the. fuck. up. Some guys don’t even respond to that. So, even if you do have a whole host of clever classroom management tools going on, you will find yourself needing to confront Problem Guys at some point. Yeah, I know. That’s sucktown. Why can’t they just GET IT TOGETHER? But you can do this. You can confront Problem Guys calmly, professionally and effectively. You’ve just got to trust yourself, and prepare yourself. Or: check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Other things that we do to counter the lack of respect Problem Guys have for women teachers:

  • We pitch our voices lower. Not so good for our vocal chords, but surprisingly effective.
  • Don’t accept the premise of the question, don’t argue, don’t get caught up in some crazy arse conversation mid-class. If someone’s asking you to explain what you’re doing for the eleventieth time say (kindly) “Sorry, but no, we can’t go over that again.” Don’t be all apologetic about it – just move on. If someone tries to get you into a discussion or argument, don’t buy into the content of their point, just say “We don’t have time for that now – let’s do some charleston!” and move along.
  • If Problem Guys try to physically intimidate you (and I’ve seen this happen lots of times, even to women teaching with men), shut that shit down. If men want to touch you in class (and the ‘jokey teasing’ prodding or touching is part of this) turn and say to their face “That is not ok. Stop that or leave.” This goes for students, too.
    There’s a good chance they’ll respond with “Geez, uptight bitch, much?” or “Oh, I’m so sorry! I’m so awful, I always do this, I’m so sorry! Can you forgive me?” Both these responses are about keeping them as the centre of attention, and making you respond to them. And you know what? Who cares what they say! That is not your problem. Just walk your fine self away. Do not apologise, do not try to make them feel better.
    This is when your teaching partner rocks: they just immediately move the class on to something else, preferably something quite physically vigorous. The people around you will be so impressed, and the women around you will immediately develop a massive hero crush. Be mighty, because you ARE.
  • Students, in class: if some guy won’t stop putting his hands on you, even if it seems not-sexy, and you don’t like it, tell them “Stop that”, and make sure the teacher or someone else is standing right next to you. If you can’t make that happen in earshot of someone else (these guys usually make sure no one else is around), you can just say it really loudly, at some other point. Say it in a slightly lower pitched voice, say it calmly, and not too quickly: ” STOP THAT.” Other students or your teachers will hear and be right there for you. You don’t have to wait till they touch you – just say it: “STOP TOUCHING ME.”
    If they’re doing it in a less obvious way (eg their hand on your back gets too low or too far to the side, or they stroke your hand in a creepy way) immediately call the teacher over or ask a question to the whole group: “I’m feeling some weird stuff with the back/hand connection. Can you come and help us fix it, please?” A clued-in teacher will come over, see what you’re doing, and then give the lead feed-back. If the lead keeps doing it, tell him how you do want him to touch you, and that what he’s doing is actually kind of creepy. But say it in a joke way that also sounds serious. Pitching this feedback can be tricky, so practice!
    All this goes for guys dealing with women as well.
  • Don’t let Problem Guys buy you drinks or be continually holding doors open for you as you pass through, or ‘helping’ you with your things. That’s their way of asserting their dominance. Sure, it’s great to be bought a drink by students every now and then, and of course we open doors for each other all the time. But some Problem Guys do this all the time and it’s clearly their way of asserting ‘proper’ gender relations. Don’t let them.
    It’s ok to say “No thank you!” to offers of a drink. And if they just buy you a drink regardless, turn to their face and say “No thank you, I don’t want a drink”. Don’t just ignore it, because then they’ll comment on it forever.
    In fact, you’ll often find these types of Problem Guys will not let your objection or comment rest. They’ll make comment after comment, usually along the lines of “Are you some sort of feminist?” (to which the answer is “yes” and then a turned shoulder). These sorts of guys tend to be cowardly bullies – they’ll try to publicly manage you. But be careful of them in private – don’t let them drive you home or walk you to their car or to the train. Make sure you’re not alone.

    If you’re not sure you can do this (because it feels like a confrontation, and we women are trained to be a bit afraid of confrontation), practice at home. Write a script. And tell your friends that you plan on telling this guy to stop, and tell them what you want them to do. Even if that’s to just stand there next to you, or smile and move the conversation along after you’ve said NO THANK YOU (the wing (wo)man factor again!) After a while you’ll get better at this, and you won’t need a script any more.

    I know quite a lot of women worry that if they do this sort of thing, other men (the ones they want to buy them drinks or talk to them or touch them :D ) will think they’re bitches and back off. That is so UNTRUE. If you don’t make it clear that you don’t like this sort of behaviour from Problem Guys, you’ll attract more Problem Guys. But if you make it clear that you don’t like this, you’ll find that guys who don’t treat women like that will get the ‘oh, she likes respectful guys’ vibe from you. Plus you’ll have cleared the field of Problem Guys, so that the guys you want will feel there’s room for them.
    All of this thinking is kind of bad news, though. It sets you up as an object to be admire by men – a flower attracting bees. And that’s no good. You want to BE a bee!
    If you stop worrying about attracting men, if you feel ok about dealing with Problem Guys, and focus on having fun and enjoying the company of friends (of all sexes), you’ll be feeling so awesome you’ll be able to rock in and dazzle the guy of your dreams with your pwr and he’ll be all ‘omg I would LOVE to be your boyfriend!’ WIN!

Now, if you’re a guy reading this and thinking “Gee, overreact much?” you’ve obviously never spoken to a woman. This is what it’s like to be a woman in our culture every single day. We just get used to dealing with this shit every. single. day. Every day some arsehole is telling us to ‘smile!’ or making a joke about how we need help carrying things or making an excuse to touch us in a public place, or looking us up and down or whatever.
When we become teachers, Problem Guys find having us in positions of authority really threatening, so they try to assert their own power by wearing us down. So this sort of shit actually escalates when we move into more interesting roles. It’s very tiring.****

But we don’t need men to step in and deal with this for us. In fact, that can make it worse, as it reinforces Problem Guys’ and potential Problem Guys’ idea that we aren’t as powerful as men. If you’re a guy in the class seeing Problem Guy being an arse, then you can deal with these guys in other ways. One of our students once saw Problem Guy getting told to stop talking with the stare-face, and responded with a loud “Busted!” and a big laugh. It was very jolly, we all laughed, but it made it clear to Problem Guy that other people were watching and that this shit is not ok.
It’s also totally ok for you (as a guy) to say to Problem Guy on his own or even in class in front of people “Mate, can you stop talking during class? It’s really distracting.” It’s ok for you to calmly and politely tell someone you don’t like how their behaviour is affecting you.

In fact, men telling other men that they don’t accept bullshit behaviour is a key part of making the world more awesome, and of my idea of feminism. Feminism isn’t just a job for women: it’s a job for all of us, because it’s about improving things for all of us. Even Problem Guy benefits from feminism, because it means he can chill the fuck out, stop beating himself up about not being alpha male, and just get on with learning to DANCE.

How else do we indirectly manage Problem Guys, or prevent Problem Guys?

  • Make leads (rather than follows) rotate in class. Or switch it up every other class. Rotating is unsettling, and it makes dancers have to constantly reorient themselves in the physical room. This can make leads more defensive, but it’ll also make follows more confident.
  • Use gender neutral language ALL THE TIME. The more you unsettle assumptions about leading and following and the way dancers interact, the more you discourage dodgy in-class behaviour. This is a tiny, but super-powerful tool.
  • Avoid describing leading and following as “Leads/men make the follow do this,” or right/wrong language that implies there’s only one right way of doing things. For a start, you’re wrong, and for a finish, you’re modeling poor behaviour and furnishing students with fairly crap learning tools.
  • Talk about the class room as a laboratory or place for experimenting, and encourage dancers to think about classes not as a place where you ‘acquire’ knowledge (like collecting stamps), but a place where you develop skills and explore ideas.
  • Don’t describe things as ‘rules’ or set out absolute definitions for ways of doing things. eg never say “We must always hold our arms like this,” say “If we hold our arms like this at this point, we can avoid this and make this possible. What happens if we do X instead?” And then get students to test the theory with some practice.
  • If you have leveled or streamed classes, police that shit. You need a way to tell students they’re not allowed to join the more advanced class, you need a way to tell people who’ve turned up anyway that they can’t join in, and you need a clear idea of what your levels mean. You need to publicise what’s expected of students in the more challenging classes, and you need to make it damned clear that there’s nothing wrong with doing the ‘lower’ level classes. Perhaps you need to ditch this whole concept of ‘low’ and ‘high’ and talk about these classes as teaching different material in different ways.
  • Monitor class behaviour. Pay attention to what’s happening in the room. Listen. Watch. Ask questions. And give students honest, useful feedback about their dancing that at once makes them feel awesome, and also encourages them to work hard and be self-reflexive. If you get Problem Guys in your lower classes who ignore you, boss the follows about and generally give you the shits, while still not actually doing what you need them to do in terms of dancing, you need to correct them! Let them know that that thing they just told the follow to do was wrong town. Let them know that they’re not being safe, that they’re being too rough or whatever it is. Feedback, yo – that’s what teaching’s all about! You need to move away from the idea that teachers just inject knowledge into students. It’s a process, and you need to be pro-active and self-reflexive too.
  • Model good behaviour.
  • Both the lead and follow teacher must spend equal time talking in class.
  • Lead teachers: are you interrupting the follow teacher? If you are – STOP IT. If you do – apologise, and then don’t do it again! It shows the students that you don’t think what your partner is saying is worth listening to, and it establishes you as the boss with the more important things to say.
  • Lead teachers: do you respond to your partner’s explanation of a point by paraphrasing what they say? Stop that, too. This is a tricky one, as one of the ways we do active listening, and demonstrate to our conversational partners that we’re paying attention is to paraphrase what they’re saying. This tells them we’re listening, that we understand, and that we agree. I tend to do this A LOT, and I’ve noticed that it happens way more when I’m teaching with other women than with men – women do it more (though not exclusively). But it means your students have to listen to descriptions twice (if not more, if you both get into an affirmation-spiral), and that means way too much talking and not enough dancing. Bad news!
  • Lead teachers: do you describe what the follow teacher is doing, or does the follow teacher? If you speak for the follow teacher, you are again asserting your dominance and making it clear that the follow’s body (and what they do with it) only has meaning through its relationship to the lead. This is NOT TRUE. Follows are individual hoomans, and while they are working in response to the lead, the lead is also responding to the follow. Let the follow talk!
  • Follow teachers: are you giving the follows in the class something to work on every time you do a move? Or are you just letting the lead talk to the leads about what they’re doing? If follows aren’t given tasks for their learning, they’ll get complacent (“I just have to follow and if it doesn’t work, it’s the lead’s fault”) or become passive little flowers to be moved around by the lead. Bad news!
  • Do you only teach moves where the follow spins and spins or executes a series of complicated steps while the lead remains fairly stable or in one place? If so, you are DOING IT WRONG. You’re demonstrating a poor understanding of lindy hop, but you’re also modelling a poor partnering dynamic. The follows in the class will a) become better dancers, but b) feel constantly unsure or off-balance, while the leaders a) don’t get good skills and b) develop the idea that the lead stands still while the follow carries out their leads.
  • Use steps where both partners’ contributions are built in, and an essential part of the move (eg don’t do things like say “This is the follow’s moment to shine” as though it were a one-off or special occasion thing (“Dance monkey, dance!”)).
  • Finally, remember that lindy hop is a jazz dance, with lots of improvisation. Breaking rules is part of the dance. Experimentation, improvisation and making things up is central to the dance – for both partners!
    Encourage your students to explore the full range of movement in a move, and to try as many variations as possible. And then to give each other useful feedback, and to listen to each other’s feedback. This sort of self-reflexivity will encourage students to move away from the idea of knowledge as a shopping list of items, and towards lindy hop knowledge as a constantly changing experience and relationship with others.
  • Finally, most importantly, teach solo dance. Solo dance fucks up the partner dynamic and makes it impossible for the Problem Guy to boss women dancers around. It makes women dancers more confident, and it makes it clear to Problem Guys that they haven’t learnt everything. Most Problem Guys will immediately leave your class and never come back, because solo dancing scares the shit out of them. THIS IS A GOOD THING! Problem Guys have issews, and it’s not your job to fix them.

You’ll find that Problem Guys just don’t like all this hippy stuff. They like dance classes with hierarchies and rules and proper men. So just don’t be that sort of class. Don’t create an environment that encourages rubbish behaviour. And be self-reflexive yourself.

BUT

Be confident in yourselves as teachers as well!

Finally, and most importantly:
Cherish your students. This is an important one for me. Deal with Problem Guys for your students. That can be easier than standing up to Problem Guys for your own sake.

At the end of the day, that Problem Guy who gives you the stomach-wobbles when you think about teaching classes with him in them, is really just some socially inept bully with low self esteem. You are the boss of this class. Even if you set up a lovely hippy learning laboratory, it’s your job to direct the session, to facilitate learning. And the students are ok with that – that’s why they’re there with you. And you can do this. Just make a plan with your teaching partner, make a script, practice it, deliver it. Each time you do this, you’ll get better. You’ll get more confident. And eventually you won’t need to make a script or a plan, because you’ll HAVE one!

Be mighty in the classroom, friends, because you ARE.*

*You need to say these things to yourself, ok? It’s not arrogance or bragging. It’s just being HONEST. Because Problem Guys rely on you dissing yourself. Patriarchy is made of women’s self doubt. PWR to you, sisters!

**This issue reminds me a bit of Steve Locke’s piece ‘‘Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race’, where Locke – black American man – declines to speak to an audience about race because (basicaly) he is done with this shit. So done. And that it’s time for white men to get all up on this issue and do this work. The implication is that this is their problem, so they need to deal with it.

***Ok,now you need to remind yourself that you’re awesome. If you’re holding down a regular teaching gig, you must have some serious shit going on. You’re an administrator, a teacher, a teaching partner, you liaise with venues, you handle sound gear, you plan classes, you deal with political shit. You are THE BOMB. So hug that thought to yourself and BE AWESOME.

Learning

God I write long posts. I just sit down, write ’em, then give them a quick edit. Sorry about that. It’s how I wrote my thesis. But with my thesis, I edited the thing. I don’t edit blog posts because WHO CARES. So, brace for impact, yo.

Some friends of mine have started getting together to practice solo dance. This isn’t unusual. A very large slice of my dancing friends are working on solo dance at the moment. You know why: you don’t need to find a partner, you can practice on your own, solo dance is an excellent way to improve your dancing across the board… and so on. I see quite a lot of groups of people getting together in their own time to do some of this work. The groups change and rarely last in exactly the same combination of people for more than one or two sessions. The point is not to forge a single ‘practice group’, but for a group of friends to get together on a particular day to work on something in particular, at that moment. This mutability is partly what makes the process so powerful: the structure survives as long as it is useful, and then it changes to meet its participants needs. Or it quietly fades away.

I think this self-directed learning is a very good thing. And I think, in my city, at this moment, these sorts of casual (yet quite focussed and determined) temporary creative sessions are the product of a scene which lost direction there for a minute. We didn’t have any higher level dance classes, and dancers really felt the classes they were going to weren’t focussed enough, the content wasn’t what they wanted to work on. So they made their own. I think that if our dancers’ needs had been met by classes and workshops and formal organisations, they wouldn’t have developed solutions on their own, and we would be the poorer for it.

Again, I have to say that I think this is a very, very good thing. Planning our classes for the new year (which include a new more challenging class), I was absolutely determined not to try to replace or conflict or compete with those independent projects. We really need that self-directed learning, and that sort of innovative, independent response to a challenge is a sign of a healthy community. I’m making this point because I know some teachers in some scenes perceive other classes and other learning spaces as threats, as though dancers working outside their influence were challenging their own authority or value and status as teachers and dancers. Me, I find these sorts of projects inspiring. And they remind me that I have to keep working on my own dancing and teaching if I’m going to keep up. I also think that I need to keep tinkering with my class formats if I’m to stay relevant to my students. More simply: someone else being super awesome doesn’t make you less awesome. It should inspire you to become as awesome as you can be.

So now, let me just sketch out the learning spaces in my city’s dance scene. Firstly, we have formal, weekly classes run by dance schools. Schools dominate almost every learning space in Australian lindy hop. Institutions: we have them. There are good and bad things about this. Then we have formal workshop weekends run by those schools, and featuring visiting international and occasionally interstate teachers. We also have the occasional workshop taught by visiting teachers and run by dancers in our scene. These workshops have lots in common with weekly classes: clear hierarchies of knowledge (oh boy, do lindy hoppers luuurve clear hierarchies); formal start and finish times and dates; fixed prices.
Then we have private classes, where local and visiting teachers work with dancers individually, for a much higher price than regular classes or even workshops.
We also have troupe training sessions, where members of a troupe get together to work on routines or skills. These troupes are managed schools or individuals, and are gated: they are closed to anyone not in that troupe, and troupe membership is also gated.
And then (most relevantly for this post) we have informal practice sessions run by individuals, couples or small groups to work on their own dancing. They might be working on competition material, performances, or just getting together to explore ideas or cement material from a class. This last style is the most informal, but it still requires some organisation: studios need to be booked, times need to be set, participants need to be contacted. And then the sessions themselves need to be organised, if the group is planning to work on a single project in the session.
As you can see, these practice sessions are great for developing dance skills, but they are also GREAT for developing organisational skills, professional and personal networks, and for inspiring self-reliance and creative, personalised solutions to problems. They can also be great for teaching dancers how to deal with conflict and ‘failure’. Sometimes private sessions explode in interpersonal conflict or incompetency. Learning to come back from a heinous mess is a real craft. But knowing how to prevent them is even better.

The social dance floor is another important learning space. The social dance floor allows for the informal, ‘casual’ transmission of moves between friends and dance partners. And there’s less talking, more dancing, which is solid gold for learning dance skills. When we have a large number of follows without partners (and these are always all women), we also see these groups of women getting together on the social floor to play with moves or share ideas or practice.
I want to distinguish between this type of dancing on the social floor and ‘solo dance’ on the social floor, where people move out into the dance floor to dance. In contrast, those groups on the side of the dance floor usually involve women who are open to being interrupted, whether by dance invitations or other things.

Right here I have to note: if you’re asking yourself ‘how do I tell the difference, when I want to ask someone to dance and I’m not sure whether they’d welcome the interruption?’ you need to open your eyes. If you spend a bit of time watching and learning, you’ll figure out the difference. And, of course, the most sensible solution is to wait til the end of the song, then ask the person you have your eye on: “Would you like to dance with me, or are you rocking the solo stuff instead?” If someone asks you to dance with them, and you don’t want to, it’s totally ok to say “Hey, thanks for asking, but I’m rocking this solo stuff instead.” Or even “Thanks for asking, but not right now!” That’s right, friends, it really is that simple.*

All of these learning spaces exist in a complex web of relationships and interactions. Most people are participating in more than one of these at a time, and their engagement with a single space ebbs and flows and their needs change. So, for example, I was part of a small group of women that got together to learn a solo routine, and then performed it last year at a large dance. We got together a few more times after that to work on things, but we didn’t perform together again. But that period of working and performing together galvanised our interests, and I think was an important precursor for the weekly solo class two of us teach, and for the competition entry two others put together this year. It certainly helped us develop skills (performance, choreography, practice session management, communicating ideas, developing professional relationships) and raised our profile as solo dancers. For other dancers outside the group it put solo dance into a public forum. Got it on the radar, so to speak.

The point here, is that these learning spaces and networks change. They’re not preserved for their own sake; they have to have function and use-value. Much like the dances we do, really. If they don’t have value and functional appeal, we don’t get into them. Until they do meet our needs and appeal to us.

[Digression]
This factor proves most difficult for institutions, which aren’t always so good at accommodating or enacting change. I think that a dance school (which runs social events, workshop weekends, provides professional networks, stimulates economic development and teaches dance) needs to be agile in its practices. It needs to be able to change.
This means that class curricula need to be adapted and developed to respond to local scene fads, interests and needs. Teachers need to be continually updating and refining their teaching skills. Economic and promotional strategies need to respond to the broader economic climate. And I think a dance school’s brand needs to be resilient and to slowly change in order to expand or focus the market. All this is really quite challenging for most dance schools, mostly because they’re run by people who are dancers first and business people second. It also takes a heap of thinking and planning and some pretty serious resources. And, most importantly, I’d argue, it demands teachers and administrators stay in close contact with the needs and interests of the dancers in the scene. Running surveys doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to be out there on the social dance floor, at competitions and performances, out at dinner and generally keeping in contact with people. And it can’t just be one person all this, as that one person’s experiences will shape their perceptions of the community. It needs to be a network of different types of people. Argh! The work! And yet – the opportunities!
[/]

Rightio, now we have an idea of (some of) the learning landscape of my city’s dance scene. There are plenty more gradations and variations, but these are the ones I want to touch on. And, of course, the ones I see and am aware of. I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t thought of, or just don’t see, because I’m not moving in the right social circles. Dang it.

Here’s where I get to the point of this post. I have a group of male friends who are involved in what they call ‘man troupe’. The name is really a bit of a joke, but the idea is pretty cool. Male friends get together to work on dance, and women aren’t allowed. Though the ‘rule’ is that a woman can come, if she brings four men with her. Of course, occasionally a woman will go along. But seeing as how those same men are also involved in other casual practice sessions that do include women, you could argue that the difference between ‘man troupe’ and other sessions is just who turns up.
But a friend made a really interesting point the other night: man troupe is about encouraging men to do solo dance, and more importantly, to get their own skills up to the level of the women dancers in our scene. This point was made in conversation, by a couple of men involved with the group, and I realised that the goal wasn’t necessarily competition with women dancers or excluding women dancers. The goal really was to work on their own dancing, in a space where the participants have similar goals and ideas about dancing, can support and encourage each other, and push themselves and their dancing to ‘keep up’ with other dancers in our scene. Which is of course the reasoning behind most informal dance practices.
But these guys also made the point that most of the solo dancing in our scene (and in many other scenes, I’d argue), is taught and danced by women. This is true. My (female) teaching partner and I teach solo dance weekly. Previous local solo workshops have been taught by women. Even our visiting teachers teaching solo workshops have been mostly women. And when we look onto the social dance floor, there are more women than men solo dancing.

This, of course, fascinates me. Women tend to gravitate to solo dancing because they’re waiting on the side of dance floor for a partner, because their scene has too few leads. It’s also quite common for a lindy hop class to default to a ‘solo class’ if there are far too few leads in the class. And then, in a more general sense, women in our culture (the mainstream, predominantly Anglo urban Australian culture), women tend to dance more, and with a greater range of moves and steps, than men. I’ve written about the discursive and social power of women solo dancing plenty of times before, so I don’t need to go into this again. But all this means that women are more likely to be exposed to, and to take part in, solo dancing.

[Digression]
The gendering of this is a direct result of the way we gender leading and following. In the small block of more advanced classes this month we built solo work’ into our classes: students had to dance the basic rhythm on their own over and over. If they were standing out in the rotation because they didn’t have a partner, they had to dance through the rhythm and work on the material anyway. If they found something getting messy with their partner, they were encouraged to stop and do it on their own for a second.
I was really surprised to see just how frightening many of the leads found this. So confronted that a handful simply couldn’t do it. They just felt too self-conscious. And some simply couldn’t stay focussed, because they weren’t used to having to work on their own dancing in the focussed way that solo dance requires. They were simply too used to the familiarity and crutch of another partner.
This worried me a bit: I see this as a serious problem in our dance community. It’s bad news for gender politics (men and women can’t function independently), and for the standard of dancing in our scene (we have to be able to dance alone if we want to dance together). More specifically, it was made very clear that many of the men in the room were seriously disadvantaged by some of the prevalent teaching practices in our scene. This silly heteronormative, conventionally gendered partnership model is bad news for men and women. And their dancing.
[/]

I think the theme of this post today was crystallised by blue milk’s post ‘Boys and masculinity in young adult fiction’. There, the discussion centred on the importance of positive role models for boys in fiction. Or, to make my thinking clear, in creative practice. There’s also been some talk about the national HSC results this year, where girls topped maths and sciences for the first time. A fair proportion of the media coverage saw this as a dire tragedy, a sign of the hopeless feminisation of education and Decline Of Man. More sensible observers pointed out that boys were still over-represented in maths and sciences, and that perhaps the problem is not perceived declines in results, but in the pedagogic practices at work in our communities.

What’s this got to do with dance? Dancers need inspiration (things to aim for) and role models (who demonstrate how to do and be something). Dancers need a range of learning spaces to achieve a range of learning goals.

I’ve been quite concerned about male solo dancing role models in my scene for a while. I deliberately chose a young, athletic, ‘cool’, highly skilled male teacher for a workshop weekend a few months ago, because I wanted to provide a positive role model for the male dancers in our scene. I wanted our local male dancers to see just how cool solo dancing can be for men. I also wanted to them to see how this solo dancing informs a male lindy hopper’s dancing. And I wanted female dancers to see how this then improved their dancing experiences. And most importantly, I wanted dancers of both sexes to see how good dancing partnerships require two happy, healthy and enthusiastic partners.

Sure, I had some ideological goals (deconstructing patriarchy is important for men as well as women), but I also had some fairly mercenary ones as well. Our solo class has solid numbers, but we don’t see many men there. Probably because both of teaching are women. And because the class is dominated by women, and many men find an all-women class quite intimidating. In more general terms, I wanted to provoke our male dancers into critiquing their own dancing, and realising they can’t just rely on being one of a small group of male leads to assure their status. I wanted them to realise that if women dancers discover that solo dancing or leading is more fun than following complacent leads, they’ll do those things instead. And this would shake up the power dynamics in the scene. ‘Orsm’ is determined by dancing skills and funfactor rather than the possession of a dick.

This last point is a tricky one, because I don’t think the way to social change is through tearing people down. I think that feminism is about making things better for all of us, men and women. I didn’t want our male dancers to get down on themselves. I wanted them to feel so inspired by what they saw they decided they had to challenge themselves to become even more awesome.

I’m also very, very sure that to achieve broader cultural change within a community (ie to undo rubbish gender shit, to revitalise a scene, and to encourage exciting creative work), we need diversity in cultural practice. Lots of people have to be working in lots of different ways. And that they shouldn’t all be agreeing with each other. We need (friendly) conflict, critical engagement and even competition (physical as well as ideological) as well concerted effort to provoke people’s efforts.
I also think that this work has to be happening in different spaces and discourses. It has to be both self-directed, independent, tactical (in de Certeau’s sense) and institutional or strategic. I know we’re supposed to be sceptical of institutions in socialist feminist discourse, but I’m also a pragmatist. Institutions, with their centralised discourse, are very powerful tools for communicating ideas and initiating change.

[Digression]
Lots of people have asked me why I began teaching with a big dance school, particularly a school with a less than savory reputation. And my answer is that I’ve done all that independent, non-profit work in volunteer committees, and they’re sure as fuck not bastions of egalitarianism and equality. I also felt that I could be more productive and do what I need to do with the resources of a well-organised, fairly formally structured group. I’m also a bit tired of working for free. Dance projects need to be socially sustainable, but being socially sustainable also means be financially sustainable. Losing money or having no money is stressful, and a stressed out worker eventually gives up. I’m also fairly impatient with the bullshit idea that people should work for free in dance scenes ‘for the good of the community’ or as an act of historical preservation. Fuck that shit. Those exploited workers are the community, goddamnit.
[/]

Finally, my feeling is, as always, that if something shits you, you have a few options: bitch about it, then get over it; bitch about it, then walk away; bitch about it, then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. That last one is usually the option I take. I don’t have a lot of patience for dancers who complain and complain and complain about the terrible DJing, the lack of quality classes, the awful social dances, the terrible pay rates, etcetera, etcetera and then DON’T do anything about it. If we all just bitch and bitch and then just stew in our own shittiness, we’ll just get miserable and useless. For women dealing with bullshit gender politics, if we concentrate on bitching about things and then don’t follow up with action, we are participating in our own disempowerment.

What do I mean by ‘do something’? I don’t mean that you then have to go out and run your own dance events to fix the problem. Most of us don’t have the resources to do that. There are plenty of other, more achievable and more satisfying ways to be a power for good in your local community. I’ve found that it’s far more productive to back up all my rants about gender politics in the dance scene by learning to lead and then getting out there and leading. Every time people see me – a woman! – leading, I change things. Particularly if I’m having fun and it shows. It’s even easier for me to back up my opinions by encouraging other people who’re doing interesting things.

Don’t like the music? Learn to DJ. Tired of DJed music at dances? Find good bands, then tell people about them, take your friends to see and dance to them. Shitty about that lead who continually throws new women dancers into the air? Call him on his bullshit! Or, much more usefully (because those fuckwits never get the message), get in there and dance with those women dancers yourself! That way they’re less likely to tolerate fucked up bullshit from those leads that hurts and frightens and embarrasses them. And those idiot fuckwit leads will see some good role modeling and won’t have a chance to exploit their position as ‘an accessible lead’ with awful behaviour.

One of my favourite – and perhaps the most powerful – forces for change in a dance scene is the social lubricant. Walking up to people and saying ‘hi’, asking your students to dance, organising pre-dancing dinners, inviting people to work on dance stuff with you, thanking the band at the end of their set, sending a quick email to tell an organiser you loved their work, responding to general email requests for help (even if you just say ‘sorry but I can’t’), throwing yourself into a competition, planning a performance…. all that stuff is super powerful. It’s the sort of tactical, on-the-ground, grassroots force for change that really makes a difference.

And do things like man troupe. Man troupe is an exciting, practical tactic for enacting social and cultural change.

To sum all this up, then…
I think dance communities need diversity to be truly creative and dynamic. If there’s one thing evolutionary theory can teach us, its that robust communities require randomness (the mutation that provides that characteristic that helps us survive environmental change) and ‘genetic’ diversity. If we all look and think and dance the same, we’re not creative. We should all just give up and go do aerobics.

Someone else’s success does not diminish your own. Just because person X is a brilliant dancer, don’t mean that you’re less a dancer. Stop comparing yourself to other people and start celebrating other people’s successes. Take their achievement as inspiration and motivation. Work to achieve good outcomes for everyone.

Try something yourself, rather than waiting for a solution to be sold to you. This is where capitalism in dance sucks arse. You don’t need to wait for your teacher/school to give/sell you a solution to your problems. You can totally fix this yourself. Complain and bitch if you’re cranky, but then step up and get shit done yourself.

One of my favourite things about the international lindy hop scene is that learning is absolutely central. Whether you’re doing classes or figuring out how your body works.

Learning: it’s good. As we say in my house, “Don’t deny knowledge!”

*I don’t like to sexualise partner dancing, but there are parallels between sexual consent and asking someone to dance respectfully, and than accepting a polite ‘no thankyou’ gracefully. If we condition women in our scene to never say no, and we condition men in our scene to assume a woman will never say no, we’re setting up some pretty horrible power dynamics.

Basically, expecting someone to just say yes to your dance invite, whether they want to dance with you or not, is a lack of respect for that person. You don’t respect their right to make decisions about their own body. In our culture, this is gendered. Women are expected to be grateful for a man’s attention. We’re expected to drop everything when a man asks us to dance, and be grateful for the attention. Men are encouraged to assume a woman will say yes to a dance invite, even if they don’t want to dance with them. This is why I hate the ‘never say no to a dance invite’ bullshit that circulates in the lindy hop world. Damn right you can say no! And you know what? Some people just don’t want to dance with you, and you need to respect that. But you have to keep asking. Because being asked to dance is really good for the ego. As blue milk writes asking for consent is sexy. And while people say no sometimes, they also say YES sometimes.

This is also why I’m a big fan of solo dance, women learning to lead, and women being exposed to respectful, talented male dancers. Women need to know that the most important thing in lindy hop is not dancing with a man/leads. The most important thing in lindy hop is fun and pleasure and creativity and all that wonderful stuff. And all this is why I goddamn hate that mime-invitation-to-dance. USE YOUR WORDS, DAMMIT!

(Unless you don’t speak the local language or you’re asking someone to dance and don’t speak their language. Then it’s ok.)

Busy Hamface, busies herself

You’d think nothing had been happening round here.
But everything has been happening.

Firstly, we had to finish off classes for the year. We were so tired out, it was a relief, and yet it’s a poo to interrupt the learnz. But knowing when to rest is important.

Secondly, we had MLX. The biggest event in Australia. I was coordinating the DJs. I got into bed at 6am on Saturday and Sunday because I was having so much fun DANCING. Pilates has made masses of difference to my stamina – dancing is just so much less work because I use my body more efficiently. The music – live and DJed – was beyond compare. It was a massive weekend, and all the organisers and DJs should be very, very proud of themselves.

Thirdly, I arrived home on Monday, utterly shagged, my knees destroyed, and had to get shit together for the Little Big Weekend with Ramona, which started that Thursday. I was running this one on my own, and it was pretty much 100% sorted. Except for those little things I discovered on about, oh SUNDAY. But that’s how running events works – you discover little errors or mistakes or problems, you solve them, you rock.
I have to say, this was a seriously successful weekend.
Ramona did the Ramona thing: she was ridiculously professional and excellent company. Being in a range of classes with her, it was made very clear that there’s a real difference between being a regular teacher and being a world class teacher with ten years of teaching under your belt. The classes were fantastically structured and executed, and Ramona’s physical abilities were so far beyond what I’ve seen in workshops with other international teachers this year, I was blown away. And then, the class content!
I asked Ramona to teach things that I was really interested in, and then she DID. A class in soft shoe, a class in blackbottom, a class focussing on three different character dancers (Snake Hips, Josephine Baker and… mental blank). It was a solo weekend (!!), and the material was really quite eccentric. The classes sold out in 48 hours, we opened new spaces, the classes sold out again. And then to see a large group of people just lapping up this strange, bizarro wonderment, working hard, laughing and just relishing the Ramonaness…. it was a real delight.
After the workshop day, we had a christmas party (I didn’t run that one), then a late night party (I didn’t run that one either), and the late night party was A M A Z I N G. My standards were high after MLX. But I would even say that this was better than the late nights there. That could just be local pride. But, seriously, it was just fabulous.
There were a few other sessions on the weekend – a training session for a performance troupe, a ‘masters’ private class (masters = hardcore solo jazz nerds) and a small teacher training session – and Ramona was a real trooper. The work load must have been so tiring, but she kept rocking. And I’ve heard report after report from attendees gushing about the classes. I myself feel so inspired and invigorated. We taught on the Monday immediately after the weekend and got to test some things from the teacher training. It was exciting and inspiring and satisfying!

So, the Little Big Weekend with Ramona: wonderful.

Thirdly, Alice and I had two classes to teach on the Monday after the weekend, as part one of a three night block at a larger venue. We did a 1920s partner session (boy we wanted to do blackbottom!), then the first in a series we’re calling ‘beautiful basics’. This first basics class was looking at rhythm in lindy hop. It was a really nice coincidence to see Ramona emphasising rhythm so fiercely in her classes. We’d planned this class ages ago because we’re really into rhythm in our solo and lindy hop dancing, so Ramona’s approach helped confirm our feelings.

We worked very carefully on a class that began with a strong solo component (looking at the ‘step step triple step, step step triple step’ lindy hop rhythm, gradually adding in new fundamental rhythms – stomp off, kick ball change, hold), getting the students to dance out those rhythms in combinations. The goals were to work on bounce, on timing (syncopation, swing, etc) and on combining and changing rhythms.
We spent about three quarters of the class on that, and the students worked very hard – we were so impressed. Then we had them partner up, and we worked on putting those rhythms into swing outs. Swing out after swing out. The goal was to show how rhythms can be the core part of a swing out, and that shapes or ‘moves’ aren’t necessarily the most important part (though of course that’s fun stuff too).
It was really thrilling to see them suddenly go “Ah-ha!” when they understood how working on the rhythms on their own were an essential part of rocking their partner stuff. And their swing outs! It was really inspiring. So that class was a lot of work, but a lot of fun.
Next week we’re expanding that concept of ‘beautiful basics’ with a class looking at ‘making space for rhythm in lindy hop’. In that class we’ll take some basic steps or shapes (swing outs, under arm turns, etc) in a very basic ‘routine’, and then look at how we can make those basic steps a framework for rhythm or jazz steps. So the goal is to create swing outs or shapes that are flexible and relaxed, and to help students figure out how their connection with their partner can be open to improvisation.
I was quite struck by how this week’s class, which was quite simple in concept (make your swing out a jazz step and dance on your own, then rhythm-it-up, then make it into partner work again) could be so useful. The key was the practice and experimentation. And it was really nice to see the students then taking each of those rhythms and varying their shapes or emphases. Hopefully this next class will be just as useful. The goal with this one is to help students see how the most basic lindy hop ‘moves’ can be frameworks or outlines for more complex, textured dancing. The key is to be relaxed and self-reflexive, understanding how your own movements affect your partner’s, and how to be open to invention and improvisation.

Fourthly, I had pilates last night, after a day of busy appointments. I love pilates. It feels like a nice, gentle, low-impact, relaxing workout. My knees don’t hurt, I don’t sweat that much, I can be calm and properly mindful and in my body. And by GEEZ the work has improved my lindy hop.

And now it’s Wednesday, and I have no obligations! Well, I have stacks of post-event admin to do, but I’m giving myself a break, as I’m totally buggered. So of course I’m taking this time to write and write, rather than going out and doing something calming and non-dance related.

Tomorrow, of course, it’s on again. There’s a GREAT gig featuring three bands on tomorrow night at 505. The New Sheiks are from Melbourne (I squeed about their latest album here), and I’m really looking forward to hearing them. Then there are the Finer Cuts, who are from Sydney, and who played the christmas party. Most of their band members also played the late night Speakeasy party and were fabulous. And the final name on that bill is Pugsley Buzzard, who used to live in Sydney, but is now Melbourne based.
I’m really looking forward to the gig. I’m totally and completely over DJs (sorry, DJs) – live music is rocking my boat.

But, now, I have to add a caveat. The DJs at MLX made me realise that it’s really only ordinary DJs that I’m tired of. The quality of DJing at MLX was so vastly far beyond the ordinary DJs I hear, and have heard at other events during the year, it makes it clear that skillz are not universal. My own DJing, sadly, was not really up to snuff. I think I did an ok, job, but I definitely wasn’t up to my past standards. Assessing my own work, particularly on the Friday late night in the lindy hop room, I think I’d put me on the non-crucial sets next year.
In retrospect… heck, thinking about my DJing now, the problems are: I don’t DJ hardcore events enough these days, so I’m out of practice; I spend more time thinking about dancing than DJing, and am not on top of my own music; I’m not inspired, and I’m not nerding up my way through vast quantities of music each week. Basically, teaching and my own dance work have pushed DJing to the back of my mind. For now. I think this is a good thing. I’d much rather use band than DJs, and I’d much rather be dancing than sitting on my clack watching other people dancing. I’m also 38 now, so I reckon I should do the hardcore dancing now before my body totally asplodes. Time enough for DJing later.

So I’ve had a crazy couple of weeks. It’s been really, really great. I had a massage when I got back from MLX, which really helped, but I do feel as though I’ve pushed my dodgy knees a bit further than I should have. Curse you genetics! Now I’m thinking about next year, and about events in the future. I have some schemes, and some ideas for other events. I’d like to do something completely different and unusual. Something that we don’t see in Australian jazz dance. Now I just need some funding (to the arts grants!), some business skills (to the TAFE!) and a crack team of people to help me pull these things off. I love having the chance to combine my academic experience with my dance love. I figure all that time applying for and getting grants and scholarships during my postgrad years is going to be very useful in the near future.

Dancing, you are the finest. Organising and planning, you are the equal-finest.

self-directed learning

I’m stupid busy today, so I don’t have time to round up all my thoughts properly. That means that this post will be typically chaotic, full of spurious assertions and otherwise mo with the dodge.

But I want to keep a note of my responses to robcorr’s latest post about homework, which has an interesting bit at the end:

Homework setting and practice will have to change so that students are learning about self-management and self-regulation. The sort of homework tasks that promote learning these skills will not focus on drill and practice but require homework tasks where students make some decisions and choices and also exercise some autonomy.

This immediately makes me think about how we practice dance on our own. I’m interested in the idea that effective learning involves dance in a range of spaces – classes, practicing at home, social dancing, dancing like a fool in the lounge room, going to night clubs, dancing to live bands, etc etc etc. This idea of dance in everyday spaces is something I’ve borrowed from research into vernacular dance (particularly by Tommy DeFrantz, LeeEllen Friedland and Katrina Hazzard Gordon), where dance is just one part of a whole system of creative and everyday labour/practice, and that this everydayness (vernacularness) is what makes it robust and vibrant. It also makes it flexible, mutable and inconstant rather than fixed, constant and predictable. Which of course is what I love about it. Looking at how dance happens in our own different everyday spaces – different contexts – allow us to think more actively about what we are doing, to break ‘habits’, and to make our movements active choices. This hopefully helps us to become more creative, more responsive dancers. If you give a shit about that sort of thing. Me, I want to learn all the things, so I want all the skills.

LEARN ALL THE THINGS

Relatedly, I’ve been thinking about the classes we run for more experienced dancers not as ‘lessons’, but as spaces which we organise (because we have the time and inclination, not because we are the ‘best’) and which we all participate in for learning funz. And then we go to other people’s classes because we want to experience classes as a participant rather than organiser. We also all go (both class coordinators and participants) to work on material together in an informal space (ie a shared practice time), where the assumption is that we all have the same status, though with different needs and interests. This destabilises the hierarchy that otherwise dominates formal learning spaces. Hopefully.

I want to note, here, that a little hiearchy can be a very useful thing. When a group of people come together to do a complex task, they can organise themselves in lots of different ways. If it’s a time-sensitive task, then leadership (or hierarchy) can be very useful. So I’m not a complete anarchist – I think that structure and hierarchy can be useful.

But I don’t think that hiearchies of power and status should be fixed and constant across all social and cultural spaces. For example, just because you’re a high profile dance teacher, doesn’t mean your opinions about agriculture are more important, or that we should just smile when you say offensive things or sexually harass people.

I do think that, as sensible hoomans, we can agree to follow the leadership of someone in a particular moment in time. I quite like being directed or led by someone else, and I really like the idea of being part of a group that agrees to be directed by someone’s vision or idea. Just to see what happens, or how it turns out. It can be really super fun to be a cog in a greater machine, making something large and wonderful. But when that task is done, doesn’t mean we then continue to do as we’re told, or to cede our decision-making or opinions to those of that leader.

So status – power – can be mutable, changing and passed around. It can be a matter of consensus. The best sorts of communities or social groups are those where members feel confident enough in the group to allow other people to assume leadership roles, to take them on themselves, and to trust other participants not to exploit this power when it comes to them. This sort of community can be very scary for peeps who like nice, constant structures and relationships of power. And an awful lot of lindy hoppers today really like those clearly mapped out, constant systems.

Finally, Rebecca has a few posts about practicing dance including one with a blueprint for structuring practice sessions, which are quite interesting. I think I disagree with almost everything she says in the post Should you be practicing lindy hop more?, mostly because the tone structures the post (and discussion) in a very inflexible way. But also because I don’t think there are just three types of lindy hoppers (regarding opinions about practice), nor do I think these three types are static – we often move through phases depending on lifestyle, interests and, well, life. I’m certain Rebecca realises this (because she is clever), but the blog’s style doesn’t allow for this round-about sort of thinking.
Dance World Takeover often has very prescriptive ‘solutions’ for problems. This is a brilliant approach for a blog that wants lots of readers, and a wide readership. Shorter posts, clearer, more prescriptive language, clear goals and results. Which dovetails quite nicely with a conventional dance class ideology, and with broader cultures of learning and pedagogy in lindy hop. Me, I’m way more hippy like in that I prefer to think and talk through things in a way that yields multiple, self-guided ‘progressions’ rather than ‘fixes’. In other words, more talk, fewer concrete results.
But Rebecca makes an excellent point in emphasising the fact that the structure of a practice session yields particular results and encourages particular behaviours. A formally structured practice session encourages different types of learning than a flexible session with an emphasis on play and self-guided discovery. I think that both approaches are equally important. In fact, as I’ve said above, I think that participating in a range of dance spaces and activities is very good for us – it encourages flexible, reflexive learning. Also with the fun for our brains.

So what has all this to do with homework? Homework is self-guided learning, stuff that you do outside the formal class room. That excerpt above suggests that it works best with older students, but only when structured in effective ways. I’d suppose that this has something to do with developmental processes in children, but also to do with the way school institutionalise children, and trains them to behave in certain ways when self-regulating. But though I’m familiar with the basic arguments in the pro/anti- homework debates, I don’t actually properly know anything about them.

My hippy feminist socialist self suspects that a mutable ‘homework’ practice – for dancing as well as school work – which responds to the needs and interest of the student is most powerful. And here, of course, I think about the montessori and other free schooling models which encourage self-guided study, and which gave us some of the most talented, most creative American lindy hoppers in the world today.

Note: this is, once again, just one of a series of posts on a topic that’s boiling away in the back of my brain. It’s provoked by the everyday stuff in my life (ie teaching and learning and dancing), but in this instance it’s sadly under-researched.
I’m currently teaching weekly classes in solo dance and lindy hop, and have been for about nine months since I first returned to teaching after a ten year break. I spent about ten years (those same ten years :D ) teaching undergraduates in various universities. Teaching dance is almost entirely unlike teaching undergraduates about cultural studies.
I’ve also organised two workshop weekends here in Sydney this year. One covered lindy hop, blues and solo dance, the other covering just solo dance. Both incorporated a teacher-training session. The goal of these teacher training sessions was not to ‘teach teachers to be better teachers’, but to provide a structured session with visiting teachers where local teachers can talk about and experiment with ideas for teaching dance.

I’m just new to teaching dance and organising dance workshops. So I’m trying to make a lot of mistakes so I can learn from them, and I want to understand current practices before I go making radical changes. And because this is dance teaching, I’m not working alone: the best thing about lindy hop is that we’re goddamn collaborative learners. We really, really like doing projects with other peeps. Yay.

I don’t really know much about teaching (dance or university), and I’ve only read sparingly. I need to get more with the learning. I have to say, though, that teaching dance is just about the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in dance. Now, if only it actually paid well…

Here’re some recent posts tracking my thinking about teaching dance to make you angry with their limitations:

Valuing the process rather than the product

Note: this posts contradicts itself quite a bit.
That’s because this is just a series of thoughts. I should learn to edit posts, eh?

Here are three things that’ve been rolling about in my head this week.

1. A friend told me a story about Skye Humphries. Someone in a class at Herrang asked him how he got so good at solo dance. And he said “I practice every day.”

2. I read this npr story Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning.

3. There’s quite a bit of criticism of Ken Burns’ Jazz series’ presentation of jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as isolated, musical genius rather than as parts of living, working communities of creative development.

All of these things tie into my current obsession: teaching through practice and experimentation, rather than teaching through drilling with the aim of perfect reproduction. And more implicitly, my (eternal) obsession with the fact that tying ourselves to conventional, hierarchical, institutional pedagogic practice is less useful than encouraging more fluid, mutable cultures and communities of cultural and creative practice. Basically, I think that better dancing comes from better ways of thinking about teaching and learning dance.

I’ve noticed that gifted dancers – the ones who get it first time, and really quickly – tend to struggle with teaching. They find it difficult to conceptualise, let alone articulate, what they do when they move their body. They just find learning new dance steps so easy they aren’t aware of the composite elements of the step as a whole. This is related in a way to students over-achieving academically. They’re so used to getting things right, they don’t really know how to deal with getting things wrong. And they’re so used to just doing things properly the first time, they don’t know how to learn.

The most successful artists are more often those who have to work hard on their art – their craft – to learn, and who are more willing to spend time learning and experimenting and challenging their own ideas. Skye certainly has ‘natural talent’ but he ‘got that good’ by working really hard, every day. Louis Armstrong was a musical genius, but he was part of a living, breathing community of musicians and dancers and club owners and talent managers and bands. If his wife Lil Armstrong hadn’t pushed him to leave King Oliver’s band, if hadn’t left his safe, familiar community, he’d probably never have pushed himself to those heights of achievement. And as Lipsitz points out (and I discuss in Lists and Canons in Jazz) and the trouble with linear jazz narratives + more), what about those musicians who didn’t go on to be mega famous? What about the ones who stayed in their home towns, as part of a creative community? Aren’t they still important to the history of jazz?

I think, more and more, that teaching through experimentation, where the goal is to really figure out the limits of your own body, rather than to just recreate an step without self-reflexivity makes for better learning and teaching. Teachers who’re working with students who’re learning through experimentation learn how to manage a class full of people who aren’t just getting it ‘right’. They learn to be patient with students who struggle, and reassess the goals of the class. ‘Getting through material’, or ticking boxes, isn’t as important as spending time with a concept or movement and figuring out how it works from every angle. And you can’t really quantify this sort of learning. If the goal of a dance class is creative inspiration and creative play – making shit up – then being prepared to take risks is important for teachers and students.

For me, being a teacher and a student at the same time is really important. I have to regard my own teaching a work in progress. We don’t expect our students to ‘get it perfectly right’ in one class, so we don’t expect our own teaching to be ‘perfectly right’ in one class either. We rethink our goals, and aim for continuous-learning as teachers/students ourselves. And we aim for continuous-learning for our students as well.

I am extra sure that it’s absolutely essential to consider our dancing/teaching/work/learning as a never-ending process. We must assume that we are never going to be at the point of perfect recreation. We are always going to be learning and relearning. And self-reflexive learning (ie being aware of what we do and think) is central to this. Mindfulness again, I know. But I don’t mean self-reflexivity as a process of self-assessment and self-criticism. I mean self-reflexivity as a process of mindfulness and self-awareness. What am I doing at this moment, now? Sure, it mightn’t have been what I wanted, but that’s ok. It is one step in an ongoing process.

It’s a little bit like DJing. I can stop playing swing music from the swing era when we’ve danced to every song. I can stop learning when I’ve danced every step.

To sum up, then I think it’s important that we think of classes – the struggle – as more important than the performance – the product. Or, rather, the learning process is more important than an accumulated set of skills or achievements.

Lipsitz, George. “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz,” Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004: 9-26.

Teaching challenges 2: drilling and memorising

@robcorr has plopped this interesting quote up on his tumblr:

Vygotsky himself was absolutely clear that students do not learn by rote memorization. He states: “scientific concepts are not simply acquired or memorized by the child and assimilated by his memory but arise and are formed through an extraordinary effort of his own thought”, and contemporary scholars have argued that Vygotsky did not advocate the use of a simple “transmission” model of learning. Indeed, if we envision the ZPD [Zone of Proximal Development] not as a static zone to pass through or reach the end of, but rather as the continual unfolding of a zone of development that extends just beyond the growing, ever-developing ALD [Actual Level of Development] of the student, then we are more prone to understand teaching as an active, process-oriented relationship with ebbs and flows, growth and stagnation, leaps and pauses. To envision the ZPD of a student in such a way, a way that embraces learning and teaching as intertwined, dynamic, dialectical processes, does not allow for a simple transmission model of education. Rather, such a pedagogical vision requires that we be student-centered in our understanding ofwhere a student is developmentally, by building our instructional relationships based on that level of development, and by using ongoing, concentric feedback loops for the teacher or more capable peer to continually assess where a given student’s ALD and ZPD may lie. Additionally, we must remember that teachers, as developing individuals themselves, also have their own ALD and ZPD with regard to their understanding of both their teaching practice and their students. To recognize this also challenges the use of transmission models of teaching and learning within Vygotsky’s framework because it assumes that teachers themselves are also learning, developing, and growing. As Freire correcdy argues, such a conception of teaching and learning does not allow for didactic forms of instruction. Because neither teacher nor student are perfectly formed, all involved in educative relationships are in the process of learning and re-learning themselves and each other.
(Wayne Au, “Vygotsky and Lenin on learning: The parallel structures of individual and social development”, Science & Society, vol 71, no 3
(Source: lchc.ucsd.edu))

Yes, this dovetails nicely with my previous post ‘teaching challenges’, but more interestingly (for me), it resonates with criticisms of positivism in research practice. In a positivist research method, the assumption is that a researcher can simply extract ‘facts’ from the field through objective research.
In contrast, critical theory (especially in reference to the Frankfurt School) makes it clear that we can’t really do objective research in communities and culture, as who we are affects not only the way we interpret data gained in research, but how we collect data and devise research projects and tasks. Instead, it’s much more useful to go into a research project assuming that you’ll be doing subjective research. As a feminist scholar, I’d argue that it’s important that we then also clearly state who we are when we write about our research, and that we work to become aware of our privilege or power or lack thereof.

What does this have to do with drilling as a teaching tool? Drilling assumes that a teacher can just inject information into a student’s head, and that drilling is how we make this information stick. If you follow this thought to its ‘logical’ conclusion, if the information doesn’t stick, then the student simply hasn’t drilled enough; the fault is with the student.

But teaching isn’t science, and teaching and learning aren’t objective methods. They’re a complex relationship with all sorts of interesting things going on. By embracing diversity in a student cohort, and by embracing the idea of teacher not as objective scientist, we open our learning up to all sorts of happy unexpectedness. Also with the creativity.

…if I had more time and knew anything at all about the stuff in Rob’s quote up there, I’d like to go on and interrogate the concept of ‘cultural transmission’ in dance. There, the idea is that particular dance steps move between generations within a community, between communities, and across time through a range of unregulated channels. As I said in that last post, utility and cultural relevance determine whether or not a particular dance step is taken up or abandoned. It’s not a neat, clean, process, no matter how much Arthur Murray would have liked to think so. The most robust, socially sustainable dance communities do not centre on formal dance classes, they rely on – are built on – unregulated, uninstitutionalised creative practice. This, of course, is where I paint myself into a corner. If I was SRS about jazz dance as a vernacular dance, I wouldn’t teach in formal classes, I’d be all about informal teaching and learning on the social dance floor, in domestic spaces, and so on. I do battle with this tension. But my own way of dealing with it is to encourage our students to teach other people what they’ve learnt. To take their steps to the social floor and lead them, to actively take an hour with friends to show them how a step works, and to choreograph routines that incorporate this material. See one, do on, teach one.
The challenge for me, then, comes when I see other dancers who’ve never come to our classes benefitting from all the hard transcription, practice and teaching preparation we put into our poorly paid classes. Yes, that is the point of it – to see this stuff spring to life on the social dance floor. But then I’d also kind of like to make a bit of money for all our hard work. This, of course, is where I say to myself, “Self! Get over yourself! You can’t own a dance! And if you try, you are DOING IT WRONG.” Then I remind myself of Frankie: “Do it once and it’s yours, do it twice and it’s mine,” and take my sorry arse off to the studio to do some goddamn practice.

(NB this photo is by Helen Levitt, but I’m not sure what year :( )

teaching challenges: routines, structure and improvisation in class

Last night I was reminded that I haven’t been giving my ‘if you’re struggling, the basic things you should be looking for are…’ speech to the solo jazz class lately. It’s the speech where I point out the key parts of jazz dance: clapping, facing the right direction (occasionally), bouncing along to the beat, possibly shouting out at the best parts. It’s a joke speech (though I mean it completely), and I’ve noticed that after I give it, almost all the students suddenly work nine times harder. It’s as though permission to find this challenging suddenly convinces people they rock.
I gave the speech last night in class, and saw an immediate relaxing of a tension that I hadn’t even realised was there. It wasn’t that all the students were struggling and unhappy, but that suddenly we all remembered we had permission not to be perfect. PERMISSION to enjoy what we were doing, and to PERMISSION to do things incorrectly.

For the last few weeks we’ve been pounding through the Frankie Do, really teaching-via-drilling, standing at the front of the room and just pounding information into the students’ brains. They’ve worked very hard, we’ve worked very hard, we’ve all learnt a difficult routine. But I haven’t found it particularly satisfying teaching. And while I’m seeing lots of good quality dancing (people are getting fitter and learning lots of good steps), I’ve not had those moments of inspiration that I teach for.

I want to repeat, though: I’m seeing really good, hard work and great dancing from the students. And I think my teaching partner is both inspiring and challenging as a teacher and dancer – the best combination of motivation, encouragement and role model. But I do feel as though we’ve drawn a route across this territory, and then stuck to it, regardless of landscape.
This worries me, as a teacher and dancer. Yes, we do have a duty (I think) as teachers, preservers and revivalists of historic dance to try to pass on a particular vocabulary of dance. We don’t want to lose those historic steps. But I think we miss the point when we insist on word-perfect recreations and performances which demonstrate perfect recall. Vernacular jazz dance is not about uniformity and repeatability. It is about improvisation, innovation and utility.
Simply put, if it doesn’t have a social or cultural or creative function, a step is reworked, or abandoned. If it’s not doing something new (to impress a lover, to win a dance competition, to make a friend laugh), then it’s not useful. And if it’s not reflecting who we are, responding to and articulating how we feel at any one moment through musical play, then it’s not jazz dance. More than syncopation or polyrythms or a swung timing, real vernacular jazz dance has to be alive and socially relevant to who dancers are in that moment.

And when I see our students reproducing that routine, pitch-perfect, with beautifully extended lines, synchronised timing and not a single step mistook or forgotten, something in me gets a bit worried. I’m not sure this is what Frankie would have liked. I’m not sure he would have been happy to see the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in that Keep Punchin’ video so perfectly alike. I know Dawn Hampton would SHOUT at us.

But this is the challenge. Students – and teachers – like goals. We like clear measuring sticks. It’s good business sense (it’s easier to sell a block of progressive classes with clear, achievable goals). It’s actually good for the physical standard of dance in a community (dancers who drill get fitter and stronger and have better memories). And it gives everyone involved a sense of satisfaction and pride. As a team, we’ve conquered this routine. We’ve committed it to memory. We’ve ticked that box.

However, classes with clear lists of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and this emphasis on perfect memorising and reproduction as ‘right’ and anything else as ‘wrong’ aren’t terribly good for the self esteem. They create not only an emphasis on correctness, but also an air of anxiety or pressure to get it right. Which doesn’t make for a fun learning environment. The idea of ‘making perfect mistakes’ or ‘being enthusiastically, wonderfully incorrect’ is much more liberating, much more exciting. We don’t want to ‘get it right’ in jazz dance, we want to enjoy ourselves. The hard work can be a by-product of this.

And then I think about that little spark of humour in the way that student used to drop their shoulders and tilt their head. Sure, it wasn’t the best posture, and it did impede their range of movement. But it was utterly unique. Instead of having that student explore just what might happen if that shoulder drop was exaggerated to the point of immobility, we straightened them up. Instead of encouraging them to find a way to get the same look, but with extended arms or a lifted chin, we ‘tidied them up’. In itself, this tidying isn’t a bad thing. It’s important for dancers – for moving humans – to learn to use their muscles and bodies efficiently and safely. And good quality muscle use does lend a sameness to dancers’ movements. But we deliberately – or unconsciously – sought out a sameness and uniformity.

That’s all very well for me to say here. How else were we to teach a routine?

Firstly, I think we could have taken time for each person in the room to explore many different ways of performing a particular move. A shorty george and a boogie forward and a broken leg and a fall off the log are all just different ways of walking. They’re all just individual variations on a walk. And how did we develop all these different ways of walking if we didn’t experiment with walking in the first place, until we’d pushed it so far out of shape that it’d become a strange, knock-kneed hip-hitching stagger? A super-cool, finger-tip swinging swagger? A clunking, drop-to-the-ground parody?
It takes much longer to learn a routine if you take all this time to experiment, but then, we often don’t retain a routine anyway if we don’t constantly practice. So why not focus on learning to move, rather than learning to move ‘correctly’ in the class?

I think that good teaching should be about good learning. And good learning is really best achieved through play. And nothing is better for play than dance. Vernacular jazz dance is extra perfect because it embodies delight, joy, laughter and satire, derision and parody. It’s about competition and one-up-manship and pushing yourself just a little bit further, til you’re really just a bit uncomfortable. And it’s also about laughing and laughing and laughing.

One of the most useful things I’ve learnt about teaching is that reminding students that ‘perfect mistakes’ are an essential part of learning to learn. If you don’t take risks, and don’t commit your weight properly to a step, you don’t realise that uh-oh, you can’t do that kick with that foot because you’re standing on it. You end up hovering in place, failing to commit to anything, not making any mistakes, and not really learning anything either.
So I tell the students “Make the best mistakes you can. Be confident in them”. We haven’t said that to our students in a while.

Working with routines has also meant that the students spend all their time watching us at the front. There’s an anxiety in the room, an anxiety about making a mistake or forgetting a move. Students won’t look away, just in case they get it wrong. They get really worried if we stop demonstrating and they have to do it on their own. As soon as I saw that, I thought ‘we are doing something very wrong here’. After all, what’s social dancing, if not creative play, where the goal is to metaphorically take your eyes off the teacher and explore the limits of your own awesomeness?

Somehow we’ve shifted from our earlier ethos of ‘just do your mistakes with confidence and people will assume you’re doing a variation’ to ‘get it right.’ This doesn’t make for particularly happy classes. And I’ve started to feel less happy in my own dancing as well, as I inhale this unspoken emphasis on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. I can’t remember the last time I spent time working on just one step in front of a mirror, trying to find the strangest, most unusual way of moving. Now I spend a lot of time worrying that I’m not ‘doing it right’ and that somehow my not-right-ness will ruin the student’s learning.
When what I should be doing is reminding myself that teachers don’t just pour the knowledge into students like tea into a cup. They’re guides to learning, where the students – not the teachers – are the most important people in the room. At the end of the day, the teacher doesn’t even need to be a better dancer than the student. They need to be good facilitators and class planners, and they need to be observant and helpful, encouraging students to figure out how best to move their own bodies. It helps if the teacher has a lot of experience, and is continually expanding their own learning and experimentation with ideas, but we should expect – hope! – that the student will surpass the teacher! Or if not surpass, then take a completely different and unique path to happiness on the dance floor.

I think, though, it’s a difficult balance to negotiate. If you do want to become a ‘good’ dancer, a certain amount of drilling and repetition and precision is necessary. You really do have to learn those historic routines. But I think that if this is all there is in a class or personal practice regime, this is all there will be in your dancing: repetition. Yes, we will be perfect, but we will be perfectly dull.

So how _do_ you teach in a way that at once involves this sort of strength and fitness training through repetition and innovation and inspiration and individuality?

Firstly, I like to think about learning-through-experimentation. What does happen if I lift my arm from the hand? What if I lift the arm from the elbow? The shoulder? How do these differences change the look, the feel of the movement? What happens to the angle of my leg if I rotate from the hip rather than the knee? What happens if I perform the move once with the rotation from the hip, and the next time from the foot?
I think it’s important to learn certain fundamentals of biomechanics and efficient movement, but it’s just as important to experiment with the range of movement and strength we have available to us at any one time.

Secondly, I think we need to periodically return to the ‘fundamentals’ of dance – the triple step, the rock step, the knee bend – in a mindful way, to see if what we’re doing habitually is actually productive or innovative or useful.
Teaching by rote or drilling discourages mindfulness and self-awareness. Progressive learning discourages returning to fundamentals because there’s a sense that the ‘beginner parts’ are ‘for beginners’ and to be ticked off and then moved on from, to other, more important/challenging/interesting things.

Thirdly, I think we have to be continually reminding ourselves that dance should be about joy and creativity. We should enjoy what we are doing. If it doesn’t interest us, or if it causes us anxiety or unhappiness, then we should move on. Frustration can be useful, but unrelenting obstruction can be disheartening and ultimately discourage.

Yes yes, this is all very well. But how do you fit this into a one hour class each and every week? It’s much harder to accommodate diversity in learning styles, and it’s really, really hard to encourage diversity in practice.

Some things I might I will do in class to achieve these sorts of learning and teaching goals:

  • Move away from just teaching routines (even historic ones) and teach ‘fundamental jazz repertoire’ classes. Instead of teaching one correct way of doing each move, though, I’ll coordinate a class where students explore the movement, to its and their limitations. We don’t have mirrors, so we’ll have to use the next best thing – our peers. Some group work where students watch and observe each other, and then demonstrate in turn (or seek to reproduce what they see) and teach each other will be helpful.
  • Reinterpreting iconic routines. We tend to think of iconic choreography as dinosaur blood in amber, to be preserved and then reproduced perfectly and minutely, without variation. But even in the ‘olden days’, the ‘key choreographies’ were interpreted and revised on the social, competition and performance dance floors. That’s why we have so many versions of the shim sham, the tranky do and the big apple. While I’d like to encourage the idea that each interpretation is equally important, the olden days dancers would have been fiercely competitive. The status of being ‘best’ motivated innovation as much as – if not more than – anything else.
    In practice, we’d begin with an iconic routine (the shim sham is always nice), and then we’d work on our individual interpretations. The challenge, though, would be on producing interpretations that were actually good, solid dancing, and not just a series of excuses for not learning the steps. It would have to be mindful interpretation, where the students push the limits of a shape or rhythm and take it to new places deliberately.
  • Spend more time looking at how to develop an ’emotion’ or ‘vibe’ or ‘style’ for a routine. I’ve joked about the fact that most solo charleston competitions we see have the same emotional ‘feel’ – kind of manic cheerfulness. We don’t see ‘angry charleston’ or ‘vain charleston’ or ‘indolent buffoonery’ charleston. But how do we create these personas or performances in a set choreography? How do we actually use our bodies to communicate these things? A slumped shoulder can mean dejection. But the contrast between lifted shoulders and a suddenly dropped gaze, shoulders and head can really communicate dejection. And how do we communicate the difference between parody and sincerity?
    Again, all this takes experimentation, mirrors and team work.
  • Changing the layout of the room, and the use of space in class. Rows is an effective way of drilling, but it’s terrible for team work and non-teacher-centred camaraderie and learning in class.

I think, most importantly, I have to remind myself that dancing is fun. It’s wonderful, clever and challenging stuff, but it has to be fun. Or what’s the point?

Joann Kealiinohomoku and ballet as ethnic dance

One of the most important articles I’ve ever read is “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance” by Joann Kealiinohomoku (What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49). You can read the article here but I’ll try to upload it somewhere myself.

If you’ve any interest in ethnicity and dance, and concurrently in the appropriation or adoption of black dance by white dancers, then you should read that article.

Some of my posts on these topics:
Another look at appropriation in dance (1st Dec 2011)

black-white dance (19th Apr 2006)

gimme de kneebone bent (19th Nov 2011)

Jazz dance and jazz music

Ok, so most people reading this will know that I’m now teaching lindy hop and solo jazz once a week (and have been since February). We teach one beginner lindy hop/partner dance class, and one solo dance class each week. The solo class cycles through historic routines, drop in sampler classes and material we’ve choreographed ourselves.
Our approach tends to be driven by technique, historical accuracy, understanding music and dancers developing their own personal style. That means that we don’t rush through choreography, we take a lot of time to teach each step and make sure people are doing things safely and properly. We also encourage dancers to experiment with steps in their own way (rather than getting them ‘right’), and we emphasise the fact that ‘looking cool’ or ‘looking sexy’ isn’t the goal with most eccentric jazz steps. Sometimes you want to look really weird or unusual or intimidating. I’ve found this quite exciting, as we teach a lot of women students, and for women students to be exploring ‘looking weird’ with enthusiasm… well, it warms the cockles of this cranky feminist’s heart. Also, their wackiness makes her lol. Double win.

I haven’t taught dance in YEARS (since about 2002 or so), so there’s been a steep learning curve as I figure out how all these things work. Though I have stacks of uni teaching experience, and I did have that dance teaching experience, plus about fourteen years of lindy hop under my belt, teaching dance isn’t like teaching uni, and the way we used to teach in 2002 is so yesterday’s news. Now we talk about posture and weight changes and rhythm ffs. And dancing to teach isn’t like social dancing or competitions or performances – you have to be very clear in your movements, be cognisant of what you’re actually doing with your body, and then – most importantly – be able to articulate what you’re doing in very few words.
INORITE. It’s HARD!

I would have been writing lots of posts about this stuff, but my brain has been busy with other things this year (hence the relative quiet round these parts… well, the lack of substantive posts anyway), and because I teach with a partner, I don’t really feel I can blabble about our class preparation, politics and preparation on the internet. But mostly I haven’t been writing about it because I just haven’t been able to get my brain together. Though I have had lots of ideas and things to say!

But here’s something I’ve just found on my laptop which I wrote on the coach to Canberrang last month. I’ve written a few things on those three-four hour coach trips to our nearest lindy hopping neighbour, but this one had been forgotten. Reading it now, it seems extra relevant to the way I think about dance and music. The square bracketed bits are things I’m adding now.

Here it is:


(“Pearl Primus performing to “Honeysuckle Rose” played by Teddy Wilson at piano, Lou McGarity on trombone, Bobby Hackett on trumpet, Sidney Catlett on drums & John Simons on bass during jam session at Gjon Mili’s studio” – Gjon Mili – New York – 1943 linky)

One thing I’ve noticed about all this work on solo jazz [that I do for teaching] is that my sense of musicality has changed. When I want to add some sense of music, I now move to my feet. I want to step out a rhythm or the timing with my feet, rather than wiggling my body.

I’ve also found a new pleasure and interest in the way jazz steps embody (or articulate?) specific rhythms. So a kick ball change [KBC] is a particular syncopated rhythm, a little different to a triple-step. And a fall off the log [FOTL] can be in plain time, or syncopated. And I like the way a boogie back can be syncopated with a kick ball change at the beginning, or a simpler step step step rhythm.

[I’ve also noticed that these steps are the basic vocabulary of jazz dance. You really need to know how to KBC and FOTL and so on before you can really learn good, complex historical choreography. The old school guys built things from the rhythm up, whereas today choreography seems to start with the bigger shapes. I had thought that the ‘steps’ (eg ‘the shorty george’ or ‘the scarecrow’) were the building blocks, but they’re not, really. The rhythms are the most important part, added to structures like ‘the shorty george’ or ‘the boogie back’. The rhythms are the thing.]

Congruently (or inevitably), this has led me to a renewed interest in some of my favourite musicians, particularly the ones who make complex use of timing. I like Bennie Goodman’s small groups for their sharp, precise timing and organisation, and I like a smaller group for the way each instrument plays a clear, specific role in the rhythm. I’m liking larger bands as well, but more for the way they layer up rhythms and melodies.

For me, all this interest is rhythm is the product of getting a handle on the shift from waggling my hands or arms or upper body to be musical, to moving my actual weight. Which of course means that my dancing is now rhythmic in a very different way. My weight changes – my actual dancing – is now musical and rhythmical in a fundamental way, rather than in a decorative or surface way. I’ve found all this bloody hard to get my brain and body around. It’s a lot easier to just waggle your arms about in the air. But learning to change weight in a particular rhythm, and to combine weight changes with staying on the same foot, but jumping up and down, is really hard.

I think it’s made my dancing a lot stronger. Teaching has helped me understand that good ‘styling’ isn’t something you add on like icing to a cake. Fundamentally sound technique is its own styling. Movement which begins in your core, and with changes in weight, has consequences on the rest of your body. I have begun to feel that what happens in your arms, for example, should be a consequence of what’s happening lower down in your body. So twirling your hands about in the air should be a direct result of movement beginning in your core or in your feet, rather than icing you slap onto your cake base.

But as I write that, I can’t help but think about people like Al Minns, who would ice technically sound movement with twirly whirly type hand movements. I guess the difference is that he was doing the twirly whirlies and good body stuff. Whereas a lot of modern dancers focus on the twirly whirlies rather than on sound core and weight changes.

[The trickle down effect of all this for me, has been to change my lindy hop. I’d’ thought that more solo dance work would mean that my lindy hop would get busier as I shoved more of these fun steps in. But that’s not been the case. I’m also doing a lot more concentrated leading these days, as I’m teaching as a lead and needing to keep those skills sharp. And because I’m finding our class content so interesting, I’m leading far more on the social dance floor as well.

So by the time I get to following in lindy hop, I’m finding that I’m quite happy to just blank out and follow. I know. It blows my mind too. But all that solo work, all that rhythm-from-the-ground-up stuff (as well as my new passion – pilates) means that ‘just following’ is now a very different creature. The basic triple steps of a swingout – they can be truly wonderful, magical things if you make them the very best rhythms-from-the-ground-up. And all that control and awareness of how my own body works that I’ve developed through solo dance and choreographing for classes (and breaking down other people’s choreography) has meant that my basic following is much more under control and at the same time a lot more relaxed.

I’d never have expected all this when I got so seriously into solo dance. But it’s such a nice surprise.]