Category Archives: learning

Make it easy for me to hire your band

This piece is really a companion piece to How Do I Find New Bands, where I talk about how I use digital media to find modern jazz bands. In this post, now, I’m going to talk about the sorts of things I need bands to have to make my job easier. Basically, bands need an online presence and a name. Or, in other words, they need to make it possible for me to a) find them, b) hire them, and c) promote them. And I buy a lot of music, because I’m also a DJ.
I don’t mind (I quite like) hunting down bands and musicians, but I have only limited time and resources.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while. But today I just had a bit of a spit on the facey because I wanted to actually reach some people.
This is a post about musicians, and how they can get gigs with dancers. It’s also a post about how to present yourself as a professional in the music industry.

Hey, musicians. It makes it much easier for me to promote your band if it has a name and a ‘shtick’. Five creative guys having fun is a good thing, but it’s not going to sell tickets to the average punter. And having a name and shtick is a good way to give your project focus and impetus. Which punters can connect with – it’s a way in.
Also with the hi-res photos, a short bio, and a website, please. If you have youtube videos, you’re winning.

Playing your guitar in your lounge room is art. Playing gigs where people pay you is business. Unless you actually are Django, your name alone is not enough to sell tickets. Particularly if you want to draw more than just the same five retiree jazzniks to your gigs.

Examples of bands/artists doing it right:

Hetty Kate (Melbourne, Australia)
website: http://www.hettykate.com/
facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hettykatemusic
shop: http://shop.hettykate.com/

Promotions, presence and networking.
Good, clear site, bio, pics, sound files right there.
Hetty Kate brings a good stage vibe too – she’s an entertainer. She wears good outfits, she talks to the crowd (nothing like a little witty banter to let the audience in), and she’s really present when she plays gigs. She looks at people. Jazznicks, I’m sorry, but your faded ‘gig blacks’ aren’t going to cut it. Buy a decent suit that’s comfortable and looks nice. If you’re not into suits, wear something you dig. Just show you care enough about this gig to make an effort. And punters will care enough to pay for a ticket.

Hetty Kate is also really good at networking. Or, in human words, keeping in contact with other humans. You don’t have to shmooze – in fact, it’s much better if you don’t – but it’s humans who give you gigs, so make friend with them. It’s in your interests to travel interstate and overseas to play gigs, so you’ll need a far-reaching network of professional ‘friends’.

And the best way to keep these relationships is to: a) Have a simple email address, phone number, and business card. Spread them widely, b) stay in contact (drop an email occasionally, say hi at a gig), c) Return favours and do favours (ie be a decent person, so people will help you out and stay sweet on you), c) Don’t be a dick. This last one is important. I know far too many male jazz musicians who are sexist dicks. I won’t hire you. Most of the dance event organisers in Australia are women too, and they won’t hire you either. And unlike the jazz music scene, the jazz dance has more women than men, so if you’re a sexist dick, you will not get gigs.

Naomi Uyama and Naomi & Her Handsome Devils
website: http://www.naomisdevils.com/
facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NaomisDevils
bandcamp: https://naomisdevils.bandcamp.com/

Professional musicianship and leadership.
We’ve heard all these musicians before, but this band has a distinct sound and clear leadership. They’re also pretty bloody hardcore on stage. There’s no fucking about being idiots, or screwing around with stupid in-jokes. When they get on stage, they are ON STAGE, and they bring some serious shit. They are good musicians, and they don’t patronise dancers. They recognise that lindy hoppers today are serious music fans and know an awful lot about good music. Dance event organisers and DJs often know much more than jazz musicians about what makes good dancing jazz. And this band are more than willing to accept that. They have a woman dancer leading them! Win!
They also have a website with all the info and assets (pics, etc) that I need to do my job properly. So I don’t need to hassle the band with a string of email requests.

Most importantly, they have a clear, strong leader who kicks heads and takes names. I know who to contact if I want to book her (and I’d love to!) Naomi a visible leader on stage, she dresses the part, she has serious presence, and she makes sure the band’s book is full of the right songs, played the right way for dancers. I’ve no doubt she uses her contacts as a dance teacher to secure gigs, and she stays in contact with them, figuring out which gigs are right for her band, for her, and for their reputation.

Tuba Skinny
website: http://www.tubaskinny.tk/
facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tuba-Skinny/198301143539894?fref=ts
bandcamp: http://tubaskinny.bandcamp.com/

A clear, coherent ‘brand’ or vibe.
The website is pretty basic, and it takes content directly from bandcamp, but it does the job. It has a bio, photos, and links to music!
More importantly, the band has a clear ‘brand’ or identity, which makes it easy to promote them. I don’t have to waste a lot of space explaining who they are and what they do. And what they do, they do 100%, from the songs in their book, to their clothes they wear on stage, and their presence on stage. This band identity is real, it’s who they are, and it’s what they do. They busk, they’re street jazz, and there’s a consistency right across their whole vibe – from their shows, to their recordings, to their look, their song choices, and their musical performances. This makes them easy to sell. The realness of it makes them easy to connect with, emotionally and creatively, as an audience.

This band has also worked extensively with dancers, both on the street, and for dance events. They respect what we do, and we respect what they do. So they are solid gold from a promotional perspective.

You need (if you’re actually running a band rather than screwing about):
– Band name.
– A website (even a tumblr or wordpress will do) with your email contact details right on every single page. Your phone number is also helpful. A website makes you look legit.
– A facebook page (where are you playing? What are you recording? What music do you play/love? What other bands, venues, and pages are you ‘friends’ with – who is in your network? What is your scene?).
– Sound files (complete songs) online.
– Youtube or vimeo clips are great.
– Hi-res photos of your band, taken by a pro, that are on your website.
– A short (1 or 2 paragraph) bio for your band (the musical/creative mission or vision, where you’re based, what you do), and for each member (who they are).
– And sell your music online, via downloads. So people outside your tiny local scene can give you money. Use a third party like bandcamp so people can find you.

Why a band name?
So I can say “Harlem presents: Sam and her Fancy Fiddlers!” rather than “Sam and Mike and Fred and Harry and Sheilah and a drummer if we can get him” on my 14cmx10cm postcard.

So you can develop a band ‘identity’ that helps people know what to expect when they buy tickets to your gig.

You can change the members at will, and it doesn’t screw up the PR copy (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts).

To give your band FOCUS. Your name should reflect your vibe: what music do you play? Are you rowdy jazzpunks fighting the man? Are you 100% Benny Goodman recreationists? Who ARE you?

A name shows me you can keep your shit together long enough to cooperate with a group of other musicians for a whole gig. And that suggests you’re easier to work with, and I’m more likely to hire you. I have zero interest in loner mavericks.
If you have a clear goal for your band, a clear focus, you will present as a ‘package’. You will do better music. You will work as a band not as a bunch of loner ‘artists’*. Yes, music is art. But it’s also business, and bills have to be paid. Get it together.

*wankers

Uses of history: Frankie as teaching tool

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

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

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

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

Where does Frankie Manning fit into all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FrankieRepImage

That means I’m emphasising:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-> makes follows lol.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.17.32 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankie Manning’s Class part 2

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

A couple of things I like about this class:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are we at on this sexual harassment and assault thing?

This post is a three-parter.

Part one: Where are we at on this sexual harassment and assault thing?
Part two: Be ok with people saying no to you.
Part three a: How To Get A Date With A Lindy Hopper, by Sam (currently entrenched in a happy, healthy 13 year relationship with a lindy hopper)

So, since that incident a few weeks ago when the lindy hop world were faced with incontrovertible evidence that sexual assault happens in the lindy hop world (and that it might in fact happen everywhere), we’ve seen a series of responses:

  • Shock and disbelief.
    People simply couldn’t accept that someone they admired/hired/learnt from/loved attacked people. So they got angry about it and blamed the victims of his actions for their distress. Either explicitly or implicitly.
  • A lot of talk about ‘victim blaming’ and what it meant.
    A lot of the people who were shocked and disbelieving were doing ‘victim blaming’ but weren’t ok with admitting it. Understandably. First your hero does something shocking and awful, then you’re accused of attacking the victims of shocking and awful actions.
  • People and organisations rushed to slap together ‘Codes of Conduct’.
    Some of these are wonderful, some are token gestures. I personally feel that it truly is a token gesture if you don’t
    a) have a clearly achievable process for enforcing them (or responding to breaches of these codes),
    b) make broader cultural changes, and
    c) address the fact that the perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment are often the most-popular, most-liked, most-powerful people in a community. In other words, the people putting together these Codes of Conduct are quite likely to be the perpetrators. YOU could be sexually harassing someone. I have yet to see a strategy or code of conduct which deals with this issue.
  • People, organisations and individuals start talking about sexual harassment as a real thing, and not just as ‘feminist ranting’ or ‘feminist paranoia’. And they found this realisation – that it’s all true – deeply upsetting.
    Some of them have been doing brilliant work – truly wonderful Codes, response strategies, and so on. It’s been truly inspiring to see.
  • Women are speaking up.
    The women who are experiencing sexual harassment and assault are speaking up. Just in my city alone, I’ve had so many women tell stories about frightening, intimidating, harassing behaviour by men, that it just makes me want to cry. But I will NOT be overwhelmed! Men are not volcanoes or wild bears, forces of nature that we have to protect women from. Men are capable of policing their own behaviour. And it is so NOT my job. So, you men: get ready to be noticed, and to pick up your act.

All these things are great. But I don’t think they address the real causes of sexual harassment in a community: the culture itself. The power dynamics. The everyday behaviour that makes sexual assault a possible and forgiveable action. In other words, we haven’t developed broader strategies for dismantling rape culture in the lindy hop world. Mostly because it’s fucking hard. But also because it’s difficult to see how ‘small things’ that seem ok contribute to making sexual assault possible, if not easy.

I think that many of us were convinced that the lindy hop community was this magical space where hatred and violence and assault and so on didn’t exist. Because we’re lindy hoppers! We’re nice!
Those of us who have a background in feminism or gender studies, or who are, well, you know, women know that sexual harassment and assault have always existed in the lindy hop world. And have been talking about it for a while.
This community is a subset of broader ‘home’ communities and cultures. Who we are on the dance floor is a reflection of who we are and how we behave in the wider world. We simply don’t just leave all that behind when we dance with people. So because sexual assault happens in our houses, it also happens in our dance venues.

And you know what: most of the sexual assaults and the sexual harassment that happen in the lindy hop world are perpetrated by men on women.
So this is my next point, and it’s going to be controversial:

MEN. Stop raping women. Stop sexually harassing them. No, don’t give me you’re #notallmen talk. If you aren’t calling other men out on their behaviour, you’re condoning it. You are enabling rape and sexual harassment. You are an accessory to it.
So, actually, ALL MEN have an obligation to stop raping or to stop other men raping. It is your JOB. It is your DUTY. And it is your RESPONSIBILITY.

Yes, women do sexually harass men. But MEN do most of the assaulting and harassing. So let’s start right here: STOP it.

Right now it’s pretty much heart breaking to think of this. Especially if you haven’t ever really had to face this before. Especially if you’re in a position of power or relative ‘safety’, you’re a teacher or organiser.

But don’t be disheartened! Remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer. You are capable of amazing things!

If I stop and think about this stuff for too long I get utterly depressed. I love jazz dance and music so much, it’s almost unbearable to think that there are people I dance with (and like!) who are out there harassing and assaulting my friends. I feel guilty and awful and powerless. But then I remind myself.

Start small.
Make incremental changes.
Change what you can.
Encourage people to be better.

I wrote this a while ago:

I think that we need to bloody well open our eyes and engage with the everyday places in our lives where we can make a difference. On the bus. At the shops. In cafes. On the dance floor. Make eye contact, hold doors open, step in when someone needs a hand, ask your employer if they do maternity leave, even if you don’t need it yourself. And I also think it’s a good idea to make it as fun as you can.
Getting angry is useful. But in and of itself, it’s not productive. You need to be an agent for positive, constructive change, as well as a mighty smashing force of rage. Find small ways, everyday, where you can fuck shit up. Or at least vibrate at very low frequencies until you rattle that patriarchal bedrock to bits. (I vant to be alone)

And I try to remind myself: the small things are actually the important things. We dismantle rape culture in small ways. It’s something that we all can do. And the very process of talking about and taking acton on these issues can empower women and dismantle rape culture!

Wait, what we do?

Part two of this talk: Be ok with people saying no to you

Heroes Of Jazz and other Visible Mythologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can exploit yourself!

I’ve just had a look at the latest Swingnation video podcast, because a friend said I was on it. Yes, this was a vanity watch.

It’s kind of interesting, but I think I’d have liked to hear a bit more engagement with the issue from the three blokes, as they have such wide-reaching experience as teachers, punters and organisers. I’m glad Mike Pedroza said he has a written document setting out his teaching terms: I LOVE LOVE LOVE teachers who have these. And I have very little patience with the ones who don’t, but who do have a long list of preferences RE food, or teaching hours, or airlines.

Teachers: GET A GODDAM LIST OF TERMS.

I’m also not sure Mikey understood the point of my post: this was just a brief overview of some of the areas I’ve been working on. It should not – AT ALL – be considered a comprehensive overview of setting up a dance business! But I will disagree with Mikey: this stuff isn’t very complicated. It’s just quite laborious. But if you’re not prepared to do a little work, you probably shouldn’t be setting up a business.

I also want to make it clear that there’s a difference between a legally binding contract and a written agreement. And there are also differences between Australian states, let alone different countries, so this post of mine shouldn’t really be considered a guide for setting up a dance business in America or France or anywhere other than New South Wales, Australia.
Here, mind you, a written agreement does have legally binding ramifications. It is, essentially, a type of contract. But the strength of this contract can vary, and your lawyer’s knowledge of Australian (NSW!) arts law will be key to determining how you write, discuss, and enforce this sort of contract. Which is why I recommended the NSW Arts Law Centre for Sydney people – they can give you advice about lawyers and contracts, and they provide samples for written agreements.

That Swing Nation ep reminded me of this great video of Shawn Lavelle discussing budgets for big dance events, which I watched when someone like Jerry posted it on Wandering and Pondering. There was some interesting discussion happening there, but I can’t remember any of it, nor can I find the link. Mostly because I’m sitting in someone’s lounge room on stolen wifi waiting for a ride to my next accommodation for MLX, at the end of the week after Sea of Rhythm. I’m also listening to loud jazz on headphones, sniffing some lovely vegan muffins baking, and carrying on half a conversation.

So, here: no coherent thoughts.

Anyways, I thought Shawn’s talk about budgets was really great. I’d been meaning to make a post covering those sorts of issues ages ago, but I’d just not ever gotten around to it. Mad props, bro.

I think that more people should run dance events. I really wish they would!

My original post was partly to make it clear to people that you have all the skills and experience you need to set up as a sole trader to run your own dance class, DJing business, or performance troupe. I think that a lot of dancers get into tricky or exploitative professional relationships because they don’t feel they are clever enough or experienced enough to set up their own legit business.

I am here to tell you: you are.

You don’t have to get involved with dodgy deals to become a jazz dance performer, teacher, DJ, or event organiser. You can exploit yourself!

big apple

I will write a post about the Big Apple Contest we ran at Jazz BANG quite soon.
We had to teach classes and train the big apple caller and choose music and plan an entirely new competition format and do all the things. It was epic.
But I am a bit ill, so I am too tired.

But I will say this: Lance Benishek is a top shelf human being, and he made it all possible. Without him, we wouldn’t have done ANY of it, and then we wouldn’t have discovered my new most favourite thing. We wouldn’t have introduced our students to their new favourite thing, and we wouldn’t have discovered all that old newspaper stuff about the big apple in Australia.

Lance, you are awesome.

Beginner lindy hoppers need to learn to swivel immediately*

swingout

I am insanely busy.
So of course, here is a post. Also I am tired, so these words = rubbish.

I find teaching with a few very good, very clever and observant follows teaches me so much about teaching and dancing. I am so lucky to get to work with such great dancers and teachers.

This is what I’ve been thinking about swivels lately, after an intensive two months working on the ‘Frankie 89′ choreography Lennart and eWa taught us in Herrang.

Swivels are not styling, they are a powerful movement that makes swinging out at higher tempos possible. Relatedly: do not drop your triple steps.
Frankie taught follows to swivel right from their very first class. I know some teachers don’t do this, because they think that swivels are ‘too hard’. I think a lot of people think lindy hop is really hard. But it’s not. As Lennart says, “It is really a very simple dance.”

Doing more work with old timers this year, and with people who worked closely with old timers, I’ve realised that their approach is fundamentally different to modern lindy hoppers’. Modern dancers are recreationists, and are (for the most part) trying to reverse engineer lindy hop. Old timers invented lindy hop. And old timers were social dancers. So lindy hop is pure function.

What does that mean?
If you approach all lindy hop in the simplest terms, it makes a lot more sense. A swing out is really just two partners sometimes being together, and sometimes being apart. Now what’s the simplest, most efficient and practical way to handle that? Use a little turn – a slingshot. Just like launching a rocket into orbit, and then out into the solar system. A swing out is just a circle where you let go half way. A swing out open to open is just a stretch and then a little turn in the middle to redirect the momentum.

I feel quite strongly that you don’t ‘add styling’ to your dancing. Your ‘style’ should just be a natural consequence of your movements (of you, your body, the way it works, and the way you use it). Your arms swing in charleston because you bounce, you bend a bit at the hip in your athletic posture, and you allow your upper torso a bit of rotation/torque. Your fingers are ‘alive’ and not floppy, because you feel feels.

With this in mind, then, swivels must have function. A function that’s aesthetically pleasing, but effective function none the less. If you treat swivels as ‘just a fancy way of walking’ – two steps with a bit of shape – then you get down to a) the rhythm of the step, and b) the function of the step. I’m all for swivels on the spot as well, but traveling swivels are a key part of most dancers’ repertoires as well.

I’m avoiding digressing into talking about how followers’ movements are led by the leader here, ok? I know we could have a discussion about whether followers should take a step for every step a lead makes, but that’s going to get us off track, ok?

So how is a swivel a powerful way of moving? What makes the swivel more awesome than just walking? Yes, yes, we know they look fabulous. But we’re trying to stay on track, right?

I like to teach swivels this way:
Imagine you are doing the twist, 1960s style. Your weight is evenly distributed between your hip-width feet. You are wearing skiis, so don’t let your skiis tangle or cross.
Now, as your feet point to the right, shift your weight to the right. As they point left, shift your weight to the left.

Boom. Swivels on the spot.

Remind yourself to bounce/pulse while you do this – you need the bounce, because bounce is your body preparing to move. Each bounce is like a little spring coiling – it’s stored energy – and that stored energy is released when you take a step.

So now, instead of just shifting your weight while you twist, take an actual step. Right, left, right left.

BOOM. Traveling swivels.

You need to: bounce; wear skiis (for efficient alignment for the sake of your knees, but also to ensure a nice clear line of energy from the ground to your core and back again); use athletic posture (you know – jump up in the air, then land with slightly bent knees, arms out, a bit of bend at the the hip, etc etc); make clear weight changes.

Once you have all this happening, your swivel becomes a very powerful step. Powerful in terms of energy and muscle power, not symbolic feminist energy**. The bent knees, arse out (hip bend), relaxed arms, open chest, clear weight changes, bounce, etc etc makes this posture and way of movement super powerful and strong. Each step/swivel becomes a little power-push, just like a sprinter leaping from the block at the beginning of a race.
You really, REALLY need this power when you’re dancing fast. It’s one of the ways the follows feed energy into the swing out cycle. Add that to the way a bit of stretch on one/two works, a very efficient 3&4 (the turn/circle in the middle – triple step to add power and aid travel!), and you have this fantastically powerful little engine.

All of this makes for great biomechanics.
But it has also made me a much better teacher for follows. I tend to favour talking about leads, because I am a lead. This makes me cranky because it makes lindy hop sound lead-centred. But once you understand that follows really aren’t passive at all, that the way follows move contributes importantly to momentum, suddenly you have tools for talking to follows in class.

Sam’s moment of personal growth: understanding following empowers follows, makes this leader a better teacher and a better dance partner.

I often say (stealing an idea Naomi Uyama used in a class) that follows have a responsibility to keep the rhythm for the lead. Ramona says that each partner has a responsibility to ‘take care of the beat’. Lennart says you need to ‘make friends with the music’. Steven Mitchell grunts “MM! Yeah!” I like to have partners bounce together on the spot before they start dancing, because it’s a way of reassuring your partner that you can find the beat (as well as a way to connect with your partner and the music).

These concepts all tell you that maintaining energy in your dancing is the responsibility of both partners. A science teacher friend in my practice group noted that swing outs can’t be 100% relaxed low impact. The stretch or ‘tension’ (in the sense of stored energy) has to be fed into the cycle somehow. If you let go earlier (5), if you lead by moving your body, you need to have 1 and 2 be much more powerful to feed the energy in. A powerful swivel helps follows contribute energy, a bit of stretch before leading in lets the leads contribute energy. Just like Frankie. This energy, then, is coming directly from your core: it’s built into the coiled spring of a vertical bounce, and it’s managed by strong glutes pushing, and a stable core.

This is where my knowledge ends. I just don’t know enough about biomechanics to say more. And I suspect I’m a bit full of bullshit, really.

But I find this approach really important for the way I then think about social power in following. It’s patently ridiculous to think of following as ‘passive’. A passive follow would be a dead weight. An active follow is engaging their muscles and actively contributing to the energy in the dance. Even if they never do a single jazz step or ‘variation’.

So following in lindy hop cannot be passive.

This then upsets the idea that a lead ‘controls’ the partnership. Nothing a lead tries will work properly if the follow isn’t actively contributing to and maintaining energy and momentum. The lead may think that a move has ‘worked’ under these conditions, but they won’t actually be leading.

*Teach your beginner students to swivel right from their first class. Skill them up. Give follows power. Don’t be afraid of lindy hop.

**But why can’t you think of swivels as a symbol of powerful feminist mite?

Uses of history: a revivalist mythology

An issue has come up over on Wandering and Pondering. I did write a comment there, but it got too long. The post there is responding to a post on Authentic Jazz Dance by Harri Heinila, which has managed to shit off an awful lot of people. I don’t have a whole lot to say about that particular post of Harri’s, mostly because I find the written expression so clunky it obscures his point. I just can’t figure out exactly what he’s trying to say. So I don’t really want to engage with it one way or another. But I do have some things to say (of course I do).

Here is the huge comment I deleted from the Wandering and Pondering page:

If I was marking this essay [Harri’s blog post], I’d give the comments: “There are some problems with your written expression, which at times confuse your argument” and “I would recommend closer critical engagement with your own approach to ideas about dance, power, the uses of language and ideology in dance.”

There are some really confusing bits of writing, that I think perhaps might be a product of having English as a second language? And I also suspect that some of the points of conflict (eg the use of the word ‘vernacular’) might be a product of confusion about language use, rather than a real disagreement. From my perspective, I find the use of historical methods problematic: as a feminist cultural media studies person, I want more engagement with ideology, and less emphasis on ‘sources’ and ‘facts’. But then, I’m not a historian.

Having said that, I’ve noticed that the further we get from Frankie the man (ie the more time passes after he passed away), the less critical engagement with his life and work we have, and a more uncritical, adulatory tone we take in describing him and his work. This actually came up in the Frankie Stream discussion session at Herrang, where one of the newer dancers actually said something like (and I paraphrase) “You [the teachers and everyone] say many good things about Frankie, but was he this perfect? What were his faults?”

It was interesting to see that none of the teachers or participants were willing to discuss Frankie’s faults as a dancer or person. You can understand why – we are reluctant to speak ill of the dead, and particularly reluctant to disrespect someone so important to the modern lindy hop scene, who was also a dear friend and respected mentor and teacher. But I think the questioner (and I) were left wondering if perhaps we are losing a wholer picture of the man by taking such an adulatory tone.

Similarly, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice when we take an uncritical approach to the ‘lindy hop revival’ narrative: we should be asking questions like “Who benefits from this revival?” and “What are our limits when it comes to ‘growing the scene’?”

….at any rate, I think that one of the things that Harri makes (and which I think is lost in his writing style), is that the history we tell of the ‘dying out’ and ‘revival’ of lindy hop tends to lack context, critical engagement, and complexity. It’s easy to tell the story like this:
“Jazz stopped being popular, so people stopped lindy hopping. Then in the 1980s some people (mostly white, mostly European, but also American) found the old time dancers and then they revived it.”
This story is very popular for a number of reasons, and I think that Harri approaches a convincing point when he suggests that money is at the heart of this. I don’t think money is actually the reason these stories dominate (though, contrary to public mythology, you can actually make a living from lindy hop, most of us actually don’t). I think that the ‘myth of the rediscovered lindy hop’ actually reinforces and cements existing power structures in modern day lindy hop. And we should be very sceptical of these.

To be blunt, I think that this story is inaccurate: lindy hop did not ‘die out’. At the very least, it changed form a bit (because it was a vernacular dance), and it moved out of the public eye. I haven’t done enough research on this stuff, so I can’t comment on who was doing what dancing where, or what its standard was, or whether it counted as ‘lindy hop’.

I’m actually increasingly suspicious of the mantra that we should ‘grow the scene’ or convert more people to lindy hop at the cost of all else. There is a loud discourse in lindy hop that we should sacrifice all (income, time, relationships, health) to bring more people to lindy hop – to continue the revivalist project. I have an intense dislike of this martyred approach to running events, teaching, or working in the lindy hop scene. It normalises exploitation, it encourages working for free, rather than economic sustainability, and we see the same sorts of people being exploited, while the same sorts of people benefit from this exploitation. This system (and ideology) of ‘sacrifice’ ultimately attributes power and status to the people who take organisational roles in this project.

[A brief interjection: when I run events I am 100% keen on NOT exploiting anyone. I am STRICT about good working conditions, about breaks, about reasonable workloads, about people being paid, about punters paying for things. This shit is part of the music and entertainment industry, not some bloody religious movement. So nobody gets screwed over if I can help it, and I have NO PATIENCE with martyrs.]

If we were to realise that lindy hop didn’t actually die out, and if we were to realise that the world won’t actually explode without lindy hop, then all that revivalist sacrifice and work will be for nothing, and all that power and status will just trickle away. So there are bodies and people with vested interests in maintaining an uncritical support of a revivalist project, and revivalist mythology.

Me, I think that we’d do just fine without lindy hop. I’d be pretty darn sad, but life would go on. I think there are some really big problems with the way power and status work in our various communities, and I think that Harri is quite brave for raising the issue. I do not, however, agree with the core of his arguments, nor do I like his approach.

I think that we should be more critical of adulatory and ‘sacrifice’ narratives about the revival (and Frankie), but we should also be respectful of elders, respectful of each other, and supportive of projects which are, at their heart, about a philosophy of dance which encourages tolerance, mutual respect, peace, and harmony.

I think that one thing the modern day ‘revivalist’ project has brought us (largely through Frankie Manning’s personal example) is an ideology of dance which prioritises: interpersonal connection and respect (‘you are in love with this person for three minutes’); creativity and self-expression, from all dancers (the swing out has built-in improvisation time, and solo dance is a key part of lindy hop); and an open, welcoming social dancing culture, where anyone is welcome, and where peace and goodwill are valued.

At the same time, though, I like to remember that lindy hop itself has a built-in capacity for critical engagement, for resistance, and political commentary. Imitation, impersonation, competition, ‘step stealing’, and so on are all elements of lindy hop that make it a great vehicle for ideological and political resistance. And if we forget that – if we forget the importance of constructive criticism – then we’re forgetting the most powerful part of lindy hop.

[Another addd comment: Yes, the Savoy was a wonderful place for overcoming segregation. But you’re fooling yourself if you think that racial tensions, issues of power and privilege and sexism and class weren’t a part of that community space as well. We should be deeply, deeply suspicious of bullshit claims that lindy hop dissolves all differences. Because the corollary to that point is that if you are speaking up about wrong doing or about racism or sexism or bullshit in the scene, that idyllic view of the past makes you a trouble maker.
Relatedly, a Swedish friend noted in Herrang that the idea that Herrang is this wonderful, hedonistic place where everyone is happy and wonderful and joined by a love of dance is actually a problem. If Herrang is this wonderful a place, what do you do if something bad actually happens to you? Where do you go if you are assaulted or threatened or bullied? And you’re fooling yourself if you think that these things don’t go on.
When we insist on this idealised idea of lindy hop, we ignore the difficult stuff, and we make it impossible for people to raise challenging issues. Yes, this is a very happy dance. But we are still humans, and we can do pretty awful things to each other. So we should be actively vigilant and critically engaged, not just telling each other to shoosh up and be happy.]

Herräng report: part 1

Well, it’s 6.30am, and I’ve been awake since 5. My sleep cycle is well and truly borked. Curse you, jet lag. Why is that staying awake while flying around the world in a plane is more disruptive than staying awake dancing, eating, laughing, and talking in irregular patterns over several weeks?

I’m back from two weeks in Herräng (weeks 2 and 3), and a bit of time in Stockholm, and I’m taking a few days before I go back to work. It’d been ten years since I’d been to Herräng, and things had changed a bit. For one, things were more organised, which was a relief. The scale had also leapt: more places to eat, more people, more dance floors, more things to do. I was there to dance and DJ this time, rather than to ‘research’, so I approached each day in a different way.

I have lots of things to talk about, but I can’t quite keep hold of my thoughts, so I’m not sure how coherent this will be. Things I’d like to talk about, in no particular order:

  • the ‘how to DJ session’ in the library in week 3;
  • the way the insistence that Herräng is about lindy hop, and lindy hop is ‘such a happy dance’ makes it difficult to talk about problems or serious issues within the dance and event;
  • the somewhat disturbingly uncritical ‘spread the dance/grow the community’ discourse that dominates and justifies most activities (including a particular brand of cultural imperialism);
  • gender politics in the DJing and dancing culture of the camp (and the way critical engagement with this is forestalled by the ‘let’s just have a nice time/hedonism is us’ vibe);
  • the sheer joy and wonder of the Frankie Track in week 2;
  • teaching practice, and the balance between content and practice;
  • the effects of a coherent teaching approach in the Frankie Track versus the usual overall relationship between individual workshops at a dance weekend. I will say this: the Frankie Track was amazeballs because all the classes were linked by a coherent theme and concept: teaching Frankie Manning’s content, teaching classes in the way he taught classes, emphasising his priorities (MUSIC! PARTNERSHIP! SIMPLICITY! RHYTHM!), drawing on the old timers’ approach to learning dance generally…. and MORE;
  • the challenges and excitement of the beginners’ half week of tap in week 3;
  • the ebb and flow of energy and people and vibe over the course of a week;
  • economic factors and the effect of the Herräng Dance Camp’s decades of involvement in this small town’s economy and society;
  • the Swing Kids, Swing Teens and the way having children in the camp in week 2 provided social balance to the ‘hedonism’ of the camp, which was largely lost by the end of week 3;
  • hierarchies, power, and privilege in the camp;
  • the wheeling and dealing and networking and lobbying for work behind the scenes, from teachers, DJs, and organisers;
  • labour, work, gender, and knowledge in the Herräng economy;
  • mindfulness, computer literacy and online culture in camp (and how this had changed in the ten years since my last visit);
  • mindfulness, work, obsessive personalities, and the luxury of time in tap dance;
  • the argument that all DJs should learn to play a musical instrument if they want to be ‘good DJs’ (and the associated issues of power, time, labour, gender, and power);
  • sex, sexualisation, gender, and scoring a root;
  • the significance of Herräng’s place in Europe, and how this affected people’s attitudes to same-sex sex and gender. And how these progressive attitudes were ultimately subsumed or overshadowed by the overwhelming heteronormativity of modern lindy hop;
  • food, nutrition, body image, and the importance of the shared table at Herräng: my favourite part;
  • defining ‘swing’ music, and Herräng’s emphasis on classic swing era big band jazz, and how this affected DJing styles and set content, and dancers’ responses to music. Relatedly, the tension between modern day dancers’ learning to play music, the accessibility of small NOLA or hot combo style jazz versus the inaccessability of big band jazz for new musicians (ie dancers tend to play in small, hot combos which aren’t what Herräng values, but Herräng does value live music and independent creative projects very highly…. the tension needs a bit of discussion, I think);

As you can see, I have approximately one million things to write and talk about after my time in Herräng. One looming largest in my brains is DJing, as I was a staff DJ in week 2, and one of only 4 women out of 16 staff DJs in the 5 week camp. There were a number of volunteer DJs in the two weeks I was there, but not a whole bunch of them. A higher proportion of them were women than men.
I have a few things to say about how gender, networks of association and labour, and the professional skills required of DJs (primary of which is networking, in this case) work in Herräng, but I don’t really have the brains to articulate them properly here. In sum, though, I was very surprised by how few women DJs there were, after the last couple of years in Australia where women far outnumber men in the higher, most experienced ranks of lindy hop DJs. To the point where for the last MLX I had only one male DJ on the DJ team.

My approach to hiring DJs for events is to look for the most capable, most professional, most skilled, most useful and talented DJs, regardless of gender. They need to be not too over-exposed, and yet still have a degree of popularity with dancers (ie, be ‘in demand’). They might not be quite where they should be, in terms of experience or expanse of music collection, but I’m willing to invest in someone with promise and a good, strong work ethic.
I think that the reason I end up with more women than men, is that I actively seek out DJs, rather than waiting for them to approach me, and I put quite a bit of work into long term development for DJs. My own gender is probably significant too, though I’m often described as ‘intimidating’ by other women. But I’m very yolo about that: life is too short to worry about whether you intimidate other people. And I know other DJs and DJ organisers who are both male and very approachable.

I find that male DJs are more willing to put their hands up for gigs (to approach me for gigs) than women, and that women DJs are more critical of their own DJing, needing more encouragement, and also looking for more critical feedback on their DJing. The latter makes most women much better DJs (because they are open to improving, and open to communicating about their own DJing, and less defensive about their DJing), the former makes women less excellent at developing professional networks and ‘taking risks’ by applying for jobs they might not be ready for. They tend to play it too safe, and be more intimidated by hierarchies. There are male and female exceptions to these things, but very few. Very, very few.

My approach involves long term planning and development, including encouraging newer DJs, providing references and recommendations for new DJs with smaller events (so they can get the experience I need for the bigger events I work for), and keeping my local scene networks healthy – talking to people in different scenes to keep my finger on which DJs are looking and sounding good, and good to work with.
I’m also very keen on providing working conditions which make DJing more accessible for people: friendlier, safer, healthier, clearer (guidelines, etc), equitable pay, an open DJ recruitment process (so people know who to contact and how if they want to DJ, rather than using a quiet system of personal networks), and I am quite aggressive about getting feedback on my own work, and on the DJs’ experiences, so I can keep improving things. I think this transparency is the most important part of encouraging diversity in the DJing team: I am open about my ideas, process, and thinking.

Dargoff was the DJ coordinator for Herräng, and he was just a joy to work with. I don’t know his policies or approach to booking DJs for Herräng, so I can’t comment on them here, but I couldn’t find fault with his work. There are, however, broader systemic issues which make it harder for women to get into these higher profile DJing gigs which require active, fairly aggressive strategies from organisers to overcome. I simply don’t know enough about how Herräng works to be able to comment on this, though. And I don’t even know who organised the DJs in previous years. But I do have some ideas about international DJing culture, and most particularly DJing networks and interpersonal and professional associations which might be useful in this discussion. Again, my lack of experience here makes me reluctant to comment more. I have some ideas, but I just don’t think I know enough to start speculating.

So, when it comes to my experiences DJing at Herräng, I give it a big thumbs up, and I give all my fellow DJs, Dargoff, the huge sound crew, and the event organisers a big huzzah. It was a really great experience, and while challenging in some moments (looong sets are loooong), I would absolutely leap at a chance to do it again. I feel privileged and honoured to be a staff DJ at an event I admire so much, and I learnt SO MUCH about DJing over the two weeks I was there. I also made some new and good friends, and realised I have a lot to learn about the international DJing scene.

I also realised Australia is really isolated from the rest of the lindy hop world. This makes it harder for DJs to crack the higher echelons of DJing, but it has also had effects on our approach to labour and pay and professionalism. Overall, though, I’d say that Australia has quite a few DJs who are not only as good as, but better than some of the DJs I heard in Herräng, and that our lindy hop scene as a whole is something to be proud of. We aren’t a cultural backwater, we’re just a really distant tributary.

New dancers choosing to lead or follow

Ok, so let’s say you want to encourage more women to lead, and more men to follow. Or at the very least, you want people to feel ok about choosing either role. How do you get brand new dancers feeling as though they can choose?

This is how we do it.

We begin each class by introducing ourselves, and we do it like this:
“Hi, I’m Sam, and I’ll be teaching as the lead tonight.”
“Hi, I’m XX, and I’ll be teaching as the follow tonight.”

That immediately makes it clear that we could be doing either role, and that our choice isn’t necessarily permanent. This is actually a very practical thing for us at our venue, because I occasionally teach as a follow (and I find that very challenging), and we have a range of female and occasionally male teachers drop in, teaching either role.

But if you’re a brand new dancer, these words ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ mean exactly nothing, because you don’t know how this dance works yet.

So we follow up with something like:
“This is a class for new dancers, and we assume you’re brand new, so you are very welcome if this is your first class. Tonight we are working charleston/lindy hop/(whatever it is we’re working on).” And then we demonstrate that. So if we’re working on swing outs, we do some swing outs.

That let’s the students see the partnership in action (though most people can’t really see how leading and following works before their very first class), and it gives them an idea of what they’re in for. It also lets them imagine that this is how they’ll be dancing during the class, which is a nice thing.

Then we do our warm up (all solo stuff).
Then we learn the basic step/rhythm for tonight – charleston, whatever. Again, on our own.

Then we say:
“Ok now you need to decide whether you’re leading or following. If you want to lead, then put your arm in the air.” Or we ask the follows to put their arms up, and then we have them pair up.

This is usually about 10 minutes into the class, so students’ very first experience with lindy hop is that being able to dance on your own is essential. They also learn that leads and follows do the same rhythms and steps. We teach them how to do the rhythm on both feet. So they learn that being able to do both ‘sides’ is really important for everyone. This, incidentally, gives people a chance to get used to being in a dance class on their own first, and it introduces them to learning, and our class culture, on their own. Before they have to do the most confronting part, which is touching someone else. Holding someone else in their arms.

If we’re teaching our level 2 class, we begin with “If you dance both lead and follow, please choose one and dance that for this class.” We don’t care what people do, so long as they stick to one for the entire class. If we have uneven numbers, we try really, really hard not to make dancers feel they need to change their role to suit the numbers. If I know someone is there to lead, and we have massively more leads than follows, I work with that – I don’t try to even the numbers. Uneven numbers is actually a benefit, and I articulate that in class. Our regular students know that if you’re on your own in a rotation, you use that time to work on your own dancing, and most people figure out it’s a real advantage.
I have had trouble when I do substitute teaching at other people’s classes, because the dancers standing out without a partner have to be encouraged more than once to keep dancing. But my feeling is: you’re here to dance. So standing about watching other people is a waste of your time. Unless of course you need a little break, which is ok.

And that’s it. It’s really that simple. If you treat it as normal, so does everyone else. And for us, it is normal. It’s important for us to identify who’s leading and who’s following in the teaching partnership, especially for brand new dancers, because they often can’t identify the role on their own.
We always say ‘lead’ or ‘follow’, and we never use gender specific terms. Because that’s dumb. And gender isn’t actually important. It’s much more important to talk about the role – leading, following – and to use the words ‘lead’ and ‘follow’, because it helps you develop an identity for each role, that isn’t about gender, but is about dancing qualities. So, in my mind, a lead leads – if I want to have a follow step towards me, I need to take a small step back (rather than yanking on our arms). If I want the follow to do a particular footwork rhythm, I need to do it too, and first, and with confidence. If I want my follow to be relaxed in their body, I need to relax my body. And so on. Similarly, following isn’t about ‘doing as you’re told’, it’s about maintaining momentum. I might say “I’m deciding what move we’re doing, but (follow’s name)/the follow is deciding how we do that move, and they’re responsible for maintaining the momentum. We’re both responsible for keeping time (with our bounce), and we’re both responsible for doing good, clear rhythms. We are both (as Ramona says), responsible for taking care of the rhythm.”
I find that avoiding gender specific language actually frees my mind and my teaching to explore the way leading and following actually work. If I can’t say ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’, I have to find other words that describe what we’re doing. And that makes me a much better teacher.

We didn’t begin with this model. When Alice and I started, we would say “Traditionally men led and women followed, but we don’t need to do that,” or something similar. And then, looking back through old photos, I realised that that was just plain wrong. Women have always led, men have always followed, and men have always danced with men, and women have always danced with women. For the same reasons they do today – a shortage of the other gender, a preference for the same sex (whether romantically or just because fronds), wanting to dance with friends, coincidence, dancing skills and preference, etc etc etc. So we stopped saying that, because it’s WRONG. And I think it’s extra wrong to tell a bullshit version of history when we’re dancing a historic dance.

So if you’re working on this stuff – good luck, and do let me know if you have other strategies! I will TOTALLY steal your ideas!