Cognitive load and lindy hop

Leah Jo linked up this interesting article, ‘Cognitive Load Theory
How the cognitive load of a learning task affects a person’s ability to memorize it’
on facebork.

It’s very interesting.

Fran then asked about the point that because processing more than one type of data increases cognitive load, we should avoid it.

I’m not entirely sure I understand the article’s point, as I haven’t read the original research. But that won’t stop me blabbering on.

I’ve just read that bit, and I reckon it means:

  • Different types of data are processed in different ways (eg auditory info – sound – and visual info – stuff we see).
  • Processing more than one type of info at a time increases cognitive load (ie it’s more work.)
  • Therefore (this article suggests) we should only present data in one form at a time.
    In our case, that’d be just scatting a rhythm, or just dancing a rhythm, not dancing and scatting.

I think I can dig this, especially for total beginners who are just learning to dance for the first time. They can be learning to process visual info (bodies in motion), auditory info (clapping), etc etc etc.
So what we’ve found (coincidentally – I’d never heard this theory before), is that we demonstrate one thing at a time. eg we dance the whole move. Then we clap a rhythm. Then we may tap the rhythm with our toes. Then we may step it out with no sound, but shapes. This way the info (ie the rhythm) comes to them as lots of different data types, but one at a time.

Having said all that, as we know, dancers are super good at processing a few different types of data at once: we can be led through a routine and see the shapes, we can listen to the music and hear the melody, we can feel the physical cues and respond with the shapes.

But these are skills we come to after practicing and learning for a while.
I think retention (memory) is under-emphasised in our skill sets. I mean, we learn complex rhythms (which are essentially like learning complex mathematical formula or series of words), retain them, and then repeat them back with or without variation. We also learn whole sequences of steps during our dancing years, and then recreate or revise them in real time.
So one thing we learn when we do a dance class is to see/hear/feel data in one way, then retain that ‘way’ and information while we’re watching and retaining a section, third, fourth set of data. Then we synthesise it all and do it with another human being surrounded by heaps of other human beings also dancing or playing music!

That’s some seriously heavy cognitive load. So one thing we need to do in classes is teach students how to cope with a) the pressure of increased cognitive load, b) how to actually carry increased cognitive load. And lindy hop is awesome because it’s so fun: it rewards increased cognitive load management with good endorphines and happy times. :D

We can also just start with simpler tasks, then increase the complexity. For example, begin with one type of data at a time, then gradually increase the combinations. I think we do this with our beginners. So we may just give them one rhythm in the baby version of i-go, you-go, but as they get more experienced, we increase the number of things they have to do during that task (eg the next step in this game is to have the pair take turns dancing a rhythm at each other, in real time, so they have to invent a rhythm while they’re watching and retaining their partner’s rhythm. The simple solution to this is to take something from your partner’s rhythm and build on it in your rhythm, so you don’t have to make something entirely different. This is what tappers do in jams. It also provides rhythmic coherency or consistency).

I’ve been interested to compare teaching in a quiet environment after teaching in a noisy environment with lots of distractions. The former is very much the marker of middle class, anglo-european teaching philosophy. The idea that we need a quiet ‘room of one’s own’ to do good solid thinking and learning. But if there’s one thing we know about lindy hop, it’s that it was born and thrived in loud environments full of information and noise and other people. One of the very first things you learn in a tap class, for example, is how to handle the cognitive load of a very loud learning environment. A lot of people simply can’t get past that first bit (I personally really struggle with this).

I also noticed that when we started welcome small babies and children (and doggos) in our teaching space, at first I found it impossible to stay focussed. Then I just learnt to ignore it (as I suppose mothers learn to ignore random kid noise, but respond to particular noises or lack of noise :D). So you learn to filter out extraneous data to decrease your cognitive load.

…following that thought on. We know that people learn best in environments where they feel happy and safe. This is probably because when we feel unsafe, we are ‘hyper vigilant’, taking in lots of information about our environment, _and_ keeping our bodies ready to fight or fly. Which is why anxiety or social phobias or trauma are so exhausting.

So while I dig this article, I think that it’d be really useful to compare it with learning in other cultural spaces. I haven’t checked the samples in this piece, but I wonder if they used predominantly white, middle class people between 18 and 25 (ie university students) in laboratory environments as their samples?

Perhaps one of the most important things about thinking of lindy hop as a black dance, is that we remember where and how people learnt to dance: in vernacular spaces. Everyday spaces. Spaces full of noise and stimuli and other people. Which is not only why we see the influence of everyday stuff in lindy hop (eg rhythmic movements borrowed from stuff like sweeping or hammering or ball games or playing hop scotch; familiar personalities like pimps and kids skipping; familiar animals like chickens and cows), but the ability to bear massive cognitive load while completing complex tasks…

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

How does this fit with our teaching ethos and values?
I strongly believe that teachers should be guides on students’ learning journeys. People who provide a space and some structure for learning and experimentation. This means dismantling a top-down hierarchy and replacing it with a student-centred learning space. In the case of lindy hop, this literally means getting teachers out of the middle of the circle, and giving students permission to use the entire dance floor.

It also means that I think we need to give students more responsibility in class. Make them responsible for finding the beat, counting themselves in, knowing when to stop or start a sequence, having the skills to speak and work respectfully with partners and class mates. Rather than funnelling all this work and communication through the teacher.

It doesn’t mean that we leave students rudderless, or that we let our classes become a chaotic jumble. On the contrary, classes need to be thoroughly planned out and structured. That structure might change (will change, probably :D) during the hour, but it should be thoughtful change. Teachers should be responsive to students’ needs, using their repertoire of teaching tools to address students’ needs and interests and willing to change and adapt their teaching.

Most of my thinking about class planning and structure and goals I’ve learnt from talking to Sylwia Bielec and Adrian Warnock-Graham from Montreal. I’ve never met them in person, but they’ve both been endlessly generous and patient with teaching materials and advice. I’ve also learnt a lot from Rikard Ekstrand and Jenny Deurell from Sweden, who are very thoughtful, gentle teachers who combine seriously old school content with modern pedagogic practice. I did my first tap jams with Tommy Waddelton last year at Herräng, and it blew my mind. His jams were the ultimate exercise is talk-less, dance-more teaching, taking the I-Go You-Go model to incredible heights. As a student, it was exciting, stimulating, creative, inspiring and FUN. As a teacher, it was truly impressive to see this approach in action with such a disparate group of dancers. Ramona Staffeld remains one of my greatest teaching influences. She works in the real spirit of historic jazz dance, but with modern sensibilities. eWa Burek and Lennart Westerlund have also been very important to my teaching practice. Lennart in particular opened my eyes to the idea of rhythm-first dancing, and first demonstrated that students don’t need to be counted in. And Marie N’diaye and Anders Sihlberg are my ongoing teaching inspiration, again combining thorough pedagogic theory and practice with historic influence and creativity. All of these teachers put music first. Jazz music.

Tell me and I will surely forget. Show me and I might remember. But make me do it, and I will certainly understand.
— Old Chinese proverb

(Quote from a teaching resource provided by Sylwia.)

This approach is echoed in the ‘see one, do one, teach one’ model that I’ve seen used in teaching kids about the environment. I can’t remember the name of the documentary, but in this project, they had the kids learn about an issue, try it out, then teach the entire group (including adults) in a big group session. They’d found that this engagement helped kids become and feel responsible for environmental education.

I really like this model:

  1. See one (teachers demo i-go, you-go)
  2. Do one (teacher lead i-go, you-go)
  3. Teach/lead one (they take turns being the caller in partnered i-go, you-go).

I mean, lindy hop basically is i-go, you-go, right?

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

How does this exercise scale up for more experienced students?

With the intermediate group after that one, we taught the same class structure:

1. the big apple was faster and harder (I led that one and fucked it up royally. PRACTICE!)

2. Then I-go, You-go with more complex rhythms.

3. Then social dancing lindy, with pauses to ask them to dance as though they’re still playing I-go, You-go.

4. Then we asked them to add on to their ‘basic’ rhythm with a stomp off on &8.

5. Then we worked on a rhythmic variation/shape thingy on 7812 of a swing out. This taught connection stuff, but also required them to stop thinking in 8 counts and start treating a dance like one long rhythm.

6. Then we taught a partnered solo jazz sequence we stole from Norma and Frankie. But they had to lead it and follow it. We looked at how close you stand to your partner, how you can lead a rhythm without touching someone (ie how to do I-go, You-go :D), how OGs used specific rhythmic sequences over and over again, so they developed a shared repertoire, etc. We were really STRICT about them all really dancing these rhythms. No mumbling their way through.

7. Then we asked them to mash all this stuff together.
This bit was wonderful: stomp off &8, clear basic rhythms (time steps), rhythmic variations that may or may not sync with your partner’s, and then these shared open position solo sequences.

Class goals (ie why we used I-go, You-go and the other exercises in this order):
This is my current bugbear: WHY do people stop dead on 3&4? On 8? For breaks? Why do they divide a dance into 8 count blocks?

We wanted to:
– Preserve historic sequences and steps;
– Get them to really partner dance in open position with jazz stuff;
– Use the call and response model to make their lindy hop more rhythmically precise;
– Really engage with the music as a long piece of rhythm, not lots of little 8 count segments.

I’m also really keen on leaders really thinking ahead and being very clear in what they’re about to lead, rhythmically. The leaders have to really LEAD. This is where I don’t really dig ambidancestrous stuff, because I think that leading and following are different roles. To really LEAD, a leader/caller needs to engage their muscles in a very specific way. It requires we engage our bodies and brains. We have to be really clear and precise. Which incidentally engages our cores and makes us easier to follow/lead. And that means making rhythmic sequences and shapes very clear and specific, and always being ready to do the next thing.

It was epic fun.

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

The I-go, You-go game is a tap exercise we’ve appropriated for our lindy hop classes and use in lots of different ways. The game involves a caller/leader who claps or dances a step or rhythm, and is then followed by the rest of the group/a partner, who repeats back that same sequence in the same timing.
The game is fun because the follower repeats back the rhythm immediately after the leader, without pause, and the leader then begins a new rhythm immediately afterwards. So you’re dancing back to back, in time, with no gaps or time to stop and fuss.
The sequences can be a bar long, two bars, a phrase. Whatever works for you and your group. Obviously the shorter the easier (though a tap bar is a lot more complex than a lindy hop bar :D ). If we keep the tap roots of the exercise in mind, the little sequence should be repeated – so two bards (8 counts), where the sequence is repeated is the best option. For tap.

But the game is wonderful because its simplicity allows you to vary it to meet your students’ needs. Or your partner’s and your needs.

For tappers, this is a good intro to tap jams. For lindy hoppers, it’s a good intro to lindy hop – partnered jazz dancing.

We have been using this game as a core part of our beginner (and now higher level) lindy hop classes for about two months. It’s successful not only for students’ learning, but also for our own learning, as teachers and dancers. I like it because it embodies the call and response of lindy hop, and in fact, we now present lindy hop as ‘a long call and response game’ to our beginners. This is a nice way to get around the political issues of using ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ as titles. Though we still use those terms too :D

From a musical perspective, you can listen to a pair playing I-go, You-go, and hear it as an AABB phrase structure. And when you begin to think of the game like this, you can imagine a million other variations for teaching other lead/follow and musical skills. It’s also a MASSIVE amount of fun. Students enjoy it because it feels like fun, and the quick pace means you don’t dwell on mistakes or errors, you just move on immediately to the next challenge.

What rhythms do you use when you’re the teacher leading the whole group?

Depends on the point of the exercise. With the total beginners in this class, we wanted them to just use one rhythm (step step triple step). Why?
– To really make them feel comfortable with this as a time step (so comfortable they get bored and long for improvisation or something different).
– They learn to hear the difference between a rhythm clapped straight or swung.
– We wanted them to feel confident in the rhythm so they’d then experiment with shapes, direction, other parts of their body.
– The main point is that they really focus on their partner: a ‘win’ is where the person responding gets it ‘right’. So the caller understands that being very clear and deliberate is the point (ie you don’t try to trick your partner or be unnecessarily complex).
– I was fascinated to see that after starting this way, they incline their body towards their partner, then keep this orientation in closed/open. They really focus on their partner. So you don’t need to say things like ‘look at your partner’ or ‘check in with your partner to see how they’re going’. They’re already doing it.
– I learnt this from Rikard and Jenny in the Herräng teachers’ track, but I-go, You-go is a tap exercise. Except in tap you have to reproduce rhythm, pitch, specific part of the foot, AND shape.
– This game is also an exercise in mindfulness. So we begin with a big apple warm up (a fun, simpler I-go, You-go game, then consolidate and concentrate the same skills in the teacher led and then partnered versions. By the time they get to actual partner dancing, they are really using these skills intently. That gives them the ‘take care of your partner’ and ‘take care of the music’ elements of lindy hop. When you shift to closed position for gliding, you can say ‘we’re still playing the game. But now you can’t seethe whole of your partner. Use your sense of touch, and the shared sense of timing from the music’. It’s better not to actually articulate that stuff, but to just get them to learn by doing.
– This game also teaches you to learn-by-watching (eg “I’ll do it three times then you do it,”) so you don’t need to break stuff down or talk a lot when tackling specific moves.

The I-go, You-go game can also be played with the teacher using different rhythms (and you match complexity to skills). But you need to be constantly assessing their progress. Repeat something slower if they don’t get it. Do a straight version then a swing version if they’re flattening out the rhythm. Get more complex as they get better. Push them until it gets too hard for them to do successfully (so they recognise challenge), etc etc.

A lot of tap teachers teach whole classes like this. It is FANTASTIC fun. No talking, just call and response.

When they glide with rhythm, we do ask them to do their ‘basic’ rhythm (the one we worked on), but we don’t really mind if they do other stuff too. We basically want them to learn how it feels to move with deliberate rhythm across the floor attached to another person. Maintaining perfect rhythm is just a lovely extra.

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

Last night we taught a group of complete beginners their first lindy hop class ever. And the first time they danced to music with a partner, they STARTED THEMSELVES WITH NO COUNTING IN and they were ON TIME!!!1
They also started at the beginning of the phrase.


We did the class structure like this:
1. Big apple warm up (teacher leads, and makes sure there are a few of the elements of the steps in the warm up; emphasis on starting new moves at the beginning of phrases)

2. the I-go, you-go way of teaching the rhythm (teacher leads, students ‘respond’: 8 counts of clapping rhythm, students come in immediately after and echo that same rhythm. Begin with clapping, then move to using different parts of the foot (as in a tap exercise), then adding in direction for steps (eg a rock step), then moving bodies around floor)

3. play I-go, you-go with a partner (as above, but now they are calling and responding for a partner) without music

4. I-go you-go with a partner with music (and we ask them ‘is it easier with music? why?’ -> because the band keeps time, they know when to start and stop, etc etc)

5. learn to do closed position

6. learn to glide without rhythm or music

7. when they rotate we point out that each partner is a different size and shape, so you can’t just approach your partner with Barbie arms; you need to adjust your embrace. And we demo’d how to talk to your partner about adjusting, and they all tried that a few times.

8. glide with music, but no set rhythms (though they do tend to start adding in rhythmic elements)

9. glide with rhythm to music -> this is where they pwnd all and we didn’t need to count them in!

At about this point we paused to explain about spending a bit more time grooving before they start to move (we had demo’d this but not articulated it yet). We explained grooving as making friends with the music, making contact with a partner (do you hear the music the same way? how do you know? etc etc).

10. grooving again with music -> they are social dancing

11. questions from them: how do you change direction? how do you know which foot to start on? how do you know what your partner is ‘leading’ or ‘calling’ in terms of rhythm? etc etc. This is where I used the phrase “You listen with your skin” in closed instead of watching with your eyes in open. I will never forgive myself for this hippy-ness. I’m sorry.

12. They dance on all this stuff.

By this point they’d been dancing hardcore for 50 minutes. We didnt’ count them in once.

We would ordinarily have introduced another specific shape or two by this point – promenades, circles, whatever. But we had a rowdy group. They were actually enjoying mucking about by moving and traveling the floor, etc.

13. We introduce crazy legs/cool breeze in the knees as a new rhythm. They add it into their dancing.

So they’ve done a loooot of social dancing in this class, the rhythms are tight, and they’ve also learnt nice partnering skills (and connection), they can count themselves in on time on phrase, they have swinging timing rather than straight, etc etc etc.

It was a very fun class. They had a lot of fun, and so did we.


  • My Baby Just Cares for Me – Nina Simone
    It’s a goody for pointing out the role of the bass, plus the piano actually sounds like step step triple step, there’s that little delay/break that makes them stumble, then learn to listen to the music more, etc.
  • Blip Blip – LCJO
    Warm up song, because it’s energetic, hi-fi, vocals and fun for the very first song.
  • Easy Does It – Big 18
  • Stepping into swing society – Ellington 1938
  • Easy Going Home – Hodges 1953
    At the end, to get them experimenting with varying crazy leg/basic rhythm stuff, and to make them laugh.
  • Keeping out of mischief now – Louis Armstrong all stars 1955

Class ‘content’

We’ve just finished a six week long beginner lindy hop block. This whole block could be summarised in one hour (as we did tonight) with the below points. If I had time, I’d also list the specific class plans we had for each individual class.

Specific dance stuff:
– gliding (dancing in closed with no particular rhythm), aka floor craft, partnering, leading and following, comfortable closed position, finding 1, stopping and starting independently;
– circles, aka a specific rhythm (which someone pointed out tonight is 2 x 4 counts) with a specific direction and shape – leads leading and follows following, efficient and deliberate movement through space, being able to choose a smaller step size, etc;
– swinging out from closed position, aka knowing where ‘halfway’ is in a circle (on count 5 or after the triple step), continuing rhythm, leading with your body and the physics of rotation, understanding how far to go away from your partner;
– jazzing in open, then re-starting again, aka keeping time and changing between a single time rhythm and a step step triple step rhythm, leading in from open using your body, following in from open;
– using rotation again to ‘catch’ the follow, making contact with your body to follow the lead;
– combining the two to make an open to open swing out, with or without time jazzing in open, aka hearing 8s, phrases, keeping time, swinging time, etc, improvising, changing rhythms;
– charleston on your own (and using the groove to transition between the two);
– moving from a circle into side by side charleston then out again (using the groove to keep time, knowing when to change, using your body to change direction and suggest a change in rhythm, recognising changes in your lead’s body movement, maintaining a rhythm until it changes);
– the kick through in side by side charleston (how to lead by moving your own body – kicking in and out, pivoting on one foot, pivoting on one foot and turning, a new charleston rhythm, etc etc)
– leading the whole group in a big apple, in turn (hearing the phrase, knowing how to prepare for, then pass the turn to your neighbour, knowing how to pass without stressing, understanding how to lead a move successfully for a group, etc)!
– moving through space (rotating partners!)
– swivels, boogie back and forward, itches, push it, push it out, etc, rocking, and many other jazz steps.

Learning skills:
– learning-by-watching;
– working with a partner;
– dealing with not getting it right first time (aka patience and perseverance);
– i-go you-go learning style in pairs and in groups;
– sticking with a task (no matter how ‘simple’) and refining it;
– working with a range of partners of different abilities, and finding the fun;
– knowing how to stop, chillax and find the groove, then restart and start dancing again with many different partners (esp after ‘making a mess’);
– working on a problem or challenge before asking for help (independent and team problem solving);

Social skills:
– how to ask for a dance, how to accept one, how to introduce yourself;
– how to ask a partner how to change how they’re touching you, how to accept that comment from a partner;
– stopping, then chillaxing, then restarting with a partner to manage stress or making mistakes;
– staying calm and cheery under pressure, and accepting challenges and obstacles as a useful part of learning, without getting angry or anti-social;
– respecting partners’ bodies, and when they ask to stop, change, or adjust a physical contact;

Musical skills:
– finding the beat;
– swinging the beat;
– finding the 1;
– finding the 8;
– accenting 2, 4, 6, 8 (as in boogie back);
– difference between 20s and 40s jazz and how it affects charleston emphasis;
– finding a phrase (consciously and also implicitly);
– recognising a 12 bar blues and 32 bar chorus format;
– finding the right place to start in the music, then getting started and dancing;
– moving between different rhythms (single time, half time, step step triple step, charleston, a range of other rhythms) in partners and alone as solo dancers, and also as solo dancers with a partner;
– being able to recognise, retain, then repeat a given rhythm (as in I-go, you-go);
– being able to transfer a rhythm from clapping to different parts of the foot, to stepping, to physical movement through space.

They learnt so much!
I’m also happy that I’ve learnt how to rethink a class and course structure. I used to teaching thinking ‘ok, what moves will we teach’, and now I can think ‘ok, what skills do we want’, then develop a class that fosters these skills implicitly (rather than through lots of talking). But still uses and shares historic vocabulary and musical knowledge.

Why I want to hang onto gender when we talk about race in lindy hop

As part of the ongoing discussion about race and lindy hop, Shelby (a black American man) asked (in response to a comment about how the dance community’s response to race differs/shares with its response to rape and sexual assault):

So can we stay on the topic at hand please. Just once would like a discussion on race not have another topic though pressing be brought into the discussion unless they actually crossover to prevent tangents

I responded like this:

I think they’re all linked. We can’t talk about race in America without talking about class. We can’t talk about race in vintage fashion culture without also talking about gender and class (and sexuality). It’s important to note that ‘gender norms’ in mainstream American lindy hop culture involve race. As an extreme example, I was reading an article the other day pointing out why the American second amendment is inherently about race and a part of slavery. In that setting, we have to talk about class and race if we want to understand why white men in America are over-represented in mass shootings in schools.

I think it’s super, super important to identify how ‘idealised female bodies’ are ethnicised: white skin, straight hair, long clear lines created by shoe choices and lots of pointed toes, etc etc. And how clothing choices emphasise particular aesthetics and shapes.
Joann Kealiinohomoku wrote a great article about ballet in 1983 which is directly relevant to this conversation. She pointed out how ballet – specifically the ballerina’s body and movement – are shaped by ethnicised notions of beauty and gender. She pointed out how ‘whiteness’ is constructed by particular ways of moving and particular body shapes and aesthetics.

If we are going to make lindy hop more tenable for poc, we need to deconstruct how lindy hop is ethnicised, where the dominant ethnicity is ‘whiteness’. We have to deconstruct whiteness. We have to think about ‘whiteness’ as ethnicity. As culture. Not as some neutral ‘norm.’ And that means not only talking about historic black dancers in class; but looking at how vintage fashion aesthetics contribute to contemporary gender norms; how dance step ‘trends’ favour particular rhythms, which reflect vernacular spoken language; and how the cost of events limits the participation of people who don’t have disposable income (class).

I don’t expect you, personally, to take on this work, but as a white woman, I feel I have a responsibility to see how privilege works in the context of patriarchy. I need to unravel all the threads, and see which ones contribute to which knots. Then i can start untangling and undoing patriarchy.
Working within a feminist framework (in my background) means asking how race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, etc all work to privilege some people and marginalise others. The generation of feminists who came after me talk about this in terms of intersectionality. For me, it’s a way of saying “How come the work of white feminists of the second generation (1960s) didn’t turn out to be so useful for black women?”
My approach is informed by black feminists and feminists of colour, who clearly state: gender is not my first point of engagement with power and injustice; my race is. I can dig that. But I feel that as a white woman, I owe it to my black sisters to take on some of this labour while they’re getting on with addressing issues like school lunches and literacy rates in black communities.

Kealiinohomoku, Joann. “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance.” What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism. Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49.

More references on this topic.

Looking for Langston

Speaking of the black experience in jazz and blues dance…

I haven’t yet ready anything in the blues and lindy hop community about the black queer male body dancing.

There’s been some good work on black women’s bodily experiences in modern jazz dance culture, and a bit about black masculinity. Quite a few too many white men have whitesplained how blues works as a black space, and far too many white women and men have avoided talking about vintage fashion as an ethnicised scene.

Apparently the black queer body in a well cut suit or gorgeous gown is too terrifying even for whispers.

I saw Looking For Langston (an art film by Isaac Julien) last night. The whole project – a film made during the 80s AIDS crisis by a black British man, about a black American man of the Harlem Renaissance – is a meditation on queer desire, jazz aesthetics and the blues. The name (and a lot of the content, including some proto-vogueing) reminds me of Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna, and the queer-eye-on-art. It includes voice work by Stuart Hall and Toni Morrison, Paul Gilroy gets props, Jimmy Somerville plays a cherub (again), and Tongues Untied is referenced. Also there is some cock.








The installation at Rosley Oxley9 Gallery features some beautiful large scale black and white stills from the film, depicting black men dancing in closed embrace. Photos I regularly see linked up on facebook as examples of queer dance in the swing era. Ha.

Liah says it’s good to check out the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the agnsw as well, so you can see how Julien’s work responds to Mapplethorpe (and the white queer gaze on black bodies).

I’ve hooked up this obviously pirated version of Looking for Langston, because it’s a hard one to get to see.



mise en scene pic from Isaac Julien’s set (source).
Stuart Hall, from his obituary in the Telegraph.
Toni Morrison by Gregg Delman in the Times.
Paul Gilroy (source).
Jimmy Somverville in Sally Potter’s Orlando.
Tongues Untied (source).
My pic from the exhibition.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Two Men Dancing (source).

Vintage fashion and lindy hop: let’s add race.

Laury Windley of Lindy Shopper fame asked on fb today:

I wonder if there’s a correlation between the Internet making vintage and reproduction clothing more available to the masses and the increased incidence of people dressing up for swing dancing.

And I replied…

I think the internet definitely plays a part in shaping lindy hop fashion.
I started dancing in 1998 in Brisbane, a hot, humid sweat pit of a place that was cruel to anything vintage. I was wearing vintage before I started dancing… 60s vintage and punker fashion. But crimplene and sub-tropical lindy hop? No. But that’s 20s years ago, and mainstream fashion has changed a lot over that time.

I think a few things have shaped what people wear for lindy hop:
– Weather and climate.
In hotter climates we sweat more, and fabrics have to be able to handle that. So a wool suit isn’t often a dancer’s first choice. There simply isn’t that much vintage wear in Australia – because the climate (including the sun and sweat) destroyed it, and because of social history.

– Culture.
More importantly, 1930s and 40s fashion in Australia wasn’t like 30s and 40s fashion in the northern hemisphere. I imagine we could see some really interesting different regional vintage fashion in other scenes as well. Which of course makes me think: Korean dancers wearing 30s and 40s fashion is a whole other kettle of cultural fish. Looking at videos from Maputo (in Mozambique) lately, I see a blend of traditional fabrics (eg waxprints), vintage 30s, and modern aesthetic. And bare feet. All things that are particular to this community at this time and place. A pride in cultural heritage (waxprints), a nod to dance history (30s cuts and styles), and social context (bare feet influenced by the ‘traditional’ dance influences brought by pro Mozambique dancers to lindy hop). And that’s all before we get to bodily aesthetics.

– Dance culture.
I’ve noticed that if a lindy hop scene has members who travel a lot (ie they’re quite experienced dancers), the fashion tends more towards the ‘european or american vintage’ aesthetic. This is about individual dancers wanting to signal status/knowledge in what they wear.
Interestingly, we have a strong vintage/repro fashion scene in Sydney which crosses over with ‘swing dancing’ (not necessarily lindy hop). It’s not so great for dancing hardcore, but people live a hardcore vintage lifestyle. Chloe Hong‘s presence in Seoul does much the same. She gives us the incredible troupe uniforms (troupes are influencers!) and also that ubiquitous Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Big Apple tshirt reproduction. Both of which encourage a vintage fashion vibe. And it’s hardcore: male dancer might bring their suit to parties in a suit bag, then change in the on-site dressing rooms rather than risk them on the subway.

– Dancing.
Lindy hop has gotten a lot more athletic _generally_ than it was in the 2000s. Parachute pants are great for smoothy dancing, but a shorter skirt or more fitted trousers are better for lots of solo jazz, leaping about, etc. I’ve been most interested in the way men’s trousers taper more at the ankle to show off leet footwork in a way wide cuffs don’t.
All this athletic training has also changed professional or competition dancers’ physiology: more muscles, a greater range of movement = more care with fashion choices. A lovely 1940s dress is too precious to risk on a hardcore showcase routine with aerials.

– Gender.
We’ve seen changes in gender performance in the wider community since the 1990s and 2000s. There’s generally a greater emphasis on ‘strong’ bodies and muscle tone in mainstream media – women as well as men are into weights and resistance training in a new way. But at the same time, the more androgynous stylings of the 90s has given way to hyper-gendered styles today.
As Cierra says in that Obsidian Tea piece, this is not only about gender, but also about race, and as Shelby suggests, class. There’s a definite body type favoured by mainstream white culture, but also by lindy hop culture (which is after all a microcosm of the wider society).

Long, lean legs and buttocks, narrow busts and chests, long torsoes, long straight hair, etc etc etc.
Male lindy hoppers’ bodies are almost the same, except with shorter hair (male hair cuts!).
-> we see a very white, anglo-european body type here. It not only excludes black bodies, but also some asian phenotypes…basically anyone who’s not from this anglo-european background.
-> There’s also been a rise in what constitutes disordered eating dogma eating in lindy hop circles: ‘paleo’ ‘diets’, low-carb, high-protein, high-fat, etc etc etc. This in concert with obsessive exercise routines (remember when P90X was big?) are giving us a particularly worrying body type as a favoured aesthetic. Still very white, still relatively unattainable for most people.

The clothes that people are choosing emphasise these qualities. I wrote about the influx of high heeled shoes a while ago – and heels extend the lines of the leg to point the toe and create a very white, heteronormative feminine model. The more fitted skirt extends these straight lines. We see foundation garments becoming a very important part of many women dancers’ wardrobes: they constrain and flatten the body, erasing curves and rolls and dimpling of flesh to extend lines.
All of this actually constrains the body and limits a range of movement, not to mention comfort. Men may complain about the heat of a jacket while dancing, but it’s nothing compared to the discomfort of spanx, two pairs of stockings, underwire bras, a million bobby pins and a ton of makeup. Again, this is very much an ethnicised notion of bodily aesthetics with patriarchal effects.

It’s very _not_ like the west african aesthetics of early jazz dance.

– Fabrics.
Some really wonderful fabrics have become popular in m/s fashion over the past few years. There are some utterly amazing stretch cottons that look and breathe like cotton, but also have the stretch and longevity of a synthetic. Perfect for dancing. But this also changes the way garments wear and wear out. We can make clothes that behave in different ways – reproduce vintage styles in more athletic-friendly fabrics.

– The rise of repro fashion businesses.
This is another story about the internet. Pervasive internet access has enabled the rise of small business manufacturing models (via etsy etc), and the ‘bespoke’ trend in m/s culture has married perfectly with the aesthetics of vintage fashion. So we’re seeing repro businesses doing well online in the dance world and beyond. I think this interest in bespoke fashion works as a push back against fast-fashion, but also as a marker of class (it’s more expensive, and is often defended as being ‘better value’, even when the manufacturers are inexperienced craftspeople who might make things by hand but don’t have proper tailoring skills). This echoes Shelby’s earlier point about ‘respectability’ and race: dressing expensive suggests respectability and status.
I’ve been very interested in the way dancer-run businesses can target the nich dancer market and be sustainable. It works in bigger scenes like Seoul, but it’s also sustainable, via the internet, for a business based in Canberra to market to the international dance world.

– Youtube and social media.
And finally, access to the bodies of dancers all over the world via the internet has shaped fashion. We may have regional styles, but we also have Chloe Hong and Remix and sweet fades in every international lindy hop scene (where budgets allow). If a big name dancer wearing it at ILHC, then we’ll see it in local scenes soon after. Influencers r us.

Figuring out how to teach content in class is lots of work

Lian noted in the teaching swing dance group the other day:

…in the past few years when planning class material, I’ve found it super helpful to focus on HOW we’ll teach it… Will we have them do it solo first, how about shuffling through geography before diving in with footwork, or a progressive series of movement leading to the final concept.

I commented:
I think this is the most important thing ever. Making a shift away from moves= content to skills = content has been so important for me. From ‘we’ll teach moves x, y, x’ to ‘our goal is x or y this class. We’ll do this game, then this move, then combine the game with the moves in a section to teach this skill.’

It takes ages, but when we work through how we’ll teach, it’s so much better. Especially if you’re working with a new teacher, or if you want to be a better teacher. Breaking down how you’ll teach makes you more self-reflexive, and actively engage with how you understand a move, how you articulate it, how you can take most of the words out, and how you can encourage students to learn by trying.

Super fun. But it really challenges a teacher to try to improve and change their habits.

I’m interested in the idea of class planning as a discipline not only for its effects on teaching practice, but also for the way it organises labour before, during, and after classes, and also contributes to teaching team morale and relationships. The time you spend planning helps you figure out how you’ll relate to a teaching partner.

But a very important of my current teaching process, is moving from seeing class ‘content’ as a bunch of moves, to seeing class ‘content’ as much more.

This includes lots of different teaching tools, and knowing how they work individually and cumulatively to develop students’ skills:

– Having ‘goals’ for that specific class
eg ‘integrating different charleston rhythms with lindy hop’
That means knowing what you want to achieve before going in there (because you know your students’ needs), or going in there, observing the students, and thinking ‘ok, they need some X.’

– Having fun games that develop skills required to reach that goal
eg some solo work to learn how your body works
I’m beginning to think that the whole class should be treated like a series of games. ie just making classes a bunch of fun challenges and tasks.

– Beginning every class with a warm up that includes key rhythms or shapes that we’ll use in the class later, but set the tone of the class.
eg kicks for charleston, or pivoting on one foot, or syncopated timing, or dancing across two 8s rather than one
This warm up teaches specific rhythms and shapes, but also teaches them how to learn-by-doing (ie we literally say “Just join in; the goal is to get warmed up”), how to deal with ‘mistakes’ and challenges, and how to move on from one step to another, or from one challenge to another without giving up. It also trains the eye (what do you _see_), and the ear (each move takes a phrase, and uses specific rhythms across moves).
NB We all practice our warm ups very carefully, and don’t just ‘wing’ them.

– Following that with a teacher-led exercise or game like I-go, You-go to teach rhythms.
This second game continues the idea of learn-by-doing, and is lots of fun. These two ‘warm up’ games also begin introducing students to the skills they need for later in the class. So in week 1 of the beginner block we teach the ‘basic rhythm’ using I-go You-go. But we might also use this to teach a particular jazz step or skill.
This game can be made more complex/challenging for more experienced classes. eg from week 1 to week 6 in the beginner block, it gets trickier as their skills increase.

Paired or small group exercises which are actually dancing.
eg an I-go, you-go exercise where they echo the teacher’s role of calling the step, but take turns being the ‘responder’ as well as the caller, working in turn rather than together.
This then moves them from ‘doing one’ to ‘teaching one’. They learn to ‘teach’ or communicate a rhythm or shape or musical concept with their bodies in a small group (a pair) which is less threatening. It also teaches them to work with a partner (which is central to lindy hop). This develops skills like communication, visual learning (learn by watching), seeing success as a collaboration not an individual victory or competition (eg they ‘win’ if their partner completes the rhythm successfully).
NB These are NOT isolated ‘exercises’, but actually dancing games, where they are literally dancing and experimenting with movement and rhythm.

Moving to a dance move or figure that employs these skills.
eg a call and response rhythm that happens on 1-4 and then 5-8 of an 8 count swing out.
This is the application of their solo dancing skills to the lindy hop setting. They usually figure out that they’ve been dancing lindy hop all along anyway.

Teaching specific lindy hop vocabulary.
Historic moves are wonderful because they incorporate all the things we value: music, swing, collaboration, etc etc. I try to teach at least one jazz step per class. But I may teach it in a variety of ways. I try to collect ways to teach these steps to keep my brain interested, and theirs. So teaching a jazz step isn’t just about passing on a nugget of knowledge. A specific jazz step teaches other things. eg boogie forward teaches how to dance alone with a partner, dancing in blocks of 8, using half time, experimenting with simple shapes to get interesting styles, how to move through space (including floor craft), etc etc etc. I might teach this step by “Watch me, and when you’re ready, join in” or I might break it down into pieces. Or I might say, “Let’s walk into the circle (big apple style), then back out. Ok, let’s use this timing. Nice, now let’s give it some boogie.” And build up the step from a recognisable real-world movement (eg walking).

Plenty of individual/unguided practice or experimentation time.
They count themselves in (start when you feel ready, or when the music tells you it is time), learning to pause and take a breath, communicate with a partner to figure something out, navigate a crowded dance floor, ask for a dance and how to touch someone, etc etc.
These unguided sessions are ESSENTIAL as they teach improvisation, and other social dancing skills. This is the point of it all.

Giving dancers without a partner specific tasks.
eg explaining how to practice a rhythm on your own, experimenting with size, shape, bounce, groove, etc.
I find that most students figure out how to do this on their own, if you begin a class with a strong solo component. The last thing I want is students looking at their phones or blanking out. Even if they’re not actually dancing, I want them to be watching, engaging, or simply taking a real break or breath and learning to realise when they need to take a time out.

Whole-group demos from teachers
eg we’ll do it three times then you do it. This brings all the dancers together, and they can ask questions and listen to each other. It’s important for teachers to use this time to model how to speak to a partner respectfully, etc etc etc.

Whole group synchronised dancing through a step or sequence.
“Let’s all go together as a team.” Dancing as a synchronised team builds cohort feels, but it also strengthens rhythmic sensibilities and collaboration. They feel where it’s going wrong or right, and they learn to start and stop at a specific time (eg with discipline).

I’ve ended with this last tool, because this is where a lot of teachers begin and end all their classes: teaching a series of set moves that everyone dances together as the teacher counts the time, and then they rotate. I think it’s a nice tool, but dancing it this way in class every class, all the time neglects 90% of the skills you need for dancing lindy hop. Even if you break the step down before they do it, using something like a standard – geography, shuffle through, now add rhythm, now refine the leading/following.

If they experiment on their own, they learn to count themselves in, experiment with leading and following naturally, work with a partner, listen to music and dance in swinging time, learn to hear phrases (when the music suggests they start), take a breath and just stand and watch, retain their social skills by communicating with a partner, etc etc etc.