Going the full hippy: Progress report

We’ve been gradually increasing the amount and type of hippy teaching tools in our classes.
I’m trying to balance full-on hippy fun with historical repertoire, name-checking OGs, and disciplined rhythms and skills.
Interestingly, I’ve found that my definition of ‘technique’ has expanded from partner connection to the ability to create and execute rhythms precisely, to observe and learn-by-watching-and-trying, and most importantly, to do all this stuff _as a teacher_ while I’m guiding student through these skills.
So I can’t teach rhythm-first if I don’t have preceise control of my rhythms.
I can’t see if they’ve got control of their rhythms if I can’t see what their bodies are doing.

The hippy tools
I’ve been working with include:

1. “We’ll do it three times, then you try it”
(A sequence of them trying it with a partner in their own time, us all coming together and them articulating what they’ve had trouble with or observed/been amazed by, them watching again, them trying again, us all doing it together, a technical note or two (usually related to dance technique. This is an extension of the solo jazz warm up where they ‘just have a go’). This is ideal for uneven lead/follow ratios as they can work in groups of 3).
-> skills: learning to understand rhythms or sequences with the eye or ear (not broken down); self-reliance; prioritising what to look for first when learning (and suiting their own needs, not the teachers’ priorities in breaking things down); working with a partner(s) to solve problems (cooperation, mutual respect, listening, speaking, trying); learning by doing, rather than learning by thinking; trying; making confident mistakes; ‘errors’ as a natural and useful part of learning; finding their own ‘style’ through problem solving biomechanics.

2. I-go, you-go where the teacher leads or they do it with a partner.
(The starter does the rhythm, then the follower does it immediately afterwards in time, then the starter moves straight on to something else. They usually begin by watching and following the teacher (with the second teacher ‘on their team’ with them), but also do it with a peer in class. This ‘exercise’ or ‘game’ is also applied to teaching a specific rhythm or move in class.)
-> skills: learning by watching/listening rather than having it broken down; super-focus; mindfulness; proprioception; understanding rhythm as patterns; pattern recognition and creation; being ok with errors, and not fixating on them; demonstrating or dancing as clearly as possible; team work; gauging a partner’s abilities or state of mind and adjusting to suit; realising that a ‘success’ is where one demonstrates well and the other figures it out well: collaboration.

3. If you have a question, watch us demo it/try it yourself/watch your peers and find the answer.
-> skills: self-reliance; try before asking (they eventually learn to try before they ask questions); valuing their own judgement and skills; confidence; observation (physical, aural, visual); mindfulness; proprioception.

These three tools are great. And we can build them into our classes as ‘exercises’. But eventually a class full of exercises feels boring, and disconnected from actual social dancing.
So what I’ve been working on is building them into classes and making the connections between the exercises and actual social dancing skills and dancing history obvious and useful. How?

We’ll do it three times (ie learn by watching/observing, as part of ‘talk-less’ teaching) is a really nice tool that informs most of the way I teach now. I’m less likely to break things down first (though I may later on if they need some clarification, and if the intermediate dancers want technical connection nerdery, or we want to do rhythmic nerdery and tighten up their syncopation, etc). This is how we’ve done it this block. In fact, the following section is a description of last night’s class. FUN.
– We do our warm ups this way, beginning every single class, where the leader in the circle dances a step/rhythm for a phrase (repeating it 4 times), and the students just join in. Straight away, they learn to just try and have fun.

– A ‘warm up’ after the solo jazz warm up, where everyone copies the teacher. Last week we did this as a preparation for the following game/exercise. The teacher just danced rhythms, and because it moves so quickly, and we don’t dwell on a rhythm until people get it right, they don’t freak out. A teaching note: you gradually increase the complexity, in keeping with their progress. If none of them get a rhythm, you repeat it slower. You build on the rhythms, using different variations of the rhythmic components you’ll be using in class.

– We have them do games with partners, where the starter dances a step, the other watches and joins in, then on the 4th 8 of the phrase, they both do a ‘break step’ (ie anything they like, as long as it’s different, gradually progressing to a very deliberate ‘step’ or rhythm that they come up with while doing the 3 repetitions of the move). We find that this develops some pretty bloody good skills – they get GOOD at this. We did this this week and it was FUN.

[NB at the beginning of the class we did a ‘where would we start?’ exercise where we listened to a song and had to make a visual sign on ‘1’. Then we did it for ‘8’. Then we did it for the beginning of a phrase. They could do any sign they liked. And as we progressed, they weren’t allowed to repeat a sign. It was gold. And of course, to keep time, they were grooving like crazy. And their ‘signs’ got more interesting. Until they were just dancing like freaking superheroes.
Then we stepped up the exercise, and they had to walk around the room doing any old thing, then on the last 8 of the phrase, they had to stop and stand still. Then we stepped it up and they had to do a specific rhythm on that last 8. Then they had to do it on the spot. It was also fantastic.]

[last week]They learn a basic step earlier in the class (eg last week we did an under arm turn from closed into open). They then did a game where the leader danced the basic rhythm (step step triple step) and the follow practiced dancing a new rhythm over the top. We explained the leads’ job as “Keeping time and structure for the follows while they’re a storm of rhythm.”
We had them do this a few times with a partner, then rotate. After a few rotations, we said to the leads, “Ok, leads, so you’re paying attention to your partner, right? Now the follow will dance their 8 count rhythm while you keep your basic rhythm, and then you will repeat it back to them immediately.” And the leads were all eee! But they did it and were grand.
Then we had them do some lindy hop, and when the leads led the under arm turn, the follow could insert their new rhythm, while the lead kept the basic rhythm.
After a few rotations, we said to the leads, “Ok, now you learnt at least three different rhythms from your partners. Start adding them in!”

It was super magic and they had a GREAT time. Note, this was a group of beginners in their 4th week of classes. And they were doing quite sophisticated stuff.
Learning outcomes: all the above, _and_ they all had very relaxed (but alive) connection, and were REALLY engaged with their partners. They were also in time, swinging, and had a clear sense of call and response. It was 100% jazz. And they had SO MUCH FUN.[/]

– They dance lindy hop with a partner, and take turns being the ‘starter’. The ‘follower’ has to observe the break step or rhythm and repeat it back. The starter can repeat it three times, or as many times as they like. This exercise can be structured so that they do 3 x 8 of one rhythm (eg charleston), and then 1 x 8 of a break (which the follower gets to observe once a phrase). As you can see, varying the phrase structure – eg ABAB – can improve this exercise.
We did this last night, and the progression of this exercise was to explain how even though we can make up anything on the spot, the very best dancers have a really good sense of rhythm and music.

Then we talked about Frankie Manning, and how he was really good at this stuff. So we then taught them a mini dip. We positioned it as a step that’s taught a lot today (as part of the lindy hop ‘canon’), and that’s because it’s really fun, and just feels _good_.

I liked positioning the step this way, as it name checked an OG, it referenced what makes a rhythm really ‘good’, and it also made musical sense. We taught them the step by teaching it as a rhythm first. Then we showed them how it’s really just two people passing by each other. Then we had them watch three times then try it. And BOOM.

Things we pointed out: the follow is a free agent and can do anything they want. So the lead and follow have to keep an eye on each other to know when to do it.
Thing they learnt: the timing of the rhythm is affected by where your body is. eg if you take longer while rotating your body to look and check in with your partner, you delay the final hit of the move, which changes the rhythm. This is ok, but if you pay attention to your partner, you can do more things.; they learnt that they can ‘feel’ the rhythm through relaxed connection when they’re holding hands, as well as ‘see’ it and ‘hear it’. So they began to experiment with stretch (though we didn’t say stretch): eg a lead said “If I’m too far away from my partner, I can’t do X fast enough”, and a follow said, “Because the lead’s goes down low, I know where to go myself.” Both of these are examples of stretch (moving away from each other horizontally, moving away from each other vertically), and they saw how it affected their connection and rhythmic timing.
Because we had set this all up as an experiment or game, they were all saw these things as variations on the rhythm, not mistakes. And they figured out that ‘deliberate’ rhythms require planning ahead, and control of your body, as well as connection with a partner.

We had a student arrive late, and so I said, “Ok, what if your partner doesn’t know this rhythm? How would you teach them?” They drew on the previous week’s class skills, and figured out that they’d dance it _for_ their partner. We then set them free to social dance it, and to adjust the rhythm of the mini dip however they liked, just as long as it was deliberate.
SOLID GOLD. These were a mixed class of total noobs (in week 5) and experienced people. They had FUN.

-> you can do all this stuff with total noobs (these guys were all total noobs – weeks 4 and 5). They progress REALLY quickly. And classes run really smoothly and are a lot of fun.
-> it is really, really important to use solid swinging jazz to make this work. They find it really hard to do good syncopation (vs straight beats) in a stomp off, for example, if they don’t have the good solid swinging jazz playing to help them make it fit the music. If the song is playing, I noticed that they self-correct to make their straight stomp off swing.
-> mini dip is a fantastic step for teaching about swing and syncopation. And because we framed it as a historic step that’s stuck with people, they made the connection between something they immediately recognised as ‘really good’ (they all went “Ooo!” when they saw it, and felt cool doing it), and the importance of a good choreographer with a good connection to music.

For me, I really really really liked that they realised that they could invent a break step or rhythm (anyone can), but a really good, satisfying rhythm is the work of a master. And something you work towards. They also figured out that sharing the rhythm with a partner is what makes lindy hop so great.

What is technique?

Someone wrote in the fb dance group:

Technique. What does it mean to you? What does it mean to be strong in technique?

And this is what I wrote:

What does ‘technique’ mean to me?
The ability to make choices about what you will do with your body in real time, and then do them with accuracy, and consistent results.

In application, this may mean hearing a rhythm, recognising it as a rhythm (not just noise), and then being able to reproduce that rhythm. And reproduce it with the same parts of the body (eg the same parts of the foot in tap shoes).
It might also mean having the strength in the right parts of the body to reproduce something a number of times, consistently, at any tempo.
It might also mean being able to use the right parts of the body (eg the right muscles) to do these tasks, not over-working or using the body inefficiently.
It’s about knowing how to read symptoms of fatigue in your own body, and knowing when to stop before injury, and how to prevent injury. ie knowing when you are doing something ‘correctly’ or ‘safely’ rather than just ‘pushing through’.
Understanding what you’re doing is an important tool for knowing how to change what you’re doing in small ways to get predictable results, or to experiment and take risks. So the technique isn’t an end in itself, it’s a vehicle for experimenting and doing creative work.
Technique involves the ability to stay focussed on a particular task for a particular amount of time – ie how to stay mindful and engaged with a task for as long as necessary.
Having good technique means making something look effortless in execution, but having put hundreds of hours into that work.
It means knowing what you are doing with your body, and making a conscious choice to do that thing.
Good technique is essential for being able to dance a lot, strenuously, and avoiding injury or strain.

Technique can be applied in lots of different ways:
– recreating historic routines from footage (ie reading, transcribing, and reproducing movement from film);
– the ability to learn from watching and participating (rather than having teachers spoon feed);
– understanding how to use classes as an important learning and practice tool, and knowing how to participate in a class and maintain focus and work hard;
– knowing how to take technical elements and apply them to another task. eg knowing how to watch, learn, and memorise a tap routine (rhythm, shape, melody) and apply those learning skills to learning a lindy hop routine from demonstrations (eg the ‘i’ll do it three times then you try it’ teaching/learning tool).

If your body is a tool, then technique is knowing not only how to use that tool, but when to use which tool to complete which task. ie knowing when to use a hammer vs when to use a screw driver when you’re building a house.

I like Ramona’s approach to this stuff: work really hard in practice sessions, then go out there on the social floor and just have fun.
So technique, to me, also means knowing when to work, and when to stop working.

I think a lot of people use ‘technique’ as a term to box in knowledge and learning (ie ‘do it the RIGHT way’), when technique is just ‘how you do something’. And having ‘good technique’, to my mind, is about knowing how to be flexible and take up or let go of ideas and experiment.
It can be physical technique, but it can also be mental technique, which I think we neglect in dance. eg the ability to learn new things in new ways is often difficult for modern lindy hoppers who are used to very structured classes with teacher-centred lessons. The ability to take instruction, to work with others constructively, to work alone, to learn by watching, to learn by listening, to learn by doing, the ability to watch and memorise a sequence of movements, the ability to take a movement and then experiment with it…. All these techniques are learnable and teachable.

Lindy hoppers are very good at working with a partner, but I have noticed that dancers who are used to being told exactly what to do by a teacher (particularly in classes that are billed as ‘technique’ classes with lots of talking) don’t have the ability to learn by watching and trying. They really need affirmation all the time (so they ask a lot of questions or ask to record footage or ask to be shown something again and again).

Groove or pulse?

I used to be a huge proponent (zealot?) of ‘bouncing’ in lindy hop. I was sure it had to always be present while lindy hopping. The word ‘pulse’ has largely replaced ‘bounce’ in the vernacular, in part through the influence of American blues dance and west coast swing. It’s a great concept, and ‘pulse’ is useful because it implies an engagement of the core (the guts, etc) before/to initiate movement. More to the point, swinging jazz music has a very clear pulse or bounce, so it’s a good place to start in making friends with the music.

In the past year, I’ve changed my position. I was very resistant in a class with Toddy Yannacone a few years ago (2008? 2009?) when he suggested that we might sometimes not pulse. That sometimes we could be flat. To my Swede-drenched mind, this was totally not ok. But I had had increasing problems with calf muscle tears and strain, and simply working too hard.
Then I did a class with Kieran Yee at some point a few years later (2012?), where he talked about pulse at higher tempos. He basically made the point that you don’t have time to do a really deep pulse, so it has to be shallower, and faster. He explained this as the bounce sitting higher in his body (ie at the middle of his rib cage, rather than down in his hips). Once I heard and saw this, I realised that I had a ‘default bounce’ that was quite deep. Fine for slow songs with a deep pocket/super swing. Not so good for hotter, faster music.

[a note on gender: a lot of peeps talk about women as having a ‘lower centre’ than men, and women leads as leading from this lower point. I feel that this isn’t strictly accurate. As a decent dancer, and as a woman, I have to learn to engage and ‘lead’ from different points in my body, not just one static ‘centre’ down there over my womb. Because active muscle engagement, yo, and my womb is actually a rubbish lead. The very point of this discussion is that we can choose where to initiate movement, not just default to one option]

Listening to a lot of very early jazz and pre-swing, I realised that the ‘bounce’ in this music is jumping about much higher in the body, rather than planting four solid feet on the floor. So I needed to adjust my sense of time to account for this. To be clear: this ‘bounce’ is not necessarily a ‘jumping up’ bounce. It can still bounce ‘down’. But the depth of this bounce, and being able to choose whether I was bouncing up or down was very, very important. It meant a rethinking and examination of the fundamentals of my movement in lindy hop. It was really brought home to me in my first tap classes with Daniel Larsson, where he made it clear that a very swinging, broad ‘bounce’ to keep time was going to make a lot of tap movements very difficult. I had to get more efficient and more controlled in how I used my body to keep time.

Let me show you some videos.
In this one, Sakarias and Isabella are dancing to a faster, hotter jazz song with a very shallow pocket. Watch Saki’s body. He’s holding himself higher in his body (though he’s still very ‘grounded’). No, that’s not his dick, it’s the zip in his trousers sitting at an odd angle. So stop looking at that. Look at the way his arms remain loose and relaxed (yet engaged), he has lovely rhythm emanating from his core, and his feet take smaller steps (except at a couple of points for emphasis). His kicks are a product of his body on his standing leg contracting or bouncing a little in place, not a KICK from the leg.

Ljubljana Sweet Swing festival 2012 LSSF – Social Dancing – Isabella Gregorio & Sakarias Larsson from Eric Esquivel’s collection

Now, look at this other video of Saki. Yes, I do like his dancing. What of it?
He doesn’t sink down into the ground as a blues dancer would, but he’s definitely moving in a very different way, with a deeper swing to his timing, and a different relationship to the ground.

[As an aside, note at 1.08 how Mimmi uses Saki’s body to move around him with greater energy and space than he has suggested. They are working together to make this work, as he engages to keep balance and help her through this crazy movement, but she is definitely not ‘just following’ or ‘making a variation’. She is fundamentally changing the energy, size, timing, and feel of this one shape (a swing out). And it feels good with the music.]

HARLEM 2015: Sakarias & Mimmi

In these two videos, you can see how one dancer adjusts his ‘groove’ to suit different music and different partners, in a crowded or a more empty dance floor. Yes one is a performance (and so a bit more exaggerated), but the fundamentals of his movement are consistent: he makes choices about how to groove with the music, in ways that reflect the feel of the music. It’s no surprise that Saki is a tap dancer and drummer, right?


What I’m doing now.
Now, though, with my renewed focus on music-first teaching, and my own deepening understanding of jazz and of rhythm (through tap), I understand that an ‘always bouncing’ lindy hop isn’t really listening to the music. More importantly, a single type of ‘bounce’ is severely limiting. Our teaching group realised that insisting on a consistent uppy downy ‘bounce’ gave us little robot dancers with identical uppy downy movement. Regardless of the music.
So we copied our street dancer (hip hop, house etc) friends and started calling it ‘groove’. Now we see beautiful dancing and a much better connection to the music in our students, and I feel a lot better in myself as a dancer.

…as I type this, I feel ridiculous. But having ‘bounce’ was very important to me in a city where no one had any type of bounce or groove in the early 2000s. So moving on with my own development as a dancer was thwarted by my own determination to hang onto this one particular understanding of keeping time.
Well, we all have little jumps and leaps to make in our learning, right? :D

Hanging out with more street dancers (ie people who dance house, hip hop, locking, vogue, etc etc), I’ve learnt a lot more about ‘keeping time’ with my body. It’s been important for me to be teaching with friends who do regular street dance classes, including Jess‘s very good ‘grooves class.’ In her teaching bio Jess writes:

A baby must learn to stand, in order to walk and in order to run. Same sort of concept where I will show you the basics of getting to know the music, in order to dance with the music, and then style your dancing with the music. Hip Hop has its history and I will share its story with you. Relax, Have Fun and Be a better you.

These guys are also really connected to the roots of their dances, and do work with hip hop OGs. At a class with one man in particular, he demonstrated keeping one groove in your body, then adding another. Or moving it around inside your body.
We have taken this idea and started experimenting with it on our own. Taking part in classes with drummers and dancers from Guinea (Ousmane Camara) and Mozambique (Carlos Machava) this year in Herrang (back to back with my tap classes with Josette Wiggan and Daniel Larsson), I understood that the very nature of polyrhythms means that you can hold a number of ‘grooves’ in your body. Where previously I’d understood this concept as meaning you lay down your basic ‘bounce’ and then just layer rhythms on top of it, now I think of it more that your body contains a whole range of grooves, and the more control and the better ear you have, the more you can experiment with this. As a wee babby, I’m still working on one or two grooves at a time :D
The wonderful thing about beginning with African dance (as lindy hop did), is that you realise that you do all this on your own and then you DANCE WITH SOMEONE ELSE DOING THE SAME!!! So a partnership allows you to carry more rhythms and beats with you! Of course, a non-touching dance in a circle allows far more partnerships and layers of rhythm, but I guess that’s why african dance pwns all, right?

Defining groove for teaching purposes
To simplify things for teaching, I think you can think about a groove as ‘the basic rhythm of this song as you hear it.’ So we can have different grooves depending on who we are. This can include a nice bouncy pulse. Or it can be a flattened slide. But just as in tap, you have to keep the time internally, no matter what you’re doing, and to be really listening to the music, you have to be able to show this time in different ways. Not just one regimented uppy-downy pulse.

Importantly, the fewer words you use to describe or explain something in class, the greater the scope of your students’ imagining of that concept. You don’t need to explain ‘music’ to a human; they can hear it. If you can see (after ages) that they don’t have the beat, you can demonstrate with your body where that beat is. You don’t have to explain it. I think that a lot of modern lindy hop teachers in the western world like to capture and pin down the meaning of a concept. Stop it from changing or being ‘misunderstood’. If you talk less in class, and have students learn about movement and music through trying it first (rather than answering their questions with words, or giving long explanations), you let them experience that concept first. They don’t really need to understand it with their brains. I mean, look at the concept of ‘swing’. We have a million ways to describe what it is and how it works, but at the end of the day, to misquote Armstrong, “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
Remind me to write up my new ideas about questions in class, will you?

I recommend ditching ‘pulse’ as a buzzword, and going with groove. Or something else that suits your language and vibe. Or just a demonstration. You get the same effect (activated cores, engaged muscles, good prep for movement), but they’re dancing not jerking up and down.

As a teaching tool, the concept of ‘groove’ is very nice, because you’re never telling students they’re doing it wrong (by saying ‘bounce down, not up!’ or ‘deeper!’ or whatevs). You’re just saying “Find the groove,” or “Make friends with music,” or “Put the beat in your body and hold it there,” and they just do it in their own way. I have found it really inspiring, because I see a room full of people really dancing on their own, even before they do any ‘moves’ or ‘steps’ or figures. And they feel really good. Once they get over feeling shy or silly :D

I also say to students “Can you keep the time for me while I demonstrate this, please?” And get very good results. You don’t have to say how they do this, just ask them to show you with their bodies. Or, really just saying “Can you keep the time for me, please?” is really enough. People get it. Especially if you’ve been teaching by showing all class. You just can’t get this wrong.
They feel that responsibility to keep the time for the people demonstrating, and as a circle of people effectively watching and participating in a jam, they feel that shared sense of time that makes a tap jam or cypher or battle or drum circle so exciting and fulfilling. It also makes it clear that they are responsible for keeping their own time, and that this isn’t a ‘basic’ thing, but a fundamental part of dancing. Something we trust new dancers with right from the very first moment. We don’t need to drill them on it or micromanage it.
And if we free ourselves up from this very regimented idea of ‘bounce’ or ‘pulse’, we allow ourselves and our students to grow and develop as dancers and as musicians.

From a biomechanics point of view, the ‘groove’ approach allows dancers to shift their weight around from foot to foot, from the front to the back of their feet, to move their arms, their hips, their bodies however they like. A sort of ‘testing’ of balance and engagement which is relaxed, cushioned, and fluid. In this process we can experiment with turning on and off muscles, with seeing how the angle of our bodies affects our balance and ability to move.
This makes a great deal of sense for follows who are already used to the idea that they have to be ‘ready for anything’ a lead my suggest. But it’s also very good for leaders, who are forced (encouraged?) to stop thinking about leading as a ‘I ask, you do’ relationship with a follow. The range of movement encouraged by a groove (vs a pulse) allows the lead to experiment with the effect of their own weight change, and the way it frees up their body to feel and respond to a follow’s movements. And of course, it’s just more interesting and fun. Standing on the spot in closed position, grooving, suddenly feels really satisfying and wonderful – like DANCING – instead of just waiting for the dancing to begin.

Sore Knees and ‘technique’.
Another consequence of a pulse-focussed approach to keeping time is that you often see a lot of sore knees.
I have had a lot of trouble with knees in the past (because lindy hopper who didn’t do any pre-dance training), and had to get my shit together with squat technique.
Why do the knees get so sore? Now, I’m NOT a medical professional! But my physio made it clear that my issues were:

  • too much repetitive movement with poor technique
  • too deep a downward push
  • knees too far forward over toes. Knees should not go further forward than toes. So the butt needs to go back to achieve the depth. ie literally the good squatting technique you learn in pilates.

We don’t tend to squat as deep as this wee kiddy in lindy hop, but the techniques apply.
I actually don’t think a dance class is the place to work on this technical stuff; as people (mis)quote Frankie Manning: “Don’t do lindy hop to get in shape, get in shape to do lindy hop.”

Anyhoo, this is why ‘out with the butts’ is not just a problematic exoticising of the african american body, but good biomechanics. Similarly, ‘look at your partner’ keeps the upper body open across the chest, and the chin up.

Where does this sit in regards to my developing sense of lindy hop ‘pedagogy’?
Firstly: my goal has always been to help students become individuals. To express themselves. If I end up with a bunch of people who move and dance exactly like each other, and like me, then I have failed in my job.
I had thought this was a common goal in lindy hop teaching. But my recent experiences have led to me believe that this is definitely not the case. A lot of high profile international teachers are determined to create uniformity. I’m sure this isn’t their explicit goal. But it is a consequence of teaching to ‘get rid of bad habits’ or to ‘fix people’ or to ‘stop people doing X.’
It’s a hard thing to accept, but as a dancer and teacher, I have to accept that we are all different human beings, and even though that lack of triple steps in a lead’s swing out ENRAGES me, that is their choice. And not mine. I have no right, NO RIGHT to try to ‘fix’ that.
The Frankie Track in Herrang in 2014 really brought home to me, with the multi-level class, and focus on rhythm not shapes, that if we focus on rhythm not the perfect execution of figures, we open our brains up. Suddenly everyone is potentially a fantastic dance partner, and they don’t need eleventy years of experience and perfect ‘technique’ to be a wonderful dancer. It was very exciting for me as a dancer, and I think it really made me a better person to approach dance this way. I really did get over myself.

Secondly, I have (as I’m sure I’ve made clear in my previous posts about jazz dance skills and followers’ skills), been working on revising how I approach teaching lindy hop. As Anders put it in class the other week in Herrang, we can teach our students using a road map to get to a specific destination, or we can go with them on an exploration. That road map is essentially a specific ideology about dance and about teaching. Whether it is ‘rhythm first!’, ‘learn-by-drilling’, teacher-centred, student-centred, or purely through experimentation. As Anders made clear, as teachers we have a whole range of teaching skills and tools available to us, and we want to be active in our selections from these options. So sometimes we might drill people, but other times we might encourage them to come to a movement through experimenting.

I do find this very exciting. And I like that it gives me permission to use a very conventional class structure sometimes, as well as lovely hippy dippy gentle teaching tools. As a teacher, and as a student, I like that this philosophy encourages me to ask questions, and to engage with the ideas and practice actively. Not necessarily actually verbally ask questions, but to approach a new move or concept with an inquiring mind, to try and take it apart and see how it works. Not just accept the concept as given.

And this is, of course, very much in keeping with many of the approaches advocated by the earlier cultural studies and women studies scholars. So I find this approach to teaching and learning very much in keeping with my broader feminist projects: do good in the world.

teaching leads to follow, follows to lead: quick thought

I see some common ‘issues’ in the leads and follows who swap roles for the first time.

– Leaders who ‘feel’ or recognise the lead for a move, then actively move their bodies.
Usually a bit too quickly. In those cases, I usually say to them “I know you know the ‘lead’ for this move’. But it’s not about ‘here’s the signal, then GO, do the move’. It’s more that you maintain contact with your partner through your back, and everywhere you touch them. Don’t rush, be present in each moment of the movement. Be _with_ your partner, not rushing to complete a task.”
There are some postural adjustments that can usually help with this (eg letting the hips slip out a tiny bit to give that nice ‘squatting’ posture (ie engage the abs in a small way), looking up, etc etc), and a reminder to maintain a consistent rhythm that responds to the music, rather than rushing through.

– Follows who square up to their partner and lead with their arms, and are quite ‘up’ in their bodies.
Again, I talk about ‘be with your partner’, so you maintain connection through every step and work together. I also look at their posture (ie I ask them to try the 3/4 profile rather than squaring up, so that they engage their core and body and arms, rather than just their arms). And I usually say, again, ‘your rhythm or confident movement through your body will reassure your follow, so be confident in your own rhythm.’ The latter then gets them more ‘grounded’, so that they don’t dance ‘around’ their partner, but can choose where and how to move with or around their partner.

-> so it’s similar elements, but applied in different ways. I think that, really, when you swap roles, you need to have a much deeper understanding of the share elements, and to be able to apply them in different ways.

What is groundedness?

More thoughts from fb, inspired by recent time in Herrang.

Jo asked in the fb teaching group:

I recently had a student ask me to define what being grounded was and said that a lot of teachers use this as a buzzword, but never actually explain what it was nor how to get there. I found this quite interesting. So, my fellow instructors, how would you define “being grounded” and what are some of your favorite exercises you use to teach it?
If there is a thread that has already discussed this, please feel free to link as my search came up empty. :D

And I replied:

In my head, I use this concept a lot, but I never teach with it.
So I guess I’d have to nut through what makes a dancer look ‘grounded’…
This will no doubt be another huge post. Soz not soz.

– I often say when watching a dancer that I really like the way their feet touch the ground. Their feet are under their body, and they _use_ it to push off, they make conscious choices about which part of their foot touches the ground (like a tapper), and they make very clear weight changes.

They also bend joints, and have ‘loose knees’, rather than straight legs. All this bending and collecting and angles and so on brings the eye _down_ rather than up. It’s also very functional, as it makes it easier to respond quickly.
But this is often a matter of aesthetics, as tap dancers and dancers from Ghana Guinea (thanks for the heads up, Bert) are both grounded (as in they use the ground), but also capable of great jumps and lifts – a sense of defying gravity. In the case of tap, I’ve noticed (and had to learn) that tappers have a superior sense of where their weight is at any one time, and don’t settle for just ‘split or committed’ weight. They have varying degrees of weight commitment, and can do what seems like hold themselves in mid air. I often notice it when I watch Sakarias Larsson dance: he is both supremely grounded and using the ground, but also seems to hang from the bottom of his rib cage, able to hold himself higher if he needs to.

We talk a lot about ‘seeing the rhythm’ when someone dances.
I usually mean this to involve a really engaged core (ie movement coming from the middle of the body, or particular muscle groups within the body), or nice combinations and engagements of muscles*. Rather than just arms flapping about in the air or feet slippering about all over the floor while the torso does nothing. We did some work on this with eWa and Lennart in the teachers’ track – how to make the shim sham a rhythm rather than figures.
I think that it’s also important to really begin and finish movements clearly, referring always to the music. And by movements I mean very small segments of time (eg half a beat or less). So the dancer really needs to know what they’re doing rhythmically, not just moving through shapes. ie if we’re serious about rhythm, we don’t just work with beats and half beats. We don’t just have swung time, we also work with straight time. And so on. The physical manifestation of rhythm requires sophisticated and very clean, clear engagement of particular muscles at the right time, so it also requires good proprioception (am I doing what I think I’m doing) as well as the ability to engage or turn off particular muscles at the right time.
-> all of this involves a very clear use of the ‘ground’ and gravity

In ballet, dancers aim to look light and airy and the opposite of grounded. This is about aesthetics, though. There’s a cool article about this called “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance” by Joann Kealiinohomoku (What Is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism Eds. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. 533 – 49). Kealiinohomoku does a close textual analysis of ballet as ethnicised dance, and the stuff that makes ballerinas look ‘light’: hyper-extended, straight legs and arms (vs bent knees and joints which are essential to african and african american vernacular dance); pointed toes and extended hands and fingers, elongated necks and lifted chins, lifted rib cages and turned out hips to flatten the buttocks and make them look flatter and longer. Even the clothes they wear (there are some grooving photos illustrating this here, where Balanchine works with ballet dancers).

-> there’s some really fantastic work on the black american choreographers and dancers of the 20s-40s, and their part in the Harlem Renaissance and then black arts movements. Their integration of black cultural history with white high art (ballet) really saw a playing with the ‘airy’ lightness of traditional ballet with the ‘grounded’ aesthetics of other dance traditions. Katherine Dunham is the big name here, but also Balanchine (his work on Cabin in the Sky with lindy hoppers and jazz dancers, for example), and Alvin Ailey.
I actually see similar innovations in black Australian dance companies like Bangarra Dance Theatre.

RE how do I teach dancers to be grounded?

I do a lot of solo jazz work.
So, for example, the last block I taught we began each intermediate class with a phrase of the shim sham, looking at how to make the rhythms clear, the weight changes crisp or functional, how to remember and dance the sequence rather than just copying the teacher, etc etc.
I noticed that all the class in the rest of the session were really grounded and very clear in their movements. And their leading and following was much better.
I think that the solo work makes you much more confident, but also forces you to make very clear weight changes, and to know where your weight is at any one point. Teaching the shim sham as series of weight changes (ie fancy walking) also makes it easier to dance. This then transfers directly to lindy hop (ie fancy walking holding hands).

Rhythm games like I-go, you-go, where the teacher dances a two bar rhythm, then the students come in immediately on the next bar.
This makes them watch, observe, understand, then remember and reproduce. As they get better at it, they stop consciously mapping the rhythm and movements with their brain, and let their pattern-matching brain bits do the work. Particularly with longer sequences. It’s HARD. But also very, very good. I have found in my own dancing that this tap work is making me much better at learning sequences in lindy hop, so when I dance them, I’m much more confident and commit my weight properly, rather than trying to play it safe and dither about uncertainly between feet.

Where is your weight?
In my own work, tap is teaching me to really make confident choices about where my weight is. I have been really focussing on how to know when to commit my weight completely to one foot, to just commit 50% of it, or 20% or whatever, and THEN to be able to change that amount within a particular time limit (ie quickly or slowly or within a full beat, half beat, third of a beat, whatevs). I find this very challenging, and I’m struggling a lot. But it’s making my lindy hop SO much better.

Gimme de kneebone bent.
(to quote Malone). ie soft knees (with a little bend), avoiding pointed toes and extended ankles (unless it’s intended for contrast), bent hips, experimenting with bands and angles in the torso at the hip and waist, and with rotation, extremely angled shoulders (as in a shorty george), bent elbows and wrists, turning the head and using gaze to direct the eye. ie charleston, pecking, shorty george, fish tail, rocking, etc etc.

Don’t fall down
We use the ‘traveling on the bus’ example to demonstrate groundedness. We ask them to think about this when they’re next on the bus. How do they keep their balance when they’re standing up if they can’t reach a bar? They relax their knees, feet shoulder width apart, and think ‘down’ rather than ‘up and tippy’.

*Entirely unrelatedly, I think the ‘arm v body lead’ distinction is a false dichotomy. Arms are attached to bodies, so every arm lead is a body lead. BUT, we can use our arms in lots of ways. So I can let my shoulders rise up towards my ears when I lift my arms, and this then makes the movement happen more in my arms. Or I can keep my shoulder blades down ‘in my body’ as I raise my arms, which then engages the muscles from my shoulders to my spine, and my spine to my hips, which is super good for leading and following. But both are legit, and can give very different visual effects for solo performance in particular. The former can look very funny if you bend at the waist 45*.
This relates to groundedness because the arms that have dropped shoulder blades look more ‘contained’ and give a clearer sense of what the torso is doing while the arms are moving. But of course it is far, far more complex (and wonderful than that):

(The Charles Moore Dance Theatre: “Ostrich” choreography by Asadata Dafora (1932))

Key skills: rhythm, timing, jamming and FOLLOWING

With some key skills of rhythm, timing, and jamming in mind, how does a follow communicate to a lead that they would like to extend a 6 count send out into an 8 or 10 or 16 count send out?
How does a lead communicate the same thing?
We looked at this in Jenny and Rikard’s class (Herrang teachers’ track 2017). I’ve done this a few times, but I’ve been tired each time, so I always forget details.
Ok, so a good option is for the follow, on being ‘sent out’ (eg after count 2) to simply not move so far or so fast. They just take a longer time getting out into open. If the lead is paying attention, then they figure it out.
How can you take longer?

  • Change the rhythm of the step from step step triple step triple step to something longer.
  • Orient your body in a different way. eg if you turn to face your partner more, and make it clear with your body that you’re staying on the spot, the lead will figure it out and not try to ‘push’ you out.
  • It helps if you have something to do when you’re not moving so far in space. I suggest jazz. aka dancing. Which then implies: if you don’t feel the music suggesting you take longer on this move, then why take longer? Just need a break? Want to change the pattern? It’s all good. But have a good reason to do what you do.

How do you then signal to your partner that you’re ready to ‘start’ the shapes again?

  • You can just hold out your hand and smile up at your partner in a ‘What now?!’ face. But that’s weird.
  • Another way is to use a triple step to create a finish point or some other sort of rhythmic ‘full stop’ to say ‘hello, I’m done!’
  • Jenny also talked about creating stretch to say ‘hello, here is the connection again, would you like to suggest another shape?’

This is where my brain was blown:

  • You can create stretch in A MILLION DIFFERENT WAYS.
  • The easiest way is just to back away from your partner until your arms are literally stretched. BUT you are a flexible jointed creature of great ingenuity!
  • You can create a stretch by getting really loooow, so your arms are drawn a little more stretched.
  • You can create a stretch by getting really hiiiiigh, so your arms are stretched.
  • You can turn into your own arm, so your arm gets ‘shorter’ to create stretch (think about Al Minns doing worms on 7-8,1-2 of a swing out, where he crosses into his own arm and it creates a stretch that then sprongs you back together from open into closed).
  • I think the key thing is that this change in connection says to your partner, “Hello, friend, something is changing!”

Note:
I knew this about stretch already. But I hadn’t thought consciously about applying it this way. I know I play with the concept a lot when I’m social dancing (eg as a follow I extend the time I spend in open during a swing out by allowing the stretch to develop until I’m ready to sprong in; as a lead I may keep the connection more relaxed until I have a clear vision for the next few counts).
But I hadn’t thought about applying it this way in a teaching context.

Note:
I would never ever ever start the class with this point: “hello, let’s talk about stretch.” Because I think that technical exercises or theory in space are useless. I’m very function-first. So in this case I’d come in with the question, “Let’s see how we can extend a 6 count move to an 8 count one,” and then gradually build up the dancing from an ordinary 6 count send out, then adding in each element as we went.

As Jenny and Rikard pointed out, both leads and follows can do this stuff.
In my brain, I think that I signal the approaching end of a ‘shape’ (as a lead esp) by: reorienting my body (towards, away, whatevs; it creates a stretch or changes the connection or just plain makes it easier for me to look my partner in the eye); by doing a triple step or another step that feeds some energy into the connection/my body and gets me prepared for leading or initiating something different; etc.

Teaching this stuff:

  • Check in with your partner:
    As a teacher, I tell my students to “Check in with your partner.” They are looking to see if their partner is ready to do something new (or still jazzing out), are checking to see if their partner is ‘getting’ the rhythm they’re doing, checking to see if the call-and-response stuff is working, etc etc etc. This establishes a visual connection, but the act of looking at your partner also reorients your posture and body – by turning to face your partner with even just your head, you change the way your body and muscles are working.
  • As a very simple example, I have the leads remember to ALWAYS look at the queen of the world when you’re bowing to the follow. Because as soon as they drop their heads, the connection is broken, because they tend to hyper-extend their arms out of the shoulder, and different muscles are engaged. By looking up, they engage different muscles.
  • But that’s too much to say to noobs. Just say “Look at those mighty swivels!” or “Check in with your partner” and they get the picture.

I find this approach much more sophisticated than other stuff I heard during the classes I did that week and the next.
Following is more than just choosing to follow or not to follow. This is a limited paradigm. I want to completely revise the framework we use for thinking about leading and following.
eg I heard one teacher explain a follow’s contribution to a move as being ‘choosing triple steps instead of step steps’. But this choice was dictated by how much energy the lead was asking for in a particular turn. This was simply a matter of a follow working within this paradigm of a follow’s options being ‘follow or not follow’.
This is such a boring, overly-simple and limiting way of thinking about what follows can do.
I think a follow should always be choosing what footwork they do, and their choices should be guided by:

  1. Function (eg a triple step feeds in energy and can be faster than a step step in a turn),
  2. Aesthetics (what they want to look like),
  3. The rhythms they feel,
  4. The rhythms they hear in the music,
  5. Adding texture and contrast to what the lead is doing,
  6. The way they feel at the time, and the things they want to express.

If my only choice, as a follow, is to do what a leader is doing (and ‘asking for’) or not then what is the actual point of being a person with a brain and creativity. Why not just be a copying robot. BORING.

Key skills: rhythm, timing, jamming

Rethinking lindy hop via tap and African dance.

Some of the skills I think are essential for lindy hop:

  1. Having a sense of time.
  2. Having a sense of swung timing and straight timing.
  3. Being able to hear a rhythm once and then repeat it immediately.
  4. Jamming: Being able to communicate very clearly your sense of time in order to improvise.
  5. Jamming: Being able to keep track of where bars and phrases are so as to improvise.
  6. Jamming: improvising in real time with other people.
  7. In summary…

1. Having a sense of time.
Knowing where ‘1’ or ‘4’ is, or where a phrase ends or begins.

  • In a tap jam, this means being able to clap on 1 of the beginning of a 2-bar sequence (or 4-bar sequence), as well as tapping lightly on the even counts all the time, and tapping an improvised rhythm on top when it’s our turn.
  • ie knowing how long a bar (4 counts) is in a particular time. Without counting in your head or out loud, really.
  • I now find thinking in bars more useful than thinking in 8s. In my head, a ‘swing out’ is 4 counts of a rhythm on one foot, then that same 4 count rhythm on the other foot).
  • For lindy hop, this means that both partners understand which beats to emphasise (eg not making a rock step really huge/long on 1, or kicking on 8 for a fall off the log); both partners are carrying the beat in their bodies, but also a sense of the whole song as hear it (eg a ‘groove’); and both partners trust each other to come back to those basic structures after improvising.

2. Having a sense of swung timing and straight timing.
Knowing a rhythm or step (like a stomp off or a shuffle), but being able to dance it straight or swinging.

  • In lindy hop that might mean the difference between doing a triple step as 1-2-3 (as in cha cha) and 3 &4. Both of these are legit, but only if you choose the one you’re dancing. Being able to control this then means you are better able to stop it being a hoppy-uppy feeling when you want downy-groundedy feeling.
  • In lindy it also means trusting your partner to be able to dance swung and straight rhythms, and to have a sense of the basic beat while experimenting with syncopation, swinging, straight etc etc timing. Both of you doing different things at the same time!

3. Being able to hear a rhythm once and then repeat it immediately.
For example, as in the game I-go, you-go.

  • Being able to hear a rhythm and repeat it immediately, in time.
  • Being able to see a rhythm and reproduce it with the same part of the body/foot immediately.
  • The better a dancer, the longer a sequence they can repeat immediately. So memory, understanding, reproduction, and recognition skills are all key. And then of course being able to hear and then reproduce two rhythms at once is the next step.
  • In Herrang 2017, we did this in lindy hop classes as solo dancers, in tap classes, in african dance classes, and in solo jazz classes, but it has clear applications to lindy hop.
  • This means scatting, clapping, tapping our feet, flexing our muscles, patting our bodies, turning our bodies, nodding our heads, all of these are ways of communicating a rhythm.
  • => It takes practice to get good at doing this, and at reading this in a partner’s body.
  • A lot of people talk about this in terms of following, where a follow recognises a lead’s rhythm, then joins in immediately. But that’s a very simple, boring way of thinking about leading and following. And these skills are absolutely essential for tap and solo dance. ie dancing. If you can’t do this, you can’t pick up a time step for a tap jam.
  • I think that this skill is severely under-emphasised in lindy hop. It’s not about ‘footwork’ per se, but as understanding a rhythm, then being able to reproduce it with your body. Any and all parts of your body.
  • I don’t think enough leaders can do this. They see themselves as dancing rhythms at follows, which a follow then dances back or not. Or rather, they don’t even get that far: they think ‘I am swinging us out’ and just assume the follow will do the shape they want. And they think of ‘swing outs’ as having one fixed basic rhythm unless it has a ‘variation’. And if the follow doesn’t magically join in, they see it as ‘not following’ or ‘hijacking’.
    This ‘magic following’ is often discussed as ‘just following’. When I think it’s really ‘just copying’. And as we all know, copying is legit, but it is just the very first step in creative work and joy.
  • Instead, I think of leading and following as sharing rhythms with a partner, where you can dance a rhythm over the basic, which your partner then joins in or echoes, or you can both dance rhythms at the same time which are complementary. And the best thing of all things ever.
  • I do this with my tap friends. I’m a bubb tapper, so I lay down a basic rhythm, which I have to keep steady and consistent while they improvise on top. We both find it immensely satisfying, creative, and challenging. Even though one of us is a bub, and one of us is a ninja.
  • In lindy hop, this communication of rhythm isn’t just about footwork (which is where I see a lot of modern lindy hop thinking about rhythm). The timing of a tuck turn, for example, is also a rhythm. The use of stretch from a cross-hand hold where you turn your body into your own crossed arm affects timing and can create a delay that then is followed by a faster sequence as you ‘unwind’ into something faster. And so on. All this on top of footwork.
  • Footwork is functional: yes it can have fancy rhythm, but it really is just a way of getting from A to B. So a follow doesn’t need a magic spidey sense to know whether it’s a 6 or 8 count shape. They just do the steps that get them from A to B. And in a 6 count shape we just get from A to B in less time – 2 fewer counts – than in an 8 count shape.
  • I tend to think of ‘styling’ as always coming from the rhythm.
    eg when I jump up REALLY high, it takes a longer time than if I jump low, and my arms may want to fly up higher, creating a ‘flying’ shape. So my ‘eagle slide’ arm shape (styling) may come from how high I move the scoop/side part of the eagle slide. As an extremely fashionable and cool person, I might want to add some sweet 45* angles to my wrists and some nice flat planes to my hands. Boom. Styling.
    And I always, really think that the best styling is just your own personality pouring out of you. Which is why beginners are the best: they just feel feels and don’t know how to ‘style’ their feels yet.

4. Jamming: Being able to communicate very clearly your sense of time in order to improvise.
What and where is ‘the beat’.

  • Being able to work within a specific structure.
  • In a tap jam or a band, you all agree what the time is. In lindy hop, you take a few breaths to find a shared sense of time and ‘groove’ before you start swinging out or whatevs.
  • In lindy hop you need to use your body and the way you touch someone to add to this communication. So we often talk about relaxed muscles, energised muscles, arms touching backs, backs touching arms, ‘returning connection’, etc etc etc. I think we do a lot of that ‘naturally’ as humans holding hands or embracing someone. But obviously we refine these lines of communication as we do more dancing.
  • => even though a beginner may not have a nuanced sense of physical connection/touch, they have a very good visual communication skill set (they can see when someone is happy or excited or whatevs), and they can hear the music, and they can scat. They’re also good at recognising patterns. So we don’t start from ‘nothing’ when we do lindy hop.

5. Jamming: Being able to keep track of where bars and phrases are so as to improvise.

  • These are traditionally places to pass a turn in a jam to someone else, or a place to begin or end, or a place that frames a rhythmic sequence.
  • I have since started thinking of leading as laying down a time step (eg step step triple step, or step step kick step, kick kick -> lindy hop, or charleston) which the follow then says ‘Ok, yeah, i’m into it’, or not, depending on how they feel.
  • We share that time step with our bodies, but also visually, and verbally with scatting. I strongly believe that we should use all our senses in lindy hop. And we should all signal to our partner that we dig it, hear it, are into it: nodding, saying “Yeah!”, picking it up and repeating, it etc. So a follow is saying, “Yeah!” when they pick up the leader’s lead for a move, and a leader is saying “Yeah!” when they work with what a follow is putting down.
  • Then we use that same rhythm to move through space. When we have that rhythm established as our time step (or ‘basic’), we are free to improvise on top of it. Or jam together. As a lead, I suggest shapes and rhythmic variations to the follow. As a follow, I may or may not choose to do those shapes or rhythms. But both of us need to be very clear in what we are suggesting.
  • I think of lindy hop as jamming, now. That means we touch, don’t touch, stand close together, stand far apart – all that stuff – just like in any other creative communication. Sometimes we synchronise rhythms, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we’re both swinging, sometimes we’re not. We watch each other, we listen to each other, we pay attention and try to pick up the rhythm. And try to keep in time with each other, and give the music our love.
  • => if we focus on our dancing as an attempt to show someone/teach someone a rhythm, we get really clear with it.

6. Jamming: Social dancing = improvisation; jamming = improvisation = social dancing.
You do it with friends because it’s more fun. More inspiring, more invigorating, more challenging. And you can make bigger things.

7. In summary…

  • These are obviously all skills leads and follows need.
  • If you focus on rhythm and timing and music, you tend to focus less on shapes and moves. I’m personally a strong advocate of simple shapes with varying rhythms. eg a circle, dancing on the spot and moving around the floor in closed, then letting go and being in open, dancing in open facing a partner holding one hand, dancing with a partner without touching very close, moving towards and away from a partner without touching. And so on.
  • But then there is also a joy in a complex shape with a complex rhythm pulled off in just the right part of the music with a live band. Right? It’s just a bit boring if that’s all you do. Because swinging jazz is sometimes a very simple, lovely thing. A 32 bar chorus with a bit of improvisation in the bridge, all in a nice swinging timing.
  • In shifting my focus from moves-based teaching and dancing, I found I was a better dancer, and a better teacher. We will never learn all the lindy hop moves. But we can start dancing day one of classes, or the first time we hear a song.
  • If we don’t think of lindy hop in terms of figures, we change the way we think of leading and following. In a moves-based paradigm, the lead suggests moves which the follow may or may not do/complete. Booooring and limited.

If, however, we think of lindy hop as rhythms, music, and partnership first, partners have similar roles, but the skills are still quite specific. I think that leading and following are different but I don’t hold any truck with the unnecessary verbiage and danceplaining we see in a lot of classes. Lindy hop is really simple: you and I dance together to some good music. We improvise when we feel like it. We touch or we don’t. But we are dancing together so we interact. Sometimes we hold each other real close because we love it.
Anyhoo, so if I think like this, I’m not left thinking “But what can I teach follows?” because this is what we teach every student, lead or follow.
That’s the ideal, anyway.

 

In the next post, Key skills: rhythm, timing, jamming and FOLLOWING I’ll work through how I might use these ideas while teaching follows lindy hop.

Not everything I believe is true.

I’m still thinking about the the issues that came up in the teaching dance fb group.
Specifically the importance of fixing meaning.

It’s nice to advocate for the idea of gender or identity in dance as fluid and defying a fixed meaning. The sentiment that ‘anything is true’ is very appealing. But I’ve been thinking a lot about how having a fixed, authoritative meaning is important for radical or resistant politics. Of course, if this idea of fixed or essential identity is used by dominant ideology, by patriarchy, it doesn’t go well for queer folk and people of colour.

I would like very much to quote some of the comments and attribute sources from this fb discussion, but I’m not sure how these people would like their words used out of context, so I’m going to have to go all stealth on you. Sorry, and I’ll add names and attributions on request.

There are two points of view which really caught my eye. One of them was raised by a friend who is a little/lot/enough genderflex, and who posited that the leading and following are not as distinct as we like to insist. This was in response to this piece Why Leading Is Not More Difficult Than Following, and How to Make It True from the always-dodgy-and-a-little-bit-shit clickbait site Joy In Motion. That piece has been giving me the living shits.
This friend’s post began:

Regarding the “leading is not harder” article, ambidancing pedagogy, leading and following being different skill sets, and whether we should use lead/follow as nouns or just verbs.
I think I think about all this really differently, like super differently*. I completely agree that leading (as a verb) and following (as a verb) are different skill sets to learn, practice and use, but I really struggle with the conflating of skill set and role within the dance – the rigid assignment and division of these skill sets by role.

And it continued with some really great thinking and passionate points.

In sum, the key points were:
– leading and following are abilities/skill sets
– these skills aren’t welded to the role or lead or follow; they are transportable
The implicit ideology at work here (which all the people in that fb group are familiar with if not on board with), is that leading and following aren’t innately gendered, but are practically gendered by cultural context.

So this position can be read as an argument for skills/qualities being culturally associated with specific gender roles, but not innately gendered or associated with leads or follows.

Not a particularly controversial point, and it’s one I agree with.
I’ll say here, though, that this is as far as I’ll go on this one. I know there are people who argue that the role of lead and follow are essentially the same, and that we then just negotiate who does ‘some leading’ and ‘some following’ within each partnership. I don’t 100% dig on this, just as I don’t 100% dig on much of the ambidancetrous discourse floating about, particularly within the blues and fusion scenes.

I personally feel that within lindy hop, as a dance out of history, there are specific biomechanic, structural, and role-related qualities which defining leading and following. So while a follow may initiate a move or rhythm, I believe that ‘leading’ – being a lead – is about initiating and suggesting movements. The individual lead may enact this potential in different ways – from the leader who really asks the follow to do as they ask, to the leader who assumes a more open role of suggesting movements or shapes or speeds that the follow then chooses (or chooses not to) execute.
I believe that the acts of leading and following are different. And within lindy hop, we give those ‘leading’ elements to the leader role, and the following elements to the follow role. These have been historically gendered, but I am not on board with any bullshit about women being innately ‘better’ at following or men innately ‘better’ at leading. That’s patently not true.

My own physical understanding of leading is that it is not like following. I believe leaders in lindy hop have a different relationship to the beat than follows. They tend to be closer to the beat, while the follow is a little behind. By the nature of ‘following’. Though of course decent jazz dancers can adjust and play with this relationship to time and the beat. And should!
here are various characteristics of led and followed movement that mean the lead is often the pivot point or centre of a smaller point of rotation than follows (though obviously not always). As an example, the follow and lead move around a shared pivot point, and when things are working well, both move equal amounts. But many traditional or ‘heritage’ lindy hop moves or figures use the lead as a physical pivot point.
Leads often do more movement on a vertical plane, and follows more on a horizontal. I feel a bit shaky on this one, as this is purely a regional cultural thing, or specific to particular historical dancers. eg Jewel McGowan’s swivels rotate on a horizontal plain, while Frankie Manning’s swing out often uses a very vertical layout where he kicks back behind him. But it’s hard to pin this one down, as we can immediately think of a hundred exceptions to this rule. I wonder as well if the way we operate on vertical and horizontal planes is more informed by the biomechanics of particular lifestyles and particular cultural agents and individuals, than by some essential physics. In other words, we all live such individual lives and lifestyles with such unique bodies, and so few of us operate at our physical peak or potential, that our dancing cannot help but be individual and defy grouping at a very essential level.

Specific leads like Frankie Manning use the space within the reach of their own arms as ‘their space’ on the dance floor that they share with their partners, and while they are aware of and work with their partner’s body and reach and limits, this ‘space’ is primarily defined by the way the lead suggests and initiates movement within that specific range. The space might move across the floor, but is defined by that particular person’s body, range of motion, step size, gait, etc etc etc. When things are working well, it fits the lead and follow well, and a lead makes adjustments to their dancing and space to accommodate the follow and their creative expression and physical presence.

But let’s set all that aside. This is all stuff that I’m wading through in my own brain, mostly in relation to my own dancing. I have been lindy hopping for twenty years now, and I don’t suck. But I am certainly not operating anywhere near my physical peak, nor do I make best use of my body’s potential. I don’t train, I don’t care a heap about technical accuracy, and I tend to be driven my music and improvisation than by making an effort to refine what I do. So I tend to dance in a way that gets the job done for me, now. So the way I lead now is not the way I led when I was 23. I’m older, fatter, less fit, and more ornery now. But I’m also a better dancer now, and more efficient in my movements (because lazy), and I have pilates and yoga and lots of other experience under my belt.
But in my experience, following uses my body in different ways than leading. I have a different connection with the ground in each role. And most importantly (and elusively), my muscles and unconscious physical responses are completely different when I lead and follow. So if you look at my body and the way my muscles are engaged or look ‘in neutral’ as a lead vs as a follow, they’re completely different. I find that if I work on one role intensively, avoiding the other, I get much better at that role. And my unconscious reactions change. If I then swap bak (especially if I’m going from leading to following), my following tends to suck a bit. I tend to take the initiative more, initiating movements in a way a follow doesn’t. Because it interrupts what the lead is doing.
So I don’t know if my opinion on all this is just anecdata limited by sample size of one human’s first hand experience.

Which is exactly my point. Each human’s experience is the most important thing in their world.

So when my friend makes their point about leading and following being skills rather than innate qualities, they are mapping their own lived experience onto lindy hop. And that is vitally important. To make that statement is so, so important. Because it is a lived expression of their sense of self and of identity.
And there is nothing we can say that can make that untrue, or to disprove that.

So while I might go on and on about how leading and following are completely different, it doesn’t make my friend’s points any less true.

And I quite like that. I find it quite exciting to hold that idea in my head: my ideas can be 100% true at the same time as my friend’s somewhat contradictory ideas can also be 100% true.

This gets even more interesting when we look at a reply to this post from a black American woman. She and my friend discuss this issue in the most civil, most interesting conversation. They have fundamentally different understandings/experiences of identity, but they are listening and discussing. And both understand that these two different approaches are both valid and ‘true’, may conflict in theory, but in practice can quite happily live alongside each other on the dance floor.
Here are some excerpts from the second person’s responses:

I can’t disagree more. They are roles for a reason. Just because I have a voice as follow doesn’t make me “leading”. It means I have voice. Equal but different voice. Being able to do both is valid but saying they’re are no rules only dancing is not how this dance works. There are fundamental ideas of what makes a dance in black culture and how our culture shows up in them. Changing that is creating a new, and valid, but different dance.

The roles are tied to what you do in the world. I would never disrespect my partner by doing their time and ignoring my responsibilities as a follow.

If you take that out, it might as well be a dance from a different culture and therefore different rules and values. Aka a different dance

I dance both roles equally and teach with out gender (mostly blues now but hey). I have found most people who desire to share movement initiation either 1 feel like bored/limited in following and want to affect the dance more or 2 they are trying to upend the “follow is passive” concept. But both issues stop existing if you approach the rules in the cultural context of those who created it. I love all that comes with leading and all that comes with following. But I feel no need to mix them. My teammate/partner has that covered in this dance. A dance with different values and my feelings change

This is how I got to that post Muddling through thoughts about ethnicity and dance and gender. Alex had chimed in to say “I think there’s a lot of room for reasonable people to disagree on this”. And I agree with him. As I was writing that previous post, I was struck by just how comprehensively my experience and understanding of lindy hop is informed by my experiences as a white middle class woman living in urban Australia in the late 20th and early 21st century. I could see the privilege just leaking out of the screen each time I wrote ‘we’ when what I should have written was ‘me.’

For me, lindy hop is, ultimately, a discourse. It is a place and site and act of discussion and negotiation of ideology – ideas about the world. And some of those ideologies do not play well with others. In my brain, the part of me that did all that work on discourse analysis and models of public discourse for my phd, it’s ok for all these ideas to swirl about. It’s ok for me because being able to float along with conflicting ideas is a marker of privilege. My own lived experience isn’t disavowed by a genderflex understanding of leading and following.
But for a black woman, dancing today, a dance that developed in the social spaces of her people, her community, has gender and roles informed by that community. Because making these differences and distinctions disappear is an act of colonialism. Of oppression. It is exactly the sort of work that slavery did to suppress black culture on plantations and in domestic servitude. So I cannot and will not argue with a black American woman who is telling me what lindy hop is and means. I won’t even say “I can accept that and still hold my own beliefs, even in they disagree.” I simply have to shut up and accept this story about the way things are, this truth. Because it is a radical act of allydom to stop telling your own story, and to stop occupying public discourse. To cede it to the words and stories of another.

I think that this is the best bit. At the same time as I take this position, I can also believe that the genderflex approach to leading and following is true. Because I believe that when we dance, when we tell these stories, we make it true. And we need to keep telling and retelling our stories, which change and grow as we do. So if I want to believe my own ideas about dance, I have to get out there and dance them. And when I’m teaching – which is the key part of this whole thing – I have a duty and responsibility to remember the black history of these dances and tell these stories. Which is why I don’t think we should abandon the original names of historic jazz steps. Why I think we should namecheck OGs.
So when I teach, I let students figure out how they want to think about these issues. I can set them up with information about how to find out more about ideas – who to talk to about black dance history, which OGs were dancing when and were – but I definitely won’t tell them how to think about it.

At the end of the day, though, I think that genderflex and black American stories about lindy hop have much more in common with each other than with the dominant white patriarchal stories about lindy hop. They are both operating from positions of resistance, and lindy hop is very good for resistance and transgression.

More power to you all, sisters.

Muddling through thoughts about ethnicity and dance and gender

A very interesting discussion happened on fb recently in the teaching group.
The issue of gender and power and the nuances of leading and following was examined and tossed around in detail, in a very respectful, constructive way. One of the key points that came up was raised by a black American woman: this dance has real history and meaning. The gender roles and relationships at work in the history and material of lindy hop were real and meaningful to her, not just arbitrary social constructions from another culture or time. Because we were all working within a discussion of teaching – the transmission of ideas between individuals and groups, within relationships of power and knowledge – who says what is very important.

This lent the discussion a really important and useful edge, and it’s an issue I’ve seen come up in other feminist talk when ethnicity and intersectionality are recognised. For white women throwing off traditional european gender identities is empowering, but for this black woman, recognising and valuing black American gender identities is empowering. This is, of course, a very very… ESSENTIAL point in a discussion of identity and gender in postcolonial spaces: we have different values and goals. And it important for powerful white dancers to remember that they are speaking and writing and dancing from a position of contemporary and historical power.

When we are talking about cultural appropriation, to say “I want to lead in lindy hop, but I want to change the gender dynamics because they are bullshit” without any historical context, is problematic. For a black woman to say, “No, this is what this dance MEANS and MEANT,” is very important. It is essential that white dancers stop and listen. They may disagree, but the act of speaking up and defining what dance means is central to activism. As is the white response of ceding the floor and listening to black voices. With dance, where, as Tommy Defrantz said, under slavery, “serious dancing went underground, and dances which carried significant aesthetic information became disguised or hidden from public view. For white audiences, the black man’s dancing body came to carry only the information on its surface (DeFrantz 107). Stopping and listening to the story of meaning is part of making reparation for cultural appropriation.

This is why we need to not only engage with the dance, but with its history. And it’s important to remember that black women are not homogenous: different women will have different ideas and responses to the way gender is and was negotiated in black dance both then and now.

Me, I like this topic because it can’t ever be ‘settled’. We can’t ever be done and just forget. We should remember the darker parts of history, we should celebrity tenacity and creativity. It is a discussion in constant motion, as we respond to each person and each culture and each moment in history. We have to be agile. Intersectional.

Anyhoo, this is what I wrote in that thread, after a bit of thinking and listening.

I’ve been thinking and talking about this issue a lot. And I agree with Alex. There really is room for people to disagree on this issue. I think of it as more that because each of us is different, and come to the dance with different baggage, we’ll approach the dance in different ways. So, for example, a woman might really like following, and really enjoy working with leads who define quite strong shapes and structures. And that’s ok. The bit that’s worrying is when one particular approach becomes orthodox.

Having said that, I also think that while we’re enjoying one approach, we need to be actively engaged with, and respecting other approaches. We need to recognise and interrogate our own relative positions of power. So when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘we who have the power to speak, the status to have our opinion valued. I’m talking to white dancers. We need to state who we are, and where we come from, and how this affects our engagement with the fruits of another culture. I don’t want to just say ‘anything goes’ and ignore the history of oppression and cultural infringement of lindy hop and black cultural history. I want to keep that in mind: as a white woman in a postcolonial nation, I need to keep saying to myself: you are a visitor here. Pay respect.

And more importantly, we need to be continually referencing the history of this dance. And for me, that means, respecting the cultural history – the peeps – who developed these dances.
I think of it a bit like recognising the traditional owners of country: we actively say “I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this country, [name of country] Land, the [name] people.” And having an aunty or elder do a welcome to country is important: it gives you permission. Seeking welcome (ie permission to enter a country) is important. Not just for respecting current custodians of knowledge, but also to recognise and seek resolve for historical misdeeds.

I transfer that model to dance. I want to acknowledge the custodians of this knowledge (ie name check our OGs regularly, and name check our dance steps and their history). I want to make active payment for the use of this knowledge (whether by respect or donating money to various funds). I want to remind myself of my own privilege, as a white middle class woman living in an urban centre, engaging in a dance which came to me from an other culture and time.

So this way I feel I can adapt this dance (ie a cultural transmission or appropriation which is functional and not fucked up), but also ask, rather than demand.

For me this helps me straddle the ‘historical preservation/contemporary cultural relevance’ tension.

…I do think, as a dancer myself, that doing all this name checking and asking permission and acknowledging who I am, and my own social and cultural power, I give myself a way to be a better dancer. If I am honest with myself, and if I approach the dance with humility, but also belief in who I am, I can be more creative. I can do better art.

I don’t want to ‘be Frankie’; I don’t want to appropriate his space. I want to ‘be Sam’, and dance and be as me, inspired by the OGs, but not limited to imitating them.

DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.” Moving Words: Re- Writing Dance. Ed. Gay Morris. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 107 – 20.

White man discovers his experience of the world is not universal

Andy Reid recently wrote this on fb:

Lindy Hoppers: Many of you came to the dance and found a comfortable space where you could spread your wings. You found a place where you could be geeky, nerdy, techy, punky, introverted, extroverted, or whatever. You could be any of those things feel like you belonged. For many of us, we wouldn’t be the people you are now if we hadn’t found a place like this were we could be boldly ourselves. Beautiful, isn’t it?
This is NOT the experience for everyone who comes to this dance. In this case, this is not the experience of many LGTBQIA+ who have come across this dance scene. We are pushing people away. It takes courage to be “out” in this scene. Some utopia.
In the past few years, the illusion that our dance scene is a place free from the dangers of the real world has been shattered. As a result, we’ve done a lot to listen, learn and are making worthwhile changes. Also, we took our heads out of our asses. We can be proud of that. It’s beyond time to do the same here and realize that this haven that we found, is absolutely not a haven for everyone. We have to realize this and change, just like we shown ourselves capable of doing.
We need to open the doors – fucking wide. We need to shout “I see you. You are not invisible. You are welcome here”… just like others did for us. If (part of that) that means we make gestural changes like changing names of cheesily named dance contests, go for it.
But, far beyond that, I suggest you to take a moment to lightly and politely ask someone different from you about their experience in the scene. If they feel like sharing, you’ll learn something. If you think you don’t know any LGTBQIA+ folks in your local scene, either you are wrong and they are hiding (that speaks volumes) or your scene is tragically homogenous (also speaks volumes).
In the comments, I will be posting statements from different LGTBQIA+ people in our dance scene. Straight (and straight-ish) friends, before discussing this with your other straight (and straight-ish) friends, read some of these – including the comments, some of which are profound – no joke.
It takes effort to try to see the world through other people’s eyes, but it is immensely worthwhile.

This is what I started writing in reply, but didn’t leave on fb:

Nice vibes, Andy. And I dig your post.
Here is my rant.

I’d probably rethink the pronouns, because your call does not rework the status quo or question power:”We need to shout “I see you. You are not invisible.”

As though it is only through being recognised by the straight white male gaze that the other becomes real.

The lindy hop ‘we’ already includes peeps who aren’t straight, white guys. The lindy hop ‘we’ is already queer, black, trans…. everything _as well as_ straight white men. The LGTBQIA+ folk in our scenes ARE ALREADY SPEAKING. Maybe the straight white masculine world of lindy hop should _stop_ speaking for a second.

I’m also a bit suspect about “politely ask someone different from you about their experience in the scene.” Are we outing people now? This ‘asking’ is still an act of managing the public discourse. Why is it everyone else’s responsibility to educate the straight white man? Why is it everyone else’s responsibility to make sure the straight white man is looked after? AGAIN?

Maybe you should be quiet and listen and watch for a while instead. Because WE ARE ALREADY SPEAKING. Maybe you should watch for a while, before asking. See when a man gropes a woman on the dance floor, then tell him to quit. Hear when a straight man makes a bullshit gay joke, then _not laugh_.

So perhaps your call should be, “Hey, straight white guys. We’re the numerical minority in this community. So we should ask why we hold the majority of positions of power and influence. Maybe we should cede our place to the rest of the community. Also it’s time for us to stop talking.”
The lindy hop world is not that special or unique: it is within and a part of the wider community in which it lives. Of course sexism and homophobia and racism are here. Because it is in our wider lives as well.

This is how this will have to work: the most powerful people in our communities will need to give up some of that power. That includes the power to ask questions and speak. And they’re not going to be too happy about that.

I’ve also been struck by some of the comments like this from (straight white male) dancers: “In the past few years, the illusion that our dance scene is a place free from the dangers of the real world has been shattered.”
I was especially struck by the recent ep of the Track where Gordon Webster spent quite a bit of time telling us how shocked he was by the Steven Mitchell issue. He recounted some heart warming stories about the safety of the dance scene, and how surprised he was to discover that things Have Changed.
And I got really really angry. YES POWERFUL WHITE GUY, THE WORLD IS A PRETTY SAFE AND LOVELY PLACE FOR YOU. Your being able to leave your envelope of cash unattended, and without any accountability IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER. Your being able to set aside the responsibility of paying your staff before you go off and get on stage IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER. Your leaving the door staff to sell your CDs and make change from your band’s pay IS A MARKER OF YOUR POWER.
It wasn’t because ‘the scene is a utopia’ that that envelope of cash didn’t go missing. It’s because you are a powerful, influential person. And it’s good to be king.

I was especially angry about his reluctance to believe that HIS friend could possibly be dodgy as fuck. When even I, who’d only met Mitchell once or twice and live in another hemisphere, could tell he was a pain in the arse and well dodgy. He didn’t see the problems with Mitchell, because they didn’t affect him directly. He WASN’T LOOKING FOR THEM.

The rest of the dance world (who aren’t straight, white, or male) were already quite sure that the dance world wasn’t a utopia.

News at 5: ‘white man discovers his experience of the world is not universal.’

Because the women, POC… pretty much most of the peeps who aren’t representing hegemonic masculinity in our scene know that it’s not a utopia. And we’ve always known that. And we’ve been talking about it for years. Hell, even Norma Miller’s been shouting it at people for years, and not even she’s been listened to!