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:
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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.
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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.

Teaching: follows’ skills

Someone asked in the teaching group this week:

Planning a workshop focused on follow mechanics. What skills do you think separate great follows from good follows, and how would you train those skills?

There were some interesting comments from people asking if there would be leaders in the class (yes), a male lead chimed in to say how much he learnt as a lead participating in this type of workshop, and there was general chat about how to run this sort of thing. All fascinating.

Me I tend to feel that leaders and follows have very similar goals and skills. I do think of leading and following as very distinct roles within the partnership, though. Leaders have the map, the follow is driving the rally car. The leader points out a side road ahead, the follow decides whether to turn, how fast to turn, whether to u-turn etc. An approach I learnt from Jenny and Rikard. So my response below reflects this.
I also see this question as a consequence of a general push in lindy hop teaching to address follows more directly in class.

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Things I might look at with follows:
“You are responsible for carrying the beat, and for maintaining your own rhythm. Don’t sacrifice that for the lead.”
This means that you take the steps and move across the floor in a way that feels like the music, and is also a choice. So not always reacting to the lead, but completing each movement, giving each piece of the rhythm the right amount of time, whether it’s a quick weight change or a slow one, a tap or a jump or whatever.

“Know what you are doing.”
This might not be a conscious brain thing, but your body should be making confident choices about your movements. I _choose_ to echo my lead, to synch with them, to add something new. Just as I _choose_ to echo the music, synch with it, or add something new.
This is about being PRESENT in the dance. I am right there in the moment, in my partner’s arms. I’m not predicting the next step. I’m there, with them. Emotionally, physically, rhythmically.

“Both partners find a shared sense of groove.”
This means that it’s not the follow’s job to just ‘match’ the lead. It’s both partners’ responsibility to listen, express their groove (ie dance, not just ‘wait’) and find a nice ‘connection’ (both physical and social – communicative). I think of it as ‘taking the measure’ of a partner before you start to do moves.

“If leads call the rhythm, follows respond.”
In the first few steps of the dance, a leader might ‘call’ step step triple step, or step-step kick step, kick kick-step with their bodies: swing out or charleston. As a follow, I respond to this. I might (as I describe it), listen for a second, and then say “ok, yep, I’m on board with this” and then pick up that rhythm. I hold that rhythm until the lead suggests a change. eg I hold down that step step triple step until the lead suggests a new one ( eg step-step kick step, kick kick-step).
I think of that as the first sort of ‘finding consensus’ part of a dance. As a follow, I say with my connection and facial expression, “Ok, I’m paying attention. Where would you like to start?” and then we do that rhythm together. It’s like the lead lays down a time step, and I get on board and do it too. Until we change it up.
From here, as the music changes, and I get the measure of my partner, I may add in rhythms – ‘call’ a rhythm. The lead can ‘get on board’ by joining in, or by listening, or by holding down that time step/basic rhythm while I improvise on top. It’s all good. But the the type of relationship you have with that partner depends on who you are as people, what the music says, how you feel, etc etc.
So as a follow, you pay attention to how the lead is feeling about all this.

-> As a lead, I don’t want the follow to just copy everything I do, and try to synchronise with me. It makes me a bit sad (and frustrated, really), as a lead when a follow apologises for ‘not getting it’. It’s ok. If we’re together in our embrace, we can do completely different stuff below the waist.

“The follow’s feet are their own business.”
As a lead, I don’t try to tell the follow how to get from point A to point B. I do NOT demand they synch up with me perfectly like I’m the boss. NO.
I might suggest the speed and direction, but they choose whether to maintain that, change it, do something completely different. Because I expect this active response from the follow, I have to pay lots of attention: with my eyes and my body.

“Take care of your body.”
If it hurts, let go. Stop. A lead who clenches your hand when you’re trying to let go is bad news. Leads: if a follow wants to let go of your hand – “Let it go, let it goooooo!”
You want a nice, natural posture with a neutral spine and engaged pelvic floor as default. Don’t ‘stand up straight’ or ‘squat’ or whatever as default. Your natural resting position should be whatever feel right for that dance with that partner. That first moment in closed, hearing that song will tell you what you need to be safe and ready. From here you can adjust or engage or disengage muscles as needed. You don’t have a ‘frame’, you have a lovely system of muscles and veins and bones and things, that you use in lots of different ways to respond to lots of different signals in the music and your partner.
So you want to be able to choose what to do when, not default to something out of panic or habit. So being mindful of your own body, and really present, is really important.

-> learn to read the signs. Sore shoulders? You may be tensing up in your upper body. So soften your knees, think about your pelvic floor, let your arms swing, maybe reorient to your partner from squared up to 3/4 profile (or whatever). See how that feels now. One sore knee? You might be overusing that leg, so perhaps make sure that the other leg is being placed on the ground clearly and with purpose.

etc etc etc. Basically, observe, accept, be ok and safe.

“Check in with your partner”
Visually – look at them! How do they feel? Are they smiling?
Physically – do they feel ‘on’ all of a sudden? Are they relaxing in their muscles? etc etc
-> use your observation skills. Don’t worry about the next ten beats, be right there in this beat, with this person.

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Structuring a class: ‘bricolage teaching’ or ‘lots of little bits’

Georgia was just telling me about this great teaching method she’s experimenting with, where you do lots of different tasks in a class, but for only a few minutes or a short amount of time each. I’ve been trying the same thing with my teaching partner lately, and it’s been very powerful. Super fun and interesting, but also great dancing and learning and teaching. Gotta really _plan_ your classes like a focussed ninja, though. You have to tie all those little pieces together well.

I think the key is to be flexible, and totally prepared to jettison half your class ‘plan’ if things change direction. If something is fun – go with it! I also prefer to build technical stuff into fun games or little sequences, so we’re not standing there playing with a giant rubber band or something. Instead we’re doing a swing out with Frankie’s shake-it-on-down on 7/8 1/2 and _feeling_ that stretch through our connection.

If I have an overall goal for the class – eg I want to have follows get a bit more connected with the ground – I won’t actually talk about that issue directly. I’ll do a warm up, an exercise that focusses on each person being confident in their own rhythm. eg the follows have to ‘teach’ each partner a rhythm as they rotate. And they have to do this by demonstrating. So they might do it on 7/8 1/2 of an 8 count rhythm, and the lead has to observe, then repeat it back. They may have only 5 x 8 counts to achieve this.
Then they do the same game, except they have to ‘teach’ the leads while doing a swing out (instead of face to face in open). They’ll take the visual teaching/learning calling/responding, leading/following and apply it to their lindy hop.

This game will teach follows to be really confident in their movements, which will get them lower in their bodies. The leads will stop yanking and rushing, and will pay more attention to their own bodies and core. To really get follows low, I might offer follows a couple of ‘required’ shapes – eg lifting your toes while your heels stay down. I might demo this by making sure my butt is out (for balance).
…or you know, whatever.

The goal is to progress through this class from a visual lead-follow warm up where the teacher leads, to a social lindy hop lead-follow, where they each play caller or responder in their partnership, adjusting and figuring out how to do this with different partners.

Should teachers ask to be paid for social dancing?

A well known and relatively high status teacher, Åsa Heedman posted this (public post) on faceplant yesterday:

Today I learnt that some Lindy hop teachers take an extra charge for 1) showing up at the dance evening and 2) charge even more for dancing with the students. Ridiculous! Organizers in the world: don’t support this, it is not gonna help creating a good Lindy scene.

There were a range of responses, from wholehearted approval of the sentiment to profound disagreement.

Me, I got opinions. Of course. Let me premise yet another poorly written post with the point that I feel that sexual harassment is just one point on a continuum of exploitation and misuse of power in the lindy hop world. So if we want to get rid of assault and harassment, we need profound restructuring of institutions and social conventions throughout our scene. Teachers and teachers’ working conditions are just one of these. The premise here, of course, is that teachers are at once powerful and influential people, but also disempowered and exploited in many of their teaching roles.

One of my general comments was this:

I reckon it’s fine for teachers (and other workers) to charge what they like. The market will let them know what it can bear :D
But i also think it’s totally fine to discuss pay rates and who charges what. If we didn’t, then pay inequities (eg male teachers being paid more than female) and exploitation (eg workers not increasing their rates annually, not being fed or housed properly, or overworked) wouldn’t come to light.

One of the most interesting comments on this post was by Alba Mengual:

Asa i completely agree. On the other hand we have had a contract sent to us that specify “that we must show up to the evenings and dance with the students” and i felt i didnt want to sign it (even if i do it allways) because i do it for the LOVE not because of a professional obligation. Also..how about if i only go 1h to the party bc im tired? Will i get not paid because i breached the contract? .and how many students is enough?? To have this in my contract kills my soul and my love for what i do…i want to have joy at night inviting people and sharing..as i do in any party bc i love dancing…and not feel that im working..really really for me its a big difference

This was my response to Alba’s point, and to the issue overall:

I think Alba’s reluctance to sign a contract where she’s obliged to social dance a lot (has to social dance) is justified. She has a right to say no to dance invitations. Everyone does. I think that it’s not only important for her well being, but for her to model self-care like that.

I always clarify with teachers whether they charge for social dancing. I’m ok if they do.
When I write up agreements for events where I have booked teachers, I always specify the terms:
– whether or not teachers are expected to come to parties
– whether or not they’re expected to social dance
– whether or not they’re expected to arrive at the beginning or stay til the end.

As long as both the organisers and the teachers (ie employer and contractor) understand and agree to those terms, it’s fine.

From an industrial relations/workers’ rights point of view, I don’t mind whether teachers require payment for social dancing or not, and if they do require payment, they should set that out very clearly in their terms and conditions document.
Similarly, organisers need to state very clearly in their own terms if they want teachers to arrive dead on time, dance every song only with students, and only leave at the end of the event.

-> These points are very, very important if I’m talking with non-Australian teachers. Especially if they come from a culture where workers’ rights are strongly protected (eg Sweden) or not protected. Or just plain different to Australia. I have legal obligations to not only protect contractors’, volunterers’, and workers’ rights, but to be sure they understand their rights.

Personally, I say this in my agreements with teachers:
– you’re not obliged to attend parties, but it’d be nice if you did;
– you’re not obliged to social dance, or to turn up at the beginning, or to stay all night;
– you’re definitely not obliged to come to late night parties.
-> I tell them to prioritise their health, and if that means they need to take a longer break between classes and parties, that’s good. If they need to leave earlier to get more sleep, that’s also good. If the sound levels are an issue, if they have kids to look after, etc etc – all those things are more important than their coming to a party.

I just make sure I hire the best bands I can find, bands that makes people want to DANCE. Or sit and watch and listen. Or have a drink or two and talk to people!
I also make sure I hire teachers who enjoy social dancing. And then I make sure that their working conditions and experience makes them feel like dancing.
And I also try to say clearly in my event PR “please welcome guests to sydney – invite them to dance, say hello” etc etc. And that means teachers, musicians, visiting dancers, volunteers, etc.

I also have terms in my agreements with teachers about drinking (ie don’t teach drunk; don’t drink while you’re working because OH&S; abide by the code of conduct).
The code of conduct makes it clear that drinking to excess while working or in a position of authority is not ok; and I’m clear about sexual relationships with students at events.

Åsa then replied:

Sam Carroll, it sounds like you are one of those organizers that teachers really appreciate to cone and teach for. Great! That’s the kind of circumstances that bring out the joy, please come but you don’t have to. But as you are also good with that some people charge for attending social dance I just want to ask you how you handle the fact that maybe one teacher is getting paid for being at the social dance and the rest is not. Is that fair? Is then that teacher getting paid while somebody else is not. For the same kind if “work”?

That’s a tricky one, Asa. It’s a bit like asking ‘how do you feel if one teacher is being paid a higher rate than their partner for teaching’, or ‘one dj is being paid more for their djing than another.’
There’s actually lots of work done on negotiating contracts and collective bargaining by unions. When you are part of collective bargaining via a group like a union, you may accept a lower pay rate so that everyone can be paid and have better conditions. Bosses of big businesses often work to dismantle unions and pressure workers to sign individual contracts. This saves bosses money, and gives them greater negotiating power.
So individual teachers have a right to charge different rates, after all, we don’t have unions, nor do many events observe local industrial relations laws.

I feel that it’s better to go legit as an organiser, as it offers you legal protection if things go wrong (so you can call the police if a teacher assaults someone at your event), and you pay tax in return.

Similarly, if teachers ‘unionise’ (ie talk collectively about terms and pay and so on), they can push organisers to provide better pay andconditions or risk a strike/boycot by teachers.

We are seeing the beginnings of this collectivism now after the public talk about teachers assaulting people. Some teachers are saying, “I will not work at events that don’t have a code of conduct”. This is a way of saying, “i won’t work at events that don’t respect health and safety laws.”

Similarly teachers saying “you must pay me to social dance,” is a way of saying “you must respect the fact that social dancing is physically and socially hard work; you must allow me sufficient rest time after classes; etc etc.” You can still love your work and be paid for it. In fact, there’s a theme in the lindy hop world that you shouldn’t charge or be paid for wonderful, creative work you enjoy. Why not? You can love your job and be paid for it.

So when i read that some teachers charge for social dancing, i ask myself, “what experiences have led them to this action?” Perhaps this is a response to poor working conditions:
– too little rest time between long days of classes
– very late nights
– not getting enough sleep or rest (because they don’t have real beds or doors that close)
– terrible parties with awful music
– a scene vibe that encourages dances only to dance with ‘the best’ dancers instead of people they like,
…and so on.

So this pattern in teachers’ pay rates tells us a lot – far more than just ‘they want money.’ There’s nothing wrong with wanting money. But there is something wrong with exploiting workers.

Btw, i have to give specific props to Ramona Staffeld on this issue. She is brilliant to work with: she’s very clear about her terms (and explains why), she tells me when i’ve erred, she’s super professional. She balances self care with an intense, hedonistic love of social dancing, AND she’s a brilliant teacher and dancer. And just plain nice.
Working with her has made me a better organiser. But it’s also led to my doing wonderfully fulfilling creative work with musicians, tappers, and lots of other volunteers and contractors.
I actually don’t do late night parties, but i do always book bands. Musicians who love to socialise with dancers. And Ramona’s generosity of spirit is what leads her to yell approval at a band mid-song, make friends with them, and get up and jam with them. So our evening parties tend to be very rich and intense, whether you’re dancing or talking!

I know i work well with clear structure, but Ramona has also taught me how to let loose and just revel in the jazz as well.

After this, there are a number of posts arguing against having contracts at all.
And I’m not ok with this.
Here is an example from Matthias Müller:

We never signed contracts with our teachers and made great experiences with it. The better you treat the teachers, the less you have to fix by contract and the more you get rewarded by them.
So, thats the big thing for me: Don‘t blame anybody for anything, this is the free market. But choose well and reflect your own setup as an organizer…

I replied:

I disagree vehemently with this, @Matthias. Clear agreements are important. There is a clear correlation between no-contract (no code of conduct) events and underpaying, exploitation, sexual harrassment, bullying, and straight up bullshit.

..i’m also deeply suspicious of any organiser who pushes contractors _not_ to have agreements. All the ones like that i’ve worked with (as dj and head dj) have been fucking dodgy, and later proved to hire and cover up for sexual harrassers and rapists. Dodgy approaches to OH&S issues are a big alarm bell for me.

A contract or agreement is just a way of writing down clearly what you have all agreed on.
Note: the events that hired Steven Mitchell here did not have written agreements with all contractors, and have been the very worst for not paying teachers or djs, overworking staff, etc etc etc.

It is possible to have a contract and still be good friends, guests, hosts, and so on. An agreement just ensures clarity.

At this point, Carla LaRue Heiney commented. I enjoy her contributions. She makes interesting points, and is very thoughtful.

What if we shift our paradigm here….
When I was teaching with Kevin St Laurent and we put in our contract that we needed a “real bed”with a door that closes to the room, people thought we were crazy, but it was because we were trying to take care of ourselves so that we could do the best job possible and also be present. We valued social dancing with the students at the evening parties, but we also valued getting some sleep and eating healthy.
I remember people talking about us and gossiping that we had certain things in our contracts. We had to do this because we honestly were not taken care of and I don’t think it was anyone trying to really “get away” with something, but rather a new scene and people trying to figure it all out still. I don’t think we even knew what we really needed until we had been traveling a bit and realized how poor sleep conditions and lack of time for things manifested in sick instructors, grumpy instructors and more.

So, we talked to some other professionals and we decided to have a contract that just stated what we wanted and needed and nothing too crazy, we hoped. Real bed, private sleeping areas, 3 meals a day, down time, maximum number of hours teaching etc. I am wondering if these newer contracts and requests from both sides are not just another attempt at people trying to take care of themselves and simply need refinement. To me, personally, I think of how nice it would be if some of the dances were earlier or didn’t go quite so late, but that is the mom in me talking.
I have also hired instructors are are known not to social dance as often as others because I still highly valued their instruction and take on the dance and the other things that they added. I tried to balance this choice with hiring instructors who were known to be on the social dance floor throughout the night. And I also made a lot of mistakes along with some good choices, hopefully, too.

The big thing is, let’s try to figure out why and not try to think negatively about the organizers making those requests and the teachers asking for certain things. I am all about choices and freedom and understanding. There is always something to learn.

This point is most important, I think: “The big thing is, let’s try to figure out why and not try to think negatively about the organizers making those requests and the teachers asking for certain things”.

Later, Tonya Morris added this comment:

You know, when Sugar Sullivan taught in Seattle, we couldn’t keep her away from the dance floor at night…one night she ended up in a ridiculously fast jam at the end of the night with Peter Loggins doing first stops and swinging out hard. I kept offering to bring her home and she looked at me like I was crazy. That’s the epitome and spirit of Lindy Hop…just saying.

My response to this:
Different lids for different pots, right?

I’d also like to think that the ‘spirit of lindy hop’ is to take care of each other, to stop and listen to a band and watch a solo, really enjoy the company and conversation of a new friend, to buy a friend a drink, or lend an ear to someone in need.

I’m really uncomfortable with this ‘that is the spirit of lindy hop’ talk. We are all different people, and we do things in different ways, enjoy different things. I don’t want to have this one, singular, and disturbingly evangelical ‘spirit’ of lindy hop.
I want ‘Sam’s spirt’ which involves dancing like a fool, DJing sometimes, being the butt of musicians’ jokes, meeting new friends, designing flyers, reading about jazz history, looking at Australian modernist art, talking about labour relations, making applique banners, swapping photos of historic buildings, listening to CDs with friends, learning about mic stands…. lindy hop brought me all this. I think all these things are important.

And I do think that a scene that thinks the ability to dance non stop for sixty million hours is the highest human quality is a danger. That’s how we got people like Steven Mitchell and Max Pitruzella exploiting this ethos.

This conversation is continuing on faceplant right now.

But I think it’s worth summing up the key issues:

– teachers having terms and conditions
– some teachers specifying their social dancing time/pay
– other teachers and dancers feel this is ‘not in the spirit of lindy hop’
– I feel that this ‘spirit of lindy hop’ rhetoric is an ideological tool ripe for exploitation (to mix a metaphor). The nebulous ‘spirit’ of a community disappears diversity, and discourages solid, clearly written contracts oand terms of agreement.

Continuing:
– some teachers and organisers feel that agreements and contractors kill the ‘spirit of lindy hop’.
– I strongly disagree: clear contracts and agreements are a useful tool for avoiding exploiting workers, and they empower disempowered people.
– some people feel that social dancing is the ‘true’ spirit of lindy hop.
– I feel that it’s just one part of being a lindy hopper and lindy hop culture. I feel that valorising this quality is what led us to the bullshit power dynamic that enables gross exploitation and abuse of less powerful people by more powerful people.

A key point, here is that I want to reframe this as a discussion about labour rights and relations. Unions and collectivism are a useful ideological and practical tool for countering the ‘artistic individualist/ mysterious creative spirit’ rhetoric that is often used to justify exploiting workers, or to avoid transparency in work practices. We have clear proof that this avoidance of legit industrial practice contributes to and enables sexual assault and harassment and exploitation in the lindy hop community. To the point where if I see an organiser or teacher actively arguing against contracts or agreements, I am deeply suspicious. I suspect serious misconduct.

I’m very uncomfortable with some dancers’ resistance to the idea that lindy hop is, and can be a ‘business’. The people most critical of this concept seem to be those who have gained social and cultural power from lindy hop. So we see high profile teachers and some organisers using this argument. I smell bullshit here. I also see no problem in making a business of lindy hop. In fact, formalising arrangements and being financially responsible and sustainable is one way to avoid injustice. We have models to avoid hardcore patriarchal capitalism in lindy hop business, and there are quite a few very good dance businesses around the world which use them.

And look. It’s fucking hypocritical so say that it’s not in the spirit of lindy hop to run a dance business, when you benefit financially, socially, and personally from being employed by those businesses. So fuck off with that bullshit.

I also want to introduce more discussion of cultural and business law and policy into this discussion. Yes, this stuff tends to exclude people. And that’s exactly my point. Learning about these things empowers us. As I said in reply to another person’s comment:

I guess I just don’t think teachers’ social dancing is any more important an issue than all the others that go into running an event. This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but while who you hire to teach is very important, the teachers are just one element of the weekend. And can be replaced.
In fact, an event often _needs_ to change up its teaching line up to continue to attract attendees. And that’s why teachers need to stay competitive as workers and artists: they need to be good at what they do, improving their skills, and acquiring new skills (including how to conduct themselves professionally).

The much more important things involved in running an event are:
– is the event financially sustainable (ie are you going to be bankrupt by running it)?
– are there enough people to actually run it on the weekend?
– do you have venues hired?
– do you have music hired – DJs or bands?
– are people safe at your event (eg do you have cables run safely, is the building sound, do you have fire escapes – do you have an OH&S policy?)

So I put whether or not teachers social dance into the ‘teachers’ conditions’ folder in my head (and literally in my computer), which is just one of many other folders. Teachers’ working conditions are no more important than volunteers’ working conditions, or musicians’ working conditions, or DJs’ working conditions, or the sound engineers’ working conditions, or my own working conditions.
So I can a) only allow teachers a certain amount of time, and b) I can’t help but see common issues across all the contractors’, workers’, and volunteers’ folders.

Basically, and this is something we’ve been talking about in the lindy hop scene for a few years now, teachers aren’t magical fairy artists. They are creative workers and employees, _as well as_ artists and humans and inspirers and mentors. So they deserve no more or less time and attention than any other person at the event.

This issue may vary between different countries, but here in Australia our government policies are fucking over the arts. This is having material effects on the lindy hop scene:
– our community venues are getting more expensive and harder to find (because they are govt funded and maintained), and private venues are EXPENSIVE, but also restricted by new laws (like the lockout laws, and noise restrictions);
– our musicians are going overseas (because the arts grants and school music programs which pay their bills have been cut so severely);
– agencies like APRA, PPCA and so on (which administer copyright and music licensing) have fewer funds for outreach and support for smaller organisations;
– visas increase in cost each year, and require a lot of skill and knowledge to secure, because our govt is slowly closing its borders to anyone who’s not white and middle class;
…and so on.

All this means, that if you want to run a weekend dance event, you have to run it as a legit business. Because there aren’t enough funding or resources to run events on the cheap.
If you _do_ want to run your business as a non-profit, you really need to get your act together and learn a lot about tax law, business registration and administration law and so on.
Either way, you need to be a bit savvy about cultural and business policies and laws. It’s hard work.

A lot more goes into running a dance weekend than booking a teacher. And if we want to be able to invest the thousands of dollars hiring a teacher requires, we have to get our shit together. We have to run this professionally.

Exposing sexual assault is hard

[Getting Help.]

This article ‘I publicly accused Dustin Hoffman of harassment. Take it from me, it’s not easy to expose sexual misconduct’ by Anna Graham Hunter reflects the things I’ve seen happen in the dance world, as brave women try to do something about the men who’ve assaulted them.
It’s very difficult. It takes ages. It’s horrid. Horrible. It requires a lot of trust, a lot of very good communication, and the most careful, most delicate conversations.

Most of the women reporting want one thing: to know if the man who assaulted them will be at This Event, and if he is, they won’t go. Because they don’t feel safe near him. And they aren’t. No woman is.
When I hear women say this, I think, “Gee, I’d much rather have you at this event than him. He’s shit.” But it’s so hard for us to get men reported (let alone banned), I understand why they choose to absent themselves.

I’ve had bloody shithouse people in the dance scene accuse me of being on a ‘witch hunt’ when I report offenders. It not only irks me that they’ve misunderstood the historical context of witch hunts, it irritates me that they are so ignorant of the actual process that they think reporting an offender is as simple as pointing a finger in the Salem courthouse. If only.

Finally, while the reporting of big name teachers makes big time facebook hits, the vast bulk of offenders are men you don’t know or don’t notice. That’s how they operate: they make sure no one notices. And they’re very good at convincing their targets that they’re not in the wrong.

I’m still thinking about the men who’ve been assaulted and haven’t reported it. I’m thinking about you, and I think we’ll find a way to make it easier for you to report too. Eventually.

The usefulness of being specific

Kathleen Rea’s piece “That lady”: The story of what happened when a woman put up a boundary in the contact improv world is a great post by a woman about her experiences setting up ‘boundaries guidelines’ for her dance session.

I especially dig her points about using specific language:

My guidelines evolved over the years, but have always been very clear and direct in their language and guidance. I have faced both praise and critique for this direct approach. I think one of the reasons they have been controversial is that I leave little room for misinterpretation. In the guidelines, I say things such as, “Do not intentionally caress another dancer on their breasts or genitals”, and, “Non-consensual pass-by pokes, kisses, tickles, caresses, massages or pats while dancing or passing by someone in the studio or hallway will not be tolerated”. I think this approach was unusual in the contact dance improvisation world. I had said something which is usually not said, and as well I was a woman saying these things.

I’ve tried to be specific in our Code of Conduct, because I think that being coy can lead to problems. It also suggests that if actually saying ‘groin’ or ‘breasts’ is impossible, then talking about someone touching your groin without permission is utterly anathema.

If we use precise terms simply and casually, we make it clear that it’s ok to talk simply about our bodies and what we do and don’t like. It gives women the language tools to speak up about what’s happened: “He grabbed my breast.” If we don’t have these tools, it’s even harder to actually explain what happened and why it wasn’t ok.

Of course, using appropriate language tools is also a very good way to be specific about how you do like to be touched, or how you would like to touch someone: “Could you grab my breast, please?”

If we get used to speaking about our bodies like this, it’s even harder for offenders to claim they ‘misunderstood’.

Why is it important to say that lindy hop is a black dance?

The mighty Anaïs asked on fb today:

the statement of the “African-American” quality of Jazz dance and Lindy hop has disappeared from the front page and main description of what was taught and celebrated at the Herräng Dance Camp…Why?

Here is what I think.

Herräng is a white-run and European-based business which gains much of its status from the idea that it is offering an ‘authentic’ jazz/swing dance experience. This idea of authenticity or ‘realness’ is really developed by the focus on and use of the idea of ‘vernacular.’ Vernacular, in this sense, means everyday, ordinary, ‘of the people,’ rather than concert or performance or formal or prepackaged. A significant part of the camp’s appeal lies in the immersion style experience campers have: there is music and dance everywhere, every day, all the time.

This is all well and good. But if white organisers leave out the black part of this ‘vernacular’, we’re left with the implication that this ‘vernacular’ has nothing to do with race. Or class.

This is the bit that makes me very uncomfortable. That’s straight up appropriation: taking something that belongs to someone else and repackaging it for your own gain.
It’s difficult to get around this issue, because we are talking about relatively wealthy, middle class, socially and culturally powerful people using a dance which is really appealing. And fun.

One of the solutions suggested by scholars and activists of colour is to name check the people who developed and own this stuff. I like to compare it to recognising the traditional owners of country (ie Aboriginal Australians). It’s a way of saying, “Hello, I saw what you did. I recognise your power and work. I want to apologise for the past. I give you the chance to forbid me use of this dance and music. This is yours.”
When we say, “this is a black dance” we are saying “I do not own, nor did I create this dance.” We are recognising the traditional custodians of this creative land.

So, when Herräng leaves off the words ‘African American’, they’re essentially obscuring the black roots of this dance. The focus on authenticity in camp is likely to leave punters with the idea that this white version of black dance is the ‘real’ or most ‘authentic’ version of this dance and history.
This is cultural appropriation, but it is also colonisation.

Without name checks, without reference to and discussion of real history, Frankie’s face becomes an appropriated icon as much as the swing out.

This is why it’s important that people like Anaïs and others publicly ask, “Hey, where did the words go?” because she is also saying, “Hey, where is the recognition of the custodians of this traditional knowledge?”

How gentle classes can fight the power

I was thinking about this this week. When it’s hard for peeps to get to class, if our classes are extra welcoming and embracing diversity, we make it easier for marginalised peeps to get to class and learn to dance.

I think it’s important for us, in this political climate, to do what we can to counter the horrible sadness and anger we feel about injustice. And I think we can do that by doing positive, excellent stuff that makes people feel good and happy. Including us. And lindy hop is just perfect for this.

This is my back story:
Our country is currently embroiled in a very nasty public shitstorm about a survey asking whether or not the laws should be changed to include same sex marriage. It’s not a referendum or a binding vote. It’s just a huge, expensive, shit-stirring survey intended to stir up distress and foment conflict. All because our spineless government didn’t want to allow members of parliament to vote on a new bill according to conscience (rather than party lines).
Last week in class we had a few same-sex couples come to class for the first time. Our door person was wearing her excellent ‘YES’ tshirt*, and I’d reposted this the previous week:

The couples felt a bit nervous about class (usually first time beginner stuff). And today I was thinking, ‘I’m so glad we were making it clear that anyone can lead or follow. I’m so glad we had a same sex teaching couple that week. I’m so glad we have a friendly class that focuses on looking after each other. I’m so glad our usual students are so welcoming and nice to each other.’
It’s hard enough coming to class for the first time as a shy noob. But if you’re someone who’s used to be marginalised, it’s even more important that you’re met with a welcoming class environment.
Because I believe, so strongly, that happy students do better learning. And we can do very good, important things for the world just in teaching dance. It’s not ‘just dancing’. It’s important.

*meaning ‘vote ‘yes’, let’s change the laws.

Why teaching is important to feminism

James recently made this comment in response to some interesting comments by Kathleen in the fb teaching group:

I would do anything for them to let me teach lessons in my scene the way you do up there! When I tried I encountered surprising resistance. People are weirdly attached to their 6 count triple step highly gendered rotation classes.

I think my response pretty much sums up my ideas about the relationship between teaching (which is so central to contemporary lindy hop culture – for better or worse) and the broader cultural and social power structures in our community. I believe that we build cultures of exploitation or empowerment in our classes.

Traditional class models are very easy to teach (because you teach to that imaginary ‘average’, rather than to different students’ needs); very easy to promote (this is exactly what you get *lists moves in sequence*); and are a very powerful ‘add on’ promotional model, where students start at level 1 and then add 2, 3, 4, 5. You keep adding levels/products to retain that market.

As you’d expect, you end up retaining your ‘average’, losing diversity in your cohort, and churn out students who all dance the same way, and can’t count themselves in. Which is ok if you want to build a very big scene very quickly. Not so good if you’re looking for diversity. This sort of approach to ‘scene building’ promotes/builds very clear hierarchies of power and status, and consequently enables sexual harassment, exploitation of labour, and other status-related bullshit.

Also it’s boring to teach.

In contrast the ‘full hippy‘ teaching culture (which draws a lot from things like Montessori thinking and other independent pedagogic practice), hopefully enables personal empowerment and fights the fucking patriarchy. And gives us more interesting dancing and teaching :D

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.