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.

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))