I’m writing this at 1.30am, when I should be asleep, but I am not, as I just got home from dancing, and you know what that means. No sleep for one hundred years.
Sitting in the kitchen, eating my toast just now, and reading a couple of very interesting articles hooked up by friends on the facey, I was struck by just how important dancing is to me for making friends from other countries. Tonight I’d spent a good ten minutes talking to a really nice guy from Spain, Alex, who’s been living in Sydney for a while, and has a few months left on his visa. We’d discussed the two kisses of Spain compared to the three of France. Three is too many, we had all agreed earlier, but two is just enough. And I’d told the story of catching a cab with the rowdy Argentineans in Stockholm, who were enraged by the Swedish hotel’s bar closing before midnight and not having any music. Where were we to drink?! Gas had a flight to catch at 6am, and we had no time to waste! Alex explained that some things are very important, and should not be laughed about.
A little earlier that evening Alice asked if I’d be coming to eat Korean food with our two visiting Korean Blokes (YES) one of whom had texted me earlier in the day to ask if I would like to have lunch this week (YES).
These things are all very important to me. I love, love, love that I live in a big, busy city that receives lots of visitors from overseas. I love that lindy hop gives visitors a way into our community, language, and culture. I love that I can travel to Seoul or Stockholm or San Francisco and meet up with people I don’t know, and don’t even share a language with, and dance with them, share a table with them, and be welcomed.
This is why I’m quite keen to revive the sappier lindy hop traditions at my own parties and events. Tonight we were relaunching Harlem, our (now) twice-a-monthly party, and I’d taken care to find out who was visiting from out of town (7 Canberrans, 1 German, and not counting our semi-resident Koreans and Spaniard), and who was leaving (Bec, who is off to Adelaide soon). I wanted to have a welcome dance, so that we would all know who was new in town, and to dance with them. I wanted to farewell Bec, and let her know that we would all miss her and wish her well.
Because the farewell/welcome/birthday dance tradition has largely disappeared in Sydney, except for occasional and under-participated efforts, I took a moment to explain how these work. There were new dancers in the room, and they’d only had one dance class (that night), so they wouldn’t know what to do. People who’d been around for a while mightn’t realise that the point was to conquer any nerves, and rush in to dance with ours guests, not leave them feeling unloved. I encouraged everyone to crowd close, and to rush in to dance with our guests – welcome them! And it went really well. Was really nice. It was particularly nice to segue into a snowball, one of my most favourite lindy hop traditions.
Afterwards, Alice, my teaching partner, declared that we needed to explain the welcome dance at our classes this Wednesday and teach our students how to cut in and join the dance. She wasn’t having any of our students not joining in a welcome jam. She’s right. And I know our students would love the game of it.
Earlier in the night, we’d taught two classes. An intermediate class exploring the ‘Frankie Sixes’ (or ‘Frankie’s Sixes’), which is a very nice series of 6-count steps. You’ve probably done them before, and they have the flow and energy characteristic of Frankie’s choreography: they just feel good. I think that this is one of the most important parts of Frankie Manning’s legacy. He was a great choreographer, and we need to keep his choreography alive, because it teaches us how to do great lindy hop, and how his creative ideas worked. This is the language of lindy hop; this is how you put all these words together in an exciting, creative way. Needless to say, the students felt feels, and we felt feels, and it was grand.
Then we taught a beginners class basic 6 count moves. We used our usual social-dancing-first approach, and it was just lovely. There’s nothing like a group of first-time dancers to remind you just how great this dance is. Every time, a handful of people will take the time to tell you that this is the most fun they’ve ever had. And you can say, “Yes it is! And I still feel that way about it!” This was my second first-time-beginner class this week, so I’m feeling very spoilt. I also had a conversation with a few of the intermediates who’d taken that beginner class too. I said that it was so nice watching the experienced people in the class, because they were just so nice to the new people. And one of the guys said, “Dancing with beginners is just so good. They remind you of how much fun it is to start dancing.” He was right. Beginners remind you of just how good dancing is. Just how wonderful music is.
As the class came to an end, I decided to try something new. We always end with a song where we social dance what we’ve learnt in class. By this stage the students feel happy and confident, and really enjoy just dancing without worrying about getting it right. It’s a nice bookend to our warm up, which is also about just dancing and not worrying about getting it right. One of our students used to say, “The best part of these classes is the last fifteen minutes.” He’s right: the rest is good, but the last fifteen minutes are where it all happens.
The very best part of these beginner classes is standing and watching them all dance and smile and laugh as they social dance together. They treat each other so well, and are so good to each other. It makes up for all the horrible things I read in the news every day. These are people who will welcome a stranger into their city and home.
As the song progressed (Easy Does It, of course), I moved around the room and invited the people who’d arrived for social dancing to join in on the dance floor. And they did. And when we called out “Change partners”, the students went and found someone new to dance with. And they gradually drew all the new people onto the dance floor, and it was quite the most wonderful thing that I’ve ever seen.
These students had only taken one class, but they were happy and laughing and smiling and relaxed, and quite ok with making mistakes and not being perfect. And you could see the other social dancers, the more experienced dancers light up and feel quite welcome and lucky to be dancing. I was so proud. I thought, ‘Frankie would have liked this.’ He would have laughed that big laugh, and told them to keep dancing.
So, we continue with our project to actively prevent sexual harassment in our lindy hop scene.
You can read about our three part strategy here. Our Code of Conduct has come together, we’ve been working on our in-class teaching tools for at least 3 months now, and we have begun doing some direct intervention with offenders. There have been some scary moments, but, for the most part, it’s actually been a very exciting and positive experience. Sitting down and thinking about what we want to do, and talking about the good things we want to see has been very exciting. It makes us feel good. This is what activism is about: you start by getting angry. You do some learning, and then you start doing things which make you powerful.
Reading and writing this makes me feel good:
Statement of Intent
We believe in jazz music and dance. We believe in the best throw-down, heart-stopping lindy hop, and that every song should be a solid sender that makes you leap to your feet. We believe that every dancer and musician has a right to good feels.
We are stepping UP. We do not tolerate harassment or bullying, and are actively working to prevent sexual harassment in the swing dance scene.
You are WITH us on this. In joining us on the dance floor or agreeing to work with us as a teacher, DJ, musician, sound engineer, volunteer, performer, or event manager, you agree to treat all participants with care and respect and to abide by our code of conduct. You also accept that all minors must be accompanied by an adult.
Code of Conduct
1. There’s room for all of us on the dance floor.
2. We’re looking out for our peeps.
3. Talk nice.
4. Your body is important.
5. Be ok with people saying no.
6. You can say no.
7. Play safe.
We decided a while ago that we needed to directly address how to give feedback to your partner in class. We’d had some in-class ‘teaching’ from experienced students, we’d seen that people were already figuring out how to work collaboratively in our intermediate class, and we’d decided that we needed to tool women dancers up with the skills to say ‘no!’ to dodgy touching from male partners. We wanted to create a culture of respect for our own and our partner’s bodies, and of being ok with articulating your limits and and boundaries.
So we got serious.
All of us teaching in the teaching team (there are 4 of us teaching in varying partnerships) had begun talking about how to touch your partner the right way. We usually just explained it as “Don’t put your hand too low because it’s weird and creepy,” which is a very common approach. But that didn’t feel like enough. And it’s really not addressing the whole range of ways we can touch each other. And we were generally shifting away from just listing ‘rules’ in our teaching anyway. We wanted people to find out for themselves why we might do things in a particular way, and we wanted them to be aware of their own actions and how they communicated with their partners. Because just telling someone isn’t teaching or learning. Figuring things out for yourself is learning. Good teaching is about facilitating learning, not dictating rules.
I can’t remember how it happened exactly, but I know in our class we were just in a beginner class one night, and we’d had a few conversations earlier in our teaching team about what women should do when men touch their boobs or hold them too tight. We knew we should just SAY “Stop that!” but we all knew how difficult that could be.
So anyway, we were in class. And we got to a part where we’d usually say “Don’t put your hand too low here, leads…” blah blah. Instead we posed it like a question: “So what do we do if our partner’s squeezing our hand too tightly or their hand is too low?”
And then we sort of role played it:
Teacher A: Hey, you’re squeezing my hand a bit – can you can loosen your fingers a bit please?
Teacher B: Oh, sorry, I didn’t realise! There, is that better?
Teacher A: Yep, that’s great, thanks!
We try to make it a really casual, no worries, no stress sort of exchange, to model how giving and receiving feedback is no big thing.
It’s always funny to watch, and people laugh. We don’t do it in a preachy way, we do it a lol way, because it’s actually really funny and kind of strange to role play this stuff.
But then we said to them, “Ok you guys, I want the leads to say to the follows, “Is my hand ok here, should it be higher or lower?” and then follows, tell them. And then, the magic: they immediately had a very loud, engaged conversation with their partner! ALL of them!
It was SO EXCITING!
After that point, we could just say, “Ok, can you check in with your partner to see if the connection is ok, please?” and they’d just DO it! It was very, very exciting. Very exciting.
Since then we’ve streamlined it a bit. When we first say, “Can you just check in with your partner,” they often assume it’s a sort of rhetorical question. But then we say, “No, can you actually do it right now, please.” We say, “Can you ask your partner, ‘how does that feel for you?’. Newcomers to our intermediate class often just reply to their partner “Fine”, but if I hear any of those rote politeness answers, I say, “No, I want you to give your partner actual feedback on how that actually feels.” And then they do. Because it’s not enough to just tell them they can do these things. You have to actually have them PRACTICE it. You have to push through the ‘polite don’t cause trouble ‘fine’ response’, particularly for women responding to men. You have to make it clear that ‘fine’ isn’t enough – your partner wants actual feedback, so you have to figure out how to give useful feedback.
It’s exactly like when you explain how to do a particular move. Explaining to them, then them nodding is useless. You have to explain, then they DO it, immediately afterwards.
This has been one of the biggest breakthroughs in my teaching, ever. Stops me talking too much. Makes them masters of their own dancing and bodies. It’s something that might stress you if you’re the sort of teacher who’s used to micromanaging a class, and standing in the middle of the circle being the centre of attention. But you have to – step out of that circle. Let them make mistakes and then figure it out themselves.
In an extension of this, I’ve also started talking to the follows about how they touch the leads, and what this can say to the leads. My favourite thing at the moment is to talk about how the follow’s left hand on the lead’s right shoulder is an important way for the follow to give feedback to the lead. I often use the expression, “This is how you reassure the lead. The way you put your hand on their shoulder tells them that you have confidence in them, and that you trust them.”
I started talking about this in a class where I was explaining how I danced with very new dancers, or with leads who were freaking: I just relaxed my body as much as I could, and tried to communicate to my partner that I was totally chilled. Because if I touch them with stress, they get stressed.
When I talk about it in class, I say this “This is the hand of reassurance” to the follows, and they usually then reply with “Oh, if I hold my hand like this” and they scrunch up their hands or let their arms hover, “It says I’m feeling scared or don’t trust them.” If they don’t see that connection, I explain it (in a nice way). The goal here is not to tell students “Don’t hold your hand like that,” but to say to students, “The way you touch your partner communicates how you feel to them,” and then letting them figure out what they want to communicate to their partner.
I had a moment like this in class last night. An older woman was doing the arm-hover, fingers-pinch left hand, and she was also doing some really disconnected footwork which was making it tricky for the leads to lead. So I explained the ‘this is how we reassure the leads’ thing. And she figured out straight away that she needed to think about how she was communicating with her partner.
This is especially good for follows because it stops them getting into that ‘the leads not doing it right’ loop, and it makes them think about themselves as an active part of the partnership. I never say this bit, but it also improves their connection so the leads can feel their weight changes and be more effective leads.
Of course, all this does actually make the leads relax and feel more confident. :D
This was really an extension of a talk we’d had in the intermediate class about how connection between partners isn’t a one-way street where leads signal to follows. It’s a two-way, and constant communication, where follows return the energy the lead gives, and leads constantly listen to the follow, to see how they’re balanced, what they’re digging, whether they’re going to bring some improvisation.
If you’re engaged with your partner as a living, thinking, feeling human like this, you’re also going to be doing empathy, and less likely to sexual harass them, or throw them into unwanted dips or lifts. It makes me quite tired to have to keep doing this, but we have to teach men how to think of women as active agents, capable of making their own decisions. We have to teach men that they aren’t the boss, and they aren’t always right. They have to work in cooperation with women, not in control of them. Fraternity not patriarchy. The ‘reassuring arm’ is a way of saying to men, “You don’t have to feel insecure in this new equal relationship. We don’t have to have a boss and a submissive in this team; we can be equals and it’ll be ok. Your partner is with you; we can both rock feminism together.”
I find that even the most ‘unsexist’ of men can find this difficult, because they have a lifetime of gender programming to overcome. You can often talk the talk, and your brain can understand that you have to think of women as equals, but it’s much harder to undo the unconscious ways of using your body and occupying space that the privileges of patriarchy give men. Manspreading: it is about patriarchal colonisation of space. Lindy hop: it teaches you how to be a feminist.
This is turn developed from a conversation about bounce and finding a shared sense of bounce or time or rhythm with your partner: you spend time in closed at the beginning of a dance, where you have all that physical contact in a moment of chill. Here, you both work to find a shared sense of bounce and timing. No one sacrifices their bounce or rhythm, you just work to find a compromise. A shared sense of music which is a combination of you both. We all know this is magic.
I don’t think we talk enough about how follows contribute to the partnership. I still treasure a moment where Naomi Uyama explained her role when she’s following is to maintain the beat and rhythm when a ‘storm of rhythm is coming at you’ (she was teaching with Skye): she stays cool. I also like Ramona’s line: follows, don’t ever sacrifice your rhythms for the lead’s.
Anyhow, all this stuff is something we can talk about with beginner dancers, and we SHOULD, right from their first class. Because classes are about teaching us how to social dance, right? We use Lennart’s approach to teaching lindy hop, where the beginner classes teach you to social dance right from the start. The students count themselves in, they decide which steps to do in which order, they can stop and restart whenever they like. None of this ‘calling steps’ and dancing fixed sequences. And you let them dance for a loooong time with the same partner. Last night they danced a WHOLE Song with a partner, just 20 minutes into class, and it was FANTASTIC! They dance really well, and learn how to do floor craft (we encourage them to move around the dance floor), how to apologise, how to stop and start, how to lead and follow, what to do when you confused. We stop them every now and then to give tips, but we keep it practical – how do you improve your communication? What do you do if this happens?
Any how, students can do this immediately, from their very first class. And they fucking LOVE this type of class. You can see them approach a problem (‘why isn’t this working?’), work together to resolve it, then resolve it and literally cheer together. The noise level is incredible. The laughing and talking and shouting out with excitement. It’s just wonderful. And we just float around the class giving tips and feedback. Our focus is always on safety and mutual respect, and we resist the urge to tidy or ‘fix’; we give them a lot of time to figure things out with their partner. And they make their own fun, they find that real joy in solving problems together, and then just enjoying music, being awesome and victorious.
So, giving them tools for giving and receive feedback is essential to this approach. And, honestly, they love it. And once you’ve shown them once, they just do it themselves during the class. And then you can continue to dismantle the conditions that enable sexual harassers.
To finish off this long story, last night after class I was chatting to some of the students, and they said that they particularly loved that part of the class where we explained how to give feedback, and then had them try it. They said it was really FUN, and really helpful. This surprised me. I don’t often think of this as fun, I think of it as practical. But they really liked it.
And you know, it’s true – it is fun. When we first say “Ok, do it,” in class, there’s this sudden rush of noise and really enthusiastic conversation that’s quite surprising. It’s not angry talk, it’s this loud, cheery laughing talk. It’s as though people have been waiting all day to actually talk to someone in a meaningful way. I know follows like it, but leads like it too. And they are really good at it. They’re respectful and nice to each other.
Teaching in a way which implicitly discourages sexual harassment, by encouraging good communication between leads and follows.
– I am keen on the rhythm centred approach as a practical strategy. Less hippy talk, more dancing funs.
– I like simple things like talking to both men and women about being ok with people saying no to you.
3. Developing strategies for actually confronting men about their behaviour.
– I talked about how I do this in class in Dealing with problem guys in dance classes
– I’m working up to addressing the more nebulous issue of sexual harassment by practicing on more concrete stuff like telling men to stop pulling aerials on the social floor
– Talking to and about men confronting other men. Because it’s men who are doing the dodgy stuff in most of these cases, and we need to ask men to take responsibility for their own actions. Whether those actions are harassment, or condoning/enabling harassment by not using their power to speak up.
Working on this, I’ve discovered that a bunch of words is next to useless. We need simple graphics, pictures and posters. Using a range of resources (the AFL’s response to sexual assault is particularly powerful and useful), I’m thinking that we need to add a few things to the prevention/response strategies. I’m considering making up a simple, powerful website and postcard outlining what’s ok, and what’s not. They have to have a light-hearted, fun vibe (because lindy hop), but they also have to be very useful and not too twee. The tone of these texts should suit the vibe of my business, but also give an idea of national and international lindy hop culture (as if there was such an homogenous thing!)
These two assets could work in concert with a poster or sign, and with a practical training program for teachers, door staff, and ‘safety officers’ (ie the people you go to when you need help).
Luckily, lindy hoppers have already gotten on to this. We actually have a discourse of ‘etiquette’, which is the way we manage and control social interactions in our scene. We also talk a lot about ‘floor craft’, which is another way of managing how we take care of ourselves and others on the dance floor. The basic message of both is ‘Look out for others or you won’t get any dances.” Lindy hop has a powerful shaming tool at its disposal, and we should make greater use of it.
I think we can just tweak these two sets of ‘rules’ a little to make them a bit more powerful and directly address sexual harassment and assault. A lot of dancers don’t want to address rape and sexual harassment explicitly because it’s a downer (and lindy hop is supposed to be all happy clappy all the time), and it’s a bit of a social taboo to talk about sex and sexual violence in an explicit way. And it’s really difficult to talk about sexual assault and violence without actually talking about breasts, vulvas, vaginas, penises, bottoms, and how we touch and use them.
Added to this are the broader social myths about women’s bodies, women’s sexuality, and men’s sexuality. The bottom line in responding to sexual harassment and assault is that you have to accept that it’s about power and violence more than it’s about sex and sexuality, and you have to accept that patriarchy exists. A tall order for people who ‘just want to dance’.
But I don’t want to reinvent the wheel when there’s fab stuff like this around:
This is an etiquette guide produced by Holy Lindy Land, the Israeli lindy hop community. Which of course you should know about, because they sent an open letter of peace and friendship to the lindy hoppers of Palestine, which makes me cry like a little baby with the love. (You can read more about the two scenes’ work in this lovely piece).
I like this poster because it does simple things like replace my awkward description
Avoid ‘boob swipes’, touching a partner’s bottom, groin, upper legs – you know the deal. If you accidentally do so, apologise immediately. If you do this repeatedly, you will be warned, if not ejected from the event.
I think that lindy hop could also do with some of the sharper edged humour that would help us get real about sexual harassment.
There was a most excellent swing memes thread on yehoodi years ago, where most of the images are sadly missing now :( I’m especially fond of Good Guy Greg.
And of course tumblr brings the gif with people like lindy hop problems.
But these are, of course, not ‘official’ responses to sexual harassment. They are very important, because they give us a way to comment on issues, and also to ‘talk back to power’ if we don’t think organisations are stepping up.
I’m thinking something by an artist like Tomeito would be pretty useful:
At any rate, I’m working on it. Slowly but surely…. :D
the SES (State Emergency Services) position sexual harassment as an occupational health and safety issue rather than a ‘women’s issue’ or ‘sexual issue’, and have some EXCELLENT training material available
AFL (Australian Football League) have Respect and Responsibility, a hardcore response to s.h. and assault which targets men (because it is a male-dominated sport), and uses the Australian discourses of ‘mateship’, ‘team’ and community responsibility (or club-loyalty) through the language of the sport (‘taking the tackle’ etc) in a powerful way. Their posters are great. I admit it, my Uses of History: Frankie as Teaching Tool in-class strategies are an attempt to do the same thing. To use the language and model of our most important and powerful cultural imagery as a strategy for dealing with sexual harassment.
A discussion came up on the facey the other day about how leads can deal with rough follows. It caught my eye, because I’d just had a dance with someone the night before which was particularly rough. I was leading, and the follow really moved herself through steps in a fierce way which left me feeling a bit sore. It also dovetailed nicely with my ongoing thinking about how to prevent sexual harassment in lindy hop.
On that last topic, I’m approaching this with a different strategies:
Developing a clear code of conduct for behaviour
– (in progress)
Teaching in a way which helps women feel confident and strong, and provides tools for men looking to redefine how they do masculinity.
– using tools like the ones I outline in Remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer
Teaching in a way which encourages good communication between leads and follows.
– I am keen on the rhythm centred approach as a practical strategy. Less hippy talk, more dancing funs.
– I like simple things like talking to both men and women about being ok with people saying no to you.
Developing strategies for actually confronting men about their behaviour.
– I talked about how I do this in class in Dealing with problem guys in dance classes
– I am totally ok with telling men to stop pulling aerials on the social floor because it’s a clear ‘rule’, but more ambiguous stuff is stumping me
– I’m trying to figure out how to do it in other non-class settings
– I’d like to find a way to skill up men so they can do this stuff too; ie it’s not just women’s jobs to deal with men sexually harassing women.
I seriously believe that feminist work needs to be practical. High theory and abstract conversation is very important, but for me pragmatic feminism means actually doing things. It’s important because it powers me up and makes me feel strong, but it’s also important because you know – actually DOING something. It can be quite hard and scary sometimes, because you are agitating, you are disturbing the status quo and you will attract some shit. Men don’t like to be told they’re doing dodgy stuff (and lefty men get particularly upset by this), especially when it’s a woman telling them. They often respond with physical intimidation, which is scary. And there can be social consequences for women which suck in a social dance community like lindy hop.
So, for me, I try to do this work in a way which isn’t too confronting or frightening for me. And which isn’t too confronting for other people. Feminism by stealth.
Where does Frankie Manning fit into all this?
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or are just new to lindy hop), Frankie Manning was one of the best dancers, choreographers, and troupe leaders of the swing era (1930s-40s). He’s generally positioned as ‘second generation lindy hop’, and credited with inventing the first public air step with his partner Freda Washington.
More importantly for modern lindy hoppers, he came out of retirement in his 60s to ‘teach us how to dance’. He taught people to lindy hop from the 80s until he passed away at 94 in 2008.
He wasn’t (and isn’t) the only old timer to do this. But most significantly, he had a very joyful, accessible approach to dancing, he didn’t mind that we all sucked, and he was prepared to work with complete amateurs, even though he really didn’t have any experience teaching total noobs or of teaching in a formal classroom context.
So Frankie holds a special place in many modern lindy hoppers’ hearts, and many of us take his example as near-gospel.
There are a range of problems with this approach, and I talk about them in Uses of history: a revivalist mythology. I basically say that I think we should be wary of uncritically using Frankie and his approach when we teach and talk about lindy hop. There are a host of political issues to consider when we appropriate his image and approach, both in terms of race, ethnicity and class, but also in terms of gender. Basically, he wasn’t perfect, and we have to be careful we don’t literally use him and his work for our own ends. And we have to be careful about how we use historical discourse in our classes.
So that’s my disclaimer, really: the next bit of this post is written with an awareness that I am a white, middle class woman writing in a developed, urban city in the 21st century. I am taking the words and teaching of a black, working class man of the early 20th century and using them for my own ends. I try to couch that with respect to Frankie’s memory, by name checking him and giving him credit for his work. I direct students to footage of his dancing, and to his own words.
I also make it clear that I am framing his work from my own POV and goals as a teacher and dancer. I didn’t know Frankie, and I only met him a few times and learnt from him a few times. So I tread lightly in his memory, and I try not to speak for him. But I am inspired him – by his dancing, by footage of his classes, by the mark he left on dancers who I learn from now and admire very much. I try to work with respect for his memory and for his work; he is an elder in our community, a custodian of knowledge, and important.
So here is something I wrote on the facey.
It’s about how I ‘use Frankie Manning’ in class to counter misogyny and sexism and to promote a type of connection that privileges creative collaboration, mutual respect, joy in dancing, and flat out badarse dancing.
I have trouble with rough follows every now and then. Especially ones who’re in troupes or do a lot of performing. They’re used to really physically strong leads (I don’t have the upper body strength of a man). I’ve had some bad shoulder and back twinges lately, despite my best efforts to improve my own technique, core stability and so on. As with dealing with rough leads when I’m following, I figure a rough follow is a partner who isn’t listening or paying attention to me because they’re stressing. At least I hope that’s what it is – it’d break my heart if rough follows were deliberately rough.
So the first thing I do if my partner is a bit rough, is to get us in closed position and tell a joke. But not too close a closed position, especially if they’re a woman who’s obviously weirded out by dancing with another woman. I’ll try to do something to distract the follow from being fierce and doing what they think I’m leading. Once we’re both chilled, and paying more attention to each other, I do super simple steps with a lot of emphasis on jazz feels and call and response – they do something, I echo it. That helps us both get on the same page. Then I build it out from there, adding in open position, etc etc.
So my first response to a rough follow is to become a really clear, yet incredibly gentle, responsive lead. And I make my basics the very best I can, so they feel confidence in me.
I’ve been using Frankie Manning as a good guide for safe dancing lately when I’m teaching. He would usually teach from the lead’s perspective, so I find it very helpful as a lead working to make a dance with a follow really comfortable and nice.
That means I’m emphasising:
– Looking into your partner’s face.
This is the most important thing I know about lindy hop. LOOKING into your partner’s face. It was the one big thing I learnt in the Frankie track at Herrang last year (where all the classes were taught by people who’d worked closely with Frankie). Once I noticed it, I was stunned by how infrequently partners look into each other’s faces.
It’s good for your alignment and posture relative to your partner, but it’s also good for making you connect with another human as a person, it helps you learn to observe your partner and recognise when they feel pain/scared/happy and it’s good for making you lol.
-> follows are less likely to throw themselves through steps if they’re looking at your face and seeing you flinch in pain. They’re also distracted from the move by the genuine human connection, so they stop pre-empting or rushing or panicking.
– Call and response rhythms as fun steps.
They make you pay a LOT of attention to your partner, visually and physically, so you can ‘hear’ what they’re doing rhythmically. This is good for interpersonal communication (how is my partner feeling?) and learning how to recognise physical signals (what does a suddenly-tight arm tell me when I combine it with their facial expression?)
-> this is the next level of looking at your partner. So follows stop pre-empting and are really there with you. And because you’re really listening to them (everyone calls, everyone follows), they feel like you’re listening to them, so they feel more confident and worry less about ‘getting it right’ and rushing or hurting you.
– Your partner is the queen of the world.
We say this a lot: your partner is the queen of the world (whether they’re leading or following, male, female, whatevs). This means that you have to look at them (and we model how to be impressed by/respond to your partner positively), and the ‘queen’ should then feel confident enough to bring their shit.
This teaches you to be connected emotionally with your partner, and to recognise how your positive response to a partner’s dancing can make them feel good and then bring their best shit.
-> follows bring incredible swivels and generally become the queen of the world. They pay more attention to you as a lead, and they feel like you’re really listening to them, so they reciprocate.
Brilliant for improving your dancing, but when your partner is scatting, you can hear them, so you’re connected with them in an additional way.
-> makes follows lol.
– Frankie thought the most important lindy step was the promenade*.
It’s in closed position, it requires lots of communication to walk together without kicking each other, and it has lots and lots of variations with lots of different emotions. It teaches you to communicate with someone, and you have to look into each other’s faces a lot, and be ok with that.
You get to hold someone in your arms, which means you have to be respectful.
*Lennart says so, so it’s probably true :D
-> I find some follows aren’t so ok with being so close, so I have to pay really close attention to them to find the ‘comfortable’ distance/connection. This makes me do my very best dancing. I try to put me in front first, so the follow feels more comfortable (follow first means they’re walking backwards – eeek!). I do pecks to make them lol, or rhythmic variations. I respond to the variations they bring.
– You’re in love for 3 minutes.
Doesn’t have to be romantic love. But for that 3 minutes, this person is the most important person in the world. You look at them, you lead steps you think they’re like, you do your best to realise the step or move their aiming for, you work to make this dance work.
To me, this is excellent mindfulness. It makes it hard to be rough with your partner. And when someone is feeding all those good vibes back at you, you smile and do your very best dancing.
-> follows become the queen of the world. They listen to you, and even better, they bring things to the dance.
I think it’s worth looking at a video of Frankie teaching to see how he did this stuff:
I don’t think his approach is 100% excellent. He does drive the class, he uses gendered language, etc etc. But he is the ‘star’ teacher, and his teaching partner partner is his assistant – this is very clear. He uses gendered language because he is explicitly thinking about male leads and female follows, and his talk about respectful dancing uses this gendered dichotomy. I’m not excusing this, I’m pointing it out. And here I can make this point: while I dig a lot of what Frankie is doing in this video, he’s not perfect, and I actually find that reassuring. He wasn’t a saint, he was a real person, and when we idolise dancers, we need to keep that in mind: we don’t excuse their faults because we love their dancing.
A couple of things I like about this class:
at about 4.44: “If you find yourself falling, and he does not stop you from falling…. take him with you.” I LOLed when I heard this. But it’s a nice, simple way of saying ‘look out for each other!’ and reminding women that they aren’t passive objects here.
11.48: Frankie tackles inappropriate contact “Fellas, don’t take advantage…. we are just dancin’”
Nuff said, really.
With all this talk about Frankie, I think it’s worth pointing out:
When you watch footage of younger Frankie (ie in his 60s, and 20s), he seems quite ‘rough’ or ‘strong’ compared to modern dancers. Is this in conflict with this ethos of mutual respect in lindy hop?
(photo credit: I found this pic via an image search on google, and it’s hosted by Swungover, but chrome crashed and I couldn’t find the page again! argh! So I don’t know who the photographer is!)
This is a tricky one, but I think it’s where we’re really done a disservice by the lack of attention to the original women lindy hoppers who danced with Frankie teaching us today. I suspect that women followers were a different breed too. When you watch historic footage, you see that they fiercely took space, and matched their partner’s intensity. So Frankie might have had a partner who was confident enough to take space, and to be a little less submissive and a little more determined to shine.
I have no evidence for this, and it probably reveals my own lack of dance knowledge and skill. But I’m wondering if we need to have a look at old footage in a new way. I’m thinking of the way Janice Wilson used to talk about Ann Johnson, and the fierceness of her swivels. And of course, you have to think of Norma Miller when you think about fierce women lindy hoppers.
At any rate, this brings us back to the idea of how we might use history when we talk about lindy hop partnerships. And I have no real, final answers, of course, just a bunch of poorly practiced ideas.
I’m interested in the way we use ‘be like Frankie’ as a model for ethical business practice. He’s a pretty good role model for dance stuff. But it’s unusual to see one person become so important as a model for sustainable business practice. It does worry me a bit; smells like a cult to me. And there are some dodgy gender things at work here. And I do worry that the reality of the man is lost in the idea of the man that’s used to sell ideas. But I guess that’s how history works: the reality of the person is subsumed by the idea of the person.
…any way, Zack outlines some ideas that fit nicely with my own point of view, but he frames them in terms of Frankie’s legacy, and the history of lindy hop. Which are very interesting approaches. I like the ethics outlined in this approach, but the cultural studies scholar in me is a bit suspicious. A bit uneasy. At any rate, if you’re just looking for content, and not engaging with narrative and ideological practice in a critical way, it’s a great piece. I definitely recommend reading it.
This bit caught my eye:
Yes, we must be wary of the “ballroom studio model” that hires undertrained and underpaid staff who painfully review fifteen years old instructional videos and then regurgitate washed-out, dumbed down material to the students. To that we say: whatever their level, keep your teachers and yourself well informed and inspired to strive for betterment. Turn to Frankie and his constant need to create and top himself.
I really had no idea (naïvely, it seems) that other scenes had the same problems we do here in Sydney. It’s a relief to see that our problems aren’t unique, and that other people have thought about solutions for them.
I’ve just had a LOVELY weekend at Sea of Rhythm, a new dance event held in Melbourne. Run by Rhythm Tap, a group who do the sort of tap that lindy hoppers like, the program was intended to bring together dancers who were interested in dances of the African diaspora. Not that the event was pitched like that. It was literally pitched as a ‘sea of rhythm’ event, where dancers would come and immerse themselves in rhythm-based dances for a weekend. That meant African (Senegalese) dance and drumming, lindy hop, rhythm tap, historic solo jazz dance – all the good stuff!
I’ve been to a few of these sorts of weekends before, but this one was different for a couple of reasons. The most important of which was that the teachers and performers weren’t just random people from around town. They were top shelf dancers and teachers. The other key reason for the success of the weekend, was that the teachers were all approaching dance from the same ideological position. They see dance as an embodiment of music, or more specifically, they approach all dance as rhythm first.
This approach to dance has become quite popular in the mainstream lindy hop community lately (and isn’t that a strange thing to write – ‘main stream lindy hop’), but it’s something the Swedes have been talking about forever, and they’ve been talking about it because they’ve always worked very closely with the old timers – Frankie Manning, Al Minns, Norma Miller and so on. And the African American dancers always put the music first. Lindy hop hasn’t been well served by that deviation into ‘smooth’ and heavily technique-focussed teaching in the early 2000s. That movement away from hot jazz, and that strange emphasis on ‘connection’ took us a little too far from the roots of lindy hop.
I’ve very interested in talking about ‘rhythm’ as a teaching tool. I think that it’s very useful for teaching beginners the essentials.
Bounce (that’s the beat, or the time of the song) teaches us how to swing and stay in time, but also teaches us how to find a common point of reference for our partnership, so we can stay in time together. It’s also a powerful tool for teaching people to engage their cores (and relax their upper bodies as a consequence), and to improve their fitness (because it’s physically more work). It’s also – I very strongly believe – the most basic way for two people to dance together. You can just hold each other in your arms and bounce on the spot, and you’re dancing. It’s also (to get a bit essentialist here – I apologise), quite primal to bounce up and down to music with another person. Watching Josette Wiggins tap this weekend, heavily pregnant, I kept thinking: that is the point of this. We know how to do this, right from birth.
I also have quite a manically obsessive hatred of dancing that rushes the beat. Especially since taking tap classes. It really, REALLY shits me to have people in class rush the beat and make a basic rhythm speed up. Teaching, we see beginners do that at first (because humans do), but everyone of them can stop doing it within half an hour of their first class. If I’m in an intermediate or advanced lindy hop class and people speed up, I want to SCREAM. Because the people who do this are the people who don’t bounce.
Tap dancers don’t bounce, but they do have a shared sense of time. Bouncing is kind of a cheat, because it makes it easier to feel and find that shared sense of time. Tappers have that sense of time in their brains and bodies.
Teaching ‘steps’ or ‘footwork’ as rhythms instead is very exciting. Straight away, the students learn that rhythms are central to what we do, not just an add-on to the shapes or ‘moves’. And lindy hop is special: the syncopation of the triple step is so important.
After the speeding up of basic rhythms, I really hate it when people flatten out a syncopated rhythm. I think it’s something to do with tighty whitey dancing: lindy bro leads are the absolute worst for rushing the beat and flattening out syncopation. I know that follows tend to be a bit more behind the beat, but PLEASE: TAKE CARE OF THE RHYTHM! It feels so naff – why are you rushing?
I feel as though this issue is related to the tension between hot and cool in African American and African dance. Be cool. I’ll need to think more about that, though, before I can articulate it properly.
Scatting is essential. Again, the Swedes have always done it, because the old timers have always done it. Norma Miller rants about it. And I’ve transitioned almost completely to teaching entirely without counts in class. It’s a joy. I scat all the time now, to the point that I can’t actually turn it off when I dance.
I generally find that ‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8’ even with ‘ands’ in there simply aren’t complex enough tools for describing what happens in jazz dance. The beats don’t divide evenly into single beats or half beats. Just syncopation alone is far more complex. There’s a difference just between the timing of a stomp off and a triple step that counts can’t reflect. I find it much more useful to use sounds that sound like the way a movement feels. Which I guess is like reverse-engineering dancing to music. So if we do start with the music first, a musician plays a series of notes in a particular way, and then I find a way to make that sound visible with my body. Counts don’t really come into it.
I suppose what I’m really talking about is a profound ideological shift in approaching dance. From a very anglo-western, ‘scientific’ concert/performance approach, to a more ‘African’ or African American vernacular approach. From thinking about dance and music as things to be performed, watched and consumed, to things that should be created, participated in, enjoyed, eaten up and shared.
I wrote about ‘pavlov’s lindy hopper‘ a little while ago, where I talked about how watching other people dance does things to your brain: it fires you the bits of your brain that perform those movements. Particularly if you’re familiar with those movements. Dancers often talk about not watching dance clips before bed because it fires you up.
I suspect that scatting works this way. When we scat, we physically make the sound that the music makes, and that triggers something in our brains. So we move from just ‘observing’ or ‘consuming’ music, to participating in music. If dancing is a way to participate in music, then scatting is the natural bridge between the two. Or more usefully, it’s the olive oil that marries the flavours.
WHAT does all this have to do with Sea of Rhythm?
Well, I think that this is the HEART of what was happening. We know that tap dancing is a way for dancers to ‘join the band’, to make the sounds that they are dancing, rather than just ‘making sound visible’, they ‘make visible sound’. In the African dance class on the weekend, I think that this process was made very simple and clear.
We began by sitting in a circle, with our feet in, and this was called the ‘circle of life.’ Now, if you’re immediately made uncomfortable by that sort of talk, you might want to get a grip. It’s not so much hippy talk as a different way of talking and thinking about the role of music and dance in everyday life, from another culture. Anyone who’s been to a lindy hop class knows how important circle formations are to group dynamics. When I was tutoring, I’d make all the students sit in a circle, because it made it much easier to manage behaviour problems: people wouldn’t be able to sit in the back and dick around. They had to be right there, facing everyone, and accountable for everything they said and did. They had to be part of the group. And anyone who’s ever done a big apple (called or social) knows how circles make you feel. And of course, ring shouts make the roots of Africa so clear. All the tap classes over the weekend used circles as well – we’d stand in a circle and take turns doing step or a time step. And haven’t we all seen how a jam circle works? What it does to our brains and bodies to be leaning into a circle when the music is hot?
In our African dance class, we all sat in the circle of life, and our teacher was there, with us, part of that circle. Our teacher, but one of us. He explained what we’d be doing, and what his background was, and how things worked.
Then we moved to another part of the room, where the drums were set up in a circle. We all took a drum (or shared one), and began learning some simple drumming techniques. Our teacher would say something like ‘the rain is coming, gently’, and he’d tap a gentle tappity tap, and we’d just join in. And so on. The important points: he’d just begin, and we’d just join in. Then we stood up and started learning a routine. Our teacher would drum and we’d dance. I didn’t have any moments of feeling shy or uncomfortable. It was really fun, and we all felt really excited by this stuff.
I knew that this would be fun and exciting, but I didn’t quite anticipate what it would mean to have my teacher drum. He could vary the tempo, the length of time we spent doing each step, and how we felt. It was very exciting. And because we’d first learnt to drum the rhythms ourselves, it was as though we’d skipped scatting and gotten straight to the heart of it.
This was really the message of the whole weekend: we have to take care of the rhythm. It was also made very clear that we each had a responsibility to make the rhythms clear and sharp. Each of our teachers worked on us with this: our tap teachers, our African teacher, our solo jazz teachers, our lindy hop teachers. You have to properly understand the rhythm, before you can dance it. Or rather, you can only really understand the rhythm if you dance it.
This meant that the entire weekend the focus in all the classes wasn’t so much on ‘learning a move’ and then perfecting it, as learning a rhythm (or creating one!) and then figuring out just how many different ways you could dance it. Of course, the unspoken (and occasionally spoken) emphasis here was on individual personality and creativity, but in a collective environment. It’s quite an exciting approach, because mixed level classes suddenly become a real advantage: here is a room of people who are really diverse and different, which means you have a WHOLE ROOM FULL OF PEOPLE to inspire you, that you can suck inspiration from, who’ll fire up your creativity. How will you make this rhythm work with someone who’s never danced before? Or when I was was dancing with a pre-teen boy tap dancer in a beginner lindy class: how do I make this work with someone half my height and feeling weird about holding a grown woman in his arms?
I think it goes without saying that all weekend there was this absolute TRUTH that there is no distinction between ‘solo dancing’ and ‘partner dancing’. Even when we were dancing alone – or perhaps most when we were ‘dancing alone’ – we were actually part of a group, dancing together. This is where that whole thing about speeding up the tempo comes in: we were a group, so we all had a responsibility to take care of that rhythm and not speed it up or flatten out the swing or syncopation. Tap made this particularly clear, because we could hear the differences, and we had to bring everyone with us. It was a marvellous tension between uniformity and diversity. We had to be together, but we also had to be uniquely ourselves. We had a responsibility to contribute to the group, and to be responsible for our own actions. This approach meant that respecting each other was just taken for granted.
And the best part is that when we come back to our lindy hop, we can still throw down and do solid, hardcore lindy hop. No hippy stuff; just fucking hardcore lindy hop. All this stuff sort of fills in the backgrounds and body of our dancing.
It was quite a magical experience, really. It reminded me so much of the Frankie stream at Herrang. This is what it means to be a jazz dancer.
Here are some simple ways I like to build ‘musicality’ into classes*
Begin and end and continue with the ‘beat’.
I like to emphasise ‘bounce’ (or ‘pulse’) quite strongly when I’m teaching, particularly with brand new dancers. The very first thing we do when we start warming up is some bouncing in time. And we don’t let students begin dancing out a sequence until they are all bouncing. We use expressions like ‘make friends with the music’, and ‘show your partner you have a nice, solid beat’, or ‘use the bounce to get connected with your partner – use this time to find a shared sense of beat’.
That last one is a particularly useful tool when you’re talking to more intermediate dancers, because you can show them how the beat is about consensus, or shared timing between partners. I usually emphasise this by saying something like (as we listen to a big band track), “There are fifteen men playing music together here, and they all get together and find one common beat, so let’s do the same, and use that common beat to get together with one other person.” Incidentally, there’s also a lovely moment(s) in class, where you’re all facing into the circle, bouncing in time, and you get that powerful feeling of connectedness that improvised music brings: humans keeping a shared time.
Using the beat as a way to connect with a partner is another lovely tool for talking about the role of leads and of follows. I like to talk about how each partner has a responsibility to ‘take care’ of the beat, particularly when the other partner is pulling out some crazy rhythm work. It’s as though we each have a responsibility to maintain a sort of rhythmic compass, so each person knows where they are in the musical landscape, even when they’re going crazy.
We just taught some workshops in Christchurch, and in the lower level class we did some work with basic rhythms in open, face to face position. We had taught a handful of different rhythms, and the students were dancing through them in their own time, mixing and matching and figuring out how to lead and follow them, how to transfer between them, etc etc etc. It was just magical watching these newer dancers at work. They were all looking into each others’ eyes, eyebrows up, grinning like fools, pulling out these complex rhythms.
It was great when they were both doing the same rhythm in unison, but I was especially delighted by the moments when they were doing different rhythms at the same time, looking into each others’ eyes grinning. It was polyrhythms in action, and they clearly felt that pleasure that comes from each being able to dance their own thing with their partner, yet still as a coherent partnership. And the thing that held them together as a partnership was this shared sense of beat. It was truly complex work, but even brand new dancers can do this, because humans are amazing.
This emphasis on beat/bounce results in dancing that is in time. I don’t use numbers at all in lindy hop classes (unless we are doing a combination of steps that start on 1, 8 and other beats), which means that you need to give the students a way of ‘getting ready’ to start dancing. I think it’s really hard to find just one beat (‘one’) when you’re a beginner dancer, which is why I like to give them a tool to find all the beats.
When we work with different types of dancing – 1920s partner stuff, for example – we talk about how the beat is still there, and we still need to find it with our bounce, but that it’s a slightly different beat, with a different emphasis. I’ll talk about this with brand new dancers as well as more experienced ones, but when we work with the latter group, we talk more about how you might vary your bounce for different music. And when you might drop it completely to make a point. This, of course, feeds in nicely to discussions about how to dance faster, and the biomechanics of lindy hop.
With our solo classes, keeping a sense of timing with your bounce is even more important, because we do such rhythmically complex steps, where a broader understanding of timing (and where you are in the timing or progression of a routine) is even more important. In solo, in particular, the 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 5 & 7 & 8 & counting is particularly unuseful. We work with much more subtle divisions of time, so we need a strong sense of the ‘beat’ to keep ourselves oriented. I find the idea of ‘and’ as a halfway point between counts especially irksome – syncopation is much more interesting than a ‘half way point’. The exciting about solo work is that it gives you the chance to experiment with incremental divisions of the beat, and then inspires you to take this to your lindy hop. Why wouldn’t you do this with your lindy hop as well? The Swedes do it, and Frankie Manning embodied it.
Bounce is also very useful for helping people discover the ‘swing’ of swinging jazz. A bounce is a longer trip between two points than a straight line – your core goes down towards the ground, then back up to the second point. Your steps involve a sort of compression and delay, because you are ‘bouncing’ rather than sliding or moving directly between beats. It helps that the music makes this very clear: a plucked bass string has a built in delay, where the sound resonates for a while before the next note is plucked. It _feels_ like a bounce.
It seems very fashionable to talk about rhythm a lot at the moment. Of course, the Swedes have been talking about rhythm forever, and people like Norma Miller have been yelling at us for counting instead of rhythm for years. But what makes this a practical teaching tool/paradigm?
I like to think of all the ‘steps’ we do as rhythms. Mostly because we are dancing, so music is the heart of what we do. I can represent pitch and notes with my body, but the rhythms of the notes is what makes all this interesting, and what makes swing swing.
But really, and most importantly, weight changes are the heart of each ‘step’ or ‘move’, and a weight change really is a way of portraying timing. Of committing to timing. So when I walk in time, with a bounce, I am one hundred percent committed to the basic beat of a song. Bounce and weight change are about clear, effective engagements of core muscles, which in turn affects and dictates how our arms might move, or the angle of our shoulders, and so on and so on. So, biomechanically, dancing rhythms rather than ‘shapes’ is much more interesting and challenging. And (confusingly) make it easier to communicate with a partner.
My favourite part of this approach, though, is that it feels like we’re playing a really interesting, challenging game. What’s that rhythm? Can I recognise the pattern? Can I recreate it? Can I do it so clearly that I can communicate it to my partner? FUN!
This leads me to my next teaching tool or strategy. We teach a lot of rhythm sequences as ‘rhythm breaks’, where we set up an AAAB pattern, with a single rhythm repeated 3 times, then a second rhythm serving as a ‘break’ in the B section of a phrase. We do this with total beginners, and we might have them do step-step-triple-step, step-step-triple-step x3, then a mini-dip. We teach the mini dip as a solo step first, where we teach the rhythm first. Then we have them move through the shape, then we add in the rhythm. We find that we get much crisper, clearer dancing, and the mini-dip (or whatever) is very clear. After we’ve got them cool on that break, we say something like “Now, don’t neglect that original rhythm: you can’t have a contrast if you don’t set up that first rhythm properly.” Of course, we’re talking about the power of repetition to build suspense, and the break as a rhythmic contrast to climax and relieve that suspense, but we don’t talk about that. I’ve noticed, though, that dancers feel that resolution. There’s something really nice about about doing that AAAB structure all together.
This is how we teach beginner students: using the AAAB structure of a phrase, a basic rhythm (which we use as a foundation for most of the moves in the class), and then an additional rhythm ‘break’. All with an emphasis on the ‘beat’ to hold it all together. We might add a second rhythm break if things are going well. Sometimes we do the break side by side in closed (the easiest approach), or we use turning steps with levels – like the mini-dip.
When we’re teaching solo dance, we often do exactly the same thing: three charleston steps, then a charleston break = AAAB. But we are more likely to do other combinations: ABAB is also very nice. And then we might build it up across phrases, where we recreate that ABAB structure across four phrases. We do tend to do this more in our solo classes than our lindy hop classes, partly because the lack of partner work makes it easier to learn more in a solo class, but also because we tend to work with much more complex content in our solo classes: old school routines which are quite challenging. Now I’m thinking about it, I see we need to perhaps be more challenging in our lindy hop classes, and think more about ABAB, as well as just AAAB.
It’s quite simple, really, but it actually results in quite sophisticated dancing, which feels really really nice, and is very interesting and stimulating to watch.
Sneakily, this is how we teach students to relax their arms and upper bodies. If you want someone to relax their upper bodies and arms, to have good posture, to keep their weight over their feet, and to have a loose, elastic connection, the best strategy is to get them thinking about walking about in funny rhythms. It distracts from the arms, but it also forces them to engage their cores, which in turn allows them to release their upper bodies, because they are much more stable through the torso.
And doing shared rhythm work is a very good way to get partners communicating. Ramona said this in a workshop recently: when you dance, you are giving your partner a gift. You’re giving them something. When you dance with a band, you’re giving the musicians a gift. When you dance alone, you’re giving the musicians or people around you a gift. I found this a really nice way to get over feeling shy about looking at myself in the mirror when I danced, and other people found it a good way to get over feeling nervous in performances.
But we use it when we’re teaching lindy hop and solo dance. We say, “When you dance this rhythm, imagine you are demonstrating that rhythm for someone watching – you’re giving them a little rhythm so that they can do it themselves. So it has to be really clear and really obvious.” This is fab when you’re doing partnered work, especially call and response work. But it’s also proved very successful in solo work, where we want dancers to enunciate very clearly.
All this is lovely hippy talk, which leads to the best feelings in class. But it’s also a very clever way of getting dancers to do very clear, efficient movements, which facilitate good connection with a partner, and very good proprioception, which then makes it possible to dance very fast or very slow, to pull off complex choreography, or to do sophisticated competition dancing.
But for me, as a teacher, it brings very great joy. All those new dancers looking into each others’ faces with those crazy grins: it’s Frankie crystalised and reproduced. And it just relaxes everyone and is so much FUN! Suddenly the simplest shapes – swing outs, under arm turns, circles – are vehicles for incredibly complex play and interaction. It’s lindy hop at its very finest. And people can learn to do this in just ONE lesson!
This AMAZES ME!
Of course, when you’re working with more experienced dancers, the rhythms get far more complex, and your ‘basic’ rhythm is more involved. So what was your ‘break’ step can become your ‘basic’ rhythm, and your additional sections of rhythm can layer up and become even more complex, working across phrases. This is when you get Swedish. This is when you get Frankie Manning and Norma Miller and Sugar Sullivan.
I don’t count.
Because I can’t. I’m rubbish at counting. But also because I don’t like the way it makes students think about the timing of a song as an absolute relationship between beats. The beat of improvised music, especially swing, is a consensual thing – the musicians find a common beat, and then they work with that. There’s no absolute relationship between the beats; the relationship between beats is relative. And counting is absolute.
I find that brand new dancers are totally ok with scatting and no counts. But dancers who’ve been learning for a while with counts find it very, very difficult to adjust to the lack of counts. They do get it, but it usually takes at least a quarter of a class, and even then they’re not totally ok with it.
I especially hate the way we use the word ‘and’ when we count ‘one two three and-four, five six seven and-eight’, because it suggests that the last three beats are equidistant in length, or that the ‘and’ is half the length of a single beat. But as we all know, syncopation is more complex. And a triple step isn’t exactly like a stomp off in terms of timing, and when we do something like a full break, the timing changes depending on whether we’re jumping into the air, stepping gently or taking big or small steps. Our own leg length changes the way we swing the timing, or adjust that distance between the beats. And of course, the song tells us how to do each beat or portion of a beat. So numbers are not the right tool.
Scatting is the tool. At first it’s embarrassing, but then it’s not. You love it.
I get very cranky about people insisting that 8 and 6 count steps are completely different dances. They’re not. We tend to only teach 6 count steps as step-step triple-step, triple-step, which is just one step step away from an 8 count rhythm. The only difference is two fewer counts. When you make a big deal about 6 and 8 count steps being really different (to the point of describing lindy hop only as 8 count and ‘6 count’ as a separate dance like jitterbug or whatevs), you make it confusing for the students. We dance 6 and 8 and 10 and 2 and 12 step movements in lindy hop ALL THE TIME; we definitely don’t have rules about the precise number of counts in lindy hop. That is the point of lindy hop as a vernacular jazz dance: it does what it likes. Yes, we do tend to move towards 8 count steps, but that’s because we’re working with music in 4/4 (common) timing, and we like a bit longer than one bar to get things done. But even our basic ‘step step triple step, step step triple step’ rhythm can be evenly divided into two bars of 4 if we need it.
Jazz: there are no freaking rules, so ease up on the goddam counting.
I start students dancing at the beginning of a phrase.
When I’m getting the students to dance a series of moves to music, I begin at the beginning of the phrase. At the beginning of the class, I’m usually guiding that, but by the end of the class students figure out where the phrase begins ON THEIR OWN! And I don’t even need to talk about phrasing! This might mean that we spend a few eight counts standing and bouncing together, but this is good – it helps us work on our bouncing and timing and partnership. Then when they are dancing on their own, deciding which steps to do when, they have three major points of reference in the music: the beat, the phrase, and the beginning of a bar or 8-count.
This often means that we have to wait out a bridge or a big solo in the music, but we will often say “Uh, oh, let’s wait til Cootie gets past this solo, then we’ll start,” or “Come on, Nina, play that weirdo piano breaky bit so we can get going.” This signals to the students that there are things happening in the music that are more than the beat, that are aurally interesting, and that this affects our dancing.
And, finally, dancing to the music in class.
Another way we think about music in class comes in when we are doing the ‘dance it out’ part of the class. We used to structure our classes around a set sequence of steps, where we moved through a mini routine in the class, just teaching step after step. This got BORING. Now we tend to teach progressively, or cumulatively, where we begin with a basic shape, and then make it more complex.
We teach total beginners in their very first class lindy hop. We start with the basic rhythm in closed, then we rotate it (circle in closed), then we have them let go half way (swing out from closed), then we have them come back together, with a bit of rotation (circle from open), then we have them swing out from open to open. Then we add swivels and bows. Same basic rhythm, with each step building on the one before. The core element is the rotation – the circle – because that’s what makes the follow drift out into open position when the lead lets go, and that’s what helps the lead redirect the follow’s momentum once they’ve started moving in at the beginning of a swing out. Swingouts = leads initiating momentum, then redirecting it, follows maintaining and shaping momentum. Or, ‘some times we are together, and some times we are apart.’
By this point, they’ve got 5 moves, a couple of jazz steps, and one solid rhythm. Then we have them dance a lot. We usually begin by having everyone dance a particular sequence as a group for perhaps two rotations of partners, or 2 or 4 phrases of a song. Then tell them the leads get to choose what order they do things in, and how many of each thing they do. Then we the music on and they dance and dance and dance – at least a whole 4 minute song, usually two songs, with rotations (though letting them have a few phrases with each partner).
We stand about in the middle or on the side watching, and doing a bit of spot checking if they need any tips, or answering questions. We use one song for all this, so they get to know the music really well, and we usually use something like ‘Easy Does It’ by the Big 18, or Basie’s slower ‘Splanky’ – something that swings like a gate, is a big band, is a slowish tempo, and has lots of texture and dynamics. While they’re doing all this dancing, we usually let them count themselves in (unless they’re struggling), and the only time we’ll address the whole group is to say “Yes! Beautiful!” and other positive things – when they do actually get to that point (I don’t tell them it’s brilliant if I don’t think it looks brilliant).
Here’s where the serious musicality comes in: when the song changes dynamics quite dramatically (eg from very loud and intense to calmer and quieter), we usually call out “Ok, the music has changed! It feels different now!” and then they just adjust their dancing to suit the music. It’s amazing to see – they go from huge and crazy to smaller and gentler in their shapes and communication. We don’t need to explain this – they just know how to do to it, because they are humans and humans are astounding.
So these are some of the ways we build musicality into our classes. And this is why I have never felt the urge to run a special ‘musicality’ class – every class I teach is a musicality class, or else I’m not teaching dancing.
*When I say ‘I’, I really mean ‘my teaching partners and I’, because it takes two to lindy hop.