Category Archives: lolfrankie

The business of lindy hop

Zack Richard’s great post about running lindy hop businesses. Hooked up by Jerry @ Wandering and Pondering on the facey. Of course. He was linking to the #improvrespect piece, but I couldn’t give one fig about that discussion, so I didn’t even finish that piece. But he did remind me that Zach writes good stuff, so I flicked back through his earlier pieces and found this one.

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.

Sea of Rhythm rambling

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.

Iterative design

I am design fail.

Squeezed dry by too much promotional work, I made the least useful promotional item today.

Here is the design process:

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Inspired by all this…

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It’s the most deco thing I’ve ever (accidentally) made

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Notice how the final postcard includes no actually useful information? Fuck me.
Such professionalism. Yes, I do get paid for this genius.

If you enjoy this sort of design brilliance, you might enjoy my instagram feed.

‘Musicality’ classes

Every dance class is a ‘musicality’ class.

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.

  • Rhythm.
    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.

The Rules of Connection: I think about pedagogy, lindy hop and ideology

Once again, Bug’s Question of the Day has my brain working.

Recently there was a paper published in Research and Dance Education on “frame matching” where it is proposed that there is a “universal” methedology of lead/follow that can apply to all partner dances.

http://www.joeandnelle.com/assets/frame_matching_and_pted_by_joe_demers.pdf

However is it really Universal? I often hear complaints from blues dancers about “Lindy Connection”, and likewise from Lindy Hoppers about how “heavy” blues connection is.

Likewise, some say that the concepts of frame matching are different for different dances anyhow.

So, do the concepts of frame matching really apply universally to all partner dances?
Do these efforts help codify Lindy and Blues at least to the level of tango, or at least is a step in the right direction?
Or is it simply another step in the evolution of partner dancing in the swing/blues genres?

Wednesday 30th May

(full article reference: DeMers, Joseph Daniel, “Frame matching and APTD: a framework for teaching Swing and Blues dance partner connection,” Research in Dance Education (2012).)

I have lots and lots to say about this article. But I can’t fit them all into one post. Well, I could, but this post is already reeeeally long for a blog post. Only 2.5 thousand words, which is way short for a journal article (~5000 words). So I (may) return to this topic later, in other posts. Or not.

Sadly, DeMers’ article triggered my ‘marker’s brain’. Reading this, I’d assume the author was an undergraduate or in the early stages of a postgraduate degree (in the arts or humanities). But the author has a background in science, education and educational psychology, so I should be a little easier on him, as those fields don’t pursue such rigorous approaches to critical inquiry. But if you’re publishing a journal article, you really need to step up, yo. There are some problems with written expression which occasionally obscure the author’s point. There are problems with the construction of the argument as well as with the communication of this argument: it is too simple, and does not exhibit sufficiently rigorous critical engagement with the topic.

In other words, it is thinking in short, straight lines, rather than around corners and back and forth. My background is in cultural studies, which is all about thinking round corners. Further, I was into feminist cultural studies, which is about thinking around corners, asking difficult questions and refusing to shut up when some fuckwit tells you you “think too much.” So I’m sorry, DeMers, but this is going to be a fairly close criticism of your piece. But, before I get into it, I need to ask: “should I read scholarship from the dance world the way I read academic articles?”

I think there’s a clear cultural divide between the way arguments are constructed and communicated in the university world and in the dance world. In the latter, consensus, cooperation and empathy are valued far more than a ‘right’ answer. I think that this is – largely – a result of the influence of Frankie Manning, a man who was determinedly disassociated from local scene politics. His emphasis on the idea that ‘for three minutes you are in love with your partner’, on ‘bowing to the queen of the world’ and on humility make it clear that he felt dance (‘as the happiest thing on earth’) is about peace and fraternity, not conflict. I’ve found this approach frustrating when reading about his responses to racism in the American south in the 30s and 40s in particular (because I do think dance is a vehicle for radical political resistance as well), but I also deeply admire it as a truly pacifist response to cultural and physical violence. What better way to combat hate, than with love?

Writing this response, I was struck by a conflict in the two methods of discursive engagement I’ve used in the past. In the academic world, a forceful, even aggressive tone was important as a woman writing in a patriarchal, highly regulated and heirachical discourse. But in the dance world, where a harsh word or aggressive line has immediate real world consequences and runs in direct conflict with the ethos of international lindy hop ideology (ie Frankie would not have liked it). I’ve lately decided that one of the reasons I didn’t like academia very much was that it privileged aggressive, combative discourse. I feel that part of being a feminist is (to clumsily paraphrase Germaine Greer) to practice fraternity as a response to patriarchy.

So I’m going to try to do like Frankie did. But I’m also going to remember Norma Miller and her fury. Speak up, but be gentle. Mostly.

So let’s get to it. Let me engage with the article, point by point, with the fundamental premise of this article (this has gotten too long for just one post, so I’m just going to do one thing here).

The piece presents “frame matching” as a

codified theory of partner-dance connection (abstract, pg 1)

. Ok, yeah, that’s not such a problem. If you’re ok with the whole concept of ‘codified’ dance practice. In this context a ‘codified theory’ is a ‘set of theoretical rules or guidelines’. So this paper is establishing a set of rules for teaching and practicing partner dance, specifically in terms of connection (part of me wants to argue that there’s very little in partner dancing that isn’t about connection, whether you’re touching your partner or not). There are some useful aspects to this approach. As DeMers points out, adopting a code

…gives instructors a framework for creating a well-organized partner-dance curriculum, and gives them a means of assessing students’ working knowledge and execution of connection (pg 3)

This is such an appealing notion. Right now, as I’m trying to figure out exactly how I teach, and what I want to teach, the thought of a formal, fixed and reliable teaching tool kit is just so tempting. It’d be so much easier to just discover this foolproof, ‘right’ way of teaching the ‘right’ stuff. But this sort of approach also rings my alarm bells. I’ve done a heap of courses focussing on pedagogic practice in tertiary education over the years, and one of the most exciting ideas was that of the teacher as a guide to learning. Rather than adopting a ‘chalk and talk’ approach (where the teacher stands at the front of the room, dispensing knowledge), the student-centered class room sees the teacher (or tutor) as facilitating the student’s discovery of knowledge. Inherent to this approach is the idea that each student learns in different ways, and has different interests. By god that’s hard work. It’s really hard to work with thirty unique hoomans with thirty different ways of learning (all of which are changing constantly). Teaching would be SO MUCH EASIER if I could just pretend students were standardised units. And yet, that idea is also REALLY SCARY because it means that there’re also very wrong ways of teaching. PRESSURE!

Most usefully for me – as both a postgraduate learning to tutor and lecture and now as a dancer learning to teach dance – this student-centered model does not assume the teacher carries all the learnz around inside them. Rather, the teacher encourages and assists students in their discovery. For me, this means that I don’t have to be the cleverest person in the room, or the best dancer on the dance floor. I do have to be the person who manages the group, who guides the discussion of concepts and challenges (whether in verbal discursive exploration or in physical exploration), who encourages and supports new ideas and new ways of thinking. Granted, it’s fairly important for a teacher – in both a dance class and a university tutorial – to know a heap of things. But there will always come a point where the student reaches the edges of the teacher’s knowledge, ability, or experience.

For me, the most empowering thing I learnt about teaching was that it’s totally ok to say “I don’t know the answer to that. Why don’t we find out together?” It’s the same with dancing: I need to know some things, but it’s ok for me to reach a point at the limits of my physical ability or experience and then say “I don’t know why that works like that. Why don’t we find out together?” The delightful thing about dance is that it requires whole-bodied experimentation through play: lindy hop and swing music are all about having fun while learning stuff. One of the things I like most about lindy hop (and I extrapolate from DeMers’ work to assume that he feels his code can be used across the panopoly of jazz and swing era dances) is that it prioritises individual improvisation. Making stuff up. Breaking rules. But in a social way.

This is why I’m not entirely ok with the idea that we need a codified approach to dance practice or dance pedagogy. It presupposes a final, finite rule book for how we teach, how we learn, and how we dance. And that doesn’t sit well with me. I’d be heart broken to discover that everything there is to know about dance had already been written down. For me, the very best part of teaching has always been that moment when a student presents an idea that had never occurred to me (or anyone else), or moves their body in a way that is utterly unique. Suddenly I’m inspired and excited about teaching and learning. Hoomans are amazing: we are wonderful and surprising. I don’t want to forestall that with dancing rules.

In a practical sense, though, accepting that different teachers teach in different ways, and different students learn in different ways makes good financial and promotional sense. I work within a large dance scene with lots of teachers. I’ve realised that students don’t come to class and stay with that class just for the dance knowledge they’re developing. They come because they like that class’s culture (the people in the room, the way they interact, the physical space, the music, and so on and so on). In a market crowded with ‘dance experiences’, it makes sense to differentiate, to offer something unique. We are all teaching lindy hop (well, mostly… :D ), but we all teach in different ways.
The most powerful promotional tool we have at our disposal is the effective communication of that difference. Dancers’ best promotional tool is their own dancing body: we attract new students who see us dancing at public gigs; we attract existing dancers who want to learn ‘new’ things when they see us dancing in competitions or performances or on the social dance floor. But we also make extensive use of online, paper and face to face media and promotions. We have developed a language for selling our teaching, and this language is not politically or ideological neutral or ‘just descriptive’. The way we talk about dance and articulate what we feel in dance expresses the way we think about dance, and about our dance partners.

Arthur Murray’s pedagogic practices worked on a premise in direct opposition to this ‘diversity rocks’ idea. The assumption was/is that dance a) could be codified; and b) that it could be sold as a consistent, quality-controlled product in many different venues by many different people. It was a profoundly effective way of selling dance. But it was also a profoundly effective way of stifling individual creativity and the development of social dance practice as a living, breathing, changeable art.

I think about this approach as being the McDonalds approach to dance. Sure, you get the reassurance of consistent ‘food’, no matter where you are in the world, and the model ensures a high food safety standard. But that consistency has led to a preponderance of factory-farmed product where that quality is controlled by chemicals and cruel farming practices. The mundaneness of this consistency is countered with unnatural sensory experience: extra salt, extra sugar, extra fat, all efforts to replace the pleasures of a simple, authentic ‘flavour’ with artificial ‘taste’. Sometimes that’s how I feel about aerials: if your basic swingouts and footwork and rhythms are dull and pedestrian, you need air steps to make it interesting. This is why Skye Humphries and Todd Yannacone and Naomi Uyama and Ramona Staffeld and Frida Segerdahl and Lennart Westerlund are so amazing: they don’t need air to excite your palate (though they can certainly bring it if they need to).

I’m a big fan of the Montessori or free school learning and teaching model. I’d like to be able to encourage students to discover their own way of moving and expressing themselves, where they try to figure out what they love, and how they feel, and then work on expressing that with their bodies. There are physiological limits to what we can do with our bodies, but because all our bodies (and lifestyles) are unique, the bodies we work with are all unique. So the dancing we do, and the ideas that we have, are all unique. And that is what I think we should be working towards.

I have similar feelings about teaching dance. I recently organised a workshop weekend here in Sydney with some visiting teachers. We had one day of general workshops, and one day of ‘teacher training’. The teacher training was set up in two parts. One session where dancers worked on their own dancing specifically to improve their teaching (eg looking at how clearer lines or sharper footwork made it easier for students to see how the movement worked in demonstrations). The second session more a ‘skill share’ session where everyone shared their favourite teaching tools, asked specific questions about how other people taught particular things, and then experimented with these.

The presumption in this day of ‘teacher training’ was that the dancer/teachers involved were all skilled professionals with unique ways of working. The session was not to enforce a ‘preferred’ teaching code or to ‘improve the standard of teaching’, but to encourage reflexivity in teachers’ practices. To share ideas so that each teacher (and teaching partnership) could refine and develop their teaching practice in their own way. Inherent to this was the idea that teaching practice is mutable, flexible and responsive to the students’ needs, and to the teachers’ interests and needs. In other words, teaching different things in different ways to different people by different people. The end goal was of course unique pedagogic cultures and practices within the broader dance scene. Organic, gmo-free, visually unique, sensorily exciting.

I think the sessions went well, for a first-run. I had good feedback from participants (and I like to encourage all sorts of feedback), and from what I observed in the session, people enjoyed the experience. I do think that it takes time to learn how to participate in this sort of session, and that it takes a degree of trust: you need to trust your peers to support your ideas and not dismiss them. So I’d think that you’d really need to do this a few times to get the best results.

I have seen this approach used by other dance scenes and at other dance events. But my problem with some of those models is that though they ostensibly encourage individualised teaching practice and dance, they effectively maintain hierarchies and power. Most specifically, some of the people involved are established as ‘authorities’ and the collaborative setting is ultimately working to shore up the power of the organising person or ideologies. I’m certain this (inevitably, perhaps) happened in our setting this past weekend. But I’m hoping the organising ideology was ‘diversity and flexibility through collaboration’ not ‘uniformity and ‘correctness’ through collaboration.’
I do think that the best way to encourage a diverse, lalala learning environment is not to preach about it explicitly, but to sneak it into the process. So Herrang, for example, encourages dancers to interact in casual, friendly ways with old timers, with teachers, with each other not through formal ‘sessions for hiearchy-free interaction,’ but by setting up large communal eating areas where people share tables. I do think the shared table is an excellent metaphor for community, and it’s not just pragmatics that encourages many dance events to build meals into their programs.

Having said all that, part of me wants to know how can we do all this lovely hippy work and still be involved in a project of historical recreation and preservation? In a practical example, my teaching partner and I are currently figuring out exactly what type of swingout we want to teach to our class over the next month or so. We both have different preferences and ideas, but we’re both dance supernerds with an interest in biomechanics, a commitment to individual self expression, an emphasis on safety and pleasure, and we’re both guided by history. In a perfect world we’d work with the students to develop their awareness of their own bodies and and their basic skills so that they can choose how they dance their swingouts. In that same perfect world we’d introduce them to particular swingouts from lindy hop history, working with examples by particular dancers at different times. The ultimate goal would be to have each dancer being aware of what they’re doing in the swingout, and consciously choosing the way they move and respond to their partner. We both have particular favourites and dancers (both historic and contemporary) which we admire and want to emulate. But we also want our students to develop their own flavah flave.

The challenge, of course, is this: how do you actually run a class (or classes) which are historically grounded (and preserving/recreating lindy hop from the past) and also encouraging and allowing students to follow their own interests and personal creative instincts?

Interestingly, dance teachers like the Harlem/Rhythm Hot Shots are in an easier position: they are determinedly into historical preservation, and they position their classes and performances this way. They often say “This is our way of dancing a swing out, which we learnt from/modelled on Al Minns/Frankie Manning/Anne Johnson/Norma Miller, so we want you to learn to swingout this way.” The caveat is of course that once you’re done with the class you can just put aside that particular swingout and never do it again. But actually learning to dance precisely that way has taught you something about your body (and history) and more importantly, given you the ability to choose the swingout(s) you will do.
But my dilemma is this: how exactly do you do balance historical recreationism/preservation with student centeredness and principles of ‘natural’ movement and biomechanics in a weekly one-hour class that really has to be promoted in a clear, simple, accessible, totally-fun way, with a goal of maximum student numbers possible and mad dancing skillz? Week after week after week.

I guess the answer is that you don’t. Unless you really are a high-status, highly-skilled dancer like (my heroes) Asa Palm or Lennart Westerlund. In those cases what you are selling is historical accuracy, and students may choose to attend or not attend class. And as highly skilled, well respected dancers, students are likely to attend just because you’re teaching.
Or are they?
This is where we must balance pedagogic ideals with promotional and economic sustainability, individual creative self expression with historical preservation. To pull this stuff off, you just have to be one shit-hot teacher. Which is what the Hot Shots are: they are shit hot teachers and dancers.

Ok, so you can see, right here, that I’m going to have trouble with DeMers’ article. I can’t accept the basic premise of the thing: that there is a single codified theory for teaching connection, and that this is desirable, useful thing. I just don’t think that this is a useful approach: it doesn’t accommodate the complexity of hoomans in motion. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested. I discovered the other day that Al Minns used a swingout that didn’t involve triple steps. This makes me freak out a little in my brain, but it also makes me intensely curious. HOW EVEN DID IT WORK? If I rely on triple steps to generate and maintain momentum and stuff syncopation into a swingout, if I rely on triple steps for covering more ground, how did Al Minns and his partners achieve all these things without triple steps?! I NEED TO KNOW. I MUST ACQUIRE ALL THE LEARNZ.

That’s how I feel about this article. The basic premise unsettles me, but it also invites my engagement.

A-one, a-two, a-you know what to do!

A-one, a-two, a-you know what to do! from dogpossum on 8tracks.

linky

This month has been Frankie Manning month for me, teaching two Frankie themed classes a week (lindy hop and solo jazz), visiting Melbourne for the Shiny Stockings weekend with Chazz Young, Steven Mitchell and Ramona Staffeld (Ramona drove this excellent weekend) and generally doing quite a lot of research into Frankie Manning’s dancing and choreography.

It was, of course, Frankie’s birthday on the 26th May, and this has proven a nice focus for all this effort. I think it was a great idea to use the whole month to focus on Frankie’s work, and I’ve been feeling very inspired and challenged. I’ve also been struck by just how much joy this Frankie themed material has brought our students in class (it really does fill you up with happiness), and how important Frankie has been to the lindy hop revival. Yes, he was a brilliant dancer and choreographer, but he was also so important to the revival of lindy hop in the modern day, bringing not only his knowledge of dance, but his feeling for other people and for dancing. He would always begin his dances with the ideas that you ‘bow to the queen’ and ‘for the next three minutes you’re in love with this person’, and this seems like a pretty good way to dance – and live your life – to me. Respect your partner, love dance and dancing, let your partner be the centre of your world for the next little moment. I’m down with that.

So here is a little 8tracks devoted to Frankie Manning.

1. Jumpin’ At The Woodside – Count Basie and his Orchestra – 235 – The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 02) – 1939 – 3:10

2. “Big Apple Contest” – The Solomon Douglas Swingtet – 211 – Swingmatism – 2006 – 2:58

3. Hellzapoppin – George Gee – 356 – 2009 – 2:13

4. Cotton Tail – Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra – 236 – Big Ben – Disc 1 – Cotton Tail – 1940 – 4:49 PM

5. Flying Home – Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra – 197 – Lionel Hampton Story 2: Flying Home – 1942 – 3:11

6. Shiny Stockings – Count Basie and his Orchestra – 126 – Complete Clef/Verve Count Basie Fifties Studio Recordings [Disc 6] – 1956 – 5:17

7. Easy Does It – Big Eighteen (Billy Butterfield, Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown, Vic Dickenson, Lou McGarity, Dicky Wells, Walt Levinksy, Hymie Schertzer, Sam Donahue, Boomie Richman, Ernie Caceres, Johnny Guarnieri, Barry Galbraith, Milt ) – 129 – Echoes of the Swinging Bands – 1958 – 5:14

8. The Shim Sham Song – JW Swing Orchestra – 183 – Holdin’ You In My Holden – 2002 – 2:46

1. ‘Jumpin at the Woodside’.
This song is one of those Pavlov’s Lindy Hopper tracks that quite often provokes a jam circle. But it was the song to which the famous lindy hop routine in the 1941 film Hellzapoppin was originally choreographed (read more about that here). There are sixty million versions, but this one is my favourite.

(Whiteys Lindy Hoppers .. Helzapoppin)

Basie is a particularly important band leader when we’re talking Frankie.

2. ‘The ‘Big Apple Contest” from the Keep Punchin’ soundie.
Taken from a short film, the routine accompanying this song has proved particularly popular with lindy hoppers, especially in the last six years or so. It’s a high energy, challenging choreography, lots of fun to dance, lots of interesting shapes and steps.

The Big Apple contest from Keep Punchin’

This version of this song is important because it’s the most commonly used, and perhaps the best quality version we have available. It’s by Solomon Douglas’ Swingtet, and was transcribed by Solomon. Solomon is a DJ and dancer as well as a talented pianist who plays with lots of good bands, as well as with his own outfits. I think this recording could do with a bit more attention, really. It gets used an awful lot, and is the sort of recording only a band tightly connected with lindy hoppers would research and record. Musically speaking I’m not sure the actual song is all that awesome, but this is a great treatment, and the song itself is absolutely central to Frankie Manning’s history on film.

3. I don’t need to explain ‘Hellzapoppin” again. But I do need to point out that this version was transcribed and recorded by George Gee, a band leader with a long history of association and collaboration with lindy hoppers. He was right there in the early days of the revival, and he’s still right there, in the thick of it.

I can’t embed the video, but I can link you to this ‘Hellzapoppin, Then and Now’ video featuring this song played live.
I’m not sure where or if you can buy this song now, but I downloaded it from FB where George Gee was giving it away for free a while ago.

4. ‘Cottontail’ was featured in the 1941 soundie ‘Cottontail’ featuring Duke Ellington and his orchestra. This clip features the Hot Chocolates (aka the Harlem Congaroos), a group of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers from the Savoy Ballroom, and once again featuring Frankie Manning (read more about it here).

(linky)

5. ‘Flying Home’ by Lionel Hampton’s orchestra (1942).
This is one of the first songs associated with the lindy hop revival. Spike Lee’s 1992 film ‘Malcolm X’ is important in lindy hop history because Frankie Manning (and other old timer and modern day lindy hoppers with mad skills) were involved in its production, in no small part because of Lee’s fierce determination to highlight black American history. Manning appears in this sequence, but was also involved in the choreography.

lindy hop scene from Malcolm X

This song is another one that’ll start a jam if you’re not careful. I’m extra interested in this song because it was also famously recorded by Benny Goodman’s smaller groups, and those groups were really important because they were one of the earliest and most determinedly high profile swing bands featuring black and white performers. So I tend to think of this clip as a political comment on lindy hop history as well as a spankingly good dance track.

6. ‘Shiny Stockings’, Count Basie Orchestra in 1956.
This song is important because it was one of Frankie’s favourites, and he used it in classes and performances all the time in the revival period.

Frankie and Dawn Hampton performing in 2008

As a DJ and music nerd, I’m quite interested in the correlation between ‘new testatment Basie’ and ‘new testament Frankie’. This was the second half of these artists’ careers, quite different to their earlier work, and yet utterly dependent on that 1930s/40s history of hot and fast swing jazz. In these later periods of their careers, both Basie and Frankie explored subtler, more nuanced work (Frankie of course responding to what he heard in Basie’s music), both working with slower tempos and greater subtlety.

Teaching this past month I’ve realised that though you might see a subtler dancing at work in Frankie’s post-revival lindy hop, his movements are still those of a dancer who spent most of their time running about at high tempos in massively athletic displays of skill. So though his joints were older and stiffer, his body (and brain) still remembered how to move like an athlete, and to really recreate this (as if you really could!), you need to start big and athletic, then pare it back to the more nuanced essence. It’s the same with Basie’s music. His playing in the 50s is pared back from the stomping stride playing of his early days in Kansas to just a few careful notes accenting rhythm and melody in the 50s.

7. ‘Easy Does It’, by the Big Eighteen in 1958.

Another of Frankie’s teaching and performing favourites from the revival period:

(with Sylvia Sykes in 2006)

This version of ‘Easy Does It’ is a good one because it’s by the Big Eighteen – a celebrity all-star band mashed together for a few studio recordings. There’s a bit of grandstanding in there, but really, if that crowd got together, you’d expect nothing less. ‘Easy Does It’ was recorded by heaps of people, including Basie’s band in 1940.

8. ‘The Shim Sham Song’ – JW Swing Orchestra.
Another key song for the lindy hop revival, Frankie taught and performed the shim sham all over the world using this song. There’s a far more famous version by George Gee’s band, featuring Frankie calling the steps, but the JW Swing Orchestra was important in the Melbourne lindy hop scene in the earlier days. They recorded this quite good version in 2002, and though I don’t especially like this song, it’s absolutely central to lindy hop history and to Frankie Manning’s importance.

Though it’s not using that ‘Shim Sham song’, this ‘global shim sham’ tribute video put together for Frankie 95 gives you an idea of both the dance’s importance, and the great love felt for Frankie Manning by lindy hoppers all over the world.


(linky)

Happy Birthday Frankie, and thanks for all the lols!

The influence of Frankie Manning on my lindy hop history

As I mentioned in the Frankie Fest post the other day, we’re teaching Frankie Manning themed classes this month at our weekly class. That means Frankie Manning themed lindy hop in the first class, and then Frankie Manning themed solo dance in the second class. Although making the distinction between the two seems to deliberately misunderstand exactly what Frankie Manning – and jazz dance – are all about.

I’m going to see if I can write a few blog posts about Frankie Manning, or, rather, using Frankie Manning as a jumping off point for some ideas. We’ll see how well things go – I’m not all that together in the longer-form writing way at the moment.

This is a post about how Frankie Manning moved into and out of my understanding of lindy hop. This is a story of personal growth (goddess, how I hope it’s about growth), not really about Frankie himself. If you want that story, you should read his autobiography.

Oh, yeah, Frankie Manning IS the best!: late 2000s and early 2010s

Frankie95, the massive birthday party for Frankie Manning, which he just missed out on seeing, seemed to suddenly change everything. It’s true, you know, you don’t know what you’ve got til you lose it. You don’t miss the water til the well runs dry. And the Silver Shadows, the most popular, and one of the most highly skilled lindy hop performance groups in the world at the time reminded people that Frankie was wonderful:

Frankie95 day3 Performance Silver Shadows tribute to Frakie Manning:

It feels, now, that the generation of international teachers being flown to Australia to teach (people like Thomas and Alice, for example, who taught a ‘Frankie class’ at Jumptown Jam last month), who mightn’t have been into this stuff in a big way before, are suddenly falling in love with Frankie Manning all over again. Or for the first time.

I’m feeling a profound sense of déjà vu. The steps that I first learnt to dance with – pecks, stomp offs, mini-dips – are now chic again. I’m not complaining. But I think that for a lot of dancers, the technique-heavy smooth style phase and then the popularity of blues dancing gave them the technical skills to really appreciate what Frankie Manning was doing, particularly in his later years. And I also think that the influence of Steven and Virgine in Melbourne (particularly during that 2000-2004 period) was very important. While their dance style was definitely juicier and groovier, their experience with Frankie Manning definitely informed their teaching, and Frankie’s understanding of music and rhythm and dance shaped the Melbourne lindy hop scene, even indirectly.

For myself, I think that Frankie himself makes it very clear that to be able to dance well, it’s just as important to able to shake your arse for Shiny Stockings at 120bpm as it is to move your arse at 230bpm with Jumpin’ at the Woodside.

Understanding Frankie’s bum and feet and hands and everything: early 2010s Sydney

Now that I’m teaching (again – the last time I taught was ~2002), I amazed by the content Frankie was teaching beginners:

Frankie Manning teaching in Denver, CO 2007:

That little sequence is quintessential Frankie Manning. He just assumed that if you were learning lindy hop, you were going to learn a complex sequence of rhythms and steps, and that that was going to be the heart of your dancing. Most lindy hop classes I see these days assume that beginners will be learning simple movements and that this sort of rhythmic work is a ‘variation’, an optional extra for more advanced dancers.

When I first started learning, this little film shows the sort of thing we learnt – in fact, I can still remember learning pretty much this exact sequence way back in about 2000. I strongly believe that this stuff – these rhythms, this use of open position, this combining partner work with individual improvisation – is the very core, the absolute essence of lindy hop. Without it, you’re just… well, you’re just doing something else. You’re not lindy hopping.

I know that right now, I’m really only beginning to properly understand just how amazing he was, even in his 90s. There are no modern dancers today who can approach his skill level. Let alone his choreographing ability. I think we are so lucky to have had him, not just in the early days of lindy hop, but most especially in the revival, when we really needed, as a community, to be taught not only how to dance, but how to love dancing and to be good to each other.

I think these interviews with today’s lindy hoppers talking about Frankie Manning at 90, at the 2004 Herrang Dance camp make all this clear:

Frankie Fest

We’re teaching a heap of Frankie stuff in classes this month, in the lead up to his birthday on the 26th May. Last night it was pecks in promenade, points and other important things. Teaching these steps I was struck by just how complex and wonderful they are for new dancers. Pecking gets a lot of flack, but it’s pretty challenging to peck and walk if you’re totally new to dancing.

My favourite pecks are in the Hellzapoppin clip:

Whiteys Lindy Hoppers .. Helzapoppin.