Groove or pulse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARLEM 2015: Sakarias & Mimmi

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

teaching leads to follow, follows to lead: quick thought

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

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

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

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

What is groundedness?

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

Jo asked in the fb teaching group:

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

And I replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

RE how do I teach dancers to be grounded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key skills: rhythm, timing, jamming and FOLLOWING

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

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

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

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

This is where my brain was blown:

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

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

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

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

Teaching this stuff:

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

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

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

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

Key skills: rhythm, timing, jamming

Rethinking lindy hop via tap and African dance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. In summary…

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

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

 

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

Muddling through thoughts about ethnicity and dance and gender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

probably nuts and berries

I’m actually beginning to think there are a few key schools of thought in lindy hop at the moment:

– the ‘naturalists‘ (ie think of them as the nuts-and-berries dancers, after the Sydney School of architects) who like natural movement, see aesthetics as a product of function, eschew jargon, and valorise jazz music. They mightn’t always use historical steps, and are very much into the ‘spirit’ of jazz dance (ie improvisation and self expression) and big into solo dance. They do pilates and/or yoga and talk about neutral spines.

– the ‘rhythm first‘ group who are often hardcore historians, but also really into dancing as an extension of jazz music. They tend to do solo jazz, tap, and lindy hop as connected dances, and they focus on polyrhythms. They also avoid jargon, and use some of the nuts-and-berries’ ‘natural movement’ tools. But they can be quite prescriptive when it comes to ‘preserving history’. They can be on the edge of exoticising African American and African dance and body types and are epic OG name droppers.

– the ‘technicists‘ group who are really into verbiage and understanding how lindy hop works with their brains. There’s a lot of talking in class, and a lot of ‘figuring out how it works’. The music is less important than connection, and there is a strong vibe of ‘get it right’ technique. These guys tend to overlap with the blues scene, and there isn’t a lot of solo dance.

I think I tend to use a bit from each group, depending on whether I’m teaching, in class, or social dancing. I love to know how things work with my brain, and pilates is very important for teaching me to use my body and avoid injury. But when I’m social dancing I just want to DANCE and I don’t think about the technicalities. When I’m teaching lindy hop to beginners I mix a lot of these things, but use very little of the technical stuff.

We are all good dancers: in praise of jazz and critique of jargon

Lindy hop is a social dance. That means that ordinary people already have the skills they need to do this dance.

Our job as teachers is to just to remind them of this. Because they knew this when they were children.
If we ‘correct’ students and use jargon to make something simple complicated, they feel bad and think dancing is really hard. Dancing isn’t. Lindy hop is really simple.

So I just don’t use that ‘tension/tone’ paradigm for understanding lindy hop. I just have three rules:
take care of your partner
take care of the music
take care of yourself.
Done.

Sheryl asked this good question on fb (as part of a discussion about rough leads and safety):

What difference do you think different terms like tone/ tension/ activate/ turning off make? Honestly to me the main difference I think of between tone and tension is how muscles feel when exercising vs when my muscles are sore. Which is tension is my muscles doing the same thing just one is when it shouldn’t be.

I don’t really know how to address that issue using those terms (I’m just not good enough at this stuff). Mostly I just reject that entire paradigm. I don’t think of dancing that way, so I don’t use those words.

But from the POV of teaching new dancers, when you say ‘tension’, they interpret it using their own experiences (and many of them won’t have done any serious or consistent exercise or training). So they’ll think ‘tense’ as a bad thing, and recreate a tense, tight muscle. Same with the word ‘frame’: they’ll think of a picture frame, or the frame of a chair – something fixed, solid, unmoving, unchanging. And that’s absolutely not what we want in lindy hop. Or humans.

I don’t like ‘tone/tension’ because it’s applied to all muscles and all actions in the same way. It also makes it clear that students know nothing and must rely on their teacher 100% to learn to dance. It also makes classes very wordy and focussed on talking rather than dancing. I want students to figure things out on their own. I want them to know that they have the skills they need to learn to dance: they know how to hold someone in their arms, how to find the beat in music, how to stand on one leg, how to walk, how to look at someone, how to take care of someone. They’re also brilliant pattern matchers so they’ll figure out rhythms and patterns quite quickly. And most importantly: this is FUN. It’s dancing, not maths.

So I prefer to come at it from the opposite direction.

What do you want them to do?

Hold hands? Then ask them to hold hands, but hold hands like they’re holding hands with their elderly nanna who needs some support, but is still an independent human being. So gentle, but reassuring. Or like they’re holding hands with a little kid who needs direction because they get distracted, but knows how to walk. Or hold hands with someone they want to move around a small confined space with to music. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THEY’RE DOING.

People know how to do this. And they understand the difference between holding hands like that and holding hands so tight it hurts someone. In our classes we then follow up this sort of instruction by saying “Check in with your body. Look at your hands. Are the knuckles white? Too tight a grip. Are your shoulders sore? You’re working too hard.” And we say “Check in with your partner. Look at them. Do they have a scared face on? Are they angry? Is their hand clenched really tight? Change what you’re doing and see what response it has.”
Or as Frankie would say: “You are in love for 3 minutes.” So you look at them, you look at them with admiration. Which orients your body towards them and gives you good ‘dance posture’ and connection, but also tells you how to hold their hand. You wouldn’t yank your beloved’s arm out of the socket. You look at them and interact with them.

We know how to do all this.

So we want them to hold hands with intention. We always use the example : you want your follow to come with you. So you lead them. It’s like you’re saying ‘hey, let’s go to the snack table!’ and you lead them to the snack table with purpose.
This way you get to the important stuff: moving your body first, holding hands, moving with purpose, making sure you take them with you. And there’s corresponding stuff for follows.
The rhythm is just the tool for moving you around the floor. If there’s no room to move, you dance on the spot. A fancy rhythm is just a fancy way of walking. And the music tells you what rhythms are nice, and paying attention to your partner gives you inspiration and marks the parameters of this dance.
The other people on the dance floor give you limits: a crowded floor means you do smaller shapes. A floor full of noobs and drinkers and kids tells you to be super safe. An empty floor lets you stretch out. You adapt.

Too many dancers learn a set of figures in class in a ‘perfect’ studio environment. Then when they social dance they just try to reproduce those moves in the same way on the social dance floor. Which isn’t sociable at all.
We need to use all our potential as flexible, responsive, reactive, creative improvising humans. Not just reproduce the same figures the same way all the time, regardless of song, other people on the floor, or our partner.

(This is where I rant about leads who only like follows who execute their moves perfectly: they’re not good leads. They’re very limited leads. So those guys who hurt you demonstrated an inability to change what they were doing to suit their partner’s needs and body and creativity. Same with follows who think a ‘good lead’ is a lead who only leads complex series of moves that work perfectly.)

I think that in lindy hop we focus too much on our arms, rather than thinking of our arms as a medium for a message. They’re like the cables that signals coming from our core pass through to reach our partner. They’re not the place where signals begin. Our arms join us together. They’re just one of the ways we share rhythms: we use our eyes (which is why I don’t like exercises where we close our eyes in class), we use our bodies, our ears, our connection with the floor, and then we use all the points where we touch, not just our arms or hands. And then finally (or first of all) the music connects us: we have a shared sense of time that keeps us together. Even when we’re not touching and can’t see each other, we know when to come back together – the 1 or the phrase or the bridge tells us!

So in nerd terms, I want relaxed, alert but not alarmed arms. Much more importantly, I want my weight on the front part of my foot (but not tippy toes), I want a neutral spine (so my bum muscles can relax unless they’re needed), which means my bum can be ‘out’ (to give me better ‘squat’ posture to engage my core and protect my knees), my knees are soft, my upper body is open and directed towards my partner. My embrace (closed position) is an embrace, where I touch my partner a lot (ie the follow isn’t clamping my bicep with a vice like grip) and our bodies make a v-shape at the closed side.
I’m aiming for relaxed contact, as relaxed as I can. But my pelvic floor is ON.
But these are ideal conditions. If I’m constantly working towards this ‘ideal’, I’ll never get there and I’ll never enjoy dancing. I’ll never be ‘good enough’. We are all good dancers, and we can all do this, right from our first class. We need to accept that we are all different, with different bodies (not this mythical ideal), so we see these variations as creative posbilities, not limitations.

To be honest, I don’t think a dance class is where you learn this muscle stuff. I think you need to do pilates or good strength training with a trainer to learn how to turn muscles on and off, and to be more efficient. Then you go to dance class. Just as the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers all had active physical jobs and lifestyles (because young, working class, African American people) during the day. Most lindy hoppers today have desk jobs, or less active lifestyles, so we’re working with a different physicality.
But none of that matters if you’re not focussed on becoming a competition winning queen.

Because I’m rhythm-focussed rather than move-focussed, I want that relaxed connection to let the signals move through my and my partner’s body so we can communicate. I don’t want to have to micro-manage my partner’s movements. I can have a most excellent dance with just circles, closed position, gliding. We needn’t even get into open position. And you can do that with anyone.

But when I’m talking to beginner dancers, I don’t give them all that talk. It’s just a bunch of words and too much info.
We demonstrate how to do closed position by hugging our partner then turning slightly. They mightn’t do that (too intense for a first class), but they see the example.

We demonstrate open position by holding hands then moving away; the connection is made by the distance, not by ‘tensing’ our muscles. It’s an active connection because our cores are on, and we have a 3/4 orientation to our partner (ie not facing away, not squaring up).

I don’t say all that, though, I just say, ‘look at your partner as you move into open’ and that keeps them at that 3/4 orientation towards their partner, and keeps their heads up, which keeps their shoulders open and the signal from their core through their arms unimpeded. If they’re comfortable with the rhythm by then (which they usually are), doing that rhythm will turn on their core and allow their upper bodies to relax a bit. If they’re having fun they will be relaxed.

If the follow doesn’t move into open, I ask the leads, “Did you stop moving? If you stopped moving, the follow will stop too.” And they realise they’d stopped the rhythm and were standing still.

If I want more core engagement, I don’t say ‘turn on your core’, I get them to do a one-legged jazz step (charleston), or ‘shake it down’ (ie Frankie’s bum jiggle into the ground). Because those steps require core engagement for balance and control – you can’t do them without your core on. Or I distract them with a joke so they relax and laugh and suddenly: core is on. Laughing: core activation. If they’re super tense so their partners can’t feel their core, I let them dance for a veeeery long time with that partner so that they stop being worried and relax. Talk. Enjoy the music.

If they’re too tense in their upper bodies and dragging their partners around, it’s because they’re relying on their partner for balance, and are not hauling arse. In other words, a rough, yanky lead is not moving their body enough, and is relying on their arms to drag the follow into position. If instead you haul arse and move yourself, the follow will come with you because it’s just the easiest option: “Come to the snacks table – they have ice cream!” Skye is a good example of this, so is Sakarias, and so is Frankie. They achieve great shapes by moving their own bodies first, which creates interesting shapes by the time the follow moves.

I think jargon works as exclusive language. It shuts people out of dancing. It gives power and privilege to the people who ‘know’ these words. And I don’t like that.

I-go, you-go, we-go teaching method.

So, I feel like a bit of a doofus for just realising this, but this call-and-response approach to teaching is a feature of folk music, isn’t it? It’s how we learn folk songs, and how we participate in folk music and dance (including religious services).
I only figured it out when I was watching this video of Natalie Merchant teaching an audience how to sing a folk song (from 20.08):


(linky)

I know that if you’ve grown up with this sort of teaching and learning you’re better at it, but even total noobs can figure it out quickly. And it’s quite exciting. It’s also a much more dynamic, creative way of learning music and dance than having stuff broken down into tiny pieces.
People are learning about timing (they all keep the time really well), and all that technical stuff, it’s just not articulated. Which suggests that the shared experience of making music/dance is more important than the technical stuff.

Coda: I feel like I’m unlearning 20 years of my own lindy hop learning to teach in a more fun way. And that the way we teach lindy hop today is a product of it being commodified by white, m/c urban folks.

When I watch our students on the social dance floor teaching their friends steps they’ve learnt in class I think ‘Yep, this is how it’s meant to go. You can ‘teach’ a step in a loud, busy environment if you use the i-go, you-go, we-go approach. This is a social learning skill.’ Unlike the word-focussed approach to teaching which requires a quiet room.

Flat vs heirarchical power in safe space discourse

Following on from my last post, Conflict or Bullying?….

There are technical definitions for harassment, abuse, and bullying in various government or medical literatures. But I’m finding these aren’t as significant as the perception of these differences within the dance world.
For context, the last two years since Steven Mitchell was openly outed as a serial rapist and sexual offender, have seen dance scenes around the world leap into action to develop policies, processes, and practices which respond to and prevent sexual assault and harassment. This could be referred to as ‘safe spaces’ discourse in the scene (even though many people don’t use that phrase).

Now that we’re two years in, particularly in Australia, where we’re actually a little ahead of the game, we’re seeing people moving to a next stage. How to maintain these processes how to support and care for safe space workers, how and when to lift bans or enforce stronger measures. We’re also seeing organisations exploring formal legal options and advice, and in Australia, there is a general movement towards coordinated efforts. A sort of loose national consortium or more accurately loose network of communication. This means that various bodies and individuals who run events, teach classes, or are active in their local scenes are talking about these issues and sharing information and resources.
In an activist sense, we’ve moved from agitate to educate and are now into organise.

We can say that there is, on the whole, a very general (though not comprehensive) agreement that we need to address sexual assault and harassment in the scene in an active way. This is quite a different culture than the one I wrote about in 2011 in A Difficult Conversation About Sexual Violence in Swing Dance Communities.
I think this is a very good thing.

We are also seeing another interesting (and occasionally frustrating) issue developing: dancers are beginning to talk about and act on a range of anti-social behaviours, but they don’t always (rarely?) share the same understanding of ‘bullying’, ‘harassment’, ‘conflict,’ and so on.
Two of the key issues seem to be: what do we take responsibility for responding to (as institutional bodies)? How do we respond to various behaviours? And what is our scale for ‘anti-social’.
So, while we’re all on board for ‘improving safety’, now we’re seeing clear differences in how people think ‘we’ (as a community) should respond, who this ‘we’ is, and when it should happen.

I’ve seen two general groups of thinking:
1. Peeps who would like to preserve a hierarchical, top-down power structure, where we have powerful people (organisers, teachers, etc) who respond with authority to incidences and reports.

2. Peeps who would like to see broader cultural change to undo some of these hierarchies, so we have a flatter community power structure, and more people feeling powerful enough to intervene in unsafe situations, or to stand up for themselves and others.

I’m in the latter group.
I’ve noticed that people in the first group are very focussed on processes of reporting, ‘punishment’ (from ostracising/banning to police intervention), and essentially maintaining the status quo.

People like me, who are in the latter group are much more focussed on doing things like changing the way we teach dance, and on building class cultures where students do stuff like ask each other to dance in class (and know how to say yes or no, and how to deal with either response), know how to say ‘please move your hand’ or ‘I’m not ok with that’. For a lot of teachers, one of the important parts of this approach is to rethink the lead-follow dynamic, from changing the emphasis on heteronormative gendering (where men lead and women follow) to shifting from moves-based dancing (where leads lead a zillion moves in a row and follows execute them), to movement-based dancing (where both partners interact in a more collaborative way, with an emphasis on rhythm and the music rather than executing moves. The ‘ambidancetrous’ movement is a part of this latter group, but also what I think of as ‘gentle teaching’, where classes are less focussed on mini-routines, teacher-centredness, and class ‘levels’. A ‘gentle teaching’ approach focusses more on social dancing skills in class (eg students counting themselves in, lots more music in class, etc etc etc).

I’ve talked a lot about teaching, but there are other projects that have similar goals (cultural change) and aren’t focussed on teaching. A good example is a very wonderful shift away from school-organised parties in Sydney, and towards individual- or friend-organised parties. This has meant that we’ve seen lots of smaller, more collaborative parties in the last couple of years, where the people putting the events on work with friends and aim to have fun. My favourite part of this is the collaboration with musicians. Whether they’re blues musicians, gypsy jazz bands or swing bands. From a nerdy music POV, I’ve seen that these bands rarely work from written scores; they tend to do more improvised stuff, and there’s more to-and-fro between musicians in the band, and between musicians and dancers. It also seems that musicians like these gigs a LOT more than the other type of gigs.

I really like the second as an example of cultural change, as we see a move away from centralised hierarchies (with power and decision-making centred on one or two people) to localised, flatter hierarchies (where decision making can by done by anyone, and anyone can run a party, and we attend because we think it sounds fun, or because they’re our friends, rather than because we feel institutionally obligated).

One of the interesting parts of the second approach is how Sydney (as my working example) has integrated safe space practice and discussion into this culture. If we are localised (rather than centralised) and we have lots of people making decisions, how does a code of conduct work?
Things I’ve seen in Sydney:
– people share resources and ideas
– people are saying ‘I am personally responsible for my friends’ and my own safety’. And I see men saying this too. So individual people are feeling engaged, rather than relying on a powerful person at the top of a hierarchy to ‘fix things’.
– there’s more communication between individuals running parties, but also between people who are working on events in other capacities. eg the people who managed the door at Jazz with Ramona this past weekend also manage the door at other parties and events, and they are taking their experiences with both groups’ safety policies and growing a practical, tailored approach that works in both spaces.

I really like all this stuff.

But a clear consequence of these two general groups of thinking has been some clashes in ideas about who should do what. And about what ‘counts’ as harassment, bullying, or conflict.

So, right at the end here, I’m actually in favour of shunning or ostracising in some cases. The most obvious of these is when groups of women say ‘no thank you’ when a known groper asks them to dance. They feel confident enough to say no without justification. And they are making it clear to him that they are the bosses of their bodies, and his antisocial behaviour has had consequences.

If those women had chosen instead to make a complaint to a powerful person, who had then ‘warned’ that man, then those women remain disempowered, and the organiser has the power.

Of course, in this environment, knowing when to do formal bans, warnings, and escalation of responses is a more complex issue. And this is where I (and a few friends all over the world) are now: how do you use official roles and processes in a flatter power structure?

Hence my interest in understanding the difference between conflict (which I think is inevitable and ok – especially as it teaches us how to manage conflict in healthy ways) and bullying/harassment.