Teaching: handling distraction and disruption

Someone in the fb ‘teaching swing dance’ group asked this the other day:

Question – How do you handle distractions and/or disruptions

When your students are simply distracted or causing disruptions
When you as a teacher are distracted and/or having trouble staying focused

*Waving to you all from my own little ADHD corner of the world. I’ll respond more personally in comments below.

I read this as a continuation of an earlier discussion about managing excessive talking/cohort distraction.

I missed the point, that she was asking: how do I keep myself from getting distracted. Which is so interesting.

Anyhoo, the discussion continued.

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If they’re getting bored and distracted, you’re being boring. :D
They’re here to dance, not listen to someone talk about dancing.
Instead of hauling their attention back to you and your voice stop talking and dance. I struggle with this because I’m a total show pony. I LOVE an audience. No, Sam, it’s not all about you.
-> move from teacher-centred classes to student-centred classes.

We used to teach in a crowded public bar venue, with lots of ambient noise and crowding. Things we did:
– we do the ‘come in close’ in a circle thing, then say, “Ok, this venue is quit noisy, so when we say ‘come close’, everyone come in close, we’ll talk, then we’ll all scatter again to dance.” Very effective. I like them to come _really_ close. From here it’s quite fun to demonstrate dancing stuff, so they can see how little room you should use on the social floor anyway. And they can see better as well.
-> I still use this technique now in our bigger space.

– Talk less, dance more. So they don’t get distracted, because you only have a minute or so to talk/listen. So instead of explaining how a move works, the ‘we’ll do it three times’ method keeps them focussed.

– “We’ll do it three times only, then you will dance it _perfectly_.” Gee they pay close attention. But this also trains them to learn-by-watching, which means they really _focus_ when you demo.

– Give them the task, _then_ say ‘rotate partners’ and put the music on. That way they can take as long as they want rotating, and you don’t have to fuss with managing noise, distraction, etc. They figure out: if they dick around, they miss out on dancing time.

– If you give them a ‘tip’ or a thing, they have to dance on it immediately. Don’t load them up with three or more things you saw that need ‘fixing’. If it’s lead or follow specific, you also give one to the other role, then they all dance on it immediately. One thing only for each (or both). Then dancing. Less talk, more dance. Less distracting.

– Rather than stepping in to ‘fix’ something you see while they’re all practicing, let them dance and experiment and fix it themselves. If you step in, they rely on you to help, and they lose focus and get distracted. If they get used to figuring it out, they learn focus and patience and can work on a challenge for longer. Your challenge: knowing when to step in before they get dejected.

– Learn the natural patterns of conversation and noise in the room. Give them a task, then let them do it on their own with music (and a partner). If you’ve already shown them how to talk to a partner (eg your demo about how to touch someone), they have the skills to work with a partner.
Let them go. For a _whole_ song with one partner. It’s only 3 minutes, but a lot of teachers _never_ do this!
You’ll see there’s immediately a rush of noise as they try it. Then a lull as they get ‘bored’ and act all ‘there, done it.’ Then the noise rises again as they a) start yapping randomly, or b) start trying again. The random yappers actually stop yapping and eventually try again themselves. Then the noise crests again.
It’s really hard to learn to not step in; learn to hear those crests and troughs, and observe them, and figure out when you’re really needed. I find they rarely ask for help unless they’re really confused. They prefer to work with a partner, or with their partner and a neighbouring couple!
– During this pattern, they learn to stop and restart themselves. When you do all come back together, make sure you point out that you saw people doing this and you loved it: “I saw people get all confuzzled, then stop, say ‘can we try again?’ and then restart. That’s genius.” I often point out a specific dancer or couple who do this really well – I say, “I saw X and X stop, chill, groove a bit, then start in again.” If you do this, rather than saying “When you get stressed, do X, not Y.” They only hear the negative thing. But if you do it the positive way, they realise a) you’re paying attention, b) you trust them to figure out stuff, c) they can trust themselves to figure stuff out.

c is the most useful, because then they learn to focus and stay on track.

-> Anyhoo, I think this is the most important skill ever. For teachers. Let the class get really noisy and rowdy. They want to socialise and talk.

– Don’t rush them to start dancing after they rotate partners. Give them time to do a proper social introduction, to slowly get so they touch each other. Good social skills, good boundary negotiation, but also good vibes.
-> They come to class for each other’s company. So let them have that time. It’s solid gold. It’ll be noisy, but it’s a _good_ noise. And learn to recognise the difference between good noise and antisocial noise.

I really love this approach. I don’t have to stress about being the centre of attention. I let them actually let their partner be the centre of their attention. You know – lindy hop. <3 <3 <3

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The original poster then reminded me: hey Sam, we’re talking about getting distracted as a teacher rather than distracted students. Particularly when you’re managing anxiety and ADHD while also managing a class.

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Rather than finding it difficult to stay focussed, my problem is that I tend to find it difficult to stop focussing, and to switch topics or tasks. Obsessive thinking r us. Great for practicing or working on my own dancing, not good for teaching.

I think Byron’s point about using your partner is really good. I often rely on my partner to give me the ‘that’s enough talking’ sign so I stop. Especially if my brain is racing ahead and I forget to let them practice something 2 or 3 or 4 times instead of just once.

I’ve seen other teaching couples use the 2-teacher vibe in a few good ways: – they tag in and out for managing little chunks of a class – eg Pete runs the big apple warm up, I do the i-go-you-go rhythm warm up, Pete does the next bit, etc etc. That way the one who’s ‘tagged out’ can gauge the overall flow and step in with the next step at the right time.

– one teacher may ask the other a question about what’s happening, to help refocus the class: “So, Sam, are you saying that we should _practice_ more instead of just thinking about this idea?” or even “Can you show me how you’d lead that, Sam?”

– switching between teachers leading bits also helps students refocus or retune, because different people use their voice in different ways, or explain/demo in different ways. -> peeps with ADHD can also get really _tiiiiired_ because they’re on adrenaline overload rushing from one thing to another. So swapping in and out with a teacher can give the tagged out teacher a little rest and break.

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I’ve just been thinking about how we may talk about neurdiversity and students, and the needs of students who are managing adhd, anxiety, depression etc, but we don’t talk about teachers managing these things.
I feel as though I’ve been working with that very limited idea of teachers as somehow homogenous monolithic neuro-same. FAIL. Odysseus’ recent blog post about how to attract and appeal to culturally and ethnically diverse students makes me realise: start with MYSELF, and stop making my own identity markers disappear.

Should teachers ask to be paid for social dancing?

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

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

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

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

One of my general comments was this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Åsa then replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, Tonya Morris added this comment:

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

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

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

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

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

This conversation is continuing on faceplant right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How gentle classes can fight the power

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

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

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

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

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

Why teaching is important to feminism

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

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

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

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

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

Also it’s boring to teach.

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

Going the full hippy: Progress report

We’ve been gradually increasing the amount and type of hippy teaching tools in our classes.
I’m trying to balance full-on hippy fun with historical repertoire, name-checking OGs, and disciplined rhythms and skills.
Interestingly, I’ve found that my definition of ‘technique’ has expanded from partner connection to the ability to create and execute rhythms precisely, to observe and learn-by-watching-and-trying, and most importantly, to do all this stuff _as a teacher_ while I’m guiding student through these skills.
So I can’t teach rhythm-first if I don’t have preceise control of my rhythms.
I can’t see if they’ve got control of their rhythms if I can’t see what their bodies are doing.

The hippy tools
I’ve been working with include:

1. “We’ll do it three times, then you try it”
(A sequence of them trying it with a partner in their own time, us all coming together and them articulating what they’ve had trouble with or observed/been amazed by, them watching again, them trying again, us all doing it together, a technical note or two (usually related to dance technique. This is an extension of the solo jazz warm up where they ‘just have a go’). This is ideal for uneven lead/follow ratios as they can work in groups of 3).
-> skills: learning to understand rhythms or sequences with the eye or ear (not broken down); self-reliance; prioritising what to look for first when learning (and suiting their own needs, not the teachers’ priorities in breaking things down); working with a partner(s) to solve problems (cooperation, mutual respect, listening, speaking, trying); learning by doing, rather than learning by thinking; trying; making confident mistakes; ‘errors’ as a natural and useful part of learning; finding their own ‘style’ through problem solving biomechanics.

2. I-go, you-go where the teacher leads or they do it with a partner.
(The starter does the rhythm, then the follower does it immediately afterwards in time, then the starter moves straight on to something else. They usually begin by watching and following the teacher (with the second teacher ‘on their team’ with them), but also do it with a peer in class. This ‘exercise’ or ‘game’ is also applied to teaching a specific rhythm or move in class.)
-> skills: learning by watching/listening rather than having it broken down; super-focus; mindfulness; proprioception; understanding rhythm as patterns; pattern recognition and creation; being ok with errors, and not fixating on them; demonstrating or dancing as clearly as possible; team work; gauging a partner’s abilities or state of mind and adjusting to suit; realising that a ‘success’ is where one demonstrates well and the other figures it out well: collaboration.

3. If you have a question, watch us demo it/try it yourself/watch your peers and find the answer.
-> skills: self-reliance; try before asking (they eventually learn to try before they ask questions); valuing their own judgement and skills; confidence; observation (physical, aural, visual); mindfulness; proprioception.

These three tools are great. And we can build them into our classes as ‘exercises’. But eventually a class full of exercises feels boring, and disconnected from actual social dancing.
So what I’ve been working on is building them into classes and making the connections between the exercises and actual social dancing skills and dancing history obvious and useful. How?

We’ll do it three times (ie learn by watching/observing, as part of ‘talk-less’ teaching) is a really nice tool that informs most of the way I teach now. I’m less likely to break things down first (though I may later on if they need some clarification, and if the intermediate dancers want technical connection nerdery, or we want to do rhythmic nerdery and tighten up their syncopation, etc). This is how we’ve done it this block. In fact, the following section is a description of last night’s class. FUN.
– We do our warm ups this way, beginning every single class, where the leader in the circle dances a step/rhythm for a phrase (repeating it 4 times), and the students just join in. Straight away, they learn to just try and have fun.

– A ‘warm up’ after the solo jazz warm up, where everyone copies the teacher. Last week we did this as a preparation for the following game/exercise. The teacher just danced rhythms, and because it moves so quickly, and we don’t dwell on a rhythm until people get it right, they don’t freak out. A teaching note: you gradually increase the complexity, in keeping with their progress. If none of them get a rhythm, you repeat it slower. You build on the rhythms, using different variations of the rhythmic components you’ll be using in class.

– We have them do games with partners, where the starter dances a step, the other watches and joins in, then on the 4th 8 of the phrase, they both do a ‘break step’ (ie anything they like, as long as it’s different, gradually progressing to a very deliberate ‘step’ or rhythm that they come up with while doing the 3 repetitions of the move). We find that this develops some pretty bloody good skills – they get GOOD at this. We did this this week and it was FUN.

[NB at the beginning of the class we did a ‘where would we start?’ exercise where we listened to a song and had to make a visual sign on ‘1’. Then we did it for ‘8’. Then we did it for the beginning of a phrase. They could do any sign they liked. And as we progressed, they weren’t allowed to repeat a sign. It was gold. And of course, to keep time, they were grooving like crazy. And their ‘signs’ got more interesting. Until they were just dancing like freaking superheroes.
Then we stepped up the exercise, and they had to walk around the room doing any old thing, then on the last 8 of the phrase, they had to stop and stand still. Then we stepped it up and they had to do a specific rhythm on that last 8. Then they had to do it on the spot. It was also fantastic.]

[last week]They learn a basic step earlier in the class (eg last week we did an under arm turn from closed into open). They then did a game where the leader danced the basic rhythm (step step triple step) and the follow practiced dancing a new rhythm over the top. We explained the leads’ job as “Keeping time and structure for the follows while they’re a storm of rhythm.”
We had them do this a few times with a partner, then rotate. After a few rotations, we said to the leads, “Ok, leads, so you’re paying attention to your partner, right? Now the follow will dance their 8 count rhythm while you keep your basic rhythm, and then you will repeat it back to them immediately.” And the leads were all eee! But they did it and were grand.
Then we had them do some lindy hop, and when the leads led the under arm turn, the follow could insert their new rhythm, while the lead kept the basic rhythm.
After a few rotations, we said to the leads, “Ok, now you learnt at least three different rhythms from your partners. Start adding them in!”

It was super magic and they had a GREAT time. Note, this was a group of beginners in their 4th week of classes. And they were doing quite sophisticated stuff.
Learning outcomes: all the above, _and_ they all had very relaxed (but alive) connection, and were REALLY engaged with their partners. They were also in time, swinging, and had a clear sense of call and response. It was 100% jazz. And they had SO MUCH FUN.[/]

– They dance lindy hop with a partner, and take turns being the ‘starter’. The ‘follower’ has to observe the break step or rhythm and repeat it back. The starter can repeat it three times, or as many times as they like. This exercise can be structured so that they do 3 x 8 of one rhythm (eg charleston), and then 1 x 8 of a break (which the follower gets to observe once a phrase). As you can see, varying the phrase structure – eg ABAB – can improve this exercise.
We did this last night, and the progression of this exercise was to explain how even though we can make up anything on the spot, the very best dancers have a really good sense of rhythm and music.

Then we talked about Frankie Manning, and how he was really good at this stuff. So we then taught them a mini dip. We positioned it as a step that’s taught a lot today (as part of the lindy hop ‘canon’), and that’s because it’s really fun, and just feels _good_.

I liked positioning the step this way, as it name checked an OG, it referenced what makes a rhythm really ‘good’, and it also made musical sense. We taught them the step by teaching it as a rhythm first. Then we showed them how it’s really just two people passing by each other. Then we had them watch three times then try it. And BOOM.

Things we pointed out: the follow is a free agent and can do anything they want. So the lead and follow have to keep an eye on each other to know when to do it.
Thing they learnt: the timing of the rhythm is affected by where your body is. eg if you take longer while rotating your body to look and check in with your partner, you delay the final hit of the move, which changes the rhythm. This is ok, but if you pay attention to your partner, you can do more things.; they learnt that they can ‘feel’ the rhythm through relaxed connection when they’re holding hands, as well as ‘see’ it and ‘hear it’. So they began to experiment with stretch (though we didn’t say stretch): eg a lead said “If I’m too far away from my partner, I can’t do X fast enough”, and a follow said, “Because the lead’s goes down low, I know where to go myself.” Both of these are examples of stretch (moving away from each other horizontally, moving away from each other vertically), and they saw how it affected their connection and rhythmic timing.
Because we had set this all up as an experiment or game, they were all saw these things as variations on the rhythm, not mistakes. And they figured out that ‘deliberate’ rhythms require planning ahead, and control of your body, as well as connection with a partner.

We had a student arrive late, and so I said, “Ok, what if your partner doesn’t know this rhythm? How would you teach them?” They drew on the previous week’s class skills, and figured out that they’d dance it _for_ their partner. We then set them free to social dance it, and to adjust the rhythm of the mini dip however they liked, just as long as it was deliberate.
SOLID GOLD. These were a mixed class of total noobs (in week 5) and experienced people. They had FUN.

-> you can do all this stuff with total noobs (these guys were all total noobs – weeks 4 and 5). They progress REALLY quickly. And classes run really smoothly and are a lot of fun.
-> it is really, really important to use solid swinging jazz to make this work. They find it really hard to do good syncopation (vs straight beats) in a stomp off, for example, if they don’t have the good solid swinging jazz playing to help them make it fit the music. If the song is playing, I noticed that they self-correct to make their straight stomp off swing.
-> mini dip is a fantastic step for teaching about swing and syncopation. And because we framed it as a historic step that’s stuck with people, they made the connection between something they immediately recognised as ‘really good’ (they all went “Ooo!” when they saw it, and felt cool doing it), and the importance of a good choreographer with a good connection to music.

For me, I really really really liked that they realised that they could invent a break step or rhythm (anyone can), but a really good, satisfying rhythm is the work of a master. And something you work towards. They also figured out that sharing the rhythm with a partner is what makes lindy hop so great.

What is technique?

Someone wrote in the fb dance group:

Technique. What does it mean to you? What does it mean to be strong in technique?

And this is what I wrote:

What does ‘technique’ mean to me?
The ability to make choices about what you will do with your body in real time, and then do them with accuracy, and consistent results.

In application, this may mean hearing a rhythm, recognising it as a rhythm (not just noise), and then being able to reproduce that rhythm. And reproduce it with the same parts of the body (eg the same parts of the foot in tap shoes).
It might also mean having the strength in the right parts of the body to reproduce something a number of times, consistently, at any tempo.
It might also mean being able to use the right parts of the body (eg the right muscles) to do these tasks, not over-working or using the body inefficiently.
It’s about knowing how to read symptoms of fatigue in your own body, and knowing when to stop before injury, and how to prevent injury. ie knowing when you are doing something ‘correctly’ or ‘safely’ rather than just ‘pushing through’.
Understanding what you’re doing is an important tool for knowing how to change what you’re doing in small ways to get predictable results, or to experiment and take risks. So the technique isn’t an end in itself, it’s a vehicle for experimenting and doing creative work.
Technique involves the ability to stay focussed on a particular task for a particular amount of time – ie how to stay mindful and engaged with a task for as long as necessary.
Having good technique means making something look effortless in execution, but having put hundreds of hours into that work.
It means knowing what you are doing with your body, and making a conscious choice to do that thing.
Good technique is essential for being able to dance a lot, strenuously, and avoiding injury or strain.

Technique can be applied in lots of different ways:
– recreating historic routines from footage (ie reading, transcribing, and reproducing movement from film);
– the ability to learn from watching and participating (rather than having teachers spoon feed);
– understanding how to use classes as an important learning and practice tool, and knowing how to participate in a class and maintain focus and work hard;
– knowing how to take technical elements and apply them to another task. eg knowing how to watch, learn, and memorise a tap routine (rhythm, shape, melody) and apply those learning skills to learning a lindy hop routine from demonstrations (eg the ‘i’ll do it three times then you try it’ teaching/learning tool).

If your body is a tool, then technique is knowing not only how to use that tool, but when to use which tool to complete which task. ie knowing when to use a hammer vs when to use a screw driver when you’re building a house.

I like Ramona’s approach to this stuff: work really hard in practice sessions, then go out there on the social floor and just have fun.
So technique, to me, also means knowing when to work, and when to stop working.

I think a lot of people use ‘technique’ as a term to box in knowledge and learning (ie ‘do it the RIGHT way’), when technique is just ‘how you do something’. And having ‘good technique’, to my mind, is about knowing how to be flexible and take up or let go of ideas and experiment.
It can be physical technique, but it can also be mental technique, which I think we neglect in dance. eg the ability to learn new things in new ways is often difficult for modern lindy hoppers who are used to very structured classes with teacher-centred lessons. The ability to take instruction, to work with others constructively, to work alone, to learn by watching, to learn by listening, to learn by doing, the ability to watch and memorise a sequence of movements, the ability to take a movement and then experiment with it…. All these techniques are learnable and teachable.

Lindy hoppers are very good at working with a partner, but I have noticed that dancers who are used to being told exactly what to do by a teacher (particularly in classes that are billed as ‘technique’ classes with lots of talking) don’t have the ability to learn by watching and trying. They really need affirmation all the time (so they ask a lot of questions or ask to record footage or ask to be shown something again and again).

Groove or pulse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARLEM 2015: Sakarias & Mimmi

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

teaching leads to follow, follows to lead: quick thought

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

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

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

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

What is groundedness?

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

Jo asked in the fb teaching group:

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

And I replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

RE how do I teach dancers to be grounded?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.