Ok, so I have been very busy lately, so not much time to write.
Ran a weekend event in mid-October, just planned a big one for mid-May next year (so. many. venues.), begun planning a small one for February, blocked out the 2016 classes (adding another class night, expanding the regular party schedule from monthly to twice a month), planning out the promotion and advertising for 2016, and had a small think about the DJing I’m doing in November in Melbourne and in Sweden over christmas. This is the busiest time of year. I’ve been working on a website revamp for the business, and I made a fully sick legit facebook page for DJing. And I still have a few postcards to design and get printed.
As well as all that, I’m back in the teaching rotation for lindy hop on Wednesdays, which is grand. I’ve had a chance to teach with another friend for the first time at her venue, and that was great. So I’m full of ideas. The recent revival of the discussion about sexual harassment in lindy hop has also prompted a reminder about how we need to fuck up bullshit gender dynamics in lindy hop from students’ very first class.
The main idea in all our teaching with Swing Dance Sydney is to skill up students for social dancing. Which means we need them to develop independence, and to be capable and confident on the dance floor on their own. Which is pretty much the opposite of a traditional class. Things that we focus on in our classes:
students being able to take care of the music:
- find the beat on their own;
- count themselves in and start dancing to the music on their own;
- understand phrasing (at least in a basic way) in swing music;
- being able to put the swing into their dancing;
- master a basic rhythm;
- dance that rhythm to the music.
Students being able to take care of their partner:
- get into closed position with a partner;
- talk to their partner and negotiate a comfortable closed position with them;
- figure out that each partner is a different size and shape, with different feelings about being close to other people, etc etc, and then adjust their closed position to work with that. By talking to them;
- introduce themselves to a new partner, and get into closed position in a respectful way;
- leads initiating moves when they’re ready, rather than in a fixed sequence all the time, so they lead when both partners are ready;
- move around the dance floor in closed position with their partner, using that basic rhythm, in time, and with swinging timing, to the music;
- adjust their connection to make this movement happen as a unit;
Students being able to take care of themselves, and be mindful/present:
- both partners are responsible for their own sense of timing (groove/bounce/pulse/whatevs) and their own sense of rhythm, and both partners respect that in their partner;
- no one sacrifices their posture, physical comfort, safety, timing, rhythm or sense of music for their partner. And no one asks them to;
- follows are active in the partnership. They way they touch their partner sends information to the lead. And the lead learns how to listen to that information;
- …which means that it’s not just the lead’s job to stay in time, to find the beat, to keep the rhythm. Both partners do this, and the lead can listen to the follow to get it together;
- when you begin dancing with someone, you use closed position to become a partnership: you collaborate to find a shared sense of groove.
We do all this in the very first class, and everyone is very good at it. We see very, very good social dancing right in their first class. They learn to move around on the dance floor in their first class, and they develop perfect floor craft by the end of the class. This week we told the students it’s just like being at a very good party. And they just applied what they knew about parties to make this work: apologising when they bumped people; avoiding bumping people; introducing themselves to new people; taking care of their partner and people around them; listening to and enjoying the music. And talking. So. Much. Talking. The noise level is incredible.
Now, I have to make it clear. I might sound like a big old hippy, but I’m not really. At least not in class. Everyone wears shoes, students choose to lead or follow at the beginning of class, and they stick to that. We only teach with real, swinging jazz. We only teach historic dance steps, and we talk about the history of the dance. We don’t use a lot of jargon or technical dance talk. I try to NEVER use the words ‘frame’ or ‘tension’. When we first get them partnered up, we say “Get into this position” and then we just let them do it. Then we say “Check with your partner to see it’s comfortable” and then we model how we’d ask and reply to our partner, and then we get them to do that. We don’t count them in using numbers, we scat. And over the course of the class, we move from getting them started to saying “Start when you’re ready”, though I love Lennart’s line, “Start when you feel it is the right time.”
We began teaching this way to actively reduce and remove the conditions that made sexual harassment possible. We wanted women dancers empowered, and male dancers ok with that. But what we’ve actually found is that we’re just making it easier for everyone to be properly social when they dance. It is AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING.
I mean holy SHIT! In one hour, they develop perfect floor craft on our tiny dance floor. They have gorgeously relaxed connections. They are confident and happy, making friends and laughing and talking really loudly. They can count themselves in, find phrases, and express knowledgeable opinions about whether a song is nice or not.
So, we’ve just found that teaching this way makes for better dancing and dancers. My mind is just blown.
I looked at them dancing this week and realised: traditional lindy hop classes spend a lot of time and energy ruining people’s natural ability to hold a person in their arms and move to the music. It’s like we’re trying to reverse engineer swing outs (or whatever) as though we’d never seen one before. When we should just start with what we all know how to do already: enjoy music and hold someone in our arms. And then take the natural or most obvious route to the end goal. Want a swing out? Do a circle to generate momentum, then let go. Any old count will do – if you insist on letting go on count X (in a beginner class), you end up with people fucking each other up on the dance floor, and being rough with each other. If you count people in 5 6 7 8 all the time, they rely on you to get them started, rather than learning to get their own body ready, getting their partner ready, and then dancing when they’re both ready. If you only teach them using fixed sequences of steps, they social dance that way too – they dance in figures. But they also (and this is WORSE) they dance as though getting through the figure is the most important thing. And as though having the best and most number of figures is most important. When it’s not! The music is!
Anyhoo, all this thinking is a result of some learning I’ve been doing:
- Peter Loggins spent an hour with a couple of us at Herrang explaining what two step dances are, and how he teaches/taught in New Orleans in bars. Basically: simple is best, and the goal is just to get moving to a band. He said something quite provocative: “lindy hop is not a social dance.” I thought this was interesting, as the idea of a ‘swing out’ as the ‘basic’ step is quite problematic. I prefer Frankie’s point that the promenade is the most important move in lindy hop: closed position, moving in time with a partner to music, using a nice rhythm. But I felt a light go on when Loggins talked about teaching and dancing in crowded bars in New Orleans: music first. Don’t kick over the tip jar. Tip the band. Buy a drink. Be able to dance with randoms (ie dance, don’t do figures). Enjoy the music. Interact with the people around you like a real social person (ie don’t dominate the dance floor, obscure the band, or put dancing before real social interaction).
All of these things are on one hand reasonable rhetoric around live music and dance culture. But on the other hand, if you begin teaching like this, and dance like this yourself, you develop very good floor craft, you focus on your partner, you dance to the music instead of pushing through figures. You become a very good dancer. And a better person.
- The Frankie stream/Harlem Roots stream at Herrang this year and last year taught me that figures are less important than rhythms. I was kind of excited about this because it taught me you could dance with ANYONE if you approach lindy hop like this. You can do simple figures with anyone and have a good time, and you can enjoy it too, because you can add it fun rhythms to keep you interested. And because you’re focussing on your partner and the people around you, rather than pushing through a series of figures, your floor craft is better, you can dance to any tempo, with anyone. Basically, you rule.
- The idea of ‘rhythm first’ is important. Not just because it’s about understanding music and actually dancing. It also helps your partner feel what you are doing with your body. ‘Clear rhythms’ can be another way of saying ‘clear weight commitments and transfers’ and ‘engaged muscles recruited in the most efficient way.’ And if you do all this, your partner can feel what you’re doing.
- I am very, very VERY STRONGLY committed to the idea of both partners contributing to the dance. It’s not just a matter of follows ‘just following’ or leads ‘leading’. It’s two people dancing together. Gotta learn to dance on your own so you know who you are, and you have some sense of rhythm and timing. Then when you dance together, dance together, and trust each other. You don’t have to do exactly the same rhythms: that is some boring and dull shit. It’s also the opposite of jazz.
But you do have to be ‘together’ in Frankie’s sense: you are in love for three minutes. They are the centre of your world. If you’re just pushing through figures, who cares who you’re dancing with, as long as they can lead/follow that sequence of figures. If you’re just jumping about randomly while holding someone’s hand, it’s fun, but that’s not really jazz either.
But if you’re dancing simpler shapes with rhythms that are dictated by the music, you have to keep checking in with your partner – looking at them, listening to them, responding to them. And because it’s jazz, it’s not formal turn taking: we can both speak at the same time, and we can say different things. Hello polyrhythms, hello layers of rhythm, hello lead and follow contributing different pieces to a rhythmic whole.
- Rikard said while teaching with Jenny at Herrang: “I trust Jenny to know how to improvise. I trust her to do something interesting.” I think this mutual trust is essential, to being a human or a lindy hopper. As a lead, I don’t have to micro-manage my follow. I can let them do what they need to do. And that’s a relief. And interesting – who knows what they’ll do! I’d better pay attention! I’d also better look at them, listen to the messages they send to me through the connection, and respond to what they’re doing.
- I throw out the idea of ‘hijacking the lead’ by follows, because it reveals a profound limitation in understanding of how leading and following works. It assumes that the status quo is the lead ‘driving’ and the following ‘along for the ride’. No. No. No.
I throw out the idea of ‘lindy hop like a conversation’ where leads and follows take turns ‘doing variations’. No. No. No. Lindy hop is a relationship between two people for three minutes, and we both participate in it. We might take turns, but we can also contribute all the time. We have to – we have to be present, if we want to respect and properly engage with our partner. As a human being.
So, by stripping out all the bullshit ‘technique’ and jargon talk, and all that shit about dancing as science or specialist skills, it’s much easier and fun. If we approach lindy hop as just something we can do, we empower students, we take the focus away from the teachers, and we create a more equitable power dynamic. As teachers we are discovering jazz with students, not holders of knowledge that we dole out.
Some direct consequences of this approach for me as a teacher:
- You can’t teach as much content in classes. In fact, content is much less important, and you focus on other teaching goals or priorities. And you realise it’s not the number of moves you have, but the way you dance with another human that’s important;
- You take longer to do things in class. Which is nice;
- You talk less, and play more music while teaching. Which is grand;
- You ‘correct’ students less, which means they feel better about themselves. Remember, every time you correct someone’s dancing, you’re effectively telling them they’re doing it wrong;
- If you let them dance steps in any sequence, taking as long as they want, starting when they want, and giving them ages with a partner and lots of music, they solve a lot of their own problems themselves. They just figure it out, with their partner or on their own. Which means you talk less. So hold yourself back: don’t jump in and ‘fix’ them. They’ve got this;
- I’ve shifted to asking them “What was hard? What was easy? What made it easier?” after they’ve danced a bit, and they tell us. Because they’re relaxed. And they ask us questions. My favourite thing when they ask a question like “Where does my right foot go?” is to say “You watch us dance and tell us” and then we do and they do. Or we reply “What an interesting question. Let’s all dance on it and observe ourselves and what we do.” And then we do, and they do, and then we come back together and we say, “Ok, what did you notice?” and they answer their own question. I LOOOOOOOVE THIS APPROACH! Because it tells students they know a lot. They know more about their bodies than we do. And that they can figure out the answer to questions by experimenting.
- A direct, and most pleasing consequence of all this, is that you get intermediate students who are ENGAGED in classes, and more than willing to figure out how something works on their own.
You also get students who go social dancing and smile into their partners’ face. I love seeing our students on the social floor. They laugh and smile, they’re relaxed and happy, and they look like they’re dancing. When I see them social dancing, I think ‘Frankie would be proud.’ I look at them and I see joy. I see people being good to each other, and happy. Because they feel confident and relaxed, and ok with just being themselves on the dance floor.
- I’ve had to step up and make social dance spaces for our students. They have to be friendly, relaxed, and familiar. So we just started having regular social dancing at the end of our beginner blocks. We ditched our intermediate class in those weeks, and we party on. This was something all the teachers wanted, because we all wanted to spend more social time with students, and because we saw that they found full on social nights intimidating. They needed a next, interim space for practicing dancing. So we did it. And we all LOVE it. It’s just like a real party: talking, eating, laughing, and dancing. Not just dancing.