Beginner lindy hoppers need to learn to swivel immediately*

swingout

I am insanely busy.
So of course, here is a post. Also I am tired, so these words = rubbish.

I find teaching with a few very good, very clever and observant follows teaches me so much about teaching and dancing. I am so lucky to get to work with such great dancers and teachers.

This is what I’ve been thinking about swivels lately, after an intensive two months working on the ‘Frankie 89’ choreography Lennart and eWa taught us in Herrang.

Swivels are not styling, they are a powerful movement that makes swinging out at higher tempos possible. Relatedly: do not drop your triple steps.
Frankie taught follows to swivel right from their very first class. I know some teachers don’t do this, because they think that swivels are ‘too hard’. I think a lot of people think lindy hop is really hard. But it’s not. As Lennart says, “It is really a very simple dance.”

Doing more work with old timers this year, and with people who worked closely with old timers, I’ve realised that their approach is fundamentally different to modern lindy hoppers’. Modern dancers are recreationists, and are (for the most part) trying to reverse engineer lindy hop. Old timers invented lindy hop. And old timers were social dancers. So lindy hop is pure function.

What does that mean?
If you approach all lindy hop in the simplest terms, it makes a lot more sense. A swing out is really just two partners sometimes being together, and sometimes being apart. Now what’s the simplest, most efficient and practical way to handle that? Use a little turn – a slingshot. Just like launching a rocket into orbit, and then out into the solar system. A swing out is just a circle where you let go half way. A swing out open to open is just a stretch and then a little turn in the middle to redirect the momentum.

I feel quite strongly that you don’t ‘add styling’ to your dancing. Your ‘style’ should just be a natural consequence of your movements (of you, your body, the way it works, and the way you use it). Your arms swing in charleston because you bounce, you bend a bit at the hip in your athletic posture, and you allow your upper torso a bit of rotation/torque. Your fingers are ‘alive’ and not floppy, because you feel feels.

With this in mind, then, swivels must have function. A function that’s aesthetically pleasing, but effective function none the less. If you treat swivels as ‘just a fancy way of walking’ – two steps with a bit of shape – then you get down to a) the rhythm of the step, and b) the function of the step. I’m all for swivels on the spot as well, but traveling swivels are a key part of most dancers’ repertoires as well.

I’m avoiding digressing into talking about how followers’ movements are led by the leader here, ok? I know we could have a discussion about whether followers should take a step for every step a lead makes, but that’s going to get us off track, ok?

So how is a swivel a powerful way of moving? What makes the swivel more awesome than just walking? Yes, yes, we know they look fabulous. But we’re trying to stay on track, right?

I like to teach swivels this way:
Imagine you are doing the twist, 1960s style. Your weight is evenly distributed between your hip-width feet. You are wearing skiis, so don’t let your skiis tangle or cross.
Now, as your feet point to the right, shift your weight to the right. As they point left, shift your weight to the left.

Boom. Swivels on the spot.

Remind yourself to bounce/pulse while you do this – you need the bounce, because bounce is your body preparing to move. Each bounce is like a little spring coiling – it’s stored energy – and that stored energy is released when you take a step.

So now, instead of just shifting your weight while you twist, take an actual step. Right, left, right left.

BOOM. Traveling swivels.

You need to: bounce; wear skiis (for efficient alignment for the sake of your knees, but also to ensure a nice clear line of energy from the ground to your core and back again); use athletic posture (you know – jump up in the air, then land with slightly bent knees, arms out, a bit of bend at the the hip, etc etc); make clear weight changes.

Once you have all this happening, your swivel becomes a very powerful step. Powerful in terms of energy and muscle power, not symbolic feminist energy**. The bent knees, arse out (hip bend), relaxed arms, open chest, clear weight changes, bounce, etc etc makes this posture and way of movement super powerful and strong. Each step/swivel becomes a little power-push, just like a sprinter leaping from the block at the beginning of a race.
You really, REALLY need this power when you’re dancing fast. It’s one of the ways the follows feed energy into the swing out cycle. Add that to the way a bit of stretch on one/two works, a very efficient 3&4 (the turn/circle in the middle – triple step to add power and aid travel!), and you have this fantastically powerful little engine.

All of this makes for great biomechanics.
But it has also made me a much better teacher for follows. I tend to favour talking about leads, because I am a lead. This makes me cranky because it makes lindy hop sound lead-centred. But once you understand that follows really aren’t passive at all, that the way follows move contributes importantly to momentum, suddenly you have tools for talking to follows in class.

Sam’s moment of personal growth: understanding following empowers follows, makes this leader a better teacher and a better dance partner.

I often say (stealing an idea Naomi Uyama used in a class) that follows have a responsibility to keep the rhythm for the lead. Ramona says that each partner has a responsibility to ‘take care of the beat’. Lennart says you need to ‘make friends with the music’. Steven Mitchell grunts “MM! Yeah!” I like to have partners bounce together on the spot before they start dancing, because it’s a way of reassuring your partner that you can find the beat (as well as a way to connect with your partner and the music).

These concepts all tell you that maintaining energy in your dancing is the responsibility of both partners. A science teacher friend in my practice group noted that swing outs can’t be 100% relaxed low impact. The stretch or ‘tension’ (in the sense of stored energy) has to be fed into the cycle somehow. If you let go earlier (5), if you lead by moving your body, you need to have 1 and 2 be much more powerful to feed the energy in. A powerful swivel helps follows contribute energy, a bit of stretch before leading in lets the leads contribute energy. Just like Frankie. This energy, then, is coming directly from your core: it’s built into the coiled spring of a vertical bounce, and it’s managed by strong glutes pushing, and a stable core.

This is where my knowledge ends. I just don’t know enough about biomechanics to say more. And I suspect I’m a bit full of bullshit, really.

But I find this approach really important for the way I then think about social power in following. It’s patently ridiculous to think of following as ‘passive’. A passive follow would be a dead weight. An active follow is engaging their muscles and actively contributing to the energy in the dance. Even if they never do a single jazz step or ‘variation’.

So following in lindy hop cannot be passive.

This then upsets the idea that a lead ‘controls’ the partnership. Nothing a lead tries will work properly if the follow isn’t actively contributing to and maintaining energy and momentum. The lead may think that a move has ‘worked’ under these conditions, but they won’t actually be leading.

*Teach your beginner students to swivel right from their first class. Skill them up. Give follows power. Don’t be afraid of lindy hop.

**But why can’t you think of swivels as a symbol of powerful feminist mite?

Late night crapping on

It’s super late and I shouldn’t be fiddling about on the internet, but I am.

Last week was my second week back teaching properly after about a month off on holiday, doing non-teaching dance things. It was really wonderful to have a good, solid break after teaching every week all year. I came back refreshed and inspired, and having given my own dancing a good kick up the bum. It took me a while to get back into the groove, and to remember that as the teacher it was my job to manage the class (not just coast along with the group as a participant), but I figured it out eventually.

Some important points:

1) I want a weekly rhythm tap class here in Sydney really badly. I went along to a class taught by the only ‘rhythm tap’ teacher in my area and it was AWFUL. Worst teaching ever. Shitty dancing, too. I really enjoyed being a beginner tap dance student at Herrang, and I want that hardcore learning again. But I am very strict about decent teaching.

2) I can’t get enough lindy hop.

Just now, reading back through my blog, I came across the post Student centred teaching – some rough ideas from back in May.

Since I’ve been back in Sydney, I’ve taught with four different teachers, all women, teaching at three different venues, and six different classes. Wowsers, that’s HEAPS! Anyway, it gave me a chance to revisit some of my ideas about teaching, and as per usual, I learnt a lot from comparing and learning from different teachers.

The thing that really struck me, in teaching with all these people, that this is perhaps the most useful thing I know about teaching: make people laugh. And laugh yourself. The next most important thing:

Talk One Thing, Do That Thing.

After answering a student’s question, or offering one tip, we dance on it immediately. Only give one tip at a time.
If you wait, they forget. I usually answer a question, then say “Ok, let’s test it out” and we all dance on the issue to figure it out.
(From that post above)

This rule keeps me from talking too much, and it keeps us all dancing more. I really like the ‘lets test it out’ approach, as it’s a nice way of saying “Let’s see if this thing I just said really is true.” And it’s a good way for people to see if they understand what we just talked about.
But I love this: say one thing, do that one thing. It really does stop you bullshitting on.

One thing I’ve learnt over the past few weeks as we approach the Winter Ball: teaching routines by drilling is fucking boring. One of the women I taught with told me they’d been teaching routines by devoting the last 15 minutes of their weekly class to the routine. I reckon that’s a great idea. I’ll try it. But god, drilling routines is boring. I really am a social dancer at heart.
Our routine is looking quite fabulous, though, and I’ve been super mega excited by the students’ whole heartedly embracing styling and improvisation. We ask them to put their own flavour into various sections, and they Bring it with massive enthusiasm. It’s very exciting to see. Especially as they maintain good, solid rhythms while they do all this playing.

We are combining our solo and lindy hop classes, and had originally intended for the two groups to dance two separate parts, but they all want to do everything! Except the hardcore solo people who are all ‘solo before everything else and also yolo!’ who do not want to lindy hop. This brings me even more pleasure. I am very happy with the routine (good song, simple moves, but with nice transitions and some very good, strong rhythmic work), and the students are just the best. We have all enjoyed the process, which is important, and hopefully we’ll have a ball performing. Good times!

Something else: it’s time to do some hard work in our solo class. Time for the Big Apple again, I reckon.

I love lindy hop.

Student centred teaching – some rough ideas

Alright. This is totally out of context, and we needed to set up a broader class culture that supports this stuff before we tried it. But here are some teaching tools that we’ve been using over the past few months, and that I’ve found extra excitingly fun and effective.
I am just learning to teach. I’m always looking for new ways to do things. My goal is to pare back my teaching to the bare bones: less talking, fewer desperate metaphors and boring technical discussions. I love working with new teachers and new students because they bring new ideas and energy.
So this isn’t a finite list. It’s just a bunch of things I’m working on at the moment.

Just Join In.
Warm ups. I talked about them in the post Two Ways I Put Solo Dance Into My Lindy Hop Classes, so you can read about them there if you’re curious.

This sets up a culture or class vibe of self-motivated participation. Or, in human words, if you start doing something, the students watch a bit, and then join in when they feel ok about it.
SOLID GOLD.
They decide when they’re ok with it, it suggests that watching a bit first is ok, and you actually find students just jump in and try shit straight away.

But this can mean that they just jump in straight away, even when you need them to watch the first time.
So: Say ‘watch one time’ when you want them to watch, otherwise, just start the movement and do it until they just join in. You don’t even need to say “Join in when you’re ready” after a while – they just do it. But saying “Watch one time” is important for teaching them to observe as well.

Problem Solving.
This is a new one for me, and I don’t have the process down pat yet. My poor students are guinea pigs, but I think they actually quite like this, especially if I tell them that that’s what I’m doing – trying a new way of teaching.

Demonstrate a step. Then say “Figure out how this works.” Then let them figure it out in their own time. I only do this with intermediate or level 2 people – not with total beginners. Your job is to keep the partners rotating (but giving them enough time with each person to learn something, before letting them take those ideas to a new partner to share), to model the step clearly, to demonstrate as many times as they need, and to step in if they need a bit of clarification – don’t just let them flounder.
We only do this once per class, because it can be super frustrating.
I don’t have the process down for this yet, so it’s still a bit clunky.

Do hard stuff
Don’t baby your beginners: humans are amazingly competent. Teach them complicated rhythms, because they can do it. But you need to be able to break it down and teach it in a very simple way. So you need to know exactly what your body is doing at all times, and to be able to articulate that in very few words. I find that I need to learn a dance step, then be able to think my way through it, then watch myself to see if I’m actually doing what I say I’m doing, then I need to practice articulating it – and only take 10 seconds to explain it. It’s not enough to just learn a step myself. Learning a step myself is not the same as knowing how to teach it. Just like Frankie: charleston is just step step step, kick, step. That’s it.

Talk One Thing, Do That Thing.
After answering a student’s question, or offering one tip, we dance on it immediately. Only give one tip at a time.
If you wait, they forget. I usually answer a question, then say “Ok, let’s test it out” and we all dance on the issue to figure it out.
I try to respond to every question as though it was a really interesting, useful question. And they always are: a student asking a question tells you when you need to clarify things, and it’s a gauge of where their understanding is at. So it’s fabulous.

Don’t micromanage their learning.
Let them improve through repetition and doing; don’t correct every little thing, or explain in superdetail before they start dancing.
This is a hard one for me. I want to correct everything as we go. But lots of corrections tells students they’re doing it wrong, and makes them dependent on you. Letting them dance and dance and figure it out makes them self-reliant, encourages communication between partners, and makes for much better, natural movement and learning.
The corollary is: students learn over many classes, not all in one class. So take a long view approach to learning.

Don’t correct one student in front of the group.
Shane McCarthy gave me this tip. It’s gold. Don’t shame a student publicly like that. Tell them in the group, perhaps, but even then, you better make sure you REALLY need to tell them something. Because corrections can be upsetting for new students especially.

Ask students their opinions, and ask questions.
“New song?”
“Again without music, or to a song?”
“What’s next, after we do the swing out?”
“What are the leads going to work on now?” “And the follows?”
Only ask questions to reiterate what you’ve just said. Don’t ask open-ended questions that can have any sort of answer.
The only near-exception is “What’s the difference between these two things?” and demo two very different things – eg a rotating basic and a basic on the spot.

Sometimes if we’re doing a routine or a set sequence, I honestly can’t remember, so I ask them to remind me.

Do we panic if we make a mistake?
I usually ask this just before we do a bunch of dancing where they choose what moves they do in what order, or when we dance through a sequence. The answer is: “No!” and I usually reply “Because YOLO, right? We’re just dancing. Just pause, get your bounce on, jump in when you feel ready again.”
Other similar questions/comments: “If the swivels/variations are freaking you out, just drop them and do the vanilla version. Basics are beautiful.”

“What if you’re really lost?”
Sometimes we’re just not up to it. And I tend to say that “Some days it’s just not working. So be cool.” And I tell a story about this jazz class I did with Chester at Herrang on only a couple of hours sleep. My usual minimum is to be facing the right direction at the right time. But in this class, I could only manage bouncing in time. So minimum: bounce in time. Next level: face the right direction at the right time. Next level: claps – the best part.
I find that after I say this they usually actually work harder and don’t settle for doing this. It gives them confidence to make mistakes. I’m actually 100% serious: sometimes it’s all I can manage to just face the right direction at the right time.

“Pretend I don’t know the rhythm, and you’re teaching me. You have to demonstrate it really clearly so that I can figure it out and dance along.”
We do this is the solo classes when the rhythm looks a bit messy and vague. I find we get brilliant results immediately. This is a really useful tool for getting students to be confident, but you don’t actually mention confidence. We just get them to imagine that they’re the authority on the step. And they just ARE!
I might also say, “Ok, you need to convince me that this is the rhythm. And make it super clear.”
In our partner classes, I quite like to have them do this with a partner just after they’ve learn the rhythm on their own. I say “Ok, now you need to face your partner, and I want you to dance this rhythm like you’re showing them how to do it. You need to be really clear, so that they can see.” And that’s actually really powerful. It’s also a good way of introducing the idea that leads and follows mirror each other’s footwork.

Another way of doing this is to do a call-and-response exercise. I’ve seen Frida and Skye do this: in the circle in partners, one partner does a jazz step for a phrase, and the other has to join in and copy. Then you rotate, or the other partner has a turn, and the watching person gets to demonstrate. It’s super cool. And it makes you learn to watch and pay close attention to your partner. You can level it up by having the watching partner then dance the same step back to the first partner, but with a slight variation.

This exercise does what our exercise does, but you don’t explicitly say what the exercise is all about. I find that the best teaching eventually gets to the point where you never explain what you’re doing with an exercise, you just have them do it, and be in the exercise. So they’re practicing mindfulness – being present in the dancing. With beginners at least. Level 2 or 3 students are often interested in that ‘behind the scenes’ thinking, though.

Don’t shout, don’t speak when other people are speaking.
When the students rotate partners, they take the first moments to say hello to each other. They’re just about to touch each other, so they need to spend a few seconds reestablishing their ‘permissions’. Or learning each other’s names. So when they rotate, the noise level will go up. Don’t try to speak over this or to shush them: new dancers are here for this – for the social stuff. So let them do it. But don’t let it get out of control. We have a particularly rowdy couple of classes on Wednesday evenings, where we do need to remind them that we’re here to dance.
So I let the noise rise, crest, and then as it’s dropping, I step up. I might get their attention by just going straight into a demonstration of the next part (this where you NEED really strong, clear rhythm – so you can grab their attention just with your movements). Or I might say something.

I never say “Shoosh!” or “Be quiet!” or any of that stuff. I’m not a school teacher, and I’m not their parents; I’m not responsible for their behaviour, they are. I just assume that they are here to learn to dance, so I assume that they respect the fact that we need to be a bit organised. And I respect them, so I’m absolutely not going to tell them off or shriek at them.
Never shout at people. I might call the rhythm loudly, or I might count them in loudly, but I NEVER EVER EVER shout at students or anyone else. I might shout out with excitement: “Wahoo! Fantastic!” but I never shout at them to tell them off! No! That’s AWFUL!

I try not to interrupt my teaching partners, and if I do by accident, I apologise and say “I’m sorry, I interrupted, please do go on.” And I don’t tolerate it in class – it’s not ok to disrespect other students or the teachers by talking over them. It’s ok to have a bit of run-on conversation where you need to finish a comment or feedback with your partner, but if people continue to talk, I deal with it. I usually walk over and stand next to them. If they’re still talking (and everyone else is usually watching by this point), I put my hand on their shoulder, very gently. It’s usually immediately effective and they splutter into silence because I’ve surprised them. The most common culprits: older white men mansplaining following to a female partner. And you know how I feel about THAT.

I quite like a rowdy class, where people are talking and figuring stuff out together. But when we come together as a group, we should all listen to each other.

Do it as a group, then in your own time.
We often put together a specific sequence of steps, which we all dance together. This makes sense when you’re doing things like swing outs, where you start with the rhythm on the spot, then you rotate it, then you let go half way (swing out!), then you come together (circle into closed!), then you take out the middle bit and swing out open to open. If you teach it cumulatively, the order of steps is kind of important.
So we often have the students dance it all as a group together, in the sequence, once or twice. Without music first, because the quieterness is calming. Then we all realise we need the music to help us stop rushing the beat. So then we do it to music as a group. We rotate partners in between a few times.
Then we let them do the steps in their own time, and in their own order. This is the most important part: you learn to lead and follow here. It’s important to let them do this to music, and to spend AGES doing it. You can walk about and offer tips, but I find it’s better to not interrupt – to just let them figure it out. I might interrupt a couple if I see someone is freaking out, or if they’re being a bit uncareful with each other, or if we have a bossy boots partner in the class. But mostly, you just let them do it.

I haven’t figured out how to do this with solo properly yet. Though I do like the ‘take one minute on your own to figure out the step’ approach Ramona uses.

Be like Frankie
Frankie Manning would aim for a class full of happy, laughing students. Not perfect dancing. He was a harsh task master when it came to running a troupe, or if he was drilling you in a routine, but when it came to beginners, the goal was to have people happy and laughing.
Your goal, teaching anyone – from beginners to ninjas – is to make it easy for people to enjoy themselves. Yes, dancing is a discipline, and this can be super complicated stuff. But it is meant to bring us joy. It’s lindy hop. It can be a fierce, fiery joy, but it’s a joy.
When I teach, I want:

  • LOLS. I want to laugh and have fun. And I want to laugh and have fun with my students. That’s why I’m there.
  • Bodies moving. Adrenaline, endorphines, good times. Bodies in motion to music is pure joy. Doesn’t matter whether they ‘have it’, if they are laughing and moving their bodies, your class is a SUCCESS.
  • Rhythm. The most important part of the step or dance is the rhythm. So you can ‘style’ it however you like: the rhythm comes first. In a technical sense, a clear rhythm is a consequence of clear weight transfer, good alignment, engaged cores, etc etc -> the bones of a good dance step.
  • Swinging timing. Lindy hop is a swing dance, so it has to have a swung timing, not a straight timing. This is why I insist on bounce. I don’t want people to rush the beat, I want them back there behind the beat. I find humans are naturally inclined to speed up. So chilling out is super important.
  • One jazz step per class. ONE JAZZ STEP is a minimum.
  • Improvisation and innovation. I don’t want carbon copies. I want people to find their own way of doing a step, and to move in a way that is natural for their own bodies. I do NOT want a room full of people who dance like me. No! So I have to do the simplest, best dancing I can.
  • Respect. We should all treat each other with respect. Each student is equally important, and the teachers aren’t any more important than the students. Everyone should feel this.
  • Cherish your students. This is my own personal hardcore hippy goal with teaching: these people are important. So cherish them. Each person has something new to bring to the dance; be alert to that, welcome it, seek it out. I find that this helps me get over myself if I’m worrying that I’m not doing a good teaching job. If I open myself up to the ideas that they bring to class, I stop worrying and really enjoy myself.
  • LOLS. LOLS. LOLS. We should be having fun. I cannot say this enough. Everyone – teachers, students, onlookers – should be enjoying this time with music and dancing with other people.

I think of teaching as collaboration between people. Lindy hop is about working with other people.
To me, this is why lindy hop can be a feminist project: it’s about respect for each other, and valuing other people’s contributions to a big conversation or project.

There’s a moment when we listen to a song in class, and I say “There are 15 men all finding one beat and taking care of it together. Let’s get with them.” And then we all dance and bounce in time and I say “Now there are THIRTY (or forty or whatevs) people taking care of the beat!” and I think that that is what lindy hop is. We are all working together to keep a shared time, to take care of a beat. All listening to each other, and working in accord, yet still all able to improvise and contribute in a unique way. That’s what teaching jazz dance is to me.

New dancers choosing to lead or follow

Ok, so let’s say you want to encourage more women to lead, and more men to follow. Or at the very least, you want people to feel ok about choosing either role. How do you get brand new dancers feeling as though they can choose?

This is how we do it.

We begin each class by introducing ourselves, and we do it like this:
“Hi, I’m Sam, and I’ll be teaching as the lead tonight.”
“Hi, I’m XX, and I’ll be teaching as the follow tonight.”

That immediately makes it clear that we could be doing either role, and that our choice isn’t necessarily permanent. This is actually a very practical thing for us at our venue, because I occasionally teach as a follow (and I find that very challenging), and we have a range of female and occasionally male teachers drop in, teaching either role.

But if you’re a brand new dancer, these words ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ mean exactly nothing, because you don’t know how this dance works yet.

So we follow up with something like:
“This is a class for new dancers, and we assume you’re brand new, so you are very welcome if this is your first class. Tonight we are working charleston/lindy hop/(whatever it is we’re working on).” And then we demonstrate that. So if we’re working on swing outs, we do some swing outs.

That let’s the students see the partnership in action (though most people can’t really see how leading and following works before their very first class), and it gives them an idea of what they’re in for. It also lets them imagine that this is how they’ll be dancing during the class, which is a nice thing.

Then we do our warm up (all solo stuff).
Then we learn the basic step/rhythm for tonight – charleston, whatever. Again, on our own.

Then we say:
“Ok now you need to decide whether you’re leading or following. If you want to lead, then put your arm in the air.” Or we ask the follows to put their arms up, and then we have them pair up.

This is usually about 10 minutes into the class, so students’ very first experience with lindy hop is that being able to dance on your own is essential. They also learn that leads and follows do the same rhythms and steps. We teach them how to do the rhythm on both feet. So they learn that being able to do both ‘sides’ is really important for everyone. This, incidentally, gives people a chance to get used to being in a dance class on their own first, and it introduces them to learning, and our class culture, on their own. Before they have to do the most confronting part, which is touching someone else. Holding someone else in their arms.

If we’re teaching our level 2 class, we begin with “If you dance both lead and follow, please choose one and dance that for this class.” We don’t care what people do, so long as they stick to one for the entire class. If we have uneven numbers, we try really, really hard not to make dancers feel they need to change their role to suit the numbers. If I know someone is there to lead, and we have massively more leads than follows, I work with that – I don’t try to even the numbers. Uneven numbers is actually a benefit, and I articulate that in class. Our regular students know that if you’re on your own in a rotation, you use that time to work on your own dancing, and most people figure out it’s a real advantage.
I have had trouble when I do substitute teaching at other people’s classes, because the dancers standing out without a partner have to be encouraged more than once to keep dancing. But my feeling is: you’re here to dance. So standing about watching other people is a waste of your time. Unless of course you need a little break, which is ok.

And that’s it. It’s really that simple. If you treat it as normal, so does everyone else. And for us, it is normal. It’s important for us to identify who’s leading and who’s following in the teaching partnership, especially for brand new dancers, because they often can’t identify the role on their own.
We always say ‘lead’ or ‘follow’, and we never use gender specific terms. Because that’s dumb. And gender isn’t actually important. It’s much more important to talk about the role – leading, following – and to use the words ‘lead’ and ‘follow’, because it helps you develop an identity for each role, that isn’t about gender, but is about dancing qualities. So, in my mind, a lead leads – if I want to have a follow step towards me, I need to take a small step back (rather than yanking on our arms). If I want the follow to do a particular footwork rhythm, I need to do it too, and first, and with confidence. If I want my follow to be relaxed in their body, I need to relax my body. And so on. Similarly, following isn’t about ‘doing as you’re told’, it’s about maintaining momentum. I might say “I’m deciding what move we’re doing, but (follow’s name)/the follow is deciding how we do that move, and they’re responsible for maintaining the momentum. We’re both responsible for keeping time (with our bounce), and we’re both responsible for doing good, clear rhythms. We are both (as Ramona says), responsible for taking care of the rhythm.”
I find that avoiding gender specific language actually frees my mind and my teaching to explore the way leading and following actually work. If I can’t say ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’, I have to find other words that describe what we’re doing. And that makes me a much better teacher.

We didn’t begin with this model. When Alice and I started, we would say “Traditionally men led and women followed, but we don’t need to do that,” or something similar. And then, looking back through old photos, I realised that that was just plain wrong. Women have always led, men have always followed, and men have always danced with men, and women have always danced with women. For the same reasons they do today – a shortage of the other gender, a preference for the same sex (whether romantically or just because fronds), wanting to dance with friends, coincidence, dancing skills and preference, etc etc etc. So we stopped saying that, because it’s WRONG. And I think it’s extra wrong to tell a bullshit version of history when we’re dancing a historic dance.

So if you’re working on this stuff – good luck, and do let me know if you have other strategies! I will TOTALLY steal your ideas!

‘Musicality’ classes

Every dance class is a ‘musicality’ class.

Here are some simple ways I like to build ‘musicality’ into classes*

  • Begin and end and continue with the ‘beat’.
    I like to emphasise ‘bounce’ (or ‘pulse’) quite strongly when I’m teaching, particularly with brand new dancers. The very first thing we do when we start warming up is some bouncing in time. And we don’t let students begin dancing out a sequence until they are all bouncing. We use expressions like ‘make friends with the music’, and ‘show your partner you have a nice, solid beat’, or ‘use the bounce to get connected with your partner – use this time to find a shared sense of beat’.

    That last one is a particularly useful tool when you’re talking to more intermediate dancers, because you can show them how the beat is about consensus, or shared timing between partners. I usually emphasise this by saying something like (as we listen to a big band track), “There are fifteen men playing music together here, and they all get together and find one common beat, so let’s do the same, and use that common beat to get together with one other person.” Incidentally, there’s also a lovely moment(s) in class, where you’re all facing into the circle, bouncing in time, and you get that powerful feeling of connectedness that improvised music brings: humans keeping a shared time.
    Using the beat as a way to connect with a partner is another lovely tool for talking about the role of leads and of follows. I like to talk about how each partner has a responsibility to ‘take care’ of the beat, particularly when the other partner is pulling out some crazy rhythm work. It’s as though we each have a responsibility to maintain a sort of rhythmic compass, so each person knows where they are in the musical landscape, even when they’re going crazy.
    We just taught some workshops in Christchurch, and in the lower level class we did some work with basic rhythms in open, face to face position. We had taught a handful of different rhythms, and the students were dancing through them in their own time, mixing and matching and figuring out how to lead and follow them, how to transfer between them, etc etc etc. It was just magical watching these newer dancers at work. They were all looking into each others’ eyes, eyebrows up, grinning like fools, pulling out these complex rhythms.
    It was great when they were both doing the same rhythm in unison, but I was especially delighted by the moments when they were doing different rhythms at the same time, looking into each others’ eyes grinning. It was polyrhythms in action, and they clearly felt that pleasure that comes from each being able to dance their own thing with their partner, yet still as a coherent partnership. And the thing that held them together as a partnership was this shared sense of beat. It was truly complex work, but even brand new dancers can do this, because humans are amazing.

    This emphasis on beat/bounce results in dancing that is in time. I don’t use numbers at all in lindy hop classes (unless we are doing a combination of steps that start on 1, 8 and other beats), which means that you need to give the students a way of ‘getting ready’ to start dancing. I think it’s really hard to find just one beat (‘one’) when you’re a beginner dancer, which is why I like to give them a tool to find all the beats.

    When we work with different types of dancing – 1920s partner stuff, for example – we talk about how the beat is still there, and we still need to find it with our bounce, but that it’s a slightly different beat, with a different emphasis. I’ll talk about this with brand new dancers as well as more experienced ones, but when we work with the latter group, we talk more about how you might vary your bounce for different music. And when you might drop it completely to make a point. This, of course, feeds in nicely to discussions about how to dance faster, and the biomechanics of lindy hop.

    With our solo classes, keeping a sense of timing with your bounce is even more important, because we do such rhythmically complex steps, where a broader understanding of timing (and where you are in the timing or progression of a routine) is even more important. In solo, in particular, the 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 5 & 7 & 8 & counting is particularly unuseful. We work with much more subtle divisions of time, so we need a strong sense of the ‘beat’ to keep ourselves oriented. I find the idea of ‘and’ as a halfway point between counts especially irksome – syncopation is much more interesting than a ‘half way point’. The exciting about solo work is that it gives you the chance to experiment with incremental divisions of the beat, and then inspires you to take this to your lindy hop. Why wouldn’t you do this with your lindy hop as well? The Swedes do it, and Frankie Manning embodied it.

    Bounce is also very useful for helping people discover the ‘swing’ of swinging jazz. A bounce is a longer trip between two points than a straight line – your core goes down towards the ground, then back up to the second point. Your steps involve a sort of compression and delay, because you are ‘bouncing’ rather than sliding or moving directly between beats. It helps that the music makes this very clear: a plucked bass string has a built in delay, where the sound resonates for a while before the next note is plucked. It _feels_ like a bounce.

  • Rhythm.
    It seems very fashionable to talk about rhythm a lot at the moment. Of course, the Swedes have been talking about rhythm forever, and people like Norma Miller have been yelling at us for counting instead of rhythm for years. But what makes this a practical teaching tool/paradigm?
    I like to think of all the ‘steps’ we do as rhythms. Mostly because we are dancing, so music is the heart of what we do. I can represent pitch and notes with my body, but the rhythms of the notes is what makes all this interesting, and what makes swing swing.
    But really, and most importantly, weight changes are the heart of each ‘step’ or ‘move’, and a weight change really is a way of portraying timing. Of committing to timing. So when I walk in time, with a bounce, I am one hundred percent committed to the basic beat of a song. Bounce and weight change are about clear, effective engagements of core muscles, which in turn affects and dictates how our arms might move, or the angle of our shoulders, and so on and so on. So, biomechanically, dancing rhythms rather than ‘shapes’ is much more interesting and challenging. And (confusingly) make it easier to communicate with a partner.
    My favourite part of this approach, though, is that it feels like we’re playing a really interesting, challenging game. What’s that rhythm? Can I recognise the pattern? Can I recreate it? Can I do it so clearly that I can communicate it to my partner? FUN!

    This leads me to my next teaching tool or strategy. We teach a lot of rhythm sequences as ‘rhythm breaks’, where we set up an AAAB pattern, with a single rhythm repeated 3 times, then a second rhythm serving as a ‘break’ in the B section of a phrase. We do this with total beginners, and we might have them do step-step-triple-step, step-step-triple-step x3, then a mini-dip. We teach the mini dip as a solo step first, where we teach the rhythm first. Then we have them move through the shape, then we add in the rhythm. We find that we get much crisper, clearer dancing, and the mini-dip (or whatever) is very clear. After we’ve got them cool on that break, we say something like “Now, don’t neglect that original rhythm: you can’t have a contrast if you don’t set up that first rhythm properly.” Of course, we’re talking about the power of repetition to build suspense, and the break as a rhythmic contrast to climax and relieve that suspense, but we don’t talk about that. I’ve noticed, though, that dancers feel that resolution. There’s something really nice about about doing that AAAB structure all together.
    This is how we teach beginner students: using the AAAB structure of a phrase, a basic rhythm (which we use as a foundation for most of the moves in the class), and then an additional rhythm ‘break’. All with an emphasis on the ‘beat’ to hold it all together. We might add a second rhythm break if things are going well. Sometimes we do the break side by side in closed (the easiest approach), or we use turning steps with levels – like the mini-dip.

    When we’re teaching solo dance, we often do exactly the same thing: three charleston steps, then a charleston break = AAAB. But we are more likely to do other combinations: ABAB is also very nice. And then we might build it up across phrases, where we recreate that ABAB structure across four phrases. We do tend to do this more in our solo classes than our lindy hop classes, partly because the lack of partner work makes it easier to learn more in a solo class, but also because we tend to work with much more complex content in our solo classes: old school routines which are quite challenging. Now I’m thinking about it, I see we need to perhaps be more challenging in our lindy hop classes, and think more about ABAB, as well as just AAAB.

    It’s quite simple, really, but it actually results in quite sophisticated dancing, which feels really really nice, and is very interesting and stimulating to watch.

    Sneakily, this is how we teach students to relax their arms and upper bodies. If you want someone to relax their upper bodies and arms, to have good posture, to keep their weight over their feet, and to have a loose, elastic connection, the best strategy is to get them thinking about walking about in funny rhythms. It distracts from the arms, but it also forces them to engage their cores, which in turn allows them to release their upper bodies, because they are much more stable through the torso.

    And doing shared rhythm work is a very good way to get partners communicating. Ramona said this in a workshop recently: when you dance, you are giving your partner a gift. You’re giving them something. When you dance with a band, you’re giving the musicians a gift. When you dance alone, you’re giving the musicians or people around you a gift. I found this a really nice way to get over feeling shy about looking at myself in the mirror when I danced, and other people found it a good way to get over feeling nervous in performances.
    But we use it when we’re teaching lindy hop and solo dance. We say, “When you dance this rhythm, imagine you are demonstrating that rhythm for someone watching – you’re giving them a little rhythm so that they can do it themselves. So it has to be really clear and really obvious.” This is fab when you’re doing partnered work, especially call and response work. But it’s also proved very successful in solo work, where we want dancers to enunciate very clearly.
    All this is lovely hippy talk, which leads to the best feelings in class. But it’s also a very clever way of getting dancers to do very clear, efficient movements, which facilitate good connection with a partner, and very good proprioception, which then makes it possible to dance very fast or very slow, to pull off complex choreography, or to do sophisticated competition dancing.

    But for me, as a teacher, it brings very great joy. All those new dancers looking into each others’ faces with those crazy grins: it’s Frankie crystalised and reproduced. And it just relaxes everyone and is so much FUN! Suddenly the simplest shapes – swing outs, under arm turns, circles – are vehicles for incredibly complex play and interaction. It’s lindy hop at its very finest. And people can learn to do this in just ONE lesson!

    This AMAZES ME!

    Of course, when you’re working with more experienced dancers, the rhythms get far more complex, and your ‘basic’ rhythm is more involved. So what was your ‘break’ step can become your ‘basic’ rhythm, and your additional sections of rhythm can layer up and become even more complex, working across phrases. This is when you get Swedish. This is when you get Frankie Manning and Norma Miller and Sugar Sullivan.

  • I don’t count.
    Because I can’t. I’m rubbish at counting. But also because I don’t like the way it makes students think about the timing of a song as an absolute relationship between beats. The beat of improvised music, especially swing, is a consensual thing – the musicians find a common beat, and then they work with that. There’s no absolute relationship between the beats; the relationship between beats is relative. And counting is absolute.

    I find that brand new dancers are totally ok with scatting and no counts. But dancers who’ve been learning for a while with counts find it very, very difficult to adjust to the lack of counts. They do get it, but it usually takes at least a quarter of a class, and even then they’re not totally ok with it.

    I especially hate the way we use the word ‘and’ when we count ‘one two three and-four, five six seven and-eight’, because it suggests that the last three beats are equidistant in length, or that the ‘and’ is half the length of a single beat. But as we all know, syncopation is more complex. And a triple step isn’t exactly like a stomp off in terms of timing, and when we do something like a full break, the timing changes depending on whether we’re jumping into the air, stepping gently or taking big or small steps. Our own leg length changes the way we swing the timing, or adjust that distance between the beats. And of course, the song tells us how to do each beat or portion of a beat. So numbers are not the right tool.
    Scatting is the tool. At first it’s embarrassing, but then it’s not. You love it.

    I get very cranky about people insisting that 8 and 6 count steps are completely different dances. They’re not. We tend to only teach 6 count steps as step-step triple-step, triple-step, which is just one step step away from an 8 count rhythm. The only difference is two fewer counts. When you make a big deal about 6 and 8 count steps being really different (to the point of describing lindy hop only as 8 count and ‘6 count’ as a separate dance like jitterbug or whatevs), you make it confusing for the students. We dance 6 and 8 and 10 and 2 and 12 step movements in lindy hop ALL THE TIME; we definitely don’t have rules about the precise number of counts in lindy hop. That is the point of lindy hop as a vernacular jazz dance: it does what it likes. Yes, we do tend to move towards 8 count steps, but that’s because we’re working with music in 4/4 (common) timing, and we like a bit longer than one bar to get things done. But even our basic ‘step step triple step, step step triple step’ rhythm can be evenly divided into two bars of 4 if we need it.

    Jazz: there are no freaking rules, so ease up on the goddam counting.

  • I start students dancing at the beginning of a phrase.
    When I’m getting the students to dance a series of moves to music, I begin at the beginning of the phrase. At the beginning of the class, I’m usually guiding that, but by the end of the class students figure out where the phrase begins ON THEIR OWN! And I don’t even need to talk about phrasing! This might mean that we spend a few eight counts standing and bouncing together, but this is good – it helps us work on our bouncing and timing and partnership. Then when they are dancing on their own, deciding which steps to do when, they have three major points of reference in the music: the beat, the phrase, and the beginning of a bar or 8-count.
    This often means that we have to wait out a bridge or a big solo in the music, but we will often say “Uh, oh, let’s wait til Cootie gets past this solo, then we’ll start,” or “Come on, Nina, play that weirdo piano breaky bit so we can get going.” This signals to the students that there are things happening in the music that are more than the beat, that are aurally interesting, and that this affects our dancing.
  • And, finally, dancing to the music in class.
    Another way we think about music in class comes in when we are doing the ‘dance it out’ part of the class. We used to structure our classes around a set sequence of steps, where we moved through a mini routine in the class, just teaching step after step. This got BORING. Now we tend to teach progressively, or cumulatively, where we begin with a basic shape, and then make it more complex.
    We teach total beginners in their very first class lindy hop. We start with the basic rhythm in closed, then we rotate it (circle in closed), then we have them let go half way (swing out from closed), then we have them come back together, with a bit of rotation (circle from open), then we have them swing out from open to open. Then we add swivels and bows. Same basic rhythm, with each step building on the one before. The core element is the rotation – the circle – because that’s what makes the follow drift out into open position when the lead lets go, and that’s what helps the lead redirect the follow’s momentum once they’ve started moving in at the beginning of a swing out. Swingouts = leads initiating momentum, then redirecting it, follows maintaining and shaping momentum. Or, ‘some times we are together, and some times we are apart.’

    By this point, they’ve got 5 moves, a couple of jazz steps, and one solid rhythm. Then we have them dance a lot. We usually begin by having everyone dance a particular sequence as a group for perhaps two rotations of partners, or 2 or 4 phrases of a song. Then tell them the leads get to choose what order they do things in, and how many of each thing they do. Then we the music on and they dance and dance and dance – at least a whole 4 minute song, usually two songs, with rotations (though letting them have a few phrases with each partner).
    We stand about in the middle or on the side watching, and doing a bit of spot checking if they need any tips, or answering questions. We use one song for all this, so they get to know the music really well, and we usually use something like ‘Easy Does It’ by the Big 18, or Basie’s slower ‘Splanky’ – something that swings like a gate, is a big band, is a slowish tempo, and has lots of texture and dynamics. While they’re doing all this dancing, we usually let them count themselves in (unless they’re struggling), and the only time we’ll address the whole group is to say “Yes! Beautiful!” and other positive things – when they do actually get to that point (I don’t tell them it’s brilliant if I don’t think it looks brilliant).
    Here’s where the serious musicality comes in: when the song changes dynamics quite dramatically (eg from very loud and intense to calmer and quieter), we usually call out “Ok, the music has changed! It feels different now!” and then they just adjust their dancing to suit the music. It’s amazing to see – they go from huge and crazy to smaller and gentler in their shapes and communication. We don’t need to explain this – they just know how to do to it, because they are humans and humans are astounding.

So these are some of the ways we build musicality into our classes. And this is why I have never felt the urge to run a special ‘musicality’ class – every class I teach is a musicality class, or else I’m not teaching dancing.

*When I say ‘I’, I really mean ‘my teaching partners and I’, because it takes two to lindy hop.