So you know, when all that fucking awful sexual assault shit was going down, I was in Seoul, Korea, having the TIME OF MY LIFE discovering that the rest of the lindy hopping world? It is actually, in TOTAL, a quarter the size of SEOUL’s scene. And also, Seoul lindy hoppers? They are fucking amazing. The solo dance comp at that one weekend: better than any of the shit coming out of the American solo comps. It was so good, I had to stop and really think: was I just overcome by holiday feels? Were they really this good?
Look: they really are that good. Stop planning your trip to ILHC, Australia, and get on a fucking plane to Seoul.
There’s social dancing EVERY NIGHT. There are 5 different venues running social dancing parties on a Tuesday night alone. There were 200 people at one party the night I was there. And there are FOURTEEN different parties on Saturday nights.
And that is just normal. A normal week.
Also, Seoul is the fucking business. It is such a great city. Go there. GO THERE. It’s only 10 hours from Sydney, and you don’t get jetlag. It’s cheap to stay and eat there, and the food is really GREAT.
Not many live bands atm (just three that they use regularly – three more than a lot of small scenes) – but I bet, just like everything else in their jazz world, they will fix that shit by next year. Meanwhile, I know half a dozen Australian bands who are already planning their next Korean tour. The DJed music: fabulous. One hundred times better than Sydney. There’s so much social dancing, and it’s so important, that the big name DJs have facebook pages where they list their gigs _each week_. And dancers follow their favourite DJs around town.
Just think about that. So many dancers that you choose your DJs to compete with other venues.
Stop reading this post. Go to Seoul. I’m going there again in July. Because, fuck. Seoul is fantastic.
Billie Holiday, with Teddy Wilson at the piano and Milt Hinton on bass, at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1954, five years from the close of her career and the end of her life (from shorpy, via jelly)
Here is a post just about dancing and music, because even though we’re thinking and talking about gender politics and good business practices in the scene, we’re also dancers. Hopefully. This post is kind of rambly, because that’s how I roll.
This post is about the ‘rhythm centred‘ approach to lindy hop that a few teachers are really digging on at the moment. And music.
What is this ‘rhythm method’? Basically, we’re talking about prioritising the rhythms at the heart of a dance step, rather than the shapes. Shapes are important, yes, but the rhythm comes first.
This isn’t a new approach. People’ve been into this forever. People like NormaMiller, other old timers, the Rhythm Hot Shots… pretty much anyone who’s legit.
I think this is a bit like another approach that got around in the early 2000s: work from the ground up. In both cases, the emphasis is on what your body does, and on the foundation of good dancing. Committing your weight properly, understanding how you make contact with the ground, and how you initiate movement from your core. In other words, good lindy hop, as a partner dance, is like good solo dancing: you have to move your arse if you want to actually be dancing with someone.
Anyhow, I was in a class this week, taught by Bec and Alice at our regular Wednesday night intermediate class. They began the class with an exercise we’d picked up from Ramona and from the other Sea of Rhythm peeps (all of whom are tap dancers): in a circle one person does a rhythm, then the next person has to do a step inspired by that rhythm, and so on round the circle. Then the class continued with a fairly simple idea: you use a pass by (where the lead goes under the joined arms) as a ‘space’ for improvising, or adding in a rhythm. You can either do call and response (where one parter does the rhythm first, and the other copies on the next go through), or you can both do your own rhythms at the same time.
Nothing new, right? We’ve done this approximately one million times, though we might say ‘do your own jazz steps’ in that bit where you walk past each other. You might shorty george under there, or swivel around. It’s a nice, simple example of how jazz and lindy hop are structure + improvisation. But when you shift the emphasis to the rhythm, it gets a bit more interesting.
And I actually found it a bit nicer as a lead-follow exercise. Because if you focus on the rhythm, not the shape, you focus on how your feet strike the floor, and with what sort of emphasis. Where are you pausing? Where do you speed up? Is it a straight step, or is it syncopated? If you are doing call and response, you have to be as clear as you can, so your partner can recognise the rhythm and then repeat it back to you (this is my favourite). And in an under arm pass by situation, it’s not easy to see your partner all the time, so you have to feel the rhythm through your connected arms.
Of course, for this to work, you need to have a) an understanding of swung timing, straight timing, syncopation, and how to keep time while ‘paused’ (ie gotta have bounce, and b) a relaxed connection, because a hugely tight pair of arms don’t let messages (weight changes) through.
And to get those things, you need to focus on the rhythm of your basic footwork, and on leading by moving your body rather than yanking with your arms.
And, the best bit of this, is that you have to really pay attention to your partner to catch the rhythm, then repeat it back. You have to watch and listen and feel them, and then you have to watch and listen and feel them responding to see if you’re getting it right. The other best bit is that you assume from the beginning that both partners – lead and follow – can call, and both can respond. This immediately undoes the idea that follows always react and leads always initiate. It reminds you that both of you are partners, and that both good leading and good following requires listening very carefully to your partner, and responding to what they’re doing.
[Segue: if you set up this model of dancing relationships, you are undoing the bullshit power dynamic that encourages sexual harassment (which is where one partner exploits their higher position of power). In this model of dance partnership, each partner is important and powerful. You listen to each other. You respect each other. Higher power and its exploitation is detrimental to both the dancing partnership, and to the social partnership.]
Ok, so where’s the music in all this?
This is where we get amazing. This is where jazz dancing gets fantastic. We are doing polyrhythms, here. There’s the band, doing what they do. And then there’s the dancers, dancing a rhythm on the top. They might be dancing what they hear in the music, or, because lindy hop is wonderful, they might add a complementary rhythm to what they hear. Something that’s not in the music at all. Yet.
As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, if there are two of you having a rhythmic conversation like this, you’ll be adding two layers of rhythm on top of the music. Because you two aren’t in sync – you’re doing call and response. And that means that while you’re responding to your partner, they’re already adding in another rhythm. So you have to listen to and recognise that new rhythm while you’re responding with the previous rhythm! Wow!
Wait, no, we’re not done.
This is where it gets fantastic.
You don’t have to play the call and response game. You can just rock out doing whatever you like, not syncing up with your partner. So you’re doing a whole heap of rhythms all at once, on top of the music. Boom. Of course, the challenge here is to make all this actually be rhythmically sound. It can’t just be a bunch of noise and rubbish. This is why I like the call and response game: it makes you be super clear and definite in your movements. I actually like it when you have to do a rhythm, then repeat it, and then your partner repeats it. Because that way you get clear feedback about whether your rhythm is legit, and not just a bunch of banging and jumping about. If you can’t do it twice in a row, then you suck a bit and you need to clean it up. Usually that means simplifying.
The extra wonderful part of this, is that this is a game brand new dancers can play as well. And as you get more experience, and more control of your body, your rhythms can get more complex. To me, it feels like leading and following on a micro-level. Am I leading clearly enough for a brand new dancer to pick it up and follow? If not, then I suck. My partner shouldn’t have to be a superstar to recognise and repeat my rhythm.
Tell me about the music!
Right, lets talk about the shout chorus at the end of a song. Wikipedia puts it like this. The shout chorus is
characterized by being the most energetic, lively, and exciting and by containing the musical climax of the piece. A shout chorus characteristically employs extreme ranges, loud dynamics, and a re-arrangement of melodic motives into short, accented riffs. Shout choruses often feature tutti or concerted writing, but may also use contrapuntal writing or call and response between the brass and saxophones, or between the ensemble and the drummer. Additionally, brass players frequently use extended techniques such as falls, doits, turns, and shakes to add excitement.
I like ones by musicians like Sidney Bechet, old school NOLA people. Or Fats Waller usually brings good ones. That last chorus often feels more chaotic and shouty than with a big classic swing band. And there’s probably going to be some improvisation in there too. Here, check out ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ by Waller and his Rhythm, from about 2.00:
[DJing note: I often use a song with this sort of ending to build the energy in the room. From here I can ramp up the tempos and excitement level, because the shout chorus has primed the room for something more.]
Ok, so here’s my thinking: that last shout chorus is just like when you’re playing call and response rhythms with your partner. The rhythms and notes just pile on up. It sounds a bit like chaos, but it’s not, because everyone has to really listen to each other.
This is jazz.
And this is why that idea that ‘follows do what leads say’ is just rubbish. It’s not only sexist and dumb, it’s not jazz. It’s creatively BOOOORING.
Not much in the way of shout chorus to that song, aye? In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s a quieter, calmer, sparser arrangement and performance. The tempo is nice and relaxed, it swings like a gate, and it has a nice clear, consistent rhythm. Perfect for lindy hopping.
Then let’s look at Marie and Skye. They’re doing the same shapes, they have the same beat in their bodies, but they often aren’t doing exactly the same rhythm. I don’t want to say ‘footwork’ because ‘footwork’ is misleading: it suggests that it’s your feet doing the work. It’s actually your body that’s doing the work, and your foot placement and emphasis is a consequence of choices you’ve made with your body. That’s why it’s so much easier to see Skye and Maria’s rhythms. It’s almost as though Skye in particular has velvet covered feet. Velvet covered bricks, because though each step is perfectly and gently places, the commitment of weight is very solid and definite. And he understands that he has more than just one flat surface to his foot – there’s lots more to work with. And then, to make it more awesome, he lifts his feet from his hip or his knee… the movement begins higher in his body, not just with his feet.
Again, though, the rhythms that they bring, even to just the last 2 beats of a swing out, where you might triple step habitually, are very clear decisions, and they are working with the music. They aren’t just ramming some random combination of steps that they love on top of the music. They’re building it in. Watching Skye (because I’m a lead, that’s what I’m doing right now), he’s also working with all the instruments. There aren’t many of them, but he makes very clear that it’s the combination of instruments that make the band.
I really hate ‘musicality classes’ where teachers say something like ‘now dance to the saxophone!’ Because there’s a whole band there, and the sound they make is a combination of all those instruments and sounds. So why would I just take out one instrument? What I like about Skye in this particular video is that he’s moving between instruments, or dancing to all of them at once, and creating a series of shapes and patterns and rhythms that join them all together.
And Marie is with him, working with his overall pattern, but adding stuff by shifting the emphasis here and there, by adding in completely new sequences, by taking out sequences and paring things down. I particularly like the way her moments of stillness and simplicity (something I see Naomi Uyama do a lot) are essential for Skye’s busy-ness. If they were both going hardcore, you’d get more of a shout chorus effect, but for the whole song, and it’d be a bit much. It certainly wouldn’t suit this quieter, pared back song.
Ok, so you see straight away, that there’s a different rhythmic relationship going on here between these two people. I’ve written about Frida before, in reference to this same issue: she brings the shit. She also has a very active, engaged and exciting edge to her dancing that isn’t like Marie’s. Watching this, I’m struck by the way Skye becomes the ‘simpler’ dancer, when Frida adds the vajazzle. Not that he’s necessarily doing simple steps; it’s just that the layers of rhythm and timing and emphasis are different in this partnership. By dancing with a different partner to a different song, his dancing is changed. Partly because he’s a very good lead, and changes his dancing to suit the music and his partner. But also because dancing with a different partner frames his approach to music in a different way.
Theres’s something more exciting about dancing to a live band, and I think it’s because anything can happen. Jazz wants improvisation, and in a recording, the improvisation is over: the sound is fixed. But when it’s live, it’s not fixed. And when dancers and musicians work together, that degree of the unexpected increases. Much more can happen now. So there’s an edge of anticipation and risk to improvised dancing to a live, improvising jazz band. Which adds excitement. And with Frida, you know that her reflexes are so good, and she is so fast, that she can not only respond really quickly to a new lead, but she can respond quickly to a new sound in the band, and add her own thoughts to both or either. And yet still make the partnership work.
Anyway, I wanted to jot all these thoughts down while they were still fresh after a couple of days of interesting dance work. Bec and Alice also led a session in our practice group last night where they taught us how to do one particular move that Skye leads in both these videos. Bec and Alice came to practice all excited because they’d realised Skye dances that same move in many ways, with many partners. And it’s always different. Our challenge in this session was to be able to dance two versions, and to understand how changes in timing (rhythm) were about changes in how you use your body, as both a lead and a follow. One thing we realised was that if you overcommit – if you get too ‘deep’ into a pause or a stop, your timing changes, and you can’t respond as quickly. It was very interesting.
So I guess this post is about layers of rhythm, and how we can think about lindy hop as sequences and layers of rhythm, both between partners, and between musicians and dancers. Long live lindy hop. You are the best.
I’ve been following Eamon through various gigs for many years, ever since I saw him as a wee babby trumpeter in Chris Tanner’s Virus in about 2001 or 2002. Since then he’s learnt to sing, won bunches of awards, played with a squillion bands.
This band is exciting.
Why excited? This is seriously good Melbourne jazz musician action. Playing the sort of music we LOVE. MOAR! MOAR!
And Eamon is part of the Melbourne Rhythm Project, which means he talks to dancers about music. GOOD.
The drummer is Lyn Wallis, which should make you very excited. I think he’s the best jazz drummer in Australia. If you don’t believe me, listen to that song Gone, and then to this song Don’t You Wanna Dance:
Eamon McNelis: Cornet and Vocals
Brennan Hamilton-Smith: Clarinet
Steve Grant: Piano
Jon Delaney: Guitar
Mark Elton: Double Bass
Lyn Wallis: Drums
There’s recently been a fairly loud and emotional discussion about sexual violence in lindy hop. I don’t want to rehash it here, because I find it very upsetting. Rehashing this stuff in detail disempowers me. I don’t want to discuss the male teacher named in this discussion, because I don’t want this to be all about him. Again. I want to take that power away from him. I want to find power in this, for me, and for other women.
This article is particularly relevant to the current discussion about assault and safety for women in the lindy hop scene.
I am deeply disturbed by comments emphasising how we might ‘protect’ women and girls in our communities. I think it is problematic (to say the least) to perpetuate this idea of femininity as vulnerable (and passive), and masculinity as dangerous (and active).
It’s important to remember that most sexual assaults happen in privates spaces (dance halls, practice rooms, bedrooms, lounge rooms and so on), and most women are assaulted by people they know. ‘Rapists’ aren’t wild bears or volcanoes: they aren’t forces of nature that we have to protect women from. They are people who need to fix their behaviour.
We need to remind women that they are powerful and capable of caring for and protecting themselves, and for making decisions about their bodies and lives.
So I think that one of the most effective tools for making safe spaces in lindy hop is is empowering women. Some practical tips:
Do use gender neutral language in class (ie follow does not = female by default). I have heard many male teachers resist this, saying that it’s ‘too hard’, or ‘not important’. Believe me: it is important. If you are a woman leading in that class (or thinking about leading), it makes you feel part of the group. It makes you feel like a lead.
Follows are not passive; following is an active process (ie leads don’t ‘tell follows what to do’, and follows don’t ‘carry out’ leaders’ creative ideas)
All partners should take care of each other (ie it’s not that ‘leads look after follows’, it’s that we all should look after each other). eg follows are responsible for floor craft too.
List the female dance partner in a teaching team first. This is ridiculously rare in lindy hop, and we need to make up for lost time by over-representing women as the ‘first’ member of the teaching team.
Teach female students how to say “No thank you” if they are invited to dance, but don’t want to. Teach yourself how to say this.
Don’t use sexualised humour in class. This makes it clear that classes are learning spaces. If all the sexy jokes in the world were gender-win, it’d be ok. But most of the sexualised jokes teachers make in class use gender stereotypes that disempower women.
Have female role models in your scene: women MCs at big events, women musicians (!!), women organisers, women teaching on their own, women DJs, women publicly making decisions and solving problems (ie female managers), women doing physical labour (beyond cleaning, aye?), women eating well-balanced meals with enthusiasm at shared tables (and not talking about ‘being bad’ when they eat delicious food).
Value other types of work, particularly the types of work dominated by women. Working the door is as important as DJing. Make that clear. Name all your volunteers in your PR copy.
Talk about old timer dancers who are women. Al, Leon, Frankie: they’re all wonderful. But so are Norma, Sugar, Josephine, Dawn, Big Bea.
Research women dancers and teach their material, in their names. And that means more than just another class on swivels. Talk about women choreographers, troupe leaders, and managers.
Teach solo dance. Women dancing alone is an act of agency and power in a partner dancing world. And teach a variety of styles: sexy, sweet, powerful, aggressive, humorous, gentle, sad, athletic, witty, cerebral….
Congruently, men in lindy hop need to be taught some things too:
Work on your own strategies for speaking up when you hear a sexist joke. You know you should call that guy on it, but what exactly will you say or do? Will you walk away? Will you laugh along?
What are your limits, when it comes to ‘blokey’ or ‘boys own’ behaviour? Sexy jokes? Talking about women you see in the room in a sexual way? Competing with other men to ‘get’ a woman? Know your limits, then act on them.
Defer to female opinion and example: if you’re in a discussion, listen to women before you speak. In all matters, not just sexual safety. Once you’re good at it, then start working on ways of expressing your opinion in a collegial way.
Don’t call women girls unless they are actually girls (ie under 13). It’s patronising. Don’t call women or girls ‘females’, unless their gender is what you want to discuss: eg “Female dancers are as capable of leading as following” is as good as “Women dancers are as capable of leading as following” but “Females are good leads too” is not ok. Women are not meerkats.
Encourage women to take up leading. Encourage women who lead. Encourage women to comment on leading. A compliment on their technique is good, but asking a woman for her opinion on leading is even better. If a woman chooses to lead in class, don’t make a big deal about it, and make it easy for them to stay in that role (deal with uneven follow/lead ratios in other ways – eg talk about how if you’re standing out, this is a chance to work on your dancing)
Seek out women DJs. They may be harder to find, but don’t default to the usual male DJs at your events. Men are more likely to speak up, so you need to keep your eyes and ears open for women DJs.
Proactively encourage women DJs, women leads, and women organisers.
Use your online time to support women, and to support other men. Men are less likely to chime in with a supportive comment on a general thread about dance than women are. Men generally speak up more often, but they aren’t as likely to just say something like “Hey, great idea!” and then leave it at that.
Support men who are doing good gender work: compliment or say ‘yeah!’ when you see guys doing good stuff.
Support male follows: don’t make that sexy “wooo!” noise when you see two men dancing together. When you make that noise it announces to everyone that you are uncomfortable with two men dancing together. Probably because you think that two men dancing together is a sexual thing. Which means you probably think partner dancing is a sexual thing. Which means you need to check yourself.
When you thank the teachers for a class, say thank you to the female teacher first.
There are a bajillion ways we can be better humans in lindy hop. They don’t have to be formal policies or official responses. Be the change you want to see: men should assume that if they’re not pro-actively changing things, they are part of the problem.
The nice thing about all this, is that being a better human is really quite nice: you get to be nice to people, and that makes you feel good. Doing genderwin stuff can be an empowering thing for you. If it feels a bit hard (eg some guys say using gender neutral language is too hard), then remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer: we love hard things! We love challenges! We dance the most complex, wonderful dance in the world, because we love complex, we love challenge, we love creative solutions!
The point of this, of course, is that feminism is good for all of us. Change can be confronting. But that’s why we love break steps, right? Because change is exciting and stimulating too!
A final note: it’s ok to have heroes. It’s totally ok to fansquee for a big name dancer. Having a crush on your dancing hero (no matter what your sex or theirs) is also ok. It means that you are inspired by what they do.
But don’t stop there. Use the inspiration they bring to become a better dancer yourself. Tell them you love what they do, but stop there. Then move on and tell someone else you love what they do, even if they aren’t a big name dancer.
And remember that if we are all to be held accountable for our actions, we need to be sure that we all have the power, the agency, to make our own decisions, and to control our own bodies and actions.
I have written about these issues many, many times here on this blog. I am an old school feminist, and I believe in the idea of patriarchy, and in discourse and ideology. The bottom line is that I believe that if you want to prevent sexual assault, locking up rapists is not the solution. The solution is in dismantling ‘rape culture‘, or a culture of sexism and patriarchy. I know! It seems like so much work! Good thing we have jazz to sustain us, aye?
Here are some of these posts:
Dealing with problem guys in dance classes (Dec 2012). This is an important one, as it outlines how we (two women teachers) developed strategies for dealing with sexist, disruptive, and dodgy behaviour in class. It’s important because it’s an example how we moved from policy to practical strategy, informed by feminist thinking.
There’s a discussion about DJing for dancers happening on the facey, and I’ve been doing some pretty hardcore ranting. I need to spend less time in Jive Junction – it’s making me too stroppy.
Anyways, I was ranting about how new DJs often don’t actually play any decent music, and then I was thinking about how that’s usually because they don’t understand what makes a good song, and then I was ranting about teaching lindy hop and how classes need to teach people about the music and how that then helps us get decent DJs.
I wrote this today, and I want to keep it here, because, for once, I actually wrote something with some degree of brevity. Well, brief by my standards.
I’m always a bit sad that people don’t make it easy to love swing music in classes. This music is super fun and super funny, and it makes you feel really good.
Things I wish teachers did more in class (besides just playing more and better music) with beginner students:
Play the song the whole way through, and let people dance to it the whole way through.
How’re you gonna learn to recognise 32 bar chorus or 12 bar blues structures if you don’t hear the whole songs all the way through a lot? How’re you going to learn that swing is _so_ formulaic (and so quite ‘safe’ and unscary to dance to) unless you get to hear the whole song’s whole structure in a safe place like a class?
Stop teaching strict patterns or sequences in class.
If you teach a range of developing steps or feels, then let students dance their way through them in their own time, for a whole song, they get really good at social dancing straight away. They learn to work with a partner, to relax and enjoy the music, to lead and follow, to see how steps work together. They get on top of the ‘moves’ and then start to add their own flavah flave because they’re relaxed. They start listening to the music to find something new and interesting. Then they win lindy hop.
Use just one or two songs in class, and play them over and over again, from the beginning to the end.
It can be a different song each class, but if you work with one song over a whole class, you start to know it really well, and get comfortable with it. You make friends with it. And it has to be a good song, or you’ll go nuts. Classic swing is robust enough to be listened to so many times – hence its overplayedness.
I think the ‘teach a set sequence of steps’ thing means you then have to do things like push the tempos up to make it interesting. So you then work through a heap of songs in the class, and you don’t get to the song the whole way through.
Talk about the song while you’re teaching.
eg make a joke about a tinkly vibraphone solo, or use Fats Waller’s nicely complicated 4th 8 in a phrase to demonstrate how the break steps in the shim sham hit the breaks in a song. Use different types of music to demonstrate different types of bounce/pulse.
Let students count themselves in.
Do it the first couple of times, but then let them do it. Humans can do this, even in their first class. And it is SO EXCITING to see it!
Start students dancing at the beginning of phrases in class.
So they can hear where phrases start and end. Again, humans figure out how to do this in one class.
If you teach this way, you realise that musicians like Buble or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy don’t do what you need them to do. You realise that My Baby Just Cares For Me (Nina Simone’s) is a great teaching song because it has that nice steady bass line and those weirdo tempo changes. And you realise that Splanky isn’t so great for the very first moments of a very beginner class because its dynamics are so intense, but it is great for dancing it out later in a class.
Every. Single. Set. And each time I’ve played it, I’ve found something new and good in it. There’s a moment somewhere in the first third that I noticed when I first DJed it at the MLX late night. I suddenly realised: Naomi has a rhythmic sensibility that only a very good jazz dancer could bring to a song, and it’s quite fantastic. The rest of the band really do pay attention to her, so her voice is really treated as a part of the band. I still don’t really like her voice, but I do like the way she sings. If I think of her as a part of the rhythm section, it’s all good.
I need to repeat the points I made in that first review of the album: Naomi is a really, really good band leader. And being a good band leader is what makes a band great for dancing. Someone has to give this whole collective improvisation enterprise some direction, some structure. And Naomi is one seriously hardcore arse kicker.
It’s also worth noting that she arranged some of the songs on the album. So she’s not just singing songs. She’s managing a band off-stage, she’s arranging the music, she’s leading them on stage (ie keeping that shit together in the moment), she’s selecting the right songs for the audience, AND she’s singing.
Oh, and did you know she can dance? She’s kind of ok at that.