Topic: improvisation, and musicians teaching us to dance (2)

Watching this post, here. As per usual, I’m not a musician, so my facts are not facts but made upness.

So if we think of this as a class exercise, and plan it accordingly.

  • At 2.34 all the sax do a synchronised bit.
  • 3.10 sax 1 does a solo for a phrase (4×8), and then the other 3 have a go each for a phrase.
  • And then they continue, each round taking less time for each solo (from 1 phrase to 2 x 8 to 1 x 8).
  • With finally everyone together again.

[ in class, we have students in groups of 4 take the role of each musician, taking turns to solo for decreasing lengths of time ]

As you watch, you can see:
[ in class, these are skills we are working on, but don’t need to point out explicitly to students. ie talk less, dance more – let them learn by doing]

  1. How the excitement builds through the structure (all together, then improvised, with less time for each, until TOGETHER: so together – solo – together is a structure that builds excitement and interest. It tells a story.
  2. How the solos within the phrase don’t have to stick to 8 or bar-long chunks. So the first sax in particular in his first solo plays across bars (8s), creating a phrase-long piece of rhythm/notes.
    -> I see this as one of the biggest weaknesses in modern lindy hop – people dance in sets of 8, rather than dancing through 8s, in one continuous block of rhythm
  3. How everyone can find the bar, the 8, the phrase (they’re all keeping time without counting numbers)
  4. Everyone comes in when they’re ready, and out when they’re done without being told (they keep their own time). So they are all paying attention and listening to each other.
  5. Individual musicians pick up an element of the solo before them, so it becomes a conversation, but the whole section holds together as a piece of music, not just as a lump of sound.
    -> this teaches students to listen to each other, to recognise the rhythms in each other’s dancing, and then to incorporate them into their own dancing.

Again, this is a common tap exercise.

Over all, students learn these basic skills:

  • keeping their own time
  • swinging the time
  • hearing and keeping bigger structures like phrases and bars
  • hearing and keeping a sense of a bigger, song-length structures – dynamics (loudness), energy, excitement, mood, etc
  • making up stuff on the spot (improvising)
  • they learn, in practice, that it’s easier to use simpler shapes and rhythms in this setting
  • how to engage with other dancers while they’re improvising (they always end up being really connected to each other, emotionally, supporting each other, when they do these games) -> ie lindy hop connection
  • they learn to watch and use their eyes to learn a rhythm or recognise a pattern
  • dealing with nerves or worry, by just going along with it and giving it a go with a group of supportive friends
  • they learn that making mistakes is less important than picking up the pieces and continuing on

All this stuff makes for great solo jazz, but it also makes for great lindy hop.
And as you can see, it’s not a matter of leads doing X and follows doing Y. It’s about learning about musical structure in a practical way (not as theory), and about learning to try and give things a go with your body.

What is ‘frame’ and do I want to use it when teaching?

Frame, a key element in lindy hop. With the diversity in students we use several different methods of showing/feeling/explaining what frame is. Still I notice that we have some students who we don’t seem to reach.
What are the ways you use to explain frame to your students?

I’ve been thinking about this issue since I read a post about it on fb. Miro’s comment, “I don’t know what frame is and we never use this term in our classes. Can you please explain what is your understanding of frame?” really stuck with me.

I think I’d like to turn the original question around, and ask “What do you want to teach in your classes that you’re grouping under the word ‘frame’?”

Again, this is where planning classes in terms of ‘goals’ and ‘values’ is so useful.
What do you want to _achieve_ in this class?
What stuff do you group under the term ‘frame’?
Why are these things important to you?
How can you get students experimenting with these things in class without you spending 10 minutes on a long explanation?
…or, what are some fun dance steps that employ this principle, or a single step with a bunch of variations (eg turns) that you can work on in class, with gradually increasing levels of difficulty, until students have a sense of how it works?

Discursive differences: rhythm-first and ‘technique’
I know quite a few teachers who focus on old timers, and/or who’ve been teaching for a very long time, learning originally from old timers insist that they “don’t teach technique.” This is patently untrue, as of course they teach technique, they just don’t use jargon or frame it as ‘technique’. An insistence on a solid rhythm, for example, and how to do it, is of course a discussion of technique.

So I think there’s a general trend in some of the modern lindy hopping world to revisit the roots of lindy hop… or rather to imagine how an OG might have learnt or taught other people (primarily by show-and-do), and to abandon verbal descriptions and language-oriented classes.

There are, of course, lots of problems with white middle class people imagining how black working class people from previous generations learnt and taught. I mean, why not just go to a street dance class today, or join in on a cypher if you want to learn how black kids learn to dance?*
I also think there is some low-key racism going on, imagining that black dancers just ‘naturally have rhythm’, rather than their devoting extensive hours and focus to developing physical movements and techniques. Learning to dance, or developing a dance style is a matter of craft, far more than it is an act of ‘creative inspiration’. The inspiration might get you on the floor, but it’s hundreds of hours of good, solid work and craftsmanship that keeps you honing your art.

So while I’m all about ‘natural movement’ and all that, I’m also very much aware that becoming a really fucking good dancer requires lots of work, and lots of iterative experimentation. I mean, Remy’s great, but he didn’t get that good just by stepping onto the dance floor. Dood practices a LOT. Endlessly.

*Because doing that would be admitting that a black kid in urban Baltimore knows more than a white middle aged, middle class person running a dance class.

So what is ‘frame’ anyway?

If I was to take this idea of ‘frame’ and untangle it, within this ‘rhythm first’ teaching paradigm (which I guess i do belong to, with some equivocations of course), what would I think of as ‘frame’?

It’s a hard one, because i simply don’t think of dancing that way any more. Sure, I was on board in the early 2000s when all the (American) kids were wiggly hopping and focussing on technical exercises and some mystical ideal lead/follow dynamic. But these days I aint got time for that. I want to have fun.

So I’m guess the idea of ‘frame’ is to do with how we communicate movement between partners?
I notice in a lot of discussions of ‘frame’ the focus is on follows, with the attendant idea that a ‘good dance’ is about a lead transmitting movement/leads to a follow, who then perfectly executes them? That sounds very boring to me. The idea that we need to develop a perfect way of holding our bodies and muscles (whatever that may be) so we can be a conduit for a lead’s creative vision makes me want to go do some crocheting.

I mean, it’s also not historically useful. If we look at footage of the OGs in the olden days, we see lots of bodies that isn’t technically ‘perfect’ in a 2000s sense of frame. But it gets the job done, and it’s bloody good dancing.

So, if we rework the concept to sit more comfortably with a more equitable and interesting idea of leading and following as partnership, the goal of ‘frame’ is to share musical ideas. Cool. But also not cool.

How do we communicate ideas to our partner?

I have a lot of tools available to me for sharing musical ideas: my eyes and ears, as well as my sense of touch. I can literally call out a move, or tap or clap out a rhythm, or demonstrate a rhythm for my partner to see. All this in addition to what they may feel when we are touching.

I think this sense of touch is really important in lindy hop, but I also think a lot of peeps who are really into the idea of ‘frame’ neglect all these other, truly social ways of communicating. It’s ok to talk to your partner, for example. I can shout out “charleston!” in a big apple, and it’s all good. I can scat a nice melody as I dance. etc etc etc.

I also like to rethink concepts of ‘momentum’ and ‘energy’ in musical terms. So while I might use ‘frame’ as a way to explain how a partner maintains or increases and decreases a rate of movement in concert with their partner, I have another tool. Music.
Rhythms are, in dance, a way of explaining how a body moves through time and space. ie, how long it takes to move a body part.

Rather than using a bunch of words or abstract exercises to teach students about ‘momentum’, I could have them experiment with a stomp off and a triple step at various tempos, figuring out how much weight to commit on a stomp off without getting ‘stuck’, and explore the things these two steps have in common and and how they are unique.
I could use a bunch of words to explain these similarities and differences, but then I’d have spent a bunch of time and brain making a dance step into words. When I don’t really need to do that, not to teach, and definitely not for my own dancing.

The advantages of see-and-do vs talk-heavy teaching tools

I am increasingly convinced that verbalising dance (ie teaching with heaps of words) slows down learning and teaching. It privileges some people (the ones who are good at words, and translating words into ideas into visualising movements and then into actual movements). It’s not really helpful if my goal is to get people moving their bodies and laughing. And when I’m actually social dancing, breaking down a lead (if I’m following) into words and concepts and then back into actions is far too slow a process for actual dancing.

If we only have an hour each week, I don’t want to give all my attention to touch. I also want to avoid verbiage, and find quicker tools for sharing a concept. I want to play a lot of music, I want to have a lot of fun. I want students to feel confident and enjoy what’s happening.
This is why instead of using complex jargon and explanations, I like reminding people that they have a lot of useful skills for social dancing. They know how to hold someone in their arms, they know how to hold hands with someone they love, they know how to lead someone to the snack table to get a plate of food. So I don’t need to explain these things in incredibly technical detail.

I keep thinking about the way I’ve had teachers explain a handhold in lindy hop. Lots of talk about ‘energised fingertips’ and precise position of fingers and palms and stuff. But I _know_ how to hold hands with people I like. As a teacher, I’m actually less and less interested in telling people how to actually hold hands and which fingers go where. I honestly don’t care. They should hold hands in a way that makes it work, doesn’t hurt, is culturally appropriate for them, and feels right.

I want to let go of jargon like ‘frame’ because it slows down learning, it privileges a very white, over-thought idea to dance, and it steals time from historically-grounded classes. And we talk too much.

Echoes of Sophiatown

I’m a bit lax in promoting this, but the South African Echoes of Sophiatown project is VERY exciting.

I saw a documentary film about Sophiatown years ago, and the music and dancing (YES, lindy hop in South Africa in the 1950s!) has stayed with me. I still DJ songs I heard in that film, and some of the vocalists (MIRIAM MAKEBA) are unparalleled, now or then.

Sophiatown was a neighbourhood in Johannesburg where musicians, artists, activists, writers, dancers… _people_ lived and worked. In the 50s it was bulldozed by the white government. Much of the creative work these people did was unrecorded because apartheid.

Now South African dancers and musicians are raising money for “A transcription project to pay tribute to the South African jazz musicians of the 1940s and 50s.”
This means that living musicians are transcribing and recording some of the best jazz in THE WORLD. And they need some help.

Every dollar you can spare will make a difference. They’re only aiming for $12000, and they have a month to go. Which means that if we all chuck in $5… they’ll have enough to do the job properly.
AND some of the proceeds will be used to benefit the families and artists who originally recorded this music.

Check the Indigogo here.

DJing band breaks: my rules

So far as skills for playing band break sets go, I usually have a few rules:

  • Don’t go into the hardcore high-energy territory. Keep the vibe bubbling along, but never quite climaxing. The band should be the peak;
  • Don’t get too low energy – keep the room bubbling along;
  • Play something with a ‘building’ energy just before the band goes on (like that brilliant version of One o’clock Jump), so that the band go on stage to an amped up, excited crowd;
  • Don’t play songs the band will play. So this means introducing yourself to the band, getting a set list, and getting an idea of the type of music they’ll play;
  • You’re not the star here, your job is to be the support act for the band, warming the room for them, keeping the dancers interested, and generally helping the band have a good gig. So don’t show off, don’t do any stunt DJing, don’t be a jerk, be on time, be easy to work with, MC if you have to, keep you eyes on the band and be ready to play with zero notice;
  • Introduce yourself to the sound engineer, the MC, the band leader, and the stage manager. Be helpful and useful, and do a soundcheck if you can;
  • Don’t play hi-fi stuff, especially not hi-fi 50s bands like Basie’s, because no modern band will sound as good;
  • Complement the band’s style, but don’t echo it too perfectly. eg SSAS often play a lot of Ellington, so I try to stay away from the Ellington favourites;
  • Don’t go nuts on tempos; keep the music accessible and don’t tire out the crowd before the band comes back;
  • Don’t play anything too crude or too memorable. A band break DJ is just filling in music, keeping the vibe going while the band literally take a break. So don’t outshine the band.

And finally, all this holds true if the band is good. If the band really sucks, then you follow all these rules, except you play really good songs that give everyone a chance to dance.

Herrang DJing 2018

I think my favourite set was the last one, where I did band breaks for the Stockholm All Stars. I was feeling very tired, but also very relaxed and willing to try songs and combinations I never use. The room was super crowded and hot during band sets, but it emptied out during the breaks, except for a few hardcore dancers. I was trying to keep the music low-key, and not compete with the fun vibe of the band. Nothing hi-fi.
I was quite proud of the June Christy/Mildred Bailey transition. Both are really great bands, and the vocalists have brilliant timing.

I played quite a bit of Chick Webb this Herrang, and really leant on the big bands generally. I especially like that version of Tain’t What You Do because it’s so _good_ (Webb’s band is just GREAT), you see dancers consider shim shamming, then just give in and swing out. Because it’s the best. It was also fun to see dancers get into that Big Apple song (my current fave), and to try out ‘big apple’ steps and claps and things to it. You can see that I was working with a few female vocalists, which I don’t often do.

There was a lot of Basie played in camp this year, which I got a bit tired of, tbh, but I also started to really enjoy Lester Young’s weirdness, especially in the later years. I enjoyed adding in the ‘odder’ later stuff of artists like Slam Stewart, JC Heard, Buck Clayton, etc. You can see bop on the horizon, but it’s not here yet. My general rule with this sort of more ‘interesting’ swinging jazz is to not play it during the high energy/crazy parts of the party, and to not play it in beginner hour. Instead I play it in more contemplative parts of the night, when peeps are more relaxed, and there are more experienced or experimental dancers around. ie band breaks, late shifts, etc.

Look, the bottom line is that 30s and 40s classic swinging big and small bands doing proper swinging jazz (not jump blues or early rnb, not nola, not hifi, not 50s stuff) makes for brilliant lindy hop, balboa, and jazz dancing. It swings like a gate, it’s structurally predictable enough to improvise over, and it’s technically bloody sophisticated. When you add in the talents of people like Teddy Wilson, Billy Holiday, and Benny Goodman, you just can’t go wrong.

I’m also enjoying working with a range of tempos. Not just super fast, not just ‘medium tempo’. All the tempos. One of my goals this Herrang was to get West End Blues into a set at some point. It’s the best jazz recording ever. I did get it in there (in a slow drag set), but to me it felt like a continuation of the DJing I was doing in other sets. In part because I had a strong feel for Louis Armstrong this July. I played a stack of him in Vienna, and then in Herrang. I noticed that when he was with a good, solidly swinging band his playing just sparked light into the dancers. He was a true gift to the world.

Anyway, this is what I played.

Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home 137 1938 Pee Wee Russell’s Rhythm Makers (Max Kaminsky, Dicky Wells, Al Gold, James P. Johnson, Freddie Green, Wellman Braud, Zutty Singleton)

The Jumpin’ Jive 145 1939 Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra (Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Clyde Hart, Billy Taylor, Sonny Greer, Fred Norman)

The One I Love (Belongs To Someone Else) 150 1945 June Christy and The Kentones

Lover Come Back To Me 154 1941 Mildred Bailey acc. by Herman Chittison, Dave Barbour, Frenchy Covetti, Jimmy Hoskins, Delta Rhythm Boys)

Wacky Dust 150 1938 Chick Webb Orchestra (Ella Fitzgerald, Mario Bauza, Bobby Stark, Taft Jordan (v), George Matthews, Nat Story, Sandy Williams, Garvin Bushell, Hilton Jefferson, Teddy McRae, Wayman Carver, Tommy Fulford, Bobby Johnson, Beverly Peer)

D.B. Blues 155 1945 Lester Young and his Band (Vic Dickenson, Dodo Marmorosa, Red Callender, Henry Tucker Green)

‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That Cha Do It) 160 1939 Chick Webb and his Orchestra (Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Vance, Bobby Stark, Taft Jordan, George Matthews, Nat Story, Sandy Williams, Garvin Bushell, Hilton Jefferson, Teddy McRae, Wayman Carver, Tommy Fulford, Bobby Johnson, Beverly Peer)

Don’t Be That Way 147 1938 Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra (Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russel, Johnny Hodges, Allan Reuss, Al Hall, Johnny Blowers, Nan Wynn)

One O’Clock Jump 175 1941 Metronome All Star Band (Cootie Williams, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Tommy Dorsey, J.C. Higginbotham, Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Toots Mondello, Coleman Hawkins, Tex Beneke, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Buddy Rich)

[band set]

Strictly Instrumental 132 1941 Harry James and his Orchestra

Big Apple 166 1937 Teddy Wilson and his orchestra (Harry James, Archie Rosati, Vido Musso, Allan Reuss, John Simmons, Cozy Cole, Frances Hunt)

I Want The Waiter (with the water) 151 1939 Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra

Get Up 144 1939 Skeets Tolbert and his Gentlemen of Swing (Carl Smith, Otis Hicks, Clarence Easter Harry Prather, Hubert Pettaway)

Trav’lin’ All Alone 170 1937 Billie Holiday Orchestra (Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey, Lester Young, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones)

Savoy Strut (WM 1001-1) 158 1939 Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra (Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, Sonny Greer, Buddy Clark)

Free Eats 163 1947 Count Basie and his Orchestra (Ed Lewis, Emmett Berry, Snooky Young, Harry Edison, Ted Donnelly, George Matthews, Eli Robinson, Bill Johnson, Preston Love, Rudy Rutherford, Buddy Tate, Paul Gonsalves, Jack Washington, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones)

[band set]

Love Me Or Leave Me 162 1947 Pat Flowers and his Rhythm (Dan Perri, Charles Green, Arthur Trappier)

Don’t Be That Way 136 1938 Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra (Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Edgar Sampson, Jess Stacy, Allen Reuss, Billy Taylor, Sonny Greer) 2:36

Leap Frog 159 1941 Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra (Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Gene Prince, George Washington, Norman Greene, Henderson Chambers, Rupert Cole, Carl Frye, Prince Robinson, Joe Garland, Luis Russell, Lawrence Lucie, Hayes Alvis, Sid Catlett)

September Song 160 1948 Harry James Band Live

I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise 163 1945 Eddie Condon and His Orchestra (Yank Lawson, Lou McGarity, Edmond Hall, Joe Dixon, Joe Bushkin, Sid Weiss, George Wettling)

Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home 137 1938 Pee Wee Russell’s Rhythm Makers (Max Kaminsky, Dicky Wells, Al Gold, James P. Johnson, Freddie Green, Wellman Braud, Zutty Singleton)

Frenesi 147 1940 Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (Jimmy Maxwell, Irving Goodman, Alec Fila, Cootie Williams, Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshal, Gus Bivona, Skip Martin, B Snyder, Georgie Auld, Jack Henderson, Fletcher Henderson, Bernie Leighton, Mike Bryan, A Bernstein, Jaeger)

The Goon Came On (GG) 144 1944 Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra (Joe Thomas)

[band set]

what even is 32 bar chorus v blues phrasing?

Swinging jazz is really formulaic and predictable. This is mostly because of the constraints of the recording industry: the 3 minute pop song is all that fitted on one side of a record. Which makes it great for improvising with. Live music is very different, and was very different.
This is partly why dancers should dance to live music: it’s less predictable, and you really have to pay attention, in case someone adds something.

This predictable formula is also why peeps get so shitty with DJs who play awkwardly phrased songs in comps: you have to really work hard to ignore the structure of a standard swing song.

I actually like to sit down and draw out the structure of a song if I’m thinking about choreographing or using it for a routine. It really helps me understand to see a ’32 bar chorus’ written out – that’s 16 lots of 8. Which is 4 phrases. You can teach that in an hour. My ‘thinking brain’ likes me to do this to help me become conscious of some things in a song. Especially with tap. But my ‘dancing brain’ gets confused and flustered if I try to count or think about the markers of phrases and choruses consciously, so when I’m dancing (esp social dancing), I don’t think ‘here comes the phrase!’ I listen to the music, and let the musicians tell me when a phrase is over or a chorus is beginning. eg a solo might go for a phrase, or a particular musical theme might go for a chorus.

The shim sham is 4 phrases (3 basic phrases + an added phrase), and that helps me think about the relationship between dancers and bands in the olden days. A dancer would get up and do a chorus, then bow out.

You can also hear it in a standard swing ‘pop’ song: the main ‘story’ of the song is in that chorus.
A really standard pop song will play 4 choruses, with some intro or outro stuff or perhaps a bridge or something somewhere.

If you’re listening to a nola type song, or something like Fats Waller’s Moppin And Boppin, you can clearly hear the choruses, with a final shout chorus:
– there’s an intro-type bit with drums (Fats shouts out “You want some more of that mess? Well here tis, Zutty take over – pour it on ’em!”) and then Zutty plays about 3 phrases (2.5 really).
– then the band kicks in with the main ‘theme’ of the song for a chorus, with everyone playing together sensibly.
– then there’s a chorus with lots of solos

– round about halfway Slam Stewart does 16 phrases (a chorus) on the bass with some humming.
– Then Zutty Singleton does a chorus on the drums.
– Then there’s a final chorus where everyone joins in, which ends up feeling a lot like a ‘shout chorus’. A shout chorus is a big, exciting end part, where all the musicians get crazy. If I’m DJing, I know that if I hear that shout chorus, I need to get my next song sorted.

Because it’s Fats Waller, that ‘starting sensibly then getting crazy’ vibe is a clever play on the predictable 32 bar chorus structure: he takes you on a journey.

All of this feels really nice and balanced:
– 4 choruses plus a shout chorus at the end and an intro at the beginning.

This is the structure that makes swinging jazz so nice to lindy hop to: it’s predictable. It means a dancer can step up with a band and take a chorus and know when/where to come in.

I’ve been doing some work with a band lately where I have to MC/narrate stuff during a song, and while I know all this with my brain, in the moment I get a bit flustered, so I watch the band leader who cues me with a nod. A band that plays head arrangements (vs using sheet music) develops a nonverbal language of nods and so on that cues each other in. There was actually a whole language of nonverbal cues that big bands used to use, but of this language isn’t used any more and is lost :(

Ways to learn this stuff:
– with paper and pen;

And, much more usefully, with your body, so you can turn off your counting brain and let it work on choreography or being creative:
– Dancing the shim sham to different songs. You figure out which songs are blues phrased pretty quickly :D And you realise why Ellington was so wiggedy wacked.
– Calling the freezes, slow motions, and dance! in a shim sham. It feels really natural do to it on the phrase, but a whole phrase at 120bpm is boring, so you do it at half way points.

Why should DJs play standards/favourites?

At Jazz BANG on the weekend, we set up a little story about jazz history and music. The band would play a song in a particular style, and the dancers would dance to it.

I just said to Andrew something like “Make it feel like this, in the 30s, swinging properly,” and I gestured 4 beats to the bar with even emphasis. And he figured out (because he is a genius) that I meant a standard 32 bar chorus type structure (ie 4×8 to the phrase) in swinging timing.
Then he played a standard – Honeysuckle Rose: https://www.facebook.com/sam.carroll.545/posts/10155437058953483

And because we all know Honeysuckle Rose (because it is a standard/favourite), the dancers could dance to it, even though they’d never heard the band play it before. Then when they were done (after about 4 phrases (or 16×8 or 32 bars), they’d leave the stage, and the band would play a final phrase or chorus to finish up.

And we did that about six times.

It’s only because we have a shared vocabulary that this could work. We had a shared set of jazz standards – the songs that DJs and bands play over and over – and a shared sense of timing and swing. This gave us the language to do an improvised performance.

So this is why DJs should play favourites. Not Lavender Coffin, so much, but Honeysuckle Rose, Jive at Five, Flying Home, Shiny Stockings, Tiger Rag, Sweet Georgia Brown, etc etc etc. It allows us to do improvised art over a shared structure.
Then end,
By Sam.

Some notes to bands about playing for dancers

I work with bands quite a bit for dance events.
The type of music you play and how you play it will depend on the dancers. Are they dancing balboa? Blues? Lindy hop? If the organiser has just said ‘swing dance’, then they usually mean lindy hop, with a sprinkling of balboa.

There are really two main issues for dancers:
1. How fast is the music, and
2. How long is the song.

1. Tempo
150bpm is about a jogging pace. So remember that when you launch into your favourite speedy song 😀 Experienced lindy hoppers with good technique can handle 5 minutes at 180bpm, but mere mortals… not so much.

For us, 120bpm is slow and beginner friendly, but kind of draggy. 140bpm is easy and comfortable. 160bpm feels like fun. 180bpm makes us work a bit hard. over 200bpm is fast.
So if you’re playing for two hours, you’d work the tempos like this (if you wanted to play a very safe set):

Balboa, however, is a much smaller dance. So they like to start at about 180bpm and can dance… well, they like to go fast.

Lindy hoppers can really vary. As I said, experienced dancers with good skills at a big event are very comfortable anywhere from 110 to 240bpm. Brand new dancers are also happy to do any tempo, but have zero stamina. The pickiest are people with moderate skills but plenty of opinions 😀 Their comfort zone is 120-160bpm.

2. Song length:
No more than 10 minutes. Seriously. I’d keep it to 5 minutes to be honest.
Here’s the thing: while sitting down audiences really enjoy each musician in the band taking a solo, that’s not how dancers work. They’re not sitting quietly and listening; they are right there with you inside the music. So my usual rule for bands is: only take a solo if you have something to say. A band is not a democracy; we don’t all get a solo just because we turned up.
And bassists and drummers? Soz, but your solos are the least danceable, so keep it to a phrase or two max.

So what do you play?
Lindy and balboa are members of the swing dance family. So play swinging jazz. Like Basie said, four solid beats to the bar and no cheating. Think mid 30s – mid 40s. You can stray into the 50s, but think Basie’s big band, and Ellington.
If your band is a ‘dixie’ or NOLA recreationist band, then that’s a different kettle of fish.

So far as instrumentation goes, the best options are:
– bass. Upright, not electric. You need this.
– drums, but lay off the high hat. Think like Jo Jones: fill in around the bass, don’t push the band forward
– guitar. You are Freddy Green. Think rhythm section.
-> you can do without guitar, but for my money, the best dance bands has this rhythm section.

– trumpet
– trombone
– reeds
-> it’s all good. If you want to impress dancers, they’re easily pleased by a muted trumpet or a big clarinet high note.

Some other things:
– At the end of the song dancers will pause, then thank their partner, then they’ll turn and clap you. So give them a breath.
They’re unlikely to clap a solo, because they’re dancing. Unless you are incredible. Then they will.
– If you engage with the dancers, they’ll engage with you. So don’t stare at sheet music all the gig. Look up, make eye contact, smile, and if you see something you like, make like a jazzer and let people know! Yell out, or applaud, or echo what they did rhythmically on your instrument.
It’s also ok to stop and talk to people during breaks. Dancers are so curious about musicians and their instruments – they’ll be shy and awkward, but so so interested.

So if you’re playing for two hours, you’d work the tempos like this (if you wanted to play a very safe set):

first set:
– begin at 120bpm
– 120bpm
– 140bpm
– 160bpm
– 120bpm
– 140bpm
– 180bpm
– 150bpm
– 170bpm
– 140bpm
– 190bpm

second set:
– 140bpm
– 160bpm
– 180bpm
– 130bpm
– 150bpm
– 190bpm
– 150bpm
– 120bpm
– 150bpm
– 180bpm
– 140bpm

It’s best to end a gig on a moderate tempo (about 140bpm) with lots of energy, so everyone can join in.

We call this ‘working a wave’, where you move up and down tempos in a gradual way. Bands can get away with more dramatic drops and increases than DJs can. But it’s a good idea to avoid going from really fast (eg 220bpm) to scary slow (eg 110bpm), because 110 reminds people that they’re tired. If you went from 220bpm to 140bpm, people’s energy stays up, but they still get a rest.
110bpm is often a real dead zone for lindy hoppers, as it’s harder to dance lindy hop that slow, but it’s not slow enough for blues dancing.
Experienced dancers make all tempos work, but newer dancers really struggle in the 90-120 and 170-250 zones.
You want to come in with a nice, friendly song. Right in the comfort zone. 140bpm is your friend. Nice and swinging, not particularly sexy.

As a general guide, 150bpm is average jogging tempo, and most new dancers aren’t very fit. Most experienced dancers are like runners. They can dance at 150 for 6 hours. But they like adrenaline, so they really enjoy the spike up into the faster tempos. And slower tempos give new dancers a chance to get on the floor and experienced dancers a chance to really work the rhythms.

As the night goes on, the average tempo can creep up. But it’s best to vary the tempos, so people feel inspired.
You can do one or two very slow songs (eg a blues at 80bpm), but one is really enough.
No latin rhythms, please.
We like to avoid crooners too (the only Sinatra I like is Sinatra with the Dorsey band.)

Sam’s black list:
Songs I’d prefer you didn’t play:
Fly Me to the Moon
In the Mood
Moon Dance
String of Pearls

We don’t really dig on boogie woogie, and jump blues can have mixed results.

We love Ellington. We love him bad. We also love Basie, Hamp, Webb, Lunceford, Slim and Slam, Django, Bechet, Kid Ory.

What if a jam happens?
A jam is where dancers feel really excited by the band, and see a couple feeling the feels bring their shit. They form a loose circle around that couple, clapping, and then other couples take turns coming into the circle to show off.
Faster songs usually stimulate a jam.
They rarely look at the band when they’re jamming, but at those moments, they are _really_ listening.
When the song ends, if they really feel the feels and want more, they’ll turn and look at the band and cheer and stay in the circle.
If they’re done, they drift away.
The best jams only last one or perhaps two songs, or a total of about 5 minutes max. After that people who aren’t showing off get bored and tired.
It’s best to follow a jam with a nice moderate tempo (but high energy) song (about 140bpm) so everyone can get back on the floor, and you can take advantage of the energy and excitement generated by the jam.

For us, the best dancing happens when the band feels the feels and is really responding to what’s happening on the dance floor. We hear the musicians get excited, and we feel it, and it makes for great dancing. So it’s important you guys like the music you’re playing.

Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

Other posts in this series:

  1. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 1: a class structure)
  2. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 2: I-go You-go)
  3. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 3: graduated challenges and application)
  4. Independent students and the I-go You-go game (part 4: Teaching ethos and goals)

How does this fit with our teaching ethos and values?
I strongly believe that teachers should be guides on students’ learning journeys. People who provide a space and some structure for learning and experimentation. This means dismantling a top-down hierarchy and replacing it with a student-centred learning space. In the case of lindy hop, this literally means getting teachers out of the middle of the circle, and giving students permission to use the entire dance floor.

It also means that I think we need to give students more responsibility in class. Make them responsible for finding the beat, counting themselves in, knowing when to stop or start a sequence, having the skills to speak and work respectfully with partners and class mates. Rather than funnelling all this work and communication through the teacher.

It doesn’t mean that we leave students rudderless, or that we let our classes become a chaotic jumble. On the contrary, classes need to be thoroughly planned out and structured. That structure might change (will change, probably :D) during the hour, but it should be thoughtful change. Teachers should be responsive to students’ needs, using their repertoire of teaching tools to address students’ needs and interests and willing to change and adapt their teaching.

Most of my thinking about class planning and structure and goals I’ve learnt from talking to Sylwia Bielec and Adrian Warnock-Graham from Montreal. I’ve never met them in person, but they’ve both been endlessly generous and patient with teaching materials and advice. I’ve also learnt a lot from Rikard Ekstrand and Jenny Deurell from Sweden, who are very thoughtful, gentle teachers who combine seriously old school content with modern pedagogic practice. I did my first tap jams with Tommy Waddelton last year at Herräng, and it blew my mind. His jams were the ultimate exercise is talk-less, dance-more teaching, taking the I-Go You-Go model to incredible heights. As a student, it was exciting, stimulating, creative, inspiring and FUN. As a teacher, it was truly impressive to see this approach in action with such a disparate group of dancers. Ramona Staffeld remains one of my greatest teaching influences. She works in the real spirit of historic jazz dance, but with modern sensibilities. eWa Burek and Lennart Westerlund have also been very important to my teaching practice. Lennart in particular opened my eyes to the idea of rhythm-first dancing, and first demonstrated that students don’t need to be counted in. And Marie N’diaye and Anders Sihlberg are my ongoing teaching inspiration, again combining thorough pedagogic theory and practice with historic influence and creativity. All of these teachers put music first. Jazz music.

Tell me and I will surely forget. Show me and I might remember. But make me do it, and I will certainly understand.
— Old Chinese proverb

(Quote from a teaching resource provided by Sylwia.)

This approach is echoed in the ‘see one, do one, teach one’ model that I’ve seen used in teaching kids about the environment. I can’t remember the name of the documentary, but in this project, they had the kids learn about an issue, try it out, then teach the entire group (including adults) in a big group session. They’d found that this engagement helped kids become and feel responsible for environmental education.

I really like this model:

  1. See one (teachers demo i-go, you-go)
  2. Do one (teacher lead i-go, you-go)
  3. Teach/lead one (they take turns being the caller in partnered i-go, you-go).

I mean, lindy hop basically is i-go, you-go, right?

Should Gordon Webster’s band play the pie/cake song? No.

This is a post drawing together some thoughts that I had in a discussion with some friends. These were good friends, in a private discussion, so I won’t present their words here, just my own. But I want to give them credit for their thoughtful comments.

Here is the nub of the discussion: should Gordon Webster play the song ‘I Like Pie, I like cake’?
Background: he recorded this song with Steven Mitchell on vocals, in the early stages of the band’s push to popularity. The album included some very, very good musicians, was recorded live, and is super super popular with dancers.

Now that who and what Steven Mitchell has done is being spoken about publicly, most dancers and DJs have decided not to play that recording. But what about Webster? Should he still play the song, even without Mitchell on the lyrics?

My response is: no. No. No.
Why?

Apparently Webster plays it almost every gig he does. When a friend commented in real time, that Webster was playing it at that moment at Snowball in Sweden, one of the biggest events in the lindy hop calendar, I was shocked. I couldn’t really believe it was happening. Surely that’s a no-brainer? Don’t play a song made famous by a rapist?

So I just assumed that there’d been a confusion with the organisers, a problem with the person who briefed him. As I said in that online discussion:

If they [the organisers] didn’t tell him ‘no pie/cake song’, then it’s their issue. But if they did brief him, and he played it anyway, the band organiser should have had a list of ‘consequences’ for breaches of the code of conduct, and know how to handle the situation.

If he did it at my gig, I’d be fucking ropeable.
Though, to be honest, Webster doesn’t impress me with his understanding of these issues. Especially after hearing that ep of The Track where he talked about it.

After a few other general comments, a man asked:

why can’t he play that song?….. Is it because of the connection with SM, that he shouldn’t play it?

I was, frankly, flabbergasted. What do you think? But then I reminded myself: not everyone is elbow deep in safe space policies. And it also made it clear: men who aren’t doing this work, aren’t thinking about it a lot, are able to think about other issues, and do other work. It’s clearly a limitation on their own work, to not understand these issues, and, at heart, a failure of empathy. But it also limits them creatively.

But let’s look at my response. The following is cut and pasted from the discussion, removing names to protect anonymity, and hopefully edited for coherency :D

Yes [it is because of the SM thing], because Steven Mitchell is recorded with the band, on Webster’s biggest selling album, and because Mitchell was always at the front of the band showboating with that song. It’s impossible to separate the two in people’s minds.

Most events have that recording of the song on their banned list, as it’s
a) grossly insensitive to play a song by a man who sexually assaulted girls and women for years, and
b) when we play that song, we are saying ‘I think this is a good song, and I don’t care about other people’s feelings’.

We should draw the line somewhere.
I choose not to play it because Mitchell groomed and sexually assaulted girls and women, using his power to force them into horrid relationships and situations with him. It makes me feel ill to hear him sing. It makes me angry to hear people applaud it or celebrate it by dancing.

So should Webster play that song, even if Mitchell isn’t singing?
I say no.
Mostly because it shows very poor taste (as though he’d rather get the props for playing a popular song than respect the women Mitchell assaulted) and very poor judgement (it implies he doesn’t care or is too cavalier to realise how playing this song might imperil future gigs or his reputation). But also because it shows us that he simply puts his own ego and feelings ahead of the girls and women who were assaulted, and of all the other women, girls, boys, and men who have been sexually assaulted or deal with harassment and the threat of sexual violence every day.

Basically, Webster playing this song tells me that he doesn’t think. And his continuing to play this song, even after being made aware of the issues, tells me that he puts his own ego before ethics, and that he’s tone deaf (in a social sense, not musical sense).

As an organiser, that tells me he’s trouble.
As an organiser, I’d get right up in Webster’s face (after the gig) for playing that song. I’d be so fucking angry, as I would definitely have told him not to play it. Webster playing it at my gig would be tarring my reputation, but it would also be his disrespecting me, publicly, as a woman and as his employer.

In fact, his continuing to play that song absolutely guarantees I’d never book him.

I’m also wondering if the band booker/manager for Snowball gave Webster clear guidelines on this. Playing the song in Australia would technically constitute sexual harassment and bullying, which is illegal (and could get an event manager into serious trouble). There are a range of issues at work here, including the scope of the band booker’s brief (ie what exactly are their powers and responsibilities), and whether there is a clear policy in place for dealing with sexual harassment and/or difficult behaviour from musicians. These aren’t questions I can answer for this event. But with events I run, I have clear guidelines for the bands (leaders and musicians), and scripts that I use for addressing issues with bands. Because I’ve had to in the past.

After this comment, some other friends made interesting observations. I want to maintain anonymity here, as this is a thoughtful group of people exploring difficult issues in a safe and private conversation. So I’ll paraphrase.
This from a very interesting comment:
– Webster still plays this song, every gig, even after the Mitchell issue became public
– People have spoken to him about the issue
– He has spoken to other people (including women who have spoken publicly about being assaulted by Mitchell)
– He knows it’s not ok to use the recording where Mitchell sings
– I’ll quote this bit: “he feels that he and the lindy hop scene can and should reclaim the song for themselves. It’s a theme for the band, not the person, despite the previous recordings. ”
– Sarah Sullivan’s (Stevens first public accuser) band also plays that arrangement specifically for the point of reclaiming the song.

I’ve heard these points from a few people now, phrased in roughly the same way. I think these are key issues, and worth addressing. So here are some things I said.

There’s a huge difference between Sarah (a woman, a survivor) playing this song, and Webster (whose band recorded it with Mitchell) playing it. The power dynamics are completely different. If Webster had a reputation as a clear ally, and if he wasn’t such a showboat, I’d consider it.

I feel that as a powerful, white, straight man, Webster’s speaking to other people about it isn’t really convincing. Who’s going to tell him to stop? In what settings does he have these conversations? At gigs where he’s the headline act, the ‘star’? Who’s he speaking to? Women? Men? Who? Women who’ve been assaulted by Mitchell?

[Let me digress here, to explain why ‘talking to people’ isn’t an adequate reason for continuing to play this song]
It’s difficult for many women to confront men like Webster, on a topic like this, in confronting circumstances. The very emotions of this issue make it difficult for many of us (whether we have been assaulted or not) to articulate why we don’t think it’s ok. Our culture discourages and punishes women who rock the boat and critique powerful men in public spaces. And Mitchell took great pains to make sure his targets were disempowered and unable to speak up against a powerful man.

Dance events aren’t really conducive to serious talk, and where else would ‘ordinary’ dancers have access to Webster? Not too many people would dare to confront or disagree with a ‘star’ at a big gig. Not too many people, other than other powerful people.

And here we have the point: who are these ‘other powerful people’? Who are the MCs, the organisers, the DJs, the high profile teachers? We still see men over-represented in these roles.
And it’s clear that other men covered up for Mitchell, and enabled his actions. Other teachers, organisers, MCs, influential people. ‘Other powerful people.’ While they may be quick to condemn Mitchell now, these men are not as quick to dismantle the social structures that enable injustice. And dismantle their own power.
Playing a song made famous by a sexual offender is an articulation of power, and it is an injustice. It is part of the discursive and industrial structures that enable sexual offenders. It tells us that the stories and songs of powerful men are more important than the stories and safety of women and less powerful people.
Who says what and where is a matter of power.
Who sings what song, and where, is a matter of power.[/]

Listening to that ep of The Track, Gordon’s clearly not aware of the way his own power and status work in his interpersonal and professional relationships within the scene. Though he may have changed his thinking since then, I’m just not convinced his judgement is sound on this one. And continuing to play this song tells me that he’s not aware of the nuances at work.

The thing is, Webster worked with Mitchell for so long, taking him to cities where he assaulted and harassed women. This makes Webster complicit in Mitchell’s actions, even if only through neglect or awful coincidence. As a band leader, he was in a position to call Mitchell on his other inappropriate behaviour (and Mitchell was always a difficult, demanding, pain in the arse). He could have disrupted the continuum of exploitative behaviour Mitchell was operating within. He could have removed Mitchell’s literal platform for self-promotion and self-aggrandising. But he chose to put him on the stage, at the gigs, again and again.

And I’m not really ok with a white, powerful, influential man ‘reclaiming’ something. That’s a concept that works as a way to ‘speak truth to power’. Sarah can do it, a woman can do it, even a band that’s not associated with Webster can do it. But the song was ‘his’ to begin with… He had and has the power, so what’s he ‘reclaiming’ it from? His own poor decisions? His own association with a man who has always had a reputation for inappropriate behaviour, let alone assault? Better to make reparation and let the song stay unplayed.

At the end of the day, as a powerful person, he should be making choices that are beyond doubt. By choosing to hang onto a song because it gives him props as a pop anthem, he’s treading on dangerous ground. With his history of association with Mitchell, he needs to be beyond doubt in his actions. And this choice is very dubious.

At this point in our discussion, I thought, ‘What am I doing? Why am I defending this position? Surely it’s clear, that choosing not to play this song is the right choice?’ I really felt as though I was going to a lot of effort to prove something that should be self-evident. To articulate that lurch in the guts that was a combination of rage and frustration and fear and sadness. Now I realise that that ‘self-evident’ emotional, empathetic response isn’t shared by people who do not experience sexual harassment and assault. Men aren’t trained to see and respond to these things the way men are. So they need it pointed out; it isn’t self-evident to them.
And this is the kernel of my discomfort: I feel as though we keep having these discussions. And it’s always women who are doing the explaining. Where are those male allies to step in and do this work? Why aren’t men willing to just accept that we actually know what we’re talking about? It’s so, so tiring. And as long as women continue to do all this work, the social structures that enable injustice remain in place. Women spend time and labour on this, instead of other creative work.

[edit: same goes for issues of race. How come it’s poc doing all the hard emotional labour, and white people (especially white men) so unwilling to just trust their word, believe black people?]

So then I felt like I had to excuse or explain my ‘shouting’ and long comments. I always feel like this. As though I need to excuse or explain why I’m so worked up. That there’s something wrong with getting worked up. But because this was a group of friends, I just posted my feels. And then I realised: this is the core of it. The feels. This is what I wrote:

I am so adamant about this because I’ve seen the havoc these men wreak. After the last year working with women reporting assault, I’m just… I cannot articulate just how evil these men are. It’s not ‘just’ a matter of ‘attacking’ a woman once. It’s systematic, ongoing control of every aspect of their lives. These women are terrified, seriously fucked up, and it’s just so so bad.
These women contact me saying ‘I just want to know if X is going to be there. If he is, I won’t go.’ They’re just so afraid, that if they see these guys they dissolve into panic – it’s real trauma. And the things these men do to them. It’s horrific.

And it’s now very clear that these men all cover up for each other, support and defend them. That’s the part that’s really upsetting me. I keep running into organisers and DJs and teachers and musicians who actively protect men who are known rapists and cruel bastards, because they’re also doing these things! They hire each other for gigs, they bully women into disappearing quietly, they provide environments that encourage exploitation in all sorts of ways.

It’s all so awful that I can’t read any more reports. I haven’t been assaulted, but I am regularly harassed, because I’m a woman. And now that I’ve heard these stories, that are just so common, I’m just heart sick.

So I just can’t believe that someone like Gordon Webster wouldn’t do something as simple as stop playing a song. It’s such a little thing for such an influential person, but it’s such a big gesture.

Reading these comments again now, I’m reminded of the arguments people make for watching and posting videos of Max Pitruzella, another reported rapist. People go to great lengths to defend this choice. And I’m not convinced.

In sum, then, I don’t think Gordon Webster should play the ‘pie/cake’ song with his band. He should stop playing it. For as long as he continues to do so, and for as long as men defend his playing it, I will be suspicious of him and his motivations. They are not my allies.