Moving away from gender essentialism in teaching talk

In a recent facebook talk about teaching and gender in lindy hop we took the next few steps past not using gendered pronouns to describe leading and following. We then went on to look at how people gender particular dance styles or movements in essentialist ways.
Here are some comments from that discussion.

I’ve had teachers ostensibly ok with non-binary/non-bro peeps leading, then unable to even look at me when we split into lead/follow groups in class.
But there are definitely teachers around who are good at dealing with their own errors and then fixing them. eg Georgia and Kieran.
I am definitely on board with the goals of uncoupling leading and following from gendered archetypes. I’m personally not interested in switching roles mid-dance, but I do lead and follow, and think of the two roles as functioning in very different ways.

I was interested at a recent weekend workshop to hear/see Kieran talking about ‘attacking’ a rhythm to make the lead/follow element work. This is often a word associated with masculine archetypes. But he was asking leads _and_ follows to try this. Which effectively asks all peeps to try on this masculinised characteristic, ‘even’ while following. Which then reconstructs following as involving stuff outside archetypal femininity.
Even more interestingly, Georgia asked us at later point while we were playing a game where you copy your partner’smovements/rhythms without touching, to ‘not hesitate’. She asked not to pause and worry about being right, but to continue through.
Same concept as with Kieran’s comments, but different language: confidence, continuing despite lacking certainty. This is particularly important for women, who are trained to self-doubt or try desperately to ‘please’ their partner.

I think this approach – describing one skill in a range of ways – helps deconstruct the gender norms at work in our ideas about leading and following.

And I think ethnicity and class are key in this. Eg white, m/c, younger women are trained to self-doubt and not ‘attack’ movements. So we might also look at the dancing of Anne whatsit from Whitey’s as an example of a woman who really attacked rhythms.

Alex asked:

Have you seen the opposite? Teachers asking all students to try on feminized characteristics? With anything like the same frequency? I’m not sure I’ve ever considered this topic in this context, but I’m aware of the phenomenon of attempting to address gender inequity simply by offering masculinity to women and girls but not doing the same with femininity and men and boys.

And I replied:

yerp, marie n’diaye talked sbout it explicitly in the chirus line stream at herrang last year: asking people try ‘masc’ and ‘fem’ styling.

Other than Marie, nope. I know lots of men/non-woman-IDing peeps who dance femme, but no teachers asking all students to try.
Ask men to dance femme? Their penises would fall off, right?

Alex then made some more really good points:

And I guess that wasn’t quite what I was asking. If I understand correctly, the teacher you referenced above didn’t ask students explicitly to try something masculine, but he asked students to attack the rhythm and you picked up on the gender association. My guess is that it’s more common for teachers to ask students to so things or adopt characteristics associated with masculinity (attack the rhythm, be assertive, take over) than it is to ask them explicitly to “do this masc.” So I’m wondering about the presence and frequency of calls for students to take on feminine characteristics or engage in feminine activities, rather than being asked to “do this femme.”

Now that I’m thinking of it (and talking with Samantha) we do this a little. Telling our students to pretend that their partner is a terrified newbie and to take care of them is an example. I’d like to think about this more and see where else we can do this. For instance, I see plenty of people attack the rhythm. I’d like to see them treat it gentle more. Nurture the rhythm.

And like… How far can we take this? Gestate the dance. We’re just out of the intro, if you try to birth it now it won’t make it. And don’t feel like it needs to be big. You’ll tear.

Then Magnus chimed in with a good comment:

Yes, Marie N’diaye showed us examples of dancing “feminine” and “masculine”, and we tried dancing the different styles. She also talked about how some famous dancers back in the day would dance feminine or masculine opposite of gender, although they wouldn’t call it that (Cab Calloway for instance).

To me, I don’t connect these styles with feminine or masculine, these words are just cultural constructs. But it feels good to dance in a style that some people may deem feminine.

I think this is what’s key for me: these characteristics are just characteristics or qualities. They only become ‘masculinised’ or ‘feminised’ in a wester cultural setting that uses gender binaries.
I keep thinking about other cultures where there are more than two gender roles, and how these variations offer us so much more creative room than a boring old gender binary.

I also agree, Alex, that we tend to see masculinised qualities prioritised/valued in an anglo-celtic western culture. That’s pretty much the definition of patriarchy right there.

Other ways of describing stuff that isn’t masculinised that I’ve heard teachers used:

  • Lennart has described having clear rhythm as ‘eating the rhythm’. With our students, we say “eat the rhythm, swallow it down, and now it is in your belly, right in your belly.” It’s a very useful image, because it also encourages groundedness, a physical vs cerebral understanding of rhythm, an idea that the core/our pelvis is the birthplace of rhythm (how’s that for gynocentrism? :D ) and is just nice.
  • Rikard and Jenny and peeps like Ramona talk about it as ‘taking care of the rhythm’, and Lennart talks about ‘taking care of the music’. I like to say ‘make friends with the music’ and ‘take care of the rhythm’. This idea of ‘taking care’ and congeniality is really nice because it’s a nice contrast to that ‘attack the rhythm’ model. _But_ the attack the rhythm image does give you an impetus and energy that ‘take care’ does not.
  • I like to talk about dancing every rhythm or every step as though I’m teaching it to my partner, or demonstrating it so well that they can pick it up and then dance/steal it too. This of course grew from my own teaching guiding my dance practice, but we found games like i-go, you-go reinforced this model. If you are dancing as clearly as you can, as though you are showing someone, you dance really clearly, _and_ you connect with a partner. This makes dancing a way of connecting with a human (reciprocity) rather than just artistic self-expression (individualism).

I’d be super curious and really excited to see how people from different cultures describe and imagine dancing clear rhythms. I mean, the whole shift from ‘doing footwork’ or ‘good technique’ or ‘clarity of movement’ TO talk about rhythm, call-and-response, etc etc, in American/Anglo/Australian/Canadian lindy hop discourse is evidence of a clear ideological shift. A shift away from a very antiseptic lindy-as-science, towards lindy-as-art, lindy-as-social-connection. I know that it’s very tempting to see this shift as proof of a shift towards positioning lindy hop as vernacular dance (again), but I’m not convinced. All this _talk_ about dancing in class is simply another way of doing what middle class, white capitalism has been doing with dance for a century or more: commodifying dance with particular words and discourse.

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.

fashion docos

I’m nuts about fashion docos, and this week I saw First Monday in May, about the Met’s gala, and specifically, about the China Through The Looking Glass gala. It’s a clever bit of documentary making. I was really digging the way it set up the discussion of orientalism/racism at work in the exhibition… or was it all a clever sensationalist PR tool?

I’ve also watched Bill Cunningham New York, September Issue, Diana Vreeland: the Eye Has To Travel, Iris*, Advanced Style*, Unzipped, Fresh Dressed… I love them all. And Harold Koda is in all of them.

I love the marriage of documentary film and the little diatribes about fashion as art/fashion as truth/fashion as sociology/fashion as real life. But I don’t have time for whole television series or reality television. Just films. I’m also fascinated by the same few figures turning up in each of them – Anna Wintour, Bill Cunningham…


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:

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.

Racism and white people getting away with it. Repeatedly.

I just came across this video (c/o Sylwia B), where Bell discusses white responses to racist acts by white people:

A lot of people in this country, predominantly white people, get focussed on racism as individual acts that are debated: was this racist? Was this not racist? And even if they it is racist, they go, ‘That was racist, let’s fix that racism.’ But they’re not thinking about fixing [gestures broadly] racism.

I feel like this has happened with Ksenia Parkhatskaya, who has recently been confirmed to teach at Drag the Blues, a blues dance event in Barcelona. She has become the target for vitriol (because she’s the clear ‘example’ of racism), when the bigger issue is why organisers in Europe hire this sort of racist, and why white dancers are happy to overlook racism in their teachers when they go to events. It’s as though they think ‘Well, she got called out, she apologised, now it’s fixed. And anyway she’s a nice person/amazing dancer and I want to be like her and do her classes so I’ll support this event anyway.’

She’s had the opportunity to commit multiple offensive acts _because_ people keep hiring her and giving her a platform.
So if you are hiring her, you are not only condoning her thinking and actions, you are also enabling it, and providing her with a platform and status that _consolidates_ her status. Because we see this happen with various high profile dancers around the world (eg William Mauvais making a literal nazi salute at a huge public event _and still getting hired again_; known rapists being publicly reported _and still getting hired again__), the real problem isn’t so much the interchangeable individuals, but the systems and institutions that structure our dance communities.

Clicker training and positive reinforcement

I’ve recently been pushing to teach lindy hop using only positive reinforcement.
When the students are doing an ‘experiment with these things please’ session in class (and they do a lot of this independent, self-guided learning in class), we used to watch until we saw common errors or patterns of messed up movement. Then we’d stop and correct the students, saying things like “Instead of doing this, do that.” I had been advised by a teacher friend (Shane McCarthy in Perth) never to ‘correct’ a student in class in front of the group because it’s embarrassing and trashes their morale. But it’s taken me until just this year to realise that I never need to correct a student again.

‘Correction’ is another word for ‘telling students they’re doing things wrong, that they’re wrong.’ And this is shit for morale. Both students’ and ours. Because if you’re going to tell someone they suck, you feel terrible. Unless you are a somewhat shit person. I used to go home from class worried that I’d said the wrong thing, or taught them something bullshit.
Until I noticed that when I said, “Oh, you know what I saw that I really liked? ….” and then pointed out where someone specific had done something really nice, or in general when I saw something I liked, the students felt great, and I felt wonderful.

In our teaching pairs, we used to have a rule for reducing the amount of time we spent teaching: say one thing for follows, and one thing for leads. Thing is, these things were almost always ‘tips’ or corrections. So we were effectively making a rule: ‘say one thing to trash the follows, then one thing to trash the leads.’ Boo!
But then we started encouraging each other to say “Something that I saw that I liked…” And YES. The world got really really good. Yay!

So this year I made a rule for myself, which I’ve then asked all my teaching partners to do when the teach with me: if you want to guide students towards a particular behaviour, wait until you see a student or students doing that behaviour (or on the road to that behaviour), and then say, “I saw some people doing X. It was really nice.” You be very specific about what you saw, and if you think that student can handle the attention, name them: “I saw X and Y dancing away, then get into a tangle, and you know what they did? X said, “Can we stop for a tick so I can try again?’ And they stopped and chilled for a second, grooved til they found their timing, then they started it again. That was a really cool way of dealing with a mess.” If you see a bunch of people doing a thing, say that: “I saw a bunch of people doing X and I loved it.”

Or if you see ALL of them doing something – tell them! I tend to gush on this one: “Oh! That looked so nice and _grooving_ because you all took a bit of time to make friends with the music before you got going, and then you kept that groove!” I also like to point out how people have managed their own mistakes: “I really liked the way you guys started dancing, and it was nice, but a bit square” [demonstrate timing], “And then the music started, you all heard the musicians, and you all changed your dancing so it swung” [demonstrate swinging timing].

So now my rule is: no ‘corrections’, no ‘tips’. Just positive affirmations. If you don’t see the behaviour you need or want to see, wait. Because they’ll get there. If they don’t, then you need to show them again. And that’s ok.
Key to this is that you are looking at students looking for ways in which they are wonderful, rather than ways in which they are rubbish. It just made teaching so wonderful.

But let’s look more at this idea of positive reinforcement replacing correction in teaching.

Today, I read a book called ‘Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs’ by Karen Pryor, because we’re trying to teach our nutty, somewhat panicky rescue dog a few tricks, but also so she feels more confident and happy when we’re out, and when we’re around the house. This book is just lovely. Mostly because clicker training rewards good behaviour rather than punishing or correcting ‘bad’ behaviour. It also encourages you – the trainer – to look for goodness in your subject, not badness or errors. And hence, brings good vibes. As the book says

Once you get used to thinking the clicker way, you are much more likely to notice good behavior and reward it, instead of giving your attention to a child only when it’s doing something wrong.

More importantly for trainers, it’s much easier to maintain preferred behaviour with this method than with “physically correcting erroneous behaviour”.

Let me just note that point: it encourages teachers to actively look for good behaviour. It changes the teacher.

How does it work?
First, you encourage learning-by-exploring.
When your doggo does a behaviour close to what you want, you click your clicker and give it a treat. So if I want Frank to sit, if she stops, she gets a click and a treat. If she starts to lower her rear haunches, I click and she gets a treat. If she actually sits – click! And treat bonanza (lots of treats)! Important: you only click once, exactly as you see the desired behaviour. They then associate the click with approval for what they are doing _at that time_. You never punish or correct or tell them off. If they deviate substantially from what you want, you put the clicker and treats away. No more treats.

So we have the second point: you encourage learning by approval and positive reinforcement, not correction and punishment/disapproval.
I’ve heard of positive reinforcement, of course, but I’d never really thought about what I was doing as a teacher as positive reinforcement.

The goal: the doggo learns that their behaviour gets you to click and give you treats. So they start thinking: what can I do that will make the human click? And they start experimenting.

You can immediately see how this works for lindy hop: what can I do that will make my partner smile, and dance really well making for a good dance and fun time for both of us? You can also see that this approach forces you to shift the learners’ focus from you, the teacher, to each partners. Ha. Yes. Your ego will need to be set aside for minute!

But this approach also works for teaching: what sort of things can I try to that will get me a good result? What interesting things can we do to make the students and us happy? How much fun can we actually have in class? And I tell you, friends: it’s addictive. If you can have a little bit of fun once, you suddenly think LET’S HAVE A LOT OF FUN ALL THE TIME.
This encourages a happy, creative pupper, but also happy, creative dancer. Ta da! Lindy hop!

This book extends this approach to teaching other animals besides dogs (it was actually developed with dolphins), and then to teaching children. Apparently this method works particularly well with humans learning physical skills, because it’s so quick. Not only are you giving positive reinforcement, but you’re also physically making a nonverbal sound (clicking the clicker) when you see the behaviour you want. And retention of these skills is permanent, with learning happening twice as fast as with verbal instructions.

The question then becomes: can we use a clicker in a lindy hop class? If not, what non-vocal substitution would work?
As a clear example, when you learn African dance with drummers in class, the drummers signal a change in the exercise or step or rhythm with a very clear rhythmic sound. And if you’re doing a nonverbal warm up like i-go, you-go, the teacher moves on from one rhythm or one shape to another when you get it right. Hmmm. Close, but not quite right.

I have noticed myself that if I use words to signal my approval or to signal ‘Yes! you are on track!’ to students, the language itself interrupts their processing of information. This is no doubt because, as we know, humans can’t/aren’t much good at processing words and physical lead/follow information at the same time.
So let’s look at another example from black culture (which is where of course lindy hop began): the call-and-response “Amen!” of a congregation responding to a preacher. It is a word, but it’s used so often that it has become more of a ‘sound’ than an actual Word. It means ‘yes!’ and ‘I hear you!’ and ‘praise that/you!’
Even within a mainstream white culture, women talking in groups use non-verbal signals of approval to encourage speakers in conversation: the raised eyebrow, the exclamation of breath, a laugh-sound.

What sort of nonlingual verbal cues can we use?

The other key element in clicker training is to do with the trainers: you learn to

respond in new ways. You become used to the idea that behavior needs to be built in small pieces, not in big chunks. You stop expecting too much, too soon, and just look for what you can reinforce – and so in fact you get more results, and better.
If you see a behavior you don’t like, …instead of rushing in to prevent it or stop it, you take it as a training opportunity: what is it this learner needs to know? What’s missing? What can I add that would replace this bad behavior?… you have a better way – reinforcing what you like, instead of attacking what you don’t.
…The experience can lead to less stress and more fun in life in general.

This is another approach that we’ve really jumped onto in our teaching. The idea of slowly building up skills in pieces. So instead of starting a class by saying, “Today we will learn the swing out!” and then proceeding to show a move, then break it into pieces, then map it out, then have them do each bit, we start with a related foundational skill. We need a few things for swing outs: a sense of timing (ie the beat), a rhythm (ie a way of moving through space predictably), and a partner. To work with a partner, we need to know how to touch them, how to communicate with them (to know what they want/like and to tell them what we want/like), and to know how they feel the music.

So we begin with the first part: how do we move our bodies? Then we move on to the next part: how do we dance with a partner? Then we get them using all these elements (rhythm, shared beat, partnering skills, movement, etc) to do a simple task – move around the room randomly, experimenting. We ask them, “What helps? What makes this easier? What was the funnest part?”
Then we ask them to do a specific task: to dance a circle. But we literally say, “Now look here.” We show them. They watch. Then we say, “Please give your best approximation of this.” They do it. Boom circles. This has taught them not only a specific move, but it’s also taught them to experiment and try. And they get rewarded for that. But the move itself also teaches them to feel and experiment with rotational momentum… or, in human words, to feel that wonderful spinny roundy feeling.
Then we say, “Please let go half way.” And they basically recreate throwing a ball on a string. A swing out. And you give them TREAT BONANZA. Both in terms of praise, but you also point out: now you have a very fun move. And you set them loose to play with it to music.

All this plus a couple of jazz steps and warms ups and things is our first class. They have learnt a swing out. But they have learnt a million other skills as well as this one move. And the skills are more important.
For us, as teachers, we’ve learnt that a swing out isn’t a ‘thing’ that you give a student. It’s a thing that they discover through guided experimentation.

You want to keep doing positive reinforcement because it gives them the confidence to try, and to make mistakes, and then to see what happens when they do it in this way or that way. Which is, of course, how the swing out was born historically.

Clicker training in brief

– click the behaviour you want, exactly when it happens
– reward/treat after you click
– only work positively: reward what you want, or actions that get closer to what you want; never punish
– work in incremental steps towards a bigger goal

Key elements of clicker training:
– encourage the learner to experiment with all sorts of things until they figure out what behaviour will get a click (and a treat)
– you, the teacher, have to look actively for things to reward/click. This often means the learner does things you don’t expect, which gets them closer to the goal
– you, the teacher, get more flexible and learn more  
– the learner is learning experiment with doing all sorts of things with the goal of changing _your_ (the teacher’s) behaviour (ie to get you to click)

It is epic fun for everyone, because you focus on positive outcomes and reinforcement, rather than correcting and punishing.

Interesting thing:
The clicker is absolutely key because it is an aural, nonverbal cue. It gets twice as fast learning than a verbal cue. Because it side steps the longer word-processing-learning of verbal cues. It’s _faster_ because your brain doesn’t need to untangle the words. Your brain is faster with nonverbal cues.

It also works on doggos.

Challenge: clicking is kind of harsh, socially.

An example of a pretty structured tagteaching (which uses clicker training).

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.

Why you should not refuse pay in the dance world

Today on facebork, I wrote a semi-serious post listing ten opinions. One was

When you refuse to be paid for work (like teaching a class or DJing or running a workshop) you are undercutting the other workers in the market who rely on that money. Don’t voluntarily work for nothing in an industry where people are routinely underpaid.

A friend commented (and I paraphrase):
What if I have a well paid day job, but do some local teaching for money anyway, even though other people do this as a full time job and need the money. What are the ethics here?

This is what I replied.

*shrug* It’s up to you whether you do that work or not.
But if you do do it, and you don’t charge for it, you’ll end up destabilising the ‘market’ in that field. So if X knows he can get you to do the job for free, he’ll get you to do the job next time. Even if you’re rubbish at the job, or Z needs the job for the money.
Doing the work for free also suggests that the work has no value, or that doing it for free is more important than money. Or that taking money for work is somehow selfish. I see the ‘just do it for the community’ rhetoric used quite a bit in the dance world to pressure people into working for free.

As an example, a couple of years ago I wrote a nice bit of copy for a publication as part of my paid job for that publication/business. Another dance business owner saw that piece of copy and asked if they could publish that same piece in their own publication, with attribution.
[edit: I’ve just checked my emails, and there was NO offer of attribution. headdesk]
I said “I’m sorry, but no, I’d prefer it if you didn’t use that copy. I can however write a new piece for you at my usual rate.”

I had a fairly nonplussed reply from the inquirer, but my then-boss had been cc’d into the reply email (which I found highly inappropriate, but that seemed in keeping with dubious ethics at work anyway).
My then-boss actually wrote to me:

“That’s a shame you won’t let [redacted] use your copy. I’m a bit surprised. I get it, I understand, but simply take a different view. Share and share alike, community, goodwill and all those values that I strive to live by. ”

This reply made me very angry, but also made me laugh out loud.
This sort of emotional manipulation is quite common in the lindy hop world: powerful or more influential business owners often try to manipulate skilled workers (DJs, teachers, writers, illustrators, website designers, etc) into working for free using this idea of communitarian debt: that we somehow _owe_ the ‘community’ or ‘scene’ our unpaid work.

To my mind, true goodwill and communitarianism is about paying people for their work so they can then pay their bills and also feed money back into the community to pay other people to teach or DJ or play music.

So when we say “No, I will not work for free” we are also saying “Actually, I think my work is important enough to become part of the official paid economy of this community, and as a skilled worker/employee/contractor, I am worth paying with real actual money.”

I occasionally do gigs where I don’t want to be paid, and in those cases I explicitly say “Please consider my pay a donation to your event/cause.” I’ve also asked people to donate to kiva or other microloan organisations that work specifically with women, instead of paying me.

Cognitive load and lindy hop

Leah Jo linked up this interesting article, ‘Cognitive Load Theory
How the cognitive load of a learning task affects a person’s ability to memorize it’
on facebork.

It’s very interesting.

Fran then asked about the point that because processing more than one type of data increases cognitive load, we should avoid it.

I’m not entirely sure I understand the article’s point, as I haven’t read the original research. But that won’t stop me blabbering on.

I’ve just read that bit, and I reckon it means:

  • Different types of data are processed in different ways (eg auditory info – sound – and visual info – stuff we see).
  • Processing more than one type of info at a time increases cognitive load (ie it’s more work.)
  • Therefore (this article suggests) we should only present data in one form at a time.
    In our case, that’d be just scatting a rhythm, or just dancing a rhythm, not dancing and scatting.

I think I can dig this, especially for total beginners who are just learning to dance for the first time. They can be learning to process visual info (bodies in motion), auditory info (clapping), etc etc etc.
So what we’ve found (coincidentally – I’d never heard this theory before), is that we demonstrate one thing at a time. eg we dance the whole move. Then we clap a rhythm. Then we may tap the rhythm with our toes. Then we may step it out with no sound, but shapes. This way the info (ie the rhythm) comes to them as lots of different data types, but one at a time.

Having said all that, as we know, dancers are super good at processing a few different types of data at once: we can be led through a routine and see the shapes, we can listen to the music and hear the melody, we can feel the physical cues and respond with the shapes.

But these are skills we come to after practicing and learning for a while.
I think retention (memory) is under-emphasised in our skill sets. I mean, we learn complex rhythms (which are essentially like learning complex mathematical formula or series of words), retain them, and then repeat them back with or without variation. We also learn whole sequences of steps during our dancing years, and then recreate or revise them in real time.
So one thing we learn when we do a dance class is to see/hear/feel data in one way, then retain that ‘way’ and information while we’re watching and retaining a section, third, fourth set of data. Then we synthesise it all and do it with another human being surrounded by heaps of other human beings also dancing or playing music!

That’s some seriously heavy cognitive load. So one thing we need to do in classes is teach students how to cope with a) the pressure of increased cognitive load, b) how to actually carry increased cognitive load. And lindy hop is awesome because it’s so fun: it rewards increased cognitive load management with good endorphines and happy times. :D

We can also just start with simpler tasks, then increase the complexity. For example, begin with one type of data at a time, then gradually increase the combinations. I think we do this with our beginners. So we may just give them one rhythm in the baby version of i-go, you-go, but as they get more experienced, we increase the number of things they have to do during that task (eg the next step in this game is to have the pair take turns dancing a rhythm at each other, in real time, so they have to invent a rhythm while they’re watching and retaining their partner’s rhythm. The simple solution to this is to take something from your partner’s rhythm and build on it in your rhythm, so you don’t have to make something entirely different. This is what tappers do in jams. It also provides rhythmic coherency or consistency).

I’ve been interested to compare teaching in a quiet environment after teaching in a noisy environment with lots of distractions. The former is very much the marker of middle class, anglo-european teaching philosophy. The idea that we need a quiet ‘room of one’s own’ to do good solid thinking and learning. But if there’s one thing we know about lindy hop, it’s that it was born and thrived in loud environments full of information and noise and other people. One of the very first things you learn in a tap class, for example, is how to handle the cognitive load of a very loud learning environment. A lot of people simply can’t get past that first bit (I personally really struggle with this).

I also noticed that when we started welcome small babies and children (and doggos) in our teaching space, at first I found it impossible to stay focussed. Then I just learnt to ignore it (as I suppose mothers learn to ignore random kid noise, but respond to particular noises or lack of noise :D). So you learn to filter out extraneous data to decrease your cognitive load.

…following that thought on. We know that people learn best in environments where they feel happy and safe. This is probably because when we feel unsafe, we are ‘hyper vigilant’, taking in lots of information about our environment, _and_ keeping our bodies ready to fight or fly. Which is why anxiety or social phobias or trauma are so exhausting.

So while I dig this article, I think that it’d be really useful to compare it with learning in other cultural spaces. I haven’t checked the samples in this piece, but I wonder if they used predominantly white, middle class people between 18 and 25 (ie university students) in laboratory environments as their samples?

Perhaps one of the most important things about thinking of lindy hop as a black dance, is that we remember where and how people learnt to dance: in vernacular spaces. Everyday spaces. Spaces full of noise and stimuli and other people. Which is not only why we see the influence of everyday stuff in lindy hop (eg rhythmic movements borrowed from stuff like sweeping or hammering or ball games or playing hop scotch; familiar personalities like pimps and kids skipping; familiar animals like chickens and cows), but the ability to bear massive cognitive load while completing complex tasks…