Don’t be a poo: cross promotion in lindy hop

This is a post about cross-promotion, and the reciprocal benefits of not being weird about it.

Quite a few swing dance teachers and event organisers won’t mention, let alone promote, other swing dance organisations in their own city, because they don’t want to ‘promote’ another dance business. I’m always a bit surprised by this attitude, because it’s quite clear that when you cross-promote other dance businesses, you do good things for your own business. And when other people do well – particularly in term of lifting their profile in the wider community – we all benefit.

This was made particularly clear by a random facebook comment made by Duncan, administrator of Swing Out London, recently. He noted that S.O.L. (a really impressive online guide to the huge London lindy hop scene) had seen a huge spike in hits in that week, and he was wondering why. He hadn’t done any new promotion, and nothing had really changed on the site. Another commenter noted that a large London dance school had recently had some massive publicity through a tv show. I suspected that show’s audience had immediately googled ‘swing dance London’ (rather than the specific school’s name), and hit on the well-maintained, SEO-happy S.O.L, which does all the things a good swing dance website should.

Swing Out London had benefitted directly from the success and high profile of another dance project. And we can assume that so did all those other dance businesses listed in its guide.

S.O.L. is one of those projects which we should all support. It has a very clear, and well-managed listings policy, that helps users find what they’re looking for – lindy hop and other jazz and swing era dances – and it helps make clear the differences between jazz and swing dance and ‘other’ dances. This is good for people who are ‘selling’ jazz dances, as opposed to west coast swing, jive, or rock n roll. It’s also non-partisan, which means that it lists any event, so long as it fits into the swing and jazz era dances.

Yes, it might be promoting your ‘competitors” events, but you actually benefit from being listed along side your competitors. It means that you are grouped together under ‘quality’ or ‘relevant’ events, which means that punters will come to your event with expectations that match your promotional strategies and product. You’re not going to send unhappy tango dancers off into the night to bitch about your gig.

This seems counter-intuitive for people coming from a traditional business model. How could it possibly help my bottom line to encourage people to spend their money with another business?

There are a number of ways we can benefit from cross-promotion.

Punters develop expectations about your business that actually match your product and services. So, again, you won’t get people turning up expecting tango, and going home cranky to badmouth you on facebook. You’ll get punters plugging into a network to find products like the one they got at X’s event the other week. When punters start branching out beyond your little domain, they are effectively saying “I want MORE OF THIS.” So why not feed the addiction? :D .

It’s good for peace of mind. This is the reason I’m quite happy to cross-promote, and why I actively support events, teachers, bands, and DJs that I think are great. It just makes me feel good to say “I think X does GREAT work!” It’s also easier to openly support other people, than it is to pretend they don’t exist. Or to actively work to sabotage the success of their project (which is what refusing to promote or acknowledge other peeps does).
I won’t, however, promote, support, or draw attention to events that I think are rubbish. If I think a particular organiser or event is dangerous or unsafe or ethically wrongtown, I will critique it publicly. But if I just think it’s a bit un-excellent, I’ll just move on. I find that I benefit from honestly supporting stuff that I think is great. I get sent free tickets or free CDs, or I even just develop good friendships with people whose work I admire. And I usually just don’t bother trying to suppress my excitement or pleasure in something new and fantastic that I’ve found: I WANT to tell people about these things. And it’s just plain exciting to blabber about a new CD that I love, or a new party I’ve been to. As a DJ, I want other people to play CDs I love, so I get to dance to them! I want other people to hire bands I love, so I get to dance to them! I want other organisers to do well, so I get to go to their parties as a punter, with no responsibilities!

You are a lindy hopper/jazz fan/vintage nut, too. If you’re not, I’m not sure why you’re in this business. If you love lindy hop, and someone else runs a successful, top quality party, you get to go dance! If you love victory rolls and trading 1930s hand-painted ties, and someone else runs a swap meet with great products and stalls – you get to trade ties and win! If you lead a hot jazz band, and someone else runs a successful (and great) jazz band that gets lots of gigs, they’re not only feeding a hunger for good music in the community, you get to go to good gigs!

=> these scenes are all small. We all benefit directly from the success of others.

As a business, it does really good things for your reputation to be seen as open and willing to work with other organisers, teachers and businesses in the swing dance world. Conversely, being a dick and refusing to mention other businesses (either in classes, or in online conversation), or even demanding students and troupe members never attend other classes or parties (yes, this really happens!), makes you look like a dick. A number of organisations just in Sydney have reputations for being dicks because they won’t cross-promote. Word gets about, and people remember the sourness and ill-will that comes with petty refusal to wish someone else well. Particularly in the lindy hop world. And the strongest selling point we have for lindy hop is its capacity for joy.

But if you are out there in the public eye, saying wonderful things about other people, everyone will remember: you are a good stick. You said good things. You are filled with good will. And that will trickle down into your own projects. Much more importantly, saying wonderful things makes you feel good. It’s much nicer to be positive and supportive than to be nasty and selfish. Be good to yourself, ok?

If we really are a community, we all benefit from stronger, more diverse, more prolific cultural and business activities in that community. If I run parties, I benefit from another dance school teaching heaps of classes and prioritising social dancing skills in their classes. Because those peeps will then go on to social dance. If I’m a jazz band leader, I benefit from dance classes that use jazz in class. If I run dance classes, I benefit from great social dancing parties, because they give my more advanced students in particular a place to dance and get the jazz feels. If I’m a teacher, entering a high-profile dance comp with a great reputation and good media profile is really good for my profile! And so on.

But what if I have a dance business that tries to offer all these things to ‘my’ students? Wouldn’t my profits suffer from the ‘competition’? Nah, mate. Swing dancers like new and interesting things. A scene with a wide range of music, activities, events, classes, competitions, and organisations caters to that need for the new. It also helps retain dancers. And we need to retain dancers, so we can add to the ‘brains trust’ that is the average ability level and dance knowledge in the scene.

What if my party/class/event is on the same night as someone else’s? Wouldn’t their event automatically count as competition for mine? Only if you’re offering exactly the same product or experience as that other person. And why would you offer an identical product, when we’ve just noted how much dancers like new stuff? This is the interesting part of jazz dance: we are built to enjoy innovation and improvisation. So we are constantly looking for more stimulation. The more experienced a dancer is, the more interested they are in new things. They want to be inspired. Hopefully!

So you’re really only in trouble if your product doesn’t change, if it’s static. And let’s be serious: you’ll die of boredom if you teach the exact same classes, run the exact same events, play the exact same music every night forever. Think of other people’s projects as stimulation and impetus for your own development. Have you taken a lindy hop class yourself lately? Have you danced with anyone new lately? How’s your own dancing going? Are you teaching at your best? How’s your music collection? Bought a new CD lately? Been to a weekend event lately? Hired a new band?

I know that working within a recreationist community makes it feel as though we need to hang onto the past and never change things. But let’s think about what lindy hop and vernacular jazz music and dance are all about: they are about utility. About innovation. About improvisation. About change. No, you don’t have to start swinging out to One Direction to be ‘new’. You can still recreate a historic solo jazz routine from archival footage, muscle twitch by bone twist. But you also need to remember the purpose of jazz dance: to challenge and be new. To ask questions. You can use new venues, new bands, new class content, new teaching tools!, dance with new people, travel to new places, have new ideas. Jazz can accommodate that. It wants that.

If you haven’t been doing these things, you can guarantee your teaching/DJing/dancing/choreography/events are getting boring. And you won’t do your punters any favours by trying to keep them ignorant of other, more interesting stuff in the scene. You’ll just lose their attention, or do bad things to their dancing. Nobody wins. Being aware of, cross-promoting, and participating in other people’s projects will be good for you, and for your projects. Not to mention making it clear that you’re not only not afraid of and not threatened by new things, you embrace them!

Be like the tap dancers in a jam: keep good solid time. Get into that circle of life. Be accountable for your own actions. Recognise the actions of others, the value and effort of their work. You’ll be pushed to improve yourself. You’ll do better work. We’ll all benefit.

Don’t be a poo.

Another shit-stirrer post about teaching

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about why people teach, and what they get out of it (for obvious reasons).

There is this idea in the lindy hop world that we should all sacrifice lots ‘for the community’. As though ‘the community’ was this really huge thing, larger and more important than all of us, and yet somehow not including us at all. I’m not sure where this idea that we should sacrifice our own health and spare time for the sake of other people’s dancing came from. I sometimes think it has to do with the revivalist impetus: that we have to keep lindy hop alive no matter what. Which is problematic for so many reasons. Starting with a) It wasn’t actually dead before busy white people started getting into it in the 1980s; b) If the communities that developed it have moved on to other things, perhaps a vernacular dance has lost its utility, and social dances should be useful and relevant above all else.

This is what I think:

  • communities must be sustainable. Culturally, socially, economically, environmentally… and so on.
  • The people in the community are that community. That includes the teachers and volunteers and event organisers and so on… all the people who are working their bums off to ‘keep the dance alive’. This means that their lives and work have to be sustainable: they have to earn enough money to pay their bills; they can’t ruin their health and relationships and lives with overwork; they have to find joy their work – it cannot be a burden. ie NO MARTYRS.
  • The ‘community’ is not a discrete bubble. All ‘communities’ overlap and interact with other ‘communities’. So the ‘lindy hop community’ is also a part of, or overlapping with, the ‘jazz community’, and the ‘vintage lifestyle’ community, and the ‘live music industry’, and the ‘wider local community’, and the ‘national community’, and so on. We are no better or worse than the people who don’t dance lindy hop. Lindy hop doesn’t make us special; we are already special. And so are the people who don’t dance lindy hop.

I know that a lot of lindy hop teachers I’ve met and worked with in Sydney and Melbourne feel as though the value of their teaching is assessed by the number of students in their class. As though they somehow fail to be good or important or useful teachers if they aren’t funnelling hundreds of new lindy hoppers onto the floor every year. I used to feel this way. But now I don’t.

I think that we all realise that huge classes are not good learning or teaching environments. Students don’t get the time or attention they need from teachers, nor do they develop the social bonds that help make a good community. Their learning and sense of ‘group’ is focussed on the teacher, and often, on the larger school identity. Rather than on the smaller, more important relationships with other people in their class, and on the social dance floor. Further, classes that focus on rote learning, on running through a sequence of steps over and over again until the students have it ‘perfect’ is not great learning.
It’s as though this sort of class deliberately undoes the culture and practice of social dancing. If you are pushing through a rote sequence of steps, no matter what, you cannot stop and listen to your partner, you cannot adjust your dancing to work with your partner and make it work, and you definitely cannot listen to and respond to the music. And that is very sad. It is also the opposite of lindy hop: this is not preserving a vernacular dance.

I see students come out of dance classes unable to ‘start’ dancing on the social dance floor until someone ‘counts them in’ or helps them ‘find one’. As though there was this rule that we HAVE to start dancing ‘on one’, or that steps have to perfectly align with an 8 or 6 count sequence. More importantly, those same students haven’t learnt how to make a real connection with a dance partner, because their attention in class is so focussed on the teachers; they’ve never learnt that it’s ok to just bop about on the spot with a new friend, chatting, and enjoying the music. They feel that they have to execute that series of prescribed moves perfectly if they are to be ‘good dancers’. And of course, those prescribed moves are only available (for a price) from a dance class.

This isn’t the students’ fault. Or even the teachers’, really. It’s the fault of a pervasive ideology of ‘learning through memorisation’, and a push to acquire huge class numbers as an indicator of ‘success’ – primarily financial. It’s also accepted that the retention rate of any class will be low – that people will find lindy hop really hard in their first class, and that they won’t ever come back. And, to be blunt (as though I was ever anything else), I’d be scared off by a huge class focussed on rote-learning a series of strictly ‘perfect’ steps.

The saddest thing about all this, is that this is not what lindy hop – or jazz – is all about. It makes me sad that teachers feel they have to push their classes to become bigger and more ‘successful’, instead of taking time to enjoy the time they spend with students in class. They are so intent on acquiring the ‘sexiest’, most ‘sellable’ steps from the latest round of competition videos, that they forget that dancing is actually lots of fun, particularly when the steps are simple and the focus is on the music and your partner.

I’ve recently shifted my own focus – in a very determined way – to classes which are all about social dancing. That means great music. That means learning to work with a partner – and not just for a 30 second rotation in class, but for a whole song in class. I don’t teach fixed patterns of steps; I teach a pattern, and then build on it, encouraging the students to figure out their own combinations. With Marie and Lennart’s example in mind, after the first few partner rotations in class, I don’t ‘count students in’ any more. I let them find their own way into the music. To me, these are the real skills social dancers – lindy hoppers – need. Nobody needs that latest trick that Famous Dancer X pulled out in a comp. A competition is not social dancing; the skills are quite different.

The nicest part of this shift in focus is that I find teaching so much more satisfying, and so much less anxiety-making.

So why am I writing this post now? It’s because this story about Stefan Grimm has been making the rounds in my academic network. I used to work in academia, but gave it up because it just wasn’t any fun. The students were neglected by shitty class environments, the research wasn’t fun any more because it was squeezed into restrictive grant-getting processes.

Reading this piece about universities as anxiety machines, I was struck by the similarities between the ‘dance class industry’ and universities. And not just because they’re both centred on pedagogy (or are they? What university still prioritises learning – whether through research or teaching?) The discussion about unpaid labour (normalised by the idea that ‘that’s what you do to get ahead’), sounds a lot like the exhaustion and exploitation in the lindy hop world justified by ‘doing it for the community’. The

…normalised surveillance of performance in class through attendance monitoring, learning analytics, retention dashboards and text-based reminders about work/labour/doing, and in the entrepreneurial demands of attending careers fairs and employability workshops and cv clinics, and in attempting to find the money to eat and live.

…sounds a lot like lindy hop today.
Get bigger classes. Where are you on the leader board? Have you hunted down the latest marketable step or move from the latest round of competition videos on Youtube? Did you go to that workshop and ‘collect’ moves?

And for ‘professional’ lindy hoppers (as though we aren’t professional unless we are traveling the world every weekend), the pressure is far higher. Not teaching on a repetitive injury? Not working hard enough. Not disguising disordered eating as ‘eating healthy’, ‘the paleo lifestyle’, or, most ironic of all, ‘keeping well’? Not truly committed to dance. Haven’t taken up a dozen ‘strength and maintenance’ exercise regimes on top of your lindy hop training? Just aren’t trying hard enough.

…this form of overwork and performance anxiety is a culturally acceptable self-harming activity. …My culturally acceptable self-harming activities militate against solidarity and co-operation that is beyond value…

(all these quotes are from ‘Notes on the University as anxiety machine’)

This is, of course, the bottom line. Because teachers (especially the highest profile ones) don’t spend quality time with anyone other than other teachers for extended periods of time, this stuff is all normalised. And they aren’t allowed the time and quiet to question the working conditions of their ‘jobs’. They are expected to work and work and work ‘for the community’. And if they do ask event organisers for things like, oh, a quiet room with a door that closes and a real bed to sleep, there is this niggling perception of them as ‘difficult’.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, really. Beyond arguing that we should shift our focus to more socially sustainable practices. And we should question the ‘for the community’ ethos that justifies socially and physically unsustainable work practices. Also, we should teach lindy hop like a vernacular dance, not like you’re going to be sitting an SAT test.

Mickey Davidson speaks about Norma Miller

Louis Satchmo Armstrong Jazz Camp Faculty Interview — Mickey Davidson

Anaïs Sékiné hooked this up on the facey and I think it’s grand.
As I said there, I really like the bit where she says that young people have a responsibility to preserve artistic heritage. I think that’s a cool thing: it tells young people they are important and capable of looking after something important. That dance and art are important, and not just a right, but a responsibility.

And as I listened more, I got more excited. This is such a great interview! I like the bit about having to have ‘clean rhythms’. I think I might have given the impression in my post about Sea of Rhythm that tappers are kind of slack about timing, and that anything goes. No. WRONG.
Being disciplined was quite central to all the classes at Sea Of Rhythm, working with African and tap dancers. There was a strong emphasis on being really tight in your rhythms. And we all had to dance in front of the WHOLE group, quite often, and if you weren’t right, if you weren’t tight, you were told, “No, do it again.”…. “No, not right, try again.” It was very different to lindy hop classes, where there’s a lot of kid-glove action, and students are really babied a lot.
…I think this is my favourite part of a ‘rhythm based’ approach to teaching and learning lindy hop: you need to step up and be precise. And then you’re allowed to improvise. But improvisation is NOT just making shit up: it’s clear, concise decisions.

…and I liked Mickey’s story about being apprenticed to Norma: having to fetch coffee and do jobs. That’s a real dance apprenticeship, that teaches you how to be part of the group, before you get to dance. This reminds me of a story an Indian temple dancer told me about learning to dance: she had to be apprenticed to a master for a long time, doing tasks like making food, cleaning, taking care of the master’s needs. This was at once a matter of learning humility, but also a matter of learning the day to day movements that would later inform her dancing. How to move like a temple dancer, even before you learn to dance.

such jazz

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One of my favourite Sydney bands, the Squeezebox Trio is doing a little fund raising… is it fund raising? Whatevs. It’s magical.

The bit of text accompanying this gem on fb:

It has happened…The Defining moment of our generation is here…

The Squeezebox Trio 2015 ‘Nude’ Calendar…
Available from: thesqueezeboxtrio3@gmail.com …

And it will blow the minds of anyone who enters your house for 1 year…

For the sweet price of $20

Naked…

If you like jazz, and you like jazz musicians, you might consider buying one of these from here. Or even buying some of their music.

Band breaks at MLX14

MLX14: Friday evening band breaks from dogpossum on 8tracks Radio.

Straight Life Count Basie and his Orchestra 1953 Complete Clef/Verve Count Basie Fifties Studio Recordings (Mosaic disc 03)

Ain’t Misbehavin’ Maxine Sullivan With Buster Bailey, Milt Hinton, Jerome Richardson, Osie Johnson, Dick Hyman, Wendell Marshall 1956 A Tribute To Andy Razaf

Stompin’ At The Savoy Maxine Sullivan With Buster Bailey, Milt Hinton, Jerome Richardson, Osie Johnson, Dick Hyman, Wendell Marshall 1956 A Tribute To Andy Razaf

Easy Does It Big Eighteen (Billy Butterfield, Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown, Vic Dickenson, Lou McGarity, Dicky Wells, Walt Levinksy, Hymie Schertzer, Sam Donahue, Boomie Richman, Ernie Caceres, Johnny Guarnieri, Barry Galbraith, Milt ) 1958 Echoes of the Swinging Bands

Splanky Count Basie and his Orchestra 1957 The Complete Atomic Basie

Wham Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra (Emmett, Berry, Lawrence Brown, Al Sears, Leroy Lovett, Lloyd Trotman, Joe Marshall) 1952 A Pound of Blues

Don’t You Miss Your Baby Jimmy Witherspoon and Panama Francis’ Savoy Sutans 1980 Jimmy Witherspoon and Panama Francis’ Savoy Sultans

Jersey Bounce Ella Fitzgerald acc. by Lou Levy, Herb Ellis, Joe Mondragon, Stan Levey 1961 Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!

B-Sharp Boston Duke Ellington and his Orchestra 1949 Duke Ellington and his Orchestra: 1949-1950

Good Queen Bess Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra (Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Blanton, Sonny Greer) 1940 The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (disc 10)

Rag Mop Bob Crosby and the Bobcats 1950 Bob Crosby and the Bobcats: The Complete Standard Transcript

Tar Paper Stomp Tom Baker’s Chicago Seven (Tom Baker, Don Heap, Lynn Wallis, Roger James, Paul Finnerty, David Ridyard, David Parquette, Paul Furniss) 2004 Dixieland Jazz

A Viper’s Moan Willie Bryant and his Orchestra (Teddy Wilson, Cozy Cole) 1935 Willie Bryant: Chronological Classics 1935-1936

Flying Home Benny Goodman Sextet (Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Nick Fatool, Lionel Hampton) 1940 Charlie Christian: The Genius of The Electric Guitar (disc 1)

Sent For You Yesterday Benny Goodman China Boy
Ain’t Misbehavin’ Maxine Sullivan With Buster Bailey, Milt Hinton, Jerome Richardson, Osie Johnson, Dick Hyman, Wendell Marshall 1956 A Tribute To Andy Razaf

Honeysuckle Rose Gordon Webster (with Jesse Selengut, Matt Musselman, Cassidy Holden, Rob Adkins, Jeremy Noller, Adrian Cunningham) 2010 Live In Philadelphia

Truckin’ Paul Asaro And The Fat Babies (Andy Schumm, John Otto, Beau Sample, Jake Sanders, Alex Hall) 2012 What a Heavenly Dream: The Fats Waller Rhythm Project

Fat And Greasy Fats Waller and his Rhythm (Herman Autrey, C.E. Smith, Eddie Anderson, Fred Robinson, George Wilson, Rudy Powell, Gene Sedric, George James, Emmett Matthews, Fred Skerritt, Hank Duncan, James Smith, Charles Turner) 1935 I’m Gonna Sit Right Down: The Early Years, Part 2 (disc 02)

My Baby Just Cares For Me Nina Simone The Great Nina Simone

Easy Does It Big Eighteen (Billy Butterfield, Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown, Vic Dickenson, Lou McGarity, Dicky Wells, Walt Levinksy, Hymie Schertzer, Sam Donahue, Boomie Richman, Ernie Caceres, Johnny Guarnieri, Barry Galbraith, Milt ) 1958 Echoes of the Swinging Bands

C-Jam Blues Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis 1998 Live In Swing City: Swingin’ With Duke

You can exploit yourself!

I’ve just had a look at the latest Swingnation video podcast, because a friend said I was on it. Yes, this was a vanity watch.

It’s kind of interesting, but I think I’d have liked to hear a bit more engagement with the issue from the three blokes, as they have such wide-reaching experience as teachers, punters and organisers. I’m glad Mike Pedroza said he has a written document setting out his teaching terms: I LOVE LOVE LOVE teachers who have these. And I have very little patience with the ones who don’t, but who do have a long list of preferences RE food, or teaching hours, or airlines.

Teachers: GET A GODDAM LIST OF TERMS.

I’m also not sure Mikey understood the point of my post: this was just a brief overview of some of the areas I’ve been working on. It should not – AT ALL – be considered a comprehensive overview of setting up a dance business! But I will disagree with Mikey: this stuff isn’t very complicated. It’s just quite laborious. But if you’re not prepared to do a little work, you probably shouldn’t be setting up a business.

I also want to make it clear that there’s a difference between a legally binding contract and a written agreement. And there are also differences between Australian states, let alone different countries, so this post of mine shouldn’t really be considered a guide for setting up a dance business in America or France or anywhere other than New South Wales, Australia.
Here, mind you, a written agreement does have legally binding ramifications. It is, essentially, a type of contract. But the strength of this contract can vary, and your lawyer’s knowledge of Australian (NSW!) arts law will be key to determining how you write, discuss, and enforce this sort of contract. Which is why I recommended the NSW Arts Law Centre for Sydney people – they can give you advice about lawyers and contracts, and they provide samples for written agreements.

That Swing Nation ep reminded me of this great video of Shawn Lavelle discussing budgets for big dance events, which I watched when someone like Jerry posted it on Wandering and Pondering. There was some interesting discussion happening there, but I can’t remember any of it, nor can I find the link. Mostly because I’m sitting in someone’s lounge room on stolen wifi waiting for a ride to my next accommodation for MLX, at the end of the week after Sea of Rhythm. I’m also listening to loud jazz on headphones, sniffing some lovely vegan muffins baking, and carrying on half a conversation.

So, here: no coherent thoughts.

Anyways, I thought Shawn’s talk about budgets was really great. I’d been meaning to make a post covering those sorts of issues ages ago, but I’d just not ever gotten around to it. Mad props, bro.

I think that more people should run dance events. I really wish they would!

My original post was partly to make it clear to people that you have all the skills and experience you need to set up as a sole trader to run your own dance class, DJing business, or performance troupe. I think that a lot of dancers get into tricky or exploitative professional relationships because they don’t feel they are clever enough or experienced enough to set up their own legit business.

I am here to tell you: you are.

You don’t have to get involved with dodgy deals to become a jazz dance performer, teacher, DJ, or event organiser. You can exploit yourself!

Sea of Rhythm rambling

I’ve just had a LOVELY weekend at Sea of Rhythm, a new dance event held in Melbourne. Run by Rhythm Tap, a group who do the sort of tap that lindy hoppers like, the program was intended to bring together dancers who were interested in dances of the African diaspora. Not that the event was pitched like that. It was literally pitched as a ‘sea of rhythm’ event, where dancers would come and immerse themselves in rhythm-based dances for a weekend. That meant African (Senegalese) dance and drumming, lindy hop, rhythm tap, historic solo jazz dance – all the good stuff!
I’ve been to a few of these sorts of weekends before, but this one was different for a couple of reasons. The most important of which was that the teachers and performers weren’t just random people from around town. They were top shelf dancers and teachers. The other key reason for the success of the weekend, was that the teachers were all approaching dance from the same ideological position. They see dance as an embodiment of music, or more specifically, they approach all dance as rhythm first.

This approach to dance has become quite popular in the mainstream lindy hop community lately (and isn’t that a strange thing to write – ‘main stream lindy hop’), but it’s something the Swedes have been talking about forever, and they’ve been talking about it because they’ve always worked very closely with the old timers – Frankie Manning, Al Minns, Norma Miller and so on. And the African American dancers always put the music first. Lindy hop hasn’t been well served by that deviation into ‘smooth’ and heavily technique-focussed teaching in the early 2000s. That movement away from hot jazz, and that strange emphasis on ‘connection’ took us a little too far from the roots of lindy hop.

I’ve very interested in talking about ‘rhythm’ as a teaching tool. I think that it’s very useful for teaching beginners the essentials.

Bounce (that’s the beat, or the time of the song) teaches us how to swing and stay in time, but also teaches us how to find a common point of reference for our partnership, so we can stay in time together. It’s also a powerful tool for teaching people to engage their cores (and relax their upper bodies as a consequence), and to improve their fitness (because it’s physically more work). It’s also – I very strongly believe – the most basic way for two people to dance together. You can just hold each other in your arms and bounce on the spot, and you’re dancing. It’s also (to get a bit essentialist here – I apologise), quite primal to bounce up and down to music with another person. Watching Josette Wiggins tap this weekend, heavily pregnant, I kept thinking: that is the point of this. We know how to do this, right from birth.

I also have quite a manically obsessive hatred of dancing that rushes the beat. Especially since taking tap classes. It really, REALLY shits me to have people in class rush the beat and make a basic rhythm speed up. Teaching, we see beginners do that at first (because humans do), but everyone of them can stop doing it within half an hour of their first class. If I’m in an intermediate or advanced lindy hop class and people speed up, I want to SCREAM. Because the people who do this are the people who don’t bounce.

Tap dancers don’t bounce, but they do have a shared sense of time. Bouncing is kind of a cheat, because it makes it easier to feel and find that shared sense of time. Tappers have that sense of time in their brains and bodies.

Teaching ‘steps’ or ‘footwork’ as rhythms instead is very exciting. Straight away, the students learn that rhythms are central to what we do, not just an add-on to the shapes or ‘moves’. And lindy hop is special: the syncopation of the triple step is so important.
After the speeding up of basic rhythms, I really hate it when people flatten out a syncopated rhythm. I think it’s something to do with tighty whitey dancing: lindy bro leads are the absolute worst for rushing the beat and flattening out syncopation. I know that follows tend to be a bit more behind the beat, but PLEASE: TAKE CARE OF THE RHYTHM! It feels so naff – why are you rushing?
I feel as though this issue is related to the tension between hot and cool in African American and African dance. Be cool. I’ll need to think more about that, though, before I can articulate it properly.

Scatting is essential. Again, the Swedes have always done it, because the old timers have always done it. Norma Miller rants about it. And I’ve transitioned almost completely to teaching entirely without counts in class. It’s a joy. I scat all the time now, to the point that I can’t actually turn it off when I dance.
I generally find that ‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8′ even with ‘ands’ in there simply aren’t complex enough tools for describing what happens in jazz dance. The beats don’t divide evenly into single beats or half beats. Just syncopation alone is far more complex. There’s a difference just between the timing of a stomp off and a triple step that counts can’t reflect. I find it much more useful to use sounds that sound like the way a movement feels. Which I guess is like reverse-engineering dancing to music. So if we do start with the music first, a musician plays a series of notes in a particular way, and then I find a way to make that sound visible with my body. Counts don’t really come into it.

I suppose what I’m really talking about is a profound ideological shift in approaching dance. From a very anglo-western, ‘scientific’ concert/performance approach, to a more ‘African’ or African American vernacular approach. From thinking about dance and music as things to be performed, watched and consumed, to things that should be created, participated in, enjoyed, eaten up and shared.

I wrote about ‘pavlov’s lindy hopper‘ a little while ago, where I talked about how watching other people dance does things to your brain: it fires you the bits of your brain that perform those movements. Particularly if you’re familiar with those movements. Dancers often talk about not watching dance clips before bed because it fires you up.
I suspect that scatting works this way. When we scat, we physically make the sound that the music makes, and that triggers something in our brains. So we move from just ‘observing’ or ‘consuming’ music, to participating in music. If dancing is a way to participate in music, then scatting is the natural bridge between the two. Or more usefully, it’s the olive oil that marries the flavours.

WHAT does all this have to do with Sea of Rhythm?
Well, I think that this is the HEART of what was happening. We know that tap dancing is a way for dancers to ‘join the band’, to make the sounds that they are dancing, rather than just ‘making sound visible’, they ‘make visible sound’. In the African dance class on the weekend, I think that this process was made very simple and clear.

We began by sitting in a circle, with our feet in, and this was called the ‘circle of life.’ Now, if you’re immediately made uncomfortable by that sort of talk, you might want to get a grip. It’s not so much hippy talk as a different way of talking and thinking about the role of music and dance in everyday life, from another culture. Anyone who’s been to a lindy hop class knows how important circle formations are to group dynamics. When I was tutoring, I’d make all the students sit in a circle, because it made it much easier to manage behaviour problems: people wouldn’t be able to sit in the back and dick around. They had to be right there, facing everyone, and accountable for everything they said and did. They had to be part of the group. And anyone who’s ever done a big apple (called or social) knows how circles make you feel. And of course, ring shouts make the roots of Africa so clear. All the tap classes over the weekend used circles as well – we’d stand in a circle and take turns doing step or a time step. And haven’t we all seen how a jam circle works? What it does to our brains and bodies to be leaning into a circle when the music is hot?

In our African dance class, we all sat in the circle of life, and our teacher was there, with us, part of that circle. Our teacher, but one of us. He explained what we’d be doing, and what his background was, and how things worked.
Then we moved to another part of the room, where the drums were set up in a circle. We all took a drum (or shared one), and began learning some simple drumming techniques. Our teacher would say something like ‘the rain is coming, gently’, and he’d tap a gentle tappity tap, and we’d just join in. And so on. The important points: he’d just begin, and we’d just join in. Then we stood up and started learning a routine. Our teacher would drum and we’d dance. I didn’t have any moments of feeling shy or uncomfortable. It was really fun, and we all felt really excited by this stuff.

I knew that this would be fun and exciting, but I didn’t quite anticipate what it would mean to have my teacher drum. He could vary the tempo, the length of time we spent doing each step, and how we felt. It was very exciting. And because we’d first learnt to drum the rhythms ourselves, it was as though we’d skipped scatting and gotten straight to the heart of it.

This was really the message of the whole weekend: we have to take care of the rhythm. It was also made very clear that we each had a responsibility to make the rhythms clear and sharp. Each of our teachers worked on us with this: our tap teachers, our African teacher, our solo jazz teachers, our lindy hop teachers. You have to properly understand the rhythm, before you can dance it. Or rather, you can only really understand the rhythm if you dance it.

This meant that the entire weekend the focus in all the classes wasn’t so much on ‘learning a move’ and then perfecting it, as learning a rhythm (or creating one!) and then figuring out just how many different ways you could dance it. Of course, the unspoken (and occasionally spoken) emphasis here was on individual personality and creativity, but in a collective environment. It’s quite an exciting approach, because mixed level classes suddenly become a real advantage: here is a room of people who are really diverse and different, which means you have a WHOLE ROOM FULL OF PEOPLE to inspire you, that you can suck inspiration from, who’ll fire up your creativity. How will you make this rhythm work with someone who’s never danced before? Or when I was was dancing with a pre-teen boy tap dancer in a beginner lindy class: how do I make this work with someone half my height and feeling weird about holding a grown woman in his arms?

I think it goes without saying that all weekend there was this absolute TRUTH that there is no distinction between ‘solo dancing’ and ‘partner dancing’. Even when we were dancing alone – or perhaps most when we were ‘dancing alone’ – we were actually part of a group, dancing together. This is where that whole thing about speeding up the tempo comes in: we were a group, so we all had a responsibility to take care of that rhythm and not speed it up or flatten out the swing or syncopation. Tap made this particularly clear, because we could hear the differences, and we had to bring everyone with us. It was a marvellous tension between uniformity and diversity. We had to be together, but we also had to be uniquely ourselves. We had a responsibility to contribute to the group, and to be responsible for our own actions. This approach meant that respecting each other was just taken for granted.

And the best part is that when we come back to our lindy hop, we can still throw down and do solid, hardcore lindy hop. No hippy stuff; just fucking hardcore lindy hop. All this stuff sort of fills in the backgrounds and body of our dancing.

It was quite a magical experience, really. It reminded me so much of the Frankie stream at Herrang. This is what it means to be a jazz dancer.