There’s a discussion going on on facebook where people are really being WRONG.
Good thing I’m here to set them straight.
This discussion is, in the broadest terms, about how teachers can help their follow students contribute more to the partnership.
Of course, we all know that this question is predicated on a false paradigm. We all know that lindy hop is not about leaders laying out a series of moves and follows completing them perfectly. And we all know that a follow’s creativity is not based on (her) ability to slot jazz steps into the spaces between moves or into the moves themselves.
We know this, don’t we?
I have gendered this deliberately, because this is an old partner dance paradigm based on white, middle class gender and social conventions, and having very little to do with vernacular dance.
The original poster had three questions, and I answered them. The questions were expanding on a class exercise where the leads had been tasked with ensuring their partner had the best dance ever (engaging with them, etc etc), and the follows with bringing creative work and play to the dance. It apparently blew their students minds, and everyone had a really great time, including teachers.
Here I respond to the questions the OP asked at the end of their post:
1) Why were the followers so baffled at first when we gave them this assignment?
Patriarchy. Women are trained to put others’ needs before their own. That includes helping leads look good by being perfect follows.
2) Why were the leads so confident at first that they were already doing it?
Patriarchy. Men aren’t trained to put others’ needs first.
3) And how can we add in these little “life lessons” (as one of our students called it) throughout all of our classes in every level?
I have three teaching rules: Take care of the music, take care of your partner, take care of yourself. That last one is as important as all the others, especially for follows. I might extend that to include:
– follows are responsible for carrying the rhythm too;
– follows, don’t compromise your own rhythm and timing for the lead;
– connection isn’t just about follows being able to ‘hear’ a lead’s leading. It’s about leads hearing and feeling the follow,
or, as with an older woman this week in a private,
– if you have a sore knee, don’t ever push through. Stop, take a break. Ask for a pause. Give yourself credit for knowing what you need.
I think that the problem here isn’t ‘how do we get followers to do X and leads to Y (within our existing dance paradigm’, but rather ‘what the fuck are you doing? This isn’t lindy hop. You need to get back to class and relearn how this thing works.’ Of course, I’ll not be posting that on fb in a civil discussion, no matter how much I might like to.
Anyways, the thread continued, with each post more baffling and frustrating than the last.
Then there came this post:
There are many ways to approach this, but I think it’s very difficult to be expressive when you don’t have a jazz step vocabulary that’s in your muscle memory. I like teaching specific ways to play with specific basic steps. Practice that particular variation whenever that step is lead (leaders can do the same thing to work on their own style, but hopefully not at the same time) Over time, that variation will feel natural and eventually your body will simply respond to the music and/or energy of the lead to plug in whatever move in your vocabulary feels right. And you’ll also be able to utilize that vocabulary in other situation besides the ones you specifically practiced. I think that’s the best way to start. With more advanced students, you can give exercises that require the follower to get creative with certain patterns.
There is so much wrong here.
I just … I cannot. I can’t even. Why. How. What even is this? It’s not lindy hop.
But of course, I replied:
I don’t think follows ‘having a voice’ = follows slotting jazz steps into the shapes a leader proscribes.
I vigorously reject this paradigm. Lindy hop is far more complex and interesting and also far simpler and more enjoyable.
But that person doubled down with:
….You need a vocabulary before you can be creative….
And then I responded:
I totally disagree, and i think that lindy predicates innovation and making shit up. And total noobs are brilliant at being creative without a body of jazz vocab. And i’d much prefer they let the music and their partnership move them, than they just pulled out rote moves.
This poster responded, tripling down, so I bowed out.
But I want to make this point:
If we insist that students (women, follows) cannot improvise or be creative without having first consumed and perfected a body of vocabulary, we are setting up troubling power dynamics. We are saying: you can only get this vocab from me, the teacher. This sets us up as a powerful authority.
If we insist that the only way of being creative in lindy hop is via set vocab, we are also saying ‘your individuality and the steps and shapes you invent are not important to lindy hop. are not lindy hop.’ So while we are establishing our own power and status as teachers, we are also deconstructing students’ own power and confidence. And devaluing their skills and creativity.
It’s also flying in the face of black vernacular dance history and culture. ie it’s wrong. It’s not lindy hop.
In contrast, I believe that humans come to lindy hop classes with a vast body of skills, experience, and qualities that make for brilliant lindy hop.
They know how to interact with other humans. Even if they aren’t much good at it, almost every person in a dance class can figure out how to work with a partner. Particularly if you explain or demonstrate how to do it. So rather than my setting up a weirdo language-based technical jargon filled example of partnership, I might say ‘please hold this person in your arms the way you would a dear friend’. Or I might say ‘you dance one 8, then they dance one 8, and I want you to imagine your are demonstrating it so that they can memorise it.’
They will then use their eyes to make contact, they will orient their bodies towards their partner, they will stand close enough to see and hear each other. They will apologise if they kick their partner or anyone else. They will negotiate who will go first and who will do what role.
Additionally, humans are phenomenal pattern matchers. I’m astounded by how good first time dancers are at identifying patterns, then memorising and recreating them. And they get very good very quickly at doing this with increasingly complex patterns. And rhythms, of course, are just patterns. They learn very quickly how to use their senses – their eyes, ears, bodies – and their brains to identify, learn, and echo back rhythms and patterns.
This is of course brilliant for learning a partner dance. They can learn a basic rhythm from a teacher demonstration in 3 minutes. They can learn how to dance with another human in 5 minutes. And then they can map it onto a partnership with another human they’ve just met, negotiating social discomfort to create a shared rhythm and pattern. That is AMAZING. And 90% of the time the teachers (you) only need to step in once or twice to set them in the direction you’d like to see (eg consensual, cooperative, etc).
And then, humans are also incredibly good at translating this pattern matching business into finding and keeping the beat in a song. They maintaining that beat as they do other tasks. While touching someone else. And learning other, more complex rhythms across various spatial planes.
Humans are fucking mind blowing.
So if you set up the exercise/task correctly, either partner in a lindy hop couple is more than capable of being creative within the partnership right from their very first class. They don’t need to learn X number of core jazz steps. In fact, if you’re not careful, they will invent their own. _Especially_ if you tell them a little story about how jazz steps were often invented from day to day life (pecks, crazy legs, cool breeze in the knees, pimp walk, fish tail, boogie forward).
If you have already done a 3 minute solo jazz warm up, they will already have a bunch of jazz steps under their belt.
If you have encouraged them to experiment and feel ok, they will experiment and create new steps and rhythms.
If you point out which things they already do well (all this stuff), they will feel confident enough to share these new ideas with their partners and the group.
And all this long before you get to set moves or lindy hop shapes!
In fact, if you get to this points and you see your lindy hop ‘moves’ as limits or restrictive shapes, then you really need to rethink your lindy hop structures as well. Because this is the wonderful thing about lindy hop: it is DESIGNED TO ACCOMODATE ALL THIS INDIVIDUAL AND COLLABORATIVE INNOVATION AND CREATIVITY!
The goddamm swing out is DESIGNED, BUILT specifically to accomodate individuality. The closed circle is literally broken open to let individual partners improvise. THIS IS LINDY HOP.
So I don’t fucking know what’s going on here. How can you even dance a dance that tells one partner they have no right or room to be creative? WHY WOULD YOU EVEN DO THAT DANCE?!?!?!?
It’s totally ok for students to not be good at making things up or creating things. They can learn – they’re there to learn! In fact, I think that this is one of the most important parts of a lindy hop class: we learn to be ok with not being perfect at things, and we learn to learn from our peers and from ourselves. We let the music guide us, not strict studio dance class rules.
But in my experience, humans are really REALLY good at making things up.
They are so good at recognising complex patterns, internalising them, and then recreating them. Humans can always find the beat in a song! Then they can keep it as they do complex tasks on different spatial planes (ie walking in time)!
Creativity and innovation don’t need to be specific, reproduceable dance steps. It can be the way you hitch a shoulder, a little extra bounce in your step, or a hugging your partner a bit closer in the best bit of the song.
If you do a jazz warm up, students’ll have 3 minutes worth of neat jazz steps.
If you tell students the stories of how a particular jazz step was born, you’ll probably have to fight to stop them inventing their own. I mean, pecking, crazy legs, cool breeze in the knees, boogie forward, broken leg, fall off the log. Who doesn’t want to get in on that action? Create a step that reflects their own day to day life?
When the step has a story, they will really enjoy ‘telling that story’ to their partner, and their partner will listen. So both of them will make space in open or closed or without touching to ‘do some jazz’.
But even better, if you play good music, and just ask them to ‘groove a bit before dancing’, and then ‘keep that groove with you all the time’, they will become fantastical innovative creative forces.
The very nature of lindy hop is innovation and improvisation. The swing out itself is an historic, literally breaking open of a fixed shape to let in the improvisation. A swing out asks each partner to be ok with being on their own for a bit. On their own, but with a partner. Improvising or not.
This is how vernacular dance works: it adapts and changes to meet people’s needs.