Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Everyone gets the jitters and goes bug."

I'm linking here a post from Swungover. The Definition of the Jitterbug. Language is cool.

We've been working on mechanics a bit lately, especially since we've had an upsurge in new students. Last week we did a class in balance, counterbalance and suspension. The week before that we did a class in movement and connection. This week we're going to challenge our leading and following skills.

Oh, and it's the holiday party. Ugly sweater contest, double-bug contest, and other stuff too!

On other folks who would have the jitters, I'm reminded of the druggy subtext underneath this classic tune. Also, I'm reading the Man with the Golden Arm and just watched Requiem for a Dream, so the world is full of dark twists right now.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Waves and Monkey Bars: a recap

As I will have to skip the US Open Swing Dancing Championships due to illness, I'd like to take a little time to discuss some of the things we have worked on in class recently.

Two weeks ago, we had an entire class on pulse and smoothness. I'll probably rename that class "Creamy vs. Chunky" or something equally glib in the future. It might have gone over the heads of some of the students, but it's the same content with which I pushed myself and it still inspires me today.

Last week, we discussed music. It appeared that none of the students in class really had developed vocabulary on the subject. When I asked them what a break was, the most prominent reply was "it's a pause in the music." It reminds me of the way folks at the original Memories would all snap to pose on the hit from "See Ya Later, Alligator," by Bill Haley and the Comets!

Honestly, the dancing in this clip is pretty different from what I remember at that club.

At the old Memories, I remember watching from the balcony as the entire room hit the same punch. This was probably the first time period of the turn of the century southern California dancers really understood the concept of a break. It was fun to watch, but I wondered at the time whether everyone would be stuck hitting breaks in that one way forever.

Taking it back to the class last Thursday, I spoke of some different ways to use the music. I remembered the time when I was speaking to one of my math students who expressed that he just didn't understand dancing. This student was a surfer through and through. It came to me in that conversation that a dancer rides the music like a surfer would ride a wave. This seemed to make a visceral connection to that student, but I never saw whether it made an impact on him in the long run.

Then I began to describe the common structures in swing music, taking it back up with Breaks. The way I use it, a break is that last bar of music in a pattern before that pattern can begin again. In See You Later Alligator, this isn't the drum hit at the end of the bar but that whole line: "you say your love for me is true."

Anyway, I may be butchering actual musical vocabulary.

The other image that I used in class was that the structures in music were like Monkey Bars on a school yard. They're there for dancers to play upon.

We did a few exercises around that and then we called it a night.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From the Groovie Movie tribute

This is from a panel from the Groovie Movie tribute, held last weekend in Los Angeles.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Thinking ain't Dancing

I have often said this to my students: "Thinking ain't Dancing."

It has been noted by many other thoughtful dancers that a partner dance is a conversation. I'd like to consider this in a little more detail and to draw out the analogy a bit more. When these dancers refer to a "conversation," to which part of the interaction do they refer? What IS a conversation?

My own personal take on this is that all interactions involve a flow of information. This seems to make sense in the context of a conversation between two people: one person has a message that they would like to share with the other. They might use words and gestures or they might use notes and emails. One difference between a face-to-face conversation and a lengthy long-distance exchange is that when you can see someone their face and body often communicate more powerfully than their words. This seems to be closer to the kind of conversation that we're discussing.

Then there's the physical impulses. While we are dancing, there are a bunch of purely physical sensations. These vary from "ooh, my back hurts" to "I'm hungover," but perhaps the most pertinent in this discussion are the sensations that tell that "I'm touching another human being and they are right here with me."

In class I often refer to "mechanics." In specific, I often am referring to what I believe to be the essential mechanical tools of basic leading and following: a sense of connection from one partner to the other; a sense of balance not only with the partner but with one's self; engagements of a set of muscle groups in one dancer to a corresponding set of muscle groups in their partner; an understanding and application of the core muscles; the support mechanisms of the body from the ground through to the top of the skull. There are an awful lot to discuss, so in class it is more expedient to use the expression mechanics.

In my own personal estimation, these are the most visceral exchanges of information. They don't require a thought process. In fact, it is much slower to process a thought than it is to use our senses. In my beginning classes I sometimes have yelled "stop staring at me and start doing something!" I'll get back to that in a bit, but in short the flow of information goes from my physical image, through eyes into the frontal lobe somewhere, gets processed as information down the spine and usually into the feet. As far as I'm concerned the visual method, while perhaps vital, is also a very inefficient way to learn the dance.

In the improvisation class that I take with Bill Chott, he mentioned an idea called the "rate of acceptance." This is the rate at which after one performer has made a statement that the second performer says yes and then builds upon that foundation. This is in line with what I'm discussing here. One must be able to accept the information in order to use it with their partner.

The thing I mentioned earlier about "stop staring." If I catch a student looking at my feet while doing a step or looking at their partner's feet, I often ask them to take their eyes up and find a new eyeline. While our eyes are useful for communication in the interpersonal sense, they are often impediments to the visceral mechanics that we need to use as Lindy Hoppers.

More about this later. This seems to be plenty for now.

Friday, September 10, 2010

One student's journey

A while back I posted some thoughts on Alexander Technique, which I studied for a short while when I was in college. To summarize, it's a technique for getting more familiar with one's body. It has been utilized for decades to improve singing, dancing and acting technique. It's worth exploring.

I recently received this note from a student:

I've taken 2 Alexander lessons so far and it's been pretty good so far, but I have a lot of alignment issues to work through. I think I will take a break from swing dancing (at least a month, maybe 2 or 3) so I can get a solid foundation in Alexander for my core support and mobility without worrying about the social aspects. When I try to dance now I can feel that it's just a useless arm lead and that I'm not bending/relaxing in the right places, but I don't have the Alexander mojo yet, so I just reinforce the bad habits and feel awkward. Alexander used to tell people to take a year off their instrument but modern teachers never tell them to take any time off. I'll compromise between the extremes and take 1-3 months off. I will work on retraining my pulsing and watch swing videos with Alexander-style attention during this time of jedi training ;-)

One interesting thing you get from Alexander is learning that a lot of flexibility problems are just bending at the wrong place (for instance at the waist instead of the hips) and not actual muscle inflexibility. Also, releasing the neck to enable Primary Control is pretty cool too. Just by releasing my neck I can go from my normal falling backwards to pull a door open to instead just standing there and activating my chest, which feels more graceful. I think for someone as misaligned as me, this is the only way it is possible to move past the intermediate stage of any athletic activity like swing.

I asked this student whether I could post his note here. He responded yes, but

...[I]f anybody tries anything I mentioned without formal Alexander training they will almost definitely not succeed at it. When you try to release tension on your own you can only go as far as your current kinesthetic sense tells you is possible. It takes a teacher to guide you into unfamiliar but better ways of moving for your kinesthesia to start correcting itself. Before I started taking lessons I thought my neck was plenty relaxed, but then I found out that it was only relaxing enough so that I thought my head was straight. In reality, my head was pulled back and my neck muscles were tensing to keep it there because that was trained as "straight". I had to be shown by a teacher that what felt to me like my head was tilted forward was actually straight and I didn't need to use any neck muscles to keep it from falling over. I still feel now like my head is tilted forward when it's straight, even if I'm looking in the mirror right at my straight head. I would have never figured this out alone or from a book because I felt very sure before then that my head was straight and my neck was relaxed when I was really being lied to.

So, kudos to this student on their first steps down this road. It will be well worth the journey. Hope to see you when you're back!


Another student on Facebook quoted the Sindbad song from the Popeye cartoons. I responded with this video that I remember finding on an obscure vhs tape from Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee. That's how we used to find videos before the intertubes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Being Present: Alison Scola interview, pt. 2

Here's part two of our interview with Lindy Hopper and Yoga Therapist Alison Scola. In the previous part, we discussed Alison's entries into yoga and Lindy Hop. To read part one, please click here: So Many Levels.

LindyGroove Technique: Being grounded is being present. What does it mean to be present?

Alison Scola: Being present to me, by Alison Harper Scola! Means having my mind's attention focused on what's happening at the level of what's happening physically, emotionally, energetically and ultimately for me because I do have spiritual practice at the center of my life, what's happening at the higher level of consciousness.

So when it comes to Lindy Hop, let's say for example I'm dancing with a beginner dancer. So somebody literally like maybe this is their first day ever dancing and this dude has no clue how to lead. I could be like "oh, this is lame. Ugh! He has no connection!" or I could find the connection that is there. "He's not dancing to even the tempo of the music," or I could find, well "where is he?" and dance with him in his rhythm.

LGT: That's so important.

AS: And I could look at what's going on with this human being who is trying to dance with me, emotionally. "Oh, he's shitting his pants and completely insecure. So how can I be loving and kind towards him in that?"

LGT: So many people are critical of beginners when they start. The critical mind seems so completely out of the moment. It's like there's someone they expect to dance with, rather than the person who is actually there.

AS: Yeah, so I think that example is - how can I take being in the present moment and apply it to the situation? On the flip side, if I'm dancing with an advanced dancer, let's say "Oh my god, everybody's staring at us." What's going on with this person emotionally? Well, they're probably feeling self-conscious, but their ego is masking that. So how can I be as loving and kind and as present with that, in acceptance. And maybe some of that's going on inside of me. What's going on inside of me and what am I offering them?

LGT: Is it so conscious? There's that thought of being "in your head." Is it conscious like that where you're actually going through the process of thinking "what's this person thinking?" or is it somewhere else?

AS: Let's say for example I notice if I am dancing with a beginner dancer, my first thought is "Oh crap, he's gonna rip my arms out of the sockets," or "oh man, this isn't the dance I was hoping for." First I notice I'm being judgmental; I'm being critical. How is that making me feel? Is it closing me off to this person? When we are separated from our true nature, which in my opinion is love.... When I'm disconnected from love I don't feel good. and I know you're not feeling anything good from me. Usually it starts with me being in observation of something that's causing me discomfort and then I'm able to go into an awareness of that - go like "eww, I'm not sure that feels good to me." So how can I move toward something that's more whole and more a part of alignment with my true nature.

LGT: Tell me about what breathing means to you. I know that it's not something that we talk about in Lindy Hop, but it's certainly something you talk about in yoga. There's so much about it, but give us an introduction to the idea of the Breath.

AS: I'll give you that introduction through my own experience. I used to suffer from severe anxiety disorder - panic attacks. My tendency was toward being ridiculously anxious and the Breath, learning how to breathe, was what allowed me to release that from my process and my body. And what I discovered was that I didn't take deep breaths.

LGT: Deep breaths?

AS: Full and complete. I constantly was in a state of shallow, short inhalations with very little exhale. As I watch people function in the world, most of us breathe that way. When we're not breathing consciously, when we're not consciously taking a deep breath, we're breathing really shallow, which triggers the nervous system to think that we're in danger. (laughs) And so our physical reaction to that is anxiety. So through my daily life I've had to train myself, and my yoga practice has done this for me, to take deep conscious breaths. When I am able to check in with that the same thing translates into my dancing. Is my breathing right now causing my frame to tighten? Is my breathing right now adding to the fact that I'm anxious to dance with this rock star dancer?

LGT: (chuckles)

AS: What if I took deep breaths? It immediately lets my body relax. It lets myself relax emotionally. It gets me grounded and into the present moment that I just rambled about before. So the breath is intimately connected... In fact when I've done private lessons, Lindy Hop lessons, especially when people are working on performance or aerials or something like that, the breath is a huge part of letting the energy flow.

LGT: Any last thoughts or anything you'd like to share?

AS: I also think Lindy Hop, it speaks mostly to the physical. Everything that we've spoken about speaks to the spiritual or energetic. [Lindy Hop] speaks to the physical. We're street dancers, right? And most of us have no clue about how to take care of our bodies. But Lindy Hop and all of swing in all of its forms is one of the most athletic and strenuous social dances that exist. And a lot of us have no clue how to take care of our bodies. So we get hurt. You see Lindy Hoppers saying things like "Oh yeah, I tore my ACL. I have to go have knee surgery," or "Oh god, I just broke my neck." Yoga is the only reason that I'm still dancing today. The only reason I'm still doing any of these things.

LGT: [...that you're] still able to dance?

AS: Yeah, and it's also the thing that's prevented me from having surgeries that doctors told me that I had to have. I was told three years ago that I had a hip injury that couldn't heal without surgery and I healed it with yoga. That's why I'm jumping around on the floor today.

So my advice or my offering to all these beautiful Lindy Hoppers is: find some sort of physical practice besides dancing that makes you feel good inside your body. Maybe it's yoga. Maybe it's stretching class. A lot of y'all are rockin' the P90X.

LGT: Hahahaha!

AS: But whatever it is, figure out how to take care of your body in a way that allows you to keep dancing, because we want to be the old guys on the floor however may years from now.

LGT: Thank you, Alison!

AS: Thank you. It's been a privilege.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

So Many Levels: Alison Scola interview pt. 1

After the Sunday morning yoga class at Camp Hollywood 2010, I sat by the pool at the LAX Marriott with yoga therapist and internationally famous sassy lady Alison Scola for a brief discussion of Yoga and Lindy Hop.

LindyGroove Technique: Which did you get involved in first, Yoga or Lindy Hop?

Alison Scola: Yoga.

LGT: How did you get started in Yoga?

AS: About 16 years ago, I had crippling lower back pain that stopped my entire life. I couldn't work. I couldn't dress myself. I was literally bed-ridden from the back pain and found nothing made it better. It was at that point somebody said "hey, you should try Yoga," and I went to a yoga class and for the first time I found something that made me feel like I didn't mind living inside my body for a little while.

LGT: How long did it take for you to get to a point where you were no longer in pain?

AS: Pain free? Well, the body is a tricky thing. It's not just structural. It's way more than physical mechanics. The working through the emotional stuff that was tied to the low back issue in addition to the structural stuff... I think it was probably close to a year before I was completely pain-free.

That's what brought me to yoga. That's what taught incredible healing aspect of what a yoga practice could be.

LGT: So then, how did you get to Lindy Hop?

AS: Ha haha! So, what yoga opened up for me was the fact that life was supposed to be joyful and that we were supposed to be happy inside these physical bodies, rather than imprisoned. I had always wanted to try swing dancing. Maybe a year or two after I started my yoga practice there was this free swing lesson at the Spy Bar in Cleveland. I found that night, the most fun thing I had ever done in my life.

LGT: Now was that an East Coast lesson?

AS: Oh yeah, 6-count East Coast, baby! My first Lindy Hop lesson was taking a six-week session with Valerie Salstrom.

I found that swing dance was something that absolutely brought me into the Present Moment like nothing else. Because there was no place else I could be inside my head or physically other than right there. And I discovered the most amazing joy that I have ever found in my life.

LGT: Getting back to yoga - there are a couple of ways people view yoga. Some people might view it as a fitness regimen and some folks view it more deeply. What was your experience with that?

AS: What yoga taught me was that it was about much more than what was going on physically. Yoga has been a holistic experience for me from the beginning of my journey. It has been about realizing that as I function as a being in the world that there is an energetic level to who I am. There is an emotional level to who I am. There is a physical level to who I am. There is a spiritual level to who I am. And that all of that lives inside of this body.

So when I have emotions that I'm not expressing or feeling in other ways, they get trapped inside of my body. I've literally had yoga practices where I opened my quadricep and ended up sobbing my face off or opened my hamstring and can't stop laughing. Because it's emotions lingering and all it wants to do is get moved out.

I'm a yoga therapist, which means I use yoga as a means to help people heal on all of those levels. So when I work with somebody, when they come to see me, I take a look at what's going on with them, the initial thing that's aggravating them and I observe it on all of those levels of their being and figure out ways to address how to heal that on all of those levels. That's been my internal process and that's what yoga has taught me. The deepest thing that a yoga practice has taught me has not been how to have long hamstrings. It's been how to learn to love myself in an attitude of acceptance of all that is and just be present with myself.

LGT: How does that apply to Lindy Hop? Or does it?

AS: Hahaha! It absolutely applies to Lindy Hop on so many levels! So when I am connected to another human being and when I'm connected with that other human being to the music, all that's there is energy. So there's all of this energy that we're tapping into, that we're sharing with each other, that we're exchanging and that we're adding to. And all of that's working on that level of emotion, so we're in that joy, or if I'm in competition, then I'm in my nerves, or if an entire room full of people is watching me, maybe I'm in my self-consciousness. Whatever that aspect is and being able to be with that fully and wholly in that experience... and of course there's what's happening physically, which is the "duh" part of that answer. "Duh really, we're physically dancing?" And now brain just blew out of the back of my skull.

LGT: What advice do you have for someone who might not know a lot about yoga and is interested in exploring?

AS: My advice is to listen to their own inner guidance above and beyond anything and everything. And explore! 'Cause there's many different types of yoga out there and each of them have their benefits. Because every person is different and every person has different characteristics and qualities.

Right now, the most popular forms of yoga in the United States are Vinyasa practices and hot yoga - yoga in a heated room, core power, Bikram. Not to digress into a cultural statement, but the fact that those forms of yoga are the most popular here in the west makes a lot of sense. These forms of yoga are about pushing your limits and being in intensity, vs. a more Eastern way of existing, of just being at peace. But there are so many benefits to those forms of yoga as well. Hot yoga, for my constitution is great. Because when I'm in a hot room my body says "oh, thank you! I will stretch and be open!"

LGT: (chuckles)

AS: But there's other types of people with different constitutions. The heat aggravates them and literally makes them physically ill. So it all just depends on who you are and listening to who your are rather than trying to force yourself into where you think you should be. It's just about observing and seeing what feels good. I think the biggest takeaway is that yoga is supposed to feel good and make you feel good. So if you're finding that you feel bad in whatever type of practice it is you're doing, it's probably not right. Try a restorative class instead. See what happens, y'know?

LGT: What lessons can someone take from the yoga practice into the Lindy Hop world? And maybe even vice versa?

AS: I'm gonna tell you what the biggest lessons I've taken away are. I've already said them before, so to reiterate, for me it's about being present with myself and the energy that is there, in full acceptance and appreciation. The other things I've taken away are how to be grounded. Well, I guess that's the same answer.

End of part 1. Check back for part 2 soon!

To quote Bruce Lee

I've been mentioning this post from Bobby White's Swungover quite a lot lately, so it seems right that I should post a link here. The Heavy Follower.

In the post, Bobby examines a few different situations that contribute to the so-called heavy follower. It's well worth the time it takes to read, and even more the time it might take to put it into practice.


Early on in my Lindy Hop career I remember a note that I took after seeing Bruce Lee's classic Kung Fu film Enter the Dragon for the first time.

"It is like a finger, pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, for you will miss all of the celestial glory."

That quote seemed immediate to the stuff I was exploring in Lindy Hop. To boil it down a bit, it's often easy to confuse the DANCE STEPS a student might learn in class (in this case the finger) with the act of DANCING (the moon.) I quoted Lee quite often in my early Swing improvisation classes. I haven't used the quote in years.

That is, until I was recently reminded of the finger and the moon while listening to the Zenprov entry, the Finger and the Moon. Zenprov is podcast series about scenic improvisation, but I feel the discussion is still resonant. Check it out!

Edited to add: I extend the idea of the Finger and the Moon to include things like style biases as well. It's a very apt analogy.

What I like about the Zenprov post is the idea of the Narrative mode of thinking vs. the Direct Experience mode. For anyone who has ever been stuck in their head while dancing, this is really worth exploring!

And lastly, from Camp Hollywood 2010, the Fly Rights!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Look at the Squares Out There... Strictly from Dixie!

I've been asked by a few students to write about a question recently. Over the years I've heard many folks make similar claims. I'll be considering a few thoughts on the subject, but I'm more interested in reading your responses.

What do I do when the person I am dancing with disengages from me?

This is an ages old question. Most of the students who have asked me have been somewhat frustrated that more experienced dancers might accept a dance during which they appear completely disinterested. One might imagine the more experienced dancer merely going through the motions of the dance, rather than sharing the conversation (however limited) that their less skillful partner might be able to share.

I'll admit that I'm not completely innocent of this. If I'm disengaging at all it's usually because I've been made uncomfortable at some point. However, when I dance with a beginner I usually have to focus on the mechanics enough that I'll close my eyes and engage my other senses. That's not really the same. There's a difference for me between a less skilled dancer and someone who has creeped me out.

I often will check to see how much a follow reads a lead and then see how much further I can stretch that. For me, it's less about playing over their heads and more about throwing out challenges. I also never accept sorry for an answer. If a follow ever apologizes to me for missing a step my response is most often "I'm not bleeding. Don't say sorry."

There's the social side to this question. Back in the early 20th century, it wasn't acceptable to ask a stranger to dance. It's only in our rebuilt ballrooms that it's considered de rigeur to accept an invitation from a stranger. There may be an expectation that dancers should always accept an invitation. While this is great for generating excitement in new young dancers, I can't recall a social precedent for this behavior outside of social dance.

I've seen small dance scenes completely implode due to social dysfunction. In some places the dancers come off as just plain rude. Most scenes (not just the swing dance scene) share a lot of elements of good ol' High School cliquishness. There might not be any changing that in the long run.

At least a few times young leads will ask me about that begrudging non-rejection. It seems to me that many experienced follows have had enough experiences with harmful dancers that they feel a need to protect themselves from "weaker" leads. The word harmful above might be used to describe dancers whose caveman-like turns end in injury or the guy who trolls around the room in search of new conquests.

My general response to the fellows asking me this question is that the follows really need to build up trust. This isn't something that is easily given, especially if some alarm bell rang for them. Some of that trust can be earned by learning to dance well. I've always assumed that there's an inherent sense among follows that if a dancer has figured out how to dance well then they might care more about the dancing than the sexual conquest. At least they might care about the two equally. Is this an incorrect assessment?

Is it a truth that dancing with a beginner is somewhat stressful? Certainly anyone's company can be enjoyed on the dance floor. I know that I've been injured by follows in the past just through their lack of awareness. When dancing with a follow who isn't following through in the connection, I sometimes feel pressured to take up the slack. I'm being completely honest here. It can be somewhat stressful to dance with a person who isn't completely on my level. Have you ever been stuck in a conversation with someone who wouldn't listen to you? Maybe the best response from me would be to listen more closely to my partner.

So what should a young dancer do?

I believe the social barriers can often broken in time and with honest hard work. If it is a social problem then getting to know folks in some other context can be really helpful. If there's an opportunity to go out to after-hours eating with a group of dancers, this might be a good way to get to know people. The skill issues I think are only resolved by will. Spend some time working on something not on the dance floor. Watch some videos and really observe them. Ask some experienced dancers for a moment of advice. If they're comfortable with it, many dancers will help you out.

It's all about building trust.


So, this post was written in the middle of the night. If anything doesn't seem right or seems screamingly wrong, please let me know about it. Otherwise, I'd like to read your thoughts on the subject.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The missing ingredient

I woke up yesterday morning wishing that the music at LindyGroove were more exciting. When I say that, I mostly mean in reference to the music. Most dancers at LindyGroove, from my observations at least, appear to go and hear songs that they like. I would hope that the dancers at LindyGroove instead went to hear and dance to music that brought out some level of fire in their dancing. I long to see the dancers at LindyGroove have more than just a good time. I want to see the dance floor explode!

I had been talking with a new student the last week and he felt that the music was pretty flat.

What I almost always crave to hear and am almost always disappointed to not hear at LindyGroove is good ol' fashioned swing music. More on that later.

Then I read on Twitter that Jonathan Stout would be doing a DJ set at LindyGroove. It being April 1st, I questioned for a second and then I tweeted my own little April Fool's joke, about Jonathan Stout's all blues set. If you don't get the joke, then you should probably listen to one of Jonathan's CDs with his combo The Campus Five. Heck, apparently you can listen to their tunes from the link.

Jonathan has DJ'd at LindyGroove in the past, but for me this would be a rare treat. In fact, so many amazing swing dancers showed up for the set. Many folks who generally avoid coming to LindyGroove were out in full force. Add to that what appeared to be a large spring break bump in population and we had a crowded dance floor. It rightly kicked ass!

There was swing music on at LindyGroove and the floor wasn't decimated. I'm sure there were grumblers. Considering how often I grumble at LindyGroove, I'm sure they will get over their frustrations. Most of these dancers haven't been challenged to dance above 200 beats per minute in months. This is the kind of kick in the pants that LindyGroove needs. And it needs it a lot more often!

One new dancer told me that it was happy music. In fact later, I was so overjoyed that I hugged Lance Powell awkwardly and thanked him for bringing Jonathan back.

Jonathan pulled out his own little April Fools. As soon as I heard Wade in the Water I knew something was up. The song didn't even reach its first chorus when the scratch of a needle brought on a jam. Couples who have been working on their material and folks who just grabbed each other on the spot went in. In the past I have more often than not just ignored jams when they have happened. Something about this one just drew me in. I watched the eyes of the crowd as Minn and Angel pulled out their tricks. There was that unmistakable "wow" moment as well.

Sure, some of the dancers might have gotten a little tired. It's like going from a game of putt putt to a full game of golf, I imagine. But watching the crowd, there was definitely something in the air. Many advanced dancers might say that the crowd didn't know the difference. All I can say is that what I saw was exactly what I woke up wishing for.


On a related but separate note, I remember one New Year's Eve. I was in St. Louis with my friends Ed and Jenny from Kansas City. We had driven across Missori to find a decent dance. I noticed after a few moments that I was feeling somewhat deflated. What I found there was that there was no swing music at all. Most of what was played was blues or blues-related music.

The distinction I realized at that moment was that blues music has a downward inflection and that swing music had an upward inflection. I asked the DJ for an up song. He asked me why I wanted to hear a fast song. I explained that I didn't care if the song was slow or fast, just that it be up. I'm not sure he got it. I explained it to another dancer there that night. We found that there were plenty of fast songs that still have that down feeling. That's not what I was hoping for. I realized then and there that at least some of the music that I dance to in a night should have that upward inflection.

That upward inflection doesn't really seem to exist outside of swing music. Modern listeners and new students often don't have a context into which they can fit those sounds. It's not like being a teenager in the 30s and being surrounded by those orchestras and bands. I could go on for hours about West Coast Swing having lost that connection to swing music. This isn't meant to insult any dance or any movement in the dance. All I know is that a Lindy Hopper must in their career take the time to learn to feel swing music.


I take this advice from the late Willie Desatoff: if you want to understand swing, you should listen to Jimmie Lunceford and Chick Webb.

Please don't think that I mean that you have to only dance to the classics. I was the rebeliously diverse DJ who broke Diana Krall, the Real Group and Oscar Peterson's Night Train at the old Memories. Just know that if you don't learn real swing music then you won't learn real swing dancing.

You are now free to move about the dancefloor.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nasty Habits

The homework I gave last week was to make a list of goals - goals for the coming month and goals for the year. If you have already started work on this, please feel free to click on the "homework" tab on the right to see what other students compiled last year.

Some postulating has been done on the notion of habits on the interwebs lately. You'll see the word habits mentioned a few times in the responses to my No Account Count postings. Click on the "8-Count" tab to read those. The theory goes that if one teaches the Lindy Hop using by numbers, then students will tend to learn the dance in discrete chunks, forming 6 and 8 count habits. Perhaps I am misinterpreting the comments. Please feel free to correct me if I have mis-characterized the argument.

With that argument in mind, I have to ask whether teaching beginning leads "left-right-triple-step, right-left-triple-step" and follows "right-left-triple-step, left-right-triple-step" as a basic is also objectionable. Certainly in the long run, no dancer needs to use those specific footwork patterns. However, if a teacher doesn't teach discrete patterns, then what should they teach?

Certainly it could be said that the old-timers varied their steps, however by the time Frankie Manning was teaching there was certainly a specific definition to the timing being used. I can't speak for what the Swedes learned from Al Minns. However, I have to question whether the teaching itself didn't create habits regardless of whether the teachers were counting or not.

Learning requires repetition; in repetition habits are formed. That's my theory and I'm sticking with it.

I studied a small bit of Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method when I was in college. Both have to do with the un-learning or re-learning of habits. Specifically those habits relate to alignment and breathing and over the years while the exercises grow more distant, I remember using them to reconsider the habits in my thinking as well. Yes, it takes work to grow beyond a habit but it's certainly possible and even more enlightening.

I'm actually excited for the Yoga/Feldenkrais Fusion workshop at Mission Street Yoga coming next month. Come join me in South Pasadena!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The No Account Count Part II: Connect the Dots

Let's start this week by congratulating everyone who participated in and donated to the 24 Hour Cancer Dance-a-thon last weekend. Over $180,000 of donations were collected for the City of Hope, which sets a record for the highest grossing donations to date. All I can say is that I'm excited for next year already.

Secondly, I'd like to plug two Lindy-centric blogs I've been reading lately:
Black Belt Lindy, by John White
Swungover, by Bobby White (no relation)

Both of the above blogs feature thoughtful consideration of the Lindy Hop. I'm especially loving John's Bruce Lee and Madd Chadd entries and Bobby's The Old Timer series.

Okay, now on to the topic of the day. A few weeks ago, I had posted about a school of thought that has arisen amongst some teachers that seems to suggest that counting is something that shouldn't be taught. Recently I got involved in a Facebook discussion on a similar subject. Bug Brockway asked in question of the day whether follows should count or not. I'll post here my own responses to the question:

This has been a subject of debate lately, and while it's easy to say that no dancer actually needs to learn counting, I'm leaning toward the opinion that every dancer at some point is better off for having learned the skill. I believe that all beginners can benefit from understanding numbers, and that numbers are one step towards actual listening. Others have different approaches.

An eight count is a fundamentally grounding element in dance. That is to say that if both partners have an feel for the eight, if not the down-beat, then at least they have ONE thing in common. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I like to look for common groud with my partner and having a count (especially in the beginning) can be a key element in finding synthesis.

In the long run, we always transcend our dogma. My only care is that I and my partner find each other. Any tool I use in aid of that is worth knowing.

A few others post responses, but without permission, I'll just sum up that some folks insinuate that use of numbers might completely remove a dancer from the use of their own sensations, and others agree with my assessment of counting as a tool. Bug herself does not seem to specifically state that numbers are bad in general, and in general I think we agree that students need to let go of numbers, but this is the internet and subtlety of communication is occasionally lost. In my mind I'm talking about the argument that I've been posting here. I would imagine that on her end she's essentially suggesting things I discovered long ago, that letting go of numbers is quite important. I'm reacting to the arguments of others that numbers are bad in general:

Many students in middle school question the need to learn Algebra. If they don't ever plan to use it in future life, why will it be important to learn in the 8th grade? It's confusing and it has all these letters and maybe they weren't doing so hot with the numbers as it was. They can sort of figure out how much it costs to buy a slice of pizza. Why? It's a very common hostility that seems analogous to the arguments I've read here and elsewhere. My response to the question of why is "because it is helpful to learn to see the world in more than one way."

To me it is beyond merely helpful, it can be quite beautiful. So while it doesn't take a course in Calculus to be able to catch a ball, my understanding enriches the experience. It may not seem that way to some, but I personally find it to be true.

With regard to the dance, I have used many math and physics terms to reach my students. A student who understands vectors and momentum will have little trouble envisioning the same in their body. They still have to bridge the notion from their head through to their bodies but at least an image has begun to form for them. Other students need to physically encounter the situation. There's a different way to deal with every student. Some students are so in their head that you have to break them. Even for these students, giving them an abstraction can allow them enough comfort to trust a teacher that bit.

No, the Harlem old timers didn't count. I've heard that. I think of the developments in the time since. I've spoken to old timers who have seen what has come since. Not necessarily the Harlem old-timers on this subject but other folks who were around in the period. There are old-timers who believe the dance has gone so far beyond what the originators have done. I believe it too. I'll never stop thanking the originators for their primal gift. That said, I know I can feel, and I'm not them. The world of Lindy Hop is still growing and changing and evolving. That's something beautiful to me.

As for improvisation, as long as I've studied it, numbers have never gotten in the way. The first key to real communication is saying "yes." The second step is expanding upon that.

The numbers vs. no-numbers thing is starting to remind me of the Savoy-Hollywood mess. A lot of dogmatic rhetoric. No, strictly speaking no dancer needs to count. Yes, in a very true way, every dancer must learn to feel. If I were to boil down my statements, I would say that not only are numbers and feeling not mutually exclusive, they can actually enhance each other to a very real extent.

Connect-the-dots is not the same as drawing. All the same, anything that gets a kid to put pen to paper ain't bad.

I spent some time talking to folks at the Dance-a-thon last weekend. One prominent teacher's response to the question of whether counting was good or bad was "it depends on the student." Students have very different ways of learning and it is helpful to have methods to reach them all. An engineer is going to have a very different reaction than a musician for instance. That's a generalization, since I know some engineers are also musicians, and also one can't assume that all engineers think or learn in the same ways.

A last event, I was working with a student recently who had only had one beginning class at a dance venue and who admitted that he was terrified of the dance. He couldn't put together the "one-two, one-two-three" counts that the teachers in that class had used. It didn't make sense to him. Add to that a lot of anxiety about asking partners to dance and he was quite terrified. Within seconds of using the very simple "One Two Three-and-Four" count, those elements of fear dissipated. He actually developed a working swingout that felt really good within minutes of losing that fear. We made clear that in the long run, the numbers were only a step along the way, but having something as simple and repeatable as an 8-count added to his sense of safety.

It seems like this kind of discussion doesn't just happen in swing dancing. This morning, Scott McCloud posted an article on Twitter about a new device for fledgling comics creators: How Do We Feel This Morning?

Watch those videos and read the comments. Tell me your thoughts about the uses of technology in art.

And inspired by Bobby White's exploration of Old Timers on his blog, I think I will spend the next two weeks exploring my own roots as a front-line peace-nik in the Savoy/Hollywood War. I'd like to spend the next couple of weeks exploring the so-called Savoy and Hollywood Swingouts. I'm feeling nostalgic. Go study the clips already now.

edited to add:
I was re-reading an article on Fayard Nicholas, of the Nicholas Brothers, in Dance Teacher, from the July 2004 issue. In an interview with Paula Broussard, Fayard gives an overview of his career. This passage is particularly cogent to the discussion:
Unlike most dancers, Fayard doesn't use counts. "He sings the steps," say [New York Tapper Jennifer] Lane. "He scats them out so that you get the whole musical feel, not just the parts of the step." Katherine [Hopkins-Nicholas, Fayard's wife] usually provides the counts for those students who still prefer to break down routines into bars of eight. "We make a good combination," she adds.

I actually really like this approach.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

To everything there is a season...

Turn, turn, turn.

It occurs to me that it has been a while since we've done a class on turn technique. I was watching A Day at the Races the other day and there's this one dancer in the non-Lindy dance sequence who does the most amazing set of turns I can remember seeing. She's spotting so fast that it looks like she has two faces, and she just continues turning for what feels like three minutes. Unfortunately, I couldn't find that on YouTube, but this is a really nice demonstration of Baryshnikov's pirhouettes from the movie White Nights.

So, this week we're going to talk about turns. Not just talk about, we're going to work on our turns.

Also, in order to raise money for the dance-a-thon this weekend, I will be selling short private lessons for donations this Thursday at LindyGroove. If you want to be involved, there's still just under a week to get cracking. There might still be spots on Team Old School left. Here's my write-up of last year's event: What a Difference a Day Makes.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Swing the wing and whip the hip!

The title to this post is a quote from The Groovie Movie, which is one of the shorts that Los Angeles dancers found inspiration in during the late 90s. The quote refers to Jean Veloz' hip action during her swivels. Since one of the topics we covered last night was swiveling, and since I asked the follows to watch for examples of swivels, you should check that video as well. The Groovie Movie can be found elsewhere in this blog, if you'll just click on the tag marked "Groovie Movie" you'll find it.

We mentioned a few names to check out on YouTube. I don't have time to post links of them all. Alice P. will probably be happy to do that over on Rantings of a Lindy Hopper. At the moment I have time to post one clip, which features the hips of Jewel McGowan, possibly Dean Collins' most watched partner. Dean Collins is often credited with bringing Lindy Hop from the Savoy Ballroom to Los Angeles. Whether or not this is strictly true, it can't be denied that he's a very important figure in the Southern California Lindy Hop world, and a pivotal figure in the evolution of Swing Dancing. Jewel McGowan was his partner for quite a while, appearing with him in several movies. The clip below is from Buck Privates, featuring Abbot and Costello.

You'll see Dean and Jewel doing their thing around (1:36), but overall this clip has been a pretty influential one.

While we're on the subject of swivels, we are asking for the follows to check youtube for the following names: Nina Gilkenson, Frida Segerdahl, Freda Angela, Jean Veloz, Sylvia Skylar... There are probably so many names to mention. Follows, your work is ahead of you!

Any regular posters have suggestion on dancers to watch? That goes for Leads and Follows. Who would you recommend watching for pure style?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pop(turn) will eat itself

We've had a recent influx of new students over the last month, so we've been more focused on mechanical issues and leading/following fundamentals. Since most of the class is quite new, I plan to bring back the class on pop-turns tonight. It follows from our recent class topics pretty well and brings some light to the basics of the lead/follow dynamic.

Mechanics are important, vital even. However, I'm even more excited for the day that all these students understand the way their bodies interact and are ready to explore topics about enriching the dance: playfulness, music, improvisation. I think some of the questions are starting to be asked. A few days ago, I was asked how a follow could discern the lead's rhythm. Phrased the way it was asked: "how can I tell when my partner is on One?" I didn't really address the rhythmic cues in the pulse between the partners, mostly since we discuss it so much in class. I answered with regard to music. We were listening to CDs on a laptop computer, so it was especially tough to hear the bass line. I'm really looking forward to the day that I can explore this with the new students.

There are many more thoughts to consider, but thumb-typing is not conducive to long blog-thoughts. Anyone have input on their discovery of rhythm and partnering?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Rantings of a Lindy Hopper + The No Account Count

Here's a link to Alice P's Lindy-centric blog: The Rantings of a Lindy Hopper. Alice has been one of my assistants in class for the last several months.

We had a lot of new students in class last week. We took it back to basics, did a few leading and following exercises. It seemed mostly that people needed to iron out the swingout more than anything else. I admit that the class feels like it is taught by committee. Alice, Charlotte and I have pretty distinct points of view. Alice and Charlotte have both been recently excited by a recent workshop with Dax and Sarah. I'm typically skeptical.

After class Charlotte and I had a brief conversation about counting the basic. When she was learning from Dax several years ago, he did not use any counting, but rather the scat-rhythms like those that were popularized by Stephen Mitchell and others during the 90s. So rather than "one two three&four five six seven&eight" teachers might use a rhythm like this "boop doo doop-dah-doo, boop doo doop-dah-doo" or some such. Charlotte suggested that she would love to compare a theoretical Lindy Hop culture that never learned counting to another that learned from the numbers.

The thought of removing the numbers doesn't really bother me, but it does remind me of this sort of hostility toward math that many folks have. I tend to blame this sentiment more on teachers than anything else. I certainly agree that learning numbers changes the way one thinks (in the dance and in the world), however, I also believe that one can learn one paradigm and then transcend it. You can learn how to count and then learn to abandon the count. You can always keep the numbers in mind for a rainy day.

So I put it up for debate: what are the strengths of beginners counting and of beginners not counting? What is to be gained by either approach? Is one way superior to the other? Can't we all just get along?

By the way, I don't mean to criticize Dax & Sarah or Charlotte at all. I'm mostly hoping to open up and interesting conversation.

This week I plan to teach a class about balance. Feel free to click on the balance tag and see the previous posts on the subject.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


I've been following the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers since the teaser first dropped last year. They're not Lindy Hop, but they're well worth your time and attention.

The first teaser, Choices.
I've posted this here before.

Official trailer: Moments

The LXD perform on So You Think You Can Dance

Friday, January 15, 2010

The first point

I was working with some students after class yesterday (by the way, the class went wonderfully. One student said it changed the way that it made him think about dancing!) and I returned to a point that I remember so clearly and which has influenced the way I have taught leading and following for my entire career.

The scenario: he had some basic lindy instruction and she didn't. I asked them to dance and he tried to do the swingout, with her completely befuddled and wondering what she'd have to do the whole time.

I don't buy into the mishegos that every mistake made in dancing is the lead's fault. However, in the case that the lead isn't noticing how much his partner is struggling, this is certainly the case.

My response: F*** your training. If your partner isn't with you then you've got to find them first. Practically, it's better to just do steps in place than to do swingouts if your partner isn't ready.

Then I taught them how to make a swingout work. Of course, the first impulse was to find each other first and the second is to do something together.

Then I set them on the dance floor and as always I asked them to find some dancers they didn't know and ask them to dance too. I miss having students that need to be taught how to find dances. I think that homework is probably the most important assignment of a beginner's dancing life.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Stomp Stomp

I have absolutely no idea what this video is about, but this song has been stuck in my head all morning, so here ya go. The Wonders of YouTube!

The song is Stomp Stomp, recorded by The Cats and the Fiddle.

This evening we'll be doing some exercises exploring rhythm. Charlotte will be preparing an exercise. I have some thoughts on the subject myself and have some ideas that I'm really looking forward to exploring.

Last week we discussed accomplishments and goals. One student mentioned that they were feeling much more confident dancing with experienced dancers. Another suggested that a goal for them was to let their dancing feel less deliberate. We also discussed taking a field trip down to some farther dance venues.

I confirmed that I would be doing a lot more yoga, which is keeping in line with the commitment I made to the class last year to be more physically active in my life off the dancefloor. I'm also doing improv classes again, which is getting back to my roots. Some of my first dance instruction exercises were based very much on improvisation exercises that I did in college.

So here's to an exciting twenty-ten. I'll be posting a bit more often in the weeks to come!

Thursday, January 7, 2010


I'm currently working on a fan page for Facebook. This is mainly so that there will be another venue through which to post updates about the class. If you're on Facebook and you're interested in becoming a fan, please click here.

I'll still be posting here, but for quick shouts, Facebook seems to be able to get a lot done.

I haven't posted anything for a while, so here's another clip of the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers!