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.


  1. I would argue that, as long as people are using specific combinations of footwork (e.g., rock-step, triple step, step, step, triple step), you need to use count.

    Also, since I've seen this a lot on the dance floor, I am left wondering how many of those who eschew counting actually dance on the beat.


  2. Quite the contrary, Orin. I agree with the posters that the purely abstract is contrary to the visceral feeling of rhythm. Numbers are rhythmic to be sure, in their repetitiveness especially. However, you'll never read me write that numbers are dancing. I only see them as a tool to help people learn things. The question is whether the tool is more or less helpful than something more primal, the way the old timers danced.

    There's a certain will to reinvent the wheel that comes with every scene. That's what this whole no-counting thing feels like to me.

  3. For me, scatting/singing the rhythm instead of counting has helped me tremendously with musicality and has in ways liberated my dancing. By always counting 1-8, you're imposing a structure to your dancing by associating steps to movements; if you ask anyone who has started learning the dance from counting, it's really hard for them to start a swingout on counts 3, 5 or 7; this concept can be expanded more generally to how they think about the dance as a whole, that it's a bunch of big puzzle pieces, ie. 6 count turn 6 count turn 8 count swingout, as opposed to thinking of the dance as movement and music playing, that you can have movements that are 2 counts long, 4 or 20 counts.

    Also, if you're trying to do something more complicated than one-two three-and-four five-six seven-and-eight, it's much easier to scat the rhythm than it is to figure out where the steps are on which counts. Counting will fail to represent syncopations or dancing that doesn't take place on the beat. Dancing is not digital, it doesn't just happen on the counts, but, rather ,dancing is analog and covers everything from on the beat, between beat to the end of the beat.

    To me, counting may be helpful in the beginning but in the long run I think it distanes you from the music and inboxes you into a structured mindset to the dance. My tap teacher never counted, and was actually very frustrated when I asked her to. To her, each type of step made a particular sound and when she danced, she was just creating music.

  4. I agree and disagree with you. Make sure to read the edited addition that I posted. I was going to post it before I saw your comment. I have my issues with rhythm tap and many modern tap dancers. However, with this regard, I can absolutely understand the perspective. To a rhythm tap dancer (my assumption about your teacher, correct me if I'm wrong), tappers are musicians more than dancers.

    Certainly Fayard Nicholas in this article appears to confirm the notion that the old jazz dancers didn't count. I like though that he and his wife fill in the gaps. He does the singing and she does the counting.

    Please be clear that I have not suggested that people should always count, nor that it is not possible to learn without counting.

    While in the beginning, I usually ascribe 8-counts to those very beginner-specific "step-step-triple-step, step-step-triple-step" motions, I vehemently disagree that it is harder to shift away from those specifics as a dancer progresses. I remember a decade or so back when two prominent teachers were first exploring the question of "why should a swing-out start on 1?" One response was "it need not. It can start anywhere." In fact, in your description, you suggest that one might start on count 3, 5 or 7. Without using numbers, how could we even discuss this? It might be possible to describe a "movement that lasts 2 counts long, 4 or 20 counts" without the notion of counting, but I can't at the moment imagine why I'd want to describe something it that way.

    I disagree as well with the assertion that it is "easier" to scat rhythms than to count them. It may be easier for you, considering your specific experiences and tastes. It might not be easier for another person who might approach rhythm in a very different way.

    Numbers can be approached in a very digital way. However when you get to Calculus they work in curves and very subtle shifts. I haven't studied anything past Calculus, but I can say that my understanding of math and physics certainly influenced the way I approached the dance. That's not to say that the influence was any more than my understanding of improvisation or modern dance movement.

    This gets to the point of the discussion, which is this thought that many have brought up. It is my opinion that using numbers may "inbox [a dancer] into a structured mindset to the dance" to the same extent that using letters changes the way we think about language. Letters make it easier to package material into sentences and books, however, they don't stop someone from learning to sing, laugh, or speak in tongues.

    There is certainly a difference between counting the dance and listening the dance. I've often seen students get stuck in their heads. My response is that "thinking ain't dancing." My own experience, having used numbers as a tool personally and also having learned my way past beyond them, I have no doubt that this path can work for anyone. It didn't take me years to apply this, but it took as much work as I expect from anyone who loves the dance. Now, as a student who both understands the numbers and craves the sensation, I have options for communication that those who completely eschew numbers can never have.

  5. I probably should have confined my post to saying it's my opinion and my experience, as opposed to general truths (I tend to do that sometimes).
    I thought the debate of this topic isn't so much whether counting or scatting works, but rather, what the ideal teaching/learning approach should be. Bicep leading certainly works, but do we need to learn that before getting to proper leading? It may be easier to bicep lead in the beginning but it’s a shortcut that results in bad habits. Can you get to scatting without first learning numbers? Since the original dancers were able to scat from the start, then I think we can too.
    That is in part what I was trying to get across is that people in the past wouldn’t ask questions about how many counts a particular move took or what count this step takes place on, because they had no concept of counts; these are rules that we’ve imposed with counting—and exemplified by the fact that someone needs to ask if it’s okay to do a swing out on a different count than one. They felt the dance as opposed to analyze it, which meant scatting encourages the dancer to truly pay attention to the music to understand and to interpret it. Instead of relying on numbers to know when phrases start or end, they will also gain a more intuitive grasp of the music the same way that musicians do. A lot of musicians have no concept of numbers except to count into the song; from that point, they go by feeling and instincts and intuition especially when they improvise, which is what we aspire to do.
    An example of a melody/riff that is really hard to count is the clap section after the bridge in the Big Apple ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49ocW71YPfs at time 1:34) To be honest, I don’t even know what counts the clap are on—it almost hurts my head to try to figure it out. But I can scat it really easily.
    Yes, when we’re talking about counting, we’re not talking about calculus or physics. We’re talking about numbers, mostly the ones from 1- 8. To represent syncopation or dancing behind the beat, you would have to count 1.112, 2.322, 3.22, etc. which would be silly.
    From your analogy: “is my opinion that using numbers may ‘inbox [a dancer] into a structured mindset to the dance’ to the same extent that using letters changes the way we think about language.”
    Yes, I agree that letters are important. But your analogy is not quite right; I don’t see the correlation between the two things. Letters are the building blocks (vocabulary) for a language, but numbers are not the building blocks for a dance. The vocabularies for a dance are the steps, such as Jazz Steps, Lindyhop steps, or the absence of a step, etc. For me at least, scatting is the original expression of the vocabulary, scatting is like the thought and the steps are the offspring of that thought. If anything, counting is limiting your thought.
    Also, many artists, including Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, would often have scats in their songs. So, scatting is a natural extension of the music.
    Well, in the end, really, to each his own. These are my opinions and my thoughts, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with them.

  6. Just to clarify, there are many thinkers who believe that letters changed the way we think about language. When I suggest this comparison, I do not assume that letters are the building blocks of language, but rather that spoken words are the root and core of verbal communication. I agree with this assertion, but I have no complaints about it. Written is a fairly major technological achievement and has been as helpful in as many ways as it has been harmful. Humans with written language are pushed to think in sentences and paragraphs. I don't believe this keeps us from feeling.

    I can't talk about numbers and movment and music without automatically applying some calculus to the situation. No, again literally I'm not suggesting making calculations on the floor. Our brains can make up the difference.

    I'll leave the rest to be sorted out by future comments. Thanks for posting!