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.