Thoughts on swing dancing, one word at a time…

Personal

Through the Looking Glass

Because we dance with people, not levels.

A little over a month ago I attended a Friday night dance they have in Las Vegas named Algarve Swings. A local that goes by the moniker, “Vegas Nick” was kind enough to give me a ride back to the hotel I was staying at downtown after. During the ride he asked me how long I have been dancing and after my reply of, “A little over 5 years” I found his reply of something to the effect of “Oh, so you are still new” amusing.

It was a great reminder that swing dancing, like any relationship changes with age and that even though many dancers would consider five-ish years a long time, for the individuals who have been dancing 10+ years it’s just a drop in the bucket. What I have learned from this constantly changing relationship is a topic that has been running through my mind lately and that I want to explore today.


Take a Walk on the Wild Side

When I was a newer dancer, my first exciting foray out of my swing dance bubble in State College, Pennsylvania and to the big wide word of the Lindy Hop community was the Oberlin Jazz Dance Festival (OJDF) at Oberlin College in Ohio. It was a great experience interacting with individuals who were not just taught different vocabulary and in a different manner than us, but came from a fairly different college environment in general.

Later in my dancing journey, I got to go on more exciting adventures such as my visit to the Baltimore Strut, back when it was literally on the wrong side of the train tracks and performance gigs where l learned fun things in usual situations such as how to deal with slides while dancing on a moving U.S.A. Victory-class cargo ship.

Related to that, Aaron Draplin in the talk I have linked below says,

Get out there and get wild, get dirty.

The week I spent dancing in crowded bars to live bands in New Orleans taught me a tremendous amount about floorcraft and performing in a public space. It would hard pressed to get that experience anywhere else. That’s the thing dancers who travel frequently try to convey to those that don’t, there are experiences you can’t get in class or your local dance scene.

What was important about these experiences is they pushed me out of my comfort-zone as a person and as a dancer. One thing that has not changed from any scene I have lived in is getting people to travel for the first event is a hard sell, however it opens up new avenue of possibilities for ones’ own dancing and allows you to connect with dancers in the larger swing dance community.


Swing Dancing is about People

One of my more poignant memories of Herräng Dance Camp is a moment Kendra Strode who witnessed it as well describes during a talk she gave at LindyCon:

A quick summary, at Herräng, one of the largest swing dance events in the world there was an incident where someone refused to dance with someone because of their level. In result at one of the nightly meetings an instructor publicly declared the statement from the photo below.

Because we dance with people, not levels.

Taken at Herräng Dance Camp 2012

I think it’s important for people to be reminded that dancing isn’t just a transaction where you are trying to get is a “good dance” out of your partner. For two to four minutes you are sharing moment with a person to jazz music, it is a beautiful thing. I think there are people who get caught up in climbing whatever “Lindy Hop Hierarchy” or becoming “Good” that they lose sight of that.


Be Passionate About What You Like & What You Hate

One thing that has stood out for me in the most recent years is organizers have started to be more vocal about the things they do and don’t value.

Mobtown Ballroom and more recently Lindy Focus have codes of conduct where they state, “Hey, if you take part in shitty behavior we will kick you out of our venue.” The fact that more weekly dances and events are adopting similar documentation is a great step forward and for those who do get in unfortunate situations within our community, these policies can be a source of recourse for them.

The proliferation of live music now at almost any swing dance event in the world is proof in my eyes to how having authentic swing era jazz for our events is a key value in our community these days. I’ve even joined the trend of the “almost too-strange-to-be-true phenomenon of Lindy Hoppers maturing their own musical skills” as Jerry Almonte put it by taking up the clarinet the last few months. One thing I think we have to be wary of though is often people join our dance without having a background in the type of music we like, introducing them to an appreciation of it while not coming off as alienating or elitist is something we should keep in mind.

We’ve matured as a community, going in hand with that we have gotten past the point of where running our finances off the books and doing work without contracts is acceptable behavior. We’ve started to get better at it as a community, but there is still much room for improvement. Having business agreements/contacts are important so you don’t end up with shitty situations like an instructor expected to stay at the entire social dance without pay after a 8 hour flight or warned in advance that it was an expectation. Mikey Pedroza talks about it on the Yehoodi Talkshow below that things just go smoothly when things are on paper. After working with 5+ different sets of international instructors at my college as an organizer, I am inclined to agree as well.

Sam from Dogposssum has some excellent posts on the topic. Borrowed from those posts are some quick bullet-points which I think if you are an organizer and haven’t yet should start adopting, like right now.

  • Explicit contracts for anyone who works with you. This goes from instructors (weekly & international), DJs, and volunteers.
  • Pay and/or compensate your DJs, musicians, teachers, and volunteers fairly.
  • Get some kind of general policies or code of conduct for your organization and make it publicly available.
    •  Trust me, as someone who threw someone out of a venue this will be useful to have as a resource.

Last Notes

I haven’t been writing too much this year because I have been busy with my own projects, however I plan to change that in 2015. If I could ask my readers to do anything going forward is try every once in awhile to be adventurous.

That can be as simple as walking to a different part of the room you normally dance in and dancing with someone new to heading to an event several hundred miles away from your home scene to have some new experiences. Most importantly make connections with people, because that is what our dance is about.


Creative Destruction

Recently Owen wrote on his blog Stomp Off a post entitled The Reset Button. That post struck a chord with me because it made me mull on the idea of having some event happen that forces myself to reframe how I see myself as a dancer and realize what it will take to move forward.

Those events can be quite the unpleasant experiences, you can trust me when I say that I have been there. However upsetting as they can be these experiences serve an important function as crossroads for progress. I’ve mentioned this in my blog before but one of my most poignant experiences that served a reality check was taking my first intermediate level Lindy Hop class in California and hands down being the worst person in the class. Coming from central Pennsylvania I just lacked the context to understand that “levels” were a subjective term that varied from scene to scene. However, as embarrassing as that class was it served as a catalyst for me to start dancing 3-6 nights a week and by the end of that summer I could confidently say I was an “intermediate” level dancer in California.

Idea of Rebirth

Owen makes the valid point of addressing the idea of finding out what is obscuring your talents or as I prefer to say, “What you bring to the table.” I would say the majority of dancers, including newbies have something special they can bring to a dance. For example one of my favorite follows here in Boston can be silly in the best ways possible and that always manages to get me smile (if not completely break out in laughter) during a dance. However, if there are things such as excess tension, bad floor craft, and et cetera… they can serve as distractions from the positive things a person can bring to a dance.

What can be the worst though is when the thing you do bring to the table ironically ends up being your weakness. Awhile back an instructor I respected gave me some advice to the effect of that I attempted to say or do too much in my dancing. Hearing that after the usual compliments I would get from follows were along the lines of “You have great musicality” or “You have a crazy vocabulary of moves” was not an easy pill to swallow. I remember having apprehensions changing my dancing because of being afraid that follows would now find me boring. In spite of those fears, I went through a period that I would attempt to only dance clean basics and maybe do only one to three variations a dance.

phoenix-rising

Creation through destruction.

I won’t lie, those were frustrating weeks because I realized I used a lot of my variations as a crutch to make up for sloppy footwork or poor body mechanics. In result though I cleaned up some technical issues that were holding me back, by dancing simpler it allowed me to pay a lot more attention to my follow, and lastly when I did do something musical it actually meant something. Essentially I had to remove and rebuild a large part of my dancing in order to move forward.

An interesting point I want to bring up is the last few weeks I have been talking with dancers of various skill levels is when the concept of getting better or progression is the topic of conversation, the word “fun” tends to pop up. This is something to note because many of those dancers state the reason why they don’t want to do things that theoretically could make them a better dancer is it comes at the expense of their idea of “fun”. This is perfectly acceptable opinion to have because often while trying to work on these things that are holding one back it can be quite frustrating and emotionally taxing as those of you who have heard of the dreaded “pleateau” can probably relate to.

Anyways what I want to leave you with are these words:

  • The path to improvement involves having the humility to find flaws with oneself and being open to change.
  • At times this can involve changing things that are the core of your dancing or what you identify as your “strengths” as a dancer.
  • It can be frustrating, emotionally taxing, and cause you to have days that you just feel horrid as a dancer to accept and work on some of these things. However if improvement is a serious goal of yours then the end result will likely be worth it.

Three Years Gone

On How I Am Still Fairly Surprised This Blog Is Around

Since last March I have had a lot of life changes, especially as of late. I am no longer a student and I have a full time job. In result this means I am not between coasts in the United States anymore but in one stable location. However this has not changed my wanderlust problem and I still find time to run off to places like Cleveland, Rochester, or Sweden for dancing.

These past 12 months I have been getting more serious about improving my dancing, unfortunately the consequence of that is my posting on this blog is less frequent then it used to be. One thing I have found interesting is I have gotten more negative feedback this year, which I find  a step in the right direction. I remember when I first started writing I was timid in fully stating my opinons at times because I was a newer dancer and didn’t feel I have the credibility to be talking about some of the topics I wanted to in a venue open to the public. While it could be interpreted as a sign that i’m just opinionated arrogant blogger, I take the negative feedback as a sign that I am making people think and challenging their opinions on things within the swing dance community.

This is how I have felt in reaction to some criticism I have received this year.

This is how I have felt in reaction to some criticism I have received this year.

Personal Favorites

For the individuals who may not follow my blog as regularly or perhaps regulars who feel like now they want to comment on old posts I have picked a few personal favorite posts that I have written during year three of my blog:

The Life of an Amibdancetrous Dancer: Being a swing dancer who both leads and follows I briefly cover how I became a person who dances both roles and why I did (and continue to) do that.

10 Things To Know About Herräng: This past summer I had the privilege of volunteering Herräng for a little over two weeks. I share some general information to hopefully make future camp attendees visits go smoothly.

Dance Education Through Social Feedback Experiment: I had a crazy idea to put public videos of myself dancing on Yehoodi to let any swing dancer on that website openly criticize my dancing. It was a great learning experience and I wrote the difficulties and benefits from trying out this little experiment.

Creating Life Long Dancers and/or Better Dancers: Giving your students the tools they need to improve their dancing and having good retention rates for venues is a difficulty organizers and instructors have to deal with. One of my most commented posts of this past year, it brings up the problem not being able to make improving students as a priority even in those higher level classes.

Keep it Casual or Bring the Fire? Teaching A Higher Level Class: What makes a good “advanced” level class and how should it be run in comparison to a “beginner” or “intermediate” level class? This post addressed that topic with quotes from the past and opinions from different instructors.

Where Now?

I think in this upcoming fourth year for my blog one of my goals is to write more posts that challenge the opinions and beliefs that people have about swing dancing and the swing dance community.

Anyways once again thank you to everyone who reads this blog, I still find it hilarious that what I started as a way to just vent my urge to talk about swing dancing and not drive my friends crazy has kept going for this long. If you would like me to write about any particular topics, send me hate mail, or just feel like being random my email address is still apachedanse@gmail.com

Otherwise, like I have said before as long as I am still dancing I intend to keep writing!


Three Ways To Annoy Me As A Swing Dance DJ

Over the last two or more years I have had the privilege to DJ at different weekend events and weekly venues mainly along the East Coast here in the United States. It’s an activity I love doing and the majority of the time I have a blast sharing my collection of music with dancers.

However once in awhile when I am DJing at a swing dance and people say to me or do things that make me just question things such as “Why are you at this dance?” or “Have you been drinking?”.  Without further ado…

1. Asking For Free Music

Once in awhile someone will come up to me and asked me what song I played, which I don’t mind at all. If I have the time I might go into detail what different musicians are in that band and a good place to find the song to purchase. However occasionally as a followup I will have people ask me for the song, or even worse a bunch of music. Manu Smith on Yehoodi’s Swing Nation actually mentioned almost the exact same reasons why this really irks me as a DJ.

The main reason this annoys me is the majority of the time the requests are for newer bands like Gordon Webster. These guys work hard and spend a lot of time to create this amazing music. In many cases I personally have met some of these musicians and actually attended the live recordings of the CDs they produce. For them it is a full time job that creates so much value for our community. For a person to not throw a dollar or two to just download the song online somewhere for all the effort they put in? Not cool.

2. Bad Requests

The running joke that I have for myself as a DJ is that my slogan is, “Requests will be met with loathing and disdain”. While I fully admit I sometimes have borderline pretentiousness in relation to music that rivals the record shop employees from the movie High Fidelity, sometimes I get requests that would make even the most open minded swing dancer go “What…?”.

There are definitely tiers of bad requests, with the the worst tier being music that is completely inappropriate for any kind of partnered dancing. I have had requests for electronica music, hip hop, and believe it or not Mambo No. 5 by Lou Bega. Followed by that is music that are for dances that are not swing dancing such as Salsa, Waltz, and et cetera. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against other dances but if you pay to attend an event advertised as a swing dance and I was hired or requested to DJ at a swing dance… it shouldn’t be too surprising that I am only going to play swing dance music. Lastly is your typical neo-swing requests such as “Zoot Suit Riot”, cliche requests such as “Sing Sing Sing”, or the new electro-swing craze that has been going around.

Regardless this is often how I feel in response to some of the particularly bad requests:

music_taste

3. Telling Me I Haven’t Been Playing X Type Of Music… And Being Completely Wrong

I’ve luckily only had this happen maybe two or three times. Fun fact, when I DJ my laptop keeps track of which songs I played so far. Typically the conversation goes like this:

Random Dancer: “Hey you haven’t played any songs in the medium tempo range.”

Me: “Medium is a subjective term, what do you mean? Like what BPM (Beats Per Minute) or can you give me an example of a song that you’d define as medium tempo?”

Random Dancer: “You know like that one song about cake.”

Me: “I actually DJed ‘I Like Pie I Like Cake’ by the Four Clefs about an hour ago, you can see it right here.”

Random Dance: “Yeah… can you play more stuff like that.”

Me: “Sure…”

The lesson here is if you haven’t been listening to the music in a DJs set… giving them advice on it is probably not the best idea.

Summary

I’d like to reiterate that DJing is awesome fun and 99% of the time I am having a blast and feeding off the energy of a crowd. Just once in awhile I have those moments of, “Seriously?”. Other DJs or event attendees, I would love to hear your horror stories as well.

 


Two Years Gone

On How This Blog Has Survived In Spite of my Gypsy Travelling Ways

How my blog has felt to myself this past year.

From Montreal, Canada to New Orleans, Louisiana I have been traveling all over North America due to my wanderlust tendencies and dancing where I can. While trying to balance that, a part time job, and being a student I have attempted to regularly updating this blog. A times it has been often and well-written to my satisfaction, other days it has not.

Personal Favorites

For those of you who may be newer to the blog (or seasoned readers that feel in particular procrastinating), here are a few articles that I think stood out in my writing this past year:

Perhaps Onward

When I intentionally created this blog it was due to having an outlet to dance-nerd about things that would bore most people in my local scene to death. If you ever have any suggestions on topics you would like to hear about or even just to shoot me a comment, the comment box is below and my email address is: apache.danse@gmail.com

As long as I am still dancing I intend to keep writing. Thanks to all you readers out there!


Consideration

The last few months attending swing dance events as a Penn State student has been awkward and downright frustrating at times. I’ve had people literally in the middle of dances try to bring up the topics such as the Sandusky scandal or my opinion on the former coach Joe Paterno. It got to the point that when deciding what shirts I wanted to wear to dances, time would be spent pondering not wearing one of my Penn State Swing Dance club t-shirts just to avoid the potential hassling that came along with it.

At least for myself, swing dancing is at times an escapist activity for me where I can free my stresses of my daily life whether that be bugs while programming or a tragedy that has befallen my beloved town of State College and many innocent victims.  Underclassmen who I teach dance lessons to on a regular basis travel with us to large events, where we are recognized as a group from Penn State. I loathe the idea of them having to deal with this at an event such as Boston Tea Party. With Paterno’s recent death, I fear that this pestering that has quieted down recently may intensify again. The last thing I want, even more then being hassled myself, is my students who to go to an event to have fun and learn from the international Lindy Hop community… to be reminded of the troubles from home.

I apologize if this comes off as a bit of a soapbox rant, but all I can ask is take some consideration before you bring up things in conversation, this goes especially for in the middle of a dance. This just doesn’t apply to just talking to Penn State students and alumni, but anyone who is dealing with unpleasant circumstances.

Thanks for reading.


Paying It Forward

As the new year approaches I can’t help but reflect upon common themes of what has consisted my experiences of being a member of the swing dance community in years past. One I want to touch on in particular is the concept of paying it forward.

To quote wikipedia, paying it forward is defined as:

The concept of asking that a good turn be repaid by having it done to others instead.

When I first started dancing Southern California I went to a venue called Rock Harbor, which was a free venue that the instructors were local dancers who generously donated their time. One day I noticed two of the instructors there dancing Collegiate Shag, a dance I had seen previously and was intrigued by. Alas, my struggle though was like many people who want to learn Balboa, I had difficulty finding lessons. Those two instructors Alan and Amantha were nice enough to change the lesson the next week to teach Shag so I could learn the basic step and set me on the path to delving into the dance.

Last night when I was out dancing and I noticed a girl off on the side trying to figure out a Shag double rhythm basic and struggling with it. I offered to help and a few minutes later she was doing okay enough to follow a basic in open and closed position and seemed thrilled.  It was only maybe five to ten minutes tops of my time at most.

Raldoph Waldo Emerson once wrote,

 “In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”

For myself my best way of repaying the gift that Amantha and Alan gave me is to render the same gift they gave to me onto others. I encourage those of you who have experience in the dance community to do the same. It is a simple act that fosters growth in our community and invaluable to the individuals that it assists.


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