Thoughts on swing dancing and Lindy Hop, one word at a time…

Level Jumping in Lindy Hop: A Metacognative Deficiency Problem

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” – Charles Darwin

The definition of “levels” and how dancers place themselves in those “levels” has always been a source of debate in the Lindy Hop community. Many of us have gone to events where they have level auditions in order to make sure dancers in the advanced or masters track is are the level appropriate for the material, Mike “The Girl” Legett actually writes a nice article about this topic. For those of us who have organized workshops, figuring out how to carefully word level descriptions in hopes that people can police themselves is a struggle.

I am curious to why the fact that level jumping (attending classes for which one [clearly] does not meet the level requirements) occurs more freuqently in Lindy Hop than in other subcultures. Recently I had a group practice session myself that I explicitly stated in the event description as a requirement,

“You can comfortably lead or follow a swingout on the social dance floor. This do not mean you have taken one Lindy Hop class and have learned it. This means it is something that is almost, if not completely second nature to you.”

Yet I would say a noticeable portion of attendees who showed up were not comfortable with swingouts and in one case a person only had one lesson previously in Lindy Hop. In result I have been discussing with multiple dancers from different backgrounds (Ballet/Tap/Hip Hop), dancers of multiple skill levels in Lindy Hop ranging from newer dancers to people who have placed in national competitions, and I read the research paper on the Dunning-Kruger effect “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”.

Edit: Here is the wikipedia summary of the paper for those who want a shorter read.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

In 1999 Justin Kruger and David Dunning wrote a paper on the paradoxical idea that those most incompetent in a domain usually have the inability to distinguish incompetence (whether it is themselves or others) from competence. They also noted ironically the way for them to gain that ability is by becoming more competent.

To quote wikipedia, Kruger and Dunning proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  1. Tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. Fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. Fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. Recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.

Sample test group from the Dunning-Kruger paper.

This explains why Intermediate classes are often crashed by people not prepared them. The class descriptions fall on deaf ears because people lack the experience/context to properly evaluate themselves. However this does not explain why this happens so frequently in swing dancing compared to other skill related domains. From my personal research I have come to the conclusion of two main points of why it is more of an issue for our community.

1. Because Swing Dancing is a “Street Dance” and is not standardized it creates a lack of context for newer dancers to develop the metacognative skills to properly assess their own skill level in dance.

When one participates in most martial arts communities it is a well established fact that you have to go through all the material in the belts before black belt material. When one wants to become an engineer there is an established curriculum of the required class material.

To add to the confusion the definition of levels is subjective depending upon the location of an event in the world and the target group of dancers they are trying to attract. David Lee from DC wisely noted in a previous post of mine about definitions of the “Intermediate” level in Lindy Hop,

You know all of those definitions above have liberal and conservative interpretations. An intermediate at Camp Jitterbug isn’t the same as an intermediate in our local DC classes. The bell curve changes depending on where you go.

I’m guilty of making the mistake of misjudging myself ready for a lesson in the past due to this bell curve. When I first started dancing after taking “Intermediate” classes in Pennsylvania for a few months I flew back home in California and took an “Intermediate” class out there for the first time. Much to my surprise the class was way above my head and I had my ass handed to me in the lesson.

Many of the individuals who I talked to that were from different dance communities commented on the fact that there was an established system of progression, in some cases there was even a requirement of time invested in certain levels.

2. Swing Dancing is often promoted or marketed as a hobbyist activity for everybody, in result people may get disillusioned that it requires less of a time/effort investment than skills that are promoted under the banner of an artistic field or a sport.

One of the things I love about the swing dance community is it puts a serious effort to be an inclusive community. Often swing dancing is promoted as an activity for everybody, no partner or previous experience required! This is in contrast to ballet that promotes itself as a serious art form that demands an investment of time and passion to even become considered competent at it or martial arts where in countless films it is portrayed as skill that requires hard-work and dedication at all times.

However anyone who is an experienced Lindy Hopper will tell you, getting a decent swingout and maintaining it is hard work that can take years. Attempting to get a good swingout is a challenging endeavor that can take a lifetime. But the way Lindy Hop is marketed by most promoters to the public, you would never guess this is the case.  To play the devils advocate, my personal theory is because of this inclusive atmosphere it allows some dancers to get disillusioned of the actual difficulty to become a skilled Lindy Hopper and what a skilled Lindy Hopper is.

While level jumping has been and always will be a problem for the swing dancing community, I believe it is a trade-off we get for freedom of expression and having an inclusive community. If people on a fairly often basis put themselves in the wrong levels, I consider that more than fair trade for the advantages we gain as a dance community.

Events in the swing dance community have different ways of approaching this problem. Some of them put highly detailed level descriptions that even list what moves one should be able to perform and BPMs one should be able to dance at. Others have auditions for the higher skill tracks before classes start. Personally what I haven’t seen but I could be interesting is having videos posted showing the level of competency they are looking for in each track. Dancing is a difficult subject to debate about or explain with words, perhaps a visual aid could greatly assist an event attendees judgement.


13 responses

  1. Jaume

    Thanks for the link to the “Mike the Girl” article. This line there is gold:

    – the advanced level of a workshop is not Advanced. It’s “the top x leads and follows who auditioned.”

    Well, talking about the subject at hand, there’s the added difficulty that time (in years) dancing doesn’t correlate with dancing level very well. People on their first year can be better than others that are on their fourth, but only taking classes sparingly and not going out to dance.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm

  2. Thank you for this. I didn’t know it had a name!

    Your reasons for why this would be the case in a social improvisational partner dance make sense. This phenomenon is very pronounced and often discussed in the Argentine tango community as well. Learning the culture of a dance community is such a natural and unstructured process that I suppose this effect is just part of it, like how a child learns something at home versus how they learn something in school. Ballroom dancing communities probably don’t have this problem, but as you mentioned this comes with a tradeoff in freedom and expression. I like the way you frame the discussion this way because it makes us appreciate the aspects of the dance that we love and don’t want to change, and hopefully urges us to practice acceptance and patience with the learning curve that we and all others go through. Nice article!

    August 11, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    • Thanks for the comment and the insight! I have friends in different dance cultures ranging from ballet, ballroom dance, to even Tinkiling (traditional Filipino dance) and personally I don’t see any culture as superior but that there are trade-offs that come with the choices they make. However those choices often cater to the needs of that particular community.

      On a side note I’ve read articles on your website for about over a year and they have always been insightful, especially as an instructor. I am happy can give something back for a change.

      August 11, 2011 at 8:21 pm

      • Agreed. I love learning about different dance cultures and values and how they influence the physical/technical aspects of the dance (and vice versa). So interesting!

        Thank you for the kind comment. I wish you’d introduced yourself so I could have started reading your blog sooner! I didn’t realize there were so many vibrant Lindy blogs around until just recently. I’ve only dabbled in Lindy, but there are so many parallels with other dances and yet so many interesting differences to reflect on at the same time. Anyways, I have your blog in my Google Reader now, so I’m looking forward to reading more from you. Cheers!

        August 16, 2011 at 8:28 pm

  3. msH

    It’s all very plausible, and I agree with what Joy says; the same problem occurs in AT, and as far as I can tell, for at least some of the same reasons. It’s extremely difficult to evaluate what it is that the more skilled dancers have and you don’t; and this doesn’t necessarily get easier with experience, or even higher skill level. It stays about equally mystifying, just better in other ways.

    However, if possible, it’s worth reading the original paper, as opposed to just the wikipedia article:,5&q=dunning+kruger+unskilled. The actual skill set tested by the experiment was, as far as I remember, to do with an English editing task. The task itself, in my view, introduced a range of unrelated problems that allowed for other explanations of the measurement. After reading the details, I became a lot less convinced that they had in fact proved what they said they’d proved.

    That doesn’t mean that the effect doesn’t exist – I find it very plausible. It’s just that I don’t think they proved it.

    Thanks Joy for the tip, It’s very interesting to read about the differences in different forms of dance. I wonder if that is actually measurable, and whether we might really know whether self-evaluation is really better in ballroom or ballet, or whether any difference comes from a different teaching approach suited to each different dance form.

    August 11, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    • msH, thanks for the response you raise some good points.

      I actually did at first write a post where I went into more detail about the four studies they conducted in researching for the paper (Humor, Grammar[or English editing like you listed], Logical Reasoning, and Logical Reasoning again except with an adjusted competence variable). However edited most of it out because this article then became far too wordy and academic sounding in comparison to most of my usual writing on this blog.

      What allowed me to agree with Dunning and Kruger’s findings though and allowed some of my thoughts about the relationship of swing dancing versus other domains to arise was there were topics like humor that are highly subjective. But in comparison they did studies in domains like logical reasoning and grammar which are more structured and have a much less degree of interpretation.

      Though I respectfully disagree on the idea that more experienced dancers cannot evaluate what more skilled dancers possess versus novice dancers. On more subjective issues like choices a partnership makes in a dance would be comparing apples to oranges and I agree with you that trying to evaluate that is a mystifying process. However I think quality of movement and proper technique is something most artistic dance forms and spots can evaluate more consistently with experience.

      August 11, 2011 at 8:15 pm

      • I agree with you on that last paragraph, Apache. In fact, I recently wrote something about the difference between distraction and attraction, and thinking of it in this way has really helped to clarify what it is that beginners are seeing and not seeing when they watch dance. I know that with teaching, based on my experience I quickly pick up on details that tell me whether they are effective or not regardless of whether I know anything about the topic or discipline they are teaching. But I definitely won’t know the accuracy of the content itself without experience in that discipline.

        This makes me think about the concept of thin-slicing from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink. Experience and reflection teach you which elements to focus on and which to ignore (again the attraction vs. distraction concept) when it comes to evaluating something – both are equally important and definitely require time to develop a sense for.

        When it comes to quality of movement and proper technique, I definitely have to stop a second and make sure that when I don’t like something I am truly seeing the quality in terms of the individual and not in terms of my individual preferences. Over time I’ve come to see how my tastes can interfere with my “objective” judgment if I’m not careful. Honing that ability to evaluate myself and distinguish between thin-slicing on one hand and my natural preferences and desires as a dancer on the other have been so valuable, not to mention a great (and humbling) learning experience.

        August 16, 2011 at 8:39 pm

  4. Kate

    Good post, per usual. Coming out of a ballet background, I was very confused about levels when I came into the lindy world. My ballet school (like most professional-track ones) had about a different level per year of your life and it was not infrequent to have to repeat a year. Half-way through the year as well as at the end, we received a “report card” that rated our dancing on a 1-5 scale along 6 or 7 different elements. Each category was broken down, explained and followed by comments. The result would determine whether you would be a) promoted, b) kept back or c) gently pressured to find a different form of dance.
    Is this harsh? Yes. Is it very helpful for intellectual understanding of how to improve? Yes. Coming into Lindy, I’ve found myself trying to invent specific standards and categories upon which to measure myself and my progress. It’s not made for that the same way that ballet is. It’s a blessing and a curse; much less stress and pressure, but also less driving incentive and self-analysis along commonly understood measures.

    August 12, 2011 at 6:49 pm

  5. Another aspect of level jumping is that lindy hop has two roles, and it can often benefit less skilled dancers to practice with more skilled dancers of the opposite role. Follows can often learn a lot by dancing with better leaders (and certainly they probably feel like they are accomplishing/learning more because they’re being manhandled…uh…I mean led in patterns that they wouldn’t otherwise get, and also having their arms yanked less often). And the same is true for leads: when dancing with more skilled followers, they feel like better dancers themselves, because the followers are better able to interpret the leaders’ intentions, and they actually go where they are led.

    So that’s all to say, level jumping isn’t due entirely to a meta-cognitive deficiency–from the perspective of the individual dancer, it can be totally rational.

    On a side note, if you are interested in relating psychology/sociology to lindy hop, I’ve always found Etienne Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice to be very interesting and helpful. See here:

    August 16, 2011 at 12:18 am

  6. I don’t disagree that dancing with better partners helps you learn faster in some respects, but I think what’s often neglected is that dancing with less skilled dancers helps you to become a better mover and partner overall. Of course people like dancing with better dancers because those dancers make them feel and look like they are better than they are, but that’s the whole point: they are not making themselves look good because of their own movement and partnering and typically are not learning to do so in such partnerships; someone else is doing that for them. A better dancer can accommodate your mistakes, but you also have to learn to accommodate for a less-skilled partner’s mistakes and this is how you come to truly learn to move and think and also how you develop your skills in improvisation, spacial awareness, partner dynamics, etc. Dancing with both more and less skilled dancers is equally important in my mind, but unfortunately the latter gets completely forgotten or deliberately ignored in the learning process and needs to be emphasized within the community by those who know better and are in a position to teach and model for others. I can always tell the difference when a dancer has insisted on dancing only with the “better” leaders or followers; they tend to move very poorly on their own and lack the dancing instinct and intelligence (not to mention character) that more well-rounded learners develop.

    So while the desire to dance with better dancers is perhaps a natural or expected temptation, I wouldn’t call it rational. A learner may feel like they’re looking good and learning more, but the reality is that dancing with partners of varying levels of skill is the quickest and best way to learn how to be a good dancer who makes him/herself and others look and feel good and isn’t reliant on skilled dancers to pick up the slack of their short-sidedness. The skilled dancers who don’t mind picking up the slack usually don’t mind because they like being in demand and/or because they have also insisted only on dancing with partners who know the moves that they do (in which case I would consider them skilled in patterns but not necessarily in moving/dancing). So this is close to being a “meta-cognitive deficiency”; in layman’s terms I would describe it as an ego issue and/or a lack of understanding how to effectively learn a discipline.

    P.S. Thanks for sharing the link. This looks pretty interesting; I’m looking forward to browsing through what’s there!

    August 16, 2011 at 8:20 pm

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  8. The fact that swing is a social dance gives it a lot of leeway as far as people seriously trying to step up their skills. And there’s a lot to be said about just the social aspects of it. Dancing, at it’s root, allows for non-verbal communication which is a big deal to a lot of people. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad, as long as they’re not injuring people. Even being a social dance, nobody wants to be “bad” but everyone has their own measure of what’s “good enough.”

    However, when it comes to plateaus and “level jumping”, the biggest issue is people frequently don’t even know enough to know how not good they are. Many of the analogies to other sports really don’t work at all because they can be objectively measured. They might run faster, hit harder, perform more difficult actions, etc. So they can more easily judge where they are relative to others. However, social dance is subjective. Someone could learn the coolest, most difficult pattern ever and they could execute it very well. That doesn’t make them an advanced dancer. But chances are, they think they’re good and other mediocre people also think they’re good. This is where exchanges become detrimental. You get a lot of average dancers telling each other how great they are when really, they’re just average. That is totally awesome for the social aspect of dancing but not-so-much for improving the overall skill level of the dance scene.

    Instead of the sports analogies, I often liken it to age. A young person has no idea what it’s like to be old – because they never have been. At 38 year old might remember what it’s like to be 21. But a 21 year old doesn’t know what it’s like to be 38. They might someday, but not yet. Just like an advanced, experienced dancer might remember what it’s like to be a noobie but a noobie may never know what it’s like to be advanced.

    I guess it all boils down to this: it’s hard to know what you don’t know. The best thing you can do is just be humble and try to just keep learning.

    August 15, 2013 at 5:51 pm

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