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

Creating Life Long Dancers and/or Better Dancers

I was at a Denny’s last night, when a fellow dancer mentioned a point that brought up the idea of dance venues fostering a culture of creating life long dancers (or dancers that will for a long period of time return to that same venue) and that it doesn’t always correlate with creating better dancers.

However a struggle occurs when instructors are stuck in that environment which the creation of better dancers is not a priority. Some instructors (including myself) experience frustration when dealing with a local community that the end goal for most dancers is not dance improvement but other aims.

Business is Business

From a business point of view, creating life long dancers as a priority makes sense. You can read many articles/blog posts about catering to newbies or some older posts of the decline of the NY/California bar venues from the 90s due to people not buying drinks at bars. Dancers on the advanced side of the bell curve tend to invest much less money then a newer dancer. They will tend to skip lessons, bring in their own drinks, and et cetera. I personally know some dancers that will purposely show up to venues late to avoid paying cover.

Dancers on the advanced end of the bell curve are simply not that profitable with current business models. In addition advanced dancers are a small subset of the entire population of swing dancers, why would it be worth the time of a business to restructure their model to make profit from them when they have a large portion of the population (i.e. beginners) that they already make money from?

What This Means For Teachers & Students

As an individual who has taught several “Intro to Swing” classes, I am no stranger to seeing people in these newbie classes that improvement is the farthest thing from their mind and instead meeting others or having something to do that night are their priorities. If one is uncomfortable with that idea, then they are better off running a performance troupe or not teaching to be candid.

If ones’ reason for teaching though is simply recruiting as many new dancers as possible into a scene, then there is no issue with the model of just only trying to create life long dancers. However I would say many instructors (including myself) feel a sense of responsibility to not just do that but in addition provide guidance to allow our students to make tangible progress at becoming better dancers in our classes.

What is frustrating is when one is in an environment that creating better dancers isn’t a priority even close compared to retaining newer dancers.  That results in having “intermediate” or “advanced” classes that people show up to feel like they are in those categories and make little to no tangible progress over several months. As an individual who has taken classes and prepared to “bring it” to improve, frustration sets in when one realizes most people treat it as a hangout session. As a teacher it is frustrating dealing with those classes because often you have to teach to the middle of the bell curve, which is significantly lowered when this attitude is the norm. Personally I hate holding back the students who were ready for the material or actual speed of progression I planned for a course.

Differences Within A Community

Yes, I understand focusing on newer dancers and creating life long dancers is important for scenes. Especially for non-college scenes that operate as a business to stay afloat. The trouble I have is personally accepting the mainstream pedagogy most swing dance scenes have compared to other institutions of learning in my life.

A convenient example is getting a college degree. There is a set list of classes, with many meant to be followed in a progression to make life easier for the student because taking a course such as Calculus III might be difficult if one had a poor grasp of algebra. Taking difficult classes that one does not meet the pre-requisites for possibly comes off as arrogant and likely sets one up for failure.  I’ve said this as a warning to my students before a footwork variations class, “Taking a swingout footwork variations class without a solid swingout is like decorating a cake that tastes like garbage.”

I could list more examples in different communities but I will spare you from me potentially rambling. What I would like to hear is your opinions. Do you think scenes should take more responsibility into ensuring their students have learning opportunities to making tangible results? Anything regarding your local scene or scenes you have visited in respect to this entire post?

Advertisements

15 responses

  1. It seems to me that having more expert dancers in your scene should theoretically make it more fun for the newer dancers and encourage them to keep coming back. That would make it a win-win.

    But it only works that way IF your best dancers stick around once they get good, and help support the local scene.

    It often feels like my local scene consists of seven hundred thousand million beginners, and a handful of really good dancers who rarely show up.

    I think that along with teaching people to be better dancers, we need to find ways to convince them to keep supporting their local scene once they get good – buying drinks, dancing with beginners, attending classes, paying for dance admission, etc.

    If the good dancers don’t come out, then who can blame people for thinking that dancing is more “fun” the less you work at trying to get better at it?

    May 28, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    • I actually do believe that dancing is more fun the less you work at trying to get better at it. It’s more fun when you get better at it through having fun, not by treating it like work or like some subject you study. That’s why I swing dance but don’t participate in the whole “ballroom dance” construct. I like having fun. I like the creative element of it. I want it to be organic, not forced.

      There are so many reasons. I think one really simple reason is that people get more experienced as they get older, and there are a lot of elements of dance scenes that simply do not fit with many people’s lives.

      One thing I really struggle with is that I’m a morning person, and most dances are really late at night. I hate how there’s nowhere in Philly where I can dance where the social dancing starts before 9PM. 9PM is late to me. If left to my own devices, I’d go to bed by 11 or so, but I stay up later because the whole world seems to run on a late schedule.

      I am especially frustrated with blues dance. I LOVE blues dance so much…but it’s oriented so late. The local monday night blues scene here in Philly doesn’t start their dancing until 9:30PM officially, but in practice it’s usually more like 9:45PM. When I’m done work and home at 6PM, by the time 9 rolls around I just want to go to bed.

      So this is why I stopped going to that dance. I used to come to 3-4 dances a week here in Philly and I’ve mostly withdrawn, now that I have some friends to hang out with who are more on my schedule. I love dancing, but I hate how the dance scene is all about staying up late. If they want me to come back to dances more, they could schedule them earlier.

      May 31, 2012 at 3:48 pm

  2. It’s true what candacekay says: often adv. dancers don’t stick around once they get good..

    Why could this be?
    * Maybe we focus too much on beginners?
    * They lose their excitement? If yes, why? Is it our fault somehow or is it just natural?
    * They think that they no longer need lessons and it’s up to them to improve by watching clips and going to workshops. (They ALL still come to workshops we organize with international teachers)

    How to fix it?
    We’ve tried to deal with this by organizing open practice sessions. The deal:
    * First half of the session you’re supposed to dance with people of lower level and give them tips.
    * The rest of the time you have a spacious studio & music so you can practice with people of your level!
    It worked with some adv. dancers.. But I did hope more would show up..
    Now I was thinking of proposing this deal: If adv. dancers come to practice sessions and help beginners, they can have the studio for 2 hours by themselves so they can come practice..

    Another thing we did:
    The adv. class used to be right after the int./adv. so some people chose to stay for both those lessons. This held the adv. back.
    Now, the hours for the adv. class have changed. This way:
    * It’s less convenient for Int./adv. dancers to just stick around for the second class. This means they won’t come unless they really think they can do it (it has really worked and now the adv. class can really progress!!)
    * Another advantage to having the adv. class right after the beginners, is that beginners see adv. dancers and get inspired & excited 🙂

    Any other ideas as to what could be the cause of adv. dancers not sticking around?
    Any ideas as to how to inspire them to stick around and give back to the community?

    May 29, 2012 at 1:07 am

    • One reason I have withdrawn a bit from my local dance scene is that I don’t like the intensity of the more advanced lessons. I live in Philadelphia where there are ample opportunities for more advanced lessons.

      But I find that these lessons are too intense for me. When I became more experienced as a dancer, I did not become any better or faster at learning things. I still like to learn slowly. And I didn’t become any less interested in social dance for meeting people and being social and having fun.

      I feel like a lot of advanced lessons are run like drills, run like teaching people to perform. The pace is faster and there is less down time. And I hate this.

      How to get people like me to stick around? Offer advanced lessons that go at a laid-back pace and still emphasize the fun, social element just as much as the beginner lessons do. I don’t want to finish my workday to show up at a social dance where the lesson feels like work. I hate that. I want a fun, relaxing activity. I want to keep improving as a dancer, learning, but I want the activity to be first and foremost about meeting people and having fun, and I want the dance to take a back burner to these things, not to push these elements out.

      May 31, 2012 at 3:43 pm

  3. I’m not the biggest fan of mainstream dance pedagogy myself. But I do think that considering footwork variation as just “decoration” that can only be added to an already tasty swing out is actually part of the problem.
    1) Assuming social is about connecting to the music and your partner, how can you possibly do that adequately without footwork variations (at least of the simple kind like big vs small, extreme syncopation, stomp offs and kick ball changes)?
    2) having more to do with it will motivate beginners to work on their swing out and alleviate boredom. It will also show beginners that you have confidence about what they can achieve.
    3) if you prevent beginners from learning the fun stuff, why be surprised that they turn up to classes beyond their level?
    4) much as I dislike arguments from authority, there was a recent dog possum post about what Frankie would teach beginners. It included lots of rhythm and things beyond the swing out

    I dislike attempts to curricularise social dance, because it’s all pretty equivalent in being both mindblowingly simple and ridiculously difficult. If you do it, I feel it should be in the Brenda Russel breadth-first way of “we teach the same dance to all levels, otherwise how can people of different levels dance together?”

    My goal, in teaching and in “dance with beginners” mode is to show widen people’s dance horizons, giving them the confidence that they too can do this awesome thing. Im fine with people to not want to progress any further, provided they have a good idea of what they could achieve

    May 29, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    • I also really dislike, as you put it, “attempts to curricularise social dance”. My favorite dance scenes are the ones where there are many different beginner lessons, each taught in a different style, different order.

      Footwork variations is also an interesting subject. I personally have been bored / unmotivated / uninterested in lessons teaching footwork variations as embellishments on a swingout. On the other hand, I’ve had a few lessons (I wish more would teach this) which focused on mixing up ordering of steps and leading/following them…i.e. leading / following steps vs. triple steps, in any order. I found these classes immensely valuable, they helped my creativity to really blossom, helped me to avoid getting stuck in patterns and focus more on actually leading / following.

      May 31, 2012 at 3:40 pm

  4. Simon

    Nice rationale for teaching expression, etc, but I think you took Apache’s cake decoration analogy, along with the ‘curricularise’ method a tad too literally….

    I dance in London. My ‘local’ night, has over the years produced perhaps 10-12 advanced dancers, and I’d say more generally, London itself, despite having a thriving scene (2-3 socials a night, with god knows how many classes) has maybe only 30-40 genuinely good dancers. When you look at it from an international ‘I go to Herrang and people there think I’m good’ perspective we’ve probably only got around 15 people who’re of that level. Everyone else just ain’t.

    The more advanced dancers, particularly those who come from particular nights, tend to stick together. They’ll plan about where to go en masse. Simply because they want to dance with each other… Though it’s wonderful that some of them might want to dance with beginners, most of them tend not to offer themselves up to that experience because they simply can’t be bothered… when it comes to classes, they will go for expensive/advanced workshops en masse, travel abroad en masse and occasionally do a jazz class en masse. The level of tuition here really varies and once you get to a point where you can assess the quality of your own movement it makes more sense to practise at home in front of a mirror than it does to a room full of vacant looking beginners.

    Unfortunately there’s a fair bit of snobbishness here, big fish in small pond syndrome, so beginners will often have a hard time feeling accepted unless there are a lot of them in the same room. When there are a lot of them in the same room (good for organisers) the more advanced lot will look to go somewhere else.

    How to keep them? Incentives might work but really it just comes down to music, the space and the atmosphere. Some people will do a high level class maybe once a week and take their social from another night… I heard someone say a couple of weeks ago, the only way you can guarantee the turnout from high level dancers week after week is by having a lot of guest teachers to change things up, or by the teachers themselves sinking loads of time into new material – which for the retention of maybe 5-10 people might not be worth it.

    It’s tough. I think for London the scene’s either going to become amazing or it’ll implode… at the moment it’s kind of at the critical mass stage, with a lot of organisations taking risks to stay competitive. Swing Patrol have a lot to answer for 😉

    May 30, 2012 at 9:25 am

  5. This post is interesting because it brings up some issues I feel very passionately about. When you said: “…people in these newbie classes that improvement is the farthest thing from their mind and instead meeting others or having something to do that night are their priorities. If one is uncomfortable with that idea, then they are better off running a performance troupe or not teaching to be candid.”

    I totally agree. But I’d like to expand this statement. I think this would also be true for more advanced lessons. I’ve been dancing for over 12 years. I am strongly motivated to improve my dancing. I love learning new things. But to be really blunt, I absolutely hate it when people (whether teachers, or people running a dance scene) seem to be focusing so intensely on improving people’s dancing that the social element of it suffers.

    I dance primarily because I like the community. I do like to dance, and I do like the music. But I also find that, personally, I cannot separate out the social element from improving as a dancer. When I am not comfortable socially, I get nervous, and I don’t dance well. I don’t have fun. And usually I just leave feeling miserable. I can’t even count how many lessons I’ve left (often leaving the dance too) because it felt too intense. Sometimes I stay through the lesson but I feel like I’m enduring it.

    I’ve been in some classes that feel like drills. I don’t work a long day at work to go out at 8PM or 9PM and engage in a lesson that feels like work, a lesson so intense that it doesn’t give me time to chat with people. These sort of intense approaches alienate me from a dance scene, they not only make me stop coming to lessons, they make be stop coming to dances, because, for me, a lesson is an integral part of a dance, it gets me in the mood (or out of the mood) to dance, and it helps me to meet people and get comfortable with the people who are at a dance.

    I love it when a lesson has a laid-back pace and gives me time to chat informally with each person. This is when I truly shine as a dancer. I get comfortable with my setting and with the people. I also feel like I have time to digest the information that I’m being presented in the class, and in some cases, process it further by bouncing it off other people, talking about it.

    I spend so many years in formal education where the model was one teacher lecturing to a class of people. I hate this model. I don’t think most people learn well this way. I can learn some subjects this way but I can’t learn dance this way. In order to learn dance, I need to engage with people in a casual setting.

    Some people might say, but that’s what the social dance is for. But personally, I want it to be interspersed in the lesson. I want the lesson, including advanced lessons, to have a laid-back pace in which most of the time is unstructured time in which I can chat with my various partners. That’s how I learn best. And the fact that a lot of lessons at advanced levels aren’t like that is directly responsible for me becoming less involved in dance scenes, which is sad, because then I feel a sense of loss when I withdraw from the community.

    May 31, 2012 at 3:36 pm

  6. I dance in London and I agree with Simon that more advanced dancers here tend to simply not to be bothered dancing with beginners. I am what could generally here be defined as “advanced” level. I have been dancing for 6 years now and really love swing dancing and am very serious (and obsessed) about it. I do love social dancing. A lot. And I do dance with beginners. But I do not enjoy dancing with them as much as I do with people my own or, better, above level as It’s simply more engaging, challenging and therefore fun ! When dancing with beginners, most of the times I leave the dance floor bored! Another point, which is maybe relevant to my particular case, is that I would like to find a dance partner to practice and study with to a professional level. Dancing with beginners who simply want to have something to do that night or just a chat while dancing ( in the worse case) would be accetable once a week but frustrating on the long run!!!

    June 6, 2012 at 3:35 am

  7. Simon

    Hello again.

    If I were to make a huge, sweeping generalisation…. With beginners/early stage dancer, you tend to get three main types:

    1. The hobbyist – the one who wishes to experiment, treats it as fun – is dipping their toes into the pool of swingland to see if they like it
    2. The malcontent – someone who’s been dragged to a class/social by a significant other, a friend or is obliged to go in some form. They might be surprised by what they find, but more frequently will never go again.
    3. The obsessive. They’re looking for something new, need an outlet or a means of validation. These are the people who traditionally go on to form the core of the social scene. They will do anything to get ‘good’

    Once you’ve been doing it for a while, you tend to borrow aspects from all of the above. You’re not a pup anymore and won’t let yourself go ‘crazy’ at social like you might’ve done during your earlier days… you look for a different kind of hit. You’ve been there and seen it before. You can relate to beginners and their enthusiasm (and at times this is really what drives any scene) but for the most part, unless you’re a teacher, a promoter or an organiser, you don’t really want any part of it. Shame that it is.

    June 7, 2012 at 3:00 pm

  8. Pingback: what makes a good scene for beginning dancers? | move(me)nt

  9. Pingback: The Lindy Affair

  10. Pingback: what makes a good scene for beginners | The Lindy Affair

  11. Pingback: Three Years Gone | It's The Way That You Do It

  12. O

    I’ve just stumbled on this post now and even though the discussion seems to have waned I just to interject a little something. Advanced dancers who have nothing to gain from dancing a beginner are bad in general.

    Leads: if you can lead a beginner through a move you have the move mastered. My creative juices flow just as much with a beginner than with an ‘advanced’ dancer.
    Follows: Yeah dancing with a beginner, you will be doing under arm times a lot and maybe a side passes or maybe just stepping and rock stepping. If you are advanced as you say then the ability to create should come easy. If you are so advanced you should have a myriad of ways to take an under-arm turn and rock it out.

    A quality of international instructor particularly follows, know how to smile and make each lead feel good even though are at a lower level. Some ‘advanced’ dancers have not mastered this quality. People who consider themselves advanced and only dance with advanced dancers are not advanced in my book. Lindy Hop is a dance where you make shit happen and you can learn from any dance partner of any skill level. Just got to have the right mindset.

    April 3, 2013 at 8:25 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s