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

Dealing In Absolutes

Welcome to Lindy Hop

When I was a newer dancer who frequently was in different dance scenes such as Irvine, California to Oberlin, Ohio, my biggest difficulty was probably dealing with instructors who would tell me different and sometimes outright contradictory things. When I brought up my frustration one day to a workshop teacher his response was, “Welcome to Lindy Hop”.

After dancing for a few years and teaching regionally for about 2+ years I have to take time and remind myself I was once this new lead who wanted clearly defined rules. I remember my mind being blown when 8-count moves and swingouts were introduced. At the time, in my mind the rule was everything is only 6-counts. It took about a month of solid dancing in California to break me out of a 6-count basic as my default movement.

I remember one of the big things that confused me as a newer lead was where to step on the 5 of a swingout. The fact that depending upon where a lead steps on 5 can create a different line/look/feeling was beyond me. I just wanted one place to step so I could do it “right”.

Most experienced dancers know how one dances is completely dependent on the song that is playing, who one is dancing with, and likely other miscellaneous factors. Bridging the gap between that and newer dancers who may be just trying to figure out where to find the beat or intermediate dancers trying to dance on phrase is a difficulty as an instructor.

Difficulty with “Right” Answers as a Teacher

What caused me to explore this topic is a post from Sam at dogpossum titled a bit of dance nerdery and in particular this quote,

I had to find a way to say ‘that idea of an absolute value for connection isn’t useful. We don’t look for a single muscle ‘tone’ or degree of hardness or softness in the arm. We look for varying muscle recruitment and use – we use what we need for the circumstances and no more.’ But that’s not a helpful response to a student who’s trying really hard to figure out how they and their partners should feel.  I can’t remember what I said. I’m fairly sure I said too much, which is my main failing as a teacher. Just. Stop. Talking. It was something I grappled with in tutoring as well.

It amuses me slightly because for myself I think I err on the side of talking too little because I am afraid of going on complete tangents of all the possibilities of what can happen when one tweakes little things with connection or movement. In addition it’s a personal bias that I am largely a visual learner and the instructors I have disliked classes have felt more like a lecture and less of a dance class.

I do like the direction that dogpossum takes in her classes though.  I wish I would see it more because I find many instructors on the regional level often settle for absolutes.


Like Obi-Wan, I believe dealing in absolutes is not an optimal choice. Yes as an instructor by giving students absolutes you satisfy their want for hard and fast rules, however this is at a cost. I’ve bet in a swing dance class you have had a fellow classmate raise their hand and say, “Well I learned it X way from Y instructor.” I’ve had it pulled on me as an instructor as well, frequently by individuals who have taken the local ballroom dance courses featured at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). This is because when you teach something as an absolute a student is likely to put a mental box around whatever the move/concept you taught and think “This is how it is done” and consider alternatives “wrong”.

rules

What this means for myself as an instructor is I try to encourage students once that they are the level that they have some experience under their belt to understand the importance of context for dancing. Often my favorite classes to teach are taking one movement such as a tuck turn and exploring how it can be altered to match different environments such as different types of songs or if you have a follow who can turn exceptionally well/a lead who pays good attention to their partner.

The difficulty again lies that understanding those different contexts for a move such as a tuck turn or even gaining the level of control over ones personal movement to explore all those possibilities takes practice, time, and patience.  I think the following quote sums up a lot of newer dancers including myself when I first started,

“Asked, in the 1980s, about new dancers, he responded: “They’re looking for too much too quick. They want everything like instant coffee. Nothing works like that, not your mind, not your body, nothing.” – Pepsi Bethel, American Jazz Dancer & Lindy Hopper

Typically newer dancers want a lot of moves and to do them “right”. On a slightly related note I was cleaning up my apartment today since I am moving out soon and came across my notes from some of my first Lindy Hop classes in Southern California. I was literally trying to write out every single detail of how to each move and variation on them that was taught to me.

My struggle as an instructor is I think improvisational and experimental nature of Lindy Hop is one of the things I need to teach and emphasize as a swing dance teacher, however I have to balance this out with understanding the mindset of new or even slightly experienced follows and leads. The importance for me is understanding what I am and am not willing to compromise on and teach accordingly.

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