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

Aut Inveniam Viam Aut Faciam

I have always wondered if other people in the Hammond Building found it strange to hear the sound of desks sliding and screeching across the floor for over an hour.

About four years ago in State College, Pennsylvania I was a new lead and frustrated that follows I danced with couldn’t feel me lead a rock step. The result of that was I decided to take the matter into my own hands. An immobile object wouldn’t compensate for my shitty leading, so I drilled leading rock steps on classroom disks at the top floor of the engineering building in an attempt to get my body to understand the feeling of using my body to create a stretch during a rock step.

The Benefits of an Isolated Scene

The running joke in State College was “we were four hours from everything” and with Washington D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia in that range it wasn’t far from the truth.  As a scene we had 1 hour classes followed by a usually 2 hour dance twice a week and one monthly large dance. Our big deal event was our semester workshop which had international instructors for absurdly low prices such as $20 dollars for a weekend workshop of 8 classes. While it wasn’t the worst situation in the world, it still was no L.A. or Washington D.C. where you have a large community of dancers and regular instruction from nationally recognized instructors.

What it did give us is the gift of forcing those of us who wanted to improve to take ownership of our dancing improvement. We would do stupid things to get in dancing with advanced dancers like leave after colleges classes at like 5pm and drive four hours to Washington D.C. to dance at the Jam Cellar (which at the time as a newbie I was convinced was like the Mecca of dance), stay to the bitter end, and then take shifts driving back to make it home in time for 8 AM classes the next day. I believe I visited Washington D.C. about three different times before I actually saw what it looked like in the daylight.

One memory that stands out in my mind was feeling left out after attending a workshop weekend that during the shim sham I had no idea what it was or how to do it. That became the catalyst which caused me the following week to use the video below and teach myself the entire routine.

The important concept I got from living in a somewhat small/isolated scene is it was not my communities’ responsibility or whatever instructors’ responsibility to help me to improve, it was mine. If I watched a video and thought I looked like shit there was always a mirror to remind myself of whose fault it is.

The Problem

The problem I have noticed in swing dance communities in general is a sizable portion of dancers are not proactive. What I mean by that is they expect to be spoon-fed and given the answers from instructors. Yes, you can learn that way but it is a slow route and not conducive to getting past intermediate at best. Even worse I would argue you are likely to end up more looking like a poor imitation of another dancer instead of developing your own voice or personality in movement.

I’m not saying to completely abandon teachers or classes, obviously those have value. What I am saying is there is a definite value being able to develop yourself as a dancer outside of formal swing dance class and many of those skills such as being able to visually learn and recreate movement have multifaceted applications. When you have classes as your only source of learning then the material your teacher’s present and possibly the social dance floor are your only source of input. However when you choose to attempt to learn something anything you can grasp is a source of inspiration; Frankie Manning, Dean Collins,  Willa Mae Ricker, or Jewel McGowan. Even non Lindy Hop sources are game, one dancer I have personally have pulled from is Maurice Mouvet.

Over the years I’ve had requests for me to teach people some things like swingout variations or solo jazz routines and often my thoughts are, “It’s on youtube, you could learn it tonight instead of waiting around for me to show you.”

An interesting trend is a lot of amazing dancers (including a few from State College) have always had this attitude in dance and in many cases they actively seek out opportunities to work and collaborate with others outside of a traditional workshop and classroom setting whether that is locally or involves travel. Jon Tigert wrote in his blog about his experience when he was in a tiny remote town in Italy for two and a half months and out of the dance loop. Did he use that as an excuse to rest on his laurels and complain about how there was no one to dance with? Hell no, instead he worked his ass off at improving his quality of movement through solo jazz.

Don’t Dream It Be It

Here is my challenge to you dear readers. Take something you have always wanted to learn (within reason, please don’t crack skulls learning aerials off of youtube) and do it. No partner? Post a facebook status, ask people in your classes, or worst case scenario work on solo quality of movement. Tranky Doo, Big Apple, or California Routine? There are videos for all of those online. If you actually take me up on my challenge write in the comments about it or even better show me on video or in person. I’ll leave you with this quote from Mr. Tigert,

So you are wondering how you can become a better dancer, even if you don’t have a partner, or you can’t afford classes. Get off your butt, stop reading blogs and watching videos, put in your earbuds and just dance. – Jon Tigert

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5 responses

  1. Ha! I’m doing my military service right now (obligatory in Greece) and I initially thought I wouldn’t be able to dance at all 😦
    Lucky me, I’ve got night shifts so I can be alone with no one to bother me! So every night I practice solo jazz routines, I’ve already choreographed one routine for a performance that I had a couple of months ago (I knew I would be able to get some days off for that event) and now I’m making up another routine of my own!
    Whenever I get some days off and go back home, everybody is surprised by how I’ve managed to improve my dancing while i’m away (instead of it deteriorating)!

    Ps. sorry if I submitted the comment twice. Having some trouble with my mobile

    August 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm

  2. Pingback: Four Years Gone | It's The Way That You Do It

  3. Erika

    Stumbled across this. This is actually how I’ve gotten to where I am today for the most part. I taught myself the Shim Sham from a series of instructional videos I found on youtube in a few hours, because I had the same “left out” feeling and didn’t like it. I steal/create/fiddle with stylings all the time on things I see at dances or exchanges or videos. Sometimes they are just random bursts of inspiration that actually sometimes work. I want to learn the Tranky Doo and Big Apple Routines for the same reason, I just need the time. I do think classes are useful, but for me at the moment they have been more useful to learn a new move more easily that I then pass on to my college club (I’m the instructor/President this year).

    I’ve had people be honestly surprised that I’ve only been doing Lindy since this past summer, and Swing in general for a year and a half now. I just dance constantly. I’m also a jazz music nerd, and 90% of my youtube watching is Lindy-related.

    March 26, 2014 at 8:39 pm

  4. Pingback: What Should A Scene Provide Its Intermediate and Above Students? | It's The Way That You Do It

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