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

A Few Thoughts on Recent Ambidancetrous Discussions

Not too long ago there was a tumblr post on Ambidancetrous advocating the idea of teaching beginner classes where you have students try out both roles. In addition on the blog The Lindy Affair there was an interview with Anne, a member of Yale’s ambidancetrous scene where she describes her community.

Positive Results from this Community Discussion

What I enjoyed about these posts is that they encouraged discussion in person, on tumblr, on facebook, and even most recently on the Yehoodi talk show. I took the time to talk to several of my students, dance instructors I am friends with, fellow dancers I know, and even a few non-dancers as to how they would feel about the advantages and disadvantages of teaching in this manner. We also explored the tangental conversations that sprung up from exploring this line of conversation.

What I enjoyed the most is that it seriously challenged my views and methods of how I teach dance, which as an instructor I am always trying to test and improve.

My Views As A Student and Participant in the Swing Dance Community

In a previous post I wrote that a few months after I started dancing as a lead, I took several classes as a follow after being thrust suddenly into a teaching role. Until recently, I had forgotten an important fact: that when I enrolled in these classes, I asked the instructors’ permission to take the classes as a male follow. Nothing on the website stated that this was forbidden and neither of the instructors indicated in their speech that I had to choose the role of a lead. Regardless I thought it was the polite thing to do to run it by them first.

When I was learning how to follow, my classmates were generally polite. Once in awhile I would get a question like, “So why are you learning how to follow?” One thing I really appreciated was that I had a few instructors actually point me out in classes and mention what I was doing was a great idea for improving as a dancer. However, there were some notable negative experiences: once I had the unpleasant experience of having a guy outright refuse to dance with me in a workshop class because I was in the rotation as a male follow. Another incident that left a particularly bad taste in my mouth was I when was asked to compete as a lead instead of a follow in a competition because “we don’t have enough leads”.

Organizers, if you label your competition result sheets like this you are doing it wrong. They also may be relabeled.

Organizers, might want to consider the chance that a female lead or a male follow might make finals. This will prevent us from having to relabel things.

Based on my personal experiences I do have to agree that there are definitely social pressures to choose the gendered stereotypes for partnered dancing within classes.  There are still a significant amount of instructors, for example, who use gendered language for roles in classes. It is a tad odd for me, a male follow, to be referred to as a lady during class.

As a student or participant in a community, I will fully admit I have a bias. I’m a natural extrovert and it makes me not as empathetic to others as I should be at times. However, I have had to learn as a teacher, that not everyone is as comfortable in an unfamiliar social situation. Most newbies when they are taking their first dance class already have enough apprehensions to deal with; adding onto the heap the idea that people might see them as the odd one in the group could steer them from a role they were curious about in order to fit in with their class and appease anxieties they may have.

I Like My Vegetarian/Vegan Friends

On a tangent I am addressing this post “Why a lead who doesn’t follow is like a vegan making barbecue.” The author writes about the idea that instructors should know both roles in order to be effective at their job. I agree with this point, please no more classes where I have leads telling me “you just follow” as advice on how to understand that role.

However where I disagree with this blog post is that it implies that you need to pick up the other role to be a better dancer. Learning the other role in swing dancing competently is not the only avenue nor a necessity to becoming a better dancer. I have many vegetarian/vegan friends and peers who are amazing dancers, as in they compete and place at the big name competitions like ILHC and such. However in spite of being fairly experienced dancers, when they dance in their non-primary role some of them are absolute rubbish.

I’m not going to disagree that learning the other role does provide some advantages, especially in terms of being considerate to individuals in dancing. However I disagree with the tone this post takes where it implies that one is at a serious disadvantage if they do not learn both roles.

My Views As A Teacher in the Swing Dance Community

To give a short background of my teaching experience I have been teaching swing dance for about 3+ years on the East Coast of the United States. Usually local drop-in classes, monthly series, and the occasional one-day workshop out of my local area. As just a general dancer I travel a lot and tend to go to larger national/international competition events and nearby smaller regional events.

What this background means is that as a teacher, skill acquisition and/or improvement for my students is a high priority. For other instructors, creating an inclusive environment where students feel welcome or ensuring their students have fun may be more of a priority. Now I am not saying that I do not factor those other two things in when I teach; in beginner classes making sure my students have fun and are comfortable is my main priority. Beginner classes are the equivalent of sticking your foot in the pool to see if the water is okay, and I know the majority of people taking their first swing dance class aren’t there to throw down in a competition the next month. However, making sure that I provide the base fundamentals of the dance I am teaching and allowing my students the opportunity to succeed is something I am not willing to compromise on.

I think that teaching a beginner class with students learning both roles in a 45 min to 1 hour time frame (typical for swing dancing) is not an optimal idea. This is based on my experience as someone who has danced and competed in both lead and follow roles in the last few years, taught beginner classes where people learn both roles, and has been teaching for a few years. This has been further reinforced by discussions I have had with other instructors.Interestingly enough though, for Blues it seems to work perfectly fine.

The main reason why I think it works for Blues and not so much for Lindy Hop is while both dances take a considerable amount of skill to do well, as a new dancer Blues has a lower barrier of entry. Certain dances are easier to social dance at the beginning of one’s dance education. In my beginner 6-count swing drop-in dance classes a noticeable portion of my class struggles to do one role barely competently. While there is overlap between the two roles of lead and follow, it is a fact that each role does inherently pose unique challenges. When I have had students trying to tackle all of the challenges of the roles of both lead and follow in a 45 min to 1 hour time span for a typical 6-count swing beginner class, often a notable portion of my class did not get to the level of competency that I am satisfied with as an instructor.

Am I completely against the idea of an ambidancetrous newbie class for Lindy Hop? Nope. I think a beginner 6-count class for Lindy Hop can be taught ambidancetrous if you have more time, such as 1h and 30 minutes and/or if the class has a considerable amount of already experienced dancers in rotation. Another option is teaching a weekly series instead of a drop-in class, because you will have more time to work with students.

Closing Thoughts

Overall while I think exploring the idea of teaching both roles to students in a class is an interesting concept with a potential for positive results such as allowing one to be an effective instructor, gives insight to dancers about the challenges faced by both roles, and addresses issues of gender equality within the swing dance community. However based on my experience an instructor and a dancer who dances both roles I do not believe this should be at the expense of possibly leaving new students not receiving a basic amount of knowledge in their beginner classes.

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7 responses

  1. When I interviewed Anne, I struggled with this concept, too – but I also had trouble explaining why I didn’t think it would be ideal in most scenarios.

    I do wish, however, that there were a better way to encourage dancers to try both roles – or at least to make it a common and accepted occurrence. Recently, I’ve toyed with finding an instructor who is male and teaching an entire series of classes where I lead and the guy follows. It’d be great to do at the intermediate level, I think, to encourage dancers to consider trying both sides of the partnership.

    Great post!

    August 11, 2013 at 3:25 am

    • Carimoves,

      Thanks! I admit it was difficult figuring out the phrasing to convey why I felt it was an ideal situation as well. Part of the reason this post came out much later than I would have preferred is I spent the time chatting with different friends/instructors about the topic (in addition to getting it edited).

      I think your idea in having a male follow and a female lead is great. A sad but amusing story I have related to that is I one day I was going to teach a class in swivels as a follow awhile back. I had an organizer for a scene come up to me and convey (somewhat awkwardly) that she thought it would be more appropriate if that lesson came from a girl. I was half tempted to reply, “Bring me a girl in the room who has done as well in competitions as a follow and i’ll let her teach the class.” (which was zero). It was disappointing how potentially making some people feel uncomfortable because it may challenge their view of gender roles was valued over effective instruction in that case.

      August 11, 2013 at 2:20 pm

  2. Secretcat

    I want to establish two qualities of movement. “Masculine” and “Feminine.” Masculine movement is strong, confident, and defining. Feminine movement is lithe, playful, responsive, and inhabiting. A high-level swing or blues lead will be a masculine lead, and a high-level swing or blues follow will be a feminine follow. I believe the above to be statistically proven, and I also believe that all people fit into one category or other, regardless of genitals. I believe that we should not force masculine and feminine people to take both roles; instead, we should let them the one they feel like and go from there.

    August 12, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    • MoreSecretCat

      Um, what? I’d first like you to google “androgyny”.

      SHOW ME YOUR STATISTICS, ASSHOLE. It doesn’t matter what you “believe”.

      August 12, 2013 at 7:29 pm

      • SecretestCat

        Bold claims Secretcat. I’d like to see what evidence you have to back it up. I’ve danced with Leads I could easily describe as, “playful, responsive, and inhabiting.”

        August 12, 2013 at 8:03 pm

  3. Yay. Great post! I’m a huge advocate of an ability to understand all sides of what you are investing time in. When it comes to dancing, being able to understand the full story of what you’re doing is vital to having a well rounded account of its purpose. As an instructor, my ability to lead and follow I feel gives me not only an advantage in the classroom but on the dance floor where I can dance with all my students.

    As a dancer, being able to lead and follow allows me to dance to every single song, and not have to feel out numbered by one “roles” presence (as a majority of dances tend to be “follow heavy”).

    Speaking as someone who’s danced for over 7 years, I personally began leading because I lived in a dance scene ( as many do) where the leader to follower ratio was atrocious, and I was sick of standing on the sidelines. I found it initially a new challenge for my dancing. It didn’t become a confusing learning curve battle for me developing both at the same time. Just as you learn two styles at once, but tend to focus attention a bit more on one than the other, i did so with roles. As I continued develop my dancing, both sides of my dancer mind also developed. I had the opportunity to also compete at international leveled events in both roles. One role, follow, was always predominant, though I definitely classify myself as a component dancer on both ends. And I feel I’m more competent in each role because I know the other.

    I’d also like to think of the dance not so much as “masculine” and “feminine”, but approaching it by seeing the aesthetic in different textures or lines, soft lines vs sharp lines. Also, I’d like to think what the qualities described by SecretCat should exist in all dancers. What dancer wouldn’t want to be strong, confidence, (could you define “defining” a bit more?), playful and responsive? Or want a partner who is all those things??!

    Amidancetrousness for the win!!!!!!

    August 13, 2013 at 1:37 am

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

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