Commonly compared to herding cats, volunteer coordinating is a tricky and stressful job. However with good foresight and planning, you too can make sure all of your event responsibilities have a volunteer assigned and prevent wanting to hit your head against a brick wall.
Today we have a guest blog post by Brandi Ferrebee, who is experienced at many event organizer roles including being a volunteer coordinator.
Brandi lives in Baltimore, where she dances at the raucous and eternal Mobtown Ballroom. She’s served in any number of middle management roles at Lindy hop, Balboa, and blues dance events. Favorite event tasks include shifting dance floor panels in a dress at 3 a.m., buying end-of-event whiskey for event owners, putting all the faces in order when she counts the cashbox for the fifth time, picking up kale salads for Ramona, and yelling at raccoons. The surest places to find Brandi in the coming year are at Hot Mess, Lindy Focus, and the Experiment.
Hello, brave soul. They tell me that you want to coordinate volunteers for a dance event. God save you. Enclosed here is my guide to not going absolutely, mind-numbingly bonkers over this job. It can be terrible, or it can actually go pretty smoothly. This is my guide to doing it pretty smoothly. Start planning as far out from the event as possible– like a the end of the previous year’s event, or 6 months out. – Brandi
Guide to Volunteer Coordinating
Find Out Who Did This Before
- Who was on staff the last time this event happened? Who do you know of that has coordinated volunteers at similar events, or within your dance organization, or in the region your event takes place in? If you can find those people, pick their brains for what went well and what didn’t. Also, save this information for the next step…
Create list of “Preferred” and “Oh Hell No” Volunteers
- Look, there will be wonderful people who you could drop a stack of $100 bills in front of, run off, and then they would pick up all the bills, face them in the same direction, rubber band them, and chase you down to return the money. You’re gonna want to know who they are so that you can use them—especially, say, on cash box.
- There will be people who regularly skip out on shifts, get in verbal fights with event directors, try to sneak off to the dance during their shifts, etc. You’ll want to know who they are so you can avoid them.
- There will also be people who just need special instruction, are good for specific jobs only, etc. These people can be very useful if applied properly.
- Keep a list of all these people. Google doc it, label your tabs, share it, notate it, confer with other events, etc. Everyone will appreciate you.
- Especially consult this list when you’re considering giving out a high number of hours to volunteers (more than 4-6 hours in a weekend, depending on the event) and want to be sure you won’t be left in the lurch.
- Don’t know anything about someone emailing you who wants to volunteer for 10 hours? Ask for references from their work at other events. Then actually follow up on those references. This can be really useful, and give unknown-to-you volunteers a chance to get more involved and give you a chance to get to know other organizers.
- Bow down to the beautiful terror of the no-go list. Do not hurt thyself.
- Figure out good, trusted, flexible people for jobs that may or may not actually be needed, like driving instructors/musicians/DJs, getting lunches, dealing with things that come up, etc. These are your lifesavers.
Have a Plan To Handle Money
- Work with the other event directors. Figure out what works best with your culture/budget. But for the love of god, pay those kids somehow, because we still live in a capitalist society, and they need to eat.
- $10 an hour is pretty standard. I like to pay this, in cash, at the end of the event/the volunteer’s last shift unless otherwise agreed upon. This ensures that they show up until the end, and that they know we value their work. Checks are just complicated. Don’t do that to yourself.
- You can also pay people in discounted admission to the event, but I would advise not doing this unless you really trust the volunteer and they have a strong track record. There are people on my “Oh Hell No” list for skipping out on their shifts after they’ve been let in free to the event on the understanding they’d work a crapload of hours. Guard thyself.
- Some events have people work and allow them to get event swag as payment. To each their own.
Get the Word Out
- Figure out how those potential volunteers will contact you. Email? Facebook? a Google Form? Any of these are acceptable, but I usually go with an event-based volunteer-specific gmail account. Post on the website, facebook page, event page, your facebook, etc etc etc everywhere forever how to contact you to volunteer. Start around the time of registration opening and keep pushing it until the week before or so.
- I’d advise setting up an auto-responder if you got that volunteers-at-this-event-specifically email address set up. Have it thank them for contacting you and let them know you’ll get back to them once a schedule has been established.
- When a schedule has been established, make a spreadsheet (Google sheets is my preference) and make columns for name, phone number, email, times can definitely work, times cannot work, and other comments.
Make a Schedule
- Work with the other organizers to figure out when you will need people to watch the door, set up the venue, break down the venue, provide snacks, drive people or food, etc. etc. Think of everything. Quiz others to make sure you’ve thought of everything.
- Make a spreadsheet (Google. You can share it with others easily.) and make the whole schedule in half-hour or hour increments. Figure out how many slots you need to fill. This would be a good time to let the organizers know how many slots times how much reimbursement equals how much they need to have on hand.
Get Info From Volunteers
- Still advertising for needing volunteers? Good.
- Now respond to all those emails (BCC) and ask them for:
- Full name
- Email address
- Cell phone number
- Local/out-of-towner (when are they arriving?)
- Car/transportation plan
Schedule Those Kitties
- Panic about having too few/too many volunteers for your allotted number of slots.
- Make schedule anyway.
- Use Google calendar (sensing a theme yet?) associated with that email account you made. Put in all the needed times to be filled in one calendar color, then put in all the times each volunteer is able to work in another color. (This will take some time and seem messy, but it’s totally worth it, I promise.) This will show you times that will be hard to fill, easy to fill, etc and will make it much easier to figure out scheduling those animals.
- Figure out which volunteers get first pick. Trusted volunteers, those needing maximum hours for pass, ones with weird scheduling issues, those who can fill obvious problem times usually go first.
- Create the final schedule in yet another color. Hide the availability calendar for your sanity, but keep it around in case you need to cover a shift quickly.
- Also enter the final schedule into another tab of your volunteer contacting spreadsheet. You will share (view-only) with your volunteers, organizing staff, and printer. Print a bunch of those things, and use them on the ground to confirm who worked their shifts.
Spread the Word
- When you send out the schedule, make it clear that you have included contact information for other volunteers. If someone’s shifts do not work for some reason, it is their responsibility to find a replacement. Both they and the replacement MUST confirm the change. Also, let them know the consequences for not showing up or not showing up on time (decide what “on time” means to you and your event.)
You’re Actually There. This is Happening.
- Maybe have a meeting the first night to make the volunteers all look at your face and each others’ faces. Remind them about lateness, covering shifts, payment, etc. Train as needed for the positions they’ll be working.
- The volunteer coordinator or event manager need to oversee every turnover, training and checking in on volunteers who are doing their job for the first time as necessary.
- In my opinion, volunteers who do not show up on time (5-15 minutes or more late) should not get paid for that shift. Period. This is paid work, and you can’t afford to have shit go down.
- Printed volunteer schedules should be at desk/cash box, with all event managers/main base, and on the person of the volunteer coordinator at all times.
- Records should be kept on volunteer coordinator’s schedule of who has worked what shifts so as to keep hour totals. Hour totals are how you pay people at the end!
Pay People at the End!
- If you’re going my way, have the other organizers get you enough cash to pay everyone. Have lots of tens. FOR GOD’S SAKE, BE CAREFUL. Pay out in cash at the last shifts of each worker unless otherwise agreed.
- Make sure each volunteers literally signs off on their hours and that they were paid.
Party with the other Organizers
- Because you’ve paid everyone and survived the event!
Get Back to Work
- Take notes within a week on what went well, what could be improved, and which volunteers are now better known to be trustworthy/scum. Use your volunteer “Preferred” and “Oh Hell No” lists. Share the wealth of your experiences with others.
Thanks for reading! Now, please be good to yourself. – Brandi
Thanks Brandi for the informative post and Jessica Keener for permission to use her photography! If you have any advice or stories about coordinating volunteers or being a volunteer yourself, we would love to hear it. Feel free to leave a few words in the comment selection below or even write your own blog response.
Whiskey and swingouts go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s no surprise that many dancers love the idea of having a dance at a bar. However the reality of the situation is many of these bar dances are short-lived, often because bars don’t make money on dance nights. I’d like to see more bar dances flourish, so I have written this guide targeted toward dancers who plan to attending them.
1. Spend as much as you would on non-dancing night out at a bar
Typically if you go to a bar or club it will cost you between $0-$10 dollars depending upon how posh it is for cover. On top of that you will be likely to have one to three drinks which will probably cost you $5-$10 each if you don’t go for anything particularly fancy. If there is no cover often there will be a tip jar or bucket for the DJ or band.
I would recommending bringing enough cash to buy a few drinks or food. In addition if there is not a cover fee, I would bring some extra cash on top of that to tip the DJ or band. Cash means you can tip the people providing music and all the money you spend goes to the bar. Credit/Debit is a no go because it means you can’t tip the people providing you music and the bar is losing part of the money to transaction fees.
Bar making a profit = you having a fun bar you can dance at.
2. Be even more conscious about floorcraft than usual
As mentioned in an earlier post, while individuals may be more understanding at swing dances in studios and ballrooms. In bars non-dancers are likely to be less understanding if you run into them, especially if you knock over their beer.
To again quote Peter Loggins from his blog post Back in New Orleans,
If you want to learn how to be an exhibition dancer, that’s good for you, but don’t be surprised when a big Jarhead beats the shit out you after you accidentally kick him. It might be fine to kick each other at dances, studio’s and festivals but in the real world all bets are off….
Err on the side of caution when you are dancing in a public space.
Example of Public Space: Happy Feet Monday at (Joe’s Bar & Grill, Burbank, CA) featuring John Reynolds’ N. Hollywood 4 and friends
3. Remember you are going to a bar not a dance studio. Act accordingly.
When was the last time your non-dancing friends said you were going to a bar and you brought along a water bottle and dance bag? That’s right you didn’t (unless if you were attending a dance after).
Things to bring:
- Your wallet with identification and cash inside
Things not to bring:
- Water bottle
- 3+ pairs of shoes
- Dance bag
- Raggity looking t-shirt from that exchange you attended
- Floor wax (seriously don’t do this, venues get pissed if you do this without permission)
I’ve written a previous post on what to do when attending an event with a live band, which is useful information if the bar has a band playing for you. A slight tangent but if you are at a bar with live music which hasn’t been advertised as a dance it is always polite to ask the band if it is okay to dance. Some musicians find it disrespectful and intrusive to non-dancers who are trying to listen to the band if you are blocking their view with dancing.
Lastly, common sense in normal life applies at bar dances as well. Know your limits drinking, if you are the type of person that your floorcraft becomes rubbish after 3 drinks, perhaps 2 is the right option. If you plan to dance a lot and drink, make sure to get some water so you don’t get dehydrated. If you plan to drink have a safe way to get home.
If there are any nuggets of knowledge you would like to share or questions about dancing in bars you may have, feel free to leave a comment in the box below!
Throwing someone out of a venue is an unpleasant responsibility that the majority of organizers have to deal with. I have found there is a lack of easy to find resources out there on how to do it. In result I am writing a brief guide of what I recommend when removing people from a venue based on my own personal experiences and what I learned talking to police officials and other organizers.
Note: I am not a legal professional and none of this should be construed as legal advice. I highly recommend you talk to a lawyer and/or your local police officials about the laws related to trespassing and removal of individuals from your premises.
The best way to deal with throwing people out of your swing dance venue is to avoid having to do it in the first place. I have found a good portion of individuals are not intentionally malicious but often miss social cues or fall under the popular label “socially awkward”.
I find it is common in a lot of swing dance communities to ignore uncomfortable behavior until it comes to a breaking point where one is forced to take action. I think a lot of these confrontational situations could be prevented by addressing the questionable behavior earlier with a friendly warning. While it can be uncomfortable giving these warnings often you can with a few words cause a person to adjust their behavior to make an event a better time for that person and the people they interact with.
When I have had to issue friendly warnings I make sure:
- We are in a setting that other dancers can’t overhear so they are not embarrassed in front of their peers.
- Note: Depending upon the context it is sometimes better to do this with another organizer for safety reasons and/or to have a witness.
- I make this about their actions and not about them as a person.
- I frame it in a manner that the warning comes from wanting them to have a good time and not cause any potential trouble for them. Avoid coming off as intimidating or threatening.
- Don’t argue or debate the point, just state what you have to say.
- Even if it is a minor warning log that it occurred somewhere, preferably in an email or a document that has a timestamp. In the unfortunate event that the situation escalates down the road that information has the potential to be useful.
Ideally any event staff ranging from the head organizers, DJs, to instructors should be informed on how to issue early and friendly warnings. An important thing to also realize is this isn’t something you are instantly good at but improve at over time. Peter Strom in this instructor forum hosted by Yehoodi below talks about when he was asking a lead at a local venue to stop lifting people on the social dance floor. Even though he was doing the right thing he vocalized the how the difficulty in the process and how he himself could have handled it better in the future.
If a friendly warning doesn’t work then warnings with a more serious tone and actionable items declared at the end of them such as removal from the venue for that night or permanent eviction is a route to take. Here is an example of a conversation to a theoretical dancer named Johnny that displays this method of issuing a warning,
“Johnny, we have had two conversations with you before about leading aerials on the social dance floor. There have complaints before from follows that it makes them feel uncomfortable and it goes against our insurance policy. If we have another report of it happening again we will have to ask you to leave and not return for at least two weeks.”
Lastly, one of the useful features of having organizational policies or a code of conduct is it gives something you can easily cite when issuing these warnings or in the unfortunate case of having to remove someone from your venue.
Removing Someone From Your Venue
Sadly there are cases when people act out in ways that are completely inappropriate or they do not heed your warnings and continue in behavior that makes other dancers uncomfortable or outright endangers them. When you have to remove someone from your venue it should come as no surprise to them because it should be after:
- They have taken actions which have clearly crossed the line.
- They have been issued multiple warnings with the last warning informing the person that the next action to be taken will be removal and banning from the premises.
When the decision has been made that someone needs to be removed whether it is just for that night or a permanent ban, similar guidelines are followed to issuing a warning with a fairly different tone.
- Be in a private setting where you still feel safe. It is highly recommended to have another staff member with you for safety reasons and to have a witness.
- Tell the person you are ask them to leave the premises (this includes the parking lot) and inform them of the duration they are banned as the starting point of the conversation. Be respectful but firm during the entire conversation.
- Cite the actions they took and any previous warnings issued if relevant on why they are being asked to leave however do not argue or debate the point.
- If the individual refuses to leave issue them a trespass warning and state that their two options are to leave quietly or that the police will be called to escort them off the premises.
- File an incident report that lists all the individuals involved, references to previous incidents, time, date, place, and other relevant information.
- If relevant inform the local authorities and/or other local organizers.
While I know often the behaviors of these individuals will make you want to react like the picture above. The important thing is to remain professional and not escalate the situation any further than it needs to.
I’ve had requests to share some incidents where I have had to remove people from venues or classes I have taught. I’d like to iterate that in both of these incidents they were not easy things to do and with the benefit of hindsight I can see ways I could have handled them better.
Harassment of A Minor at a College Campus
The first incident I was one of the main organizers for a college club. I was informed one night at a dance that an older community member who was not a college student said an inappropriate comment to a minor attending our dance from the local high school. Infuriated does not even begin to describe how I felt upon receiving this news.
A shortsighted decision in retrospect, I walked up to this individual and asked him to immediately leave. He proceeded to in a condescending manner attempt to lecture me on the way I should have handled the incident, how legal action may be a response, and generally attempting to intimidate me. After a few minutes of this he finally conceded to leave.
I reported the incident to the local authorities and they informed me if he ever showed up again to state he was trespassing and if he refused to leave to not discuss the matter with him further and call them to remove him. Lo and behold he showed up about two weeks later in spite of us sternly saying to leave and never come back.
As the police instructed me to do I went up to him and stated he was trespassing on the premises and he needed to leave immediately or I would inform the police. He refused to leave and attempted to engage me in debate about the topic. I promptly informed him I was calling the police, proceeded to ignore him, asked another staff member go watch him and I then called the police. The police kept me in a separate room under police surveillance while they escorted him out of the building. I later found he was banned from two other college clubs for similar behavior and this incident lead to the college campus banning him permanently from campus grounds.
Things I learned:
- Log incidents, when dealing with the police they will want as much detail as possible.
- When removing them calm yourself down to the point that you can deal with them professionally and isolate them from the general public when informing them that they have to leave.
- Communicate with your local organizations, they can inform you of prior incidents which allow you to make more informed decisions.
- When relevant inform local organizations of individuals you have removed to create a safe community.
Stalking of A Student at A Dance Studio
The second incident was at a dance studio I organize for and teach at. Another organizer in town sent me an email informing that he had banned a person from his venue because this individual was aggressively hitting on a person in spite of her saying she was not interested and asking them to stop and later was found following her in his car. I was completely oblivious to this behavior and found this email surprising.
Our studio from the beginning has had a code of conduct. I drafted an email stating that because this individual’s actions had broken our code of conduct they were banned from the premises. I had another organizer review to ensure this is the wording we wanted to come from our organization and we sent it out. The individual responded that while they didn’t agree with our decision that they would not show up to our classes/events again.
Things I learned:
- Communication between organizations is important. This person could have habitually scared off different dancers if the behavior was not reported.
- When in doubt if your actions as a staff member or organizer are correct, err on the side of caution and consult another staff member when appropriate.
- While a code of conduct or policies are useful as a method of deterrence off the bat, they are also useful in situations where you have to explain why certain behaviors lead to certain consequences.
Questions for Everyone
I hope that my knowledge as an organizer and instructor of a few years is useful to anyone reading this. However what I would like to hear is from other instructors and organizers your stories, knowledge, and experiences whether it is on your own blog, in the comments section, or even in local discussions within your own community. I think the more information out there about this topic there is the better so we can look for ways to improve our methods on handling incidents like these to make our community a safer place.
Lindy Focus this year in a move that it has cemented its place among notable swing dance events had an all star band led by Jonathan Stout.
Jerry Almonte has an excellent write up in his article titled, “Lindy Focus All Star Big Band Scorecard” that has an overview of why these particular nights of music were so special.
During the event the first four nights were tributes to the great big band leaders of the swing era. In addition Lindy Focus had their own blog this year which did a blog post about each band leader which you should check out.
- Count Basie Night – Saturday, 12/27/2014
- Artie Shaw Night – Sunday, 12/28/2014
- Duke Ellington Night – Monday, 12/29/2014
- Benny Goodman Night – Tuesday, 12/30/2014
Many swing dancers have listened to songs by these bands, but not everyone has seen what they looked like on film. In result I wanted to post film clips of each of these band leaders and their bands for those who have not had the opportunity to enjoy them yet.
Featuring Jimmy Rushing, here is “Sent For You Yesterday.”
From the 1943 Columbia film, “Reveille with Beverly” is “One O’Clock Jump.”
The Count Basie Orchestra of 1962 playing “Corner Pocket.”
From the 1938 short, “Artie Shaw and His Orchestra” is “Begin the Beguine.”:
From the 1939 film “Dancing Co-Ed” is the song “Traffic Jam.”
A clip infamous among most Collegiate Shag dancers, from the 1939 short, “Symphony of Swing” is “Lady Be Good.”
Also from the film, “Reveille with Beverly” from 1943 is “Take The A Train.”
In the 1942 Soundie “Jam Session” features Ellington and his band playing “C Jam Blues.”
A 1943 performance of a song that helped define the Swing Era, “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”
From the 1937 film titled “Hollywood Hotel” one of Benny Goodman’s classics, “Sing Sing Sing.”
From the 1943 film “Powers Girl” featuring swing dancers Dean Collins and Jewel McGowen is the song “Roll Em.”
From the 1943 film “Stage Door Canteen” featuring Helen Ward on vocals is “Why Don’t You Do Right.”
A little over a month ago I attended a Friday night dance they have in Las Vegas named Algarve Swings. A local that goes by the moniker, “Vegas Nick” was kind enough to give me a ride back to the hotel I was staying at downtown after. During the ride he asked me how long I have been dancing and after my reply of, “A little over 5 years” I found his reply of something to the effect of “Oh, so you are still new” amusing.
It was a great reminder that swing dancing, like any relationship changes with age and that even though many dancers would consider five-ish years a long time, for the individuals who have been dancing 10+ years it’s just a drop in the bucket. What I have learned from this constantly changing relationship is a topic that has been running through my mind lately and that I want to explore today.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
When I was a newer dancer, my first exciting foray out of my swing dance bubble in State College, Pennsylvania and to the big wide word of the Lindy Hop community was the Oberlin Jazz Dance Festival (OJDF) at Oberlin College in Ohio. It was a great experience interacting with individuals who were not just taught different vocabulary and in a different manner than us, but came from a fairly different college environment in general.
Later in my dancing journey, I got to go on more exciting adventures such as my visit to the Baltimore Strut, back when it was literally on the wrong side of the train tracks and performance gigs where l learned fun things in usual situations such as how to deal with slides while dancing on a moving U.S.A. Victory-class cargo ship.
Related to that, Aaron Draplin in the talk I have linked below says,
Get out there and get wild, get dirty.
The week I spent dancing in crowded bars to live bands in New Orleans taught me a tremendous amount about floorcraft and performing in a public space. It would hard pressed to get that experience anywhere else. That’s the thing dancers who travel frequently try to convey to those that don’t, there are experiences you can’t get in class or your local dance scene.
What was important about these experiences is they pushed me out of my comfort-zone as a person and as a dancer. One thing that has not changed from any scene I have lived in is getting people to travel for the first event is a hard sell, however it opens up new avenue of possibilities for ones’ own dancing and allows you to connect with dancers in the larger swing dance community.
Swing Dancing is about People
One of my more poignant memories of Herräng Dance Camp is a moment Kendra Strode who witnessed it as well describes during a talk she gave at LindyCon:
A quick summary, at Herräng, one of the largest swing dance events in the world there was an incident where someone refused to dance with someone because of their level. In result at one of the nightly meetings an instructor publicly declared the statement from the photo below.
I think it’s important for people to be reminded that dancing isn’t just a transaction where you are trying to get is a “good dance” out of your partner. For two to four minutes you are sharing moment with a person to jazz music, it is a beautiful thing. I think there are people who get caught up in climbing whatever “Lindy Hop Hierarchy” or becoming “Good” that they lose sight of that.
Be Passionate About What You Like & What You Hate
One thing that has stood out for me in the most recent years is organizers have started to be more vocal about the things they do and don’t value.
Mobtown Ballroom and more recently Lindy Focus have codes of conduct where they state, “Hey, if you take part in shitty behavior we will kick you out of our venue.” The fact that more weekly dances and events are adopting similar documentation is a great step forward and for those who do get in unfortunate situations within our community, these policies can be a source of recourse for them.
The proliferation of live music now at almost any swing dance event in the world is proof in my eyes to how having authentic swing era jazz for our events is a key value in our community these days. I’ve even joined the trend of the “almost too-strange-to-be-true phenomenon of Lindy Hoppers maturing their own musical skills” as Jerry Almonte put it by taking up the clarinet the last few months. One thing I think we have to be wary of though is often people join our dance without having a background in the type of music we like, introducing them to an appreciation of it while not coming off as alienating or elitist is something we should keep in mind.
We’ve matured as a community, going in hand with that we have gotten past the point of where running our finances off the books and doing work without contracts is acceptable behavior. We’ve started to get better at it as a community, but there is still much room for improvement. Having business agreements/contacts are important so you don’t end up with shitty situations like an instructor expected to stay at the entire social dance without pay after a 8 hour flight or warned in advance that it was an expectation. Mikey Pedroza talks about it on the Yehoodi Talkshow below that things just go smoothly when things are on paper. After working with 5+ different sets of international instructors at my college as an organizer, I am inclined to agree as well.
Sam from Dogposssum has some excellent posts on the topic. Borrowed from those posts are some quick bullet-points which I think if you are an organizer and haven’t yet should start adopting, like right now.
- Explicit contracts for anyone who works with you. This goes from instructors (weekly & international), DJs, and volunteers.
- Pay and/or compensate your DJs, musicians, teachers, and volunteers fairly.
- Get some kind of general policies or code of conduct for your organization and make it publicly available.
- Trust me, as someone who threw someone out of a venue this will be useful to have as a resource.
I haven’t been writing too much this year because I have been busy with my own projects, however I plan to change that in 2015. If I could ask my readers to do anything going forward is try every once in awhile to be adventurous.
That can be as simple as walking to a different part of the room you normally dance in and dancing with someone new to heading to an event several hundred miles away from your home scene to have some new experiences. Most importantly make connections with people, because that is what our dance is about.
I often like to ask local dancers and students for opinions or suggestions of things they would like to change to improve things for them. One suggestion I recently got has resonated with me and spurred discussion with other dancers I know ranging from former New School Swing instructors I am friends with to dancer friends I know in Montreal. What the dancers requested was creating resources for students who were at the intermediate or above level. This in turn brought the idea to my mind of,
“What resources a scene should be providing to intermediate or above students?”
I felt ill prepared to deal with this question because as I mentioned in a previous post, besides my occasional forays into Southern California most of my time was spent learning how to dance in an isolated town in Central Pennsylvania. In result ownership for my own dance education was something I was forced to take on much earlier than dancers in larger cities that had an infrastructure to support them.
One conversation I had about the topic was with my friend, Annabel Quisao who was at Penn State around the same time as myself. Here is a small snippet of our conversation,
Annabel – I definitely think that some classes geared toward intermediate dancers would give them a leg up and be one of these places for inspiration, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what keeps that level of dancer coming back or trying to improve. Once one gets to that level, there has to be some self discovery and ownership of one’s improvement.
Me – That last sentence about discovery and ownership of one’s improvement is my feeling about the whole situation as well. I wonder at times though if that was a by-product of us being stuck out in State College.
Annabel – The thing is that the scene still needs to find those moments of inspiration for the intermediate dancer so that they have the motivation they need. I do think that in State College, the inspiration came from the travelling and the desire to keep the whole scene going and to do that, we all needed to get better so that Penn State was a legitimate Lindy hop community. In some ways, I think teaching before you really are comfortable with the material is one of the fastest ways to have to take ownership.
A thing to note is Annabel brought up the idea that inspiration is what is important to dancers at that stage. I know many people including myself when they are asked the reason why they travel so far and invest some serious cash to make it out to ILHC is because is for the inspiration. I am inclined to agree with Annabel’s opinion because I think in order to become an advanced dancer part of that is finding ones’ own way to add artistic expression to their dancing. A good start is finding a source of inspiration, often imitation then innovation is a good route to go.
Unfortunately discovering original self-expression is a unique and difficult endeavor. While it is something that can be encouraged or coaxed out of a person, I personally believe it can’t be “taught” in classes. To add to the confusion it seems each person gets there via a different journey which is troublesome for people who like a formulaic approach to things.
Resources is a thing that comes to mind as someone who helps organize things for a scene. Perhaps it is because I have read World War Z too many times, but when I think about resources the term that comes to mind is “Return on Investment” a.k.a. ROI.
For example one of the reasons why I focus my time helping to train new and current DJs in my local scene is I believe they affect the most people due to they control the music at the dances. The music at the dances in turn determines (ideally) how people dance. From a ROI perspective with 1 hour spent with 5-10 people talking about DJing this is great because I can potentially affect several hundred people depending upon the number of gigs each DJ plays in the upcoming weeks.
When I think about offering services for intermediate or above students I have an ROI conundrum. On one hand there is a chance that some of these students can potentially become teachers or sources of inspiration dancers down the road. It’s similar to planning a fruit tree and have it bloom with many seeds for the future. On the other hand these same people are a very small segment of the dancing population in my local scene. If you take the set of all dancers in a scene the higher perceived level for a dancer such as “intermediate” or “advanced” the smaller the subset exists. One could make an argument that from a ROI perspective I should focus on my larger segment of the population a.k.a. “beginners”.
When a scene has limited resources it is a decision between choosing by allocating resources to beginners who often are the ones who pay the bills to more experienced dancers who can possibly become pillars of your scene in the future. No one is psychic and can predict the future exactly, I would say a start to figuring things out from a logistical perspective is determining what the organizations who are in charge of a scene values so their resource investments further the scene moving in that direction.
Root of The Problem
Like I said before, people are always looking for an easy to follow recipe to win more competitions, become a professional dancer, or what religion or political party, if any, to follow. And the answer that people don’t like to hear is that its all very complicated and depends on a lot of stuff, some of which you can control, and a lot of which you can’t. But they don’t have time for that kind of critique or self reflection especially for something like Lindy Hop.
– Yehoodi User JSAlmonte
To me a big part of becoming an advanced dancer is deciding what you as a person value in swing dancing and finding an effective way to communicate that, you must develop a personal taste for what is good dancing. A common pitfall I find many dancers stumble upon is they think the “recipe” to getting advanced is the imitation of better dancers (Skye clones ring a bell for anybody?) and often that results in them just looking like a caricature of the person they admire.
To discover what you like or value is a task that involves experimentation, taking risks, finding sources of inspiration, and going on adventures which are difficult to make time for if you have the approach of a cookie cutter mindset or if you want structured classes where instructors will tell you to do X, Y, and Z. I believe for a community to be successful in providing avenues for dancers to improve at the intermediate level and beyond is by creating environments where artistic experimentation is encouraged and if possible rewarded.
Many scenes currently provide solutions such as weekend events usually focused on bringing in international instructors to provide inspiration and instructor or organizing teams for performance opportunities. These are not bad choices, but there exists the potential to create opportunities to push our intermediate and above dancers.
For example the Seattle Lindy Exchange sponsors this amazing contest every year known as the Jazz Dance Film Fest Contest. There is some high caliber clips that have come out of this contest and in addition due to there is no entry fee, so an individual who maybe wouldn’t compete in a public performance setting are happy to do so for a film.
One thing I would like to see come back that was more frequent during the Neo-Swing era are monthly or even weekly competitions. This is something I feel Southern California still does to this day and oddly not many other scenes (to my knowledge) still do. The prizes can be as simple as free admittance to the dance next week and the contests can be run fairly casually. The whole idea is providing the opportunity for dancers in their local scene to throw down and express themselves in a riskier environment than social dancing.
Another thing I have viewed many scenes do online is starting an email listserv or Facebook group for carpools/travel information so dancers in a scene or in close by scenes can network to travel to events. Surprisingly many dancers even at the intermediate level are not aware of resources such as SwingPlanIt and groups like these can bring them the awareness of popular out of town events and ease the facilitation of travel.
I have provided some solutions but it’s only a small smattering of the potential things a scene can do to help their intermediate and above students out. As long as solutions provide opportunity to allow dancers to experiment, take risks, or be inspired I think it’s a step in the right direction. If you have stories of things your local scene does well to assist this particular group of dancers or ideas of how to help them out, it would be great to read what you have to write in the comment section.
A few weeks ago on Feburary 25th 2014, Jerry Almonte from Wondering and Pondering issued the following challenge,
I have a challenge to all DJs. Lindy Focus inspired me to hunt down music by all the great musicians that played at that event. This got me thinking that I can do a whole night of DJed music using bands that play for dancers today. I’ve done it a couple of times now, to a really positive response. People get really excited when they hear a good song by a band, and you tell them that they can hear that music live at a dance or event sometime in the near future. This is my challenge to DJs far and wide: Do a whole set or even a whole night of music just by musicians making a living playing jazz music today. Ellington and Basie are great, but they don’t have to make rent at the end of the month. The key our exciting dance scene is the interaction between dancers and musicians. Show a little love. And if you don’t have the music to pull something like that off, then use this as an opportunity to go find some. Hey Mister Jesse(the longest running and probably only swing dance music podcast out there) has a lot of great recommendations as well as sites like Swing DJ Resources. I’m also going to be posting some of my own in the near future. Swing Music! Let’s do this!
After reading this challenge and realizing that I had an upcoming DJ set in Boston at Monday Night Practice I decided to give it a shot. I interpreted Mr. Almonte’s rules as the following:
- All songs played must be by bands who have musicians making a living today.
- I have to last the entire set at Monday Night Practice (about 2 hours)
- Music has to be good a.k.a no playing novelty tunes just to play something that is modern.
I made a facebook event for the night and advertised that this special theme was occurring. I’m happy to say that I passed the challenge and in addition we had a much larger turnout than usual that night. I have posted my set list below but I encourage if you are a DJ looking to mix things up to give it a shot. The challenge served the Boston community well!
- Indigo Swing – Ruby Mae
- Hippocampus Jass Gang – Your Smile’s A Moonbeam On My Heart
- Blackstick – Si Tu Vois Ma Mére
- Caroline Fourmy – All of Me
- Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles – A Smooth One
- Glenn Crytzer and His Syncopators – Mr. Rhythm
- Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys – Take a Number from One to Ten
- Hippocampus Jass Gang – The Mooche
- Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – King David (live)
- Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators – Fortunate Love
- Smoking Time Jazz Club – Percolatin Blues
- Smoking Time Jazz Club – Sugar
- George Gee And His Make Believe Orchestra – Stompin’ At The Savoy
- Gordon Webster – Sweet Potato Fries
- Hot Sugar Band – Jericho
- Norbert Susemihl, Erika Lewis, Shaye Cohn, Jason Marsalis, Kerry Lewis, Gregory Agid – Love Me Or Leave Me
- The Hot Club of Cowtown – Rosetta
- Jonathan Dole Quintet – The Fed Hop
- Blackstick – Blackstick
- Mora’s Modern Rhythmists – Smoke Rings
- Cassidy and the Orleans Kids – Shake That Thing
- Boilermaker Jazz Band – When Your Lover Has Gone
- The Solomon Douglas Swingtet – Bizet Has His Day
- Gordon Webster – Sweet Sue
- Mora’s Modern Rhythmists – Four or Five Times
- Jonathan Stout and His Campus – Swingin’ On Nothin’
- Boilermaker Jazz Band – Someone’s Rockin’ My Dreamboat
- Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – Dickie’s Dream
- Rachael Price and The Tennessee Terraplanes – Just A Little Bit South of North Carolina