Keep it Casual or Bring the Fire? Teaching A Higher Level Class

ILHC describes it as,

You have been dancing long enough with a sufficient level and quality of dancing that you are actually hoping every class will be devoted to taking your swing-out, tearing it apart, and putting it back together again. “Tricks, schmicks, teach me how to dance.”

Jammin’ on the James describes it as,

Dancers taking these workshops should be comfortable picking up new moves and steps fairly quickly, understand how swing music is structured and the concept of creating your dance to the changes in the music. In addition, dancers in the advanced workshop should incorporate good frame and connection in their everyday dancing.

Lindy Focus,

Well to be honest Lindy Focus had so many people acting all uppity about auditions and there is a ton of people at that event. In result they have Levels 3-9 which represent experienced dancers. (Probably the smartest way of handling it to be honest)

It’s the track that everyone tries to get in then complains about anything possible related to it if they don’t make it in, the Higher Level/Advanced class!

We’ve all met and/or have been this guy.

How Fierce Are You To Your Advanced Class?

I was pondering over how in the past I witnessed instructors teach differently or in some cases the same upon changing conditions such as; class size, class level, type of event, and et cetera. One thing that came to mind was the idea of how do instructors change their approach for a class that is advertised to higher level dancers. My search on Yehoodi first rewarded me with this thread from 2004 “How fierce are you to your advanced class?”

The original poster Holiday writes,

I was told by one of my students last week that I’m really scary in my advanced class and she was surprised because I’m so friendly and easy going in my lower level classes. I told her I meant to do that because I really mean business when it comes to who gets into my advanced class. I won’t throw people out, but I won’t make it easy for them to stay either. I don’t teach particularly hard stuff and mostly just mechanics that makes sense. This doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a cake walk or a “just wing it” course either.

Another poster Wexie writes,

I agree with you: Beginner and intermediate classes are supposed to be fun. However, once you get to the advanced level, you can begin to expect more from your students and push them a little bit.

There is a difference between a fun hobby, and a craft. As you begin to get to an advanced level, you are starting to approach what you are doing as a craft. It requires a tad more seriousness, hard work, and discipline to start to take things to the next level. People will never improve unless they are open to criticism. Also, I think it is smart that you are encouraging peer criticism. And there is nothing wrong with saying: When you come to my class, you better bring your game. If you don’t, I’m going to call you out on it.

Lastly Beckto comments,

BUT, having taught dance classes and privates, I have to say there is a difference. Most people who take dance classes (especially beginners) are not pre professional or aspiring professional. They just want to have a little fun and learn something new — a new hobby. I think in that case, it’s good not to take the class or yourself too seriously. Fun is the 1 goal, and dancing is the 2 goal when I teach. As the level of dancer increases, I get more serious. With that said though, I always leave the drive to get better up to the student. So, I don’t demand they practice, for instance (although I will notice if they have and compliment them). With advanced dancers, (I haven’t had the privilege of teaching many truly advanced dancers), I’m very much to the point, and fun is not part of the focus. The fun is more innate.

The common theme I noticed in nearly every post in the thread was the idea of for classes targeted toward newer dancers fun and entertainment should be more of a priority. Whereas in a more advanced class the idea of students should be expected and prepared to be pushed hard in terms of seriousness of the class.

How to have a good Advanced Class …?

Another thread from 2004 titled Spinoff Class Thread: How to have a good Advanced Class…? by a local NYC organizer proposed the question what is an effective way to conduct an advanced class, in which the event the Harlem Jazz Dance Festival advanced class was quoted a few times.

Gardenia writes on the second page,

Basically I reiterate what I’ve said earlier: if you want to improve the advanced dancers in a scene, they have to interact with each other, grow together, and create, invent, and share information in a non-hierarchical way. Information would not be disseminated from one all-knowing source, but shared.

Yehoodi user karaboo writes,

How did the HJDF class go last year? I’ve no idea since I was running around like a maniac the whole time. Is there a way we could make a model like that work for us? With a few pairs of “instructors” guiding the process. They would come in with a few ideas for things to work on and let things evolve from there. It wouldn’t be so much a class about moving fast but about refining and helping one another and asking questions. This might end up being more like a guided practice session and might not require such selectivity as long as it was made clear it was supposed to be for advanced dancers.

Gardenia on the third page writes,

I think it’s way too complicated. Advanced classes should simply be for people who aren’t afraid of getting shredded to pieces. If you’re that serious about the dance, you have to be prepared and accepting of some ego-bruising. I think that may be the mark of a truly advanced dancer. One who can take real criticism and still be standing afterwards.

One of the things that happened in Jenn and Justin’s Master class in Ithaca (which happened almost 2 years ago) was they had people dance, one couple at a time, in front of everyone, and then they criticized what they were doing. There was no sugar-coating. It was brutal at times, but the students took it in stride. And I think, at some point, instructors should be able to be free to take the kid gloves off and say what they really think without getting into trouble. I think at some point, a dancer needs this kind of honesty in order to grow. But we have to give them permission to be so honest, and not punish them when we don’t like what they say.

Lastly Marcelo with some noteworthy insights on the fourth page,

What you need to ensure this is a decent selection process. I like having a preliminary “sorting round” to determine placement. Run the class for a few minutes with everyone, and pay attention to see who’s cutting it and who isn’t. Then just make a cut. The people who don’t get cut are free to sit around and keep watching if they really want to, but you’re going to have to ask them not to rotate. And you’re going to have to deal with the consequences of that decision.

This, I think, may be the crux of your dilemma. You want to have a rigorous selection process, but you don’t want people to hate you or call you an elitist because you didn’t pick them. Unfortunately, you can’t control whether people will hate you. If they do, that’s their problem.

People are ultimately responsible for their own feelings and actions, and if they’re going to get in a tizzy because Nicole didn’t validate their dancing skill and put them in the top class, that’s their damn fault. You didn’t do anything to them – you’re just trying to construct an advanced class – hell, if you let them watch but not rotate you’re not denying them ANYTHING – they still have access, but now the responsibility is on THEM to grok it and keep up, not on YOU to make sure that they’re keeping up.

The two things argued in this thread were if the class should be more of a guided practice session versus a traditional teacher/teachers and students setting and if the class should be auditioned/people should be cut. I noticed a trend however of individuals noting that being able to take harsh criticism was a skill people should have if they want to start taking lessons at an advanced level. Contrasting that were posters who were concerned about not coming off as elitist and bruising egos.

Perspective from Teachers

I had the opportunity to ask some individuals who regularly teach in the swing dance community about this topic and posed this exact question to them,

When teaching advanced classes or classes targeted toward higher level dancers do you change your attitude/methods compared to a beginner level class and if so, how?

Daniel Repsch Lindy/Blues Instructor & DJ,

It’s hard to say exactly because each group is different and so teaching changes from class to class. But I think there is a general difference between the levels.

With beginners most of them aren’t addicted to the dance yet and so I emphasize the fun in the dance and not taking things seriously. With advanced dancers I feel free to push them a little harder and give them things that they’ll struggle more with. This is because I expect them to practice it on the dance floor and eventually be rewarded for the effort.

In terms of methods, I like to make all levels try whatever we’re teaching before I talk about it. I like exercising students’ visual learning and a lot of times they figure out more stuff on their own than I thought they would. In result that cuts down on unnecessary explanation

But for advanced dancers I have a hope that they’ll have a grasp on important modular pieces of the dance. For example; a good tuck, or how to kick step through a turn, or a forward rock, or even different kinds of stretching. I think at the beginner level the goal is more about teaching things that mostly exemplify those modular pieces (and are fun to do besides), rather than the advanced level of applying them in unexpected ways. Otherwise methods of explaining in as few words as possible while hitting visual, audio, and kinesthetic learners is the same.

James Bianco Lindy Hop instructor,

My approach, overall, I try to keep it fun, yet focused. I leave room for rabbit trails, but won’t go down them too far, unless the path is a really good one. That allows for a lively and interactive class. But as far as what I actually teach it’s more like this:

  • Beginner – Here is a cake, and this is how might consider eating it.
  • Intermediate – This is chocolate cake, and there is a cherry on top,  So it might be rich.
  • Advanced – This is, in fact, a chocolate cheesecake, with a toffee – chocolate wafer crust. On top is a light mousse, shavings of dark chocolate, and indeed, a cherry. It will be rich, so you’ll definitely want to consider how you will be eating it and the company you choose to eat it with.

My Two Cents

I’ve mentioned before one of the things I like about the Lindy Hop community is for the most part accepting and welcoming to people. I would argue that it is a major strength of our community. However I would argue one of the problems our community has is we fall into the fallacy this article lists as number one, ostracisers are evil.

Many tests I have been involved with as a participant or even one time as one of the teachers/organizers in charge I have run into comments like this:

  • Those people got in because they were friends with X.
  • I didn’t get in because I danced with X and Y, they made me look bad.

There are countless weekly classes and workshops that cater to beginner and intermediate level dancers. In result I think advanced classes should be for individuals who meet criteria determined by the organizer of the class and it should be a far more serious environment when compared to lower level classes. I actually agree with the sentiment Marcelo posted on the second Yehoodi thread listed above,

Your goal is to teach a -real- advanced class where you have some sort of control over who participates. Your goal is not to make everyone happy and comfortable with themselves. While that’s certainly a good thing to want to do, it is literally a tradeoff. You can’t preserve the integrity of an “advanced” class unless you break some hearts.

There is no real “right” answer to this question over all, each choice will definitely have some ramifications good and bad. While the way I suggest might be great for a bigger scene with a decent portion of solid dancers… for a small scene just starting out this could cause some serious problems.

What are your experiences with good or bad advanced level classes? If you could make an ideal advanced level class how would you have it run? What are some apprehensions of the social ramifications of having an auditioned or invitational only advanced level class? Feel free to leave anything related to this in the comment sections below.

What’s Herräng?

Clear Definitions

I think Rebecca Brightly puts it best in a quote from her article “What’s a Frankie Manning? And Other Questions You Don’t Want to Be Caught Dead Asking“,

Herrang Dance Camp (simply called Herrang after the town it’s hosted in), is lindy hop mecca. This month-long, 24/7 party is the mother of all dance events. Thousands of dancers from all over the world converge on this small Swedish town for one or more weeks in July each year.

Going to Herrang is part of earning your stripes as a lindy hopper. Since it’s an all-dance, all the time atmosphere, it can help your dancing mature very quickly. Plus you come home with an incredible shared experience that can never be matched.

I haven’t been to Herrang, but I’ve learned a lot about it over the years. Most people describe it as “indescribable.”

-Rebecca Brightly

The Folkets Hus. – Ana Luz Crespi

Wikipedia describes it as,

Herräng Dance Camp (commonly abbreviated HDC, officially Herräng Dance Camp Aktiebolag) is the largest annual dance camp that focuses on African American jazz dances such as Lindy Hopboogie woogietapauthentic jazz, and balboa. It is owned and run by Lorenz Ilg and four members of the Harlem Hot Shots: Frida Segerdahl, Fatima Teffahi, Daniel Heedman, and Lennart Westerlund. Each year, the small town of HerrängSweden is transformed into a multi-week dance camp attracting world-famous instructors and dancers alike. With the short Swedish nights, the dancing is pretty much 24-hours.

Similar to many dance camps, the format varies slightly each year but is traditionally held for four to five weeks in late June through late July. For numerous years Herräng Dance Camp has been the largest Lindy Hop dance camp in the world, with a reputation for offering both the highest standard of teaching and attracting the best social dancers from around the world. While the camp holds nightly social dances with music by live bands and DJs from around the world, the main focus of the camp is on dance instruction. In 2007, over seventy instructors were featured during the five weeks, including original dancers from the swing era such as Frankie ManningNorma Miller, and Dawn Hampton.

With over 1,000 people attending the camp each summer (over twice the official population of the city of Herräng), the camp assembles a significant amount of infrastructure each summer to meet the needs of the large number of dancers. Some of the most noticeable additions to Herräng during Herräng Dance Camp includes several cafes; a full cafeteria serving buffet-style meals; a shop for dance supplies, accessories and daily essentials; bicycle rental; housing of various standards; nightly entertainment; airport limo service; and more.

It’s a Little More Then a Definition

For the uninitiated, the typical puzzling response one gets when asking a friend what was Herräng like is “indescribable” or “you just have to experience it yourself”.  The reason for that is one’s experience at the camp is defined by the choices one makes. I cannot over emphasize enough, if you make the voyage to Herräng get involved in something and do not hide out in the internet Igloo the entire time.

A perfect example of this was because I was part of the volunteer crew for Week 3, someone I knew invited me to a beach bonfire birthday party complete with home-made sangria by two Spaniards. At this bonfire I met a bunch of Lithuanians, who I later got into shenanigans with. The last week of camp I met some Czech Republic girls in the basement when a bar mysteriously opened up there, who later on I went rowboating and picking blueberries with. A simple meeting or connection can easily snowball into several different adventures in Herräng, it is very easy if you are social to get stuck in the situation that you are choosing between three different things to do a night.

Joana and Andreas doing some aerials in a boat. – Ana Luz Crespi

The best way to give you my dear readers a cursory view of the camp is by presenting you a smorgasbord of ways you could potentially get involved. In addition I am going to use a lot of photographs because I believe they do a better job then my words of painting a picture of what the “Herräng experience” is like.

I will not try to cover the obvious stuff listed on the Herräng website or in most first time to Herräng articles, but instead give insight to the atmosphere of this camp. Covering everything would be a futile effort that would bore you to tears. This quote from Herrang for Dummies sums up my opinion on the matter.

I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on absolutely every aspect of this amazing camp, nor I am able to write a guide that covers it all. There is far too much that goes on, that it is practically impossible to know everything about it all. Unless you are somehow able to divide yourself into 2 or 3 people. – A person who has been to Herräng for 3 more years then myself.

Volunteering/Classes/Housing Accommodations/Bike Rental 

These are easily the four biggest things that affect your camp experience. If you are in general accommodations, volunteering, and taking classes it is much more likely you will get to meet a lot of people compared to if you got private accommodations that are a biking distance away from all the action and are only doing dancing at night so you are stuck meeting people through just wandering around.

While with private accommodations or in some cases the caravan choices for housing you get some privacy,  but often sacrifice accessibility to the camp (especially if you don’t have a rented bicycle) and opportunities to meet people. However, like I said in a previous post it is better to do what makes you comfortable. There is no use putting yourself in general accommodations to meet people if you are miserable the entire time because you can’t sleep due to noise.

The beach, marina, Hallstavik, and other places all become more accessible with a bicycle rental (which was only 500 SEK this past year). As a person who had a bicycle for one week and then without it the next, I can tell you I did more activities and went on more adventures that involved travel when I had the bicycle. Of course the downside is when you get fatigued at the late night dances, when you have a bicycle it is always tempting to leave early since your bed is only a short bike ride away.

Kevin and Jo, and their matching bikes. – Ana Luz Crespi

I was in one of the Int/Advanced tracks this year and through it I made a lot of friends who I danced with, ate, and spent time hanging out. However we had some rather proactive people in my class. We organized class practice sessions, even had a meet-up in one of the ballrooms for social dancing, and we have a secret facebook group for class notes/recaps or meetups for the more fortunate members who live close-by in Europe. I also who had a friend that complained her class didn’t do anything besides meet up and go on their own merry way. If you take classes I encourage you to get to know your classmates and try to meet up to practice class material or if you see them wondering while you are out and about, take a moment to say hi and chat.

The Most Badass Class of Herräng 2012 – Int/Adv Level 1 (Week 3)

The last category volunteering is probably one of, if not the easiest way to meet people and get a unique perspective on the camp. After the Harry-Potter-Sorting-Hat-Esque like ceremony on Saturday of camp you get sorted into your respective volunteer crew and then proceed to spend several hours a day with them during that week, with the exceptions of certain crews such as Tech Crew [1] or Limo Service [2] (for obvious reasons).

In the mornings and afternoons you will get to mingle and eat with your fellow volunteers at the volunteer kitchen a.k.a. the V-Kitchen. In addition, the staff of the camp tends to set up some fun activities specifically for the volunteers. The beauty of being part of the volunteer crew besides the obvious social benefits is you get to see how the camp is run and the infrastructure behind it. While many people including myself find the chaotic structure of Herräng to be maddening at times, it does have the benefit that it allows for unique things to happen that it would be hard to find somewhere else. An example of that being an entire class being moved to the beach including sound system and floor.

Week 5 volunteers – Ana Luz Crespi

Other Ways To Get Involved

One of the lovely or overwhelming (depending upon your perspective) things about Herräng is the variety of ways one can find adventures to embark on or activities to get involved with. Here I will post a small sample of some of the different things that can be found at the camp that one can get involved in.

Herräng Beach
Herräng Beach – Ana Luz Crespi

Slightly up the road from the camp you can follow signs that will bring you to the beach at Herräng. It is beautiful during the day and breath taking at night. Great place to celebrate birthdays with bonfires, go swimming, or just simply lay out and enjoy the scenery.

Party Volunteers
Savoy Party Volunteers – Ana Luz Crespi

The Friday night parties at Herräng are big productions that they go all out for converting the main building for the camp, the Folkets Hus into whatever theme chosen for that week. I had the privilege of attending three of the parties which the themes were; the 70’s, Night at The Savoy, and Pirates & Parrots.

However these parties are entirely volunteer ran and while they do have part of the volunteer staff dedicated to producing them, I have always found they need more help decorating or even people to run booths/services during the party. If you want to contribute to the camp, I encourage you to help out for at least one party.

Mission Impossible
Calle Wants You for Mission Impossible – Ana Luz Crespi

I was an agent for Mission Impossible and the most frequent question I probably received was, “What does Mission Impossible do exactly?”. The official answer is we attempt to fill a gap and help people where the camp has not officially created volunteer resources for. An example of that is during Week 4 there was a bedding crisis and we were attempting to find people places to sleep.

However many unofficial services are provided as well such as creating a Dennys or Hooters restaurant from scratch or helping the Swing Kids program have a lemonade stand for the Frankie Manning Foundation. If you are looking for a unique group to join, just keep an eye out for the Mission Impossible sign.

Circus
Juggling Class – Ana Luz Crespi

This year Herräng offered circus classes at most times in the day and as part of the night classes. Ever wanted to learn how to juggle or perhaps pantomime? Sergio and Pao were there to teach you those, among other circus skills.

DJing
Mark wants you to DJ – Ana Luz Crespi

While most of the dances have DJs that Herräng has hand-chosen previously, there are volunteer spots open for DJing. This past year Mark Khiara from Seattle was the DJ Coordinator. Ever want to find out if an international crowd would enjoy your DJing skills? Go to one of the DJ interest meetings on the weekend to hopefully get put in a DJ slot.

Set-Up/Take-Down Crew
Set Up Crew Volunteers – Ana Luz Crespi

The week before the camp begins is known as setup week and the week after the camp ends is known as take-down week. From what I have heard it is hard work, but a great way to meet people and a wonderful bonding experience. In addition you get to experience Herräng as a town without the horde of dancers running around everywhere.

Wrap-Up

As I have emphasized before, it is a difficult task to try to put into words what Herräng is actually like. People who have been there for multiple years or have even run the gauntlet of all five weeks of the camp and setup/take-down week struggle with it. I hope to give you a small glimpse of what the camp is like for those of you who are curious, or perhaps bring some nostalgia back to those who have been. I’ll leave you with this small quote from the 2012 Herräng Handbook,

And what else is there to pay attention to besides following the schedule and being attentive in your classes? A lot, but at the same time not much. Herräng has never been known for a lot of rules or regulations. Instead, within the abstract frame of good taste and proper behavior, feel free to add, change or improvise. We don’t necessarily want Herräng to be a copy of our daily life with only dance classes as an addition. Instead our ambition is to provide a rhythmical playground and a melting-pot for ideas, innovations and lost dreams. Please feel who heartedly welcome to add your piece to this kaleidoscopial picture!”

– Ewa Burak, Åsa heedman, Frida Segerdahal, Fatima Teffahi, Daniel Heedman, Lorenz Ilg and Lennart Westerlund

Parade for the Dedication of Frankie Manning Street – Ana Luz Crespi

Footnotes & Acknowledgement

[1]. The Tech Crew volunteers are responsible for anything at the camp involving sound equipment or visual presentation. Every sound system used for the classes all around the camp and  by them and the camp meetings involve them and the official tech staff members.

[2]. Limo Service volunteers are responsible for the pickup and drop-off of teachers and special guests. They deal with the coordination of the buses that pick-up and drop off people from the Arlanda airport. In addition they also sometimes provide unique services (ask any 2012 attendees about the love-mobile).

Pol and Hannah, from Herräng’s Limo Service. – Ana Luz Crespi
ALC Fotografía (Photography)

I’d like to thank Ana Luz Crespi from Argentina for giving me permission to use these beautiful photos for this article. My words pale in comparison to what these photographs can show you about Herräng. I encourage you to visit her personal website or her photography facebook page. Leaving comments in the article about the photographs is also encouraged as well!

Necessity as a Teacher

Floorcraft, a word that teachers often drop in their intro level lessons and dancers all around the world wish many dancers practiced.

“World of Floorcraft, a mandatory remedial course for those who run into other dancers more then twice in one night due to their own carelessness.”

As a teacher you can explain to leads the “look before you leap” analogy, explain to follows how if they see an incoming collision back-lead the lead to stop, and explain to everybody the social ramifications of being the one lead that throws their follow everywhere/the one follow that throws herself everywhere. Once you are past that, you can make slight suggestions but it is usually up to each person to figure out for themselves how to be polite social dancers and not run themselves or their partners into objects/other people.

The interesting thing I have noticed though is in scenes where dance space is a premium such as New Orleans; floorcraft is much higher on average (among dancers, not muggles non dancing people).

In a post titled “Back in New Orleans” written by Peter Loggins in his blog the Jassdancer he writes about the excitement or peril (depending upon your perspective) of dancing in an average venue on Frenchman St. in NOLA.

“however, the Spotted Cat or DBA , now those are places to learn! Cramped, all tempo’s, mixed rhythms, obnoxious people in the way…yeah! Now we talking!” – Peter Loggins

While I recommend you give the entire post a read, this quote really drills home the point of floorcraft being a necessity this particular scene,

“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 accidentaly 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….” – Peter Loggins

At an average dance if you have bad floorcraft someone the worst that usually ever happens is someone bad mouths you that night and most people forget it quickly, unless if you make it a habit. On Frenchmen Street the potential costs of bad floorcraft can range from; accidentally kicking a drunk tourist, hitting the trombonist’s slide and likely injuring him, to knocking over the tip jar of a band. These can earn one the penalties of getting the shit beat out of them to being thrown out and/or banned from a venue. A tad more dangerous then the average Lindy Hop event.

What To Do?

At least for myself it seems an obvious conclusion that when there are more costs at hand for making a poor decision, it is something people will be more aware of and spend additional time developing the skills to avoid those penalties.  However to cultivate a good swing dance scene, threatening ones’ students with violence for bad floorcraft is probably not the best idea for retention rates.

As an organizer I attempted to deal with the problem of poor floorcraft mainly when it mattered the most; before our dances with live bands and workshop weekends where we would have large attendance. I would do this by in my own lessons choosing moves that required good floorcraft to pull them off or teaching moves that required minimal room and worked great with little room to dance. I’d also put a notice in announcements that good floorcraft was a good way to be polite to our out-of-town guests.

If your local scene has any particular ways they teach or deal with floorcraft, feel free to post it here!

Dance Education Through Social Feedback Experiment

This past Feburary I had a crazy idea.

Many swing dancers go through this period of desperately wanting to improve, in result many suggestions get thrown their way. One of the more painful suggestions is to videotape and review ones own dancing. At least for myself, even in competitions I have won, watching video of myself is one of the most grating things to do because I am the ultimate “negative nancy” and only see my flaws.

Regardless of the mental anguish watching my own dancing on film caused, I considered it a necessary evil to improving my own dancing abilities. In result, I started filming myself dancing;  afterwards I would review those notes and use it as a tool to decide what in my dancing I needed to practice my focus time on. However I realized some serious drawbacks; I was limited to my own experience of judging visually the quality of a dance and I was limited in my ability to provide suggestions to correct/improve upon problems discovered.

Based on those perceived problems my next idea was to add more people to the process. What resulted was using crowdsourcing to obtain constructive feedback for my dancing. An assortment of opinions from varied members of the swing dance community was more likely to yield effective material to work on then just myself. Just like many other questions I have had related for the swing dance community, I took it to the swing dance messageboard/website Yehoodi in a topic labeled, “Dance Education Through Social Feedback Experiment

Yehoodi is a community of folks from around the world that are passionate about lindy hop, swing dancing and swing jazz.

The Experiment

Framework for the experiment was simple. I would post a video of myself social dancing with a partner; after the video was posted I would open the floor for commentary/suggestions to be posted about that week’s dancing. After the allotted time had passed, I would post goals based on what people had posted and then after a period of time post another video of myself social dancing to show the progress I had made. After that the cycle would begin anew.

Unfortunately due to some circumstances I only got to run the experiment for four weeks. However, I think I had amazing results in the small amount of time it ran for. After the experiment I felt much more confident in my dancing and managed to make finals and be in the top five of the intermediate J&J at Boston Tea Party.

While I did gain a lot from this experiment, there were some difficulties.

  • The first was being able to determine which suggestions/constructive criticism had a solid basis. The beauty and difficulty of dealing with Yehoodi is anyone can post on there. This means the individuals offering me this advice could be anyone from an international instructor to joe-schmo who only dances East Coast Swing to rockabilly music. My method of dealing with was keeping an open mind and using what I knew about each poster to determine how trustworthy of a source they were.
  • Second was simply recording myself at a social dance on a near weekly basis. Having another person available to dance with at a certain day every week, remembering the camera, getting someone to give up social dance time to film, and said camera having batteries that were not dead. Having that all add up perfectly was surprisingly difficult at times.
  • Lastly was getting comfortable with the idea of posting my dancing on an internet forum for people to judge. I consider myself to be quite like a honey badger and I have had videos of myself in competitions posted on youtube in the past. However, the idea of only myself on video that people I knew and strangers were going to pick apart still took a bit to warm up to.

Observations

If a reader of this article was wondering if an experiment like this would be beneficial to them, I think it would produce great returns given that they have a thick skin and they have been dancing a decent amount of time.  If a person doesn’t take criticism well or is very sensitive about their dancing a private lesson or feedback from trusted friends would probably be a more appropriate avenue to take. Newer dancers are likely to lack the context to determine if advice is well founded or completely off the wall.

The one way this experiment could be  improved is by limiting the individuals who give feedback to dancers who are respected “experts” in the field. Which in my opinion is currently being done by Dax & Sarah’s Swing 90x program. From what I have read on the blog posts required for the program and from talking to someone who is in it, they are getting at minimum quadruple results of my little experiment.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank:

  • Yehoodi posters; Capt Morgan, Glen, NoNameJive, Toon Town Dave, Brooksie, Hounddog, Zenin, alexcloutier, Random, bryn for providing feedback on the Yehoodi thread.
  • The Yehoodi Talk Show for mentioning the topic and giving some great advice.
  • The follow who wishes to be unnamed that let me dance with her on film.

Youtube Doubler

Awhile back, Patrick Szmidt was kind enough to tell me about YouTube Doubler. While it has many uses for the general public such as seeing if the song of one video would be a great mash-up with another video, I am going to go over some uses the swing dance community can have for it.

YouTube Doubler Uses For Swing Dancers

  1. Comparing Performances at Events: Want to see how your recent performance of a routine compared to a previous one for consistency and improvement reasons? YouTube Doubler will show you if you fixed looking down and other timing related issues.
  2. Learning Routines: Do you have a thing for historical accuracy and want to do the Dean Collins Shim Sham as close to Dean as possible? With YouTube Doubler you can put yourself right next to Dean and compare your Tabby the Cat movements on the spot.
  3. Confirming That Couples Have Pre-Prepared Choreography For A Chorus/four 8’s/et cetera: For personal amusement, want to check if a couple has choreography that they use for a certain timing? With YouTube Doubler you can show how they used the exact same moves at ULHS and ILHC.

While I don’t recommend you go crazy with YouTube Doubler (since trying to sync up sound at times can drive one crazy) it is a great tool for the reasons mentioned above. A recent way I used it was in a class at Stompology this past weekend, Michael Faltesek mentioned that Sharon Davis and himself borrowed a move from the 1943 film Cabin in the Sky.

They did a pretty spot on job.

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?

Building The Local Community in Spite of Travel

I have a bit of a confession to make. The last six months I have barely danced in what is considered my “local” scene compared to my dancing weekends on the road. I may pop in and teach a lesson, but most of the social dance portion I end up practicing things in front of a mirror or chatting with friends.

Part of it is I fall into the trap of comparing my scene to other scenes, I can even provide a small list of thoughts that sometimes go through my head:

 I wish (my local scene)…

  • is competitive like Southern California.
  • is crazy and fun-loving like Baltimore.
  • encouraged solo dancing (and is conveniently located next to an amazing BBQ restaurant) like Rochester, New York.

What Changed?

Three things I came across online challenged my dance lifestyle and way I viewed things:

1. Michael Seguin’s post on the Mobtown Blog titled, “Competitions, Events, The Cult of the Amateur, and a Coda on the Slow Dance Smackdown“.

The quote that relates the most of the topic at hand is,

The best and most committed dancers in a particular scene sometimes aspire to national rather than local glory. Instead of building their own community, recruiting students, and making the sexiest dance scene possible, they join the ranks of the regular event-hoppers. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, but the trend isn’t sustainable. Events feed off of the legions of dancers who cut their teeth in small scenes and are looking for a special experience. If no one is developing and maintaining local and regional dancing, events have no pool of dancers from which to draw. – Michael Seguin

2. Hamfats.ca video interview titled “Words for Lindy Hoppers” featuring Kelly Porter

3. Jamin Jackson’s blog post titled “Scene Drama: “Un”Divide and Conquer” which goes over improving the relationships between local scene leadership and traveling dancers.

Common Theme

While there were small similarities in each of the three things brought up, the one unifying theme is while traveling is important it is also equally if not more important to foster growth in ones’ local scene.

Personally I have resolved to try to help out my local scene/area and foster growth. However it isn’t as easy as pie, there are definitely days where I get bogged down by what Jamin refers to as “event blues”. But have gotten better at handling it by having the rationalization that carrying the attitude of comparing my weekly dances to what happened the previous weekend is a determent to my local scene and myself because it creates a negative atmosphere for individuals who interact with me and for myself.

One thing that has helped carry out this “fostering local community growth” attitude is like with my personal development with dancing I set concrete goals for myself. It can be a little thing such as having a goal of giving one sincere compliment to someone I have not danced with before to as big as agreeing to help judge a local competition or set up for a dance.

I invite you to share any thoughts or comments you have about this topic. I have had friends from all over the United States talk about it, but it is always in online or private conversations that are out of the eyes of their respective local organizers.

Otherwise I leave you with this insightful quote from Jamin,

Recognize that many people you do not know played a critical part in leading you throughout all the various scenarios and odds into the swing dance community.  If there is ever a point where you are angry at someone in your scene, know that the feeling of anger is not necessarily bad.  In fact it is an opportunity if mixed with love to create powerful solutions that can benefit your scene.  However, when you do something bad with that feeling, it hurts everyone.  Instead of taking a brick and throwing it through a window, use it to build something that will last. – Jamin Jackson

Motivations to Lindy Hop

Recently there have been some notable posts that cover the main motivations why people swing dance.

Reasons For Moi: The Spark and Challenge

For myself I have a primary reason why I dance and a secondary reason that helps to allow the primary to happen.  I think a lot of individuals are in the same boat of myself that while there may be a primary reason, there are a variety of secondary reasons as well. An example of this is why I like dancing in Montreal. My primary reason is because they have a great dance scene that is fun to visit. However my secondary reasons are because I like the opportunity to practice my French and they have delicious food.

“The Spark” is my nickname for those moments in dance that just blow your mind and are indescribable. At the risk of coming off completely insane, it is this feeling that you can’t tell who or what is in control but one is almost possessed and have this feeling of invulnerability that causes you to just own whatever you are doing or click with another person on this almost ethereal level. When Greek mythology spoke of the concept of a genius, this is the closest I can think of what they were talking about.  “Owning it”, “Killin it”, “Being on Fire”, and the other names for what people refer to this as… this is the primary reason why I dance. Those moments are rare, but I am constantly seeking them out.

Blatantly stolen from wikipedia: "Winged genius facing a woman with a tambourine and mirror, from southern Italy, about 320 BC."

Challenge is my secondary reason because they make the possibility of “The Spark” happening. Having clean basics allows me have a clear line of communication with the lead or follow I am dancing with. Constantly tackling new material or refining what I have allows me to have more tools in my toolbox to match whatever the music and my partner is giving me in a dance. I have days when I don’t feel like practicing my triple steps and would rather instead watch television or eat ice cream, but my primary motivation to dance works to feed my secondary one.

Tapestry

I’m glad that discussion is arising from these blog posts about the motivations behind why people Lindy Hop. The comment sections of these posts are also filled with opinions that provide insight behind reasons why people travel miles to dance with strangers or even just go out to their local venue every week. The most relevant comment to myself was one Cari posted herself in her move(me)nt post,

Actually, if you’re going to say that Community is not very hidden, I don’t think you can say that the Challenge is very hidden either: while I was writing this post, I was discussing it with a friend; she disagreed with me in that she started dancing because of the challenge it posed, and only found the Community later. Now, I would say she probably loves both aspects of the dance – but the Challenge was still one of her first motivating factors. – Cari from move(me)ent

I first joined Lindy Hop because at a house party I saw people swinging out and I wanted to learn that. As a natural extrovert,  meeting people and making new friends has never been that difficult of a thing for me. I started traveling because I realized to get better I had to visit areas with opportunity to learn from experts. Only after awhile in the travel circuit did I make bonds with some folks and community became an influence in why I danced. I have always felt odd that I didn’t start because of a friendly gesture or a pretty girl like many other leads.

If I have learned anything from all these posts it is two things.

  1. Why individuals dance Lindy Hop is not a simple thing that can be defined by one reason, it is a tapestry that encompasses multiple motivations which vary from person to person.
  2. No person is an island. While many of us have different motivations, you can almost certainly find someone with similar ones to your own.

 

Keeping in Contract

Expectations
Contracts, an essential article that organizers and instructors have to deal with alike before a swing dance event. In the ideal world all expectations are explicitly stated and agreed to in these documents before an event. However as shown in Bobby White’s article Implied in the Contract over at Swungover this is proven to frequently not be the case. Usually though this only results in possible annoyance of the instructors and/or organizers.

However in the worst case scenarios this can end up being disastrous and costing individuals thousands of dollars.  This doesn’t even go into the opportunity costs for instructors or organizers. Instructors who lose money on an event could have been at another event which would have paid them or perhaps at a competition that they could have placed and received prizes and possible credibility to earn future teaching jobs.

Below are two links for situations that are arguably worst case scenarios, I won’t go into detail about them here but let you make your own judgments.

Advice for Organizers

  1. My first piece of advice is if you haven’t read Bobby’s article on Swungover, do so.
  2. Second piece of advice is from a video titled, “F$#% you Pay Me”.

At the 8:45 minute mark is great advice is given for anyone dealing with any type of contract.

Clear definitions.
Clear expectations.

… all explicitly stated and agreed to by both parties in A CONTRACT.

Summary: Only expect instructors to do what is stated in the contracts. Showing up for dances, doing demos at the Friday night dance, judging contests, et cetera should all be agreed upon in that beforehand. Otherwise, don’t expect it.

Advice for Instructors/Performers

If you want something, put it in your conditions to work in the contract. Even if it is small details such as being provided water during classes or having the option of getting transportation to leave a dance early. As an organizer myself I want the instructors I hire to be as comfortable and happy as possible, because often they carry that attitude to the classes they teach. I know most good organizers hold this same view as well. If what to do to make that happen is conveniently provided in a list form it makes life easier on myself and the volunteers for my event. In addition it makes life for the instructors easier during that event.

For those of you who teach outside of your local area Richard Halpern’s advice in the comment section of one of the ifsgscrewedus.com posts is spot on,

Yes indeed, folks! You all should have been wise enough to get ALL your travel arrangements either made and paid for by the client, OR to have been completely reimbursed BEFORE you left, as well as receiving your TOTAL PAYMENT IN-FULL, at least 30 days PRIOR to the date of the engagement, if being paid by check, or 7 days prior, if being paid by wire-transfer (as is customary when dealing with gigs that are out of the USA.

[…] I do these kinds of gigs all the time, all year long, and because of my requirements, I don’t have these problems anymore. Some of the bottom-feeding “agents” in the lookalike and event planning industry have complained that I am being a “Diva” or am “Ego-maniacal” because I ask for these things, and they are the ones who always leave themselves open for this type of abuse from disreputable clients, and then expect the talent that they themselves contracted with, stand by them when they don’t get paid. What a crock. Good luck to all of you on this one.

Unnecessary Risks… Don’t Take Them

Contracts exist to protect both parties and remove any ambiguity from a business relationship.  In addition they ideally provide a plan of action if things go awry (instructor’s flight gets delayed/organizer has to cancel event after contracts are signed/et cetera).  In respect to contracts I want to to leave everybody with these finishing remarks:

  1. Know what is necessary criteria for yourself as an organizer and/or instructor for contracts and do not back down on them.
  2. If someone tries to get you to avoid contracts with promises of trust or great rewards, walk the hell away.
  3. If possible/reasonable get a lawyer to draft an initial contract, they are professionals and anticipate things one would not even fathom.

Addendum

In the comment section below there have been some responses posted in relation to the situation in which the organizers are more then willing to pay/hire instructors, but getting contracting to happen is difficult due to the behalf of the instructors. A quote from Michael Gamble from Bobby’s Swungover post I think addresses these situations best,

“On another side (not necessarily “the” other side), I’d like to point out that not all instructors are comfortable, eager, or even ABLE to interact on this professional of a level. There are definitely some who prefer a less formal agreement, who chafe at spelling out their needs, and who, let’s face it, do not like to write emails. (That was not a euphemism for “they aren’t very timely in their responses” — some actually don’t like it and can get surly and/or increase their demands if pressured to respond to a request) This is perhaps doubly true of many musicians.
So with those things in mind, I often find myself trying to figure out “at what level” each staff member operates, and try to meet them there, for practical reasons.”

My advice for future organizers, especially college students is unless if you are dead set on a certain instructor/pair of instructors talk to experienced organizers before you attempt to hire anybody. Ask them in their experience which ones have been professional and easy to work with. Organizing a workshop is hard enough, the larger number of things you can limit as stress factors, the better.

The Life of an Amibdancetrous Dancer

am·bi·dance·trous

adjective

1. Having the ability in dancing to perform both roles of lead and follow competently.

Earlier this week I made a post in my new tumblr account about my experiences as competing in both roles as a lead and follow at the Boston Tea Party this past weekend. It got a decent amount of feedback so I figured I would expand a bit on the topic.

So You Are a Lead, Why Follow?

About a year after I started dancing I was told that they wanted me to teach at my college scene after the summer. To prepare for it back home in California I took introduction to Lindy Hop classes as a follow for twofold reasons; first to learn how to teach swing dance lessons and second to understand the role of a follow. The second reason mainly came from annoyance of having lead instructors responding with “I don’t know, you just follow” to class questions from follows.

I have a few reasons these days why I follow. One of them is because it is a different experience, that presents a unique set of challenges that I don’t find in leading. As a follow how do I insert my own styling and personality within the framework that my lead provides for myself? My lead gives me some free time to improvise, what do I do with this time? The questions could go on. Another big reason is it helps me immensely in learning how to be a considerate lead. When you follow a decent amount you learn what pisses follows off. Ideally what follows is not fricken doing those things. This translates to my teaching because I can break down to newbie dancers from personal experience how not to piss off people on the social dance floor.

Isn’t It Awkward?

Yep, there have been some awkward moments taking classes as a male follow. Mainly only in intro to Lindy Hop classes, I have gotten odd looks and male leads looking fairly uncomfortable having me in closed position. Largely though I have gotten nothing but positive encouragement and support. While I usually have to do the asking from leads if I want to follow, I was pleasantly surprised that at Boston Tea Party I was asked to dance as a follow a few times. One thing I always give kudos to the Oberlin, Ohio swing dance scene is the fact that I frequently get to asked to dance as a follow there and I associate them with being a role-model for an open and accepting community.

Competition?

Speaking candidly my biggest apprehension about competing as a male follow is people interpreting me as mocking that dancing role. While it presents a different set of challenges, I consider it an equally difficult role as leading and the last thing I would want is people interpreting my dancing as looking down upon it. I’ve always wondered if I get somewhat of an unfair advantage of being a male follow because I tend to stick out more in the prelims in a J&J for obvious reasons. In addition I have wondered how judges deal with that situation.

Last but not Least

To quote my tumblr post, my personal opinion on the whole matter is frankly I don’t give a damn what gender what my follows or leads are, just if they can dance. However I would be happy to hear your experiences or opinions on the matter, feel free to shoot me an email or post in the comment box below.