The topic of Black inclusion in Lindy Hop and Blues has been an increased topic of discussion in the Lindy Hop and Blues the last few weeks. I wanted today to share the perspective of Odysseus Bailer, a professional actor from New York City who is also an avid DJ and dancer of both swing and blues. He has written about the matter and was kind enough to allow me to share his perspective on this blog.
A : to grasp the nature, worth, quality, or significance of
B : to value or admire highly
C : to judge with heightened perception or understanding : be fully aware of
D : to recognize with gratitude
Often framed as cultural misappropriation, is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. Using another culture’s artistic and religious traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and songs.
Dear Blues and Jazz enthusiasts of the world,
The purpose of this blog, is to provide ideas and suggestions. That we as a community of blues and Jazz enthusiasts, can all utilize to bring more inclusiveness and appreciation to a hobby/career that we love. Over the past few weeks, we’ve had to do a lot of soul searching as a community, which has made us uncomfortable, angry, and defensive. But it has also led to acts of sympathy, love, understanding, support, and appreciation… Not just for the music and dance we love and have a connection with, but for our fellow community members. No one likes to be told, that they aren’t appreciating any culture that is not their own. No one likes to be told by a member from that culture (in this case Black Americans) that they feel like their culture is being appropriated, and then told to leave an art form, by a PoC, in which they have dedicated their time, energy, and finances.
Below, I’ve listed suggestions of things we can all do to make our scene even more inclusive and even more appreciative. Once again, these are ONLY SUGGESTIONS and not a checklist. This is not a manual or handbook on how to deal with PoC in the scene. What you do will vary from scene to scene and from country to country. A lot of people will not agree with the suggestions and that is fine. If your scene has come up with ways to reach out to PoC in your community, then please share your successful initiatives.
* This is an issue that a lot of PoC have brought up in past and present conversations, women more so than men. I want to preface this thought by saying… I know that dancers in the scene don’t actively go out of their way to not dance with a PoC at their events. I know that people don’t purposely go out of their way to not be welcoming to a newbie, beginner, or out of town dancers. However, a PoC that is partaking or engaging in a dance form, from their cultural heritage, should never have this thought cross his or her mind…“I don’t feel welcomed or seen, doing the dance of my culture heritage at this event”. Doesn’t matter if it’s local or national. No PoC should have to say that or feel that way.
** SIDE NOTE: For scenes outside of the United States, this is likely more challenging unless you actually have a Black American living in your country and they come out blues dancing or swing dancing. Here is the thing, whether or not a Black American is living in your country or visiting your country they should never have the sense or vibe of not being seen going to a dance that involves their Country and cultural heritage**
* If a PoC is at your dance event and you happened to noticed that they haven’t been dancing much or no one has asked them to dance in a long time, then go up and introduce yourself, strike up a conversation, and ask them to dance. Introduce them to some of the dancers in the community, from beginner dancers to the scene leaders. That one simple act of kindness and friendly gesture will go a long way to having that PoC, or any person for that matter, to want to come back time and time again… to possibly staying and becoming a staple in the scene themselves.
* Now, there are a plethora of reasons for why someone does not want to continue with a particular dance style or dance scene. Whatever the case might be, one of the reasons should never be because they were never asked to dance or they saw PoC who are men being asked but not them. I am going to repeat this one more time, because it is important to stress. No PoC should ever have to consistently say… ”I don’t feel welcomed doing a dance from my culture heritage” or “I don’t get asked to dance, but the black men I see, get asked all the time.” This is something we can all do to help make those negative experiences from occurring less and less.
*** SIDE NOTE: I want to interject a point that should be taken into consideration when it comes to a PoC or anyone for that matter. If you go up to a PoC or a non-PoC and they don’t want to dance or open up for whatever reason. That is their decision. Their reasons are valid and it does not need to be explain unless they want to open up. No one should be force to dance or to open up about their personal lives if they don’t want to. That does not mean as an individual, as a scene, or as a community we should stop trying to be as welcoming and inclusive as we can and should be.***
* Another way to help make a scene more welcoming and inclusive is to have a group of people, who’s sole mission for at least an hour at a dance, is to be that welcoming party for a newbie dancer, beginner dancer, or out of town dancer. As an example, here in NYC for our FNB (Friday Night Blues) scene, we have designated individuals go around and introduce themselves, and welcoming new or out of town dancers. They strike up conversations, they have a few dances here and there, and get to know the new attendants a little bit. Is it perfect?… NO… Do we get it right all the time? NO. But at least we are consciously and actively trying to make an effort, and that is all anyone can ask of any scene to do. CONSCIOUSLY AND ACTIVELY make an effort.
* Leaders of the scene: Instructors, DJs, and event organizers. You know the ecstatic, joyful impact we can make when we dance with someone who just started to dance blues and swing. The courage it takes them to ask an instructor, DJ, or organizer to dance is freighting and we all know how that felt when we first started dancing. Whether we ask them or they ask us and the dance is agreed upon…that sets the tone of how they view, not just that particular event, but that dance scene and the dance community as a whole. It takes one bad experience to keep people away and speaking negatively about your scene or event. And it can also take one simple act of kindness to keep them coming back and wanting to learn more.
* When you want to promote an event, whether it be a local dance, or an exchange, make sure in your marketing (Facebook, postcards, etc) it shows people of different ethnicities dancing together. If you only show one group of people dancing, it is not going to encourage other cultures to participate. Let’s be real, we live in a society where people want to see themselves included.
* When it comes to being in a position of influence, showing a PoC teaching, Djing, performing, judging, and playing in the band, will also help with getting more PoC to possibly participate in the dances. Because once again its all about, seeing someone that they can relate too. This also applies for scenes in other countries.
* When trying to promote your event, don’t just promote your event on other dancing sites or FB pages. Go out in your local community and drop off postcards or flyers in neighborhoods or establishments that might be majority Black, or Asian, or Hispanic. And if those establishments allow you to solicit for your event in their stores, then they will see multiple people of different ethnicities dancing together. And by seeing that, they will be more open to checking out your local event.
* Reach out to other dance organizations and community outreach programs, especially in your local black communities. Try to see if you can partner up with a community outreach program to host a performance or a dance lesson that includes the history of Blues dancing or Swing dancing. The truth of the matter is that, not every Black person is aware of their cultural history. By the same token, not every White American is aware of their European cultural history, and not every Asian American is aware of their cultural history.
*** SIDE NOTE: This is very important for me to state. If you attempt these marketing suggestions, this WILL NOT GUARANTEE that a PoC will immediately start come out swing dancing, or blues dancing, or would want to play in a Jazz band catered to playing big band swing. Hopefully, if your scene continues to show dancers of all ethnicities dancing together, over time, PoC will start to make an appearance***
* If there is a PoC that is active in your local scene. You see them taking lessons before a dance starts, taking workshops locally, or you see them possibly traveling to exchanges to improve their dancing. What you can do, as a local organizer, is reach out to said dancer and see if they would be interested in possibly teaching at the beginner level or possibly DJing the local dances. If you are an instructor, offer to mentor and help develop their teaching skills, if they are willing to except guidance. If they say no, it doesn’t mean you, as an event organizer, should stop trying to diversify your teaching, DJing, or administrative staff.
* One of the main reasons organizers give for not hiring PoC to teach, DJ, perform, or give talks at their respective event or exchanges…is because they only know a handful of PoC who are dancers, not including the old timers. We are connected through social media more than ever. There’s no reason why an event organizer can’t reach out to find a PoC to teach at their events, or to DJ at their events, or to perform in a live band at their events. The point is, organizers can do a better job of using social media to reach out to PoC, and get them involved in their events. Now, I understand that a lot of scenes don’t have the funds to fly people from around the world. But if you are a promoter in the U.S. you can look within your state or surrounding states. If you are from another country this could be more challenging, but still worth the attempt.
* VETTING: As I mentioned in my post a few weeks ago. I DO NOT ADVOCATE any person of color to forgo or skip the vetting process. I believe that if someone wants to be considered for teaching or DJing an event anywhere, they need to put in the work and the effort to make themselves known. What frustrates PoC is not being given the opportunity to be seriously considered for employment at an event.
* If there is a PoC in your local scene that has established themselves as a teacher and/or DJ. Be a champion for that individual and recommend, her or him, to an organizer who might be looking for a PoC to diversify their teaching or DJ staff for their event. What harm can be done just by recommending someone. The same can be done for singers, and musicians. Being a champion or supporting someone IS NOT going to guarantee that the PoC that you are championing is going to be hired. But at least that PoC will be on radar of the promoters and event organizers. Promoters can only do much, but they can do a better job of using social media to reach out to other scene organizers to try and find PoC to work their events. While it is also important for a PoC to make sure that they are putting themselves in position to be notice for those organizers of local, national, and international events.
* If you are a person who is fortunate enough to be teaching blues or swing dancing locally, nationally, or internationally. Ask yourself this question, “How much do I know about this dance and the music. How much do you know about Black or African American People outside of the basic historical fact. Or music outside of the basic historical fact. The “lindy hop started in Harlem. Jazz started in New Orleans. And Blues started on the plantations in the South.” Another question to ask yourself, “In my classes that I teach how much time am I giving to actually talking about the culture relevance of this music and dance”. Now those questions are going to be different for each individual. Another way to show appreciation for the cultural history of Blues and swing history is to talk about the “Cultural Context of blues and Jazz music and dance”. Not solely from the artists perspective. But to consider it from the everyday life of an average Black American.
*** EXAMPLE: In the Southern part of the U.S. African/Black Americans most likely walked miles to their local jook joints or house gatherings, just to have a semblance of normalcy in a country that was trying everything in their power to deprive them of basic civil liberties. Sometimes in their travels they had to walk pasts signs saying “Niggers Beware”, “No Coons Allowed”, or heaven forbids actually walk past a tree with a black person hanging from it. Even after seeing all of that, and knowing their life could be taken from them at any time. They still made the walk or drive to their local bar to listen to the blues or jazz. To dance, to socialize like a normal human being. After all of that..they were still able create this amazing music and dance art form for all of us to benefit from and enjoy.” *** — Social Context
* Social media is a great way to gain information about Black Americans and their experience in the U.S. As a scene, we have this strong belief that reading books alone paints the picture we need to understand about Black or African American Culture. There are other resources we can utilize to gain knowledge. Watching documents, listening to audio clips, reading articles posted online, talking to PoC and non-PoC. All these different avenues will paint a better and fuller picture of culture understanding and appreciation.
- Obsidian Tea: Blackness and Blues Blog
- Blues and Jazz Dance Book Club
- Blackness Whiteness and Blues
- Blues Dance World
- The Blues Kitchen Radio
- Yo! Is This Racist
- Scene on Radio, About Race (Our National Conversation About Conversations…)
These two links: Vintage blues and jazz and Blues dancing old footage are my playlists that I have put together that has Documentaries, vintage concerts, and dances done by Black Americans. We have all of these resources at our fingertips to help all of us, around the world, be more educated about the historical social context when it comes to Blues and jazz music and dance.
* Another way to further your education about the historical context is to actually talk to your fellow PoC whether they are dancers or not. Once again if you are from another country, this might be more challenging but not impossible. If you happened to be from another country, talk to a PoC from your own country. If they are open to having a conversation perfect, but you won’t know unless you ask. This can range from the top level dancers and instructors who travel a lot, to the old time dancers, to a teacher or DJ who just stays local but is a staple in their respected scene. Ask what they think of the state of the scene, and if they could see ways to improve the scene on a local or national level.
* Public outreach. Get involved in certain organizations in your local communities that involves PoC. Talk to other organizers and see if there is a way to partner up with them for further cultural education. If a black, or Latin, or Asian community is having an appreciation or a celebratory event, see if you can organize a blues or swing dance event in that community, and encourage the scene leaders to partake. Encourage your local dancers to attend the activities during the day or any dance in the evening to support the other organizations. Try to attend more blues and jazz clubs where there are black musicians playing. Regardless if it’s an all black band or a integrated band.
* There are many organizations that one can donate to help any and all communities.
NAACP, ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, National Urban League, National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Race Forward, American Association for Affirmative Action (AAAA), Project Equality, National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA). There are many, many, many more.
* Giving financially is great if you have the extra funds to donate. But money will not solve the problem. This is why it is highly encouraged for non-PoC to actually spend time and get involved in your local black communities or other communities of color. Getting involved in communities and programs that serve them. Letting people know in those communities that you see them. If you can surround yourself around people with different perspective, you will realize there is more you have in common then not in common.
Once again these are ONLY SUGGESTIONS and there are many more ideas that I haven’t thought about. This is not a checklist of things to do. Every scene is different from state to state and country to county. It is on all of us to make the change from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation. I will keep saying this over and over again…LEAVING A SCENE BECAUSE OF TOO MUCH APPROPRIATION, DOES NOT HELP A SCENE END APPROPRIATION. Black people in the scene can’t do this task alone. White people in the scene can’t do this task alone. Asian people in the scene can’t do this task alone. The only way we can fix this problem, over time, is for each and everyone of us TO DO OUR PART, whatever that might be. It does not and should not take a grande gesture to promote change. Keep it simple and over time people will follow suit. Thank you for reading and I look forward to dancing with you soon.
Thank you Odysseus for taking the time and effort to share your perspective! He has specifically requested his words be shared within the swing and blues dance scenes. I encourage you to share them with other dancers and particularly scene leaders in your local dance scene.
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!
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
A frequently debated topic among instructors for their local weekly beginner series is the best way to go about it. You’ve probably heard some of these phrases mentioned,
Six count moves? Eight count moves Without triple steps? Four or six week series? Heavy technique or make it fun?
Instead of hashing out that old discussion I thought an interesting comparison would be to take a curriculum from an existing scene and compare it to one that existed in the early 2000’s. I have chosen Boston as my city to sample and taken the curriculum from GottaSwing in 2001 an organization which taught lessons in the past and put next to New School Swing‘s curriculum which offers lessons these days.
GottaSwing Curriculum (2001)
Description: An unusually thorough and entertaining Beginners course. You’ll learn over 20 moves, turns, spins and dips in just 6 weeks, plus expert technique tips. Throughout, we’ll strongly emphasize good (momentum-based) leading and following technique, because that’s the key to becoming a superb dance partner. After our Swing I course, you’ll know more Swing moves — AND you’ll have better dance technique — than after any other Swing I course on the East Coast.
- Prerequisite: Ability to count to 6.
- No partner or experience needed.
- We often have several Swing I classes running concurrently. If so, you are welcome to attend any or all of them for no extra charge (e.g., to make up a missed class, or for extra practice time).
- 6 weeks – 1.5 hours each week – 9 hours total. (Occasionally shorter or longer, depending on calendar constraints.)
Swing I – Summary List. The following is just a compact summary of variations taught in class, with ‘logical’ groupings. It is NOT the order in which we teach things! Instead, we teach in an order that makes for the fastest and easiest learning.
- Good (momentum-based) Leading & Following Technique
- Basic step – Single, Double, Triple
- Closed Position
- Open Position
- “Simple” change of places (low hands)
- Arch Turn
- Lady’s Inside Turns (aka ‘Loop’ Turns) (left side; right side)
- Sweetheart (2-hand version of Lady’s Inside Turn) (left side; right side) — also known as Cuddle or Wrap or Basket
- Lady’s Outside Turns (left side; right side)
- Parallels (2-hand version of Lady’s Outside Turn) (left side; right side)
- Man’s Outside Turns (left side; right side)
- High-hand version
- Break through the hands — 2 versions
- Fred Astaire-inspired version
- Man’s Inside Turns (left side; right side)
- Man’s Sweetheart (just for fun)
- Various Alternating-Person and Mix-and-match Turns Series
- Almost every conceivable combination
- She-Go/He-Go (5 different versions)
- Double Arm Slide (aka Dishrag or Drape) (3 different exits)
- Simple Dip [if we have time]
- As far as we know, no other 6-week (or even 10-week) Swing I class comes even remotely close to teaching you this much!
New School Swing Curriculum (2014)
New School Swing curriculum offers two different 4-week series that classes go for an hour each in 6-count move and 8-count moves and both are required to move up to the next level of classes. Included with beginner classes is something known as Lindy Dojo where instructors stick around to help beginner dancers. The cost for this is included with the beginner series.
Description 8 – Count:
Whether you are brand-new to swing dancing or would like to refine your Lindy Hop technique, this is the class for you. In these four sessions, we’ll focus on basic 8-count Lindy Hop moves for the brand-new dancers, but we’ll concentrate on good technique and connection so there is always something for more experienced swing dancers, too. This class is one step in our two-step beginner track. You must know all the material in the 6-Count and 8-Count Lindy Hop Basics and Fundamentals Classes before moving to advanced beginner classes. Either beginner class may be taken first. No partner required.
Description 6 – Count:
Whether you are brand-new to swing dancing or would like to refine your Lindy Hop technique, this is the class for you. In these four sessions, we’ll focus on basic 6-count Lindy Hop moves for the brand-new dancers, but we’ll concentrate on good technique and connection so there is always something for more experienced swing dancers, too. This class is one step in our two-step beginner track. You must know all the material in the 6-Count and 8-Count Lindy Hop Basics and Fundamentals Classes before moving to advanced beginner classes. Either beginner class may be taken first. No partner required.
6 – Count Curriculum:
- Open and Closed Frame (Position)
- Weight Shifts and Triple Steps
- 6 – Count Basic and Rotating Basic
- Tuck Turn
- 6 – Count Circle from Closed
- 6 – Count Circle from Open
- Send Out
- Return to Closed
- Right Side Pass
8 – Count Curriculum:
- Open and Closed Frame (Position)
- Weight Shifts and Triple Steps
- Side by Side 8 – Count Basic
- Follow in Front
- Leader in Front
- 8 – Count Circle from Closed
- 8 – Count Circle from Open
- Swingout from Closed
- Swingout from Open
- Side by Side Charleston Basic
Funky Move Names: Reading the older curriculum a thing that stood out to me at first was the unusual names of some moves. After some thought I realized though it’s just because probably some of these names or even the moves themselves may have faded out of the common vernacular. I am thankful though that some of those moves have become unpopular such as “The Drape” from the curriculum I linked or “The Pretzel” from their Swing II curriculum.
Time Commitment: New School Swing asks for 4 one hour classes, whereas GottaSwing asks for 6 hour and a half classes. A total of 4 hours expected for New School Swing and 9 hours expected for GottaSwing it is obvious they have slightly more than twice the time to cover material. However, there is an optional 45 extra minutes each week a beginner student can commit to on top of their courses at New School Swing due to Lindy Dojo, bringing the potential time spent by beginner students to 7 hours.
I would say the advantage GottaSwing had was due to the large time commitment teachers could cover a fairly comprehensive body of material. However the disadvantage from a marketing standpoint is that produces a larger barrier of entry. New School Swing’s approach shines in that area because there is an optional component for making more motivated students have a clear avenue to spend extra time to improve.
Emphasis: No partner or experience required is something they both mention from the beginning. The reason why this is important to note is because as an organizer trying to fill classes one of the fastest ways to doing that is removing as many barriers of entry as possible such as apprehensions such as “I don’t have a partner” or “I don’t have any dance experience”.
In terms of Gottaswing’s curriculum, it is kind of ambiguous because at the beginning there is an emphasis put on technique, yet the order in which the material is listed out and the disclaimer at the end they also seem to pride themselves on getting through a large number of moves. These two separate values are stated in different places which is a tad jarring. New School Swing also states it values teaching new moves and teaching good technique, however these are stated neatly in one sentence so a prospective or returning student is aware that these two things will happen in class.
Conclusion: Making a guess, I would assume GottaSwing’s curriculum catered toward dancers coming off the tail end of the 90’s neoswing craze who after watching Malcom X or the Gap Add thought of swing dancing as a series of flashy moves. Take a jam circle from US Open 1999 for example.
An interesting observation is they both share an element of some homogenization. GottaSwing in Boston seems to start individuals off with variations of the 6-count basic and goes into variations. Whereas, New School Swing utilizes the common method of teaching swingouts by starting students doing an 8 count pattern in side by side and continues to work towards the lindy circle, then finally the swingout. In the last two years many people including myself have made complaints about the homogenization of Lindy Hop, but it could be argued it’s an ongoing process that dated back to the late 90s.
Previously I erroneously wrote here an assumption that GottaSwing in Washington DC had a relationship with the organization by the same name that previously existed in Boston. That information was a false assumption and has been edited out of the post. My apologizes to Tom Koerner in the comments section of the post and my readers.
Not too long ago there was a tumblr post on Ambidancetrous advocating the idea of teaching beginner classes where you have students try out both roles. In addition on the blog The Lindy Affair there was an interview with Anne, a member of Yale’s ambidancetrous scene where she describes her community.
Positive Results from this Community Discussion
What I enjoyed about these posts is that they encouraged discussion in person, on tumblr, on facebook, and even most recently on the Yehoodi talk show. I took the time to talk to several of my students, dance instructors I am friends with, fellow dancers I know, and even a few non-dancers as to how they would feel about the advantages and disadvantages of teaching in this manner. We also explored the tangental conversations that sprung up from exploring this line of conversation.
What I enjoyed the most is that it seriously challenged my views and methods of how I teach dance, which as an instructor I am always trying to test and improve.
My Views As A Student and Participant in the Swing Dance Community
In a previous post I wrote that a few months after I started dancing as a lead, I took several classes as a follow after being thrust suddenly into a teaching role. Until recently, I had forgotten an important fact: that when I enrolled in these classes, I asked the instructors’ permission to take the classes as a male follow. Nothing on the website stated that this was forbidden and neither of the instructors indicated in their speech that I had to choose the role of a lead. Regardless I thought it was the polite thing to do to run it by them first.
When I was learning how to follow, my classmates were generally polite. Once in awhile I would get a question like, “So why are you learning how to follow?” One thing I really appreciated was that I had a few instructors actually point me out in classes and mention what I was doing was a great idea for improving as a dancer. However, there were some notable negative experiences: once I had the unpleasant experience of having a guy outright refuse to dance with me in a workshop class because I was in the rotation as a male follow. Another incident that left a particularly bad taste in my mouth was I when was asked to compete as a lead instead of a follow in a competition because “we don’t have enough leads”.
Based on my personal experiences I do have to agree that there are definitely social pressures to choose the gendered stereotypes for partnered dancing within classes. There are still a significant amount of instructors, for example, who use gendered language for roles in classes. It is a tad odd for me, a male follow, to be referred to as a lady during class.
As a student or participant in a community, I will fully admit I have a bias. I’m a natural extrovert and it makes me not as empathetic to others as I should be at times. However, I have had to learn as a teacher, that not everyone is as comfortable in an unfamiliar social situation. Most newbies when they are taking their first dance class already have enough apprehensions to deal with; adding onto the heap the idea that people might see them as the odd one in the group could steer them from a role they were curious about in order to fit in with their class and appease anxieties they may have.
I Like My Vegetarian/Vegan Friends
On a tangent I am addressing this post “Why a lead who doesn’t follow is like a vegan making barbecue.” The author writes about the idea that instructors should know both roles in order to be effective at their job. I agree with this point, please no more classes where I have leads telling me “you just follow” as advice on how to understand that role.
However where I disagree with this blog post is that it implies that you need to pick up the other role to be a better dancer. Learning the other role in swing dancing competently is not the only avenue nor a necessity to becoming a better dancer. I have many
vegetarian/vegan friends and peers who are amazing dancers, as in they compete and place at the big name competitions like ILHC and such. However in spite of being fairly experienced dancers, when they dance in their non-primary role some of them are absolute rubbish.
I’m not going to disagree that learning the other role does provide some advantages, especially in terms of being considerate to individuals in dancing. However I disagree with the tone this post takes where it implies that one is at a serious disadvantage if they do not learn both roles.
My Views As A Teacher in the Swing Dance Community
To give a short background of my teaching experience I have been teaching swing dance for about 3+ years on the East Coast of the United States. Usually local drop-in classes, monthly series, and the occasional one-day workshop out of my local area. As just a general dancer I travel a lot and tend to go to larger national/international competition events and nearby smaller regional events.
What this background means is that as a teacher, skill acquisition and/or improvement for my students is a high priority. For other instructors, creating an inclusive environment where students feel welcome or ensuring their students have fun may be more of a priority. Now I am not saying that I do not factor those other two things in when I teach; in beginner classes making sure my students have fun and are comfortable is my main priority. Beginner classes are the equivalent of sticking your foot in the pool to see if the water is okay, and I know the majority of people taking their first swing dance class aren’t there to throw down in a competition the next month. However, making sure that I provide the base fundamentals of the dance I am teaching and allowing my students the opportunity to succeed is something I am not willing to compromise on.
I think that teaching a beginner class with students learning both roles in a 45 min to 1 hour time frame (typical for swing dancing) is not an optimal idea. This is based on my experience as someone who has danced and competed in both lead and follow roles in the last few years, taught beginner classes where people learn both roles, and has been teaching for a few years. This has been further reinforced by discussions I have had with other instructors.Interestingly enough though, for Blues it seems to work perfectly fine.
The main reason why I think it works for Blues and not so much for Lindy Hop is while both dances take a considerable amount of skill to do well, as a new dancer Blues has a lower barrier of entry. Certain dances are easier to social dance at the beginning of one’s dance education. In my beginner 6-count swing drop-in dance classes a noticeable portion of my class struggles to do one role barely competently. While there is overlap between the two roles of lead and follow, it is a fact that each role does inherently pose unique challenges. When I have had students trying to tackle all of the challenges of the roles of both lead and follow in a 45 min to 1 hour time span for a typical 6-count swing beginner class, often a notable portion of my class did not get to the level of competency that I am satisfied with as an instructor.
Am I completely against the idea of an ambidancetrous newbie class for Lindy Hop? Nope. I think a beginner 6-count class for Lindy Hop can be taught ambidancetrous if you have more time, such as 1h and 30 minutes and/or if the class has a considerable amount of already experienced dancers in rotation. Another option is teaching a weekly series instead of a drop-in class, because you will have more time to work with students.
Overall while I think exploring the idea of teaching both roles to students in a class is an interesting concept with a potential for positive results such as allowing one to be an effective instructor, gives insight to dancers about the challenges faced by both roles, and addresses issues of gender equality within the swing dance community. However based on my experience an instructor and a dancer who dances both roles I do not believe this should be at the expense of possibly leaving new students not receiving a basic amount of knowledge in their beginner classes.