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

Running a Scene

Teaching Dance In Five Minutes Or Less

Yesterday I was taking a teacher training class ran at Blues Union by Amanda Gruhl and Shawn Hershey in Boston where I faced an interesting challenge. I had do something I have only done once before, which was teach an idea or a concept in five minutes or less. Oh, did I mention it was in the context of Blues dancing which I feel completely unqualified to teach?

Anyways in spite of me having 2+ years of teaching experience in Lindy Hop/Balboa/Collegiate Shag at Penn State and the Central Pennsylvania area this was a definite challenge for myself because;

  1. This class was almost improvised on the spot, we maybe had ten minutes max to brainstorm a lesson plan.
  2. I was teaching Blues, a dance that I am not confident of my abilities in. To add to the difficulty this was in front of a crowd of individuals who knew the dance arguably much better than myself.
  3. The time constraint made the choice of class material a more pertinent issue than usual.

Anyways in the interest of giving you guys some of the insight I received from the class, I want to list a few things I learned from the experience.

Teach-New-Concepts

Teach What You Know

In the past my most successful classes were ones I had taught literally a dozen times before and knew the material, common mistakes people make, and analogizes that would convey concepts to dancers like the back of my hand. One of the important things that comes from teaching what you know you exude confidence.  This is important because students can clearly tell when a teacher is hesitant or unsure about their material.

What you know also does not just entail knowing how to lead or follow a move or concept. It is more along the lines of understanding how the move or concept works and being able to break it down to another person. Understanding why a person will struggle with certain technique aspects of a move or concept and knowing multiple ways to convey the knowledge they need to them mentally and physically are all part of this idea of “knowing” something.

During the teacher training class I saw some people have issues teaching their mini-lessons because they did not predict how people would struggle with the material they chose. One mini-class the teacher had the issue that he was unaware he was doing different variations of the move he was teaching without realizing it until it was pointed out. Unfortunately a lot of learning how individuals struggle with moves or concepts is simply through experience of teaching them and troubleshooting.

Realize and Incorporate Class Constraints

With five minutes as a limit choosing class material which is normally a priority for classes became essential due to the need to convey a concept to a group of students quick and dirty. Candidly I admit that a good portion of teachers (yes even professional international instructors) will ride the struggle-bus when attempting to stay on time for classes. How I usually cheat is by putting an alarm in my phone on silent mode that will go off 5 minutes before class is over.

The time limit is not the only constraint you have to deal with though. Are there mirrors available? Does your class consist of newbies, or advanced dancers, or a mix of mainly newbies with a ringer or two? Have these students had classes with you before? All of these are small details which one can use to slightly tweak their class to better tailor it to students’ needs. One mini-class I saw that had an issue was the fact that the teacher while doing a great job of teaching, she chose class material that simply could not be covered in five minutes.

Less is More

One of the mistakes I made in my mini-lesson was when starting the class off with a monkey-see monkey-do exercise I said several things such as “Focus on your arms”, “Think about what lines you are making”, “Watch yourself in the mirror”, and et cetera. However for some of the students that level of information was a lot to process at once and was perceived as overwhelming.

Treating each word you use as a valuable resource, being conscientious of the analogies you use, and limiting the amount of information you provide to your students during each portion of class are essential to being a good teacher. My least favorite classes are when what is supposed to be a dance class turns into a lecture and it was not advertised as a lecture class. The mini-lessons I liked the most during the teacher training class were the ones that gave ample time and rotations to try out and troubleshoot class material.

Never Stop Improving

Last but not least an important part of being a teacher is not getting complacent in your own dancing or teaching abilities. There’s always an analogy that you haven’t used that can better convey an idea to students. Improving your own dancing provides a better visual example for students to copy. An unfortunate truth is every technical deficiency you have as a dancer your students are visually picking up as well. Another thing I would recommend is talking to other teachers and talking shop, at least for myself I get fun and creative ideas of how to approach teaching that I would never think of.

I would like to hear from all you guys though. Any important ideas/lessons/concepts you’ve learned about teaching either through being a student or on the battlefield teaching a class yourself?


Handling Drama In Your Swing Dance Community

I used to say with a smile one of the advantages I had being constantly between California and Pennsylvania is the second I started to get involved in any local swing dancing drama I would be boarding a plane and saying goodbye to people for a few months. Now that I am (for now) settled in as a resident of Boston, I can’t sing the same tune.

If an actual llama appeared during drama situations, my quality of life would be drastically improved.

If an actual llama appeared during drama situations, my quality of life would be drastically improved.

Scene drama is one of those topics that is normally discussed over Skype chat, carpool rides to events, at a host’s place after a dance, or over meals. How to handle it though is not something I think that is discussed enough and unchecked it can cause major problems for individuals involved. This is an essential skill if one wants to be a successful organizer, teacher, and et cetera within the swing dance community. However for a dancer in an non-organizational role, I believe this is important as well just to be a positive member of the community.

Organizer Woes

As an organizer in the past I have had to deal with unpleasant things such as:

  • Having the police forcibly remove someone from a venue after the individual was told to not to attend any future events due to inappropriate behavior, followed by mountains of paperwork after. 
  • Telling a dancer who attended a workshop I was helping run to not play with the lights or attempt to climb out the window to play on a rooftop.
  • People not doing their assigned jobs and scrambling to find people to cover it (often myself) to make sure everything ran smoothly.

One of the hardest things is dealing with any of those situations and on top of that maintaining a pleasant disposition during the venues or events I am helping to run. Often I have to request things nicely when my preferred method of conversation would be a litany of swear words and crass language.

The one thing that has helped me to remain civil and keep calm in those situations is remembering one important fact, that my actions do not just represent myself but an entire organization. Do I want X dancer thinking that Y swing dance organization is a welcoming, professional, and friendly organization? Yes. In result I shut my trap and later privately vent my frustrations through (ideally) healthy methods.

Byron Alley from swingdynamite out in Ottawa, Canada makes an excellent point which he referred to as the “Rule of Contribution” in a blog post which he wrote,

Always ADD rather than SUBTRACT.

The idea is that in general, you shouldn’t seek to replace what’s already in the scene–that is, to take people away from the dances, events or classes they’re already attending–but rather to fill in the gaps. Obviously there can be exceptions, rare cases such as unqualified instructors teaching dangerous aerials. But it’s too easy to get seduced into thinking that whatever you want to offer the community invalidates what other people are doing.

I would like to add that this is an important concept in not just choosing dates for an event or creating one [1], but even in general actions as an organizer. Unless if someone is clearly crossing the line in a matter that needs to be dealt with professionally or in worse cases legally, the better route for dealing things is in a discreet and constructive manner that if criticism has to be given it’s toward individuals actions and not towards them as a person.

Personal Woes

As with any community or even a small circle of friends, a person invested in a dance scene long enough will eventually come across some drama ranging from frustration over competition results to romantic interests gone wrong [2]. I can confidently say nearly every dancer has had the moment of, “Well shit, is now my local dance scene going to be uber awkward for me because of X” where X can be a bad breakup, one got in a major fight with a friend due to a bad housing situation at a swing dance event, and the list could go on.

I can’t go into every specific situation due to time constraints but I think (with exceptions) most drama issues can be solved by; discretion, empathy, and respect.

DiscretionBy discretion I mean unnecessarily involving people into the problem at hand and/or airing dirty laundry to the point it becomes common gossip [3]. The latter may give one a sense of immediate gratification due to venting, however the opportunity cost of the long term consequences 99% of the time outweigh the short term benefits.

EmpathyThis is the ability understand and relate to the feelings of another, but in terms of dealing with drama this means incorporating your actions to deal and account for that. People will occasionally do off the wall and crazy things, however often there is a reason for it and having the patience and understanding to handle it to the best of one’s own abilities is not the easiest thing. I will fully admit as a person who likes being frank and dealing with things on the spot a big weakness of mine is having difficulty to empathize with non-confrontational individuals.

Respect: It’s fairly easy to get in the mindset of vilifying individuals and thinking “Because they are doing this, my life is sucks”. An important fact to remember is that this person or people are human beings and they have reasons for those actions. Even if you feel the actions they have done to you are irreconcilable at the very least you should ideally take the higher route and be civil at least out of respect for the individuals who everyone involved has to interact on a routine basis with.

Closing Thoughts

While handling drama as an organizer has an added difficulty of being a representative for an organization I still believe for any dancers in the swing dance community the importance to dealing with it is respect for anyone involved and respect for the local community.

I’d like to add on a more personal note that if you struggle with this, don’t feel alone. I am not a saint by any stretch and I have made my fair share of mistakes as an organizer and a regular dancer dealing with these type of matters. What I try to do to reconcile that though is look back on decisions or mistakes I have made in the past and use them as learning experiences to better myself as a person.

While I would love to go into detail and share personal stories that I have learned things from one of the downsides of losing anonymity is one of the people in those stories might stumble across it. General advice I can give is if you really need to vocalize negativity about someone having a close friend who you know is a trusted confidant that you can vent to or writing (in a private document/book, not a public blog) are excellent sources of stress relief.

Lastly, if you have any stories of dealing with difficult drama situations in your local swing dance community and had a valuable learning experience you would think benefit others I encourage you to share it here in the comment section or even with friends in your local community just to give friends perspective.

Footnotes

[1]: If I had to list one of the bigger mistakes I made as an organizer when I was at Penn State it would be arrogantly assuming taking away things and adding new things to that local scene would automatically work. Due to inexperience I had the mentality of, “This is how they did things in southern California and because that area produced awesome dancers, this is how it should be done.”

[2]: A good addition to the running joke of “You know you are a swing dancer when…” list would be if you have ever had the conversation about the issue that if you date a non dancer they are unlikely to understand your crazy dance lifestyle, but if you date a dancer and it doesn’t work out then your local scene can potentially become own your personal hell.

[3]: Side Soapbox Rant: Guys, if you and a girl in a scene don’t work out attempting to refer to your ex in public as “crazy” or slut shaming her makes you look like an utter asshole to not just any women in the scene, but to many of us guys as well. Women, this is not cool as well however in my experience i’ve noticed this behavior unfortunately more as a pattern of people from my own gender.


Events & Scenes That Have Great Market Segementation

In my last post Market Segmentation for Swing Dancing I promised I would write a future post going into a few venues and events that I think are good examples of businesses that have properly segmented their market.

Atomic Ballroom

Located in Southern California, Atomic Ballroom clearly defines it’s market segment in it’s mission statement on their website,

ATOMIC Ballroom’s mission is to create a dance community of all ages in Orange County by providing affordable, high-quality social dance instruction and events, where people will feel welcome and safe to learn the skill of dancing and to socialize with others who also value that skill.

It’s easy to infer from that statement that they have created a segment of individuals who prefer a family friendly and welcoming atmosphere in the Orange County area. This is important because they have zeroed in on a reasonable geographic location to draw their customer base for a local venue. In addition they have appealed to the type of customer that wants a safe place that they can bring their entire family along whether that be their children or mother/father.

Mobtown Ballroom

Located in the lovely town known as Charm City a.k.a. Baltimore, Mobtown Ballroom takes a decidedly different approach in defining it’s market segment. Here is a snippet of their manifesto from their website,

WE LIKE OUR FUN TO BE ADULT.

This isn’t as dirty as it sounds. People spend most of their time in censorious environments (like work or school), trying to appear well-mannered and bland. That’s what the day is for. Come to our evening programming and you can hoot and hollar at sexy performances, dance dirtier than Patrick Swayze, have an incredibly strong drink at the Calypso Cafe down the road, or contemplate our stained-glass windows and pray. It’s grown up time, and a dash of benign anarchy helps take the edge off the work week.

In contrast to the previous business takes the contrasting approach of segmenting their market to target individuals who want to let loose and have fun in a non-judgmental environment. A dash of excitement from the monotony of normal life is what they are trying to provide. In addition they write,

We don’t care about your politics, your race, your sexual orientation, your religion, or anything else, and we don’t tolerate any kind of harassment. Whoever you are or wherever you’re from, if you want to dance, you’re in the right place.

Mobtown also segments their market by promoting they are a safe and welcome environment for all walks of life and will not tolerate any individuals who attempt to endanger that. As an aside, kudos for doing this Baltimore and I wish more venues would make this information public and crystal clear.

Stompology

Located in Rochester, New York the event known as Stompology segments their market by providing a service that addresses a niche part of the swing dancing community. As their website has listed,

Stompology, approaching its eighth year, is the first dance weekend devoted entirely to authentic jazz, Charleston, and solo movement.

Back in 2006, Groove Juice Swing saw that many workshops and camps were beginning to add solo-style material to their curriculum, and figured a weekend dedicated to just that type of thing would be right up the alleys of Lindy Hoppers and any students of historical jazz dance.

And we were right… eight years later, Stompology is still going strong! We’re more excited than ever about this year’s event and we’re looking forward to having you join us.

They saw a need that was not addressed in the swing dance community and created an event to provide a service to address it. If this isn’t an example of segmenting within the swing dance community, I don’t know what is.

In addition while they may not officially promote this but Stompology has a reputation for being a fun event. This allows the event to attract customers in the swing dance community who are looking for a fun time. As this video by Alain Wong shows, they do indeed deliver on that.

NOLA Girl Jam

Based out of New Orleans, Louisiana the event NOLA Girl Jam in a similar vein to Stompology segments their market by targeting a certain portion of the swing dancing community. As written on the event website,

Girl Jam celebrates women’s artistic achievements in traditional jazz music and dance with the intention of inspiring today’s jazz-loving female artists in a supportive, collective learning environment.

The focus on communication between jazz musicians and jazz dancers is a fundamental aspect of the jazz tradition, and this is what Girl Jam aims to foster in a welcoming, communal atmosphere for women of all ages and ability levels.

The 3 day festival is packed full of community activities for both men and women to explore the the history of the female voice in American jazz culture and to interact with and be entertained by those continuing the traditions today.

While I personally believe in the last four years the way teachers approach classes have been getting more toward giving follows better guidance besides “simply follow”, I would argue that many classes are taught with a lead-centric view. This event like other Girl Jam events provides the service of offering follow-centric classes which are a rarity in the swing dance community.

Summary

In short good market segmentation is finding a need within the community (in this case swing dancing) is not being addressed and figure out a feasible way to be the business that provides it. All the scenes and events above I believe do an excellent job at this. If you know any scenes or events who fit this bill, I encourage you to post about it in the comments below!

 


Marketing Segmentation for Swing Dancing

One of the biggest mistakes I read about, hear about, or personally witness is swing dance events and venues attempting to target the entire market of possible customers who would attend their business or even worse not having a target audience at all.

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I can confidently say that there is no organizer/venue/event in the swing dance community has the resources to supply the demand for the entire market. Even the events with massive amount of dancers such as Lindy Focus or Herräng targets a segment of the market.

What I define as the term market for the swing dance community is; every person who currently has swing dancing as a hobby/profession or is physically/mentally able to have swing dancing as a hobby/profession but does not. 

What this means for you as an organizer of an event is you need to segment your market or find a niche of target customers that you can provide value to as a business. For a more technical business world definition of market segmenting you can find it here. If you look online, talk to marketing professionals, talk to marketing professors, or read books on marketing there are a variety of ways to how to go about segmenting a market. What I am going to do here is give a simple layout that is applicable for an individual who is running a weekly venue or hosting a one time/yearly recurring swing dance event.

1. Decide A Target Geographic Location

The first thing is to decide upon target geographic location. If you are running a swing dance venue for a college town your potential customers are going to be considerably different then if you lived in a big city or a rural area. A recurring weekly dance is going to have a smaller target geographic location in comparison to an international camp such as Herräng where the entire world is fair game. Speaking of distance, the further away you attempt to attract dancers you will need to have match that with increased value such as; quality instructors, dancers, DJs or live bands.

2. Decide The Type Of Customer

The second thing is to decide upon the type of customer you are trying to attract to your business in terms of dance experience, dance background, and lifestyle.

Dance experience is simply how long have your target customers been dancing. This is important because a random person off the street who has never danced in their life has fairly different needs then a seasoned dancer who is a regular on the competition circuit. It is a reality that when you start to cater to one end of the spectrum you will likely alienate the other and it is a choice as an organizer you have to make.

Dance background is the dances your customer identifies with. For example when people press for specifics I say I dance Lindy Hop, Balboa, and Collegiate Shag. For every dance under the umbrella term of swing dancing there is a specific culture attached to each dance. These various cultures have values and preferences that are sometimes complimentary and other times conflict with other dance communities. It is essential as an organizer to aware of the specific values and preferences with a particular dance’s community in order to provide a high-value experience for your target audience.

Lifestyle covers a variety of things such as personal values or personality types. Essentially what it comes down to is; where is this person in their life and what preferences do they have because of it. As someone running an event or venue this is important because a college student who participates the usual Lindy/Blues dance exchange circuits is going to have different needs then a married full time professional who occasionally takes time off work a few times a year to compete at Balboa events.

3. Check Feasibility 

You now have your target market segment clearly written out and described. Now the thing to check is if you and any collaborators have the resources to make your business feasible for your target market. An excellent article written by Bill Speidel, an experienced event organizer is titled So You Want To Be A Lindy Hop Event Organizer and a great reality check/resource for any person intending to get into the business of running a swing dance event/venue.

What I define as the term resources for the swing dance community is; a commodity  service or other asset that is required to run a swing dance venue/event. This is not limited to physical assets such as money but can be; also trained staff, volunteers, an established reputation among traveling dancers, established in the network of neighboring dances/events, positive Yelp reviews, and et cetera.

Throughly checking if these resources are available is important responsibility as an organizer. You can organize an amazing event but if you neglect to check on the resource of availability of date and conflict with an established event in the region you are fighting and uphill battle.

In the case that your target segment is simply unfeasible within your current time frame you have the options of postponing until it is possible or choosing a new segment that is feasible.

4. Apply Your Market Segment

You have your detailed market segment and you have asked the questions and done the research to determine it is feasible, great! The only thing you have to do now is use that knowledge appropriately.

This can be done in a multitude of ways, a common one is advertising. If you are trying to attract customers who have never danced before Groupon and newspaper ads would be an effective marketing campaign compared to Facebook Events and fliers sent to dance venues which is traditionally used for established dancers.

Another one is the choice of staff such as instructors and DJs. Customers who have not danced before or have limited experience will be much less selective in comparison to dancers who have been dancing longer or are at a higher skill level.

In Summary

The thing to take from all of this the importance of having a clearly defined market segment. The most common mistake I see in newer events is often they try to cater to too large of a market segment. In result their resources get spread thin and they are unable to deliver a quality experience for any of the dancers that attend.

I plan to write a future post going into a few venues and events that I think are great examples businesses that properly segmented their market. However if you have any stories or opinions I would love to hear them in the comment box below!


Dealing In Absolutes

Welcome to Lindy Hop

When I was a newer dancer who frequently was in different dance scenes such as Irvine, California to Oberlin, Ohio, my biggest difficulty was probably dealing with instructors who would tell me different and sometimes outright contradictory things. When I brought up my frustration one day to a workshop teacher his response was, “Welcome to Lindy Hop”.

After dancing for a few years and teaching regionally for about 2+ years I have to take time and remind myself I was once this new lead who wanted clearly defined rules. I remember my mind being blown when 8-count moves and swingouts were introduced. At the time, in my mind the rule was everything is only 6-counts. It took about a month of solid dancing in California to break me out of a 6-count basic as my default movement.

I remember one of the big things that confused me as a newer lead was where to step on the 5 of a swingout. The fact that depending upon where a lead steps on 5 can create a different line/look/feeling was beyond me. I just wanted one place to step so I could do it “right”.

Most experienced dancers know how one dances is completely dependent on the song that is playing, who one is dancing with, and likely other miscellaneous factors. Bridging the gap between that and newer dancers who may be just trying to figure out where to find the beat or intermediate dancers trying to dance on phrase is a difficulty as an instructor.

Difficulty with “Right” Answers as a Teacher

What caused me to explore this topic is a post from Sam at dogpossum titled a bit of dance nerdery and in particular this quote,

I had to find a way to say ‘that idea of an absolute value for connection isn’t useful. We don’t look for a single muscle ‘tone’ or degree of hardness or softness in the arm. We look for varying muscle recruitment and use – we use what we need for the circumstances and no more.’ But that’s not a helpful response to a student who’s trying really hard to figure out how they and their partners should feel.  I can’t remember what I said. I’m fairly sure I said too much, which is my main failing as a teacher. Just. Stop. Talking. It was something I grappled with in tutoring as well.

It amuses me slightly because for myself I think I err on the side of talking too little because I am afraid of going on complete tangents of all the possibilities of what can happen when one tweakes little things with connection or movement. In addition it’s a personal bias that I am largely a visual learner and the instructors I have disliked classes have felt more like a lecture and less of a dance class.

I do like the direction that dogpossum takes in her classes though.  I wish I would see it more because I find many instructors on the regional level often settle for absolutes.


Like Obi-Wan, I believe dealing in absolutes is not an optimal choice. Yes as an instructor by giving students absolutes you satisfy their want for hard and fast rules, however this is at a cost. I’ve bet in a swing dance class you have had a fellow classmate raise their hand and say, “Well I learned it X way from Y instructor.” I’ve had it pulled on me as an instructor as well, frequently by individuals who have taken the local ballroom dance courses featured at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). This is because when you teach something as an absolute a student is likely to put a mental box around whatever the move/concept you taught and think “This is how it is done” and consider alternatives “wrong”.

rules

What this means for myself as an instructor is I try to encourage students once that they are the level that they have some experience under their belt to understand the importance of context for dancing. Often my favorite classes to teach are taking one movement such as a tuck turn and exploring how it can be altered to match different environments such as different types of songs or if you have a follow who can turn exceptionally well/a lead who pays good attention to their partner.

The difficulty again lies that understanding those different contexts for a move such as a tuck turn or even gaining the level of control over ones personal movement to explore all those possibilities takes practice, time, and patience.  I think the following quote sums up a lot of newer dancers including myself when I first started,

“Asked, in the 1980s, about new dancers, he responded: “They’re looking for too much too quick. They want everything like instant coffee. Nothing works like that, not your mind, not your body, nothing.” – Pepsi Bethel, American Jazz Dancer & Lindy Hopper

Typically newer dancers want a lot of moves and to do them “right”. On a slightly related note I was cleaning up my apartment today since I am moving out soon and came across my notes from some of my first Lindy Hop classes in Southern California. I was literally trying to write out every single detail of how to each move and variation on them that was taught to me.

My struggle as an instructor is I think improvisational and experimental nature of Lindy Hop is one of the things I need to teach and emphasize as a swing dance teacher, however I have to balance this out with understanding the mindset of new or even slightly experienced follows and leads. The importance for me is understanding what I am and am not willing to compromise on and teach accordingly.


Enjoying Live Music: A Guide for Swing Dancers

I originally wrote this article in 2010 for Atomic Ballroom out in Southern California. Recently I have modified it to be appropriate for my blog.

The Privilege of Live Music

Bands provide a great service by playing for dancers. However for dancers who are newer or from a different area where live music is not as prevalent, they may not know the preferred etiquette for a dance with live music. Below is a list of etiquette on a night with a live band for newer dancers, as well a friendly reminder to more experienced dancers.

This guide does not cover the situation of finding a live band and deciding to dance at a venue dancing is not advertised for. A detailed guide could be provided for that situation, but it is hoped that most people could use common sense to access if and how to dance at those venues is appropriate.

Jonathan Stout Orchestra

1. Applaud After A Song Is Finished

Just like a concert, when a band is finished playing a song it is good etiquette to give the band a round of applause. (Cheering after a particularly good song is also appropriate as well!) Once in awhile dancers get excited about a good dance and while thanking their partner accidentally forget this. So even when you are excited try to keep this tip in mind.

2. Try to Be Quiet When The Bandleader is Speaking

Sometimes before playing songs the bandleader will share a little bit of information about a song. While you may be eager to dance, if you are close to the band/on the dance floor try to keep your voice low to show respect for the person talking. In addition announcements are sometimes made that are relevant to all dancers on the floor such as car lights being left on to registration cutoff times for competitions.

3. Be Cautious if Dancing Near the Band (and Tip Jar)

At venues that the band plays on the dance floor, dancers get a treat by having the ability to dance right up next to the band. However with privilege comes responsibility. Therefore when dancing up close, right next to the band, be extra cautious and maintain a reasonable distance so there is no possibility of accidentally colliding into any of the band members.

If you are in a venue that the band uses a tip jar which is common practice in some areas like New Orleans, be extra cautious around that as well.

4. Thank The Band

If you see band members hanging out during their set breaks or after they are done playing, it is great etiquette to thank them for their performance. What I like to personally do is, if I hear a solo that I find particularly amazing during a dance I try to find that individual band member and thank them for it.

5. At Venues Without Cover Charges Tip The Band/Buy Food or Drink From the Venue

When bands are playing at venues such as bars with no cover charge, often the deciding factor of if they get hired again is how much revenue the place collects by the end of the night. Or in some cases such as busking outdoors, the money the band makes for their performance is mainly based on how much they collect in tips. So when one goes out dance at places that don’t charge cover, it is considered good form to buy food or drinks from a venue and/or tip the band depending upon what type of venue or event you are at.

Ending Notes

Like many of the professional dancers in the swing dance community, musicians that play for us often sink countless time and energy in their artistic endeavor. So try to keep this list in mind and everyone can have an amazing night.

If there is any advice that you would give for dancers who are attending a live band please list that in the comments section, thanks!


How To Put On A Swing Dance Contest

While I am not a top-tier traveling international instructor, I would say I have done my fair share of competitions in my last few years of dancing. One thing I have noticed is the diversity of the types of competitions in the swing dance community in terms of organization and advertisement.

 

An example in respect to advertising would be the contrast in these two contest descriptions from ILHC and Lindy 500:

The Second Annual Amateur Champions Invitational Jack & Jill.  from Lindy 500 (2012)

The Second Annual Amateur Champions Invitational Jack & Jill. By invitation or request only. If you think you should be in this contest, contact michael@mobtownballroom.com. You cannot be a regular instructor or international teacher or any such shit. If you teach some locally, that’s okay. Skye Humphries is specifically barred from entering this contest. $5 entry fee.

Invitational J&J from ILHC (2012)

This will be an Invitational social dance competition open to dancers determined by the organizers. Leaders and followers will be randomly drawn to dance together to several songs of varying styles and tempos and judged as a couple as they compete in spotlight format.

Competitors are not allowed to dance with “regular” partner (one that they dance and/or have competed with in a choreographed routine in the last 4 years, Team routines do not count) Social dance partners are accepted and will be considered “luck of the draw”.

Competition Blueprint 

Below is my recommended blueprint or guidelines to setting up a competition:

  1. Developing an appropriate vision.
  2. Write appropriate contest rules and descriptions.
  3. Fill necessary roles.
  4. Figure out and write down logistics.
  5. Last minute checkup.

1. Developing an Appropriate Vision

Your have decided to have a competition, great! Now the question is how many swing dance events have you run in the past? If the answer is little to none, having a ULHS or ILHC sized competition is probably a bit too lofty of  a goal for your first competition to be organizing. The first part of developing an appropriate vision is:

  • Realizing what experience you and potential co-organizers who are putting on the competition have and the resources you have to work with.

Another thing to consider is the context of this competition being organized. Is it part of a workshop weekend with a live band? Is it part of a weekly dance with attendance of less then one-hundred people? Is your scene near a lot of big cities with sizable scenes or are you in the middle of no-where and rarely get out of town visitors? Will other local organizers support your event or openly antagonize you and conflict with your event in spite of advance notice? Some of these things are not pleasant truths to deal with but are the reality of organizing any event, let alone a competition. The second part of developing an appropriate vision is:

  • Realizing what kind of attendance your event is likely to get.
  • Considering if you have local swing dance scenes that will support you.
  • Deciding if your event targets out-of-town dancers and if you have the resources to attract them to support you?

Lastly the intent of the competition is something that is important to think about. Is this a competition that is created for new competitors to get their feet wet and has more of a fun community feeling or is this more of a serious competition where it is going to be on youtube later and the prizes are nothing to scoff at? The context of the contest decides everything from entrance fees, if you use in-house judges or hire professional instructors to judge, if the finals are an all-skate versus phrase-battle, and et cetera. The last part of developing an appropriate vision is:

  • Realizing the purpose of why you and your co-organizers are putting on the competition and the context you want it to have.

2. Write Appropriate Contest Rules and Descriptions

You now have a vision or outline for what type of event you and your co-organizers want. This can be anything from a small Amateur Jack & Jill that is part of a weekly dance to a competition with a Jack & Jill, Strictly Lindy, and Solo Charleston contest that is part of a workshop weekend with a live band.  The next part is to come up with contest rules and descriptions that are appropriate for your event.

I listed the Lindy 500 contest description for their Jack & Jill above because I wanted to illustrate the point that “appropriate” is relative to the dancers which the contest is trying to appeal to. Baltimore’s scene addresses a different audience for their workshop weekend event in comparison to ILHC which is an international competition weekend.  With their description one can infer that having fun and taking oneself not too seriously is something the contest organizers are trying to advocate. My general advice is unless if you know your target audience fairly well, err on the side of being too professional versus potentially confusing or alienating potential competitors. This means assume everyone reading your descriptions are first time competitors and do not know the definitions of phrases such as “Strictly Lindy”, “Jack & Jill”, or “Phrase Battle”. The first part of writing contest rules and descriptions is:

  • Write rules that are appropriate for the atmosphere of the contest you are trying to create. When in doubt, err on the side of being too explicit and professional.

Another thing important to note is no matter how relaxed and carefree the competition you are about to host is, addressing safety is a highly recommended idea. The last thing you want is the newer dancer who is entering his first competition trying to throw an aerial he or she learned off of youtube in the middle of an amateur Jack & Jill. If you want to reinforce the seriousness of ignoring the rules, listing the penalty of it such as disqualification from the contest is a good idea as well.  The second part of writing contest rules and descriptions is:

  • Especially for safety, if you don’t want something happening in a competition explicitly write what is not allowed.

Lastly make sure to address the essential questions about a contest in your description such as,

Who is allowed in each division? Where are the competitions being held? What time are the competitions? What kind of competitions are they? How are the competitions being judged? What tempos are going to be played in the competition? Who is judging the competitions? How is preliminary rounds being held? How are finals being held?

It is the prerogative of an event organizer of some of these details if they are publicly listed, perhaps the final format being secret is part of the atmosphere of the event. It is a nice touch though to let people know where and when they should be. On a positive note if you actually post contest rules and descriptions you are already ahead of the game. I have participated in many contests where I simply knew there was going to be a contest at that event and that was the only information I was provided. The last part of writing contest rules and descriptions is:

  • Make sure it is written out what type of competitions you are having, where they are, when they are, and other essential information relevant to potential competitors.

3. Fill Necessary Roles

Now that you have the rules and descriptions for your contest, you now need individuals to run your contest under those guidelines. Depending upon the scope of the competition you are attempting to put on you may need a few people to an entire team of people to help you run a competition.  If this is just a casual local competition you can probably use volunteers/compensated individuals from your local scene, whereas if you are trying to make it a serious competition you will probably have to hire people experienced at their respective roles.

Below is a short list of roles that should be filled at a minimum.

  • Competition DJ or Live Band: For either a DJ or a live band this should preferably be people who have experience doing this or at very least been educated and briefed on what playing for a competition entails. 
  • Judges: Depending upon the seriousness of your competition this can be randomly chosen people to professional dancers who are regularly hired to judge at events.
  • Master of Ceremonies (MC): The job of this individual is to host the contest and this entails introducing competitors, announcing what is happening, making sure the judges are ready before a contest begins, and other miscellaneous activities. 

Here are optional roles that may or may not be necessary depending upon the scope of your competition.

  • Wrangler/Phrase Battle Counter: The job of this individual is to count people off when they are supposed to enter in a phrase battle. If you are having finals where couples go out one at a time, it is advised to have someone do this.
  • Contest Tabulator: If you are having multiple competitions it is advised to have an experienced individual handle contest tabulation. For a smaller event with only one to two competitions, often the head judge can be responsible for this.
  • Contest Coordinators: This is only necessary if you are having a competition with a massive amount of dancers. I’m talking like ILHC, Frankie 95, Camp Hollywood, and et cetera sized. The job of this person is to make sure people do things like rotate during Jack & Jills properly and are lined up while waiting to go on the floor.
  • Sound Guy: This is only necessary if you are having a large and professional competition and are renting/using a massive room for your event. The job of this person is to make sure your band/DJ’s music is clearly audible to the competitors and the crowd.

Below is the Invitational Strictly Lindy finals from ILHC 2012, notice Falty doing the job of Wrangler/Phrase Battle Counter.

4. Figure Out and Write Down Logistics

At this point you should now have a mission statement or vision for your contest, contest rules and descriptions decided upon, and know which individuals need to be hired/delegated to fill in the necessary roles for your event. Now that you have all the puzzle pieces, you need to fit them all together.

You can have the coolest event in the world with the best instructors, a beautiful venue, and a killer live band… but if nobody knows that your event exists all your efforts are for naught.  Advertising is key to having not just a competition but any successful event and the earlier you start the better. An important thing to note is how you advertise your event can also set the tone for it:

With high production value Lindustrial Revolution 2012’s youtube advertisement sets the tone that the organizers are professional. In addition the youtube clip emphases that their steampunk theme is something to dress up for. The ways you can advertise for your event are limited by you own creativity; word of mouth, fliers, free-shirts for traveling dancers to wear with your event logo & date on it, youtube advertisements, and paid advertisements on yehoodi are some of the few different ways I have seen organizers advertise their events.  The first part of figuring out and writing down logistics is:

  • Develop an effective advertising strategy that sets the tone for your event. 

Now that there is a system in place for people to find out about your contest the next thing that needs to be accomplished is how is it actually being set-up, run, then taken down. In simple terms, “Who does what? and where?”. My advice is to create a  detailed schedule of events that what individual, is doing what particular task, and at what time. An example is below:

8:00 PM – Jim Jones – Unlock the doors to the venue and set thermostat to coldest possible temperature.

8:10 PM – Kendra Robbins/Robert Jones/Sarah Smith – Start setting up tables and chairs according to the floor diagram.

The important thing this covers is who is responsible for every task. The reason I put emphasis on writing this all down is when you say things verbally it is not as binding and people have a tendency to forget. When things are on paper (and/or google documents) it makes it easy for people to know what they are responsible for and when they need to do it. The second part of figuring out and writing down logistics is:

  • Create a schedule of events that lists of tasks need to be completed, what time they need to be completed by, and the individuals responsible for working on them.

Lastly an important detail to cover is what prizes you are providing for the competition. This can be anything from cash, trophies, passes to other events, passes to vintage shops/shoe shops, and et cetera. A piece of an advice though big events like Lindy Focus/Camp Hollywood and such have a billion organizer barking up those respective trees for free passes for competitions, a better and more realistic idea is to probably offer to other organizers you know to trade passes for events. Also it is your choice as an organizer if you want to advertise the prizes for your event beforehand. I have noticed the larger events tend to, whereas smaller events don’t. The last part of  figuring out and writing down logistics is:

  • Decide upon what prizes will be provided for your event and if needed network to obtain them. 

On an aside I have not noted the process to renting a venue, how to hire instructors, and things in a similar vein because those are basics to organizing an event. In the scope of this article I am focusing on mainly how to organize a competition.

5. Last Minute Checkup

You now have everything to set up to run your own competition and haven’t pulled out your hair or killed someone yet, congratulations! The last thing to do is just to oversee your competition, create contingency plans for any possible problems and handle any situations that come up. The last responsibility can often be prevented by effective planning, but sometimes things come up that no one could foresee.

As an organizer what I mean by oversee the competition is just making sure things are at where they should be and people are doing their jobs. Some examples of this could be checking to make sure safety-pins and numbers are available at the registration table or making sure the judges are present a few minutes before the competition starts.  The first part of doing a last minute checkup is:

  • Making sure everything in your schedule of events is running smoothly.

If you are planning to have a competition outdoors sometimes rain happens or perhaps a ton of people signed up for your competition, but not as many people showed up as you planned for. Contingency plans should be created for factors that are out of your control, especially if you are dealing with as something as fickle as weather.  The second part of doing a last minute checkup is:

  • Creating contingency plans for conditions that are out of your control. 

Lastly no matter how much you prepare, stuff just happens. One event I know literally had one of their headlining instructors stranded because a volcano grounded his flight. Another event I know had their headliner band literally get snowed in so they couldn’t travel to their event. The important thing for you to do as an organizer is not to freak out and instead explore your option and choose the best possible one to deal with the situation. At times unfortunately this may consist of choosing the lesser of two evils. The last part of doing a last minute checkup is:

  • Being prepared to make difficult on the spot decisions if something out of your hands goes awry. 

Concluding Remarks

While I tried to cover the full scope of how to run a competition, I did not literally cover everything. To do so would be a document far lengthier then this already long blog post. My advice is if you have any doubts or concerns, seek out an organizer who is experienced in running competitions or even season competitors and consult them for their experience. My personal advice on someone who has been in multiple competitions and have helped to run a few myself is:

  1. Never underestimate the ability for dancers in a Jack & Jill to mess up rotation. Assume they are sheep that need to be herded.
  2. Safety wavers, have them. If I run an event this is a non-negotiable because it prevents liability issues from occurring.
  3. Have a strict time schedule and stick to it. My biggest pet peeve as a dancer at a competition that I am not a participant in is competitions taking forever.

If you have any particular advice for individuals putting on competitions or any questions yourself feel free to post in the comments section!