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.
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.
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.
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 , 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.
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 . 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.
Discretion: By discretion I mean unnecessarily involving people into the problem at hand and/or airing dirty laundry to the point it becomes common gossip . 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.
Empathy: This 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.
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.
: 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.”
: 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.
: 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.
One of the biggest problem I had when I taught my first larger classes (like 50ish people) was at times getting all of their attention so they could hear what my partner and myself had to say and demonstrate.
Over the last few years, I have witnessed some instructors creatively deal with this problem in their classes which I will list below.
Teaching Tricks to get Students to Pay Attention
- Shave and a Haircut: Described on the wikipedia page as a “7-note musical couplet popularly used at the end of a musical performance, usually for comic effect.” The way to use it is teach it at the beginning of the class, then you clap out the rhythm whenever you want the students attention and they respond with either a stomp-off or clapping back the “two bits” (Ba-Ba) part. Repeat as necessary.
- One, Two, Three, All Eyes on Me: Many of you may be familiar with this from grade school, where teachers sometimes employ this. It is a simple rhyme that grabs attention. The way to use it is at the beginning of class go over the rhyme, then during class employ it as necessary. I remember my grade-school teacher would just say the part and have us students reply “All Eyes on Me”.
- Side By Side: I actually witnessed this for the first time when taking a class from Erik Robison in California. He explains at the beginning of class when he says the phrase “Side By Side” he wants follows to get to the right of their leads and for everyone to remain quiet and watch whatever he is demonstrating. Its great because the phrase initiates movement, so people who might be zoning out catches on they should pay attention and it gets people in a position to immediately start dancing afterward.
- Observation Goggles: I got this from watching part of one of Mike Faltesek and Casey Schneider’s classes at Jammin’ on the James last year. At the beginning of their classes they explain the importance of paying attention to the body movement (they or other people you are trying to learn from)and translating it to yourself, they refer to it as putting your observation goggles on and demonstrate what they mean. I can only explain what this looks like with this picture:
Its goofy but it works like a charm, especially among a younger crowd.
What I Do Personally
Well I have liked everything, so I combine a little of it all. At the beginning of classes that it is students I am unfamiliar with, I explain I have this thing called “Side By Side”. When I say that phrase to make it easier on both parts for myself teaching and students learning I ask them to:
- Follows stand to the right of the lead.
- Please remain quiet so other students can hear what I am saying.
- Put on your “Observation Goggles” and not just pay attention to what my footwork is doing, but my full body movement.
I’ve found combining both of them works extremely well, at least for myself.
If you have any tricks you use in your classes or noticed other instructors using that works well, please feel free to comment about them.