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.
Fifty-seven Years Of Magic
Dave a collector of vintage Disneyland photos wrote on his website about Carnation Plaza,
When the Bandstand was moved from Central Plaza over to Adventureland and Magnolia Park, the Carnation Plaza Gardens were constructed and opened on August 18, 1956. A plethora of talent has performed under the tent of this area, including Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Harry James, The Osmond Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Tex Benecke, Cab Calloway, and Stan Kenton.
For those of you not so lucky to be from California, in Disneyland there was this place known as Carnation Plaza, which has been referred to as “The Longest Running Swing Dance Venue”. A notable part of the Southern California swing dance scene for years, case in point you can see California swing dance legend Hal Takier dancing to the song Avalon there in 1987.
For a more comprehensive view, there is a small documentary on the topic of Carnation Plaza called “A Stage that Walt Built”.
However, here is my personal attempt to give you a glimpse of what Carnation Plaza was and still means to Southern California.
Beginning in 1957, Date Nights were a staple of Disneyland culture continuing almost until the 70s. Advertised in local newspapers they were claimed as a way to become a BMOD (Big Man On Dates). In 1967 for $6.50 in the United State one could get 10 rides and full admission to the park which included dancing.
In an article on Mouse Club House, the author Scott Wolf wrote,
Music has always been an important part of the Disneyland experience, with the traditional Disneyland Band performing there since opening day. And while that band remains an essential element of the overall ambience of the park today, on June 28, 1957 things really got swinging! For the first time Disneyland would extend its operating hours until 1am on Friday and Saturday nights for Date Nite, in an attempt to attract young couples as a dating hot spot. Couples could purchase Date Nite discounted tickets which permitted admission only after 5pm. Carnation Plaza Gardens became the chosen central Date Nite location and the local Elliott Brothers band were brought in as the Date Niters who had the ability to perform everything from the slow dances to rock ‘n’ roll to the “La Raspa,” which became a Date Nite tradition.
On Stage Magazine
To give a better picture of what Carnation Plaza was about, here is an article from On Stage magazine, which features an interview with Stan Freese who booked professional swing bands for several years at Disneyland.
The Stage that Walt Built
At Disneyland’s Carnation Plaza Gardens, performers can stand in the footsteps of giants.
Stan Freese calls the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage his “home away from home.” That’s not too much of a stretch.
Freese has been helping put on shows at the historic Disneyland venue since 1974. Today, he books the professional swing bands that fill the stage every Saturday night. The job never gets old, thanks in large part to Freese’s appreciation of the star-studded history of the stage, which opened in 1956.
“This is the longest-running big band stage in the world,” he says, rattling off a list of the stars who have graced the venue over the years. The roster includes Cab Calloway, Bob Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton, Les Brown, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Harry James, Eartha Kitt, and Benny Goodman–whose orchestra was the first big-name group to perform on the stage, back in 1961.
Freese, now 66, enthusiastically hops around the large stage, recreating how things looked when big bands performed there seven nights a week. “Right here is where Louis Armstrong sang ‘Hello, Dolly!'” he says. Stepping to his left, he continues: “Over here is where Count Basie and Duke Ellington played the piano. Right on this stage, looking out at the castle.”
The “castle,” of course, is the famous Sleeping Beauty Castle–the ultimate symbol of Disneyland fun and fantasy–and located “just a stone’s throw” from Carnation Plaza Gardens, as Freese puts it. The stage itself is about 20 feet wide and can accommodate 35 to 40 musicians; larger groups spread out onto the terrazzo dance floor. They perform for audiences of up to 150 people under a canopy of gold and burgundy, which adds to the festive atmosphere.
The history and the surroundings only enrich the experience for the student bands, orchestras and choruses that perform on the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage. “They are walking on hallowed ground, playing in this hallowed venue,” says Freese. “They should all know when they come here how exciting this stage really is.”
Jim Hahn, director of instrumental music at Tuffree Middle School in Placentia, Calif., has been bringing bands to Disneyland for more than 20 years and understands the importance of sharing the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage legacy. “Every time we go,” says Hahn, “I explain the history of that stage to the kids.”
Hahn, a saxophone and clarinet player, performed on the stage himself in 1981 with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. It was the first visit ever to Disneyland for the Philadelphia native. “I was in awe, knowing all the bands that had played that stage,” he says. “It was mind-blowing.”
Every spring Hahn brings two jazz ensembles to play at Carnation Plaza Gardens; in the fall, he brings a marching band to perform in the Disneyland parade. It’s more than history and fond memories that keep him coming back. In Hahn’s opinion, everything about the experience is top-notch. “It’s nothing short of the Disney standard,” he declares.
Hahn has particular praise for the sound quality and the location of the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage in the bustling heart of Disneyland. “It’s a loud stage,” says Hahn. “It attracts a lot of people.”
The effect never wears off on Hahn. “As many times as I’ve taken the kids there, it’s still–as corny as it sounds—it’s still a thrill.”
Wendy Shepherd, choral director at Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash., says the experience of playing Disneyland can be “life-changing” for students. She has been bringing her Scintillation Show Choir to perform on the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage for 10 years. “As a child, to dream of the magic of Disneyland, and then as a young adult to achieve the goal of performing there and working with the Disney choreographers, is immeasurable,” Shepherd says. “I have students who are in their late 20s who Facebook me now, and to this day, recall their experiences, the joy, the achievement of their dream, the way it moved their lives positively.”
The thrill has never worn off for Stan Freese, either. Born and raised in Minneapolis, he made his first trip to Disneyland at age 12, when he marched in the parade with his school band. “It was just great,” he recalls. “I had no clue I was going to work there.” A tuba player, he performed as a soloist in the Soviet Union in 1969. That led to his Disney job interview and his role as leader of the original Disneyland Band, starting in 1971.
In Freese’s early days at Disneyland, the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage was still bringing in national talent for its night-time big-band series. There also was a period in the 1970s and ’80s when pop acts like the Osmonds, the 5th Dimension and the Pointer Sisters played there. These days, the evening shows are performed mostly by swing bands that Freese books from Los Angeles, Orange County and as far away as San Francisco.
Whether the performers are professionals or students, they enjoy first-class treatment. Buses come straight off the Santa Ana Freeway into the Disneyland back lot, where students and gear are unloaded. On the back lot, the students can avail themselves of the dressing and rehearsal facilities as they prepare for their big moment on the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage.
“The whole thing is magic,” Freese concludes. “Now it’s just up to the kids to have fun and make great music to become part of that heritage.”
A little known fact about Walt Disney is that he was a fan of jazz. In fact in 1935, he produced an animated Disney short named Music Land, which attempted to bridge the gap between classical music and jazz.
As a matter of fact, Walt himself was a patron of Carnation Plaza as well.
Besides supporting Jazz in different ways such as recordings, Disney was friends with many of the musicians who played at his park including Louis Armstrong.
A Sweet Note
While it looks different these days due to recent changes, dancing in Disneyland is still a notable part of the culture of swing dancing in Southern California and of Disneyland itself. I would like to leave you with a quote from the parks founder, Walt Disney,
To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past …. and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America … with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world. – Walt Disney
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.
I have always wondered if other people in the Hammond Building found it strange to hear the sound of desks sliding and screeching across the floor for over an hour.
About four years ago in State College, Pennsylvania I was a new lead and frustrated that follows I danced with couldn’t feel me lead a rock step. The result of that was I decided to take the matter into my own hands. An immobile object wouldn’t compensate for my shitty leading, so I drilled leading rock steps on classroom disks at the top floor of the engineering building in an attempt to get my body to understand the feeling of using my body to create a stretch during a rock step.
The Benefits of an Isolated Scene
The running joke in State College was “we were four hours from everything” and with Washington D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia in that range it wasn’t far from the truth. As a scene we had 1 hour classes followed by a usually 2 hour dance twice a week and one monthly large dance. Our big deal event was our semester workshop which had international instructors for absurdly low prices such as $20 dollars for a weekend workshop of 8 classes. While it wasn’t the worst situation in the world, it still was no L.A. or Washington D.C. where you have a large community of dancers and regular instruction from nationally recognized instructors.
What it did give us is the gift of forcing those of us who wanted to improve to take ownership of our dancing improvement. We would do stupid things to get in dancing with advanced dancers like leave after colleges classes at like 5pm and drive four hours to Washington D.C. to dance at the Jam Cellar (which at the time as a newbie I was convinced was like the Mecca of dance), stay to the bitter end, and then take shifts driving back to make it home in time for 8 AM classes the next day. I believe I visited Washington D.C. about three different times before I actually saw what it looked like in the daylight.
One memory that stands out in my mind was feeling left out after attending a workshop weekend that during the shim sham I had no idea what it was or how to do it. That became the catalyst which caused me the following week to use the video below and teach myself the entire routine.
The important concept I got from living in a somewhat small/isolated scene is it was not my communities’ responsibility or whatever instructors’ responsibility to help me to improve, it was mine. If I watched a video and thought I looked like shit there was always a mirror to remind myself of whose fault it is.
The problem I have noticed in swing dance communities in general is a sizable portion of dancers are not proactive. What I mean by that is they expect to be spoon-fed and given the answers from instructors. Yes, you can learn that way but it is a slow route and not conducive to getting past intermediate at best. Even worse I would argue you are likely to end up more looking like a poor imitation of another dancer instead of developing your own voice or personality in movement.
I’m not saying to completely abandon teachers or classes, obviously those have value. What I am saying is there is a definite value being able to develop yourself as a dancer outside of formal swing dance class and many of those skills such as being able to visually learn and recreate movement have multifaceted applications. When you have classes as your only source of learning then the material your teacher’s present and possibly the social dance floor are your only source of input. However when you choose to attempt to learn something anything you can grasp is a source of inspiration; Frankie Manning, Dean Collins, Willa Mae Ricker, or Jewel McGowan. Even non Lindy Hop sources are game, one dancer I have personally have pulled from is Maurice Mouvet.
Over the years I’ve had requests for me to teach people some things like swingout variations or solo jazz routines and often my thoughts are, “It’s on youtube, you could learn it tonight instead of waiting around for me to show you.”
An interesting trend is a lot of amazing dancers (including a few from State College) have always had this attitude in dance and in many cases they actively seek out opportunities to work and collaborate with others outside of a traditional workshop and classroom setting whether that is locally or involves travel. Jon Tigert wrote in his blog about his experience when he was in a tiny remote town in Italy for two and a half months and out of the dance loop. Did he use that as an excuse to rest on his laurels and complain about how there was no one to dance with? Hell no, instead he worked his ass off at improving his quality of movement through solo jazz.
Don’t Dream It Be It
Here is my challenge to you dear readers. Take something you have always wanted to learn (within reason, please don’t crack skulls learning aerials off of youtube) and do it. No partner? Post a facebook status, ask people in your classes, or worst case scenario work on solo quality of movement. Tranky Doo, Big Apple, or California Routine? There are videos for all of those online. If you actually take me up on my challenge write in the comments about it or even better show me on video or in person. I’ll leave you with this quote from Mr. Tigert,
So you are wondering how you can become a better dancer, even if you don’t have a partner, or you can’t afford classes. Get off your butt, stop reading blogs and watching videos, put in your earbuds and just dance. – Jon Tigert
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;
- This class was almost improvised on the spot, we maybe had ten minutes max to brainstorm a lesson plan.
- 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.
- 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 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?