Saturday, 31 May 2014

Growing the Shag Scene

Hi everyone, I've been putting off blogging for nearly a year now - life got extremely interesting (separate post on what's been keeping me busy apart from dance is in the works), and I've been putting my energies into that life thing... and into Collegiate Shag. Time to share some of what's been up with that!

First off, here's a video for you all:


We did pretty well! Six of the ten dancers in my troupe started in November, the rest have been with us since March 2013. Now, I (or anyone) can look at what we did with a critical eye and say that we've got lots to work on... but I'm extremely proud of this group, some of whom had never danced in front of an audience before. Sam (the blond girl in red) lost a shoe halfway through and kept going, Jerome (dude in white) realised he was late on something and practically teleported to the right spot, and everyone kept their game faces on throughout.

What we've done as a troupe is kind of amazing. THREE choreographies in just over a year, presentations here in Montreal as well as a trip to New York City and the above competition in Sherbrooke. We had a local event with invited instructors and live music, and there are plans to take a group trip to San Francisco if we can get the cash together. Some of the dancers on the troupe want to start looking for performance gigs for pay as well. I'd absolutely love to get us to a level where we perform more regularly.

There have been some challenges. We recruit mainly from a university, so people have other commitments and the turnover is comparatively high. We've got no pool of experienced dancers to draw from, so the gap between newbies and veterans on the troupe is pretty incredible at the start of each season. It makes teaching a real challenge - we need to keep everyone engaged but not overwhelmed.

On the other hand, we're making waves. After the performance at CSC, people came up and shook my hand, saying they were really impressed that we'd brought a Shag team to competition. I posted the video on a Shag community group and got some interest from dance historians, commenting on the innovation and the level of difficulty of the choreography. All in all, I think I might have been better off having us do something simpler for a competition piece, but I wanted to set the bar high and get people to achieve as much as they were humanly capable of doing.

The initial reason for creating a Shag troupe was to make the dance more visible to the public - mission accomplished. It's important that people see local dancers doing it, even better that some amateurs are showing such accomplishment less than a year in. Now, the real challenge is to build a social scene.

Here in Montreal, it's not hard to find a bunch of people who want to dance. The trouble is, there are a LOT of different groups of organizers competing for nights of the week, space in a given studio, and dancers' attention. I had been offering a drop-in class and practice session on Saturday afternoons, which was when the studio was free (it was that or Saturday nights, and my feeling was that we definitely didn't have enough of a crowd to make a dance that would compete with all the options people have for how to spend their Saturday night!). I think I'm a bit spoiled with Montreal's scene - less than 20 people hardly feels like a successful dance, even though it would be great to have 20 people dancing Shag socially in one room!

We're launching progressive 6-week Shag classes at Cat's Corner this coming week, hopefully giving our newbies space to practice will make all the difference in retention. Wish us luck!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Everyone Wants to be a Rockstar

So I just got back from my favourite event of the year: Swingout New Hampshire, a five day camp down in the states that focuses on social dance and has the highest level of dancing of any event I've been at... there may be others that have similarly great bands or an equally great lineup of instructors, but I've never been at an event that's so intensely great on the social dance floor. I love it there, and I had a great time as always this year.

Before I go any further, I think it's important to say that I'm about to talk about a mistake or trap that I've fallen into myself, repeatedly, and that I'm not trying to judge or criticize anyone. This is just a talking-about-things sort of post, and I'm hoping you readers can get something out of it.

Every year, there's an emotional hurdle to overcome for many of the dancers who attend, and a kind of "parenting challenge" for the organizers and instructors. Swingout NH is a tracked camp, like Herrang and Lindy Focus. As a result, a significant number of campers spend their time before attending their first class worrying about their level, striving to prove that they deserve to be in the next level up from last year, and worrying about feeling like they're not improving or that they're backsliding. There's a huge importance placed on what colour your name tag is each year... I remember feeling, when I received my badge, like I was being given an annual grade for my Lindy Hop. I've seen people in tears over their placements, this year I listened to a tirade from a camper who was most definitely never coming back to camp because of level placement.

Even among those who are sure they're in the right level (mainly those in the top level), the dance ego and turn a scathing eye to the other dancers in a particular track. "X or Y doesn't belong, they're not good enough to be in level Z." Sometimes the material being taught is just the right level of difficulty but nobody (apart from the person doing the complaining) is of a high enough level to learn it properly.

There is some legitimacy to wanting to be in a certain level. Sometimes it means that the discussions in class are more relevant or interesting. The class itself might move at a pace which is more challenging. I personally, this year, wanted to be in the same level as certain people I work and teach with - I wanted the cred of being in "master" levels when I went places. I'll admit I was a bit green when I noticed that half the master level had already been filled with invitees, and slightly dismayed when I found myself in the level below. That's the emotional reaction. The factual one is that I arrived at camp already slightly sick and I was just fine with the classes offered at the level I'd been placed in, had no trouble dancing with the people in my level (mostly), and got lots out of my weekend.

This year we had auditions for our levels. The advantage was that our dancing was observed live, which meant that it was current instead of extrapolated from a video or the opinions of a local teacher. The disadvantage was twofold: teachers had to spend an extra hour evaluating everyone, and could only spend a few seconds on placing each person. It shared the issue with videos that the look of someone's dancing became the prime factor in their level placement - that's one way, but not the only way. There was an appeals process - yet another hour that the teachers had to spend, this time questioning their own judgement, by dancing with the dancers who had an issue with their original placement. The advantage, as the organizers put it, was that it was a "double-failsafe system." Both evaluations were done by world-class teachers and I expect that they were done well.

I can't say whether there were more or less mis-placed dancers this year. There was a lot more stress on the first morning when we went to the auditions, but people seemed more ready to accept their placements for the most part.

Anyway, here's my real beef: why are levels so important? In spite of the forthright claim on the Swingout NH website that it's a camp without any "rockstars," there were definitely some master-level dancers who were less in evidence at the social dances or didn't dance with anyone but each other. I hasten to add that there were plenty who upheld the spirit and traditions of the camp... but every dancer I've ever met talks about swing dancing as a welcoming, warm community where we all treat each other equally and are there to have fun. Why were there complaints about dancing with beginners or people still working their way down the road in their dance journey, the levels having failed to keep the "riff-raff" out, et cetera?

Tracks are a good thing. It's obvious that beginners would be lost in a class targeted to advanced dancers, and a dancer who could be teaching at a camp isn't going to need coaching on things like pulsing cleanly through a triple step. So there should be a certain division of dancers into logical groups who will get different types of instruction. What I realized was that the upper half of the group I was in could have kept up with the next level up, and probably most of us would have still gotten lots out of the level below (this from talking to and watching the other levels' classes because I was too sick to dance half the time). So levels aren't actually crisp divisions according to skill level.

Remember that, in a previous post, I talked a bit about dancers' skill levels being an amalgam of a number of different dimensions. Frame, rhythm, musicality, movement, balance, connection... someone in a high level might be stronger in some areas than another dancer in a lower level, but weaker in others... and still well placed, because the classes orient on some dimensions more than others. Another teacher with another approach and teaching plan for the event might reverse those dancers' positions. I had great dances with follows of all levels, learned some relevant things in a beginner class I dropped in on, and got a solid reminder about the spirit of the dance from Charles, who taught only one class - a crash course for the camp staff so that they could jump onto the dance floor and have fun with the rest of us. Charles knows as much about Lindy Hop and what matters as any of the teachers, and I felt inspired and moved by his approach. Charles is all about feeling the music and enjoying it, sharing the pleasure with your partner, and finding common ground in your movement with your partner.

No matter how much we claim that we're all equal and there's room for all of us on the dance floor, it seems that there's a competitive streak in most dancers, and we all want validation for the work we've put in. I've personally struggled a lot with wanting to be one of the "cool kids" and sometimes felt excluded... I like to perform, I enjoy showing off, and sometimes I've sought to do so in places where I don't necessarily belong. I think it's something we have to remind ourselves to be better than. You can't "win" swing dancing, can't really "make it" and be done working on your dance, and there's never a moment when you can truly place yourself above the people around you. Since dance learning is organic, we all grow in different directions at different times, and there are beginners out there who have taught me a lot.

I propose to all of us that we renew our commitment to keeping swing dance an egalitarian community. Actively dismiss the idea of snobbery, make more of an effort to treat all dancers like peers. Treat everyone as just coming from somewhere slightly different in their dance. I think I might get into the why we all fall into this trap in a future post... but for now, consider the possibility that you could become a better dancer and person if you looked at everyone more equally.

PS: Just as a good counterpoint to a natural line of thinking from here, I suggest you all read Rebecca Brightley's post on the "cool kids" and "entitled dancers." Her thinking and points are absolutely solid in my opinion, just not the precise topic I'm bringing up here... read both sides!!

Friday, 16 August 2013

The larger world of dancing

Last month I had the opportunity to take a series of classes in Contemporary Dance at Cat's Corner. Working on dance through such a hugely different lens is an inspiration and a challenge, and it's bringing a lot of ideas to the surface for me about dancing in general and the reality of swing dance culture (at least, my OWN swing dance culture).

1) Contemporary dancers train their fundamentals every day. It's a lot of work to build that foundation - there's less of a need to make the dance feel "easy" to start with. In the first class we talked about posture: where to place your elbows, finding neutral for your spine and pelvis, how to align your knees so that your legs were fully balanced. The teaching points were somewhat like what you might learn in a good yoga class, which made me think: our body movements are universal, we're all built the same way. It's true that all of our bodies are different, but knowing the similarities can help us know the difference between "that's just how my body is made" and "I have a bad habit that practice will fix."

2) Structure. Contemporary has very little of it at first glance. I was used to thinking of jazz as a free, improvisational dance... but it's actually got a lot of rules. We dance with the core active and the hips matching shoulders. We pulse down into the ground on every beat. Our movements work in eight beats, often stepping off on the right foot (in solo), no splitting weight, contra-body movement, piked position, etc etc etc. In contemporary, forget all of that -- movements have no particular timing, pulse is optional, you can work on the floor or plant your feet and use the upper body. Classes explore timing, challenge your balance, use any posture and can move any body part in isolation or in concert.

3) Music. I had no clue how dependent I was on music to form my movements until we started working on dancing in silence. Last week we composed a set of movements, and while there was music, our teacher changed the song every two minutes. When we actually presented, it was in silence... and it was beautiful. The dances I've learned relied on music to guide, inspire and shape what we were doing. It was very difficult to create and present something that would stand on its own merits... one of the things I usually bring to the table as a swing dancer is an understanding of the music and a sense of matching movement to the feeling of the song. Stripped of that, I had to shore up a weakness of mine: the actual quality and clarity of the movement itself.

4) Tradition. If there's one thing I dislike about swing dance, it's the appeal to authority: "there's a video of a great dancer doing this in 1935 so that's the way it's done." "Amazing Teacher X taught me to do it this way." There's merit to that, in the sense that the people who danced jazz before us evolved a great many ideas that reflect the feeling of the style better than what we might come up with on our own, but a tradition means that we do something without fully knowing why. Ask someone from Cat's Corner about the Shim Sham, specifically the pushes: even among our teaching staff, about half will push forward on 8 and the other half will prep on 8 and push on 1. I've heard the story that when Frankie Manning was taught it, he did it one way... but then someone took a video of him doing it and he happened to do it the other way, and that's what a number of famous teachers learned and propagated. My question, then, is: if Frankie did it the other way without realizing, is it actually important which way we do it? Yet people will argue about which way is right, reference the original tap choreography, and debate it the way theological historians might fight about what entree was served at the Last Supper. As another example, I picked up Suzy Q's from Ryan Francois, with a habit of stepping on 8 and opening up on 1. I've been told that's "wrong" and yet it looks and works just fine from where I'm standing. It's not how everyone else does it, I'm OK with that. From what I see in Contemporary, so long as you're able to do a movement, it's a candidate for inclusion in your dance. Contemporary is nothing but exploration!

This set of observations might sound like I'm being hard on jazz dancing... that's not really the intention. What I'm hoping to convey is my personal experience, that I spent seven years learning jazz and loving it, but that I failed to notice how much bigger the world of dance was and how soft the borders were - contemporary is inspiring me to push my swing dancing further, filling in gaps in my understanding and skills, and allowing me to question what I know. I wouldn't ever have had the courage to try contemporary seven years ago, nor do I think I'll ever love any style as much as I do jazz dance, but my horizons are significantly broader after less than a month of this new exploration.

One anecdote to close this post: The week before my contemporary class started, there was a taster class offered at the studio. I had turned up late and tired, so I didn't jump in, but a few swing teachers apart from myself were watching through the office window. One of them, a teacher I deeply respect and sometimes envy for her skills and knowledge, said "I don't get it. This kind of movement makes no sense to me... how do they do it?" That pretty much made up my mind, I had to learn more about it. Being a good dancer means understanding the whole of the art... I can be OK with saying "I'm not as good as some people at that" but if I can't understand what they're doing with their bodies, then I'm missing out. For me, learning starts with discovering my own ignorance, which serves as a powerful motivator to acquire understanding.

As always, comments are welcome from anyone and everyone. Share your own ideas - what kind of cross-training or exploration have you done or would you like to do? Have I misinterpreted contemporary dancing's appeal? Feel free to add your voice.


Monday, 5 August 2013

Reasons to dance... from beginners to experts

Why dance? Here are a few reasons for those of you who are just starting out or haven't yet...

1) Human contact. Dancing is far more social than, say, World of Warcraft. Both obligate you to connect with other people if you want to get anywhere, but dancing does it face to face, on a pretty much equal footing, without the intervening screen. This isn't just good for your mood but is a valuable transferable skill which can make it easier to find a job, succeed at work, do better on a date with someone of the opposite sex, and interact with the world in general.

2) Exercise. The great thing about dancing is that it's pretty much perfect cardio. A physical trainer once told me that the best way to increase my cardiovascular endurance and metabolism was to do wind sprints: run my fastest until I was out of breath, then rest. When I dance, I give it my all for the duration of the song, which is maximum five minutes, then I either rest for ten seconds while I find a new partner or I take a song off to recover. This is far better than a gentle jog. As evidence, I submit that I lost 50 pounds of fat during my first year of dancing, WITHOUT NOTICING THAT I WAS WORKING OUT.

3) A sense of control and connection with your body. I can walk across wet ice in the winter with a sense of security, and I hardly ever bump into concrete pillars anymore. I can move through space comfortably, recover quickly if I trip, and react faster if I drop something than I ever learned to in other activities.

4) Culture. I know so much more about music than when I started... even if most of it's jazz, I know the difference between a clarinet and an oboe now. I know about phrasing and meter, about the history of music, and I've got an ear for it - picking out individual instruments as well as hearing the whole oeuvre. Granted, for the moment I'm specialized - but it takes a lot less time to adapt a skill than to learn a new one.

5) FUN. Believe it or not, we love this dance because it's fun. There are those moments when your partner does something unexpected and you both completely lose the thread, look ridiculous, and break down into giggling fits... but also those moments when everything just seems to go right. Those perfectly sweet dances with a near-total stranger who turns out to have great dance chemistry with you. The awe-inspiring songs when you get an instructor you admire to dance with you, the moment when the music does just what you'd hoped and you know that you're in the groove... you don't need to train for years to have a great dance, just let it all hang out and connect with your partner and the music.

Everyone can dance this. I'll leave you with an unlikely couple who prove my point pretty well:


Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Reset Button

It's been quite a while that I've been learning to dance. I'm not anywhere near done, although these days I'm learning mostly from the floor, the mirror, and my partners... but for anyone aspiring to be a good dancer, being a good student of dance is essential. It's always your choice whether to learn or stagnate, whether to become a better dancer or be OK with a plateau. I'm also a believer that so long as you're motivated to improve, there's no such thing as reaching a natural limit on how good you can get... some people learn more or less quickly, but we all continue to improve and eventually break through to new levels of skill.

The most important skill to have when you dance, in my opinion, is the Reset Button. This is a big red button that's wired directly to your dance ego. A few examples from my own dancing experience:

-I took a number of group classes when I was first learning. I was beginning to feel like I'd gotten the idea of dancing, and a teacher had even suggested that we take the time to work on a choreography. He invited me to take a private lesson with him for a reduced rate... when we got there, my head was full of the complex moves and ideas I'd seen on the dance floor, that I wanted to add to my repertoire. He had us dance a bit to see where we were at... and the first thirty minutes of my private instruction began with "let's work on triple steps for a bit."

Stop. Please reinstall ego and reboot. 

-I was invited to substitute as a teacher at Cat's Corner... totally exciting! I'd made noises about learning to teach, had audited classes as a teaching assistant, and figured I'd mastered the movements we were supposed to be doing. It was a Swing 1 class... and, while demonstrating a pretty basic move, I misjudged my footing and lost my balance. Didn't quite fall on my ass, but demonstrated that even the moves we were teaching in Swing 1 had some tricky nuances.

Yech. That pride's been in the fridge too long. Good thing it's garbage day. 

-The first time I saw a video of my dancing.

Enough said. 

-Every competition I've ever entered. I tend to get nervous, worry about whether I'm placed appropriately to impress the judges, and sometimes neglect my partner because I'm thinking so intensely about looking like I'm taking care of my partner. I try things I don't know how to do, because I figure the things I do know how to do are boring - after all, I've seen them a hundred times before - and this leads to awkwardness. Basically, I become a pretty lame dancer when I'm in front of a crowd of my peers.

That feeling? That's how the evil queen in Snow White felt right before she told her magic mirror to go play in a diamond mine. 

-The days when I dance with an unfamiliar partner and it doesn't go well, only to watch them dance the next song with someone else and it just looks completely epic.

Yeah, it's actually pretty clearly not you, it's me. 

-And finally, the day when one of your students pulls off a move you spent weeks figuring out on the second try, before you've had a chance to explain the insights you felt you got from hours of reflection and figuring out.

We're none of us gods. Remember putting your pants on this morning? One leg at a time, right?

The fact is, it's easy to get carried away as a dancer. When we dance, any non-dancer who sees us is going to be awestruck. I remember how impressed I was with Swing Kids when I first saw it... and now I look at it and try to pick out actual dance steps, especially those danced by Robert Sean Leonard. Fact is there aren't many. A bunch of actors took a couple of lessons and then went back to working on their lines and such... but the fact is that nobody noticed because most people aren't looking with a technical eye!

Getting caught up in yourself can lead to some painful experiences. The most pervasive one comes when we try to insert ourselves into the perceived hierarchy of dance: maybe we want to join a troupe, or teach, or go to a camp in the advanced track. Maybe we just want to perform. I'm going to link to a video now, please don't watch it while eating or after a meal. Once it starts, put your cursor over the pause button. You might need someone to hug afterwards too. Here it is.

What often happens, if we're around kind people when we push beyond our reach, is that we get blocked. Organizers of classes, troupes or events are trying to base placements on overall skill level, in a fair and impartial way, and our self-perception doesn't factor into that. Some kindly person will take our hand and guide us to where we'll get the most out of our event experience, or invite us to take some private lessons to hone whatever's holding us back, or just be clear that we're not yet at the right level for whatever we think we should be doing.

I know it can feel like you're being gently escorted to the back of the class and handed some safety scissors, glue sticks and glitter. Sometimes even the reassuring comments on our strengths and progress sound like pats on the head. Still, the best response to this kind of happening is to hit the reset button. If your dancing isn't perfect, you aren't entitled to anything... and your dancing isn't perfect. Unless you're Frida Segerdahl. Hi Frida!

The worst reaction (apart from quitting dancing) is to throw a tantrum. Whether it's a sulk, tears, comments about the level of the people you've been grouped in with... that kind of negative energy is insulting to the decision makers, and to everyone they've suggested you work with. "OMG they put me  in intermediate, I'm an advanced dancer and they put me with the intermediates, I'm not going to learn anything this trip and it sucks!" is childish. Having said that, I've done it. I think we all have. I just don't think it's the right thing to do.

What should we do in order to maintain the reset button?

-Dance with all levels of dancers. Honestly, if you can't dance with a beginner and have a good time, you're not very good. If you think they're getting you into bad habits, you need to develop some good habits on your own time. This isn't to say that you should dance exclusively with people you see as below your level, just that there's no real skill in dancing with the best partner around all the time.

-Use the mirror or, better yet, video. You need to see what you're doing right and wrong, and a lot of mistakes are the things we don't feel because we're concentrating on another body part or on what's happening next. When you watch yourself, compare yourself to a dancer you respect, not to yourself six months ago.

-Talk to teachers. Get direct feedback on your strengths and weaknesses in their eyes. You can take it with a grain of salt, but anything that comes back more than once probably has some truth to it. Don't ask them if you're good, you don't want pity-approval.

-If you feel you're not being recognized for your talents, ask yourself what might be obscuring that. If you have great connection but poor movement, or good rhythm but awful posture, you're probably going to rate lower than someone who's doing reasonably well in all dimensions of their dance. I personally don't rate my dance that highly because while I'm creative and connected, my movements tend to be sloppy and it makes my dance kind of ugly looking. There was a year where I boosted myself into a much higher level at a camp because my initial placement was based on a video... once I actually danced with an instructor they moved me up pretty quickly because my Lindy Hop is much prettier on the inside. Until I fix the look of my dance, I won't really feel like I'm an advanced dancer and I probably won't be taking home any medals in Lindy.

-Don't marry your self-worth to dancing, or anything else. If you're dependent on being a good dancer for feeling worthy of respect, that's not a good thing. I once heard a dancer talk about moving to a smaller scene in order to be a bigger fish. I don't think that's healthy at all.

The best dancer you can be is one who's OK with falling on his or her ass from time to time, who's as excited about finding stuff to change as about being awesome, and who is always interested to hear what might be the next step in his or her growth. Humility and comfort: be OK with where you are because you're THERE, like it or not; but also be ready to learn and aware that there's an immense amount of work to do.

Get out there and go for it, and don't let that reset button get rusty!

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Competitive streak

So I've been quiet recently, mainly because my home doesn't yet have internet (new place, DSL installation gone awry because the apartment literally didn't exist before, blah blah Bell Canada rawr). I've also been pretty busy trying to find my way as a dance teacher, but things are a bit calmer now that my energies aren't being diverted into putting things into boxes, taking them out of boxes, and all the stuff in between.

This weekend I'm at the Canadian Swing Championships. To speak truly, they're the Eastern Canada Swing Championships, or possibly (based on previous years) the Quebec and Ontario Big Debauched Party With Some Dance Competitions. I'll grant that the vibe this year seems less insane, but there's no real conclusion to draw until tonight (everyone's gearing up for prelims and team competitions, so once those happen people cut loose a bit more).

When I tell people I'm a dancer and a teacher, they ask if I compete almost immediately. The honest answer is that I never put much effort into competition. I've been on troupes which seemed to exist solely to come to CSC and do battle for the glory of their school, but I joined them to learn how to dance better and improve the look of my dance. I have two medals at home, both for Collegiate Shag, both for improvised dancing as opposed to performance or something I spent months preparing. I've always been more about social dancing than anything else.

When I enter competitions, I usually do Jack & Jill: get placed with random partner, have fun on the dance floor, and perhaps get recognized for doing so. The great thing about Jack & Jills is that your ego is really not at stake: the evaluation is based on partnership, the levels within a specific category of J&J are all willy-nilly, and the judges are looking for whatever they happen to like in social dancing (fun, flair, solid basics, connection, nice shoes, whatever). The end result is a few great social dances on an open floor, and a giant crapshoot for who makes finals and places. That's not to say that there's no skill involved, just that you can always find a way to protect your belief in your amazing talents. I tend to stick with "I feel better than I look generally" as my excuse for not ranking higher, and I also tend to enter in competitions where I'm nowhere near the strongest dancer.

About that, for competitions in general: I saw a very memorable competition a few years ago at a camp I was attending. It was a Newcomer divison for Lindy Hop, maybe a dozen people. Eleven of that dozen had either learned to dance at that camp or maybe done a few weeks' worth of dance lessons beforehand, and were still working on rhythm and such... they were adorable and we all loved that they'd had the courage to get up and dance Then there was Guy Number Twelve. Twelve had clearly had some dance experience. I asked him afterwards and he said he'd been dancing West Coast for five years and Lindy for a year. He was graceful, musical, and totally outclassing everyone else. It was the equivalent of watching Andre the Giant playing football against a bunch of eight year olds. He'd secured first place after about three steps onto the floor, and whoever got assigned randomly as his partner would be finishing at the top of the podium by mere chance.

I was kind of livid at the time. I took a deep breath and asked him later why he had entered in Newcomer.. he said he hadn't competed before and so he considered himself to be a newcomer. He was quite content with his medal, and I thought of magpies lining their nests.

This kind of thing does happen. Sometimes it's a grey area: someone's won three years in a row because they're way more skilled than everyone else who turns up in a competition. No one else holds a candle to them... should they still compete? I kind of think not, personally... that kind of person belongs on the judges' panel. I feel strongly that competitions should be sporting. I've always made sure that when I entered, I was dancing alongside people who stood a good chance of beating me. Often the choice was between dancing in the same class as some of my students, or getting my a$$ handed to me in the next class up... so I took the next class up. I've run a few informal contests myself, at parties and such, and my general rule is that experienced dancers either go in a separate category than I do or serve as judges/facilitators, to make sure that the non-dancers don't feel eclipsed.

CSC is good for that this year. I feel like breaking the Lindy Hop J&J into four categories makes sense: the truly advanced dancers have a category, I'm competing against my actual peers in the Advanced category below that, there's a newcomer and an intermediate as well. Looking at the list of entrants, I think I stand a fair chance of making finals if I hit the right song and partner, but I won't feel cheated if I don't.

Remember, at the end of the day, competing is just a way of motivating ourselves to work on our own dance. I'd rather have one medal I earned rather than six I took from people who couldn't keep up. I have a competitive streak, but it doesn't run that deep, and I never want to be Number Twelve in a competition.

CSC has a good vibe this year, honestly. It seems like things are a lot better organized, but maybe it's also that this year I'm coming in with an attitude of fun. I hadn't planned to compete at all this year, but I put down a few dollars on the Lindy J&J as well as the Balboa Intermediate J&J (which is probably an ass-handing exercise but I quite enjoy the seven movements I know how to do, and it's the only alternative to Advanced where the local teachers are competing). It's all in good fun... Wish me luck!

Friday, 19 April 2013

Great dancing - why I'm still a beginner

I had a chat with a fellow dancer spread over a few weeks... she's absolutely amazing, and in spite of her having danced less years than I have, she's gotten to the point where I happily accept tips from her about my dancing. We were talking about what makes a dancer great, outside of our own values and preferences.

I've always been proud of a few things in my dancing: my connection, my musicality, my energy. I get a lot out of social dancing and so do my partners if I'm to believe their feedback, but I never did well in competition and I wondered what my next step was. So much of my instruction (both given and received) has been "focus on fundamentals, just keep dancing and you'll improve gradually, the floor is a good teacher, so are your partners..." et cetera. The concept of dancing being this organic thing that grows out of us is beautiful and not untrue, but it's not the whole of the thing.

Good dancing is about knowing your own body. We need an ability to relate our different senses together (hearing and touch especially, but also the mystical sense of proprioception, which allows us to know where our body is without looking at ourselves). We need to coordinate our pulse with the music, our momentum matches our partner's, we have to take care of the lines of our body and placement of limbs to optimize balance and changes of direction.We have to learn about the distance from our hips to the ground, how to move one joint at a time, how to absorb downward pulse gradually. This all can happen unconsciously or instinctively, but most of us don't naturally move through the world with the grace of a cheetah. Most of us start off with about this level of proprioception:


... at least I did.

This past week, I performed a choreography with a student of mine. It was fun, we had good energy, but it threw into sharp relief exactly why I wasn't a world-renowned dancer yet: the details were sloppy. I did each move on beat, the musicality was solid, and the routine was entertaining... we had big smiles and the crowd was with us. On the other hand, my posture wasn't quite constant and I'd completely neglected to play anything at all for my left arm. It spent most of its time wandering around looking for somewhere to hang out, or flailing when I caught it by surprise. It was like that guy who goes to church once every two years and has no idea when to stand or sit, which hymn book to pick up, or when it's over (again, self-reference here). The performance was fine, people loved us, but it wasn't up to my own standards. It looked amateurish to my eyes, and I felt like I was showing how little I knew.

What's to be done? Practice. Drills where I do the same footwork over and over while concentrating on using my arms differently in solo dance. Different movements where I keep my body posture stable. Videotaping my solo dancing to see what I can create. Lots of time with a mirror. And cross-training.

That's probably the most important thing "serious" swing dancers do that sets them apart: most of the awesome dancers I know do at least one other dance if not several. If it's not a dance, it's a sport. While swing is awesome, the classes I took never paid much attention to my upper body apart from its relevance to my partner. Swing has no "wrong" so most things are pretty much right... that's awesome but it doesn't teach control. Whether they play tennis, do hip-hop, dance ballet or do martial arts, dancers who cross-train in something that focuses on the upper body gain a distinct advantage in the look of their dancing, and eventually that translates into feel as well: different challenges to balance and extra awareness of the upper body mean more subtle adjustments to posture while dancing, and less chance of a carelessly placed arm throwing off their momentum.

I signed up for a session of hip-hop classes at another studio this week, to challenge my movement and give my arms a workout. I'm also giving myself half an hour every day in front of a mirror to work on my shag basics and clean up my look. I'll have a danceable space in my home after I move next month, and that means probably figuring out mirrors too in the near future, so that I can practice when I get up in the morning.

The take-away point: you've got to work everything in your dance, not just the core values. Dancing is about developing an intimate relationship with your own body as well as connecting to music and possibly someone else, and that takes some dedication. You can TOTALLY social dance after a couple of lessons and have a great time with it, and there's no obligation to do the Karate Kid style training I'm working on myself, but to aim high means not letting anything slide.