So I’m in DC for the Lindy Exchange, and perversely, this post isn’t going to be about the exchange at all. Isn’t that just like me?
See, my sister is a local resident, and since I’m staying with her, I figured it was only right I let her talk me into checking out her preferred form of dancing while I was in town. My sister is addicted to salsa dancing, so on Thursday night we dropped in on salsa night at Dance King Studio in Leesburg.
Now, I’ve done a little bit of salsa, just like I’ve done a little bit of practically every other dance that’s going these days. I’ve even had a little zydeco led on me. Never tried contra, but whatever. I figure if you can follow at all, you can pretty much follow anything.
And that’s generally true. Following is following. You may not follow pretty or look like you know what you’re doing, but at least you won’t get your arm broke off or do anything really embarrassing.
Which pretty much sums up what was happening for me Thursday night. I was managing to get through most of the turns and make it from point A to point B in one piece.
But you know what completely eluded me? The aesthetics of the thing.
First of all, as a lindy hopper, dressing up to go out dancing means something different to me than it does to a salsa dancer. I wore the only heels I had with me, a pair of black Aris Allens that are vintagy-funky-cool at a swing dance, but at a salsa dance they could not have appeared dorkier. Girls dressed up for salsa wear tall, tall spindly spiky things on their feet. Salsa dancers cover the stylistic range between elegant and slutty, but they all appear to be aiming for sexy. This is in no way the aesthetic for swing dancing. And even though I wore the closest equivalent outfit I could throw together, I’m sure people were wondering why I was dressed like someone’s grandma. I felt like a total doofus.
Secondly, there’s the music. Oh, the music. I think that in order to be able to dance convincingly, you need to be moved by the music. And salsa music does not move me, unless it’s out the door. It sounds like circus music to me, and it was way too loud. But my sister, and here’s the important point, my sister listens to that stuff IN HER CAR. Enough said?
Finally, though, salsa dancers just seem to have a different idea of what dancing is actually FOR. As an outsider, it appears to me that they’re really hung up on the whole gender-role difference thing. The men are really manly, and the girls are over-the-top girly. And when a lead approaches me with that Magnificent Beast look on his face, well, it just makes me want to laugh.
Which I actually did, periodically throughout the night. I laughed. Swing dancing makes me laugh a lot, which is why I do it. But salsa dancers don’t seem to like that so much. As a matter of fact, the highlight of my evening was when one of these magnificent beasts led a turn on me, and accidentally smacked me right in the forehead. I about died laughing. I had to stop and have a short fit of hysterics. And the man just stood there, wearing that Mask of Zorro look, not even cracking a grin. Just stood there waiting until I had recovered and could proceed with the serious business at hand. If you don’t think that made me feel like the Special Child, think again.
So basically, salsa dancing, blech.
But I will say that salsa dancers do seem to be enjoying themselves every bit as much as I do when I’m at a swing dance. So I’m not disrespecting the dance itself. It may very well be that I am just way too awkward and unwieldy for this much more adult-seeming form of dancing.
In fact, I’m just perverse enough that I might for the hell of it buy myself a pair of those spiky things and give it a try again next year.
(P.S. Had the honor of meeting fellow dance-blogger Jason from “Dancing Past the Godzilla Threshold” at the lindy exchange last night, and if he’s reading this, he better get ready because I intend to ask him for a lotta more dances tonight!)
Real quick, here’s a fun exercise you can try…
Stick on your music, and then proceed to make the following into an eight-count footwork pattern for yourself:
- One rock step
- One triple step
- One kick ball change
- One kick step
But here’s the thing: you mix up the order. So for example, you might do a kick ball change, triple step, rock step, kick step. Or then again, you might do a rock step, kick ball change, kick step, triple step.
Anyway, mix those four things up in any order you choose. Every combination will work out to be an eight-count pattern that lands you on the opposite foot, ready to start over from the top. Theoretically, you could use any of these patterns as a lindy basic.
Try one combination, and as soon as that’s easy, mix them up again and dance out the new combination.
I strongly suggest doing this with both lead and follow-style footwork, i.e. practice starting with both the left foot and with the right foot.
Kick it up a notch by adding an “and” anywhere in there, and you’ll have a pattern that alternates the starting foot. Know what I mean? Just go kick ball change, triple step, rock step AND kick step. Move that “and” around and you have like a million more combinations to play with.
Have fun, and stay hydrated!
Here are some of the best things that can happen while you’re out swing dancing:
- Practically your favorite lead in the whole wide world is visiting from out of town to teach a workshop, and you get to reconnect and have some amazing dances together.
- Two crazy leads get into a stealing war over you, giving you your very own birthday jam when it isn’t even your birthday.
- You share some soul-healing dances with a lead who has the good sense and taste to know that a really yummy Balboa basic is worth ten times its weight in tricky moves.
- You have a crazy lead-and-follow switching dance with some giant moose of a guy, and you grab him and execute a dip right on the last beat of the song, and onlookers applaud.
- You’re waiting for the perfect song to come on so that you can ask that really special person to dance, and then the song comes on, and you look around the room for that person, only to find them pointing at you and asking you for a dance.
- About nine people tell you they love your outfit.
All those things happened to me at the dance last night. Thank you, Mindy Hazeltine and Stumptown Dance, for the night. Thank you, friends and neighbors all, for being an awesome swing dancing community.
And a special mention to the impossibly swoony Peter Flahiff: Thank you for being wonderful. L.A.’s gain is the Pacific Northwest’s loss, and I shall miss you piteously. See you next year at the California Balboa Classic!
One of my dearest friends in the whole wide world has an interesting job. She’s an actual, authentic, professional, jet-setting rock-star dance instructor.
This is a woman with whom I’ve shared laughter and tears, good times and bad, and all the ups and downs of being a human being on this planet. She’s the sweetest, dearest person imaginable. I’ve taken dozens of classes with her, and from her, and danced with her hundreds of times.
And still, every time I dance with her, I’m terrified.
Why? I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that no matter how much I think my dancing has improved and how pleased with myself I might be because of this, every time I dance with her I still get incredibly intimidated. As a result I end up dancing like one of Santa’s reindeer with a Duplo block stuck in his hoof.
I admitted as much to her recently. We were out dancing one night, and she was actually getting a little discouraged with me. “Why is your arm so tense?” she asked. “What’s wrong?” I confessed to being intimidated at dancing with her, and she was frankly amazed. “You’re scared of ME?” she asked. “Why??”
Well, let’s see (I think to myself): you’re famous. People pay you to travel all over the world and teach them how to dance. You have more dance expression in your left clavicle than I’ve got in my whole body. No special reason.
So then and there I decided that from now on, when I dance with her, or with any other dancer I’m especially nervous about, I’m going to take a new approach. I’m just going to TRY to dance bad.
See, back when I used to have to work in offices and go to meetings and such, I learned that in the business world, people expect you to be businesslike. Above all, this means that you can’t ever cry at work. And sometimes I’d be at work and I’d start thinking about my kids and how much I missed them while I was at work and they were at daycare, and I’d start to tear up. You know, hormones. It happens.
Anyway, I hit on this strategy. If you ever start crying and really really need to not cry at that exact moment, here’s what you do. You TRY to cry. It will totally derail you and completely confuse your tear ducts and they’ll dry up immediately.
So I figure the same thing might work with dancing. If you’re dancing, and you start to feel like you’re dancing badly just at the exact moment when you really need to be dancing well, like say if you’re dancing with your rock star BFF, then just try to intentionally dance as badly as possible. It very well might trick your body out of being able to dance bad.
It’s actually just a theory. But so far it’s working: I haven’t had a really horrible dance since I started using this system. Of course, that might be a coincidence. I don’t know. What do you think?
Hey, it has been a loooong time since I blathered on about footwork variations. Far too long. As my loyal readers know, I’m a huge fan of footwork, not just for its showoffyness, but for what practicing it does for your brain, coordination, musicality, conditioning and a whole bunch of other good stuff. Plus, it’s just fun to do.
Now sometimes when I say footwork variations, I’m talking about sticking jazz steps into your basic. This isn’t one of those times. Today I’m purely talking numbers. I’m talking about how we can take our normal eight counts and divide them up in a bunch of different ways.
What I’m referring to are the “ands.” You know, “one, two, three AND four.” That’s step, step, triple step, right? Well, we can take that “and” and move it anywhere in those four counts. We can take it out from between three and four, and stick it, for example, between one and two. Now we have “one AND two, three four.” This translates to triple step, step, step. Perfectly legal.
For any given four counts, there are four different places you can put the “and.” And every eight count pattern consists, obviously, of two of those possible four-count variations. According to my calculations, that makes sixteen different eight-count patterns, just from moving the “ands.”
When you move the triples to different spots like this, suddenly you have new syncopation patterns. This opens up whole new realms of awesomeness. And this is the sort of thing the pros do all the time in their dancing. But for us normal dancers, it takes a bit of working out for the information to get from our brains to our feet. It’s definitely worth the effort to get it all figured out.
Now just because I’m so nice, I’ll save you the trouble. Here’s the sixteen patterns I came up with:
1 2 3 & 4 5 6 7 & 8
1 2 3 & 4 5 & 6 7 8
1 2 3 & 4 5 6 & 7 8
1 2 3 & 4 5 6 7 8 &
1 & 2 3 4 5 6 7 & 8
1 & 2 3 4 5 & 6 7 8
1 & 2 3 4 5 6 & 7 8
1 & 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 &
1 2 & 3 4 5 6 7 & 8
1 2 & 3 4 5 & 6 7 8
1 2 & 3 4 5 6 & 7 8
1 2 & 3 4 5 6 7 8 &
1 2 3 4 & 5 6 7 & 8
1 2 3 4 & 5 & 6 7 8
1 2 3 4 & 5 6 & 7 8
1 2 3 4 & 5 6 7 8 &
Like I said, the pros do these sorts of footwork variations constantly. Just watch any competition clip on You Tube. But you have to actually look at their feet to see it. If you’re not looking at their feet, you might miss it, because their footwork doesn’t throw off the rest of their dancing, and it doesn’t disturb their connection. That’s what we’re after. And that’s why it’s so important to drill this stuff.
I suggest taking each of these patterns and practicing it in the following ways:
First, simply practice it in place, just to get the syncopation in your feet. As always, practice to music. Once your brain and your feet are communicating, the next thing is to practice dancing the pattern as smoothly as possible. Don’t let your head bob up and down. This will help make sure your footwork doesn’t screw up your partner.
Then practice it the opposite way: try to get level changes in there. Does the pattern suggest any jazz steps or crazy stuff to you? Make it as big as possible. This is so you can use the variation at any point in your dancing where you’re not connected to your partner and you want to show off.
Now go back to dancing smoothly. The next thing is to try taking the variation and turning with it. Use the footwork pattern while you turn in place, both clockwise and counterclockwise. This is because sometimes we have to turn while we’re dancing
And because sometimes we have to move in a straight line while we’re dancing, the next thing you want to do is practice your pattern moving forward, moving backward, and moving from right to left and from left to right.
Finally, take your pattern and move all around the floor with it, randomly. This is sometimes referred to as “dancing.” Dance all around with your pattern and enjoy your music and the fact that you’re getting more awesome every day!
Practice a different pattern every day and reap the healthful dance benefits
It’s Wednesday, and I’m almost recovered from the Portland Lindy Exchange this past weekend. And like every year, I have to ask: why do we do this to ourselves?
An exchange is a ton of work. Not just for the organizers, promoters, volunteers, hosts, venue operators, musicians, sound technicians, caterers and cleanup people. I mean just to attend one is a big deal. You travel by car, boat, bus or plane from wherever you come from to stay with strange people and live out of a suitcase for three days, risking no sleep, sketchy food options, and unfamiliar mass transit while you trust google maps to get you to random, out-of-the-way dance venues, often in the scariest parts of town. And all this for the privilege of paying a hundred bucks to dance with strangers for twelve hours a day.
Normal people would look at that list and say, “You’ve gotta be kidding.”
But we never claimed to be normal, did we? We swing dancers look at that list and say, “Aw, hell yeah!”
There’s always that one Christmas moment during every exchange that reminds you why you started this crazy dancing lifestyle in the first place. Mine usually happens at the Sunday afternoon dance, and it happened that way this year.
See, I’m normally kind of a middle-aged sort. On my non-dancing nights I’m usually in bed by ten. Pulling all-nighters is something I do only infrequently, reluctantly, and under extreme duress. Like if someone is in the hospital, or if there’s a lindy exchange going on.
So this past Saturday night, I’m eating something that seems like dinner at around twelve-thirty a.m. And I’m half-loopy from exhaustion. Between dancing outside all afternoon and then subsisting on a quick snack and a nap in the car, my resources are severely depleted. And I’m looking down from the second floor balcony, watching the dancers below on the dance floor, and the music is getting louder and faster, while the dancers seem to be dancing in slow-motion, and there are tracers of light following them all around, and all the colors are running together, and I’m thinking, people pay their drug dealers good money for this sort of thing.
And then a few hours later, after a couple more rounds of dancing, getting a second wind, hitting the wall, collapsing and dying, and then dancing some more, I’m amazed to notice that I’m vacuuming. The dance is over, and the band is dismantling their equipment, and it’s daylight out. And I’m so crazy tired that my brain taps into some weird college-era neural pathway and I find myself craving Egg McMuffins.
After a long drive home, we finally fall in bed and sleep for a blessed couple of hours. Literally, just a couple hours, just enough to not die, before we have to get up, shower, and drive back to the dance again.
It’s the Sunday afternoon dance, and despite my crazy exhaustion, I know it’s going to be incredible.
I approach the venue, and I hear that distant music and the shuffling, stomping, creaking noises of dancing feet and the murmur of people trying to talk over the band, and it’s like coming home. I walk up the stairs, and there’s all my people. Some are sitting in the lobby with sweaty faces, fanning themselves. Some are dolling themselves up in the bathroom. Some are standing around guzzling water. And lots of them are dancing. I push my way through the clumps of lollygaggers up to where the band is playing, and someone waggles his eyebrows at me, and we’re dancing, and it’s so crazy hot in the room it’s like dancing on the sun.
The Sunday afternoon band this year was the Two Man Gentleman Band, and they were amazing. So funny and so danceable. I’m with all my old and new friends in this crowded, sweaty room, dancing Balboa the way it was meant to be danced, because there’s no room to dance any other way, in a swirl of faces and arms and legs and vintage dresses and sweat-soaked t-shirts and sloshing drinks, trying not to kick over chairs and tables and speaker stands, like it’s some crazy acid trip, only instead of Jimi Hendrix there’s old-timey dance music playing, and no actual drugs are involved. It’s desperately confusing and sort of nauseating, and I haven’t had this much fun since… the last lindy exchange!
And it suddenly hits me. THIS MOMENT, this crazy moment when I feel like I’m dancing better than I ever thought I could, with people who are healthier and nicer and better-looking and more talented than any other people I know, to this crazy band like no other, this one crazy moment is why we go to all that trouble. And it’s totally worth it.
Thursday we had a band, and it was fine and nice and everything, but there was this problem. See, they insisted on playing different tempos.
In our scene we have an extremely high percentage of swing dancers who have been dancing for two years or less. And almost to a person, these newer dancers have spent those two years learning how to do a swingout.
It isn’t their fault. Swingouts have been presented to these people as the holy grail of swing dancing. The message they get is that you can’t really say you’re a dancer until you learn to do a really fast swingout. It is completely understandable if, as a result, they assume that a fast swingout is all you need. In any case, it seems that for many, the swingout is all they’re interested in learning.
Because this is true, they grouse about fast music. See, many dancers have fallen into the trap of thinking that social dancing is nothing more than an opportunity to practice swingouts. I want to tell you right now that if you think social dancing is for practicing stuff, you’re wrong. Do that somewhere else. Social dancing is for being sociable first; dancing is secondary.
So anyway, people in our scene, especially the newer people, seem to have a lot of angst around music tempos. Tempi? They’re either mad that the music is too slow, because they want to practice their swingouts. Or they complain that the music is too fast, because they want to practice their swingouts.
If you’re a relatively new dancer, whichever camp you fall into, whether (A) you want your music faster or (B) you want it slower, you’ve probably succumbed to a common misperception. You probably think that slow music is easier to dance to, and therefore (A) you’re never going to get better by dancing to slow music, or (B) you’ll never be able to keep up with that harder, faster music.
I want to tell you right now that this is a fallacy. Slow music is not easier to dance to. It’s harder.
On Thursday, about half the songs this band played were slower and bluesier than what many in our scene are used to. And as I looked around the room, there were very few couples actually dancing slow. Instead, I saw a lot of people trying to do their fast swingouts to the slower music. Because they’d never learned to dance slow, they were trying to get that crazy spinny, momentum-y feeling they try for in their normal swingouts, and it wasn’t working. Instead, I saw a lot of “yank, stop, yank, stop” type stuff going on. It wasn’t pleasant.
Slow swingouts are not going to work until you’ve actually practiced doing them slowly. There’s a lot of balance and connection stuff that is much more difficult at a slower tempo, so don’t assume that because you can do one fast, you can do it slow.
Instead,( and leaders, I’m talking to you here) the next time a very slow song comes on, try this:
1. Put your right arm around your partner, and then assume you’re going to pretty much leave it there for the rest of the song. No breakaways. Reason being that for a less-experienced follow, hanging out in open position during a slow song is very embarrassing. She feels she needs to be moving around out there in some sort of sultry way, and she has no idea how, and she feels like everyone is staring at her. Unless she’s a blues dancer, keep her close.
2. Now, keep it simple. Forget about doing “moves” of any kind. No pretzels, no dishrags, no Texas Tommys. All you’re going to do is shift your weight from side to side. Balance your center of gravity over your right foot, then balance over your left foot. Leave both feet on the ground. Relax. Shift, shift, shift. Try to do this in time to the music.
3. If you get bored, you can throw in a quick-quick every now and then. What I mean is that as you’re shifting from side to side, you can do a quick shift-shift, exactly the same as the slow ones, except twice as fast. Still, no breakaways, no turns, no random Charleston footwork. Just breathe. Shift, shift, shift.
4. Once you’re comfortable with this, then you can try shifting around in a bit of a circle. Say you start out facing the east wall of the room, move around a little until you’re facing the west wall of the room.
Leaders, if you’re afraid of boring your partner with this stuff, let me tell you that if the follow knows anything about dancing, she will love it. This type of leading gives advanced follows something to work with. If you give her any room at all (don’t squeeze her with that arm), she’ll come up with all kinds of interesting ways to move her body, which she can’t do if you’re flinging her around. You may actually pick up some ideas on how to move yourself, so don’t be afraid to sort of copy what she’s doing if you feel like it.
Follows, if you’re not used to this kind of treatment, you may be momentarily confused as to why you aren’t being flung around. Don’t worry about it, just listen to the music. When you’re being led this way, your job is to stay connected, and then within that connection to explore moving yourself to the music. Don’t try to be fancy, just do what feels nice and normal. You can strike up a little conversation if you want. Slow music is for relaxing.
Once you’re able to dance this way, then take it to the next level by going to a few blues-dancing classes. You can still be a swing dancer, you don’t have to switch over to the blues dancing scene, just learn a little blues dancing for those slower songs. The information you learn about balance and connection is the stuff that is never taught in swing dancing classes, and it will teach you exactly what you need in order to do a comfortable, SLOW swingout.