Archive for May 2012
Happened to pick up The Autobiography of Malcolm X today for the first time in about a decade. I’d actually forgotten that he was a lindy hopper in his early days. In chapter five he talks about going to see Dinah Washington perform with Lionel Hampton’s band at the Savoy:
“The ballroom made the Roseland in Boston look small and shabby by comparison. And the lindy hopping there matched the size and elegance of the place. Hampton’s hard-driving outfit kept a red-hot pace… I went a couple of rounds on the floor with girls from the sidelines… The people kept shouting for Hamp’s ‘Flyin’ Home,’ and finally he did it… I had never seen such fever-heat dancing.”
What is it about this song? On the website All About Jazz, David Rickert says that “Flying Home” once had such a reputation for whipping crowds into a frenzy that it was sometimes banned from certain venues, for fear the place would collapse.
Of the song’s most famous recording, by Hampton’s big band for Decca in 1942, Rickert writes:
“After a brief vibes introduction, punchy riffs from the saxophone section introduce the main theme. Soon after, Illinois Jacquet swoops in on tenor sax for the longest solo on the record. He builds on a series of variations on the main theme, before heating things up with a single note phrase while the trombones fan the flames underneath. It was a celebrated solo that was a tour de force in honking and wailing and served as the template for almost every R&B saxophonist that followed in his footsteps… Like many of the high-powered riff tunes of the time, “Flying Home doesn’t disappoint when it builds to a climax. Hampton plays bursts of riffs followed by trumpet blasts from Ernie Royal that increase in pitch and intensity. Finally, with a thunderous crescendo, the band riffs out.”
By the way, that famous saxophone solo? The one that’s been ripped off by everyone and became the prototype for every R&B saxophone solo ever recorded? Jacquet was eighteen at the time.
Here’s the song. I know you’ve heard it a million times. But doesn’t that still just make you feel like dancing?
So go. Dance. See you tomorrow!
Here’s another thing you can do when you’re messing around with solo movements. This one can help you with both your coordination and your creativity. You also just might come up with something completely new, an original move that no one has ever seen before, and if you do, you totally have the right to name it after yourself.
Just think of it. YOU could be the next Tacky Annie!
Okay,well. Here’s what you do:
Make a list of your top twenty favorite jazz steps. Or however many you can think up off the top of your head or steal off YouTube.
We usually learn jazz movements, and think of them, as eight-count units. What you’re going to do with the steps on your list, though, is chop them in half. Imagine each of them as two four-count snippets stuck together.
You’re going to unstick them, the front half from the back half, and then put each half together with half of another jazz step. Kind of like legos. You can use the front half of one and the back half of another, or you can use two fronts or two backs, and you can use them in any order.
For example: take two jazz steps, Fall Off a Log and Suzy Qs. You can do the first four counts of Fall Off a Log and finish up with four counts of Suzies. That’s kind of cool. Or you can start with four counts of Suzy Qs and end with four counts of Fall Off a Log. Also cool.
Those two steps happen to flow pretty easily together; a lot of them won’t. But figuring out how to make two steps work with each other is great practice for you, and you can come up with some pretty interesting stuff.
I suggest actually writing down all the possible combinations, going through the list, and checking them off. A lot of the combinations won’t work at all; just cross those ones off the list. But a lot of them will work just fine, and some you will fall in love with.
You should take the combinations you fall in love with, put them in some sort of order, learn them to your favorite song, and then give the resulting line dance a cool and catchy name.
And then I want you to come to Portland and teach it to me!
Okay, so I was reading through some old posts on Rebecca Brightly’s Dance World Takeover, and I came across this post from earlier this year. In it, Rebecca is teaching how to do a lock turn, and she mentions that in order to learn the thing properly, you should practice it 100 times. 100 times!
That sounded like a dare to me.
So I did it. 100 times.
Then I did it 100 more times on the opposite side.
So now I dare YOU. Follow the above link, learn that turn, practice it 100 times – on both sides. I DARE you!
Now I’m going back to bed. See you tomorrow!
I came across this post that I really love. It’s from Claudio Santorini and he’s talking about a lot of things from a lead’s perspective that I had never considered before. I feel like a latecomer to the party, since there are already a ton of comments on this post, but it only posted a few days ago. I was going to deconstruct it a little bit, but on second thought, it stands just fine on its own, without my commentary. So enjoy!
I want to you take a look at something lovely – it’s this clip. Go ahead and watch it now, I’ll wait.
First of all, I really do need to get my passport in order – I simply must experience swing dancing in Korea at least once in my life. They tell me it’s the fastest-growing swing dance scene in the world. The world! Can you believe that?
But anyway – the reason I wanted you to see that clip is that for me, when I watched it, I realized I had never before processed the idea of Balboa as a performance.
To me, Balboa is something you perform primarily with and for your partner. It’s about connection. It’s about that feeling of exuberant joy barely kept in check by strict self-control and extreme consideration for your partner. The leader, a mighty oak of the forest, and the follower like a crazy twisted vine growing up the side. But it’s not for the audience.
Ever notice how when you dance Balboa in public, the people sitting around are just staring at your feet? To me that’s not much of a performance. I figure they’re probably just trying to learn how to Bal without taking lessons, and they think it has something to do with the steps. To the untrained eye, the footwork is the only thing interesting to watch.
A lot of Balboa performances seem to end up being about nothing more than tempo. Speed may be impressive, maybe, but I don’t think by itself it really makes for a persuasive performance.
Balboa just doesn’t have the flashiness of performance-style Lindy Hop. There’s no airsteps. It’s sedate; it lacks that broad, cartoony humor. Balboa dancers don’t act out crazy characters or put on funny costumes or break apart from each other and do silly jazz steps. We’re subtle, and subtle doesn’t really sell.
Like I say, that’s what I always thought.
But this clip has got me thinking in a new direction. I saw the audience responding to things in the clip that are inherent to Balboa, and have nothing to do with flashiness or broad humor – or feet. I saw three elements, in fact, three important characteristics of Bal that I now believe can be capitalized on to make an audience-friendly performance.
1. Precision. All those breaks where the couples just stop on a dime – that’s exciting to watch in the same way it’s exciting to watch an amazing gymnast or a precision drill team. It’s that sense of mighty forces under tight control. Remaining composed at all times, no matter how tricky the turns or how fast the tempo, is a great feature of Balboa dancing, and I think it sells to an audience. The girls in this clip were smart to choose those skirts; their motion helped emphasize the quick starts and stops. You can’t just dance on and on; a Balboa performance needs to have breaks, or the audience can’t visually process what’s going on.
2. Intricacy. To watch a couple doing crazy Balboa throwouts, spinning around each other, orbiting around like planets, and then just landing it like nothing happened, that has always been fun for me to watch. But this group kicked it up a notch with those interesting formation changes. That was a smart way to exaggerate an already-exciting part of Balboa and make it bigger for an audience.
3. Pulse. This group chose a piece of music that was not particularly fast; I think they were picking up on the fact that speed itself isn’t what’s interesting about Balboa. It’s more about the pulse. As I watched this clip, I found myself getting a little hypnotized by all that pulsing; it was just a little bit on the trippy side. Since pulse is so crucial to Balboa anyway, why not find a way to exaggerate that aspect for a performance? I think it works.
And now, as your reward for slogging through all of the above, here is a staggeringly beautiful Balboa performance that makes me totally take back everything nasty I said ever said about performing Balboa for an audience.
Anyway, now I’m dying to Bal, and everyone but me is gone this weekend for Camp Jitterbug. Sigh. Guess I’ll just have to make up for lost time on Monday – there’s some great Balboa dancing on Monday nights with the Kung Pao Chickens at the Laurelthirst Pub, it’s a must-see if you ever visit Portland. Which you really should.
There are probably some who are going to glare at me for saying this, but one of the things I love a lot about the swing dancing scene is how gender-bending it is.
With ballroomier styles of partner dancing, seems to me that people are a lot more locked into old-fashioned gender roles. Men lead, and women follow. Men wear pants, and women wear dresses. One man, one woman, period.
But with swing dancing, men lead and follow. Women lead and follow. And not just instructors. Many of us swing both ways. Frequently you see two girls dancing together; not infrequently you see two men. Lots of times you see a woman leading a man. There just isn’t enough sexual innuendo in swing dancing to make this either provocative or creepy (depending on how you look at such things).
Furthermore, there’s some question about whether leading-and-following is necessarily the best way to think about these roles. Often it’s more like suggesting and responding, on both sides. There’s a lot more conversation back and forth. Among dances where partners actually embrace each other, this aspect seems unique to dances along the swing/blues dancing continuum.
As for dressing according to gender-based dictates, now, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen a man swing dancing in a dress. But it’s completely within the swing aesthetic for a girl to dance in jeans, even at the most prestigious of dance events. Whether she chooses to dance in a skirt and heels, or in jeans and sneakers, seems to depend mostly on how vintage-y she’s feeling that day. And swing dancing is the only kind of dancing I know of where heels and sneakers are equally acceptable for women.
This is a big part of what makes swing dancing such a joyful thing for me. There’s a nostalgia about this music and this dancing, and it doesn’t just have to do with nostalgia for the mid-Twentieth Century. It also taps into a nostalgia for childhood, the days when we weren’t women or men, just kids playing together. Swing dancing doesn’t feel like romance to me nearly as much as it feels like play.
I know I’m grossly overstating things here; swing dancing certainly can be romantic, provocative, and, yes, creepy. And my lack of information about other dance traditions must be perfectly obvious. For all I know, Viennese Waltz may be just as gender-neutralizing as Collegiate Shag. What do I know?
Well, I don’t, really. I’m just throwing it out there. What do you think?
One important thing I neglected to mention yesterday about memorizing choreography:
I think it’s very important, when memorizing a dance sequence, not to get too locked into dancing the sequence to one particular song.
Couple of reasons. You want to be able to bust out your amazing moves to a variety of songs so you have more chances to perform, no matter what the DJ is playing. Also, if you rely too much on the song to remind you what comes next, then you won’t be as likely to pull out bits and pieces of choreography where and when you need them.
Plus, you can actually use songs with different tempos to help you learn sequences. Here’s what you do:
- Put a little practice music playlist together for yourself. All the songs should have a very reliable structure, just four eight-counts throughout, without long intros or weird bridges or tempo changes. The songs should range from ridiculously slow to crazy fast, with lots of variety in between.
- Sort them out by order of tempo. Here’s a handy little free metronome – you just tap along with the music while it’s playing to figure out the BPMs.
- Now, whatever piece of the choreography you’re working on, simply practice it to each song on your playlist, starting with the slowest one and working it up faster and faster.
Simple idea, but I’ve found it to be amazingly helpful!
One of the annoying but necessary evils about swing dancing is memorizing choreography.
It’s necessary, of course, for a lot of reasons. For one, there’s no better way to train your body to bust out amazing “improvised” steps on the dance floor. Once you get a classic sequence drilled into your head, then your body has a much easier time pulling out bits and pieces of it as needed.
Then there are all those obligatory line dances. You want to stand in solidarity with your swing dancing brothers and sisters, you pretty much have to learn those things. The Shim Sham is like the swing dancer’s Pledge of Allegiance.
Also, you’ll naturally need to memorize things if you ever want to perform, or participate in a “strictly”-type dance contest. I suspect that a lot of what we see even in informal jams is not always completely improvised. Memorizing can give you confidence.
But it can also be a real pain in the neck. We’re dancers, we want to give our bodies a workout, not our brains. Memorizing things went out with Sunday School and Mr. Schwartz’s history class.
Oh yeah? Well, too bad. Sometimes you just have to take your medicine.
So here are my three best tips for memorizing choreography:
- Begin at the end. It’s so aggravating when you know the beginnings of a bunch of line dances, and then things get hazy and you have to drop out in the middle. This happens because when you start memorizing at the beginning, then the beginning gets a lot more practice than the later parts. Don’t let this happen. Start with the last phrase and work your way forward. Counter-intuitive, but it works a lot better.
- Work out the sticky spots. Don’t keep slopping your way through and glossing over the awkward bits. If there’s a particular transition that doesn’t feel perfect, stop. Break it down. Take the time and work it out. You don’t need the stress of worrying about what to do, and how to do it, at the same time. Work out the how first, then the what.
- Mental practice. Every time you replay the choreography in your head, it’s as good as dancing it through, oh, say five times. More sweat isn’t going to help you nearly as much as this mental rehearsal. Think over your dance sequences whenever you have any mental downtime. Back in the day, I personally learned the Shim Sham during a boring conference weekend, by practicing it in my head during meetings.
Well, it’s raining out (of course), so I’m going to stay home today and apply these tips. I swear I’m going to finish memorizing the Tranky Doo, once and for all, by dinnertime.
See you tomorrow!