Archive for the ‘blathering’ Category
Okay, so awhile back I mentioned how I decided that whenever I was dancing with someone who made me feel intimidated, instead of trying my hardest to dance perfectly, I was going to try to dance badly. Remember that? The idea being that at least I wouldn’t be all tense and stressed out and overthinking, and maybe, just maybe, I’d relax enough to actually dance okay.
This has turned out to be the best idea I ever had for my dancing. I swear, since I decided this, I have not had a bad dance. Seriously!
So what’s going on here?
Well, first of all, it should go without saying that my A-number-one rule is that I don’t dance badly in a way that might physically hurt the other person. So no dragging or pulling or throwing myself around.
But see, that wasn’t the stuff that was stressing me out before. No, I was stressed out about things like this: Did I do that turn fast enough? Am I doing my swivels correctly? Isn’t there cuter styling I should be doing? Oh no, he was trying to lead a move, did I follow it right? It was this kind of thing that made me sort of hate dancing with “good” dancers.
What I finally had to realize was this: There are always going to be better dancers than me. And no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to dance better than the best dancers. I’m never going to impress a really great dancer with my amazing dance skills, because I haven’t got any. And besides, to a really accomplished dancer, everybody dances worse than them anyway, so they’re used to it.
I figure my dancing is just another aspect of my personality, like my laugh. Chances are, most people don’t find my laugh too annoying, but I imagine there are some people who do. Do I work really hard to make my laugh like the perfect tolling of bells on a distant hillside when I’m in the presence of someone important? Of course not, I just laugh how I laugh. If someone hates my laugh, they can avoid telling me a joke or simply avoid me altogether, and that’s just how it goes.
Same thing for my dancing. Most people think my dancing is totally fine; I know this because they keep asking me to dance, and they don’t run away when I ask them. And I’m sure there are people who can’t stand the way I dance, and that’s great. Everyone’s entitled to his own opinion.
Obviously this doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on trying to learn to dance better. Of course I want to dance as well as possible, and I work on it obsessively. All it means is that when I’m out on the social floor, dancing with people, I no longer worry about whether I’m dancing “right” or not. I just dance and have a good time, and give myself a break. Workshops and lessons and practice time are where I do my worrying and trying and stressing, but when I’m out dancing I just say to hell with it and dance. As long as I’m not hurting anyone, everything else is just what it is. And that’s the best decision I ever made for my dancing.
Let’s be realistic; nothing in this life is perfect. No matter how great something seems, there’s always a catch. Even dancing has its downside. Only one, mind you, and it isn’t even all that bad. Still, in order to offer a balanced viewpoint, I feel compelled to point out this one unfortunate thing about dancing:
It ruins you for almost every form of what other people generally think of as “fun.”
I remember going to rock concerts in my younger days. I’d save up my pennies so I could drop a huge bundle on the price of a ticket. I’d get all dressed up, then spend hours standing in line at some crowded stadium getting trompled on by a bunch of drunken fools, just for the privilege of sitting there watching somebody else get paid to sing and dance around. Or I’d spend less money, get all dressed up and go to some seedy dive, just to stand in a crowd of drunken fools and watch someone less talented sing and dance around. I used to think of this as “fun.”
Nowadays, if there’s music playing, I have to be dancing, or there’s no point. To watch someone else having fun is no fun.
I used to go to parties. When I was in college, a party meant a lot of people crammed into a small house, each in some stage of intoxication. At least half the group would be watching something on a large screen. The other half would be trying to negotiate their way into each other’s pants. There was usually music in the background, but no one would be doing much about it. Any dancing would consist of either a drunken sort of jumping up and down, or pants negotiations, or both. I used to find this “fun.”
Later on, after I had kids, parties meant a bunch of wives perched on folding chairs in someone’s living room, eating cake off paper plates and discussing pediatricians, while the husbands were standing around a barbecue grill in the backyard, drinking beer and discussing sports. Usually the only music came from the room where the kids were watching the Disney Channel. And to be fair, I doubt anyone has ever really considered this “fun.”
Nowadays, to call something a “party” that doesn’t include dancing, proper dancing, seems like a cruel joke.
There are outdoor-type activities that people consider “fun.” Camping, boating, skiing, fishing and what-have-you. Now, I’m not immune to the beauty of nature and the salubrious effects of fresh air and wholesome recreation. And I guess you could say I enjoy the outdoors as much as I ever did (interpret that how you will). But nowadays I find that wherever I am, whenever I have a relaxed moment, my mind is soon replaying the latest YouTube video from my favorite dance instructor, or planning my outfit for Thursday night’s dance.
So in other words, I guess the downside of dancing for me is that nowadays, no matter what it is I’m doing, with few exceptions, I’d almost always rather be dancing.
Dante shows up at my house last night. Oh, great. I’d spent the day sitting around doing nothing, being depressed. Totally forgot we were supposed to go out dancing. I’m in my gross jeans and some random t-shirt, not even close to being ready to go out.
But he doesn’t look all that ready either. Says he’s tired. Been working a whole lotta hours lately. I mean, he’s as cute and fashionable as ever, but he’s got this sorta wilted look about him, like he could really use a nap.
Dancing had sounded so great the day before, when we’d dreamed up this plan. The Rigamarole is Portland’s newest, up-and-coming swing dance, and it was about time we checked it out. But here it was six o’clock, totally pitch black outside and blustery cold, and we’re looking at an hour-and-a-half drive to get there. We’d be lucky to make it home by one a.m.
“Probably I should just get some sleep tonight,” he says.
“Yeah, and I’ve got laundry and stuff I should do.”
We sit there looking at each other, all glum and discouraged.
“But you know,” he says, “All I’m really gonna do is go home, get in an argument, and then play video games and eat.”
I pictured myself flopped in the recliner, watching the Sanford and Son Collection and wishing I had a life. “All right,” I said. “Give me twenty minutes.”
Nineteen minutes later, and we were out the door.
And it was the awesomest night ever! We show up at the venue, and for one thing, there’s all my people there. I kept spotting folks across the room that I was so happy to see. The ultimate was when who should come rolling in but Chris Harm, who I hadn’t danced with in forever. People just kept showing up, and it felt like a party.
The music was fantastic, my shoes were functioning properly, and my outfit was unproblematic. It seemed like every dance was more fun than the one before it. I hadn’t been there but a half-hour or so, and already my face was sore from smiling so much. And just the two dances I had with Chris more than compensated for that ridiculous drive!
Turned out there was gonna be a Jack and Jills contest. I hadn’t planned to participate, but at the last minute I looked at the list and there was one follow spot left open. So what the hell.
And that was seriously the most fun I’ve ever had in a contest. I had already decided I was just gonna enjoy myself and not worry about my dancing; there were so many good dancers in the contest that it was anyone’s guess who the judges were even going to notice. So I just appreciated the extra dancing space, and danced how I dance.
Anyway, me and Dante both made the finals, which was totally cool. The five couples who jammed it out at the end were so top-notch, it was a great thing to witness, and I seriously did not envy the judges for having to pick out winners from that amazing crew.
Of course, Chris won first place; it would have been odd if he hadn’t, especially dancing with a follow like Noelle. And then I was lucky enough to land David as a partner, which is how I ended up coming in second. He and I each won a copy of Glen Crytzer’s new CD, which was super cool because I hadn’t had the cash with me to buy it on Sunday when he played at Mindy’s dance. So that added a whole ‘nother layer of coolness to what was already an amazing night!
With the prospect of another hour-and-a-half drive home, Dante and I didn’t stay long after the contest winners were announced. But we spent the whole drive home thanking each other for talking each other into not staying home, and swearing never again to blow off dancing in favor of sleep or laundry!
Have you ever had a dance like this?
Last night I was dancing with this kid who also leads and follows. We were switching off roles, experimenting with cutesy ways of getting into and out of a lead or follow role. Turns out there are a million ways to do this as long as nobody gets thrown on the floor.
So at one point during the song, he looks at me and goes, “Wait, am I leading?”
Both of us crack up, and I’m like, “I have no idea!”
What was so great about it is that we didn’t even stop dancing for a second. We just kept going along, totally connected, totally feeling the music, and neither of us had any idea, or really cared, at that point, who was leading and who was following.
We were just dancing! What a concept, right?
To me, this is the ultimate point of learning to dance the opposite role. You finally get to where it doesn’t really make much difference who’s leading and who’s following. You’re just connected with your partner and the music in one big cooperative project.
I think you only get this kind of situation when you’ve got a lead who’s so open to listening to his (her) follow that he (she) can switch instantly into response mode when the follow initiates something. And you have to have a follow who’s willing to not only feel and act on her (his) own musical impulses but actually take responsibility for communicating them clearly to her (his) partner.
In other words, a lead who knows how to follow, and a follow who knows how to lead. Or, of course, two of one or the other.
And I think there’s just something so symbolically right, so evolved, about all of this.
So what do you all think? Am I wrong?
Does it seem to you that most people who love swing dancing, and swing music, just love old stuff in general?
Let me offer my ownself to you as a case study, just for arguments’ sake. I think my tastes are fairly typical for a typical swing dancer. Let’s see now…
Of course, I love old music. So do you, so do we all. Isn’t old music what brings a lot of us to swing dancing in the first place? And certainly keeps us here. Otherwise we’d probably be salsa dancers or westies or something.
What about old movies? I know a lot of us get renewed inspiration from watching, not just the old dance clips on YouTube, but any of the old black-and-white movies that feature random song-and-dance numbers as wildly improbable adjuncts to their already far-fetched storylines. But I love ALL old movies, and ONLY old movies, from the sublime (Twelve Angry Men) to the ridiculous (Disorder in the Court). IMHO, very few movies made since 1970 are worth watching a second time.
Old clothes? Of course. Not that I own many, or could fit many if I did. But I treasure those items I do have, and I live in perpetual regret that as a culture, we just do not look as well-put-together as we used to. Look at almost any old black-and-white photograph of a crowd scene, and you will see nothing but neat and well-dressed people. Even the bums standing in breadlines look relatively stylish. A cross-section of mall shoppers on any given weekend will reveal lots of personal self-expression and very little actual good taste. Sigh.
Old manners, there’s a good one. Honestly? I think I married my husband mostly because he has never once let me open a car door unassisted. But I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been run off the sidewalk by a pack of highschoolers walking two abreast, talking on their phones. What’s wrong with people anymore? I swear, the next time the girl at the bank looks at my check and then calls me by my first name like I’m her BFF, I’m going to, well, scowl in disapproval anyway.
Old houses, definitely. I’ve always loved to poke around restored historic mansions, projecting myself into domestic scenes of long ago and wondering how the hell those ladies fit into those tiny shoes. My own house was built in 1904, and it’s full of old furniture, doilies, table lamps,books and knickknacks. The only television screen I own is hidden away back in the sunroom, where no visitors ever go; I deplore the current custom of placing a giant screen front and center in every room of the house.
Old books? Of course. Not necessarily 20th century old, either. I’m talking Victorian.
Old news. By that I mean I’m a history buff. Actually, one of my other blogs is on American history. Since I don’t watch television I really have no idea what’s going on in the world today, and I really don’t even care. I prefer to leave current events to those who actually have the power or inclination to do something about them.
What about old food? I don’t mean leftovers, silly. I just mean I don’t eat anything that would not have been recognized as food a century ago. I buy actual ingredients, and cook them. Crazy idea, I know.
Of course, not everything old is great. Massive, widespread, legally-sanctioned racial prejudice, for one. Outdoor plumbing. Devilled ham in a can. Wool swimsuits.
And of course, there are a few not-old things we swing dancers cannot live without. Mainly YouTube. And of course, where would we lindy bloggers be without our laptops and the Internet?
Still, I love old stuff, and swing dancing is a huge part of that. And I think a lot of us swing dancers are that way. What do you think? Do you love old stuff as much as I do?
I’m becoming more and more convinced that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we as a dance culture approach the process of learning and teaching Lindy Hop.
Specifically, the issue I’m concerned with is this: why doesn’t everyone start out as a follow and then work towards learning to lead? Why should beginner guys, who generally know less about dancing and body movement than beginner girls do anyway, immediately start out leading?
It’s truly a situation of the blind leading the blind. In no other field of endeavor would a new person be shuffled immediately into the role of guiding someone else when they don’t know the first thing about it themselves. I’m not saying that following is easy, but it seems like any beginner dancer should logically be taught to move and control his own body before concerning himself with choreographing dance routines on the fly, which is what leaders have to do.
But as my friend Ben said, when I mentioned this rant, er, idea to him, “The problem is, if guys had to start out following, they wouldn’t.”
I guess there’s two reasons I can think of why this might be. One is that guys get interested in dancing primarily as a way of getting to touch girls. And if they had to start out following, they might, horror of horrors, occasionally find themselves dancing with guys instead.
It seems a shame to me that Lindy Hop should still be tied into outmoded notions of dance-as-mating-ritual. Why should the swing culture cling so tenaciously to “one man, one woman”? There’s nothing fundamentally romantic or sexy about this dance; only the obsessively homophobic would find anything disturbing about same-sex Lindy. I don’t know anyone who gets particularly inflamed by shaking someone’s hand or putting an arm around someone’s shoulder, which is about as touchy-feely as this dance gets. And if a man is only learning to dance so he can pick up chicks, he can more efficiently do that hanging out in bars anyway.
The other reason why men wouldn’t start out as follows is even worse than the first reason. It’s the idea that men are “natural leaders” and women the opposite.
This is patently absurd. I’m sure we can all think of real-world proof that the capacity for leadership in a general sense is not a function of one’s physical gender. But it’s even more evident in dance class.
It has often struck me that the natural capacity, or desire, for leadership in dancing is less about gender and more a stage-of-life thing. Think about it. In dance class, young beginner girls are so often the ones with the noodly arms who are afraid to move on their own; they panic if they’re not being led every second of the dance, and they love being thrown around. But when women of a certain age start out dancing for the first time, they completely refuse to be led. Their arms are stiff, they’re holding their ground and you can’t move them no matter what you do. They’re the ones looking over their shoulder at the instructors, making sure the leader is leading everything correctly, and they’re so concerned with doing their steps right that they don’t follow at all.
It’s the same thing with guys. Younger men who start out dancing are often too reticent to lead properly. Their arms are floppy, they’re diffident and not clear with their ideas, and often they’ll just be holding hands with their partner and moving themselves around in various exotic ways without really affecting their follow at all. And of course, middle-aged men learning to dance are the notorious arm-breakers and thumb-clampers who seem content to just stand in one place, not really dancing, just steering ladies around by their arms. The way they know they’re doing it right is when they get their follow to move from point A to point B.
So I propose that it would be much more rational if everyone were expected to start out as a follow, with the additional expectation that everyone would eventually learn to lead. So you tell me. What’s wrong with this idea? What am I missing?
So let me tell you about the fabulous weekend I just had! What happened is, I took the Bolt Bus up to Seattle for a dance workshop weekend with instructor Nathan Bugh. And it totally fixed my dance depression!
By the way, have you seen this Bolt Bus? Apparently, it’s a fixture on the east coast, and last year they brought it out here. It’s an express bus that only stops in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver B.C. Their thing is that they’re super cheap; their slogan is “Bolt for a Buck,” and it seems that every trip includes at least one fare that’s only a dollar. But it’s not just cheap, it’s really nice and convenient, the buses are new and really clean, with wi-fi and electric outlets everywhere, and it doesn’t stop in the seedy part of town like Greyhound does. I took the bus from smack dab in the middle of downtown Portland, and it dropped me off right outside Uwajimaya in Seattle barely three hours later. I highly recommend this mode of travel to and from dance events!
I gotta say, the dancers in Seattle are awesome. I finally got to meet and hang out with dance blogger extraordinaire Rebecca Brightly, and she’s every bit as cool in person as she seems in her blog. And Jenna Applegarth, who organized the event, was extremely hospitable and super chill about getting me rides back and forth to things. Everyone was just really nice, and by the end of the weekend I felt like a kid at the end of summer camp, sad to say goodbye to my new friends.
So Nathan Bugh is a fairly frighteningly good dancer. I’d never met him before, and whenever I first meet instructors I’ve seen on YouTube, I always feel super awkward until we get bonded a little bit. Well, Nathan is kind of New Yorky, whereas I’m pretty much a middle-aged housewife from the sticks, so I didn’t actually bond with him. But he stopped terrifying me after awhile, and I learned a lot from the workshop.
And I’m proud of myself, because I took the whole workshop as a lead! That was a new thing for me. Usually I’m extremely reticent about leading in a workshop, especially if there are already extra leads. I never want to be that bad lead that holds everyone else up. Which is ridiculous, because there’s always way worse leads in the class than me anyway. But I guess it’s because I’m a girl, I feel like I’m usurping someone else’s place. You know what I mean? But this time, I really wanted to lead.
So I asked Nathan if it was okay with him if I took the workshop as a lead. “I mean, is it going to be super difficult?” I said. And he looks me up and down, all New Yorky-like, and goes, “I dunno, can you lead?” “Well, kinda,” I said, feeling like a middle-aged housewife from the sticks. So he says, “Uh, do you lead often?” Totally not thinking I know what I’m talking about at all. So I led him in a couple of swingouts and he conceded that I could probably manage.
And it was great! I learned some stuff and got a lot of practice at leading, lots of good feedback from the follows, and took tons of notes. Of course, a lot of the instruction went right over my head too, it always does. But I’ve learned to just take what I can from a workshop, and not feel bad about the stuff I don’t understand. I figure it will always be there when I’m ready to hear it.
Finished the weekend by taking the bus back to Portland and going directly to Mindy’s dance at the Scottish Rite. It was the eighth anniversary of Stumptown Dance, and she hired the Bridgetown Sextet, best dance band ever. The energy in the room was incredible, and I had the greatest time – the perfect end to a perfect dance weekend!
So my sister dragged me and some other folks out to salsa last night. I was sitting there with a non-dancer friend of mine, watching the dancers, and he asked me a question.
“This dancing thing,” he said. “What’s the point?”
Of course, I laughed.”There has to be a point?”
“No, really,” he said. “I mean, other than romance or whatever. What’s fun about it?” He seriously wanted to know.
Spotting a potential dance convert, I immediately switched into proselytizing mode. After I blathered on for a few minutes, I started organizing my thoughts. And here’s what I came up with.
“I think for the leads,” I said, “the fun part is dreaming up stuff that matches with the music, and then seeing if you can transmit that to your follow and get her to do what you dreamed up. And for the follow, the fun is in seeing if you can stay totally open and responsive to the lead while keeping in control of your own balance and movement.”
“Oh,” my friend said sagely, “connection.” Well, he hangs out with a lot of dancers.
“Yeah,” I said, with that give-your-life-to-Jesus tremor in my voice. “Connection.”
“Sounds sort of like a game,” he said.
“Exactly!” I said.
And I guess that’s definitely a huge part of the “point” of dancing for me. It’s that game of follow-the-leader. I think I approach every new dance, and every new dance partner, like a game of skill.
Oddly enough, that seemed to make sense to my friend. “That makes sense,” he said.
Well, I don’t know if I actually made a convert, but I didn’t do too bad.
So now I ask you. How would you answer my friend’s question? What do you tell non-dancers about why you love to dance?
Yesterday, at Dance World Takeover, Rebecca Brightly posed a couple of great questions. “When does walking become dancing?” she asked. “What makes movement art?”
I don’t know that I have an actual answer, but I do have a response. Rebecca’s questions got me thinking about the difference between dancing and acting.
With some kinds of dancing, there isn’t much difference. Ballet and certain kinds of folk dancing are very close to being pantomime set to music. The dancers use their bodies to act out the stories they are telling. That’s exactly what pantomime artists do.
So did the stars of silent film. Get ahold of a new reissue of a silent classic, one that’s been cleaned up and slowed down to normal speed, and you can easily see that the Barrymores and Gishes and the residents of Pickfair were not just pretty celebrities. These first-generation film stars were highly skilled actors who could tell a story with every gesture of their bodies and faces.
Then there’s comedy. While many comics achieve their effects mostly through words and vocal delivery, certain comedians are able to use every part of themselves for humor. Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball and Jim Carrey totally blur the line between comedy and dancing. I’d say that the great Lindy Hoppers do the same thing.
Some actors just never stop dancing. Fred Astaire was dancing every moment the camera was on him; even if he was just sitting in a chair or leaning against a wall, his body was saying something coherent. Marilyn Monroe is another favorite of mine; think of her ascent of the staircase in The Seven-Year Itch after she got her “fan caught in the door,” or her “jello on springs” walk down the railway platform in Some Like it Hot. She wasn’t known as a dancer, the way Fred Astaire was, but you can’t tell me she wasn’t dancing.
My all-time favorite performer in this regard is the classic Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. He was intensely physical in all his films, but one example will serve.
At the very beginning of Yojimbo, while the credits are still rolling, Mifune does a gesture with his shoulders that tells you everything you need to know about his character and the nature of the film you’re about to watch. As he walks away from the camera, he does a rolling gesture of his shoulders that tells you at least three things:
1. He’s a tough guy. The shoulder roll is equivalent to a thug cracking his knuckles; he’s squaring his shoulders to prepare for whatever dirty business may lie ahead.
2. He’s not as young as he once was. There’s an element to the shoulder roll that looks like he’s getting the kinks out. He’s getting just a little too old for this shit.
3. He’s down on his luck. When he rolls his shoulders, he manages to shudder just a little. He’s cold. He probably slept outside last night.
And then he follows up this gesture, which he repeats at key points throughout the film, with another. He reaches his hand up through the back of his kimono and scratches his head. This tells you he’s just a little bit confused and just a little bit on the filthy side. It also tells you that the film you’re about to watch is going to be funny as hell.
When does walking become dancing? I don’t know. But I offer these examples as a way to explore the question.
Last night I went out dancing to some gypsy jazz at my favorite little hole-in-the-wall place in Portland, the Laurelthirst Pub. The Kung Pao Chickens have been playing Monday nights for the dancers there for I don’t know how long. I had a marvelous time, as always, and stayed out way past my bedtime.
Anyway, I woke up with “Minor Swing” in my head. I don’t know why, because I don’t think the Chickens even played that song last night, but whatever. You know how if a song gets stuck in your head, you just have to hear it? So I looked it up.
“Minor Swing” has got to be the most famous gypsy jazz tune ever. Django himself recorded it at least five times, the first time in 1937 with The Quintet of the Hot Club of France, with the amazing Stephane Grapelli on violin. It has since been covered by every self-respecting gypsy jazz band in the world.
It’s been in movies, including “The Matrix” and “Chocolat,” and they tell me it’s also in a video game.
“Minor Swing” is a simple tune, just a little 2-5-1 progression in A minor. No big deal. After a distinctive intro, it’s really nothing more than a chord progression; there’s no actual melody. And it’s always performed at a moderate tempo. But the simplicity of the framework provides lots of room for inventiveness. And I think the solos that Reinhardt and Grapelli performed on that very first recording set a high standard of creativity that other musicians have always aimed at when performing it.
Anyway, the song just begs to be danced to; the dance it begs for is Balboa. I suggest we all stop what we’re doing right now, take a break wherever we are, and dance to some “Minor Swing.” I’ll do the same, and I’ll see you all tomorrow!