Posts Tagged ‘Balboa’
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!
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.
I got no controversy today. No blathering. But here’s the highlights video from All-Balboa Weekend 2012. And I wish I’d a gone. That’s all. See you tomorrow!
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!
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.
I helped teach an open-level Balboa workshop this afternoon; the part I taught was on spins and turns. I thought I’d share the material here in case anybody else wants to practice this.
The whole idea of the class was about keeping your feet together and in a slight V-shape while turning. There are three reasons why this is important for Balboa: it helps you turn faster and more efficiently, it keeps you from stepping on your partner’s feet, and it looks way better than going all pigeon-toed.
First I led a warmup that included a series of pliés and relevés while keeping the heels together, the toes turned out slightly, with the legs opening through the hips and keeping the knees tracking over the toes.
Then I asked the class to recall the scene in the movie “Mary Poppins” where Dick Van Dyke jumps into the chalk pavement picture with Julie Andrews. Remember when he starts dancing with the penguins? His pantlegs become miraculously joined down to the ankles, and then he dances around with his feet stuck together. That’s the image you should hold in your head while practicing these exercises! (You’ll also need slippery shoes.)
- Walk forward with your feet held together in a V. You’ll find that in order to make this happen you really need to involve your whole torso in rotating the hips. It is an action very similar to the agitator in a top-loading washing machine.
- Now walk backwards the same way. This involves rotating the hips even further than for walking forward.
- Move in a line going sideways. You’ll be making a series of half-turns, facing front, then back. Make sure you can do this going both to the left and to the right. Keep your heels together!
- Now try to turn all the way around while staying in more-or-less the same spot. Make sure you’re transferring weight from foot to foot, not just pivoting around one foot. Experiment with how few weight shifts you can use to get all the way around.
- Finally, add in an eight-count, Balboa-like rhythm: “ball-step, step, turn around.” Quick quick slow, quick quick slow. This time you will be pivoting around a foot, the foot you stepped onto on beat 3. Practice this starting with either foot, and turning both forward and backwards.
Once you’ve gone through all these exercises, you should find that it is quite possible to move around the floor and spin without taking big, awkward steps all over the place. Your Balboa turns will be faster, more efficient and more comfortable, whether you’re leading or following.
Let me know how this works for you!
In Mr. Lawrence Hostetler’s 1942 book, Walk Your Way to Better Dancing, in his section on Lindy Hop, he describes both a “single lindy” and a “double lindy.” His single lindy turns out to be very similar to what we would call a single-time Balboa basic. What might double lindy happen to be?
Here he describes it:
“Just as extra steps are added to the single conga to convert it into the double conga, in the same way you can easily transform the single lindy into the double. The general pattern of the basic step remains the same. To account for the extra steps the count of and is used. Whereas the four counts to the measure of the single lindy denote quarter-notes (“Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four”) the and count indicates an eighth-note (“Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar”). The additional steps are made very short and without lifting the feet from the floor.
“The Double Lindy Turning Left:
- Step back L in open position facing the line of dance.
- Step R in place.
- Short step forward L. At the same time turn partner in front of you to the closed position.
And Close with R.
- Short step forward L, beginning left turn.
- Step side R, completing quarter-turn left to face center of room.
- Cross L over R.
- Short step to side R.
And Close with L.
- Short step to side R.
“While the man is making only a quarter-turn left, the girl makes a three-quarters turn. To repeat the step and complete the turn, swing your partner to the open position facing opposite to the line of dance and step back L.”
So, in other words, the same as the single lindy, but with triple steps. Duh.
But now he goes on to describe something really interesting:
“Thus far we have considered only figures of 8 counts or two measures each. Now, however, we come to an important and much used variation – the double lindy “break” or “throw-out.” Unlike the break of the single lindy, which uses the same pattern as the basic figure, the double lindy break is done in 6 counts or one and a half measures, thus changing the 8 count rhythm of the basic step.
“The Double Lindy Break:
- Lift L knee and step back L in open position.
- Lift R knee and step R in place.
- Short step forward L. At same time swing partner away from you with firm pressure of right hand at her waist.
And Close with R.
- Step L approximately in place.
- Short step to side R.
And Close with L.
- Step R approximately in place.
“This break figure can be considered as merely the basic step with two counts omitted. Not only is the action thus speeded up, but also an interesting change of rhythm is provided. The counts deleted are counts 5 and 6 of the basic step.
“As in the break of the single lindy, the man keeps the rhythm of the step in place while swinging his partner away from himself. As the girl travels backwards away from her partner, he keeps a firm grasp of her right hand with his left…
“From this throw-out or break position a couple can go into numerous variations… The 6 count rhythm of the break figure can be repeated or they can return to the 8 count basic step.”
So essentially what we have here, if we extend a little tolerance to his “firm pressure on her waist” nonsense, is a six-count sendout. And that, folks, is as close as Mr. Lawrence Hostetler ever gets to describing a lindy swingout.
Tomorrow, I’ll finish up with Mr. Hostetler by sharing his list of common mistakes in Lindy Hop.
In his 1942 book, Walk Your Way to Better Dancing, Mr. Hostetler describes a form of Lindy Hop that sounds very similar to what we would probably call Balboa. His “single lindy” basic is pretty much just a turning “down-hold” Balboa basic in closed position.
When we think of Lindy today, it’s usually the swingout that we’re thinking of. That’s the signature move that symbolizes to most of us the difference between Lindy Hop and other forms of swing dancing. But Mr. Hostetler doesn’t mention it at all.
Instead, here he describes “one of the most interesting of the lindy variations:”
“It is known as the ‘break’ and also as the ‘throw-out.’ In this figure the leader does the basic step in place while his partner travels away from him with a half-turn left, finishing at arm’s-length. He retains hold of the girl’s right hand with his left.
“From this point there are numerous possibilities. The man may turn the girl to either the right or left by passing clasped hands over her head. While turning, both continue doing the basic step. The leader may or may not turn, at his own discretion. Often, while separated, each does steps of his or her own improvisation.”
I like this mention of improvised steps! But then Mr. Hostetler had to go and lose points by thus describing how this throw-out is to be accomplished:
“The lead for the break is given by a firm push with the right hand at the girl’s waist as she steps forward right to turn away from you.”
Ugh! Don’t push me, Dude!
He never even gets around to telling us how we’re supposed to get back into closed position. Probably with a firm pull, I’d imagine.
Anyway, there you have it. The throw-out. Tomorrow Mr. Hostetler will reveal to us the mysteries of the Double Lindy.
Have you had enough of Mr. Lawrence Hostetler and his 1942 book, Walk Your Way to Better Dancing? I hope not, because I’m just getting warmed up. Here he teaches us how to do the Single Lindy:
“This is the basic step of the lindy. It requires two measures or eight counts of music. Unlike the jockeying step which is done entirely in the open position, the basic step is invariably done turning. While it is easier to lead into the lindy by swinging your partner into the open position, you must change to the closed position in order to turn. This can be done in two ways – either the leader can bring his partner in front of himself as he steps forward left for a left turn, or he can step around in front of his partner for a right turn.
“The Single Lindy Turning Left:
- Turn your partner to the open position as you step back L. Girl steps back R. You are facing the line of dance.
- Lift R knee and step on ball of foot in place.
- Step L forward with straight knee, making quarter-turn left. At the same time bring your partner in front of you to the closed position.
- Bend L knee.
- Step R to side. You are now facing the center of the room.
- Lift L and cross over R. Girl crosses R over L.
- Step R to side with knee straight.
- Bend R knee.
“You finish in the closed position, having made a quarter-turn left (the girl makes a three-quarters turn left). To repeat the step, turn your partner to the open position and simultaneously make another quarter-turn left as you step back L. You are now facing opposite to the line of dance. By repeating the step you return to your original position.
“Instead of half turns, quarter turns right or left can be made. These are easier to lead than the half turns.”
Well, anyway. Maybe I’m just denser than most, but it took me forever to figure out his instructions. What I finally came up with is that he’s leading a rock-step in open, bringing his partner in front of him on the step, hold, then doing a sort of grapevine to his right in closed, and then repeating as necessary to complete a full turn. It does not appear to me that this step “breaks away” at all.
Does this resemble anything familiar to any dance nerds out there?
If you have sharp eyes you will have noticed that in Mr. Hostetler’s description of lindy, he said that on the West Coast, Lindy was called Balboa. Maybe I’m wrong, but it does seem like what he’s describing here as “single lindy” is sort of an out-and-in Balboa turn.
This is backed up by something he says a little later on in the same section of the book:
“A variation of the single lindy can be made by touching the ball of the foot to the floor without weight on counts 3 and 7, immediately followed by an accenting change of weight on counts 4 and 8. Thus the off-beat effect is produced in a different manner.”
Does this not sound like he’s describing the “up-hold” Balboa basic as opposed to the “down-hold”? In any case, I’m almost certain that what he’s calling lindy is going to turn out a lot closer to what we know as Balboa. But I could be wrong.
Anyway, he goes on from there to discuss something he calls a “break” and also a “throw-out.” I’ll tell you about that tomorrow!