Posts Tagged ‘newbies’
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!)
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.
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?
There’s this thing beginner leads in my scene do that absolutely drives me crazy.
Maybe they do this everywhere, or maybe it’s just a Portland thing, I don’t know. But what they do is, after sending you out into a swingout, instead of letting you continue the momentum they’ve set up, for some reason out of nowhere they suddenly yank you forward on that last triple.
It always ends up as a yank. Because everyone knows that last triple is where you settle back. It’s the “out” part of the swingout, and it’s the only place the follow can really do styling or whatever. As a million instructors have told us, that last triple is where the follow gets to shine. And then out of nowhere, this professional arm-wrestler is yanking you forward. Ouch!
I was discussing this with a friend of mine not too long ago, and she said she thinks it’s because they’re trying to “body lead.” They’ve been told they’re not supposed to jerk you around with their arms, but instead somehow use their bodies to move you. But they still carry their body weight too high, so what it translates to is that they lean back with their shoulders in an effort to get you to move without using their arms. Of course, they always do give a little extra value at the end of the maneuver by bending their arms anyway.
As I used to tell my kids when they were little, that may be an explanation, but it’s no excuse.
I remember this one time when I was taking a workshop from Naomi Uyama. I was complaining to her about leads who yank on your arm, and asking her what to do about it. She invited me to show her what I meant. So I led her in some swingouts, and tried to imitate the kind of arm yanking that I so often feel on the dance floor.
And you know what? I couldn’t yank that girl no matter how hard I tried. Every time I jerked and tugged on her arm, she just floated. I was getting worn out, but her lovely smile never left her face for a minute; you’d a thought I was Fred Astaire or something.
It actually made me kind of mad. “How do you DO that?” I spluttered.
“Well,” she said patiently, “you just follow.”
So I was thinking about this whole thing with leads who yank you forward on seven-and-eight. And I realized what I should have seen long ago: the problem really isn’t them. It’s me.
The only reason I get my arm yanked in these situations is because I believe, mentally, that I’m supposed to “triple away” on those last two counts. It’s my right and privilege as a follow. After all, that’s where I get to do my styling.
And you know what? That ain’t following.
I know for a fact that if Naomi, or any other brilliant follower, was getting led forward on that last seven-and-eight, she would simply triple forward. She wouldn’t get into a wrestling match with the guy by insisting on tripling away. If I get my arm yanked, it’s because I was tripling away without being led there.
It’s called “actually following.”
I’m gonna have to try that sometime!
I got so disgusted with my leading last night. See, here’s the problem…
Normally, I’m a follow. So when I try to lead things, if the person following me doesn’t follow me just perfectly, I tend to revert right back to my normal role. Then I start following my follow and doing whatever she was inadvertently backleading.
I know I need to just press manfully on with what I was trying to lead and give the follow a chance to pick up on it. But in order to do that I have to overcome a whole bunch of training. See, followers are trained to be responsive, and that’s not such a helpful skill when you’re trying to lead something.
I’m sure it’s exactly the same thing, in reverse, with leads who try to follow. As soon as their leader gives them any sort of opening, I’m sure it’s very easy for them to just jump in and start leading things without waiting to be led. Am I right?
Now, it just doesn’t make sense that as a leader, the only people I can lead are the ultra-accomplished, super-responsive followers. I should be able to lead normal followers or even beginners. I really want to be able to do this. But beginners who try to follow me just end up getting confused.
Yet I don’t want to overcompensate and turn into some kind of roughhousing armbreaker. Just as, I’m sure, leaders learning to follow don’t want to turn into passive noodle-armers.
Anyone else having this problem? Does anyone out there have any good advice?
So these discussions keep popping up all over the lindy blogosphere: girls are complaining that guys won’t dance with them unless they look like models. What the hell?
I decided to do some field research. I tracked down one of the youngest, hippest, cutest, awesomest rock-star leads in our scene, who chose to remain nameless, and subjected him to a battery of questions.
“Okay,” I said. “If you have the choice between dancing with a cute girl and one who’s just ordinary, which one would you rather dance with?”
He took a long moment, trying to figure out a nice way to say it. But there was no way. “The cute one,” he said sadly. We looked at each other for awhile as the enormity of that statement sank in.
Then I thought of something. “Well,” I said, “Say the cute girl is a total beginner and the ordinary girl is a really good dancer? What then?”
And then he said something that blew me away. “Sometimes,” he said, “it’s more fun to dance with a beginner follow than a good one.”
Whoa. Hold the phone. What’s THAT all about?
He explained. According to my source, sometimes, for a lead, it’s fun to try and lead things in such a way that a girl who has no idea what she’s doing can follow them. It makes a nice challenge, and it’s fun to try and make her feel successful. But it can actually be boring to dance with someone who just perfectly, predictably, robotically follows everything he leads, perfectly perfectly.
“I don’t go dancing just so I can do my same old moves over and over and show off,” he says. “It’s nice to be surprised once in a while. But perfect follows just do the same thing all the time. They just follow.”
Okay, well that actually made sense to me. “So what if,” I said, “the girl doesn’t just follow, but screws around and throws in her own stuff? Is that okay?”
“That’s way better,” he said.
“All right,” I said, bracing myself to hear the wrong answer as I formulated my last question. “Given a choice between a gorgeous beginner follow who looks like a model, and a so-so-looking but experienced follow who plays around and throws in her own surprises, which one do you pick?”
This time, he didn’t hesitate. “”That one,” he said. “The second one. Definitely.”
There you have it, ladies. According to my expert witness, gorgeous leads with mad skills prefer to dance with accomplished follows, no matter what they look like, rather than cute beginners, but only as long as the accomplished follow is creative and surprising with her dancing.
Does that make you feel better? Or does it just create a new problem?