Saturday, October 3, 2009
This got me to thinking about all the songs I've always thought swing dancers should know. And this inspired me (by inspired I mean blatantly copy the idea) to write a list of swing songs that I think every Lindy Hopper should know. The list will probably be listed with album information as much as possible to minimize the effort of acquiring these songs. However, most of these songs are relatively easy to find thanks to our current online retail structure such as Amazon.com and Emusic among other things. In addition, most online stores allow one to preview the song to get a little feel for it.
Sunday, December 9, 2007
The means of communication in this conversation is the concept of connection.
It is always present in our dancing, regardless of skill.
In Dance: a Fundamental Philosophy, I have used the metaphor of language to describe connection.
Once the leader and the follower establish a basic connection, the leader manipulates the connection to give a lead, and the follower attempts to return to that connection to follow.
For example, in a side pass, the leader steps backwards, creating a tensile force in the connection. The follower feels a stretch and moves forward to relieve that tension. She continues the motion until she receives another lead. The leader will turn around as she passes, and the follower will feel the lateral tension, and turn around to face her lead again even as she continues her original motion. The follower continues moving, now in the backward direction until the leader leads her to stop by remaining in place and gradually producing the same tension that he led the movement with. The follower feels a tension theoretically identical to the initial lead, and relieves that by remaining in place as well.
The process by which all this communication occurs is complex and development of good connection requires many related concepts to be practiced.
The first concept that should be understood is center- possibly the most important concept of connection. The significance of center is that all contact-led movement should be theoretically led from the center. A better center leads to more stability, stronger connection, and clearer communication. An analogy I could give is that a ball of yarn is much easier to manipulate than when it is unraveled. The idea of a good center is to consolidate all of your weight and energy as small as possible into an area that can be connected with your partner. The general area is usually always somewhere in the torso, but specific locations are different for leaders and followers and for the style being danced. The location can be very specific for skilled dancers (for example, the powerhouse, the solar plexus, or the sternum, and the precise positioning of the center with respect to the legs or the head).
A few good methods to maintain a good center are moving your torso before moving your legs, and always keeping your center over your legs.
Now I have mentioned that we lead and follow with our centers, but how do we connect them to each other? Imagine how limited our motion would be in Lindy Hop if we could only connect our centers through direct contact! However, we can dance in other positions through the concept of frame. The way the center of two dancers can connect is the concept of frame. Lindy Hop frame is rather difficult both to explain and to achieve. The idea of good frame, albeit vague, is to present the clearest physical connection between our centers. In Lindy Hop, we are often in open position, connected by our fingers, which is a great distance along the arm and the body to the chest. The general concept of frame is not too difficult to grasp- it's simply providing something tangible for your partner to work with when he or she contacts you. However, fine-tuning the frame to be comfortable and comfortable is another matter altogether.
Lindy Hop utilizes a dynamic frame, in which the frame is not rigid, but fluid and flexible. Therefore, movements are not instantaneous, but led and followed through cycles of stretch and release and/or compression and release. This results in a necessary pre-lead, which is one of the characteristics that make the dance swing as well as allowing Lindy Hoppers to spontaneously improvise moves and styling with unfamiliar partners.
Like a jet plane has a frame to absorb the thrust of the engine, a follower has a frame to absorb the lead. The leader has to also provide a frame as well for the follower to work against. As the movements end, the frame
Tension is a very closely related concept of frame. Tension refers to the amount of potential energy stored inside the frame, much like the amount of tension required to manipulate a spring. Variations in this tension help communicate certain things such as the distance to be traveled or the speed at which moves are to be executed.
Tension is a very defining aspect of individual dancers. While tension does vary in the course of a dance, there is a general characteristic tension that each dancer will tend to gravitate towards in certain styles and music. That general "default" tension is classified as heavy or light, depending on if more or less energy is required to maintain the neutral connection and initiate movement, respectively.
The advantage of heavy tension is the obvious presence of a connection to both parties. The leader has clear and positive control of his follower and the follower has a very secure lead. The dancing is generally smooth and comfortable, as most extraneous movement contributes an insignificant amount of energy to affect the connection. This can be achieved with relatively little skill level and is useful for teaching concepts such as stretch and compression, and sensing weight changes of your partner. However, heavy tension comes with the price of lower stamina, especially at higher tempos, due to the greater amount of "overhead" energy required to maintain connection as well as initiate movement.
The advantage of light tension is greater freedom, responsiveness, and flexibility. The follower has more freedom to express herself, and the leader can provide more subtlety in his dancing. However, lighter tension typically requires a great deal of refinement and skill to dance well in this manner. Response time is less, as well as the energy to maintain connection, allowing for dancing at a greater range of tempos with greater stamina.
There is no "wrong" tension besides one that your partner is not doing.
Once center, frame, and tension are in place, the lead manipulates the connection to cause movement. A smooth way of doing this is moving his center.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
With all this commentary about dancing, I feel that it is important to define some terms we may take for granted. While definitions may vary as you travel from scene to scene, the following definitions are what I have seen to be a general consensus among the professional community.
Learning the basic steps of the dance. Typically has less than 30 hours dance experience (i.e. dancing less than twice a week for two months).
Has grasped the basic steps of the specific dance being learned and is beginning to develop vocabulary of moves. Is beginning to grasp the fundamentals of the dance such as appearance, typical move patterns, and the connection.
Has a working knowledge of the fundamentals of the dance such as appearance and typical move patterns. Is developing a grasp for the finer points of connection as well as a fluency in vocabulary of moves. Begins to seeks knowledge in associated dances and applying related principles and analogous moves. Typically has had at least 60 hours social dancing experience (Ex. dancing twice a week for 2 months.
Begins to pursue the theory behind the dance. Is familiar with connection but is limited in flexibility of use. Fluent in standard move patterns and is developing a distinct personal style consistent with and appropriate to the dance. Is developing an extensive vocabulary of moves and dances earned through many hours of practice and dancing.
Marked by a strong grasp of fundamentals and basics, as well as the presence of a distinct style consistent with and appropriate to the dance. Is fluent with and applies connection as an inherent part of dancing. Explores the dance and the music, calling upon the knowledge of theory behind the dance and music, rather than calling upon the moves associated with the dance.
At least two nights (at least 3 hours each) of social dancing a week.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Privates can be very expensive but pay off very quickly with the amount you learn in a fraction of the time, and with the learning of certain concepts that can only be effectively taught individually with someone who already understands them. You may not be able to afford group lessons simultaneously as private lessons, so you may have to give them up temporarily. But whatever you choose, do not give up your social dancing regimen. Again, I emphatically stress that regular attendance of social dancing is the most important thing you can do to improve your dancing. If social dancing is the only thing you can afford, choose to go social dancing over taking lessons. It is critical you never lose sight of the purpose for which you are learning (seriously, why learn to dance if you're not going to do it?).
Private lessons can be very addicting, as the rewards are virtually immediate (and continue to increase) as you return to the dance floor. But as you are investing a great deal of money into learning, make sure you start with the right teacher. If you are fortunate to live in an area with a big city, you can ask around and find out who are the well-known and reputable instructors around (However, I personally recommend that if you don't know who the good instructors are, you probably should not take privates yet). If there are no well-known instructors, or you would like to choose for yourself, finding a teacher can be a more difficult task. A good instructor will focus on teaching you how to dance, not how to perform moves and tricks. You can judge for yourself if one has a good fundamental understanding of the dance by watching them dance Lindy Hop.
First and foremost, do not be deceived by flashiness.
A good dancer is not determined by the moves one does, but by his or her basics.
Watch the teacher and note his or her feet with each step. Does the teacher dance on the balls of his or her feet without rolling back on the heels? Does he or she push off from the ground to move instead of simply picking up his or her feet? Does the teacher have visible and clear weight changes? These are good signs that the teacher may have strong basics, and may possess the skill to teach you. However, good dancers do not immediately make one a good teacher.
After you have researched and found a suitable teacher (preferably you have found several), approach one for private lessons. Do not shower them with compliments; a simple honest comment on what you like about their dancing as well as a request for a private lesson is sufficient and appropriate. They will arrange a time with you, tell you how much they cost, and some will inquire if there is anything you desire to learn in particular. Private lessons are usually an hour long, and have a median and mode cost of $50-60 with one instructor (ranging from $50-65), or $80-100 for two (instructor and partner). They may usually ask what you wish to learn. Don't ask to learn moves, or you'll be wasting your money. If you are unsure of what you desire to work on, ask to work on your basics and the swing out (and continue to learn as much about the swing out as you can). There are many concepts that you will learn in the development of your swing out, especially connection, frame, and center, so remember to look at the swing out as a reflection of your skills, not as simply a move. It has been said that when an instructor teaches an advanced workshop, he or she can work on the swing out for every class for an entire weekend, and a mature and advanced dancer will look forward to such a focused learning opportunity.
When you go to your private lesson, bring a notebook as well as your normal dance preparation (shower, brush your teeth, bring mints, etc.). Wear form-fitting clothing so that your teacher can easily view your frame and posture. Come with a mature and open mind, and trust what your teacher tells you.
You (hopefully) will be spending most of your time learning basics, with a little time spent on lecture and philosophy. You will learn a lot, so write down notes in your notebook. After your lesson, go social dancing as soon as possible so that you may put your hard work to use! Try to work on just one thing you learned each night you go out dancing. Once that is finished, work on another.
Do not expect miracles. You may not always click perfectly with your instructor, as an hour is such a short period of time that the instructor has to grow accustomed to you, decide what you need to improve on, and discover how to teach you effectively. After your lesson, if you have difficulty learning from your instructor, try taking a few more lessons, and try approaching another one. Just as any two people may not necessarily get along immediately (or at all), it may take a few more lessons for your instructor to figure out how to teach you effectively in an hour’s time.
On the other hand, after your lesson, if it seems like the heavens have opened up, shined upon your dancing, and you are now possessed with the spirits of lindy hoppers past, stay with that instructor.
If and when you stay with an instructor for continued learning, trust your teacher in the process of learning- he or she will guide you down the right path.
Monday, December 25, 2006
Let no one deceive you: the Lindy hop is a difficult dance to learn.
Certain people may pick it up more easily, particularly if one already possesses some previous social dance experience, has a good teacher, or is in a good swing dance scene. But even with all these factors in place, Lindy Hop remains a difficult dance to learn. But let not one be discouraged, for there are many other Lindy hoppers around the world willing to help. Lindy Hop is addicting, for it is rewarding, and the rewards- the knowledge you gain, the people you meet, and most importantly, the enjoyment you gain from dancing- are immediate.
One of the most efficient and effective methods that teachers recommend Lindy hoppers to start with is to dance at least twice a week, get instruction, and travel.
Let us start where many of us start- looking for something to do at night. The first step one should take is to locate dance venues, or places to go dancing. Visit websites looking for swing dancing in your local area. Advice from Linda Sheppard,
Once you have a list of venues, you can start attending them. Try out each venue 2 or 3 times and write down what you enjoyed or disliked about the venue, i.e. ambience, music, attendance, dancer skill level, floor, cleanliness, etc. Ask the local dancers where they dance, for they will be a more reliable source of information than websites which may possibly be outdated or biased towards a business. Be mindful that the ultimate factor that will probably determine where you choose to dance is the people there. There are glorious clubs that will fascinate you in their beauty, and there are dives that will make you wonder how people have congregated there to dance, but find the places that have happy Lindy Hoppers, for that place and its people will probably make you happy as well.
Once you have found some of your favorite venues, attend them regularly.
The most important thing you can do for your dancing is to social dance regularly, preferably at least twice a week.
While you are checking out venues, you may find swing dancers are generally a friendly bunch, so feel free to ask everyone to dance, regardless of skill level. Of course, there are a few outliers with all groups. Do not be discouraged, and associate with the people that treat you well. There is no need to exert effort attempting to fit in. As with any group, some will accept you immediately, some will grow accustomed to you, and some will do neither. You will find that Lindy hop has its own social etiquette, but that extends beyond the scope of this article, and will be covered in greater detail in another.
In your course of dancing, you will probably see some dancers who inspire you. You will see the fun they are having and you will wish you could dance like them. One solution is to befriend them and politely ask them if they could teach you. Lindy hop instructors are another way to help realize that goal. Your purpose for learning is to become more fluent in the dance so that there are less barriers between you and your partner having fun. It is recommended that beginners start with the local group lessons that everyone attends. Not only are they cheaper than private lessons and less likely to burn you out financially and physically, but you will have the opportunity to learn the same material with the fellow people you will probably dance with frequently. In most group classes, you will learn some basics that will make up the dance. Practice what you have learned at your favorite dance venues. Practice your basics at home as well until they are firm in your muscle memory- until you can hold a conversation while dancing. Keep in mind that you are not learning moves, but learning how to move. Learn the basics, and the moves will follow. Eventually, as you progress in skill, you can take private lessons or advanced group lessons to refine your skills and learn the things that will very quickly make you a great dancer.
As you learn, your passion and hunger for dancing may extend beyond the scope of your local area. You may begin to hear of other events and others will ask if you are attending them (the correct answer is yes). What you are experiencing is the traveling aspect of lindy hop. As explained earlier, travel is important to your dancing. It is my firm belief that the most important factor to a dance scene’s evolution is travel between scenes.
People may be traveling dancers for different reasons, including business bringing dancers from one place to another, or a band performing that people would like to listen to (and dance to). However, the principal reason dancers travel to other dance scenes is to attend events. There are three types of events that one will encounter: Social, Instructional, and Competitions.
Social dancing events are also called exchanges (with a few exceptions). All swing dance events include a social dancing aspect, but exchanges are events where the primary, if not single-minded, focus is upon social dancing. Exchanges are just that. Supposedly these events allow the dancer to get a glimpse of the scene’s venues and dancers, but in reality it is simply a big weekend of partying and dancing wherever they can fit some 200 or more Lindy Hoppers. Exchanges should not have lessons (save a brief beginner lesson immediately prior to the main night dance), as it maintains the party atmosphere of the event as well as ensures that all your money is going towards pure dancing (However, local instructors typically attend to contribute to the scene and so traveling dancers can approach them for private lessons). There is typically dancing starting from the mid-afternoon (1 or 2PM-4 or 5PM) until a two-hour dinner break, and then a main night dance event typically to a live band, usually from about 8 to midnight, and a late night dance (with refreshments!) from midnight to 5AM. This day schedule is typically repeated from Friday to Saturday. Exchanges typically cost about $50-80, slightly skewed towards the left, with the most common price being about $60-65. Occasionally you see extreme cases on both sides, for example, in 2007, prices ranged from from Orange County's dirt cheap $35, and Austin Lindy Exchange on the other end at $90.
Instructional events include camps and workshops. The focus is obviously on instruction, but there is plenty of social dancing later to practice what you have learned. These will have lesson from late morning to the afternoon, at which point there may be competitions or more lessons. After a dinner break, social dancing and competitions take over. Camps typically cost $120-$150 for a weekend, while workshop weekends run a little cheaper at $80-100. Camps will be discussed in more detail later.
Finally, competitions are events which the primary focus is indeed competitions. They include championships, camps, and various other names. Good examples and recommended ones are: Camp Jitterbug (Memorial Day weekend in Seattle, WA), Camp Hollywood/National Jitterbug Championships (Last weekend of July in Los Angeles, CA), the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown (Second weekend of September in Minneapolis, MN), and the Rhythmic Arts Festival (New Year's weekend in San Diego, CA). They range widely in cost, but the larger ones are typically $99 for competitors and $120-$160 for general participants (plus hotel costs). Larger events will typically cost $180 and up, so make sure you buy your tickets before the price breaks. Despite their high price, these typically have the greatest attendance, as some dancers come to show off their skills, and everyone comes to be inspired.
The path to becoming a Lindy Hopper is difficult, but not long, and it should definitely not be arduous. It is the spirit of the dance and the love of the music that should drive you through this path with flying colors. Remember that it is not easy- you will be discouraged along the way, but no matter what happens, remember the fun you had dancing and will have dancing.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Sources mainly involve oral history given to me by countless people, as well as the blurred memory of countless articles and books I have read in my constant research. These opinions may not be necessarily shared with any particular dance community or instructor, including those sourced, and they are simply my opinions and my own conclusions on the subject. You may or may not agree with the information and opinions given, and you are welcome to express your feelings on the subject matter in a contributive manner. This essay will be a working piece, and will continue to grow as I learn more from lessons from teachers, experience with dancers, and the feedback of others.
The exploration is intentionally very general as to make it as fundamental and universally applicable as possible. However, this essay primarily is focused on vernacular jazz dance.
For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the lead with male pronouns and the follow with female pronouns.
Dance: a Fundamental Philosophy
A working piece- An expressional essay on dance
Inspired by the teachings of Ria Debiase, Peter Flahiff, Frankie Manning, Nick Williams, and Audrey Wilson
I believe dance serves as a social function and an art form.
As a social and cultural function- society gathers around cultural activities- let's just use football for an example. An activity becomes considered part of the culture when virtually every person in the given society plays a role in the activity- from the players on the field, the advertisers funding the game, the cheerleaders and band raising spirit, to the viewer at home.
Dance is likewise so- the dancers, the musicians, the hosts, the audience all serve their part to make the culture of the dance, and make dancing a part of the general culture of the society.
As everyone contributes to the subculture, everyone bears certain responsibilities in their roles. There should be a staff responsible for maintaining a suitable venue for dancing. There are the musicians and DJs that produce sound. These individuals and groups support the dancers with their skills and abilities. In return, the dancers should support these people in return through regular attendance of venues, introduction and inclusion of new individuals to the community, and patronage of supporting facilities and services. In this manner, all sides of the dance community are supporting each other, and a dance community is able to support itself, thrive, and maintain growth.
Dance was probably created around the music associated with the particular dance, and enabled people to play a more active role in the engagement of the music. This allowed people to express themselves in response to the music*- creating a visual art to complement the musical art, as well as to serve as a social activity- allowing members of the society to interact with each other when they would not have in any other circumstance. (*Of course, there is dancing without music, and that is the pure visual art aspect of dance, and there are other forms of dance in which sound is an essential part, such as tap, which is an amalgamation of the visual and musical aspects of dance.) Since it serves a social function, dancers should primarily seek to entertain each other, and enjoy the social company of another. Etiquette of social functions should apply to the dance event as of any other social functions, but one should be mindful of the different cultures that dance brings together, and be accepting of the differences- the colour that is bound to appear.
In regards to the act of dancing itself, I believe that dancing is a conversation between the lead, the follow, and the music.
The lead and the follow are communicating with each other and should seek to constantly improve that communication and remove barriers to that.
To expand on the conversation metaphor, when a couple dances together for the first time, they are two strangers engaging in conversation with one another. They may not be speaking the same language, meaning they do not know the same dance, they may not be speaking the same dialect, meaning the same style of that dance. They also may not be using the same vocabulary, meaning the same skill level.
It is the lead who should initiate each conversation and make the follow comfortable. This has far-reaching implications and responsibilities for the lead. It means the lead is ultimately responsible, with few exceptions, for the success of the conversation- the dance. The lead should do his best to make the follow feel comfortable and to entertain her. The lead initiates the dance, and the follow should do her best to follow him; try to speak his dance language, attuned to his dialect, speak with the same vocabulary. Meaning, the follow attempts to perform the same dance, with the same style, and dance to the same level as the lead.
Of course, perfection is rarely achieved, so the couple must find a middle ground. If one dancer is not able to perform the particular dance and style, he or she must try to do something that is compatible with what the other can dance. It is not likely to find this compromise through dancing in a more specialized or advanced manner, so inevitably, this involves returning to basics. The importance of strong basics cannot be stressed enough, and every mature dancer will attest to that fact. Basics do not only include knowing the basic steps, but dancing in a matter that maximizes communication with one's partner.
Clear communication is a persistent goal that can be pursued through becoming a more efficient dancer and being more knowledgeable of one's body and one's partner's. This involves maximizing energy towards leading or following, and minimizing movement and energy not directly related to that purpose. Balboa dancers have an old maxim they strive to achieve- to be smaller and tighter dancers. This holds true for any dance which is to be done with efficiency. Each weight change should be a clear driving lead to the follow to fuel her movement, and excessive movement should be limited to provide a pure lead to the follow. Stylizing should be done to accentuate the lead and should be done in a manner that provides information contributing to the lead’s message. Ultimately, good dancers will dance in a manner that maximizes useful communication yet minimizes energy used to dance it.
When two dancers communicate well together, they are like two fluent speakers of a language together, and are capable of conversation on a deeper level. They are able to explore the dance with flexibility and discovery without breaking connection, hence remaining in communication with their partner. Their conversation with the music and with each other flows seamlessly from one subject into another. Therefore, their conversation is conducted fluently, and the dancers have achieved an acme of the dance’s social function.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Lindy Hop is an American dance and is native to its culture. It has grown to become an international phenomenon, as I see the many people from other countries at swing dance events and exchanges, as well as a sizeable ballroom audience penetration as well (seen by the creation of the American Rhythm ballroom dance East Coast Swing). I study Lindy Hop as part of my personal desire to learn the general culture I grew up in and my pride in being an American, not by birth, but by my engagement in its culture, especially that of music and dance.
From an early age (exact age unknown), I pursued dances of many types, including Modern, Jazz, and social ones like Salsa, Country, Rumba, Foxtrot, etc. I liked a lot of them, but I came to learn Lindy Hop and love it with a passion that I have held for no other dance before.
All the other dances are fun and all, but Lindy Hop holds amazing flexibility in its feel and adaptability. If you give me a very light-hearted song, I can dance with so much charm you'd swear I was giving off sparkles. If you give me a slow and dark song, I can milk every beat and animate the music. If you give a sensual song, I can reflect that in the dance even in open position. I was never able to express sensuality even after years of Foxtrot, yet I could feel electricity in the fingertips of a follow's hand within months of dancing Lindy hop.
I view dance as an expression of the music, and jazz dance most closely exemplifies that view. As I have been a musician for all of my life, I am intimately familiar with music, its making, and the structure that defines it. Like jazz music, which is free in every way that fits in the jazz structure, jazz dancing is free in every way that fits in its structure- in other words, the dancer and the musician (should one choose to make a distinction) is free to be organic and natural in their pursuit of the music and the dance.
Another major thing that also stands out to me is that Lindy hop is NATURAL. Its posture and movements all make sense in an everyday context. Every mood and emotion can be expressed in vernacular jazz, and one's body language becomes part of one's dance. I never knew how to quite express myself with my back arched, head held aloft and slightly to the left, right hand at a 45 degree, and arm locked out to the horizontal. There's no day-to-day equivalent for that position.
The Lindy hop stance is athletic and its motions come from the core, just like a well-balanced person. As one does not try to move a 60-70kg object with solely the strength in the arm, one also does not try to yank a follow with the arms, but moves her using the strength in the core. Movements are initiated with weight changes, much like running. One can theoretically lead anyone into dancing Lindy Hop without too much difficulty or stepping on feet.
Lastly, Lindy Hop is a very communicative dance. You cannot dance Lindy Hop by yourself. there is almost equal communication given by the lead and the follow to each other, and the dance is driven by both. The lead does not dominate the dance, but leads the follow into various conversation pieces where the follow can add her own input and styling with tremendous flexibility without affecting the lead. It is in Lindy Hop that I truly find the old axiom, "Dance is a conversation," to be true.
It is for these reasons that I choose to dance Lindy Hop and have come to embrace its related dances in Vernacular Jazz Dance. I continue to study dance in form, technique, and history to this day, and it is an inherent and undeniable part of me.