Swing Dancing


One of the first things a new dancer learns is that Shoes Are Important.  You blithely arrive for your first dance wearing the street shoes you intend to dance in, and watch as dancer after dancer arrives and immediately heads for a chair to change their shoes.  And the shoes they’re changing into, well, they’re odd.  People who seem to have gone to a lot of time and effort to put together very swanky, vintage outfits are pulling out… tennis shoes?  Really?  Or men’s dress shoes with that cute little dress?  Are you serious?  And they are.  Deadly serious.  There is nothing a dancer takes more seriously than shoes.

You start to realize that these are special shoes.  They have brand names like Aris Allens and Bleyers, or they’ve been specially modified at shoe stores.  They have soles made from suede or leather which must never, never, never get wet!  Ever!  Other dancers are happy to talk at length about their preferences in shoes, debating suede soles vs. hard leather vs. soft leather.  You start to think that maybe you ought to get your own pair of these special shoes.  It’s a watershed in a young dancer’s life when they buy their first pair of real dance shoes, or take a pair of shoes to a cobbler to get them resoled with suede.  It signifies a certain amount of commitment.  It says, “I’m serious about this.  Serious enough to buy the shoes.”

Sometime about the time the dancer buys the shoes, or maybe a bit before, the dancer’s clothing starts to change.  This is particularly apparent in girls.  When girls start dancing, they usually dress like a cross between their idea of glamorous 1940s vintage and what they’ve seen of ballroom dancers.  There’s a lot of full skirts, party dresses accessorized to appear more “vintage,” and sometimes low cut/strapless looks with a lot of black and white color schemes.  They want to look pretty!  And cute!  And vintage!  If they keep with it long enough they start to realize that dancing is hard work.  It’s exercise, and it’s not very fun exercising in a strapless dress.  They start dressing down more.  Jeans and workout pants begin to make their appearance.  They might still wear skirts, but they’re shorter, less full.  They do twirl tests, making sure that if the skirt flares, it doesn’t flare too high.  They start wearing more t-shirts, and less cute little vintage-y blouses.  Somewhere down the line they start attending dancing weekends and workshops, and start collecting event t-shirts.  They start to realize that when you exercise, you sweat, and begin to steer their color choices towards those which don’t show sweat stains.  They start to bring extra shirts to change into after they’ve sweated through the shirt they’re wearing.  Utility and comfort begin to be more important than vintage, although cute is still always a priority (it is, after all, social dance).

By this time the dancer has been dancing a few years, they look totally different.  The long skirts and high heels are gone.  Instead they’re wearing the Swing Dancer Uniform: jeans or other comfortable pants or skirt, t-shirt (preferably wearing the logo of a Lindy Exchange) or other breathable top, comfortable shoes with slick soles, no-fuss hair.  They’ve come to dance, and it shows.

Recently I’ve come to realize that beyond the requirements of good dancing clothes, there are also good teaching clothes.  I would say that learning to dance is 30% watching your instructors, 60% trying to do it yourself, and 10% hearing the teachers explain.  This means that students have to be able to actually see what the instructor is doing with his or her body.  For me that means not wearing any skirt longer than knee-length, and, well, added attention to the cute factor.  Wanting to be a better dancer often begins with wanting to look like your instructor.  So I try to look like someone they might want to emulate.  I’m still pretty new to teaching, so I don’t have this part all figured out.  Who knows?  Maybe in a year or two I’ll be writing a post on How To Dress Like A Teacher…

In my experience, swing dancing is a very private activity. That may sound strange, considering that you’re often dancing with total or relative strangers in the midst of crowds of people.  However, when two people are dancing together socially, ideally the focus is inward, concentrated between the two of them.  You’re thinking about your partner and the music.  If you think about the others on the floor, it’s mostly to avoid running into them.  Other people may or may not be watching you, but that’s not important.  The important thing is your partner, and how things feel between the two of you.  You are not performing for an audience, but interacting with one other person within the space of a song.  Good social dancers tend to have strong connection, respond quickly and easily to their partner, and be comfortable with improvisation.  Musicality (expressing the music through your dancing) is highly prized, as well as a certain playfulness.  Sometimes a good social dance is a joy for others to watch, but it doesn’t always attract attention.  The partners know how good or bad it was.  Anyone else doesn’t matter.

Performance dancing is something very different.  You’re dancing with another person, but the focus is outward, towards the audience.  What’s important is that the audience likes or appreciates what you’re doing.  Whether or not your partner is having a good dance is secondary (and sometimes, for some performers, irrelevant).  You have to sell yourself and the song to the audience, so you beam yourself outward, away from your parnter.  It helps that usually what you’re dancing is a choreographed, rehearsed routine.  Both you and your partner know what’s coming, so you can concentrate more on putting the number over to the audience than on leading and following.  A good performance dancer focuses more on how the dance looks than how it feels.  They think about posture, and form, creating lines with their bodies.  They are good showmen, with a personal charisma that helps the audience love what they see.  The most imortant thing is that the dancing looks good: clean, sharp, and impressive.  A good performance dance may look fabulous, even when it feels awful to one or both of the partners.  The important thing is that the audience loves it.

Good social and performance dancing aren’t mutually exclusive.  Some of the best social dancers around are also impressive performance dancers.  Some of the same things that make a dancer look better also make the dancer feel better to dance with.  Good posture, for example, not only looks better, but also makes you easier to lead.  But they’re not the same thing.

This can be a hard distinction for people to make.  We’re so used to thinking of dancing, any dancing, as a performance.  If a person is comfortable dancing at the Wednesday night swing dance, why wouldn’t they be comfortable doing the same thing in front of an audience?  Recently I went to a swing exchange where the Saturday night dance happened to also be a fundraiser for one of the organizations sponsoring the event.  There had been a dinner for the donors beforehand, during which certain couples did Exhibition Dances demonstrating the different forms of swing dancing.  When the exhibitions were over, the floor was opened for general dancing.  At that point the organizers encouraged the swing dancers present to flood the floor… so that the donors could watch.  I was sitting up in the balcony with several friends, all of them experienced swing dancers.  Not one of us made a move towards the floor.  We looked at each other and shook our heads.  We hadn’t come to be part of a performance, we had come to dance socially – in private.

Last week I taught my first ever private lesson.  It was so surreal.  There I was, in my kitchen with Forrest, drilling him on his Lindy footwork and talking about connection.  The lesson went very smoothly.  We fixed some pretty big problems with his footwork, and did some drills.  I taught him how to do six-count Lindy turns and how to do a Sugarpush properly for the first time.  He ate it up, and told me later how much he got out of the lesson.  It was a good lesson, but still… I felt kinda like a fraud.

See, private lessons, that’s something that pros do.  I mean, the really, really good people, the kind you have to go to Lindy Exchanges and workshops to learn from.  The stars and superstars of swing dancing, the ones who can rock your Lindy world with one well-chosen, blindingly insightful comment: they’re the people who give private lessons.  Me?  I’m the girl who teaches Swing I in a small swing scene.  I’m the one who struggles with partner Charleston, who doesn’t have the self-confidence to bust out solo Charleston unless I have a solo-Charleston circle around me, the one who’s always having to work on her frame and her balance and… and on everything.  How could I really be qualified for this?  I mean, teaching with a partner, sure, especially when my partner’s been dancing twice as long as I have, but private lessons?  No way.  I felt like any minute there would be a knock on the door, and there would be the Lindy Police, asking to see my license and registration.

Moreover, these aren’t just private lessons.  I’m hoping that Forrest and Travis (who had his lesson a few days later) will become first my demonstration partner while I teach at the University, and eventually teachers in their own right.  Right now Trey and I are teaching the University Swing Club together (we had over 100 kids the first week), but after we’ve taught them East Coast basics and a tiny bit of Lindy we’re going to split the group in two.  I’ll teach the beginners, and Trey will teach slightly more advanced stuff to the kids who’ve been dancing a little longer.  Trey already has an established demonstration partner, but I don’t, and there isn’t really anyone suitable in the local scene to ask.  All of the better leads are either already paired off with a teaching partner or otherwise not available/not suitable.  So I’m training my own teaching partner.  And yeah, that feels so weird.

I told Anna about this.  She’s the senior dancer in our swing scene and the driving force behind a lot of what we do.  She’s the one who trains new instructors (including me).  She laughed at the idea of the Lindy Police, but told me that it was going to feel like this for a while.  As long as I’m willing to ask for help when I need it, and willing to pass my students on when I’ve taught them all I can, I should be fine.  She offered me the materials she’s worked up to help train teachers, and reminded me that I can always ask her for helped.  After that I felt better, not just from knowing that I had backup, but also simply because she didn’t bust out laughing hysterically at the idea of me giving private lessons.

Maybe this isn’t so far out of my league after all.

It happens every single time. You go to a wedding. It’s a lovely wedding. You might even tear up when the couple exchanges vows. And then you proceed to the reception. It’s a lovely reception. They have Ornamental Thingies on the tables, and an invitingly large dance floor laid out in front of an impressive table full of Mysterious DJ Stuff. The open bar is flowing. Things are looking good.

Then they start playing music.

It’s all the good stuff – sappy old lovelies like L-O-V-E and standards by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. You know these songs. You dance to them every week. They’re great songs, fully of swing and sass, with killer breaks made for hitting. Your feet start to tap, your hips start to swish – it’s all you can do to not grab someone and start dancing right that instant. But you don’t. That would be wrong. The bride and groom haven’t had their first dance yet. The bride and groom haven’t even arrived yet. They’re just barely starting the warming plates to serve dinner. Dancing is a long, long way off. You grit your teeth and get a hold on yourself. You can wait. Really, you can.

At long last, after the bridal party arrives and dinner is served, after the toasts and the speeches, after the couple’s first dance, and the dance with their parents, and the dance just with the bridal party, and the dance just for married couples, and God knows what, finally, finally you can dance. You head for the dance floor, eager to flash some moves. They’re playing pop music now, but it’s marginally swingable, and all those swing songs earlier gave you an itch you just have to scratch. You look around you and discover… there’s no one to dance with. Sure, there’s lots of friends shakin’ their booty on the dance floor, but not one of them would know a swingout from a hole in the wall. If you’re a girl, you realize that you are the best lead in the building. If you’re a guy you realize that not one of these girls has any clue how to follow. Maybe there’s one or two people who kind of dimly remember that one lesson in East Coast swing they took three years ago, but that’s it. You’re dieing for one good Lindy dance (just one!), but your chances of getting that? Well, let’s say you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery, particularly since you don’t buy lottery tickets. You begin to be grateful that the DJ isn’t playing swing music anymore, and settle yourself down to an evening of good, old-fashioned, non-partnered dancing.

But it doesn’t end there. Nuh-uh. See, your friends, they love you. They know how much you love swing dancing, how crazy you are about it. They’ve had to sit through enough impassioned ravings about the nuances of rock steps and demonstrations of solo-Charleston moves. They know you won’t be happy unless you swing dance at least a little. So they ask the DJ to play some swing music. And he does. He plays one of three songs: either Cherry Poppin’ Daddies Zoot Suit Riot, the Brian Setzer version of Jump, Jive and Wail, or something by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Whatever he plays, it will be killingly fast, and there will be no one for you to dance with. But all your friends are watching, eagerly waiting to see how you’re enjoying the treat they so sweetly arranged.

So… you make the best of it. You grab that one guy who sort of remembers how to lead a couple of turns in East Coast and make him dance with you. You do your best to follow whatever he’s doing, even when he forgets the rock step or throws them in randomly from time to time, even when he almost yanks your arm off on an outside turn, even when he lets four breaks in a row fly by without even noticing they were there. You don’t even dare hit them yourself or throw in the slightest bit of styling. Anything unexpected totally throws him off. Tossing in a swivel might make him break down completely. You grit your teeth, and after a small eternity the song is done.

You walk off the floor, quivering slightly from the badness of the dance. Your friends cluster around you. “Oh my gosh!” they say, “You’re really good! That was awesome!” Words fail you. You retreat to the bathroom to try to regroup. The reception is far from over. The bar is still flowing. There’s a good hour at least of dancing still to go. Maybe it will be all right. Maybe they won’t play swing music anymore. Maybe…

So I was talking to Ilse this weekend (so good to see her, btw) about life, the universe, and everything. One of the topics we got on to was my plans for the future. I’d always assumed that I would do both my BA and MA here at UD, then go off somewhere else (possibly Boston) for my Ph.D., and then teach wherever I could get hired. It’s a good plan, but Ilse challenged me to think about other possibilities. I’ve been growing and changing a lot in the last few years, and I love my life here, but sometimes I feel a little, well, cramped. Ilse thinks the answer to this is to go live somewhere else, get my MA somewhere besides UD. I’ve been thinking a little about this, and the idea intrigues me. But… where would I go? There are so many possibilities for an MA, unlike the extremely few for a Ph.D. They’re all so tempting! Anyway, this has prompted me to create the very first ever Official Just For The Halibut Poll, a special feature where you, my dear readers, can tell me what you think I should do with my life! Enjoy…

Quizzes by Quibblo.com

It’s pretty common for dancers, when they reach a certain skill level, to start learning the opposite part: girls learn how to lead, and guys learn how to follow. It helps you appreciate the whole picture of what’s going on in a dance, understanding what your partner is experiencing. Learning how to follow can help guys be better leaders, communicating more clearly exactly what they want their partner to do. Learning to lead can help a girl be a better follow, showing her what she’s listening for. Learning the opposite part is also important if you want to be able to teach. You need to be able to explain everything that’s going on, even if you’re half of a teaching couple teaching your usual part. Often the two of you might be independently dealing with particular questions, or you might need to keep the class going in its exercise while your partner is off helping that one guy who just doesn’t seem to get it. Consequently you’ll sometimes see two guys dancing together, or two girls. It usually has nothing whatever to do with their sexual preferences. They’re just working on their dancing.

The first time I saw two guys dance together it was at a dance put on by a small college a few hours away. This was the first time I’d ever traveled to a dance, almost nobody knew me, and I wasn’t dancing much. There were a set of twin brothers in the hosting swing club, both good dancers. Towards the end of the dance they danced a song together, showing off all the tricks they knew, and occasionally bickering with one another over who was leading. It was one of the most awesomely hilarious things I’d ever seen. Their dancing was wonderful – athletic and graceful. Because they weren’t being particularly careful with their partner they went for the moves with a gusto that was amazing to watch. The best was watching their faces as they reacted to doing unfamiliar things, and as they argued with one another about who was leading. I loved it, and when they were done, applauded along with other onlookers.

Since then I’ve considered it a treat to see guys dancing together. Beyond the fact that it’s usually only the very good guys who do it (meaning the quality of dancing tends to be very watchable), guys dance differently with other guys than they do with women. They become more athletic, a little more forceful. It’s like the difference between guys playing basketball by themselves, and when a woman joins the game. No matter how much a guy may intend to treat everyone equally, subconsciously they tend to tone things down a little, become a little more gentle when physically interacting with someone they perceive as smaller and potentially more vulnerable. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a committed feminist – but to be honest, I’m rather grateful for this. There are too many opportunities in social dancing for both partners to get hurt. Guys being a little more gentle means I may still have usable shoulders when I’m fifty-five. Still, it’s always been a joy for me to see guys dancing with the gloves off, so to speak.

Two of the best leads in our scene are Trey and Rudy. Both of them have fairly distinctive styles, Trey being more grounded and groovy, Rudy smooth and gorgeously graceful. They are also the only two guys in our Lindy Hop scene who also dance West Coast. Trey knows how to follow, but he’s not super good at it. Rudy can follow like a dream. Sometimes the two of them dance together, especially working on their West Coast skills. It’s always a fabulous show, and attracts quite an audience. The onlookers often comment on Rudy’s following. I’ve heard more than one girl say she wishes she could follow like Rudy. One night a group of girls got together and decided that they should have t-shirts made that read, “I want to dance pretty like Rudy.” I thought this was an awesome tribute, and told Rudy about it.

To my surprise, he thought it was an insult. I was dense, so he had to explain. “Guys dancing with guys… don’t you think some people think it’s a little gay?” I blinked, and let that sink in. To be honest, that thought had never occurred to me, and I had to think a little to figure out why. I know Trey and Rudy. Both of them are completely, sometimes obnoxiously, heterosexual men. Both are involved in committed relationships with their girlfriends. To me they’re so thoroughly heterosexual that even if I saw them dressed in drag trolling for tricks in a city park I would probably sooner assume that they were pulling some kind of prank (or possibly in dire financial distress) than that they were gay. I told Rudy this, and the conversation ended.

Still, the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got, not at Rudy, but at our society that considers any non-violent contact between men as suspect. When girls dance with girls, it’s hot. But when guys dance with guys people doubt their manliness? That’s just wrong. There are lots of cultures where men dance with each other. Think of Russian folk dancing, with the guys doing what wikipedia calls “traditional squatwork” – that incredible kicking while sitting almost on your heels which requires such awesome balance, not to mention monster thigh muscles. Does anybody call that gay? Heck, no! So why do we have to be all hatin’ on our guys who happen to be fabulous dancers.

Hmmph.

I remember when I was first starting as a dancer, hideously insecure, longing with all my heart to be having the kind of dances I could hear in the music. I knew that it was possible to dance that way, so connected to the music and your partner, making the music come alive through the way you moved your body, through the way the two of you moved together on the floor. I watched others, the good dancers, having those dances, losing themselves in the moment, their partner, and the melody. They styled and improvised, and every once in a while threw in a swingout so pure and clean it could make an angel cry. I wanted to dance like that almost more than I wanted to breathe, and I was sure that I would never, never be that good.

When watching, I noticed that one of the ways you could always tell when it had been a really, really good dance was by the hug. The two dancers would end the song with a flourish or a pose or a dip, and hold it for a long moment as the music faded. Then the tension would be released, the partners would come out of their position with a smile or laugh, and give each other a big hug full of spontaneous affection. It was all there in that hug: the joy of the moment shared, the gratitude for the gift the other person has given you and allowed you to give them, the satisfaction of knowing that you have done something well.

I watched these dances with despair in the pit of my stomach. I had hit the point in my dancing when I started to realize how much I didn’t know, how much I wasn’t following. I was so frustrated with myself, my limitations, my body that just didn’t do what I wanted it to do. I could hear so much in the music, but I couldn’t seem to get it out on the dance floor. I felt lucky to finish a dance feeling that I had followed everything correctly. Every once in a while I got a “Good job.” or “That was nice.” I treasured those moments and kept working. One day…

Then came the first time I lost myself in the music. It was only five seconds during a rotation at a workshop, but it was… dizzying. When I looked up at my partner I saw the same half-stunned look on his face. That was when I found hope. I kept working hard, practicing, getting critiqued, taking lessons, pushing myself to get better. Then I had a whole dance like that. I can still hear the song: Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford, though when I was dancing it was almost like I didn’t hear the music, or I did, but it was as if it were coming through my lead. At the end my partner held on to me for a long moment, and we looked at each other. “That was…” he said, “that was…” and then he gave up and hugged me.

That was over a year ago now. I’ve had more dances like that since, though I’ve learned never to take them for granted. They’re rare moments of serendipity when you, your partner, and the song all line up in fleeting synchronization. But I’m no longer surprised when they come along. Last Wednesday a good guy dancer from another city showed up at our weekly dance. We had a really fun dance, playing with the music and off one another. There was styling, improvising, and fancy footwork. We laughed and had a good time together. At the end of the song he led me into a big, flourishing pose, which we held as the music faded. Then we both laughed, and he pulled me into a big hug. As I walked off the floor I realized that I’d made it – that for all of the ways I’m still far from the dancer I want to be, I’m now one of the “good dancers” I used to watch with such hopeless envy. And I have the hugs to prove it.

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