Lindy Hop


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…

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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…

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.

A few weeks ago I skipped the Study Days right before Exams to go to the NE Girl Jam up in Rochester.  I had an utterly lovely time not only dancing, but completely ignoring my impending finals.  It was great.  I learned a lot, not only in the Class of Five Million Swivels (the girls were doing them in lines across the floor while the guys made jokes about zombie swivels), but in all the classes.  I came away with lots and lots of ways to dress up my Lindy basic, some killer Solo Jazz moves, and a few good reminders about basic Lindy frame technique (information which, ironically, I first learned in a Westie workshop).  Since I came home, however, opportunities to put my new skills into practice haven’t been as abundant as I would wish.  It’s been a little sad.  Here I am wanting to glitter, to shine, to show off all the cool new things I know, and my leads haven’t really been giving me the chance.

Then last night I danced with Pierce.  He’s not a hugely imaginative lead, although he has nice connection and is learning how to hit the breaks.   Also, he lets me have room to play, which I appreciate.  He’s still learning, so he doesn’t have a lot of moves he can lead comfortably.  This means we ended up doing a lot of Lindy basics.  I loved this.  I got to go through pretty much every variation I learned at Girl Jam – the six different kinds of swivels including the backwards swivel, the kicky 6-8 variation, the ronde’s, plus my favorite slides.  It was wonderful, particularly since it was a bouncy, bluesy song just made for swivels.  I even hit a thing in the music dead on with this leg variation on the 7-8.  I was in heaven.  Pierce liked it too, making appreciative noises, and giving me a big hug when we were done.

As I was leaving the floor, Trevor came up, one of the young college kids I’ve been nurturing along.  “Wow, Bernadette!” he said, “You were tearin’ it up!” I laughed, and accepted the compliment.  Then he asked me to dance.  I had hoped that I would be able to throw in some of my fun stuff since he had particularly liked it, but this time it didn’t really happen.  Part of it was that he doesn’t know how to give me the connection I need to make a lot of those moves work, but the other part was that he hardly led a single Lindy basic the entire dance.  He was leading turn after turn, the same four or five turns that make up his basic repertoire.  Plus, like a lot of newer leads, he sometimes didn’t let me stay out for the whole eight count of the move.  I think they get nervous when the girl’s out there away from them, and pull her in early, making the 1 on 7 or 8, or even 6.  So in order to be ready to do whatever he was going to lead, I had to let most of my stuff go.

Later Trevor and I were talking about his dancing.  He has plans to work hard on it this summer in order to wow the rest of the swing club when everyone comes back in August.  He said that he’s especially frustrated because he doesn’t know very many moves.  He feels like it must be boring to dance with him because he doesn’t know very much.  We discussed a few ways he could learn more moves and combinations (taking the Wednesday night lessons, coming to Practice Session on Sunday, seeing something cool on the dance floor and asking the lead who did it to explain it on the sidelines), and then moved on to other topics.

Later I was thinking about what he said.  His complaint is very common with a lot of beginning guys.  They get bored with the same four or five turns, and want to learn more moves.  They want to expand their dance vocabulary, and sometimes develop insecurity complexes about girls getting bored dancing with them.  Part of the answer really is to learn more moves, but part of it is also getting over themselves.  Yes, only knowing a few moves can be boring, but only if the dance is really all about the lead.  The dance in general is very lead-centered, but I think guys get fixated on the idea that they’re the only one who can make the dance fun.  They’re the ones who have to lead cool stuff, they’re the ones who have to listen to the music, they’re the one who has to show off what an awesome dancer they are.  They forget that there’s someone else out there on the dance floor with them, someone who is equally capable of listening to the music, someone who could maybe take those three or four moves and turn them into something spectacular… if they get the chance.  When the lead thinks the dance is all about him, he’s not dancing with his partner, he’s just showing off.  (What makes it worse is when he’s not even showing off for the person he’s dancing with, but for someone else on the sidelines, or for the imaginary audience in his head.)  And that’s when it’s boring.

Last night I got back from the Boston Tea Party, the highlight of my dancing year. And, friends, I have danced with John Lindo. If you recall, that was on my list of Things To Do Before I Die. It’s been there since I discovered West Coast Swing a year and four months(ish) ago. The clips of John dancing with Blake Hobby and Deborah Szekely were instrumental in making me fall in love with West Coast. Last year at Boston Tea Party I asked him to dance, but it didn’t work out. I’d been waiting a whole year for another chance. It was worth it.

See, every time I’d ever seen him dance, whether on a video or in person, not only was he a fabulous dancer, but the girl he was dancing with looked like she was having the time of her life. She looked like she felt beautiful and sexy and honored by the gift of his full attention. I wanted that, particularly at a time when I left the floor after the majority of my dances feeling like a complete failure. Those days are mostly gone, but I still wanted whatever it was that I saw in those women’s faces. Now I know why they look that way. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so taken care of in a dance before, and so appreciated. Every tiniest styling I did got reactions of approval. I’ve rarely laughed so much just from pure delight. It was wonderful.

I also danced with Peter Strom, which was wonderful in a different way. I had seen him dancing in the Superstar competitions last year, and though his dancing was pretty darn sweet, it didn’t occur to me that I might want to dance with him. Then this year I discovered the Crossover Room, where they play music suitable for both Lindy and Westie – mostly the groovy, Motown music I adore. He was one of the main DJs there, and sometimes came out from behind the table to dance with people. His dancing looked like so much fun – groovy and bluesy in the very best sort of way. Early on Saturday night, while the crowd was still thin, I diffidently approached the table and asked if he would be willing to dance with me. He said yes, that we could take the next one, that he would pick a good song. I smiled and retired to the sidelines to breathe. And then the next song came on and we danced. I’m not sure how to describe it. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a lead being so completely in control of the dance before. I loved it.

It’s always a little risky asking one of the Superstars to dance. You could have the dance of a lifetime or you could … not. For example, on Friday night I asked one of the other Superstar West Coast instructors (who shall remain nameless) to dance. I had been watching him for a little while, and it seemed like he was having fun. The instant I touched his shoulder and asked him if he would like to dance, however, all the life drained out of his face. He nodded politely, but the expression on his face said, “Oh, great. This clueless unworthy peon is making me dance with her. I hope I can get through it without catching her cooties.” I immediately knew I had made a mistake, but hoped that maybe he would be pleasantly surprised.

So we started dancing, and from the first beat of the song, he was entirely disconnected. He stood there and led one basic, baby move after the other, with no hint of styling or musicality, just going through the motions while he waited for the song to be over. There was no opportunity for me to show him what I could do, and he wasn’t paying attention enough to have noticed if I did. It sucked. Plus the dance floor was really, really crowded. Since he wasn’t actually watching me I didn’t feel like he cared whether I collided with anyone else or not. There were several close calls, making me more and more nervous as the dance went on. By the end of the dance, I was so tense that when he finally did lead something a little complicated, I missed the lead entirely. I did not miss, however, the expression of disgust on his face. I think it’s safe to say I’ll never dance with him again. I don’t think I’ll ever take one of his classes again either.

Still, for the chance at another dance like the ones I had with John or Peter? Yeah, I’ll risk it.

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