Teaching


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…

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’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.

This past Saturday I got invited to speak at a Catholic young adult retreat. They were talking about living your vocation, and they asked me to speak on living your vocation as a single person. One of the young women who invited me had heard me when I was one of the emergency speakers for Theology On Tap and was impressed with what she called my, “positive attitude.” I was startled by the invitation. I mean, I know I’m a good speaker. I have interesting things to say and I know how to state them in a way that engages and entertains an audience. I’ve done presentations for my Catholic young adult group many, many times. Still, I’m not officially an expert on anything. Of all the people that she heard at TOT (including my sister Michelle, who not only has spoken there, but MCs every series), she wanted me to come speak on being single? I was delighted to do it, just a little worried about her judgment.

It was a good talk. I talked about how I’ve come to understand my life as a single person as being a gift to the situations and people God puts me in contact with. The small group of young adults seemed to get a lot out of it. I even worked in dancing. At the end of the talk I used a basic Lead/Follow exercise from my first ever swing dancing lesson to help them feel what it’s like to follow God’s lead, and how you have to listen for it. They had a lot of good questions and comments at the end. One of the young women borrowed the reference book I brought with me to copy out a quote I’d used. It was pretty cool.

Then Saturday night I went to the regular monthly dance. About halfway through the dance somehow I ended up teaching an extended solo-Charleston lesson to some new dancers. I’m still not sure how that happened. I think I was showing Stella’s friend and Pierce something, and then this other girl started hovering on the edges trying to imitate what we were doing, and then her friends came over, and they kept asking me to teach them another move. We went through the Charleston basic, turns, fall off the log, Susie-Q’s, scarecrow, kick-overs (both with and without the repeat), boogie backs, Shorty George, boogie forwards (at which point I discovered that my main pupil was a belly dancer, which made her boogie forwards very cool – Her: “It’s like doing that figure 8 thing with your hips!” Me: “Well, that’s not standard, but if you can do it I can guarantee there will be someone watching.”), and maybe some other moves – I don’t remember anymore.

It was fun, though it did eat up a big chunk of the dance. It’s also rather ironic – I’ve worked on my solo Charleston at different points, but I’ve never been super serious about it. The serious one has always been Lucy, who actually looks cool doing the moves (rather than spastic, like, um, me), who can do the crazy moves my body can’t seem to figure out. At Boston I took a solo jazz class taught by Carla Heiney. 75% of it went directly (whoosh!) over my head. Lucy would have eaten it up and asked for more. If you want to learn solo Charleston, I would think she would be the one to ask. But no. They were asking me.

I’m happy to teach whatever I know, but… why do you want to learn from me?

So last week I started to get sick. I thought that for once I’d be good and go see the doctor right away. Usually I try to ignore it, push through, pretend that it’s just worse than usual allergies. Sometimes that works, at least for a little while. Then it backfires in a big way, I get so sick I pretty much collapse, and I have to drag myself to my Hero Doctor who makes me better. So I took a shortcut. I went to see my doctor right away, who diagnosed a sinus infection. He put me on antibiotics and decongestants. And for a while it worked.

Then it didn’t. Monday afternoon I started feeling awful. I figured it was just post-Lindy Exchange exhaustion, but that didn’t explain the sore throat that got worse and worse as the day continued. And then there were the headaches, the excess mucous, all those lovely things that shouldn’t be happening when you’re already on antibiotics. It was a little scary. Tuesday I pretty much didn’t get out of bed, and was so out of I didn’t really notice.

On Wednesday I went to the doctor again. He prescribed sulfa drugs to boost the antibiotics (which was very retro of him – Trey: “If they try to bleed you, call me.”) and even more varieties of decongestants. I came home and slept until it was time to go get my parents’ van and take the swing kids out to dancing. I taught Swing I, danced maybe a grand total of three dances, went home early, and pretty much fell over into bed. Yesterday morning I got up and felt almost normal. Well, the fact that I actually got up was pretty cool. I made tea, got dressed, and then, like a cell phone battery suddenly giving out, I was done. I was sitting on the couch about to put on my socks when I hit the wall. I just sat there for something like five minutes, my socks draped on my leg, looking at the carpet and thinking about how warm my feet would be if I ever got up the energy to put my socks on. Yeah. I took Liv to school, came home, collapsed on the couch and slept until four o’clock.

The good news is that I really am starting to get better. Yesterday evening I went to a meeting I needed to attend, and made it through basically in one piece. It used up everything I had at the time, so I wasn’t able to stay and hang out afterwards. But after a couple of hours on the couch (and after watching the first two Veronica Mars episodes with Liv, courtesy of Justin, who gave me the boxed set at the meeting) I felt well enough to actually (gasp!) do some homework. Today so far I’ve been able to make it to both class and work. Tomorrow is scheduled to be a pretty full day. We’ll see how this goes…

The good news is that when I looked out my window this morning I saw teeny tiny little new sprouts all over my vegetable patch! I planted a lot of stuff just before Easter, but it was so far past the germination dates on the seed packets that I had given up hope. I was even making plans for when I would reseed the garden patch. And then today – green! Hurrah!

Recently I was catching up on some posts on danceprimer.com, and I found the following quote in Amber’s interview with Jojo Jackson:

“I would consider my recent teaching partner, Dax Hock, to be one of the best mentors I’ve had in my career. Not only from the vast amount of knowledge he shared on and off the dance floor, but for his exceptional level of public interaction at every workshop weekend. On any given night, he will invariably be seen dancing with every single follow in the room, and if the energy starts to drop, he will boost everyone’s spirits with an all-inclusive group dance or jam session.”

When I read this I instantly thought of Sam, one of the first guys I ever danced with. He was the president of the swing club at the Other Big University in town, where I had my second ever swing dancing lesson. He asked me to dance as soon as the lesson was over, the first time I’d been asked to dance by A Guy I Didn’t Know. (The entire song he chanted, “Triple step, triple step, rock step,” and let me say, it wasn’t for his benefit.) Over the course of the evening he danced almost every dance, not sitting down until he’d danced with every girl there. He did this every night, every time he was at a dance. New dancers struggle with insecurity, wondering whether, if you go to the dance, anyone will actually dance with you. Knowing that if Sam was there I would have at least one good dance was a little anchor I could cling to, making it much easier to keep dancing through my insecurities and fears until I had a chance to improve.

Sam’s help didn’t stop there. He cared about my progress as a dancer, and encouraged me to be better. I still remember the first time he took me off to the side of a dance and told me we were going to work on this thing called “frame.” When I was terrified of being dipped, he worked with me, dipping me again and again until I started to relax a little. Other teachers have taught me more, but he was the first to care about me as a dancer.

Sam was a good lead, but more importantly, he was a good Leader. The fact that he danced with every girl at the dance is a little thing, but it made a huge difference in the club. I can remember watching a new follow leave the floor after dancing with him, looking flushed and happy, and immediately grab another new dancer, dragging him onto the floor for the next dance. His energy was infectious, and the dance floor was rarely empty. He traveled to neighboring school’s dances, and took us with him. He pushed us to move beyond the university club into our city’s swing scene. Several of the better dancers in our local scene got their start in that swing club. It was great while it lasted. Then he graduated, his successor wasn’t nearly of Sam’s caliber, and things fell apart.

It’s been a long time since I danced with Sam (the last time I laid eyes on him was when I dj’d his wedding reception), but he is still my gold standard of what a lead should be. It’s not just strength, clarity and precision, musicality and playfulness – although Sam had those in spades. It’s something more. It’s having an attitude of service, an understanding of what it takes to build up a swing community, and a willingness to do what that requires. It’s being willing to dance with the new follows so they can actually learn how to dance. It’s caring about other dancers. My ideal lead isn’t just a leader, he knows how to serve.


I have been dieing to post this for weeks. 😀 This is a rehearsal video of the routine my university’s swing club took to the Swing Smackdown this weekend.  This is the first we’ve had a swing club since the old one died out too long ago to mention. The members are almost all Freshman, and as cute as a barrel full of puppies. Really, there is no end to the cute. Every one of them just started dancing in September, but when they heard about the competition, they decided that they had to get a team together to participate. Most of these kids had never danced anywhere but the room where this video is taken, kids who had never seen a real jam circle, who had no idea what they were up against. But they didn’t care. They wanted to do something cool, make a splash, a debut that people would talk about. I think they succeeded.

Trey and Anna choreographed and coached. I helped where I could, and acted as Team Mom. The kids worked their little butts off. They had official rehearsals two nights a week, and kept calling additional practices on their own time. They amazed and impressed me so many times over the last couple of months I just started expecting to be amazed and impressed. Plus, they were so freakin’ cute! They were so fresh and enthusiastic and happy while they worked. It was wonderful.

The best part of all was watching individual dancers blossom. My favorite was Melanie, the little girl in the grey tank top and cream colored sweats on the left side. When she started dancing last semester, she was the kind of dancer you would watch and sigh, but not from pleasure. She was jerky, awkward, and couldn’t seem to hear the beat. Then she signed up for the competition team. She worked so hard, and so seriously at the beginning, concentrating so intensely it almost made your head hurt to watch. Then came the night they learned the hip hop section, with the pimp walk and the booty drop. Oh, the giggles and blushes! It took some effort to make the girls get over their embarrassment. Finally, some of them started to get into it, and then they really got into it. Little Melanie was one of the ones who was suddenly workin’ it like there was no tomorrow. They performed the section, and we all clapped and cheered. I hollered out, “And the Bernadette Award for Most Improved Booty Drop goes to Little Melanie, back in the corner! You go, girl!” She flushed all over with pleasure, and from then on, there was a joy and a confidence in her dancing that made her one of the top dancers in the routine. When it came time to pick the couples to represent the team in the Spotlight Dances, we picked her.

But it gets better. After it was announced that she and Jordan would represent the team in the Spotlight, I went over to her as people were packing up. “You’re doing great,” I told her, “but there’s one more thing I want you to think about when you dance. When you get out there on the floor, hold your head up. You are a freaking queen. Remember that. There is nothing down on the floor that interests you. You are a queen, and you hold your head up.” She seemed to understand, so I left it at that. At the beginning of the dance Saturday night, she grabbed my hand and pulled me aside. “Bernadette,” she said, “I did it! I don’t look at the floor anymore when I dance! I did it!” She was so starry-eyed and excited and beautiful. I beamed at her. “I’m so proud of you. You’re going to be wonderful.”

I can’t say how thrilled and proud my kids made me this weekend. They didn’t place anywhere in the competition, but then, we didn’t expect them to. The teams they competed against were made up of the teachers of the workshops they took that afternoon. If the final judges results were published, I think they would rank at the bottom. But that wasn’t what they came to do. They came to establish themselves, to make people to stand up and take notice that there were some new kids in town, and that the new kids were pretty cool. They did that, and they were utterly, unintentionally cute while doing so.

My kids, they’re adorable.

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