…so I think you should put some dancing in your dancing, so you can dance while you dance. (Know Your Meme)
I just got back from a fan-freakin-tastic weekend at Lindyfest/Lone Star Championships in Houston, and I’m feeling very jazzed right now about dancing. (Hey-o! Punny!) My head is buzzing with many Deep Thoughts, so I’m picking one and putting it out here for general discussion.
Painting in broad strokes, I think there are basically two things that you can be really good at in Lindy Hop: technique and ideas. The best dancers in the world are great at both. Some of the most well-known dancers and pros out there happen to be stronger at one than the other. I think “having good technique” is fairly self-explanatory. What I’m really interested in at this moment is the importance–and difficulty–of having good ideas.
I wrote a while back about how I think that “leading and following” are different from “dancing.” My joking opener to this post is a reference to that distinction. It could also be read: “…so I think you should put some dancing in your leading-and-following, so you can dance while you lead-and-follow.” Speaking personally, by this point in my dance career I’ve put thousands of hours into working on my technique, and far fewer into working on my dancing–my ideas. (Partly this is because I’m a private person.) Also, it’s way easier to work on technique than to work on ideas. You can take a private lesson or work with a partner or practice by yourself on things like connection, pulse, and weight shifts. But coming up with ideas requires creativity, and at least for me, I’m not exactly a fount of creativity on demand.
Many years ago I came to the realization that “improvising” is very much about first teaching your body a variety of movements, and then later pulling out one of those movements on the spot. So, whatever’s in your muscle memory is going to be what comes out in your improvisation. Occasionally I get new or original ideas in my dancing that seem to come out of nowhere, but this is rare, and practically as soon as I’ve danced them I’ve forgotten what they were. That tends to happen mostly on the social floor. Then there are the handful of stale ideas I’ve stolen from other people or been taught in classes that made their way into my repertoire and stuck there. (I know you know what I’m talking about… it’s when you’re dancing and you do a variation or a move and you think “there’s that thing I learned from so-and-so.”) It’s in your muscle memory, so it comes out. Having fresh ideas is really, really hard.
I also think there’s an overlap between what I’m talking about with regard to “having good ideas” and the concept of dancing with personality. There are some top dancers who, in my opinion, have amazing personality and ideas, but maybe aren’t as strong as some others in their technique. But guess what… it doesn’t really matter! Because when you watch them dance, their ideas and their personality are mesmerizing. In contrast, folks who have impeccable technique but not so much in the way of ideas can be beautiful, but a little boring to watch. Let’s take an example of the former from this past weekend: Michael Seguin.
In case you’re not aware, Michael Seguin has a huge personality. And also great ideas. But if you want to compare his technique to, say, someone like Skye Humphries or Nick Williams, I think Michael would be the first to tell you that those guys are much more technically proficient than he is. Check it out, though. Here’s Michael in the Invitational Jack & Jill dancing with Frida Segerdahl (who, for the record, has amazing technique AND ideas/personality):
Check out Michael’s idea of looking over the shoulder for Frida at 1:13…followed by the jump at 1:15. (And let me pause to acknowledge here that Frida’s dancing and following of this moment–and throughout–is absolutely virtuoso. Full disclosure: IMHO, Frida is the best Lindy Hopper alive. Not the best follower. The best Lindy Hopper.) You may have noticed that everyone freaks out after that little jump, and then the ideas just keep on flowing for the rest of the spotlight. I won’t go on with the play-by-play, but my point is that what Michael does in this spotlight is to have a lot of great ideas, rather than to throw down a bunch of pristine technique. And it’s amazing. People eat it up. (And yes, they won.)
Compare that to my own spotlight this past weekend. I’ve seen the tapes, and I realized that there is a moment that lasts exactly two seconds in which it’s as though I have flipped on a switch–my personality starts to really shine through–and then switch it right back off again. It’s not even an “idea” really–more of a moment where I start to allow myself to dance instead of just follow. I don’t think there’s a big issue with my technique in this contest, but in general my ideas and personality are somewhat lacking. (Hat tip to my partner Brooks, who was totally great and has great ideas.) Here it is–jump to 6:56 if you want to see the two seconds:
So, yeah. It’s wicked hard to have good ideas (and let my personality shine) on the spot. This weekend I also took a master class with Nina Gilkenson and Mike Faltesek in which we played a game called “Something or Nothing?” Basically, you come up with some kind of move or variation, you show it to your friend, and then you ask them, “Something or Nothing?” Simple, right? It’s harder than it sounds. But through that deceptively simple exercise, Nina and Mike helped equip me with the tool I need to develop my own ideas. If I simply take the time to work up an idea, to mull it over, to tweak it, to get feedback from other people until it’s molded into something that’s a) cool-looking, b) feels not-weird, and c) is mine, then I can put it into my muscle memory and let it come out in the form of an improvisation–an idea–on the social or the competition floor. And at that point it will stand out because it will be something that I developed. It won’t be a variation that I learned or stole from so-and-so. It will be “that thing that Gina did.”
I’m not entirely sure what other methodology to use to “teach myself how to have ideas,” so I think “Something or Nothing?” is a pretty good starting place. What about you? How do you come up with ideas? Or even: how do you practice how to come up with ideas? (Michael Seguin, tell me your secrets!!)
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I really enjoyed this thought-provoking post! I struggle with the exact opposite dilema…too much personality/zany attempts at fun and unique “ideas,” not enough focus on technique/connection in my partner dancing (or, technique in my own solo dancing…I’m SO guilty of “not dancing while I’m following!”). Recently I’ve come to accept that there really does have to be that solid groundwork of technique in order for the ideas to shine fully, so perhaps you can take comfort on some level that you have achieved the prerequisite to your ideas being fully realized!
You bring up such an interesting question…how do you bring forth new and fresh ideas in your own dancing? I am by no means and expert but here are a couple suggestions that have worked for me or others I’ve talked to:
1) Try the “Yes, and” Improv approach, with yourself or a partner. I read about this approach in Tina Fey’s book Bossypants (read more here http://thinktopia.com/2011/04/29/tina-fey%E2%80%99s-4-rules-of-innovation/). Maybe create a safe space with a partner or just yourself in order to say “yes” to whatever crazy idea comes into your head, and then say “yes, and” to build off it. I think too often our inner critic says “no” to an idea that maybe isn’t perfect in itself, but might have transformed into something great if we had just given ourselves a chance to build on it a little longer. I don’t have the attention span to choreograph many long routines but I’ve done a bunch of 30 second showcases, and that approach has worked pretty well…plus, a side benefit is that it facilitates harmony between you and your partner since you’re saying “yes” rather than shooting each other’s ideas down 🙂
2) I haven’t tried this myself but I’ve heard many fellow dancers swear by trying different dance forms, from African dance to ballet. Conceptually, I can see how trying different dance forms can shake you out of your “normal” set of moves and spark some new ideas. I saw your hip hop performance in the post you linked to – it was awesome! Maybe do more different dances or put on the music you loved as a child/teenager (assuming it wasn’t swing) and get some inspiration from that.
3) This is probably mind-numbingly obvious, but a great source of “ideas” can simply be the person you’re dancing with at the moment. That’s where I usually go to when I feel stuck or in a creative rut.
I’ve taken to focusing elements down to really small mechanics and rudiments rather than moves or combos. It’s so easy to take a class and just integrate a combo as taught into your “bag of tricks,” but most of the time it won’t flow right with the music, and it will never become your own. It’s like trying to learn a new language a sentence at a time.
Learning “moves” helps a bit more, but you’re still limited to the idea that move is expressing. You also have to make sure all the elements are just right (handhold, momentum, slot, etc.) before you can start it. That makes it really difficult to have your ideas flow together. Taking this approach is more like learning a language one word at a time. It’s doable, but if you want things to be flexible you’re going to have to hold too much in your head.
By dealing in rudiments, (following our analogy, this would be comparable to learning the various roots, prefixes, and suffixes in a language), you’re able to come up with new moves and combos on the fly. You also start to see connections between moves so that as one area of your dancing improves others benefit as well. You begin to see that a reverse swingout has the same elements as a left side pass and a send-out. Chaining these ideas together is seamless because you’re dealing with the pure mechanics of a move rather than just some choreographed item in your muscle memory. It doesn’t matter if you start from open or closed, normal handhold or cross-hand, 6-count or 8-count. This is a huge boon for being able to improvise when the muse strikes.
Hey Gina, if you want to learn how to study coming up with ideas on the fly systematically, I’d totally recommend taking an interest in long form improv comedy. I had exposure to it before I started dancing, and I think that’s why the ideas side of things has always come more naturally to me. The concepts need to be translated from a verbal language to a kinesthetic language, but they still work.
A good place to start: