The Youtubification of the Lindy Hop

Recently I had a brief conversation with a prominent Balboa teacher who also dances Lindy Hop, in which the person claimed that “Lindy Hop has become all about pageantry.”  When I asked what that meant, exactly, they explained by saying that 10 years ago, if you asked a beginner or intermediate dancer what their goals were, they were likely to say something along the lines of, “To have great social dances with people of all levels” or “To be able to follow anything that’s led on me.”  Whereas today, that same beginner or intermediate dancer is more likely to say that their goals are “To join a dance team/troupe,” or “To do a performance,” or “To win in a competition.”  Furthermore, this teacher claimed that even social dancing is now often about dancing “for those three people watching” rather than for one’s partner.

I must say that on the whole, I agree with this assessment.  Dancers’ goals seem to have shifted over the past decade in a way that reflects a shift in values or emphasis in the scene.  I believe the evolution of dance events away from exchanges and towards competition/workshop weekends is further evidence of the trend.  It’s exceedingly rare these days to attend a dance weekend in which there is not a single competition or performance.  “Pageantry,” or the desire to show off and been seen, has definitely wormed its way into the heart of the contemporary Lindy Hop scene.

Of course, Lindy Hop has always celebrated performance and competition.  Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers produced many amazing performances for both live audiences and movies, which is why we benefit from the chance to see them dance on film in “Hellzapoppin,” for example.  The Harvest Moon Ball and competitions at the Savoy, like the one for which Frankie invented the first air step, prove that one-ups-manship and a competitive spirit have been part of Lindy Hop from the get-go.  However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Savoy would have still been packed with dancers every night of the week even if there had never been any performances or dance competitions.

Thinking over this change in the scene, I’ve come to believe that much of it is a reflection of a larger societal shift in how we interact with and perceive one another thanks to the ubiquity of social media.  Everyone knows that the self we pretend to be on Facebook is the best, most attractive, fun-loving, accomplished self we can be.  In fact, many see our societal obsession with Facebook as evidence of a general trend towards narcissism.  My hypothesis is that Lindy Hop has become sucked into this trend, as well.  As one of my friends put it when I suggested this idea to her, “Yeah.  If you aren’t Youtube-able, no one really cares about your dancing.  Because who are you?”

These days, Youtube footage from any major competition will often be available for public consumption before the event is even over.  This means that when you enter a major competition, you know in advance that whatever you put on the floor will probably be seen not only by the judges and the audience gathered there, but likely will be posted online and seen by Lindy Hoppers halfway across the world.  Of course, there are great benefits to this.  I get to enjoy watching dancers from Korea, for example, do amazing things that otherwise–unless I flew to freaking Korea–I’d never get to see.

But I’d argue that the “benefit” of insta-Youtube is much more about the sense of self-satisfaction that one gets from knowing that one’s hard work and performance will be propagated so widely.  Every time one performs or competes and there’s a camera present, which there virtually always is, it raises the specter of self-aggrandizement and ratchets up the pressure to do something that’s really worth watching.  If you lay something down that’s amazing, again and again, the possibility for you to “be somebody” in the scene is accelerated massively by the exposure that you receive through posts of your performance to Youtube, which are then shared on Facebook or highlighted in dancers’ personal blogs, etc.

Furthermore, the immortal nature of anything posted to the internet increases the pressure for anything that you do in front of a camera to be your best possible performance.  Many of us know the humility that comes from seeing a video of yourself dancing many years ago when it’s clear how far you’ve come since then.  And while the video evidence of that progress is rewarding in its own way, I’m sure many of us would prefer everyone to forget that we ever danced so poorly.  Or at least for that video evidence to quietly disappear from Youtube.

I believe our contemporary 21st-century tendency to want to curate our most attractive online selves, combined with the wide reach that Youtube and social media provide and the ubiquity and immediacy with which video is shared, all combine to create a massive pressure-cooker that encourages people to devote increasingly more time to preparing to be seen dancing.  Hence we practice and develop a choreography with a team for 6 months out of the year, or finish one performance at one event and shortly thereafter feel we must start over immediately and develop a new one, because everyone will now have already seen the old one, even if we only actually performed it once.

The tendency to identify ourselves with the online self that we craft and curate for social media and the internet is so strong.  We share every mundane second of our lives online, posting status updates and Instagrams and Vines about everything we do.  Ultimately, I believe it’s robbing us of the freedom to just be in the world without reflecting on how we will look or how others will perceive us.  To be concerned about what others think is simply human, for sure.  But if we allow that concern to grow too large, we wind up living our lives constantly preoccupied with how we look, instead of fully living into and appreciating the moment.  When we continue to allow Youtube to dominate our dance scene, to force dance events to take up social dancing time with competitions and performances, we start to lose the opportunity to just focus on the music, our partner, and the creative joy of sharing a dance with another person.

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12 Responses to The Youtubification of the Lindy Hop

  1. Lauren says:

    I have just nodded in agreement through this entire post! I particularly appreciated the way you articulated the final point, that the focus on a appearance means we risk losing the ability to enjoy dancing in the moment with our partner. I’ve never been particularly interested in competing myself, preferring instead to focus on having more great social dances. At the same time though, I rely on Youtube and other online videos and social networks to maintain a feeling of connection to the global scene (I’m in NZ) so I’m a bit torn. For me the ideal would be to see videos of social dancing in non-performative contexts, but seeing as that would be impossible as people might still “perform” for the camera (the observer effect), I’ll settle for some sort of teleporter so I could just be there to participate in person…!

  2. I can agree with this to the extent that I have also seen a shift in dancer priorities, and I can feel it in their connection (or lack thereof, either physically or mentally being present with me in the dance). I think the benefits of YouTube have far outweighed the downside – there are so many inspiring performances that I now get to see (over and over, if I want), which I could not see 15 years ago unless it was on the MTV movie awards or Turner Classic Movies. Had I known what could be and been able to see more performances that could motivate, inspire, and teach me, I’d probably be a better dancer than I am today, or at least the learning curve wouldn’t have been so drawn out. I agree with Lauren, as well, that being able to spread the visibility of the swing dance community is also a benefit. As always, everything in moderation…I’m glad you posted this, though. It needed to be said, if only to open up a dialogue concerning those people who focus too much on being seen – even if there is some connection, it’s still almost like dancing with yourself/being dragged along on their ride if they aren’t engaged.

  3. swingnlindy says:

    There is no footage of candid social dance shots from when Lindy Hop began. All of the footage we see is when a camera is known to be there. And as anyone knows having a camera changes the way you dance… Youtube broadcasts many more and newer videos then what was done in the past (Obviously) but it does not mean it is doing anything new. I think the mentality is different now. There were ALWAYS competitions in the Savoy, at the Renny, etc. There were “corners” where the best dancers danced and people watched/studied in those venues. Frankie Manning was very adept at picking up something quick and then quickly making it his own. That’s how this dance grew, there has always been a level of one-up-manship that pushed this dance further and further during those days. NOW more people are turning to youtube to learn the newest move but not necessarily creating anything new. More and more videos on youtube,seems to imply less and less original style and flare. I would argue that mentality of our Lindy Hop world needs to adjust to not look at instructors as gospel and instead allow everyone the chance to add to the Lindy Hop vernacular. In essence those wonderful men and women who created this dance did so in the Jazz Age. They (Dancers and Musicians) had the mentality that if you are copying someone you ain’t doing it right. Unfortunately, we ain’t in the Jazz Age. We do not mind copying people flat out…(How many Skye’s are out there right, now?) I think in so far as we are Lindy Hoppers, we should ALWAYS have the mindset to do something new with any tools we see or learn from other teachers. That will help push this dance further. I do not blame youtube. This dance always had a performance element to it, which of course, entails people be watching.

  4. Owen Hortop says:

    It’s funny, after seven years of dancing I watch so few videos on YouTube compared to so many of my friends. I feel that my dance is intensely personal, and peppered with both my own ideas and the things that my teachers said or did which inspired me deeply. I don’t have the bug for watching other people dance on video unless I’m looking for inspiration to knock myself out of a run. Live is a different matter, but even then I watch performances and competitions more out of respect than fascination.

    Until I find someone who’s got the same body type as I do, and/or the same sense of humour, I don’t think I’ll be trying to replicate stuff that other dancers do. Seeing it once to get the gist of it (oh really, a syncopation at that point in the movement? might be worth a try…) is plenty. What the top Lindy Hoppers in the world do right now is beyond amazing, but I want to avoid the temptation to imitate… so I don’t drown myself in other people’s ideas. Ever tried to hum one tune while another one is playing? Inspiration comes in the absence of input, for me.

    I think that in terms of performances and flash, learning to copy a move is a great shortcut… and I’ve been on troupes, coached, and done performances before, so this isn’t meant to judge anyone, working a choreography is always going to be that way… but for social dance, I personally think that we’re missing out on getting to know our own bodies and letting a style develop naturally when we work too hard on looking like the greats. That’s the biggest difference between the old-timers and most of us today: we imposed their movements on our bodies. They blended their bodies with the music.

  5. Chris says:

    I agree that social media has definitely created a culture of narcissists. That said, I am in the camp that the You Tube age of Lindy Hop is by far a positive thing. In my own personal experience video break downs, competition videos, performances have all had some effect or another. Whether that’s helping develop vocabulary, or improving connection through alternative, national input, or being inspired.

    As far as it’s impact on social dancing? It would be interesting to see (hard to go back now), how people ‘felt’ as modal dancers in the mid 90’s to how the modal dancers ‘feel’ now. (note I refer to math mode of the highest occurring value in a subset). I would guess it has improved, but that is just a guess.

    Lastly though. It has been indisputably positive in the fact that it has helped grow the dance. Or at least been an invaluable tool to do so. Before YouTube one had to really plan ahead to get people to “see” the Lindy Hop. Whether that was convincing them to come out, or sitting them down to watch an old movie with some Lindy in it. Now I can simply whip my phone out and cue up something inspiring.

    Has it had some draw backs? Sure.

    But has it had a largely positive effect? Absolutely.

  6. Manu says:

    I think Gina should have written Ryan Francois’s script for the TEDx talk he did a while ago about the internet and its effect on Lindy Hop as a social dance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3W2A_qifVpU

    Nice post, Gina.

  7. Pingback: Some thoughts on social dancing | Bozeman Swing

  8. Gregory Dyke says:

    I’m kinda puzzled by all this.

    I *do* see a lot of people wanting to perform or teach or be famous or whatever. But I especially see people who want to dance and have fun. There are some local scenes where part of taking classes is performing or being in a dance troupe or competing, but as near as I can tell, they are in the minority.

    I also agree that, for some reason, many organizers seem to view competitions and performances as a super important part of a weekend.

    But I don’t think youtube or the internet has anything to do with. For over a century now, there has been the increasing possibility to “be famous”, to perform in front of people, or win a world championship. Maybe what has changed is that the type of person who is drawn to fame, performance or competition is now more attracted to Lindy Hop than they used to be – possibly because the internet contributes to publicizing. Social Media has not created a narcissistic society; a narcissistic society has revelled in the opportunities given by Social Media.

    Although I disagree with the claim that it’s related you youtube, whatever the actual reason, I think it’s important to foster a culture of dancing for oneself, for ones partners and for the music, before dancing for other people; to focus on being rather than appearing.

  9. Sarah C says:

    For the last few years, I’ve been very isolated from any dance scene. For me, the constant and complete stream of event videos has been a comfort. It helps me feel more connected to what’s going on, and experience some dancing when I otherwise can’t.

    However, the pressure to provide high-quality, polished routines and high-quality polished video seems to have excluded the type of videos that always moved me!

    I remember the GOD BLESS AMERICA Tranky Doo routine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMZinEZvbAA It was grainy but it felt like NOW. The performance felt impromtu, it was RAW OMG, it had such personal energy. That affected me in more of a way than modern, polished, beat-by-beat synchronous Tranky Doo routines.

    I also see the new young dancers and realize they’ve come into Lindy Hop in this environment. For them, perhaps, this is normal. And it feels like it may be creating a generation that does, like you say, prioritize being watched, being seen, and being perfect! When all we see are examples of polish, fine, perfection, what must we think about our less-than-perfect social dancing experiences. And for me, less-than-perfect social dancing is what Lindy Hop is about. Performances and contests are secondary (not unimportant, just secondary).

    I advocate for balance, I guess.

  10. Pingback: Is there a “wrong” way to dance Lindy Hop? (Or: The Youtubification of the Lindy Hop, Part Deux) | Dance with Gina

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