Prelude: (Feel free to skip it.)
From approximately 2004-2007, I was super into Balboa. I still think it’s a beautiful dance and I greatly enjoy it, but for the past 6 years I have not pursued it very much. I made the choice to step back from dancing, studying, teaching, and competing in Balboa for very specific reasons. Around this same era, in 2005, I co-founded Southern Belle Swing Bash with Jaya & Michael Gamble–a weekend devoted specifically to Lindy Hop followers and helping them to develop their own style, technique, and voice. As I became increasingly interested in cultivating a personality and unique “voice” as a Lindy Hop follower, I was observing fairly extreme rigidity and narrowness in what styles were valued within the Balboa community. At the time, there was extremely little leeway given to followers to improvise within their dance steps, for fear that it would “mess up” the leader. Because Balboa is a close-embrace dance compared to the open connection of Lindy Hop, this makes sense to a certain extent. But it also just rubbed me the wrong way, felt sexist, and closed off my ability to improvise and play the way I wanted to without feeling that I was doing something verboten or frowned upon–that “that’s not Balboa.” Eventually my desire for greater freedom overpowered my affinity for Balboa, and I stopped dancing it very often. (Happy-ish ending: I think that the Bal scene has become much, much more accepting of followers’ voices and additions these days. I personally think much of the reason for that is thanks to the success of Kelly Arsenault & Mickey Fortanasce, beginning with their win at Balboa Rendezvous in 2006.)
Most of what felt so discouraging to me about my experience in the Bal scene was that the overwhelming majority of international instructors had converged on one general idea of what counted as “good” (or even “legitimate”) Balboa. [Sidebar: There is certainly a valuable debate to be had about questions of authenticity versus experimentation and the plasticity of any artform, particularly a historical one. That’s not the conversation I want to have right now, however.]
In contrast to the rigidity of Balboa, I embraced the freedom that Lindy Hop represented. Lindy Hop gave me room and permission to be an individual.
The Youtubification of the Lindy Hop, Part Deux:
In my journey as a dancer, eventually I decided to stop taking private lessons. Here’s why: I decided that to become the best dancer I could be, I had to cross a threshold at which I no longer believed that some other “expert” dancer had all the answers for me. I had to go find them for myself.
In more recent years I’ve had plenty of conversations with other dancers and dance teachers getting at the question of the “rightness” of any particular technique or way of dancing and connecting with one’s partner. I recall a conversation I had with my friend Mike Roberts a few months back in which he was relaying a different conversation that he and Laura had been having with Naomi Uyama and Peter Strom, about various approaches to how the follower holds their body and how this affects turning. (Fascinating stuff, I know. #dancegeekery) Basically what it boiled down to was that Laura and Naomi held their bodies in different ways naturally, and when Laura changed how she held her body to be more like Naomi, it both opened up certain new possibilities and foreclosed others.
So, who was “right” about follower turning technique? Neither. And both.
Most advanced dancers I talk to agree that there is no one “right” way to dance the Lindy Hop–there are only choices and more or less effective strategies to accomplish your goals in various contexts. This means that how you dance personally is ultimately all a result of the choices you make and the values you endorse. Sometimes this becomes whose values you endorse–and then we get “groupies” or dogmatic followers of The Way of Instructor X.
In a small community with a tendency to put its local heroes on pedestals, this creates a problem that tends to crush individuality and experimentation. It’s called groupthink. If we still had local scenes that were relatively independent, even with this tendency in place we might still create a complex ecosystem of multiple Lindy Hop styles based on different instructors or based out of different cities–and this is, in fact, what used to be the case, as Ryan Francois points out in his recent TEDx talk. In the conclusion of that talk, Ryan laments that–along with the many amazing and wonderful opportunities that the internet age has brought to the Lindy Hop community–it has also brought a flattening out of different dance styles and a uniformity of approach that is stifling to creativity and individuality.
In my last post, I suggested that for all the benefit it brings, Youtube and social media have also helped to shift dancers’ focus to being seen, creating a hyper-self-awareness around one’s dancing that displaces our focus on living and dancing in the moment. In addition, I believe Youtube and the increased emphasis on competition and winning has contributed to the narrowing of Lindy Hop styles, resulting in the reproduction or reiteration of a limited menu of ideas on a global Lindy Hop scale. (“Surprise swingout,” anyone?)
Formerly, dancers with very different styles could still succeed and place in competitions. (Check out Evin Galang & Andrew Twiss in the 2005 ULHS slow finals for a great example of what I mean. Their style is heavily informed by the Lindy Hop history of Chicago.) These days, nobody in the finals of a major Lindy Hop competition is going to look all that much different from anybody else, for the most part. Competition culture + Youtubification = lack of diversity. Without a culture that promotes individuality, experimentation, and the pursuit of the weird or unconventional, we will seriously hamper if not stagnate the progress of Lindy Hop as an artform.
Certainly international instructors are extremely talented and knowledgeable, and many people benefit from their accumulated expertise. Like Youtube, however, the accumulation and dispersal of all that expertise has its drawbacks. Bobby White wrote an excellent post on the importance of unique and inexpert approaches to jazz art forms, and you should all go read it. I think he shows beautifully why conformity to preexisting structures and deference to established expertise can be harmful.
Youtube is wonderful and I’m sure glad I get the chance to see all of the amazing performances, competitions, and dancers that have been captured on film and posted for my benefit. Competitions and performances can be fun and represent the opportunity to showcase one’s ideas and skill on a public stage. But ultimately I want to strongly advocate that as a community we collectively turn off Youtube for a while and seriously tone down the number of performances and competitions at dance events. Let’s let our freak flags fly, experiment, and make some choices about what we, personally, as individual dancers, like and value. Let’s not allow others to dictate whether what we like is “good” or “correct.” Let’s not subordinate the evolution of our dance styles to the tyranny of competitions and the judging panel.
I’m not saying don’t watch dance videos on Youtube. I’m not saying don’t perform or compete. I’m saying look within, know thyself, to thine own self be true. Decide what you like because you like it and then go do you like nobody else can.
There is no one “right” way to dance the Lindy Hop. There are only choices. Go make some, on your own. Our whole community will be the better for it.