Is there a “wrong” way to dance Lindy Hop? (Or: The Youtubification of the Lindy Hop, Part Deux)

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.

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10 Responses to Is there a “wrong” way to dance Lindy Hop? (Or: The Youtubification of the Lindy Hop, Part Deux)

  1. Nicole says:

    Gina, I absolutely have loved this article and its predecessor. I fully agree with your (and Ryan’s) comments on the uniformity that YouTube and social media alike are impressing upon the Lindy community. My question to you is: In addition to “turning off YouTube”, how can scene leaders and “local heroes” inspire people to find their own voice and take advantage of the Lindy’s ability to be unique to every dancer?

    • dancewithgina says:

      Hi Nicole,
      Some simple methods for promoting diversity in one’s scene would be, for example, to encourage your students to take classes from other teachers than yourself. Also encouraging folks to work together on their own in practice groups or generally to feel like they are “allowed” to experiment on the social floor, even if it means “messing up.”

  2. I think generally speaking you are correct on all counts…but there is a thing that is not mentioned that I think is an important adjunct to this conversation, that is the idea of appropriation and abandonment of the art.

    At what point do you feel that a dance being done is no longer the Lindy Hop? Is there a point, or does any dance style which is done by someone who identifies themselves as a lindy hopper qualify by that association? Does the music they are dancing to play a part in this?

    When does the quest to find one’s own way become instead a break from tradition and used to elevate how one person dances to the same level as the originators and innovators of those first and second generation of lindy hoppers? If someone chooses to dance in a way that removes what are definable characteristics of the dance as done in it heyday, and claim to be doing the same dance just with different movement, technique, and repertoire, is this innovation or appropriation? Why or why not? Is there a line, and if so what is it?

    I don’t have hard fast answer for all of these myself, much of it is decided for me based on case by case basis, based on feel, with acknowledgment that much of this is a spectrum, but at some point we are dealing with a shade of red, we are dealing with a shade of yellow. I’m curious to what your answers are. I believe that one does need to find their own voice within a dance form, but I also believe that without proper grounding (and I do believe in proper grounding being a thing) rich cultural traditions that have lived for decades may fracture and die.

    This leads me to believe that there is at least *a* wrong way to dance the Lindy Hop (probably many). But the existence of one or more wrong ways does not mean there are not multiple right ways to dance it…

    Damon Stone

  3. dancewithgina says:

    Hi Damon,
    I wrote in the post: “[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.],” so I did mention it. I must confess that personally I don’t find that conversation particularly interesting, in general. I think I subscribe to the “I know it when I see it” philosophy of Lindy Hop.

    • That sidebar does touch on my thoughts, the plasticity discussion could lead to how much alteration can happen before you have a different thing, but the part of that I think is more relevant to your post is at what point does someone have a strong enough understanding of what the artform is that they are trying to innovate and self-discover in, and what do they use as guideposts and touchstones to not end up in the wilds that are non-lindy hop? The appropriation bit aligns with the authenticity statement, but I don’t see them as strictly the same thing hence my questions.

      Of course if you don’t find that part interesting either then feel free to not answer. I’m not trying to derail or challenge, just get a sense for some of the deeper thoughts behind this post. Also I am not trying to imply that you in anyway are appropriating or not doing the lindy hop. I hope nothing I said came across that way. I just like geeking out and hearing intelligent people give thought statements about things that matter.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Hmm. I wonder if George Ritzer’s McDonaldization concept would apply at all (for a super-geeky, super-academic analysis…).

  5. dogpossum says:

    This is pretty interesting stuff. But I’m not sure I entirely agree. I did notice on my flying trip to the states recently, that there seemed to be a much more blatant homogeneity in the way the American dancers danced. And it really felt and looked as though dancers were _copying_ what they saw on youtube and learnt in workshops. It wasn’t necessarily bad dancing or unfun or unwonderful. It’s just that it felt a lot less diverse than the dancing I see in Australia. I figured (using this sample of ONE and the uber useful collection of anecdotal evidence at my disposal*) that the difference was that it’s cheaper and easier to travel to learn from bigger name instructors in the US than it is in Australia.
    Most Australian dancers don’t travel overseas to dance, and when they do, very few go overseas more than once every year or two. So most Australians learn within Australia, from visiting teachers, or from local teachers. And there isn’t a huge amount of interstate travel either – very few people travel interstate more than once every two months on average.

    So people tend to take longer to absorb new learnz. We’re a bit behind international trends, and each local scene still has a very distinct style. At MLX this past weekend, it was still very easy to guess who was from which city, simply by watching them dance. And seeing what they wore. And by dancing _with_ them. Which is really what makes an exchange so wonderful – you are exchanging different ideas. More diversity = more funs.

    What of youtube? Youtube has definitely changed the way people learn and teach dance. But I don’t think it’s as influential as taking classes with real live people, or as dancing with and watching real live dancers in person.

    So while I’m seeing the influence of youtube on international dance, I don’t think it’s as influential as the having regular access to a relatively small pool of big name teachers within your own country. And then, I think that the type of teachers you have access to will affect the way you use their classes. eg if a teacher is all about individual ‘style’ and the effects of individual biomechanics, posture, body, etc, then you’re less likely to see a cookie cutter approach to teaching. As an example, Ramona’s move to Australia has had a significant effect on Melbourne lindy hop. But it hasn’t resulted in a bunch of Ramona clones – I see greater diversity in Melbourne lindy hop than ever before, in all the 15 years of my lindy hop. Because her approach is very much about finding out how _your_ body works, _not_ about recreating other people’s styles. So, in a sense, we see a ‘copying’ of this whole ‘natural movement’ approach to dance, heavily informed by tap, and disciplines and philosophies like feldenkries, but in effect, it’s resulted in greater diversity. Win.
    In contrast, if a teacher is quite fierce about discouraging their students from looking afield, to other teachers and travel and so on, then you’re going to get a more insular, homogenous dance style and culture.

    *I know. I need more evidence.

  6. jodidaynard says:

    Hey, Gina. I continue to be impressed with how articulate you are! Probably because I don’t really know you off the dance floor! But–excellent article and topic. I’m wondering whether, in the original days, when nobody really took “classes,” there was a big divide between those who danced casually and that obsessed core group who got to the point of inventing and contributing to the repertoire. Now that people are teaching swing dance, I’m thinking that follow self-expression grows and evolves with the teaching of the dance, not hanging out night after night with people you’re goofing around with. Perhaps the rigidity we both felt early on in Bal had to do with fact that the young revivalists were just learning how to teach Bal at the same time as they were discovering their own “voices.” Groups of students seem to need “trailblazers’ to let them know that it’s okay for both lead and follow to invent, and that invention was always the place where those who were truly passionate about the dance wound up. I guess my point is: once you’ve got the basic technique, why wait for someone to tell you how to fool around?

  7. Evin says:

    Great post Gina! Somehow I *just now* saw this, but it appears we’ve been heading down the same path in our dance thoughts 🙂

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