Learning through Play, or How the Damsels Saved Themselves

As you may know, in February of this year I moved to Austin, TX.  I’ve already written about how fortunate I feel to be part of the scene here, for many reasons.  On the down side, however, our scene is also rather follow-heavy, meaning there are usually a lot of followers (who are primarily ladies) hanging out on the sidelines during any given dance because there are not as many leaders to dance with.

This imbalance has prompted more women-leading-women than I’ve generally experienced in my dancing life, which is fun, allows for interesting swaps of the lead back and forth, and encourages me to practice my leading skills.  It also means that I’d not infrequently find myself in a corner dancing solo jazz next to some other ladies.  I used to really cultivate that practice, but over the years got out of the habit and haven’t really put much emphasis on my solo dancing in a while.

Long story short, I was super psyched about being in Austin with all these great dancers and wanted to get involved in a group project.  There was a proverbial line out the door for followers wanting to join the local Lindy Hop team and–see above–not enough leaders.  I decided to turn lemons into lemonade, and that is how the Hot Damn Damsels were born.  (Or the Hot Gosh Darn Damsels, if you don’t like curse words.)

Having an all-ladies jazz troupe is very trendy right now.  ULHS just had its first chorus line competition this year (which I competed in).  Seems like every week I get a Facebook invitation to “like” a ladies’ jazz group page.  I’m very hip to what’s cool, is what I’m telling you. (No I’m not, I’m cranky & old.)  The Damsels are a bit different in mission than some of the other troupes.  We’re explicitly not trying to be historical or draw intentionally from old footage or classic jazz movements.  We sort of got together just to try new things and push ourselves out of our comfort zones.  We made our team slogan an echo of Austin: “Keeping jazz weird.”

Over the past 9 months that I’ve been dancing with the Damsels, I have learned so much.  That’s really what this post is about: what I’ve learned from the Damsels.  The thing is, what I’ve learned would take up much more space than a single blog post format really allows, so for today I’m going to stick to highlighting four things I’ve learned about practicing and save the rest for future posts.  (Coming soon: “What We Learned from Performing with 3 Different Live Bands.”)  Okay, here we go.  Takeaways:

  • Dancing in front of a large mirror for one hour per week makes a huge difference.

This is so simple, but it is the truth. I’ve seen myself on video and that has sometimes shaped how I’ve tried to change my movement, but there is truly no tool that is more helpful to a dancer than a big ol’ mirror and time spent making shapes in front of it.  Our weekly practices at the studio have had such a huge return on time invested due in no small part to the immediate feedback that the mirror provides.

  • It is really hard to allow yourself to look and feel “ugly.”

(I have written about this before.)  The thing with creativity and making art is that to do something new, you can’t just keep on doing the same old stuff that already looks and feels good.  Which means trying out new ideas and shapes, many of which will be bad.  I’ve had a TON of terrible ideas that I have tried on/out during Damsels practices.  Not gonna lie, sometimes it’s real painful to see myself reflected back in that mirror.

Here’s the thing, though.  I’ve got 3 friends and co-creators in the same room who are all working on the same thing, going through the same experience, and they are invaluable sources of support and encouragement.  When I say “uggggh, I hate what I’m doing,” they tell me to keep going.  It really helps.  Sort of like getting in an extra rep or two because of your gym buddy yelling you encouragement. (#brolife)

And another thing: Looking “ugly” doesn’t always have to be an in-between stop on the way to something polished and nice.  It feels a little like pushing against an unspoken standard in the Lindy Hop community, but sometimes we put things into our performances that explicitly aren’t meant to look pretty.  Maybe we just did it because it was fun, or funny, and also fit the music.  I think of the beginning of our “Hal Yeah” choreography as one of those moments.  Sometimes we refer to it as the Muppet shake.

  • Sometimes you have to just try things and keep at it even when it doesn’t feel like it’s working.

Once we had a practice in which we explicitly said we wanted to work on formations and transitions between formations.  So we set about trying to figure out how to practice that.  “Umm, what if we make a diagonal line, and then we try to make a circle?”  “Okay, let’s try it.” It was very inexpert and awkward, and sort of felt uninspired and like we weren’t really getting anywhere or accomplishing what we wanted.

Eventually, though, as we were continuing to practice this concept of transitions and formations, we just started paying close attention to one another in the mirror and moving into new formations without ever explicitly talking about what was happening.  And it looked AWESOME.  It was magical, really.  But it didn’t start happening until the very end of practice, after we’d already put in maybe 45 minutes of strained awkwardness.  So, sometimes the thing is to try and keep trying, and if you’re lucky and don’t get in your head too much then sometimes it ends up morphing into what you were hoping for, even though you didn’t really know at the start exactly what that looked like.

  • The most fulfilling practices are the ones where we don’t accomplish anything.

This was an unexpected realization.  When we first started dancing together, our practices were just opportunities to work together and, you know, practice.  We pretty quickly transitioned into choreographing for performance, and now have done three different performances, so these days non-choreography practice is the exception rather than the rule.  But we’ve found that the first practice back after a big performance is often really, really fun and fulfilling.  There’s no agenda, there’s nothing that has to get accomplished, and instead we can just focus on being creative, dancing with each other, and having fun.

It seems a bit silly to say so, but after 15 years of Lindy Hop, it’s been refreshing to be reminded that dancing is supposed to be fun.  I don’t always have to look good or try to have the best ideas or the best connection or the best lines.  I can be silly and do the running man or the Roger Rabbit and shake my whole body in a circle and sometimes THAT IS MORE FUN than making up the coolest jazz step you’ve ever seen.  The Damsels have helped me to cultivate a “beginner’s mind” where I feel that the possibilities are wide open and I’m in the moment, enjoying it, rather than in my head, trying to think of something cool I can do.  (Doing the running man is really fun–I recommend you try it.)

I think I’ll close by sharing a story of the impact that our practices have had on one of our members.  A couple weeks ago, Samantha told us that she had an experience recently of finally dancing “like herself.”  Formerly, she’d always felt that she was somehow trying to dance like someone else or attain a certain kind of look.  But now–thanks to the Damsels–she felt that she’d discovered what it meant to dance like Samantha.  That is what we are about.

Keep your jazz weird, my friends.

The Hot Damn Damsels

The Hot Damn Damsels sometimes pretend to be cats, just because.

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This entry was posted in Deep Thoughts on Dancing, Gender & Dancing, Hot Damn Damsels. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Learning through Play, or How the Damsels Saved Themselves

  1. Hal Smith says:

    The Hot Damn Damsels are my favorite dance group, and you inspire us musicians!

  2. My head nearly exploded with all of the follows in Austin my first time dancing at the Fed but been wanting to come back more regularly but yes to all of these points.

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