Do Your Thing. (A Brief Rant)

I haven’t posted a dance blog in over 2 years. I’m comfortable with that. I’ve developed a different relationship to dance in my life, which hasn’t really prompted me to participate in the same ways as I did before. Hence, not so many blog posts. I was pretty busy with other things, like starting my own company (and then closing it).

Yesterday I gave a private lesson. I like to open every private lesson by asking the student what their goals are. Why have they asked me for input? What is that they want my help with, exactly? I don’t take it for granted that I know what a person wants for their dancing, and I don’t expect that I know better than the person themselves what they “should be working on.” So I ask. This student (a follower) wanted to improve her ability to improvise and express herself, among other things.

In the course of our conversation, the student revealed that a well-known and respected international instructor, who is a man and a leader and who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, told my student not to add so much styling and improvisation to her Lindy Hop.




Yeah. So he told her basically to stop DANCING so much, and focus instead on FOLLOWING.

Can you feel the flames on the side of my face? Have we not been here before? Did I not explain this whole situation YEARS ago?

What the heck is the point of dancing if not to dance? To create your own ideas! To express yourself joyfully, exuberantly! The notion of anyone telling another person not to DANCE quite so much just fills me with righteous indignation.

Since I already wrote that blog post (seriously, go read it), I’m just going to add one point here.

The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem opened in 1926. The Great Depression lasted from 1929-1939. People went dancing during the original swing era because their lives were difficult, they were facing racism and poverty, and spending a night out dancing their cares away was one of their few opportunities to briefly escape their worries and troubles.

I don’t know if you noticed, but things aren’t looking so good these days. People need dance as a joyful outlet more than ever. So even if they’re in your class, even if they’ve asked you for a private lesson, even if within a specific context it would be better just to do basics so we can work on something particular for the time being, please never ever tell anyone, in words or in facial expressions or in morse code, to just tone it down a bit on expressing themselves.

Dance because it’s fun, not because it makes you feel expertly skilled at something. Make yourself have fun when you’re dancing. Do cat impressions. Whatever makes you smile and laugh.

If you’re not expressing yourself and having fun, what the heck is the point? </rant>

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2014: My Best Dancing Year Ever

2014 was the best year I’ve ever had in terms of my dance life.  I got to collaborate with so many amazing people, pushed myself to new creative heights, did better than ever before in competition, and on the whole just squeezed a whole lot of joy and excitement out of dancing.  I don’t think I can put into words what this year has meant to me.  So instead I’ll summarize some of the highlights, chronologically, in video format.  I hope you enjoy sharing in these joyful moments with me.

Midwest Lindy Fest show, Tranky Doo performance

Midwest Lindy Fest Jack & Jill: 1st Place

Lindy 500 solo comp: 1st Place

Montreal Swing Riot Invitational Team Battle: 1st Place vs. Street Dancers

Montreal Swing Riot Short Showcase – my first solo performance ever

Montreal Swing Riot Advanced Jack & Jill: 1st Place

Montreal Swing Riot Couples Battle: 2nd Place (this is one of the prelim rounds)

Hot Damn Damsels debut performance


Hot Damn Damsels “Nuts to You” in Houston

Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown Battle: 2nd Place (this is our first semi-final round)

Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown Chorus Line – The International Rhythm Revue

The Parish Festival “Hold No Patience” music video with the Hot Damn Damsels

“Hal Yeah” performance with the Hot Damn Damsels

Excited to continue growing as a dancer and collaborating with friends in 2015!

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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.  Continue reading

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How Moving to Austin, Texas Transformed My Experience of Jazz Music

In late February of this year, I moved to Austin, Texas: Live Music Capital of the World.

We are fortunate to have an amazing dance scene in Austin.  The Fed, our weekly Thursday dance, takes place in a beautiful mansion and regularly draws 200 people a night.  And yet, the Fed is primarily a DJ’d dance.  There is one other “regular” Lindy Hop night in town, which takes place one Saturday per month (Engine Room).  That dance features a live band and no DJs, meaning folks have to socialize and talk to one another during the band breaks.  (What a novel concept.)

So with one DJ’d dance per week and a once-a-month Lindy Hop night with a live band, how can Austin’s dance scene really be that special?  Here’s how: the city of Austin has a legit live music scene.  Meaning, we can go listen to actual swinging jazz, played by real-live musicians, many of whom are full-time professionals, who book gigs at regular old bars and clubs around town.  These occasions are not “Lindy Hop dances;” they’re public entertainment venues where Lindy Hoppers go to hear the music they love to dance to, played by working musicians and bands.  There aren’t regularly set nights for this because it all depends on what the bands’ schedule happens to be.

Austin dancers are spoiled rotten on account of the live music scene here.  It’s a peculiar thing, because these gigs take place in venues that have crappy concrete floors, lots of tables and chairs in the way, and drunk pedestrians wandering in off the street taking up dance space right in front of the band.  In fact, imagine dancing to a live band in New York City with a bit more room to move and you’ve pretty much nailed it.

We go out despite all those annoyances because dancers here want to dance to live music.  We are fortunate to have a number of amazing local bands, including my personal favorites, Thrift Set Orchestra, Jonathan Doyle Quintet, and Cats and the Canary, among many others.  This is the first time I’ve lived in a city where the musicians playing swing jazz are as serious about their music as the Lindy Hoppers are about their dancing.  Everybody here knows what’s up and is honing their respective craft, and it’s amazing.

Even better, the dancers really, really appreciate what they’re getting from the musicians, and the musicians love having the dancers at their gigs.  This is a virtuous circle, a thriving and harmonious ecosystem of musicians and dancers supporting one another.  I’m going to guess that the only scene that likely has it better than we do is New Orleans, and even then I’m willing to bet we’d give them a run for their money.

One result of the whole situation is that since moving here, I’ve made friends with some of these musicians, and that fact has completely transformed the way that I think about the music now.  Before befriending lovely folks like Lauryn & Ryan Gould, Jonathan Doyle, David “Jelly” Jellema, and Hal Smith, the music I danced to was very remote from me.  It was simply “the music that I dance to” and if I associated a name with it, like Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie, then maybe I’d think of that famous name that I knew when I heard the piano or the vocals or a particular song of theirs, and I’d vaguely think how great it must have been to dance to them “back in the day,” but that’s as far as it went.  It wasn’t until I met, spoke to, and got to know the individual musicians in our local bands that my experience of the music really changed.

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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.

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