Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Archive for March, 2013

Making Better Use of Your Lats

It’s another one of those often used, but tough to execute, pieces of advice, “use your lats.” I hear it a lot in the swing dance world and in the fitness world and while it seems to be a simple idea, many people struggle with it. Often, the issue is not that the lats aren’t active, but that other muscles are preventing the lats from fully activating. So here’s a quick run-down on how you can gain better access to this muscle.

lat-extensionWhat are Lats?

Just a quick definition for those of you unfamiliar with them, your lats, or latissimus dorsi, are the main power muscle involved in retracting the arm from an extended postion.  So if you are is out in front or above you (flexion) and you want to pull it into back towards a neutral position by your side (extension), that’s the job of the lats. The lats are also used for a few other movements but pulling in (extending from flexion) is a primary issue in dance and athletics.

Extending to Activate

When attempting to engage their lats, most people (and most of their instructors, coaches, trainers, etc.) try to go at it directly. “Find your lats and squeeze them” can work, but most people struggle with this version. I have found that taking a more 3-dimensional, indirect approach helps many people to more effectively engage their lats, allowing them to get greater power and range of motion out of the muscle.

The basic idea is to think about expanding the muscles of the anterior (front) chest and sides (pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and serratus anterior). Instead of focusing on your back and trying to squeeze from there, put your attention on the front of the body and allow the chest muscles to expand as you pull. Rather than initiating from the back, imagine the force starting from the chest and wrapping around and under the armpit and through to the low back. As you do this, be aware of the head and neck which have a tendency to push forward in response; keeping the head upright will help the chest to expand, enhancing the engagement of the lats.

wide-lapels-bow-tieIt also helps to work on keeping the space around the clavicles (collar bones) spacious and wide.  Imagine wearing a jacket with extra wide lapels that extend into the space of the shoulders.  The more the shoulders settle wide and back, the more it will help you to engage the lats when using your arms.

Why Extension Helps

The rigors of modern life (computers, driving, etc.) frequently put us in an arms forward position for extended periods of time. This means that their chest muscles are often stuck in a contracted position. As a result, many people become habituated to a posture that involves some level of collapsing in at the chest.  So when they attempt something like a lat pull or retracting in from extension, the anterior chest muscles tend to stay contracted.

metal-pulleyThis contraction of the front muscles causes an inhibitory effect in the lats. This response, known as reciprocal inhibition, causes muscles with opposing actions to be prevented from contracting at the same time. Similar to how you can only move a pulley rope by pulling on one end at a time and allowing the other end to move, a joint only moves effectively when muscles on one side expand, giving the opposing muscles room to contract. By focusing on expanding the chest, you allow room for the lats to contract and prevent the reciprocal inhibitory effect.

Beyond Just Lats

This expansion tactic can be used to aid in movements throughout the body. By lengthening the antagonist muscle to a movement, you can provide more space for the acting muscle to contract, adding to both potential for power and mobility. The more you work with activating your body in a 3-dimensional fashion this way, rather than isolated muscles, the more freely you will be able to move across all your joints. So the next time you are having trouble executing a motion, try finding the opposing muscles and allowing them to expand, using space over effort to move.

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Video

Jamming

This is a really well put together video on jazz as a metaphor for sex and using lessons from musical jam sessions as a way to inform how we approach sex.  Anyone who’s been in my classes for very long knows that I use dance & sex as crossing metaphors a lot.  So, to me, this video makes perfect sense for dance as well.  You get better with practice (both solo and partnered), just because you danced once doesn’t mean you get to dance every time, and it’s not ok to force a move.

This ties into something I’ve been noticing in dance lately too that people seem to think social norms don’t apply just because someone agreed to dance with them.  For instance, it’s generally considered not ok for me to berate a woman into doing something for me, yet I’ve come across plenty of leads who seem to think it’s ok to just crank up the power if a follow doesn’t do what they expected on the first attempt to lead a move.  I think the more we view music, dance, and yes, sex, as a collaboration instead of a give and take, the more amazing things can happen.

And perhaps my favorite idea in here is that pleasure is a renewable resource. 🙂

No Dancesplaining, Please

scolding_child

Dancesplain

  1. To provide negative, and typically unsolicited, feedback to a dance partner with an attitude of superiority. Can be given on or off the floor by men or women and conveys that the recipient of the feedback is the sole cause of any problems in the dance.
  2. The gender-neutral equivalent of mansplaining in a dance context

This past weekend, I was teaching a beginner Lindy workshop with my partner, Lindsay. About halfway through the class, she leaned over and whispered to me “there are a lot of guys telling the follows what to do, can you say something?” I got on my soap box for a minute, made a little speech about it, and class moved on. But given the number of times someone has mentioned something like this to me in the last month, I figured it was worth putting into post form.

Let me preface this by saying I do not think this behavior is limited to men. I have seen women do the exact same things in a dance, and other contexts. It just so happens that I have heard complaints on at least 4 or 5 separate occasions in the past month of leads, without establishing any permission, telling follows they are doing a move wrong. I will give some benefit of the doubt and say that this may sometimes be people thinking they are being helpful, but it’s rarely as helpful as they think it is.

And a caveat, the following ideas should be superceded in cases of physical danger.  If someone is hurting you, you have every right to tell them without asking permission and if they don’t listen, I believe you have every right to end the dance immediately.  That said, there are still more and less effective ways to have that conversation that will be discussed below.

The Issue

I think there is an underlying fallacy that “If I know better than my partner, then I should help by telling them they are doing it wrong.” The problem with this is that it assumes you are doing things perfectly. This assumption is just inherently incorrect, you can always do things better. And the better you do something, the more naturally it sets you partner up to do their part better. For instance, I spent years watching body flight (ie. continuing momentum) be drilled into dancers and thinking it was just something follows had to be told to do. In recent years, I have started to recognize that there are ways to follow through that even most complete beginner follows interpret as “keep going.” If I hadn’t continued to refine my leading, I would have just kept assuming that every partner I danced with would have to be told to travel through. It reminds me of something Michael Mathis had said to me years ago, “I find that as I become a better lead, my partners just seem to magically be better.”

One_way_signsIn addition, immediately blaming your partner builds a wall between you. Rather than two people having a conversation, things become a lecture. And the typical accompanying tone of these lectures is scolding. When you tell someone, unbidden, that they are doing it wrong, you break down the partnership and lose out on hearing what your partner has to say.

I find blaming your partner and teaching on the floor tend to happen more often with dancers (and teachers) who have stopped growing. If you are a very predictable lead, your regular partners knowing your moves can make it easy to think that you have totally nailed leading them. And if you are a follow with the attitude of “I can follow perfectly if I have a good lead,” you may not notice that those good leads are making a lot of subtle adjustments to make the dance work with you. Both of these archetypes place blame squarely on their partner and, in a sense, minimize the importance of skill in their own role. Approaching  dance with this sort of attitude turns it into a binary system of “one person is right and one is wrong,” with a corrolary of “I always do it right, so guess who the wrong is…”

The Underlying Issue

Similar to mansplaining, I think the underlying issue here is abuse of a power differential. That is to say a perceived difference in skill (I’m the better dancer) is used to keep the other person down (You’re doing it wrong) rather than help them to be on the same level (could you try this, I would appreciate X, etc.) The sad part to me is that it happens often enough around me that it made sense to come up with a word to shorthand it. I have had follows come to me saying they had 6-8 guys in a night tell them they are doing something wrong. And before you think this is limited to bad dancers, I’ve seen rockstar dancers treat their partner or students similarly at times too.

I think the core of this is typically that when something doesn’t work, the conscious mind goes into overdrive trying to figure it out. The job of the conscious mind is to parse things down and put them in boxes with labels. A couple of the more readily available labels for problem situations are me/them and right/wrong. Since it doesn’t feel good to put the wrong label on me, we look for somewhere else to put it. Having someone dancing a different role right in front of us makes it that much easier to slap the “wrong” label on them, saving the embarrassment of putting it on ourselves. What we forget in doing this is that partner dancing is not just a me/you dance, but it’s an us dance and if we start using me/you labels, then we break the us. And in breaking the us, we often end up giving ourselves permission to crap on the newly labeled them.

Creating a Better Way…

So how can we move towards creating a shift? When I look at how mansplaining is being approached, I mostly see a continuation of the us/them mentality. It’s easy to lash out and call a dancesplainer an asshole and perpetuate the cycle. It is challenging but potentially much more productive to address the issues in a way that leads back to an “us” solution. With that in mind, here are a few communication skills I think are particularly effective in enhancing my own learning and effectively communicating with dance partners when there is an issue.

Look to Yourself First

One of the most effective tools for advancing my own dancing has been the idea that I can always do something better. As I lead, I look for where I may be miscommunicating or temporarily stopping/losing communication with my partner. Early on it was easy to get so wrapped up in what I was doing that I had no spare attention for my partner. The more I have worked on finding the holes in my connection, the more it has also made me better aware of what I am actually leading versus what I assume myself to be leading.

The same things goes for following. “He’s not leading it,” is legitimately true sometimes, but it also can become an easy out from figuring out how to connect better. When I’m working on following, my general goal is to work on sensitivity and reaction. If a move isn’t working, I do my best to follow what I perceive in the lead so that we can get a sense of where things are breaking down. The same way I have found holes in my connection as a lead, I’ve been able to find and improve on my communication as a follower by focusing on what I can do better first.

I try not to think of things in dance as your fault or my fault. In a sense there is only our fault. Looking to what you can fix first is not a matter of taking blame, but rather looking for what you can contribute to improve the situation.

Establish Permission

It’s generally kind of shocking to be dancing along and have someone, out of nowhere, tell you you need to fix something. Not only that, but it can easily shatter whatever happy bubble you’ve had yourself in, which has a tendency to piss people off. So even if your intent is to be helpful, unsolicited feedback often raises the fight or flight response and runs a risk of coming off as an asshole. We all blurt things out occasionally, and I know I’ve had occasion both to irritate and be irritated by friends when one of us just assumed feedback was welcome. It can help a great deal to find ways to prep for feedback and allow it in without breaking the happy bubble.

Both as a teacher and as a student, I have found it is often really helpful to approach first with a question along the lines of “Can I make a suggestion?” If he or she says “yes,” then we can proceed to having a discussion about it. If he or she says “no,” then I keep my opinion to myself unless that person is causing serious harm (in which case I might have led with something more direct like “I need to talk to you”). The act of asking for permission can feel a tad cumbersome but it respects the other person’s boundaries and gives them a moment to adjust to a state of readiness to hear feedback. It is the dance class equivalent of inviting someone to a performance evaluation rather than barging into their office and telling them they need to shape up or ship out.

Use Positive & Open Language

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

“You’re doing this wrong,” is a rather unhelpful statement and has a strong tendency to make the recipient feel lousy. It also introduces a level of certainty into the conversation that very few of us can truly live up to. Again, the conscious mind looks to be able to slap a label on something, but if you convince yourself you already have it figured out, then you shut down the opportunity to learn. Instead of approaching with a “You are/aren’t doing X,” wording, you can open a dialogue by describing what you feel or simply expressing that something doesn’t seem to be working. “I feel like we are losing connection here” or “I think we are are behind the beat” are far more friendly wordings that invite your partner to explore the issue as an equal.

If you approach things as equals then you can give feedback as a potential experiment rather than a command. “What happens if you lean back more?” is a sentence full of possibility and potential avenues for learning. “You need to lean back more,” shuts down the possibility that anything other than your idea could be correct. When you use an open question or statement, it creates space for both you and your partner to learn together. When you make a closed statement, you not only are shutting down your partner’s opportunity to explore, but you are effectively saying you have nothing to learn from the situation.

Building Something Beyond Yourself

We all dancesplain occasionally. I’ve certainly done it and times and had it done to me. The world we live in is rife with opportunities to make one group right and the other wrong. But when we do this, we drive a wedge between ourselves and our partner. Judgmental feedback can cause people not just to take issue with us, but to fear judgement from every lead or follow they dance with. If you want to help your partner grow, then help them to feel safe and free to play and grow and you will reap the rewards of having great partners to dance with. And if you can’t say it with respect and love, then please don’t say anything and ask for help from someone more skilled in giving feedback, because the fear of judgement has a far more potent effect on most people’s dancing than any bodily technique point you can offer them.

In the last two years I have talked to a lot of long-term intermediate/advanced dancers and noticed a great trend towards self judgement and less talk about loving the dance. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think the more we treat each other with respect and love, the more the dance will grow. If we treat each other with judgement and fear, noone’s going to want to dance with us. That said, I’d like to leave you with a talk from one of the great lovers of this dance, Dawn Hampton (click the link below to hear Dawn deliver this as only she can):

I really want you to love the dance, to love the music, to love yourself. The only thing that I can say to you is when you get out on the dance floor, is let go.

The Power of Reflective Practice

Lodge_cameraIt’s an idea many of us have heard or even expressed ourselves in learning to dance: it’s important to tape yourself. While it’s an easy concept to understand, I have never seen it illustrated so clearly as I have recently with a couple of new students. Working with them has been a great education for me in seeing how powerful the idea of taping yourself can be.

Dr. Lodge McCammon and soon-to-be-Dr. Brandy Parker joined my classes at The Lindy Lab about 3 months ago. Lodge is an educational expert who helps teachers flip their classroom and introduce the idea of Reflective Practice to student’s learning skills. The essential idea is to tape yourself performing the skill or talking about the material you are studying and then review the tape of yourself to connect with your own progress.

3 Weeks

Lodge and Brandy started with one Lindy class on their first week and were pretty much hooked from the get-go. Lodge has described it to me as finding something he feels like he should have been doing all his life. After the first week, they upgraded to an unlimited class package and were practicing, like most beginning dance students, based on feel alone and occasionally going dance.  After 3 weeks of that and a total of 13.5 classroom hours, they decided to tape themselves for the first time and posted this video:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvpHSRz8Mks]

It was after this first taping that they realized that Lodge’s work with flipped classrooms and reflective practice could be applied to their dancing as well.  Following the taping of this first video, they began spending more of their practice time taping and reviewing their dancing.  Lodge has said that this taping was actually a great tool for building confidence as he found his taped dancing looked a lot better than he would have expected it to.

6 Weeks

A few more weeks passed and we were into the Christmas break.  Lodge and Brandy were stoked to keep learning so we switched to doing a couple of private lessons to bridge the gap until January classes.  At their request, we taped the entirety of each private lesson and Lodge and Brandy would review the lesson later, practice a bit, then send me a video talking about what they were working on before the next private lesson (Click here for an example recap video).  They have both commented that these videos were extremely helpful, noting that they often picked up some major concepts from rewatching the videos that had not landed for them during the lessons.

After a few more weeks of dancing and about 5 hours of private lessons, Lodge and Brandy recorded and posted the following video, dancing to a tune they wrote and recorded by themselves.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrmdY61haFw]

For a difference of 3 weeks, the shifts in fluidity and energy are pretty impressive.  They also changed where they were dancing because we figured out that Lodge was originally ducking his head a lot to avoid hitting the ceiling fan in the middle of the room.  My favorite thing about this video is that at 6 weeks, Lodge and Brandy’s own creativity and personality are already coming out in their dancing.  The choreographed break away parts are things I hadn’t taught them, so it’s awesome to see them already starting to show off their own ideas.

At this point, Lodge and Brandy asked me to add that teaching style has had a lot to do with their ability to integrate reflective practice into the growth of their dancing.  In the past year or so, I have focused classes on first principles of motion with an emphasis on encouraging creativity, musicality, and general experimentation with one’s own motion.  Lodge and Brandy both feel that emphasis on creativity and personal experimentation have helped a great deal in inspiring them to move forward in their dancing and to try mixing in their own educational models.

10 Weeks

January group classes were a bit more Charleston heavy and Lodge and Brandy took everything again.  They also had one extra private lesson with me and one from Nelle Cherry while she was in town.  At this point, they’d taken on a lot of information and were spending more time on integrating, so towards the end of 10 weeks they were starting to slow down on classes and ease up on practicing a bit.  At about the 10 week mark, they recorded another original song and posted this video:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLhpToLgxkU]

I think it’s best to let the last video speak for itself.  Especially in comparison from Week 3 to Week 10, the difference is really impressive.  Working with Lodge and Brandy has inspired me to start taping myself again and to get a camcorder setup for the dance studio to make this kind of practicing available to other students.  If you are interested in learning more about Lodge’s work on education and practice, check him out on facebook at FIZZ Education.

This Music Sucks: Personal Movement Style in Dance Music Appreciation

SwingSucksAlbumCoverI recently DJ’d a 20’s themed holiday party where my partner and I had been hired to teach a Charleston lesson and follow up with 20’s music, eventually transitioning into modern pop music. Due to a  few delays, and performances running long, we were eventually asked to scrub the lesson and move straight into playing music. Within the first song or two of 20’s music we immediately had people coming up to not-so-subtly ask when we would start playing modern music. The subtext of the request was pretty clear “We think this music sucks.”  We scrambled a little bit, threw on some club type music and the once empty floor was suddenly packed.

The variety of perceptions people have for the same tune was always been intriguing to me. It amazes me that someone could love the Cupid Shuffle or hate Jumpin’ at the Woodside. I was aware that I started dancing liking Neo-Swing but as my dancing grew I started to prefer first groove, then vintage, but I didn’t have a solid reason why. I’ve heard some great talks on this subject, from a musical perspective, by DJ and historian, Kyle Smith, and I’m in absolute agreement that there are a lot of factors to how we perceive music. For this post, I wanted to pick out one that I see as a particularly strong influence in what people will or won’t dance to: their own default movement.

All of us have our comfort zone and at the center of that comfort zone is our default. If we count ourselves off, we each tend to count off at a certain speed, syncopate a certain way, use a particular energy, etc.  If every song sounded the way that default song does, we would kill it every time we hit the dance floor.

Of course, not every song fits our comfort zone.  The vast variety of music defies our comfort zone, falling somewhere away from our default towards uncomfortable, or even inaccessible territory.  And this is where I think a breakdown occurs for a lot of people.  When the music no longer supports the way your body wants to dance, you have two choices, recognize the limitations of your body or blame the music.  I think the common “I don’t like this music,” is often an indication of people choosing the latter.

This isn’t to say that all music preferences are based in this, but whether or not the music supports your movement is something I don’t see many people pay attention to.  So in an out of sight, out of mind sort of way, it makes it easy for our comfort zone to flavor a lot of our stated musical tastes.  If your movement and the music don’t have a common thread to them, it begins to make dancing feel like an inappropriately soundtracked movie scene.

From the musical side, this is how I tend to approach things when I am DJing and want to fill the floor regardless of what music it takes (as opposed to wanting to play within certain genres).  I watch the way people move, particularly when they aren’t dancing, and try to figure out what would make an appropriate soundtrack.  I think most DJs do this to some extent when they talk about reading the floor.  Coming up with someone’s soundtrack is just one of the ways I conceive it and a way I have found translates well when helping new DJs develop their own feel for the floor.

Sometimes the music is just bad.  But most of the time, I try not to be like this guy.

Sometimes the music is just bad. But most of the time, I try not to be like this guy.

As a dancer, I certainly have the option to just stick to my guns that X music sucks and not dance to it.  But I would prefer to dance more and dance better to the music I already like.  So from that perspective, my goal becomes expanding my movement repertoire and getting better at moving based on the music rather than moving based purely on my preexisting habits.  It can be a challenging process at times, but I find a great deal has opened up in my dancing as I developed a willingness to move with the music and move to more types of music.  Here are a few things that helped for me:

Stop and Listen

One of the things that locks us into old patterns is jumping the gun because we feel like we have to move immediately.  When they connect with a partner, most people will start in dancing almost immediately because waiting could create the dance equivalent of an uncomfortable silence.  Starting simply with pulsing to the music and letting the music fill that silence does a lot, both for the musicality of the dance and for making the partnership feel like you are on the same page.

Move By Yourself

In dance classes, when I put on a swing song and ask people to move on their own, inevitably, some percentage of the class will start doing nothing but 6 and 8-count footwork in place.  The whole of the music is there for the taking but they have become so deeply patterned that the first instinct is to do something completely by rote.  As you spend time just getting used to moving alone, you can put more focus on deepening the relationship between your body movement and the music.  The stronger that relationship gets, the more you will be able to take it back into a partnership.  This tends to involve a lot of trial and error and may be uncomfortable at times, but the dance rewards are well worth the effort.

Find Transitions

If I’m DJing a mixed genre night and I want to go from funk to charleston, it would be a rather jarring transition in most cases to do so in one song.  If I find an intermediary song or two that allows me to shift the genre over time rather than a straight change, the energy of the night can be maintained and dancers are better primed for the genre I’m heading towards.  The same goes for your body and your own dance development.  Knowing where you are and working towards other styles of movement piece-by-piece allows you to make use of the resources you already have.  If you like dancing to neo-swing and want to get a feel for vintage, try starting with neo, moving to more modern swing bands, and then working your way back to vintage music.  Whether or not your dancing “feels right” to the music or feels jarring will be a good indicator of when you’ve got it and are in a solid position to expand your comfort zone further.

So the next time you think the music sucks, take a minute and consider how your dancing may or may not line up with the music.  You certainly don’t have to like anything you don’t want to, but if you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone you might find that you can enjoy dancing to something that didn’t grab you at first.  And if you’re of the “I’ll dance to anything” variety, you can use the same tools to deepen your connection with a variety of musical genres and find deeper inspiration in the music.  Whatever your choices, just keep in mind that your musical taste is often as much or more about how the music makes you feel than it is about the music itself.  And whatever makes you feel like you want to dance, start there, and you can use it to grow beyond.

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