Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Archive for August, 2015

First, Make It Not Suck

The title of this article is my Rule #1 that I give new dancers who are worried about being desirable to dance with. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you have to be a great dancer to be fun to dance with and, in my experience, it’s simply not true. Some of my favorite and memorable dances are with total beginners who were just having so much fun that they couldn’t be bothered to worry about whether they were doing it right or not. I generally tell people that if you can make the dance not suck, then it’s already in C+/B- territory and anything beyond that is gravy. And making it not suck is typically as simple as the following three factors.

It Sucks If It Hurts
It Sucks If It’s Creepy/Threatening
It Sucks If There’s a Weird Power Differential

Generally speaking, if it doesn’t suck it’s pretty good. You can be off-time, you can only have 2 moves, etc. and you can still be plenty enjoyable to dance with. I tend to remember this best from a friend in tango who put it as something like “Sometimes it’s great to just walk”. To be clear, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have dances that suck once in a while, but if you keep these three things in mind, I think you’re already ahead of the game for being a delightful person to dance with.

It Sucks If It Hurts

no-painThis one seems simple and obvious, but it’s amazing sometimes how easy it is to forget. I see a lot of this as stemming from “I have to get the move right” style thinking with dancers, really at any level. Trying to forces moves or movements runs a high risk of doing something that doesn’t jive with yours or your partner’s body and worrying about making the move work or end a certain way lends itself to forcing it. Yes, it’s lovely to hit that 32 count sequence just the way you thought or simply finish a basic turn on time, but doing so at the expense of your body or your partner’s body kind of ruins the moment.

I work with this in beginner lessons by building moves off of natural movement and teaching the dance with people moving together throughout rather than dividing leads and follows, teaching them a specific movements separately, and then pushing them back together and expecting them to suddenly match each other. While it can be more complex learning this way, it focuses the learning on partnership instead of individuals and helps make lead/follow interaction the primary energy of the dance rather than footwork. If people are thinking about their feet first, they tend to lose sight of the fact that there’s another person attached to them. If you focus first on that human interaction, it’s much easier to avoid hurting each other or be aware of it and shift when it happens.

And to be clear, this can happen at any level and with both genders. I regularly hear complaints about painful leading from several male instructors in my area and I’ve chosen to stop dancing with one female instructor who routinely gripped my hand so hard that I would worry about having to work with it the next day. Pain or comfort are achievable at any level of dancing, choose comfort.

It Sucks If It’s Creepy/Threatening

no-creepingIn the context of dance I think this mostly translates to “don’t assume you have the right to anyone’s body, time, or social interaction”. It’s easy and rather enticing to say things like “the boundaries are just different in dance” but I believe this often gets taken as “the rules of engagement around consent are different too”. The act of dancing with someone is just as much a negotiation as any other social interaction. The more it’s a balanced interaction where “no” is treated as a completely legitimate answer, the less likely this is to be an issue.

Again, I think this boils down to making the interaction human first and dance second. It’s easy when you’re in a new social environment to start to compromise on boundaries, particularly if you’re worried about seeing the other person on a regular basis. This may be different in other scenes, but I think the influence of Southern culture in my area means you often see people avoid challenging the few creepy apples at a dance because they would rather put up with the behavior than deal with a potential conflict. I don’t think there’s some singular right answer to this, but as we as a society are starting to talk about boundaries and consent more, I hope to see these conversations start happening one-on-one in the dance world more and hopefully enough of those will lead to some really great shifts.

It Sucks If There’s a Weird Power Differential

power-differentialThis is probably the most pervasive but also the most subtle one and therefore easier to overlook; enough so that I spent most of a year saying the first two make it not suck aspects before I thought of this. As much as we love to talk about equality and togetherness in the dance scene, there can also be a lot of hierarchy at play, partly real partly in our own heads. When you set up a perceived power differential between lead and follow or experienced dancer and newbie it makes the dance more about roles and less about humanity. It also makes it much easier for things like dancesplaining to occur and for dancers who feel they are in the less powerful position to be less likely to hold their boundaries if one of the first two ways of sucking occurs and less likely to speak out for what gives them joy in the dance.

I had lunch a couple days ago with a former dance student and we got talking about the challenges of this when he was a beginner. Now, for context, this is someone who routinely speaks in from of large groups of people and performs original songs in public; I consider him to be incredibly brave, creative, and very willing to engage with the challenges associated with growing in any skill. He told me that he found there tended to be two types of dancers offering him feedback as a newbie, those who’d ask if they could make a suggestion and others who would launch unprompted into critiquing his dancing or telling him “you know what you should do…” Watching him talk about it, I could even see his body shrink in on itself as he talked about the second type and the memory of being criticized.

Don’t get me wrong, criticism and understanding what and how to do things better is an important part of growing as a dancer. However, there’s a time and a place for it and more and less effective ways to communicate these concepts. I see lots of “better” dancers telling newer dancers what they should do without realizing that they are presenting the information in a way that widens the gap between them rather than bridging it. Ineffectively worded or improperly timed feedback like this tends to create a subtext messaging of “It’s not OK for you to be new or learning; you should be better” and even without poor feedback this is the sort of message that I see a lot of people telling themselves.

It’s normal for there to be a difference in experience, you just don’t have to turn it into a difference in power or value. Feedback can be a tool to raise people up but it can also be a tool to bludgeon them into being less than. And again, this can happen at any level; there are several instructors in my scene who I routinely observe and receive complaints about dancesplaining through entire dances on the floor. When you drive this kind of wedge between yourself and your partner, it pretty much kills the team vibe of a dance partnership and turns it into two lonely people holding hands and doing moves at each other.

If It Doesn’t Suck, It’s Generally Pretty Good

There’s an old Woody Allen joke that pizza is like sex “Even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good”. While I like the idea of the joke, I think it’s a bit off the mark. I look at it through a bit more of a lens of pizza or dancing or sex don’t have to be the most amazing pizza/dance/sex I’ve ever had to be good, but if something sucks there’s almost an addition of insult to injury that makes it all the worse. Having recently had the worst Chicken and Dumplings of my life a couple weeks ago, I can say that, like most comfort foods, when it’s decent dance is kind of inherently good, but if you make it terrible it will irritate people enough that they’ll shut down from you, talk about it to their friends, or post about it on the internet.

At it’s core, partner dancing is a shared experience. So long as you aren’t doing any of the above and putting your partner or other dancers around you on guard then it becomes easy to step beyond our standard social boundaries and create a shared experience. If the dance turns to suck in one form or another, then those boundaries tend to harden into barriers and both partners (and the floor around them) lose out on that social interaction.

Making it not suck also frees up a lot of energy and attention for learning. When something sucks, and even when it’s just a sucky feeling of your own creation through self-judgement, there is so much time and energy spent by the mind in either defending or reinforcing that sucky feeling that much less learning/growth occurs. When it doesn’t suck, there’s a lot more room for empowerment, for focus on the task being learned, and while not always completely safe there is a lot more safety available to take the risks and push into challenging territory that growth and learning requires.
dont-hurt-them

And the TL;DR version of all this, summed up much more succinctly by the Dalai Lama: “Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them at least don’t hurt them.”

 

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Stepping Away from The Lindy Lab

About a month and a half ago I ended my tenure running a dance studio and one week ago I finished cleaning out the office at The Lindy Lab. It was a dream I’d had for about 10 years and 3 years ago got the chance to try making it a reality. The greater reality turned out to be, not so much a nightmare, but more one of those weird confusing WTF dreams that just leave you questioning your own brain and feeling like you may not get back to sleep that night. So I’m moving on to other pursuits and wanted to put together a post to share my experience so I can close out with friends and community on why I’m doing this and hopefully express something that may be useful to future folks walking a similar path.

TL;DR version: I took a moonshot on setting up a studio to try and spark transformation in my scene and found I couldn’t create or gather enough support or buy-in to make the idea sustainable for myself. After watching my own energy flag for close to two years, I chose to get out before I soured on dance and did my best to leave the scene with a great space to create in.

What This Post Is and Isn’t

This will be, to the best of my ability, an honest telling of why I chose to move on. It was, in many ways, a difficult tenure and a difficult decision to leave and I don’t want to candy coat that. I also want to be clear that in trying to speak truthfully about my experiences, I am, for the most part, at peace with the past on this or actively working to making peace with it. There were a lot of frustrations and results that I will likely never fully understand the “why’s” but I have plenty of responsibility in that as well. I’m grateful that I got to take the chance I did and humbled by what I learned from it and will try to cleanly communicate both the positives and negatives that lead to this course of action.

Backstory

I’ve been dancing in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill swing scene since 2002. I grew up in this scene, took lessons from just about anybody and everybody who was teaching and grew immensely as a person through dance. I found a love of body mechanics in dancing that lead me into my career in Rolfing which, in turn, deeply affected my teaching. I had a longer term vision of buying an old church to forge a mixed-use space to house both my Rolfing practice and some sort of dance/movement space. The Lindy Lab at Triangle Dance Studios was a way to test the concept in a rental situation before I considered buying a space. It was also intended to be a space for growth, creativity, and exploration in dancing which I felt had never been strongly offered in this area since I started dancing.

Creating a Space to Support the Dance

I’ve written before about the difficulties I had with the studio build. But suffice to say in the course of about 2 months I spent probably $10k and 400 or so hours of my own time plus a lot of friend’s man hours building a space to raise the level of ambiance for our scene. It has significantly raised the bar for the studio that owns the space and nudged the owner to take some steps to improve all the other studio spaces there. I hear from the studio owner that people rave about the studio but really nobody seeks me out to say thank you and there seems to be a general lack of care from other renters and dance scene for trying to care for the space. People tend to break things or move things out of sight and make no effort to replace or even note that they have broken things. It has helped me understand why the studio owners tend not to go all out on their spaces and the past year I’ve had the refrain of “this is why we can’t have nice things” in my head more times than I expected to. While I’m happy for the improved spaces for the scene and proud of what we built, it ultimately seemed like people responded to a different space a bit, but not enough to affect their behavior towards taking greater care of the space.

Teaching From a Radically Different Head Space

To put it succinctly, I have taken a fundamentally different approach to teaching dance than any other instructor I have seen on the swing dance world stage. I took my training as a Rolfer and developed a way to help people find dance in their existing movements, using what they already know and treating dance as inherent rather than something that must be taught. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of faults as a teacher and I believe that pretty much every teacher out there does something better than I do. But I built my teaching to provide a base that would allow people to travel and learn readily, giving them a “first principles” base of knowledge to be able to fill in the gaps from things other teacher don’t say (or don’t know to say). I tended to receive comments from students who traveled that they rarely encountered an international teacher saying something about mechanics that they hadn’t heard from me already and I’d taught it more succinctly and accessibly.

Lack of Return Students

The response to classes was a somewhat baffling combination of intense appreciation coupled with lack of attendance. While I consistently received praise for the style of teaching and was told it made the dance far more accessible or made people comfortable in a way that nobody else had, such statements also frequently came from people showing up once and never returning. I also encountered a number of people choosing to take from an instructor who was closer even if they felt they got less from that instructor. I’ve been over this many times with friends and fellow dancers and we’ve never really been able to determine if people couldn’t tell the difference in the quality of material or simply had other priorities or goals. But frankly it was disheartening to find myself teaching someone how to do another instructor’s material without it hurting them or their partner (when prior instructors had just shrugged at or been completely oblivious to the pain) and then have those students just head back to previous instructors. I had some really great engaged students 2-3 years ago, but somewhere in the past year and a half that seemed to disappear and a sustained lack of excited students eventually wore down my excitement for teaching.

Did Not Play Well With Other Instructors

I had high hopes going in but found it pretty much untenable to work with any other local instructors. Where I had expected collaboration I more often ran into passive-aggressive silence and where I tried to show respect to former teachers I mostly saw them reference me as someone they taught, oblivious to the fact that I spent the middle 5 years of my dancing career unlearning habits from them in order to be the dancer I am today. Suffice to say I’d seen some of the drama and instructor bullshit coming up in this scene and had hoped to change the conversation. In the course of several years, I feel like was wholely unsuccessful and ended up being just as bad. Some of the standard instructor power trips in the dance world are hot button issues for me and I hoped to set an example or talk to other instructors in a way that would help, but when I didn’t get far I got frustrated and started getting on my own little petty tyrant power trip.

I’m quite sure I was as much of a pain in the ass to other instructors as they were to me and I just generally found that it was more effort than benefit to work with anyone who I hadn’t trained. I would have liked to have things turn out differently but I’ll echo a sentiment I heard time after time the last few years that the instructors (and I include myself in this) are some of the most off-putting people in the scene and one of the primary reasons that more people don’t step up to help. I was fortunate enough to have some friends willing to kick my ass about it when I was making things ugly and I already find my interactions with people being lighter as I’ve basically removed myself from any need to be in contact with that energy.

Timing Suuuuucked

In general, I think there was also a strong element of timing to all of this. Attendance rose and fell but seemed to be in an overall decline in general for the last 4 years or so, even before I started Lindy Lab. Options like Groupon and Living Social seem to have run their course in this area so options that used to provide quick boosts to prior studios didn’t amount to much. In general, it seems like this area is in a bit of a dip in terms of advanced dancers getting more into jobs or marriages or whatever as well so while that core hasn’t disappeared it has become less consistent week to week than it was a few years ago. It does seem to be starting to uptick as I’m handing things off, so I’m heartened, but generally I felt like I spent so much keeping things going through a trough in the cycle that I stopped having much interest in sticking around to push things back uphill once the cycle picked up again. And, on a personal level, add in things like a multi-year house renovation and a 5 year career overhaul and by this past spring I felt pretty certain I wasn’t going to have anything left to give if I kept going.

Deciding to Quit

All these factors came together earlier this year to culminate in a decision to quit. I say I’m quitting because I’m trying to take ownership of that word. It’s a word I haven’t been comfortable with as long as I can remember and I think it’s about time to redefine it for myself. I’ve spent many years in my life holding onto situations, activities, and relationships where I was not getting back the energy I put in and I’ve slowly come to understand that that just doesn’t serve me long term. So, having given it a good 3 years, trying as many angles and tactics as I could without completely tanking myself, I’ve decided to quit with as much integrity as I can and move on to other pursuits.

Space to Grow

Ultimately I am quitting both to create space for myself and to create space for The Lindy Lab. If I had continued to head the studio, I believe it would have taken me an awfully long time to rebound even if it had been possible. Stepping back and turning it over to a committee of committed and excited dancers creates much more space for LL to grow again. It also frees me up to focus on aspects that I did enjoy, namely teaching and special events. And frankly, I find I’m greatly happier having my evenings free to spend with friends, fix up my house, cook, read, etc. The person I’ve been trying to be for several years now has arrived much more readily by creating space than it did by pursuing achievement. The Lindy Lab was an amazing vehicle for me to grow and learn and, for a time, to spread some Lindy Love to some wonderful people and I look forward to seeing it grow and change under new leadership.

The Hopeful Aftermath

I spent a lot of my past year wondering if I was just in the way. And while I don’t think it will just completely rebound, it does seem that attendance has already started to pick up as we’ve worked through handing things off over the past two months. There is definitely space for someone excited and motivated to jump in and start teaching Lindy in the area and the workload is already being spread better than I ever managed to do it.

I just had a former dance student who travels and lectures on education tell me he presents some of my teaching tactics all over the country to great success. A Rolfer in Portland who I was talking to about teaching asked me excitedly if I would be willing to share a workshop on how I teach dance. So it seems that whether I decide to teach again or not, some of the key tenants that I wanted to get out to the world are getting out.

And perhaps simply put, I think I’ve finally managed to swap out “Try to change the world and hopefully that will make me happy” for “Let myself by happy and see how the world shifts”.

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