Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Archive for the ‘Dance’ Category

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”.

First On The Floor

The last two nights, I taught a pre-concert beginner lesson for Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra which was playing for a 2-night series of Duke Performances shows.  The band was fabulous, both nights were a packed house, and both nights the new dancers were enthusiastic, creative, and happily socializing with each other.  But a curious effect emerged the second night.  Where the floor had almost always had at least 2 or 3 couples on it Friday night, it ended up being completely empty of dancers for most of the Saturday show.

It got me thinking about the TED talk below from Derek Sivers.  One of the things I have been working on with beginners is how to present getting on the floor in a way that makes it easier to make that leap.  Particularly in a hall full of seated non-dancers, people can feel awfully intimidated stepping into the space between and audience and a band.  The Friday night dance had enough experienced dancers on hand that usually at least one or two couples were willing to brave the floor and others would follow.

On Saturday night, there were few experienced dancers on hand.  With the lack of experienced dancers to get the floor started, it never seemed to really build momentum.  It got me wondering if there are better ways to help new dancers feel comfortable enough to be the first on the floor.  I haven’t had a chance to try all of these ideas out yet, but I have a rare free morning, so I figured I’d write them down and see what people think.  I’d also be interested to hear other’s experience with getting dancers to brave the floor at not-exclusively-dance events.

Use the Buddy System

One thought that I haven’t tried yet is to suggest that several couples take to the floor at once.  It seems to me that being that it isn’t really until you’ve got 3 couples out on the floor that it gets easier for more people to go out.  So what if rather than trying to go out as a solo dancer or couple, one gathered a few people off the floor to go out at once.  Imagine it as the difference between someone trying to start a solo Charleston jam on their own versus putting on a T’aint What You Do and having multiple dancers descend on the floor at once for a Shim Sham.

Have the Band Invite People to Dance

Jazz musicians as a whole don’t always have the best reputation for liking dancers.  I’ve been a shows before where it wasn’t clear if a band was open to dancers or not and it definitely has opened the door when someone in the band says something like “the dance floor is open”.  My experience has been that lots of people are just waiting to be given permission to be creative, try something new, or just get on the floor.  I try to make this explicit in the beginner lessons, but I think permission from the band might carry more weight once the show starts.

Get Them Chair Dancing First

Perhaps another thing that keeps people off the floor is the way that they sit and watch a band.  I find most jazz concerts people sit very quietly as if listening to a lecture.  For me, if I’m feeling intimidated about getting out there or I’m not feeling terribly creative, sometimes it helps to just take a song or two first to bounce in my chair, let myself connect with the music, and let it draw me in more as I start to move in bits and pieces.  I haven’t tried this with a beginner class yet, but maybe it could help to have them sit and chair dance for a little bit before getting up to find a partner.

Ultimately, Let Whatever Happens Happen

In the end, I’m not going to try and force dancers on the floor.  I do think it is interesting though how people can be having a great time in a lesson and then never make it out for a dance that night.  I tend to think it is less an issue of desire and more one of confidence and the more I can lower that barrier for my students, the more they can enjoy the night and add something special that only that combination of music and dance can provide.  I’d love to hear about it if anyone tries any of the ideas above and I’d be grateful to hear anyone else’s thoughts on things they’ve tried to help new dancers get on the floor more easily at concerts like this.

An Open Letter to the Triangle Swing Dance Scene re: the Continuation of RDU Rent Party

Dear friends and fellow dancers,

I am writing to you today to seek your input and guidance on the future of RDU Rent Party dance events.  Laura Windley and I have been running these live music dances now for several years now to sometimes great success.  Lately, however, we have seen smaller numbers of dancers showing up at Rent Party events and smaller amounts showing up in the hat box.  This lull is starting to make it very hard to pay musicians a reasonable wage and as such we are currently considering whether or not to put Rent Party on hiatus.  We have always thought of RDU Rent Party as a community event and so we felt it best to offer an open discussion with the Triangle Swing Dance community before making any decisive moves on this subject.

A little back story

For those not familiar with it, RDU Rent Party exists as a labor of love for myself and Laura, we host bands for a pay-what-you-can dance, I pay for the space rental out of my own pocket, and all money collected is given to the band.  We frequently pick up travelling bands on tour because we can offer them an extra gig on an off night (typically Thursdays).  Laura and I started this at a time when the local swing dance society (TSDS) was in a financial crisis and typically hiring cheap bands over what we would consider to be good bands.  In the past year or two TSDS has started hiring what we think are more exciting bands and is back on solid financial ground and we have seen a slow decline in RP numbers in the meantime.  Whether or not these are related is questionable but it does leave us questioning if RDU Rent Party still has a role to play in the swing scene as it stands.

If you want a bit more backstory, you can check out this post I wrote a while back on the history of RP.

RP’s place as we see it

So approximately speaking, this is where we have seen the place of Rent Party dances in our local scene in past:

  • Rent Party has been able to bring in bands that often would not be here on a weekend, meaning we wouldn’t get to hear them play or dance to them unless they happened to get a bar gig of some sort.  Because TSDS only hosts Saturday night dances, we would miss many of these bands on tour because they are usually already booked for weekend gigs at exchanges and workshops.
  • Rent Party has at times been able to work with bands who are otherwise prohibitively expensive because we can work with them on an off night.
  • Rent Party has been able to serve as a testing ground for several bands which the local swing dance society would be hesitant to try untested.  Several bands like Bumper Jacksons, Clark Stern, and Hot Club of North Carolina have since gone on to play to larger crowds at our local Saturday night dances.  We also put on the first ever dance played by the now infamous Mint Julep Jazz Band.
  • Rent Party has kept a place for live music in the center of the Triangle area where dancers can still easily mix and pull from Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.  At this point, TSDS has only been able to find suitable venues in the far West end of the Triangle.
  • And finally, Rent Party remains able to host dances that simply would not fly at TSDS dances.  Having solo piano badass, Ethan Uslan, play alone for a packed house of dancers or Soul DJ, Ryan Thomas, spin a whole night of vintage vinyl, for instance would not happen anywhere else in the Triangle.

The situation as it stands

In the last year or so we have seen RP numbers drop in a not-insignificant fashion.  I would estimate we are seeing 2/3 of the numbers at the door and close to half of the money in the hat box meaning not only are fewer people showing up, but they are also paying in less.  While I’m happy to lose money on the event and put on an awesome show, the host in me can’t really continue to be excited at the prospect of underpaying the musicians we offer gigs to.  RP has slowly become a more stressful experience when we once easily paid 7 or 8 people a solid wage and now struggle to pay 4 decently.  Not only that, but it hinders our ability to bring in bands when the range we can reasonably promise them continues to shrink.  At the moment we have several bands from Philly and NYC who have asked to play but for whom the current RP numbers aren’t worthwhile.

We need your input

We put on RP for our own enjoyment and hopefully for the good of the community.  Laura and I are happy to continue to invest in Rent Party, and we think bands are happy to invest their time in it as well, so long as the community can match that energy.  We are also happy to let it rest and focus our energies elsewhere if RDU Rent Party has run its course.  But we don’t want to make this decision alone, so please let us know what you think, either in the comments or by emailing me.  If you want to see RDU Rent Party continue or if you have ideas on how we could make it more enticing for you both to show up and to show the bands some love, we are happy to hear them.  Or if you feel like in a sea of good options lately, that RP just doesn’t draw you like it used to and we should take a break, we’d love to hear that too.

Regardless, we are grateful for the approximately 3-4 year run that we have had, to all the dancers who made it possible, to all the bands who tried this crazy idea with us, and for all the amazing experiences it has allowed us to have.  Whatever decision we end up making, know that we are extremely grateful for the good times and happy to make our future endeavors whatever will serve the dance and the scene best.

Cheers,
Jason & Laura

The Basic as Savasana

Last night I taught a class for the first year anniversary of Cirque de Vol studios staff holiday party.  It was a group of all teachers in various circus arts (hooping, aerial silks, trapeze, etc.) so they were taking to the lessons and within a few minutes, happily spinning, twirling, and flinging each other around the floor.  Things got rowdy and raucous and I wanted a way to introduce a texture of calmer energy into the mix.  So, given that the crowd would all be familiar with various movement forms, including yoga, I decided to tell them to think of the basic like Savasana.

Thinking about it this morning, I felt like it was a pretty good analogy.  For the beginner, the basic is a place to rest and reconnect before going out and doing the next crazy, new set of moves.  And as a growing dancer, the swingout, like savasana, becomes a place to deepen practice and feel out both the holes in your dancing and the beauties in it.  And as the swingout becomes ingrained, it is something you can always come back to and a place where there is almost an infinite space in which one grow and evolve for as long as you continue to dance/practice.

Engineering a Friendlier Dance Scene

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while, and based on a recent discussion on Facebook, I figured I should go ahead and do this.

First off, I will say I see it thrown around a lot that a given scene or venue or event is more or less welcoming.  I’m not really convinced that it is an inherent trait of a scene so much as something very malleable.  Over the past 2 years, I have, on various nights at our Thursday night dance, received comments that people felt like it was the most welcoming dance they had ever been to but also seen people walk out within 20-30 minutes having barely danced or engaged with anyone at all.  I think the experience can be awfully subjective and all one can really do is try to improve on the overall experience.

I have been running the primary Lindy night in the Raleigh/Durham swing scene and playing with a number of options to turn the experience into one that is more welcoming across demographics.  Much like in my dancing, I tend to think a lot of the things new and returning dancers are looking for are relatively inherent but easy to trip ourselves up on.  The studio I run, The Lindy Lab, has given me a lot of opportunities to play with setting up a space to encourage socialization, so I want to share a few of the things I have tried, learned from, and am currently experimenting with.

Right Size Your Space

I have observed a curious phenomenon with dance classes where no matter what size the room is, the couples in rotation will always seem to move out towards the walls until they have as much space as possible between themselves and everybody else.  The same often happens with dances, where people will expand away from each other until they reach a sort of equilibrium of space.  Along these lines, I find there is “critical mass” of people that it takes to build energy in a space (without being too packed and going nuclear).  If the space is too large for the number of people, it becomes easy for everyone to just seek their own comfortable space or group of friends, but when the available space is sized about right, a curious chemistry starts to take over.

Right size the spaceFor most of 2012, our Thursday dance was in a space that was too large.  ~2000 sq ft. for an average of 30-40 people left a huge gulf of space that people would have to cross to go ask someone to dance, and made it more effort for people to interact.  To counter this, we simply moved the chairs from the back wall about halfway into the room, creating a more intimate space and the energy of the night improved.  This was an adjustment we had to make every week and sometimes several times in the night, but making sure the space was close enough to keep people from disconnecting tended to drive energy, not just on the dance floor, but also in terms of interaction around the edges.

Ask Me To Dance Table

I consistently hear people throw out the idea of having dance captains/ambassadors/courtesans/whatever to either seek out newbies or to be hunted down and asked for dances by them.  For me, I like to be efficient, and the idea of trying to assign ambassadors each week or weed out the right people to hold up as ambassadors, struck me both as a lot of extra busy work and the sort of thing that was likely to end up landing in the laps of a small handful of folks most of the time.  So rather than base the idea around people, I decided to base it around an area, specifically, a table with a sign on it that simply read “Ask Me To Dance Table.”

Even different species will ask each other to dance if prompted well ;)

Even different species will ask each other to dance if prompted well 😉

Not unlike a taxi stop at an airport, this creates a very egalitarian way to connect people offering a service (asking to dance) with people of any level wanting said service (to get a dance without having to ask).  Anyone of any level can have a seat and be sought after by anyone who feels in a mood to currently do the asking.  We put out “newbie guide to the swing scene” pamphlets as well, which offer tips on making friends in the dance scene and encourage them to try asking someone after they have been asked to dance.  There is a pretty brisk turnover, and I rarely see anyone sitting there for more than a song before they are asked to dance (the only exceptions have been people who were painful to dance with or solely relied on the table to get dances).  Plus if a few people are at the table together, it often emboldens one or two of them to ask one of their compatriots to dance.

Have a Seat, Make a Friend Area

While at any given time, most of us have periods of “OMGIWANTTODANCEEVERY SONG!!!!”, most dancers’ typical night goes something like “do some dancing, do some chatting, grab some water, rinse and repeat”.  And sometimes we want to be among friends but don’t want to dance for one reason or another or are new and just want to observe, etc.  So for a while, I tried out having a “Just Feeling Chatty Table” which did OK, gave newbies a place to hide for a bit without being total wallflowers, and gave the tired or overstimulated a place to crash but still be at the dance.  This worked for a bit until I saw this video:

So, based on this video, I have changed the goal of that table from “feeling chatty” to “Have a Seat, Make a Friend” and am starting to stock the table with things which I feel engage a sense of childhood while also giving people something to do together (not all of of us comfortable just holding a straight conversation).  So I have been getting things like Legos, Lincoln Logs, Puzzles and games that can be played a couple turns at a time and paused readily (like Connect Four or Checkers).  This idea has just started to come together over the winter break, so I don’t have good data yet on whether or not it works, but I can say that generally when I have mentioned it, people are excited by the idea, and this has generally helped elevate the appearance of the dance from just being another “here’s music, now it’s up to you” dance to something that offers a sense of community.

Let People Make it Their Own

My goal as an organizer is to try to take things like the idea of an ambassador program and make occur in a way that feels seamless and natural.  In essence, I believe that most people are naturally friendly, given the right circumstances, and my job is to try and create those circumstances, rather than asking people to be more friendly.  By finding ways to lower the barriers to entry to talk or dance with someone, everyone can become an ambassador for the scene, including the new dancers themselves.  My feeling is that if I empower people to be outgoing rather than tell them they need to be outgoing, there is less chance of people feeling singled out or burdened with trying to make someone else’s experience enjoyable.  Rather, my aim is to try to even the playing field so that each experience becomes a shared one and each person’s input (regardless of their level, age, race, etc.) becomes an important and integral part of the stew.

As the name of my studio, The Lindy Lab, implies, all of this is an experiment and I am eternally playing with these ideas: putting tables in different places, feng shuing the room to fit the vibe of a given night and any number of other versions of poking at variables to see if they have any effect.  I encourage anyone who is looking to make a scene better to think about the things you think will help, and then try to think of things you haven’t thought of before.  I have seen the discussion of how to make dancing more accessible come up year after year and it often devolves into placing blame on one group or another.  I will admit to having felt that way at times myself, but the more I have expanded my view and tried different things, the more I think that this is a challenge that is best solved by making it enjoyable for people to engage with each other and leveling the playing field to include everyone as equal partners in creating the community.

Lessons From Building a Dance Studio

It’s been about 6 months since I wrote a post.  Some of that has come from being legitimately busy building a new dance studio for the Raleigh/Durham swing scene, and then a lot of it lately has been being nearly burned out from said studio construction.  So I felt it might be a good return to writing to say a few things about what I learned in the process of taking over a raw space and upgrading it to a fully realized dance space these last few months.  I’d have to say I learned a great deal from this process and there’s more than a few things I wish I had known (about the process and about myself) going into it.  So for anyone who may find this useful, here’s what I learned from building a dance studio:

It’s hard to please everyone on details, but a comprehensive vision will pay off

Paint SamplesWith any given project, at a certain point I had to stop asking for input.  Starting off with the ideal of making the studio a place to foster community, I had a desire to try and please everyone.  The problem came about when asking more than a few people for their opinions or ideas inevitably seemed to create an ever-widening field of possibilities and preferences.  I spent a lot of time in the first few months of design work worried about getting it “right”, which doesn’t work if you want to follow everyone’s first choice or suggestion.  Wall colors were a prime example of this, everyone had a different baseline suggestion, from orange to purple.  Ultimately I found it helped a great deal to focus the overall vision, things like “vintage feel, classy, energizing” to help make those decisions.  And while even I cringed at some of the detail decisions (the orange walls scared me on the first coat) making decisions with that vision in mind helped pull something together that so far most everyone seems to be happy with even if particular details may not have been their cup of tea (or mine).

Over-buy tools and materials, return the excess after

Many times I got halfway into a project and realized I hadn’t bought enough of something.  Whether it was a lack paint, or lumber, or tools for pulling staples. the resulting extra trips to the store were both a huge pain in the ass and cost me a lot in terms of time and motivation.  Having to take an extra hour in the middle of at least half the projects to make a second (or third or fourth) run to the hardware store started to feel brutal.  By the end, I was just buying probably double what I expected to use and returning the extra and it was so much nicer to be able to roll through a project and return the extra materials at my convenience.  If you aren’t absolutely sure you’ve got enough, I’d recommend just go ahead and buy a bit more.

Everyone will offer to help paint

I haz a brushDon’t get me wrong, I loved all the offers of help, but almost everyone’s first offer was to help paint.  This isn’t a critique so much as an observation.  I think most folks’ first instinct was to offer to help do something they know how to do and are comfortable with.  Asking people to step outside their comfort zone and help me lay tile or reset insulation or other skilled tasks tended to require me to spend a bit more time supervising and directing.  While it did take more time, I found myself enjoying teaching in some cases or making a team effort to figure out how to complete a project in others.  If you’re going to have help from a team of folks, it seems it’s good to figure out what tasks you need done and ask people specifically to help with them.  I got a lot more out of picking particular tasks to get done and throwing a workday or asking specific people to help me than I did from just generally asking for help.

Make work days into events

gal-officespace18-jpgProbably the most successful workday we had was a “Office Space” staple removing party.  I had purchased some old church pews from a local church with the plan of using them for bench seating in the new studio.  Unfortunately, they were upholstered and I wildly underestimated how much effort it would take to fully de-upholster 10 church pews.  That said, getting a bunch of staple removers and offering to show “Office Space” on a big projector screen while we worked produced probably the best attended workday of the whole construction period.  Anything you can do to make it interesting and engaging for people to help is a big bonus.

I dig on intensity, but…

In the course of doing this, I not only was spending the vast majority of my free time on the studio but also experience my busiest two months ever as a Rolfer®.  This meant I was typically spending 10-16 hours a day for those two months working on the studio or on clients.  Looking back, and still recovering on sleep and energy now, I would say I pretty much trashed myself in the process of doing this and while I was aware I was tired, my awareness barely scratched the surface of just how badly I was in sleep (and other necessities) debt.  But something about it at the same time felt so right.  The intensity of it was like a high and between that and a sort of mania to finish the studio so I could rest, I basically took this triumphant 8-year dream and made it such a draining thing that when it was over, I fell apart instead of being able to enjoy it.

I don’t want to be Luke Skywalker

It wasn’t until about 2 months after finishing the major construction that I ran across this TED talk on popular kid’s media and how it affects our view of gender roles.  I’ve watched this several times now and the subsequent viewings have really driven it home where I feel like I went wrong in this process.

I set out with every intention of being Dorothy.  I was even resistant to thinking of the studio as “mine” because I wanted the community to feel invested in it, I wanted people to have input, etc.  I can’t quite pinpoint when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I lost that sense and started treating it like My Quest rather than an adventure with friends.

After several months of this, I came out the other end of the projects and realized I had alienated myself not just from the scene in general (had barely danced for 2 months) but also from the people who had been willing to work closest with me.  I had gone into the studio idea hoping to seriously foster community and feel closer to the people and the dance I love.  Instead I created a situation where I felt I had pushed myself further away both from the experience I wanted and the people I most cared about.

Were I to do this over again, this is one of the big pieces I would change about how I worked at it.  I wanted this to be a project suffused with love, and it may have been for a few people, but for myself, I lost that sense.  I don’t know how much to blame ego or exhaustion or trouble with expressing gratitude or whatever else.  But when the wheels came off and I felt buried in the work, I wish I had been more cognizant to know I have people there who wanted to support me and that it would have been ok to just back the fuck off and complete the studio at a more reasonable pace and do it together rather than smashing myself and feeling alone.

Even when it’s over, it’s not over

So it’s about 4 months later now and I’m finally getting to where I feel mostly recovered from the ordeal that I made out of the studio.  Even these past few weeks I have still had a few days where I’ve ended up sleeping 16-18 hours in 24 and it amazes me to see how much strain my body took on.  But for all the rough patches I created for myself, I’m starting to feel really good about it again.

It’s taking a good deal of work and introspection but some of the friendships are getting patched up.  After feeling like I pushed myself into isolation, I’m re-examining some of the things that lead me to that and finding new ways (to me at least) to connect with people.  Not all of the friendships are as patched up as I would like them to be, but some have even gotten deeper as I’ve made amends.

The studio continues to be a project, and probably will be even after the last project is done.  It’s a constantly evolving process and that’s one of the things I loved about the idea starting out.  On the plus side, I’m being a lot more mindful of managing my time and expectations, handling goals in reasonable amounts of time and letting them slide when they don’t make sense for whatever reason (like being scheduled on a day when I ended up sleeping 16 hours).  It’s made the projects a lot more enjoyable to complete and the ones that I’m still getting help from friends on are a lot more enjoyable and a lot more connected when I leave room for joking and chatting along with the work.

There are a lot of things I could have done better in working on the studio, but even having mucked up a portion of it, the space is beginning to thrive and the energy of the dances continues to improve.  And even as beat up as I’ve been this year, I’m starting to find more reasons to smile about the whole thing and more plans to keep making myself and studio awesomer.  For now, I’d like to end 2013 with a quote that someone recently put on the wall at my office, “Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.”

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