Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

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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.

Following as Active Choice: An Experiment in Wording

A few years ago at The Experiment I had a conversation with a follow who said that while she felt like an equal partner in her marriage, she did not feel like an equal partner in dancing.  My experience dancing with a significant number of follows is that they view the dance as if their part is somehow less important or requires less attention than leading does.  While I have been aware of this issue for years, it has recently occurred to me that some of this attitude could result from the passive language that is often used in teaching follows, especially at early stages.

Over the last few months I have been working intently to  rewrite my teaching language to clearly present following as a role with equal importance in the dance.  I have found that a few key wording changes have produced very different results in the way student followers dance, at least in the short time that I have been experimenting with this.  While I’m aware that these results are by no means a clear indicator of long-term success, given the current national online conversation about gender relations in the swing scene, it seems beneficial to share what I have found so far.  Given the current experimental phase, I figured I would write this up like a high school chemistry experiment rather than a lecture.

I’d also like to give a quick thanks to everyone who has helped me work through how to talk about this, and to all the leads and follows who’ve given me feedback to help me refine ideas to this stage.

Examining Effects of Active Choice In Following

Introduction

Following in dance is often presented to beginners as a purely reactive role.  Analogies for following often involve passive objects on frictionless surfaces, and follows are told to “wait for the lead.”  More attention is given to leads in most classes and follows often receive praise for doing things as expected rather than for following what was actually lead.  After months or years of working to become a “good follow,” follows may suddenly be thrown the idea that they should start adding creatively to the dance, which can seem counter to the skills they have spent their early dance career developing.  It can be a treacherous cocktail of mixed messages about doing what you’re told while being creative and matching the lead, yet also being yourself.

But what happens if we teach following as a “choice” rather than a “should”?  Instead of presenting following as doing what the lead says, what if we present it as listening for the lead as a suggestion or invitation and choosing how to respond?  By altering language and presenting the role as equally capable of influencing the dynamic of the partnership (rather than exclusively reacting to the movements and signals of the lead) we hope to see a rise in confidence of the follows as well as a greater sense of “team” in dance couples.

Methods/Experiments

In teaching private lessons, both experienced and new follows were presented with the idea that following is a choice.  Of particular note is one follower with several years experience who, while commanding in her daily life, has always seemed to lack confidence in her dancing.  This student was asked to think of following as a matter of interpreting the lead and choosing to execute her interpretation as explicitly as she wanted (i.e., purely following), rather than thinking of following as doing it “right” or “wrong.”

In group classes, focus was placed on the follow’s ability to control their own side of the connection (i.e., their own arm) and their ability to suggest ideas in connection or pulse simply by altering their own movements.  Time was spent asking the leads to dance with no pulse or off time and for follows to exhibit strong pulse and rhythm to influence the lead into matching, bringing the couple on beat together.  Followers were presented with the idea of being able to use stretch in frame to generate energy for their own movement, and both lead and follows were taught that they could stretch their own frame individually and as a means of communication to their partner.

Test wordings and exercises were used over approximately 20 follows in 3 months of classes.

Results

In response to this style of teaching, follows have generally been very appreciative of the use of active wording.  They have also advanced faster and appear to be actively engaged in trying to understand how to follow movements rather than asking “what am I supposed to do?”

Follows have exhibited greater flow of motion and more willingness to put their own energy into movement, plus greater trust of support from the lead.  Multiple follows are also exhibiting spontaneous creativity in following and footwork within the first few months of learning to dance.

Dancesplaining has been nearly non-existent in the classroom setting during this experiment.  There has been more positive partner interaction in rotation, such as discussing how to make a move work rather than assigning blame if it doesn’t.

The most dramatic result occurred with a private-lesson student.  Immediately after introducing the idea of interpretation and choice, the follow’s movements became significantly more confident (or actually read as confident for first time that we ever observed); movements became fluid, and she began to smile and have fun.

graph

Conclusions

Presenting following as an active interpretation and choice to respond appears to help follows feel more confident in their dancing and less nervous about doing it “right.”  They also appear more comfortable with the idea of shared responsibility for creative aspects of the dance.  Preliminary results seem to indicate that they are also more interested in continuing to learn and improve than in past classes which used more passive wording.

This style of wording also appears to reduce pressure on the leads by giving them time to integrate their own material while follows work on new material, and by presenting the dance as a shared creation rather than content purely dependent on the lead.  Leads are also able to focus attention in different places when follows are empowered to share responsibility for concepts like pulse and rhythm.

Overall, dances in this experimental mode have exhibited more teamwork and less “2 people holding hands and dancing around each other.”  Both roles seem more excited, less fearful of each other, and less worried about judgement.  Students appear to be approaching the dance and learning as a team rather than as isolated individuals.

While it remains to be seen how this will affect dancing in the longer term, preliminary findings show a great deal of promise.  Feedback from each side has been positive, both in terms of how students feel about the dance and how they feel about the instruction.

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.

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:

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.

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:

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.

When “Relax” Doesn’t Work (and 3 simple things that do)

tight stone fist

“relax”

“Relax”

“RELAX”

I cringed a little watching this exchange between a massage therapist and a client. The massage therapist was trying to get her client to release tension in her arm. The woman on the table was having trouble relaxing and the massage therapist was becoming frustrated by the client’s lack of response. The client, not too surprisingly, seemed less and less relaxed as the therapist became louder and more insistent.

I have seen similar situations play out in dance classes where well-meaning instructors have created traumatic situations for students by pushing them to relax. I have talked to students who were reduced to tears after a private lesson where they were just told over and over to relax. And I recently had a student who really needed to relax thank me for finding more active release-oriented ways to cue her because a previous ballroom teacher had essentially beaten her over the head with the word “relax” to the point where she hated/feared hearing it.

“Relax” can be an extremely difficult instruction to execute. It seems a great many instructors, students, and people in general don’t have alternative strategies to try when “relax” isn’t effective. So when “relax” doesn’t work, they don’t have a backup wording and just keep saying the same thing that didn’t work the first time. Then they go on repeating “relax” like a mantra until they give up or manage or contort themselves into something that looks close enough that they can move on.

What makes “relax” so hard?

For starters, context. People typically get told to relax in situations where they are already tense, meaning they are under some sort of stress or sense of danger. Telling someone to relax in such a situation is essentially asking them to turn off a defense mechanism when they feel threatened. Frequently, people who are tense because of some fear of judgement end up tensing even more when told to relax because they fear being unable to comply and being judged further.

Relax is also a fairly complex concept, when you think about it. Not only does it involve a change in physical state, but also a mental/emotional shift. And for relaxing to make sense to your nervous system, you need to view your current surroundings as non-threatening. If any of these tensions are habitual, it can even be difficult to tell that you are tense in the first place. With all these factors involved, relax becomes more a state of being than a simple action.

Many people seem to conceptualize relax as the absence of doing something. In the US, the tendency to fill our lives with doing things can make the idea of relaxing seem to equal doing nothing or even being viewed as a negative. Rather than viewing relaxation as a lack of doing, it can be far more productive to approach it as an active releasing of tension. The following few ways can help you to physically and mentally achieve relaxation more effectively than just thinking “relax.”

Breathe

breathelungsOne of my first cues anytime I find myself tense is to extend my breathing. Taking a longer breath, and particularly a longer exhale, activates the relaxation response. Under the sort of duress that causes tension, most of us will shorten or even hold our breath, reinforcing the tension. Deep, slow breathing helps to settle the nervous system and bring it back to a state of ease, leading the muscles to relax without direct, conscious effort.

You can also direct breath towards particular areas that need help relaxing. Shoulder tense? Try focusing on the area in your chest near that shoulder and imagine directing your breath to it. The expansion of the lungs is a great way to passively expand muscle groups and give them more space to settle into more comfortable and relaxed positions.

Think Down

The body responds much better to simple directional ideas than it does to complex concepts like “relax.” The end goal of relaxing can often be achieved by thinking about letting the arms (or whatever body part) sink down.

melting_womanIn many dance contexts I’ve seen teachers repeatedly asking students to relax their arms, often with minimal to moderate success. Often, this arm tension is based on the idea that someone needs to hold their own arms up. So a great deal of tension is a result of fighting gravity to keep the arms at some specific height. By thinking about allowing the arms to sink down, the body can surrender to the effects of gravity and work with it, rather than constantly fighting it. I often use the idea of melting like candle wax to enhance this effect in relaxing. Because a relaxed arm will more effectively transfer motion, this sort of release is integral to creating natural connection in dancing.

ghostbusters-floating-danaI see the same effect on my Rolfing® table where many people’s bodies tense away from the table almost as if they could levitate themselves by sheer force of will. When I prompt them to recognize that the table can support their weight and to let themselves sink into that support, their bodies relax and their mental state follows suit shortly after. In standing, a similar effect is achievable by becoming aware of the bones in your body and allowing weight to carry through bones rather than be held up by muscle.

Tense & Release

One of the more counter-intuitive moves for relaxation is to tense up first. Most of us, when told to relax, will aim to go directly towards some sort of relaxing attempt. stress ballHowever, it can end up more effective to tense muscles first, hold that tension for a few seconds, and then allow them to relax. In essence, taking yourself into greater tension allows for a better release.

Because many of us carry constant tensions, it can be easy for the brain to begin filtering out these sensations. I often hear people remark that they had no idea they were tense in so many places. By creating a conscious tension in the muscle first, the difference between tense and relaxed can become more apparent, which helps you feel yourself relax. This technique is also used by some physical therapists, terming it Progressive Muscle Relaxation, to treat general anxiety issues.

The 3 ideas above are just starter ideas, feel free to modify them or come up with your own. The more tools you have, the more you can help someone else relax or have options to try when someone tells you to relax.

In any case, keep in mind that attempting to produce a relaxed state involves physical, mental, and emotional aspects. Shifting any one aspect can help to shift the whole.  So when you are having trouble relaxing, focus on a simpler version of it, releasing a part of the body, slowing your breathing, calming your thoughts, instead of trying to do everything at once. And just like working out a muscle, the more you work with these ideas, the stronger they become and the more readily they will help you to achieve relaxation.

Swing Dance Frame as Non-Newtonian Fluid

As a dancer and Rolfer®, I find myself constantly searching for simple, elegant ways to describe complex concepts in movement.  One such concept that often seems difficult to describe in swing dancing is frame.  Most often I hear overly simplified images like “Barbie doll arms,” or models like “relaxed but with tone” that involve complex ideas and can be confusing.  So in my search for a singular concept to encompass all these pieces, I have found myself over the past year drawing on a concept I first encountered during my training to be a Rolfer.

The way I currently approach swing dancing frame is that it behaves like a non-Newtonian fluid.  Since most people are not immediately familiar with what that means, let’s start with a definition.

A non-Newtonian fluid is a liquid which has a variable viscosity depending upon circumstances.  In simple terms, this means that the substance behaves like a liquid under some circumstances and more like a solid under other circumstances.  The common example that most of us will be familiar with is ketchup.  Glass bottled ketchup will tend to behave more like a solid when you first turn the bottle to pour it, but once you start it flowing by shaking it or poking it with a knife, it will continue to flow smoothly.  For the purposes of describing frame, I will be using a different non-Newtonian fluid by the Dr. Seuss inspired name Oobleck.

Oobleck is a soupy suspension of cornstarch in water that exhibits shear thickening, meaning that under pressure the fluid behaves temporarily like a solid and then returns to a liquid state when the pressure releases. So with a tub of Oobleck, if you were to say, punch it, you will essentially bounce off as though the material is a rubbery solid, whereas setting a hand on it and simply sinking, the Oobleck will remain in a liquid state.  This effect often gets used in science shows as a way to “walk on water” as you can see below.

This change in viscosity occurs due to what one scientist refers to as the “Three Stooges Effect” which is to say that under pressure, the molecules in the Oobleck are trying to move too fast through a space together and get stuck, as in when all three Stooges attempt to walk through a door at the same time.  So the material changes it’s state in response to force, reactively instead of proactively.  It is this combination of fluidity and reactivity that, to me, makes it such an apt image for swing dance frame.

In a dance context, I use the idea of non-Newtonian fluid to influence any point of contact I am using with my partner.  When we are in a neutral state relative to each other, shoulders, arms, forearms, and hands remain in a relaxed fluid state.  But when our bodies move closer or further away from each other with a strong force, the arms react by acting more solidly to resist the change.  I don’t think about actively relaxing or tensing my arms with these changes, I think of them as constantly seeking a fluid state, but reacting under pressure to resist change when force is applied.  By doing so, my arms communicate the motion of my body relative to my partner.  Rather than being instruments of leading or following, when the arms behave like a non-Newtonian fluid, they simply become a way to transmit force from one body to another and can communicate equally from lead to follow or follow to lead.  And as an added benefit, it leaves my muscles feeling good after a dance instead of worn down by constant work to maintain a specific shape or create constant tension.

This is not to say that frame behaves this way at all times, I think there are always exceptions (and there is probably an exception to that) but this idea of non-Newtonian fluidity in frame is an underlying principle of how I think of frame in swing dancing.  Non-Newtonian fluid is, at this point, the best single image I have come up with encompass the use of both ease and tension in creating connected frame.

Note: If you want to try making your own Oobleck to get a feel for how this material behaves, simply combine 1 cup of water with 1.5 to 2 cups of cornstarch and mix thoroughly.

Contrasting Up and Down Orientation – Part 5: Developing Your Own Orientation

Continued from Part 4: Modern Lindy Leads

So where does all this talk about up and down get us?  Much like a number of classes that I’ve taken recently from Bobby and Kate or at The Experiment, the idea here is that self knowledge allows you to better assess both strengths and weaknesses.  By knowing your strengths, you can pick motions and stylings that appeal to your natural tendencies and by knowing your “weaknesses” you can start to view them as simply areas for improvement and then work on them.  For instance, I recently realized in the course of writing this article, that the way I originally learned Charleston lacked up energy.  For years my Charleston has felt heavy and clunky and it wasn’t obvious why.  When I began working with including Up in my Charleston, my dancing immediately began to feel lighter and more dynamic, and my pulse felt more in-tune with the music.

Developing a stronger vertical orientation tends to work best through the cultivation of imagery. While you can get some benefit out of simply thinking “There’s no place like up,” most people find that creating more detailed imagery helps them make progress faster.  Below are a few examples of such imagery which you can use as is or to inspire your own imagery.

Accessing Up

My favorite image for accessing up is a variation on Christmas ornaments.  Imagine a string suspending you from the ceiling or some other imagined point above you.  Start with the idea of a string attached to the top of your head that is being pulled gently upwards.  As it pulls upwards, allow your body to hang from the string, dangling freely beneath your head.  Notice if your spine or neck lengthen or relax and how your weight shifts on your feet.  As you get comfortable with the lifted feeling in your spine, you can begin to play with adding imaginary strings to the arms, legs, feet, and hands, imagining yourself as a marionette.

Up imagery can also be used to exhance down movements.  Most of us find our shoulders creeping up towards our ears in times of stress.  In such situation, it can be difficult to directly push the shoulders back and down.  However, allowing your shoulders to actively rise up can prime them to relax and sink back to a less strained position.  To try this, create an image of your shoulders being suspended from strings then imagine the strings pulling upward, lifting your shoulders towards your head.  Settle into this lifted feeling for a few breaths, then slowly imagine the strings releasing downward and allow the weight of your shoulders and arms arms to sink with them.  Keep imagining the strings slowly releasing downward until you reach an end point and notice if your shoulders have changed position.

Accessing Down

Down is an idea that shows up a lot in Lindy.  Concepts like pulse, using the floor, and counter-balance all require use of down energy, typically in ways that we don’t necessarily practice in daily life.  I find most people can conceptually understand the idea of using the floor or grounding, but it frequently takes some deeper work to be able to feel down energy for themselves and understand it on a visceral level.

The image I like to use to access down energy is growing roots.  Start from standing or sitting, preferably in bare feet and a comfortable position.  Imagine your feet or your tailbone beginning to grow long tap roots down into the floor.  Allow the image of the roots to expand at it’s own pace and notice if your posture shifts or settles in reaction to the image of roots.  As they grow, you can imagine the roots going deeper or spreading outward with a wider reach.  Allow the root image to expand to a comfortable distance and settle into it for a minute or two.  Notice any energetic or emotional shifts, for instance many people find a strong down image helps foster a sense of calm and stability.

As you gain confidence with the down imagery, you can start taking it into motions like walking, imaging roots reaching into the ground with each step.  The better you get at pushing or rooting through the ground this way, the more it can support upward movements as well.  For instance, in jumping, you can get more height by pushing off the floor as if you were pushing through it rather than pushing at the surface of it.  And serious power lifters derive their power in moves like squats not just from pushing at the floor but pushing through it.

How these images work

The general concept of these images is to help create attention beyond the physical confines of your body.  This expanded attention helps gives you more sensory input which helps with orienting motion and creating extension in movements.  By expanding the sense of space that your body can move in, more of your muscle becomes active in creating motion and the outward attention helps to activate deep postural muscles.  The more comfortable your sensory system is extending attention beyond your body, the more readily your body will create action into those spaces.

While these exercises may not immediately seem dance related, the concepts they help you access can be seen in many great dancers.  They won’t make you an amazing dancer overnight, but consistent practice will help open up new avenues for movement and expression.

I would like to leave you with an image of what is possible with this sort of expansive attention and presence.  Mikhail Baryshnikov at 5′ 6″ was not a large man, but his immense presence on stage gave him an amazing ability to seem as if he could fill the whole space with his dancing alone.  I could go into detail describing this, but I think it’s best to let his dancing do the talking.

Contrasting Up and Down Orientation – Part 4: Modern Lindy Leads

Continued from Part 3: Modern Lindy Follows

So how does this up/down orientation affect dancing among leaders?  As someone who predominantly leads, I noticed in writing this that I had somewhat more concrete ideas of what a lead’s orientation should be.  My first lessons in Lindy actually came from a West Coast Swing instructor that involved a lot of anchoring and creating a grounded pivot point, etc.  Writing this post, I was reminded that there is a lot more room for variation than what I was originally taught.

As in the previous follower post, I’ll be using a selection of three modern Lindy leads to illustrate a very general idea of the differences that an up, down, or more evenly split orientation can produce.  Most of us will naturally be drawn more to one aesthetic than the others, but I recommend trying to watch this with a certain neutrality.  Each of these dancers and orientations has benefits and drawbacks and lend themselves to certain moves or visuals.

For the leads, I have selected Juan Villafane as a good example of upward orientation, Peter Strom as a representation of downward, and Skye Humphries as an example of a more evenly split orientation.  I think it is also worth noting that the clips of Juan and Peter have a second song where they were given a choice between neo-swing and club music.  Each of them end up dancing to a style of music that compliments their orientation (the up of Neo-Swing for Juan and the down of Super Club Jam for Peter).

Up Orientation – Juan Villafane

Watching Juan’s dancing, it is easy to see how he and Sharon Davis ended up paired together stylistically.  Juan has a similarly floaty style of motion driven by an upward orientation in his dancing.  Juan’s triples tend to move as if they are hanging from his body, giving an interesting sliding quality to his footwork.  On his rocksteps, you can see Juan’s foot tends to travel back more laterally, hanging in the air more than digging into the floor behind him.  This upward orientation also gives him some options to use his torso and arms more to drive motion.  On a few swingouts and side passes you can see Juan move as much or more than his partner and actually begin moving himself off of her before she begins to move.  On his spin around :59, Juan’s lightness helps him to move off of Laura’s anchoring and into a spin.  And finally, at 3:05 you can see how Juan uses more of an upward motion to recover from his split.  On his first attempt to come up, his arms are not involved, but on the second attempt as he starts to reach back and up with his right arm, he is able to pop up easily.  Overall, Juan’s up orientation lends a lightness to his movement and a strong ability to use his partner’s connection to aid in his own movement.

Down Orientation – Peter Strom

Peter Strom is someone I consider to have a strong down orientation to his dancing.  As you watch him move, you can see the dynamic and energy of his movement shift as he moves between an upright posture and a more down motion.  In a sense, Peter can cruise when he is more upright, but when he’s turning up the energy, he drops down more and gets a lot of his energy out of his legs and the ground.  In contrast to Juan’s rocksteps, you can see Peter’s rockstep tends to extend back a bit less but digs down into the floor more.  You can also see Peter really uses the floor more than his partner to make dynamic motion shifts, as in the fast direction change he makes at 1:30.  And in the club section, very little of Peter’s moves emphasize the up section of movement.  All of his solo dance moves tend to involve a sharper motion and emphasis on the down portion of the step.  Overall, Peter’s down orientation lends him a dynamic use of the floor and a sharper, more athletic sense to his movement and styling.

Evenly Split Orientation – Skye Humphries

Skye is another one of those dancers who has always seemed to make dancing effortless.  It occurred to me in writing this article that part of it, much like Mia, is that he seems to move up and down with an equal sense of comfort.  Skye flows through both jumps and drops at a pretty even rate and without hesitation in either direction.  He seems equally able to use his partner to redirect his movements (1:05 and 1:13) or use the ground to redirect (:49).  In many of Skye’s movements, you can see him actively extending in multiple directions simultaneously.  For instance, in the hopping section at :34 you can see Skye’s feet still reaching for and using the ground while his torso actively extends upwards.  Overall, Skye’s split orientation gives him the ability to make a wide variety of movements appear very relaxed and fluid.

As with the follows, none of these options are the right way to dance.  These are just three examples of points along a spectrum of what is possible.  It should also be noted that while I have referred to Juan and Peter as up or down oriented, it does not mean that Juan has no down and Peter has no up.  Simply that they have developed their ability to use one direction more than another.

Everyone has natural tendencies and styles of movement that come easier to them than others, but it is also entirely within reach to work on and develop your abilities with your less natural direction.  In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about how to begin developing each orientation and how to assess your own natural tendency.

Continues in Part 5: Developing Your Own Orientation

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