Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘dance’

Adventures in Assisting – UC 5.16 Week 7

The final week is done of my first Rolfing® training assist. It ended up being a big push to the end getting in as much as I outside of class while mostly wrapping up in the classroom. We wrapped up a day ago and I’m finding myself deeply grateful for the experience having learned a lot and set up a decent base for assisting again (in fact I’ve already got one loose offer to assist another instructor sometime in future). I’m also very grateful to friends, old and new, in the swing scene here who’ve helped me feel at home, and kept my nights busy with delicious food and equally delicious dancing.

Day 43 – September 26

uc516_day_43_kakes_dawn_tributeMonday came on fairly bright and early. The legendary Dawn Hampton had passed the night before and I was on and off Facebook through the morning checking out the tributes, stories, and videos of this incredible human.

In class we spent the morning reflecting on our 10 series clients and what sort of results we had gotten with them. Watching the reflective process for the students was great particularly since I see the 10-series as being a strong self-teaching tool for Rolfers early on and throughout our careers. Session 9 with the 13-series clients followed with a little bit of a bittersweet feel moving towards the end of closure.

After class I caught a ride from Neal over to Heather Starsong‘s studio where I got a personal movement session. We worked a lot on spinal mechanics and getting my axial diaphgramatic structures relaxing and working together. It was a beautiful session and is probably going to be processing for a few months to come but I then got to have a 2 mile walk down to Kakes Studios for the Boulder Swing dance as a way to integrate. Had some great dances again with a nice tribute to Dawn then a couple of friends invited me over for Sazeracs and some chat time before taking me home probably later than was best for me to be out.

Day 44 – September 27

UC516_Day_44_Dancing_at_Baurs.jpgTuesday came on bright and early with a trip down to Snooze for breakfast then more 10-series presentations and my second demo session with my post-10 client. The afternoon rolled into mostly students trading sessions with each other which provided a nice break from holding space for outside clients and generally feels like we got a more relaxed energy and got to see the students interacting a bit more openly as practitioners.

Dancing this night took the form of a drive (or being driven) down to Denver for Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles at a restaurant called Baur’s. The band was really damn good and it makes me wish we had the sort of infrastructure in Raleigh/Durham to support larger bands having weekly gigs like this. I got to meet and dance with a few new dancers I hadn’t run into yet and we headed home tired but satisfied.

Day 45 – September 28

uc516_day_45_skeye_brewingWednesday night saw me up early for the last session of my 3-series trading with Neal. The session with Heather had given me a few ideas of spots to work on and Neal incorporated that info nicely into a nice wrap-up session for our work together.

We spent the morning in class trading tips and tricks that we’d picked up along the way and watching Neal’s final session 10 demo. The student’s 10th sessions in the afternoon were again sort of bittersweet thought mostly sweet as the students closed out with these clients. I’m not sure if it was because they’d done movement as well or because it was closer to close or just luck of the draw but this round of closure felt more open and warm with gifts and cards exchanged and the like.

After class, Neal gave me a ride up to Skeye Brewing on his way home and stopped off to grab a beer with me before heading on. When we arrived, the beginner lesson for the dance that night was still going on and we got to talk a little bit of my philosophy for teaching dance. The crowd for the dance was on the smaller side but also nicely intimate and a lot of good dances (and a few brews) were had. I caught a ride home with one of the local teachers and had a really nice conversation about dance pedagogy before being dropped off at home and promptly crashing.

Day 46 – September 29

uc516_day_46_waterloo_group_photoBy this point in the week it was beginning to feel like a rather intense, though worthwhile, haul through a lack of sleep. It wasn’t really intentional, just between the work with Heather and Neal I think we’d reached a sort of critical mass where some of the body shifts were interrupting my sleep for a bit.

Undeterred though we kept rolling on with class which was all about the final post-10 sessions today. My final session with my post-10 client came together really well and kind of made me wish I were closer. She asked if I had a card and I had to confess that I lived half a country away but would do my best to help put her in touch with someone who might be useful to her locally. Following class about half of us went over to Asher Brewing for a couple of beers and some conversation. Several of the students have family or significant others coming into town at this point so we got to talk a bit more about those folks and life beyond the classroom.

And reprising the start of my dancing during this course, some of the local decided to take another trip to Waterloo in Louisville for some Balboa dancing. The picture above is missing a good number of the new and old dance friends I’ve made here but I think it tells the spirit of this group well and I’m deeply grateful for the welcoming arms of the swing scene here.

Day 47 – September 30

uc516_day_47_class_photoGraduation Day!

This was another early morning for myself and Neal as we had individual student evaluation interviews to do. Everyone passed with plenty of room and we got to talk with each student about their strengths, their challenges, and what we might recommend they pursue next in their development. Energies were higher overall than they had been in a while which I think is a testament to how much work goes into training as a Rolfer and how much of a relief it is to cross the finish line. The closing ceremony and graduation went great and then I crashed hard and just went to lie down on the floor a bit.

Following a reception at RISI, the class and families went out to Element Bistro for a drink. Neal and I hung around for an hour or so then headed to J&L Distilling for a final drink and debrief ourselves. When I had first booked my flights, Neal and I had planned this time thinking we’d need lots of time to talk out what had happened in the class but because we’d kept open lines of communication and feedback the whole time there really wasn’t much left unsaid and we spent the time instead talking about my heading to Boston and Neal’s upcoming trip to Peru.

Final night’s dancing in Colorado came courtesy of a gypsy jazz band called La Pompe playing at Brik on York which was a fancy pizza place in downtown Denver. A local dancer gave me a ride down and instead of pizza I ended up ordering a charcuterie plate that took most of the night to finish off. Had some great dances, especially in the second set when patrons started clearing out and we were able to move some tables and dance at the foot of the stage. One thing I’ve been noting a lot lately is how much of a difference it can make to dance with an audience around. At a standard swing dance everyone is kind of just doing their own thing, but at a restaurant or bar, dancing kind of makes us part of the entertainment and it’s been interesting to note how much that adds to the experience for me and kind of eggs on experimentation and play.

I got back home around midnight and tried to get to sleep fairly quickly for my flight the next morning.

Day 48 – October 1

uc516_day_48_denver_airportThe last day in Boulder dawned a bit earlier than I would have liked, but with a 1pm flight to catch, an hour+ bus ride to get there, and the unpredictability of the lines at DEN, I decided it would be best to be up at out early. I had hoped to take my host to Snooze and to get myself a flight of fancy pancakes (still a brilliant idea) but by the time we arrived at 8:30 the wait was nearly an hour and would have been pushing it on my comfort zone with the time.

So instead I just hopped the bus to DEN, barely made weight on my bags stuffed with goodies from Colorado breweries and distilleries, and settled in to wing my way to Boston for Tinkerbal and seeing some dance and Rolfing friends I haven’t seen in quite some time. Today’s photo is from a little space in DEN above the trains in Terminal C that I’d just never noticed before, keeping a bit with this whole trip’s theme of noticing details and continuing to learn.

I landed in Boston around 9pm, caught an Uber to the dance that night and surprised the hell out of a few old and dear dance friends by being there. It was a lovely reception back and I wish I had gotten photos of the silly lobster dance contest, but I decided to just enjoy it rather than being a shutterbug. Staying the night with an old dance student of mine who lives near the venues and I slept in on Sunday longer than I have in a while.

Conclusion

It was a really wild ride getting to this point, having just completed my Advanced Training and getting asked to assist, working out how to make it fit with my current homeless state, and getting better insight both into how much I do actually know and how much there still is to learn in this work. I’m grateful to Neal for taking a chance with me and to all the students for their patience with both of our learning curves and for their presence and energy in class. And probably most importantly, a huge congratulations to AJ, Chris, Drew, Haley, Katie, Kyle, Monica, and Tiffani on making it all the way to being Certified Rolfers!!!

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.”

 

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

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.”

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.

In Defense of the Rotator Cuff

This post is being written at the request of a lovely Aussie follower who has suffered multiple rotator cuff tears in the course of her dance life. While not all dancers suffer from rotator tears, it’s a fair bet that almost every dance will run afoul of their shoulders at some point. The following ideas should help you minimize your chances of injury in those moments of potential crisis. Note that while I will give some specific lead or follow examples, all of these should hold mechanically true for both leading and following.

A quick note before anyone jumps up to tell me that their instructor told them to do it differently, I’m speaking here from a biomechanical and injury-proofing standpoint, not an aesthetic or stylistic standpoint. I personally find that solid body mechanics tends to translate to great aesthetics for me, and I try to base my dancing first and foremost on things that I think will allow me to keep dancing for the rest of my life. These are the best safe & effectively connecting body mechanics that I have come up with in 11 years and if I develop or encounter a better idea, I’ll definitely post about it.

Anatomy Time!

rotator cuffThe rotator cuff is the group of muscles connecting the top of the upper arm bone (humerus) to the shoulder blade (scapula).  The reason these are important is that the shoulder blade is a relatively mobile and therefore unstable joint. The surface of the shoulder joint (glenoid fossa) is essentially a very shallow bowl that has been overfilled with the head of the humerus. This makes the joint very mobile, but also vulnerable to sliding around or out of the socket (one of the reasons shoulder dislocations are far more common than, say, hip dislocations). The muscles of the rotator cuff are all oriented closely around the joint to rotate the humerus in the joint, provide stability, and protect against injuries like dislocations.

Dancing Based on Natural Angle

Based partly on the rigors of modern life, most of us have become habituated to some less-than-natural positions for our arms. The arms-straight-ahead position that most of us spend a lot of time in (driving, typing, etc.) rolls the shoulder in a way that compresses the front of the joint and, over time, tends to make the shoulders stick forward even when our arms are at our side. Many people, either by instruction or habit from daily life, learn to dance with their arms straight in front of them, reinforcing this compression, and putting the shoulder in an unstable position to deal with strong pushes or pulls. I feel that opening the shoulder up to a neutral and balanced position makes it both more stable and far more functional at handling the demands of swing dancing.

To reacquaint yourself with this position, first hold your arms up around belly button height then slowly move them from reaching straight ahead to straight out to the side. As you swing through this range, you should notice that the level of tension in the shoulder lessens as you move towards the middle of the arc, hits a point of minimal tension, and then the tension starts to increase as you continue towards the end of the arc. You should also notice the position of tensions shift as you pass to either side of that middle point. This point of minimal tension is what I refer to in classes as the natural angle of the shoulder. It is the angle at which the rotator cuff is most relaxed and therefore most able to react to various forces. The exact angle varies from person to person but typically falls somewhere between 30-60 degrees from straight out front and places the hands in a position wider than the shoulders.

When I’m dancing, part of protecting my shoulder is that I consider this angle to be home base for how I orient to my partner. I remember as a newbie being taught things like spotlighting or to “square off” to my partner and it always felt a bit forced. I have found orienting myself to my partner based on the natural angle of my shoulder to be far more connected and comfortable and consequently safer for my shoulder. My hand and arm move to follow or lead my partner and I adjust the angle of my body to keep my shoulder in an open, relaxed and ready position. It can be counter-intuitive to the way many of us orient to our hands, but once you get used to it, it should make a lot of sense for your body.

Chest Up, Shoulders Down

The other typical position that can compromise the rotator cuff is the overhead lift of leading and following turns. Many dancers don’t just bring the hand and forearm up when they turn, they also raise the shoulder blade. Lifting the shoulder blade off the ribs puts the shoulder in a vulnerable position by disconnecting it from the support of the ribs. Without the support of the ribs, it becomes much easier for a pull at the wrong time to bend the shoulder into an angle that will injure it. I have found the next two concepts to be exceptionally helpful in keeping the shoulder in a safe position during spins and turns.

Paint the Fence (aka NO ROTATION)

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????A common stressor that many dancers put on their shoulder is trying to rotate it out as they lift. While I realize it is a fairly common cue, I find the “checking your watch” method of leading turns does not make kinesthetic sense to me. Rotating the arm to look at your wrist forces the elbow above the shoulder blade which then pulls the shoulder up with it. The more the elbow flairs away from the body, the more the shoulder separates from the ribs, reducing both stability and connection.

A far more effective method of raising the arm comes in an approximation of Mr. Miyagi’s paint the fence exercise from The Karate Kid (the original, not the remake). Keeping with the natural angle of the shoulder, the motion of the arm is basically just “Uuuup…, Dooown…” and the torso moves to create the turn.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R37pbIySnjg]

Unlike Daniel-san, for dance purposes you’ll want to let your elbow be loose, relaxed, and weighted so that it stays low as your arm comes up. But notice in the motion of the movie that this is a whole body motion. You can see the muscles of the chest flex and relax with the motion and you should be able to feel them activating. If you try to same “look at your watch” motion, and feel your pecs, you’ll notice they have almost no activation. Keeping the arm rising and falling and making adjustments with the torso rather than the shoulder rotation will put you in a much safer position and typically keep you more connected to your partner (which also helps you be safer). By maintaining the connection of the arm to the torso, you can also effectively lead turns by initiating small rotations from the chest and spine rather than large motions from the arm.

Scapula as Counterweight (or Turns and Trebuchets)

The other issue I often see putting shoulders in harm’s way is the tendency to think that everything needs to go up. People become so focused on their hand that they forget there is a wrist, elbow, shoulder, and ultimately, spine attached to that hand. So if your only awareness is the hand needs to go up, everything else in that chain tends to go with it. Again, the shoulder rises and you are suddenly in the vulnerable position of having your hand above your head with only your rotator cuff actively holding the shoulder in the socket.

trebuchetWhat has served me best is to bring an awareness of my shoulder blade and to think of it as a counterweight to the arm, similar to but not quite as unbalanced as the counterweighting found in a trebuchet. When I want my arm to rise, I don’t think about taking my hand up, but rather, I think about initiating by allowing the scapula to slide down (inferior) my back and away from my head. This serves to stabilize the shoulder in several ways. One, it insures that my arm does not come up without my scapula being solidly in touch with my ribs and it additionally eases some of the effort of lifting my arm, meaning my hand goes up with less muscular effort and I have more freedom to adjust in case of emergency. One of the easiest ways to experience this is to stand with your back against the wall and try both lifting your shoulder blade as your arm rises or letting it slide downward as your arm rises. With the downward slide, you should feel more of the engagement in your chest and back and your arm should feel much lighter and floaty than when you lift the shoulder blade with it.

incline_pulleyThe counterweight idea is not only useful for turns, but can also be applied to protecting the shoulder from collapsing forward when stretching out in swingouts, tossouts, rocksteps, etc. In a stretch where the arm is not going to come up above shoulder level, think of the shoulder blade as a counterweight to the front of the chest and allow the chest to rise and open as the shoulder blade descends. In the inclined pulley illustration, think of M as the shoulder blade and m as the arm. So long as M is weighty enough, it will resist being pulled up and over the top by m. But if the force of m wins out, then the shoulder blade (M) will be pulled up over the top of the pulley and it will all tumble down the slope. By letting your shoulder blade remain weighty when stretching (at a natural angle) it will prevent a lot of potential strains and sprains that can occur from collapsing and hyper-extending the shoulder.

Keep it Personal

There is no one right way to do this. There is a great deal more variability in human anatomy that a typical textbook will not show and as such, there is a great deal of variability in function as well. The safest angle for one dancer may feel very unstable for another and so on. The more you can create ease in your body, the more ready your muscles will be to keep itself in safe and comfortable positioning. Similar to the non-Newtonian frame concept, the more you are in a fluid, rather than rigid, state to start, the more readily you will be able to react both to potential threats and to communications from your partner. In addition, the safer your body position feels, the more it will free up your attention to try more awesome things. Use the above as suggestions to play with your own angles and ways of conceiving of motion and use whether it feels more tense or less tense as the metric for more vulnerable or less vulnerable.

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