Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘Lindy Hop’

Stepping Away from The Lindy Lab

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

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

What This Post Is and Isn’t

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

Backstory

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

Creating a Space to Support the Dance

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

Teaching From a Radically Different Head Space

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

Lack of Return Students

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

Did Not Play Well With Other Instructors

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

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

Timing Suuuuucked

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

Deciding to Quit

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

Space to Grow

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

The Hopeful Aftermath

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

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

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

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First On The Floor

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

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

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

Use the Buddy System

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

Have the Band Invite People to Dance

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

Get Them Chair Dancing First

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

Ultimately, Let Whatever Happens Happen

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

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

Dear friends and fellow dancers,

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

A little back story

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

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

RP’s place as we see it

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

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

The situation as it stands

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

We need your input

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

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

Cheers,
Jason & Laura

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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