Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘swing dancing’

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!!!

Adventures in Assisting – UC 5.16 Week 6

Week 6 down. Almost done with my assisting a Unit 3 Rolfing® training for the first time. Getting deeper into closure territory, final touches, parties, and getting in as much hiking and dancing as I can. It’s also the final week I have a car rented meaning I’m enjoying that freedom as much as I can before I go back to hoofing it, busing it, or bumming a ride for the final week.

Day 36 – September 19

uc516_day_36_movement_3Monday came bright and early with a promise of the final movement session for the 13 series clients. This puts us firmly into the territory where both clients are past the core sessions and moving into integration and closure. As a big proponent of movement it’s been nice watching the students shift from sort of loose understanding of how to build a movement session to a much more confident assessment and directing of the sessions with their clients. This was also Ray McCall’s last day in class assessing Neal who passed the test just fine.

I went for my own movement at the end of the day with a trip to Kakes Studios for dancing. Definitely a more tired day than it has been at times, but good to be out all the same and a little bittersweet knowing I’ve only got a few weeks left to get out dancing and connecting with the Boulder Swing folks.

 

Day 37 – September 20

uc516_day_37_element_bistroToday was my final session with my demo client for the 10 series. It finished up in lovely fashion and I’m really happy with the work I did. That said, it’s also a little bittersweet finishing up with someone who’s been really fun to work with and a great reciprocal learning relationship for my first assist. It’s also going to be curious as I will be starting Thursday with a new post-10 client who I’ll see for 3 sessions. Having watched how it can be really challenging to have someone visit a student towards the end of a training I figure it will be curious to be trying to integrate a new relationship on the tail end of a long series of learning already.

After class Neal and I went out for drinks (and me for dinner since I’d skipped lunch) at Element Bistro near the Rolf Institute. We sat out on the rooftop bar overlooking the start of the mountains and it’s really good to have someone like Neal to work with and be able to check in throughout the course making sure we’re both on track and holding it together.

 

Day 38 – September 21

Photo taking broke down today. I’m actually a bit surprised that I made it this far without a miss but today happened to be the day for it. Today actually turned out to be a bit of a wiped day for me. A good one for the students as they took their 13-series clients into session 8. I actually don’t have a good recollection of this day other than remembering that I had really intended to go to a dance at the Arvada Tavern but ended up just crashing out early instead.

 

Day 39 – September 22

uc516_day_39_barefoot_jazzToday I met my post-10 series client for the first time. I was still dragging pretty badly from the day before and feeling like I wasn’t going to do very well working with her in the morning. By the time she came in and we got to work though I had found my groove again inside of about 15 minutes. It was particularly nice to feel less constrained to the 10-series and a bit more free to work as needed. I do of course still love the 10-series for what it is, but in the teaching context there’s a certain feeling of pressure to do work in a specific context. Getting back to working with an already Rolfed body was a nice change and I think the session came together really well. For their post-10 series work, most of the students are working on each other which also adds a nice looser vibe to the room at the end of the day.

For dancing that night I met a couple of Balboa folks at Waterloo in Louisville. Jeremy Mohney was playing again, we had some great conversations about dance and teaching, and I made plans to go hiking in the morning with one of the dancers. Towards the end I noticed that Jeremy was playing barefoot and being a proponent of minimalist footwear, I figured that would make a good picture for the day.

 

Day 40 – September 23

uc516_day_40_ribs_n_brisketI woke up this morning to a text from my intended hiking buddy saying she hadn’t been able to get to bed until after 3am and would be in no shape to go hiking that morning. Not to be deterred, I set out for breakfast followed by a short but satisfying hike up and down the Dakota Ridge trail at Sanitas Valley.

Following the hike I headed over to a Texas BBQ joint I had been meaning to check out called Wayne’s Smoke Shack. Because they are only open for lunch 5 days a week until they sell out, it had been a bit challenging to find time to get there, but it was well worth it. Easily the best brisket and ribs I’ve had here and some of the best crust I’ve had on barbecue in most places.

After Wayne’s I took a trip out to the Celestial Seasonings tea factory for a tour and to pick up some Nutcracker Suite tea for a client and for the office. Being a seasonal holiday tea it’s hard to find other times and seemed to be the office favorite, so that and about a half dozen other teas are coming home with me. In addition I’d say the mint room, while delicious smelling, was also rather burny just to stand around and the tea-dusted cement floor seemed like one of he slickest potential dance surfaces I’ve been on my whole trip.

I followed up the tea tour with a trip to visit Redstone Meadery in Boulder where I just happened to luck into arriving shortly before their factory tour started as well. It’s an operation that looked fairly small but delivered big on flavor and a lot of nice varieties of mead. I finished the tour and tasting and snagged a few bottles to take home, then headed home for a bit of a nap before heading over to a dancer friend’s house to practice Balboa and talk about our pets.

Day 41 – September 24

uc516_day_41_partySaturday morning I had intended on hiking up Lion’s Lair trail on the west side of Mount Sanitas with some friends, but due to a miscommunication it didn’t work out, so we decided to punt and go Sunday instead. Not to be put off getting some outdoor time in, I took another spin around Sanitas Valley and Dakota Ridge solo then headed over for round 2 lunch at Wayne’s Smoke Shack this time going for chicken, sausage, and peach cobbler. Then I grabbed a couple pounds of brisket to go and headed up to Neal’s for a class party.

Neal turns out to be quite a gardener so we spent an hour or so harvesting, cleaning, chopping, and roasting veggies, grilling steaks, and drinking beer with the class. The “Happy Rolfing” cake pictured above was also delicious and accompanied by grilled peaches for dessert. Three of the students plus myself had signed up for a movement session with Heather Starsong at 7 so the party wound up in the early afternoon and we headed back down to Boulder.

The session with Heather was wonderful and again I was struck by what it’s like observing someone who’s been doing something for something like 40 years now. I hung back a bit and let Heather focus mostly on the students, who need to have done a certain number of movement sessions to graduate the Rolfing training, but still got a lot out of watching her work. There were also some emotional moments towards the end which made me glad to see the students getting some exposure to the power of the Rolf Movement work.

Following this I headed over to Caffe Sole for the tail end of a jazz group and some dancing. I only caught the last 40 minutes or so, but got a few really nice dances in and the followed a couple of close dance friends over to Oak at fourteenth on the Pearl Street Mall for a few cocktails. The drinks were absolutely delicious and sitting at the bar for an hour or so just talking sailing, teaching, and cocktail lore with the bartender was a great way to cap off the night with someone passionate and still driven about what they do.

 

Day 42 – September 25

uc516_day_42_rattlesnake_gulch

Sunday dawned a little brighter and a little earlier than I would have liked as I got up early to talk with a friend back East who had thought we set things up for an hour later. By the time she called I was on my way to Dushanbe Teahouse to meet my 10-series client and debrief on the series plus talk about her plans to train to be a Rolfer. We had a great talk, lots of good conversation about various topics relating to her session, plans, and how to help set up her life to support her training which is the sort of thing I think will serve her really well when she does get into the program.

After tea I headed out to meet the friends for a hike up Lion’s Lair but since it was around noon by the time we got going, we decided to shift and head to Eldorado Park and hike the Rattlesnake Gulch trail instead since it was a more gradual trail and tends to be more shady during the day. It was a beautiful hike up and I thought I had taken this great photo sphere shot from the Continental Divide overlook point but it turned out to only save about half the sphere, so, sigh, but pictured above is still a pretty good straight ahead shot of the Divide.

Following some trail time I headed over to Vapor Distillery to meet one of my cousins for a few drinks the from there to The Post Brewing Co. for dinner with some friends. Some delicious upscale Southern type food and drinks ensued and I finally headed home around 9pm to clean out and return the rental car before a bit of Netflix time and then bed.

 

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.”

 

Stepping Away from The Lindy Lab

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

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

What This Post Is and Isn’t

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

Backstory

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

Creating a Space to Support the Dance

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

Teaching From a Radically Different Head Space

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

Lack of Return Students

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

Did Not Play Well With Other Instructors

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

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

Timing Suuuuucked

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

Deciding to Quit

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

Space to Grow

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

The Hopeful Aftermath

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

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

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

First On The Floor

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

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

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

Use the Buddy System

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

Have the Band Invite People to Dance

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

Get Them Chair Dancing First

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

Ultimately, Let Whatever Happens Happen

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

The Basic as Savasana

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

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

No Dancesplaining, Please

scolding_child

Dancesplain

  1. To provide negative, and typically unsolicited, feedback to a dance partner with an attitude of superiority. Can be given on or off the floor by men or women and conveys that the recipient of the feedback is the sole cause of any problems in the dance.
  2. The gender-neutral equivalent of mansplaining in a dance context

This past weekend, I was teaching a beginner Lindy workshop with my partner, Lindsay. About halfway through the class, she leaned over and whispered to me “there are a lot of guys telling the follows what to do, can you say something?” I got on my soap box for a minute, made a little speech about it, and class moved on. But given the number of times someone has mentioned something like this to me in the last month, I figured it was worth putting into post form.

Let me preface this by saying I do not think this behavior is limited to men. I have seen women do the exact same things in a dance, and other contexts. It just so happens that I have heard complaints on at least 4 or 5 separate occasions in the past month of leads, without establishing any permission, telling follows they are doing a move wrong. I will give some benefit of the doubt and say that this may sometimes be people thinking they are being helpful, but it’s rarely as helpful as they think it is.

And a caveat, the following ideas should be superceded in cases of physical danger.  If someone is hurting you, you have every right to tell them without asking permission and if they don’t listen, I believe you have every right to end the dance immediately.  That said, there are still more and less effective ways to have that conversation that will be discussed below.

The Issue

I think there is an underlying fallacy that “If I know better than my partner, then I should help by telling them they are doing it wrong.” The problem with this is that it assumes you are doing things perfectly. This assumption is just inherently incorrect, you can always do things better. And the better you do something, the more naturally it sets you partner up to do their part better. For instance, I spent years watching body flight (ie. continuing momentum) be drilled into dancers and thinking it was just something follows had to be told to do. In recent years, I have started to recognize that there are ways to follow through that even most complete beginner follows interpret as “keep going.” If I hadn’t continued to refine my leading, I would have just kept assuming that every partner I danced with would have to be told to travel through. It reminds me of something Michael Mathis had said to me years ago, “I find that as I become a better lead, my partners just seem to magically be better.”

One_way_signsIn addition, immediately blaming your partner builds a wall between you. Rather than two people having a conversation, things become a lecture. And the typical accompanying tone of these lectures is scolding. When you tell someone, unbidden, that they are doing it wrong, you break down the partnership and lose out on hearing what your partner has to say.

I find blaming your partner and teaching on the floor tend to happen more often with dancers (and teachers) who have stopped growing. If you are a very predictable lead, your regular partners knowing your moves can make it easy to think that you have totally nailed leading them. And if you are a follow with the attitude of “I can follow perfectly if I have a good lead,” you may not notice that those good leads are making a lot of subtle adjustments to make the dance work with you. Both of these archetypes place blame squarely on their partner and, in a sense, minimize the importance of skill in their own role. Approaching  dance with this sort of attitude turns it into a binary system of “one person is right and one is wrong,” with a corrolary of “I always do it right, so guess who the wrong is…”

The Underlying Issue

Similar to mansplaining, I think the underlying issue here is abuse of a power differential. That is to say a perceived difference in skill (I’m the better dancer) is used to keep the other person down (You’re doing it wrong) rather than help them to be on the same level (could you try this, I would appreciate X, etc.) The sad part to me is that it happens often enough around me that it made sense to come up with a word to shorthand it. I have had follows come to me saying they had 6-8 guys in a night tell them they are doing something wrong. And before you think this is limited to bad dancers, I’ve seen rockstar dancers treat their partner or students similarly at times too.

I think the core of this is typically that when something doesn’t work, the conscious mind goes into overdrive trying to figure it out. The job of the conscious mind is to parse things down and put them in boxes with labels. A couple of the more readily available labels for problem situations are me/them and right/wrong. Since it doesn’t feel good to put the wrong label on me, we look for somewhere else to put it. Having someone dancing a different role right in front of us makes it that much easier to slap the “wrong” label on them, saving the embarrassment of putting it on ourselves. What we forget in doing this is that partner dancing is not just a me/you dance, but it’s an us dance and if we start using me/you labels, then we break the us. And in breaking the us, we often end up giving ourselves permission to crap on the newly labeled them.

Creating a Better Way…

So how can we move towards creating a shift? When I look at how mansplaining is being approached, I mostly see a continuation of the us/them mentality. It’s easy to lash out and call a dancesplainer an asshole and perpetuate the cycle. It is challenging but potentially much more productive to address the issues in a way that leads back to an “us” solution. With that in mind, here are a few communication skills I think are particularly effective in enhancing my own learning and effectively communicating with dance partners when there is an issue.

Look to Yourself First

One of the most effective tools for advancing my own dancing has been the idea that I can always do something better. As I lead, I look for where I may be miscommunicating or temporarily stopping/losing communication with my partner. Early on it was easy to get so wrapped up in what I was doing that I had no spare attention for my partner. The more I have worked on finding the holes in my connection, the more it has also made me better aware of what I am actually leading versus what I assume myself to be leading.

The same things goes for following. “He’s not leading it,” is legitimately true sometimes, but it also can become an easy out from figuring out how to connect better. When I’m working on following, my general goal is to work on sensitivity and reaction. If a move isn’t working, I do my best to follow what I perceive in the lead so that we can get a sense of where things are breaking down. The same way I have found holes in my connection as a lead, I’ve been able to find and improve on my communication as a follower by focusing on what I can do better first.

I try not to think of things in dance as your fault or my fault. In a sense there is only our fault. Looking to what you can fix first is not a matter of taking blame, but rather looking for what you can contribute to improve the situation.

Establish Permission

It’s generally kind of shocking to be dancing along and have someone, out of nowhere, tell you you need to fix something. Not only that, but it can easily shatter whatever happy bubble you’ve had yourself in, which has a tendency to piss people off. So even if your intent is to be helpful, unsolicited feedback often raises the fight or flight response and runs a risk of coming off as an asshole. We all blurt things out occasionally, and I know I’ve had occasion both to irritate and be irritated by friends when one of us just assumed feedback was welcome. It can help a great deal to find ways to prep for feedback and allow it in without breaking the happy bubble.

Both as a teacher and as a student, I have found it is often really helpful to approach first with a question along the lines of “Can I make a suggestion?” If he or she says “yes,” then we can proceed to having a discussion about it. If he or she says “no,” then I keep my opinion to myself unless that person is causing serious harm (in which case I might have led with something more direct like “I need to talk to you”). The act of asking for permission can feel a tad cumbersome but it respects the other person’s boundaries and gives them a moment to adjust to a state of readiness to hear feedback. It is the dance class equivalent of inviting someone to a performance evaluation rather than barging into their office and telling them they need to shape up or ship out.

Use Positive & Open Language

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

“You’re doing this wrong,” is a rather unhelpful statement and has a strong tendency to make the recipient feel lousy. It also introduces a level of certainty into the conversation that very few of us can truly live up to. Again, the conscious mind looks to be able to slap a label on something, but if you convince yourself you already have it figured out, then you shut down the opportunity to learn. Instead of approaching with a “You are/aren’t doing X,” wording, you can open a dialogue by describing what you feel or simply expressing that something doesn’t seem to be working. “I feel like we are losing connection here” or “I think we are are behind the beat” are far more friendly wordings that invite your partner to explore the issue as an equal.

If you approach things as equals then you can give feedback as a potential experiment rather than a command. “What happens if you lean back more?” is a sentence full of possibility and potential avenues for learning. “You need to lean back more,” shuts down the possibility that anything other than your idea could be correct. When you use an open question or statement, it creates space for both you and your partner to learn together. When you make a closed statement, you not only are shutting down your partner’s opportunity to explore, but you are effectively saying you have nothing to learn from the situation.

Building Something Beyond Yourself

We all dancesplain occasionally. I’ve certainly done it and times and had it done to me. The world we live in is rife with opportunities to make one group right and the other wrong. But when we do this, we drive a wedge between ourselves and our partner. Judgmental feedback can cause people not just to take issue with us, but to fear judgement from every lead or follow they dance with. If you want to help your partner grow, then help them to feel safe and free to play and grow and you will reap the rewards of having great partners to dance with. And if you can’t say it with respect and love, then please don’t say anything and ask for help from someone more skilled in giving feedback, because the fear of judgement has a far more potent effect on most people’s dancing than any bodily technique point you can offer them.

In the last two years I have talked to a lot of long-term intermediate/advanced dancers and noticed a great trend towards self judgement and less talk about loving the dance. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think the more we treat each other with respect and love, the more the dance will grow. If we treat each other with judgement and fear, noone’s going to want to dance with us. That said, I’d like to leave you with a talk from one of the great lovers of this dance, Dawn Hampton (click the link below to hear Dawn deliver this as only she can):

I really want you to love the dance, to love the music, to love yourself. The only thing that I can say to you is when you get out on the dance floor, is let go.

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