Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ten Epiphanies of Dancing

We've all had that moment: one new piece of information, or one slightly different phrasing, suddenly makes everything fall into place.  Understanding dawns and the world makes sense!

Epiphanies are awesome.

I especially love having epiphanies in dancing, because you can immediately put them into practice and feel the difference they make.  The right metaphor at the right time can open up your dancing like a cheat code in Donkey Kong.

The thing you have to remember is that as much as you feel like you suddenly understand everything, it is not the end of learning.  It is a leap of understanding, but not a conclusion.  And furthermore, while mentally "getting it" is important, the real key is putting it into practice.

Here are some of the most valuable epiphanies I've had about dancing.  This is a pretty personal post, so they might not work for everyone, and they might even be completely wrong - I'm still learning!  But maybe they'll help you too, or at least entertain you.

1. Stay Behind the Beat.

In jazz and blues music, the beat isn't a sharp, instantaneous thing - rather, it's a process, a "swoosh," like a heartbeat.  There's an early part, a middle, and a late part to each beat.  The best place to dance is slightly behind the beat, just a little bit late.  This can be challenging to put into practice, of course, since most of us have tried to be ON the beat our whole lives.

However, the minute I learned to dance behind the beat, I realized how much more relaxed and easy my dancing was.  I seemed to have so much more time to take every step, and my moves fit much more comfortably into the music.

Maybe not this relaxed, though.
2. "Don't Anticipate" Means "Stay Behind The Lead."  

Just like staying behind the beat, staying slightly behind the lead takes some practice to get the hang of, but it results immediately in clearer, easier following and a more relaxed dance.  It blew my mind how much difference this made!

3. Dance From Your Core.  

This is one of those little, valuable ideas that keeps on returning to be a new epiphany to me.  So far, I've learned to keep my abs and back muscles engaged, to think of stepping as moving my body instead of my feet, and to think of all of my movements and connections in relation to my center.  The more I learn about dancing from my core, the more control I have over my dance and the better it feels.

4. Flashy Dances Are Not Necessarily The Same As Fun Dances.

Most people start dancing because they want to learn those big flashy moves As Seen On TV.  But some of my happiest dances have been with people who barely know how to rock-step, and some of my most disappointing dances might have looked like Dancing With The Stars from the outside.  

The thing is, while big, impressive moves can be fun to accomplish, they aren't the be-all, end-all of dancing.  They don't necessarily feel as good as they look.  And a dance that consists of one person showing off flashy move after flashy move doesn't really give you much space for creativity, musicality, and back-and-forth between partners. 

Flashy dances have their place, of course… 

5. Most People Enjoy And Prefer Fun Dances, Regardless Of Skill.  

This is what I remind myself of when I'm super intimidated by the person on the other end of my arm.  They're probably not out to judge my skills - if they're anything like me, they just want to have fun and jam out to music.  Bringing an attitude and sense of humor to the dance is much more valuable than bringing really polished moves.

And thus the Fall Off The Banana Peel was invented!
6. A Mistake Played Off As A Move Is Usually An Awesome Move.  

This is true even if everyone knows it started out as a mistake!  Crazy, right?  It's one of my favorite parts of being a lindy hopper.

7. The Music Is Your Partner, Too.  

When my inspiration runs dry, it's usually because I've stopped listening to the music.  The music, after all, is where all the energy and meaning comes from.  What is it doing, and how can I respond to it?  If dancing is a conversation, what can I say about the music?

8. It's Okay To Say "No" To Any Dance (Politely).  

For the sake of my body's health and well-being, I am so glad to have realized this.  

9. A Refusal To Dance Does Not Mean "I Hate You Forever."  

It usually just means they need a drink of water and a rest.  I've found that taking it personally never really pays.

10. When You Feel Like You Suck Is When You're Learning.  

This little nugget has carried me through a great many dark times of awkwardness and frustration.  Feeling like you suck often happens when your ability to judge good dancing exceeds your ability to dance.  Basically, it's a result of seeing exactly how you could be better - and I've learned that you just have to keep on dancing toward it.

Level up!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

To Do List For This Weekend

Hey folks, just a quick post to let you know of some awesome things going on in Milwaukee!

Blues Revival Dance on Friday

Here is an example of blues dancing:

Here is a rough measure of how easy it is to learn the basics:

Here is how happy you will be if you come to the dance:

All levels are welcome to dance the night away at our long-anticipated Blues Revival Dance!

When: Friday, July 16, 8:00-11:30 pm
Where: the Cocoon Room at 820 E Locust St
Cover: now only $5!
Beginner Lesson: 8:00-8:30 pm with Elise and Henry
DJ: Justin Raibolt

BYOB and snacks; ice will be provided!

Shakespeare in the Park - FREE!

Here is an example of Shakespeare:

Here is a rough measure of how awesome and brilliant his work is:

Here is how amazed you will be with the quality of this weekend's free performance:

FREE! Shakespeare in the Park
Optimist Theater presents "As You Like It" by William Shakespeare
Thursday - Sunday, July 18-21, 8:00PM
Kadisch Park - 308 E. Lloyd St. (across the river from Trocadero/ Lakefront Brewery); Parking available at COA - 909 E. North Ave.

BCH Instructor Adam Baus is the music designer in this production; he chose, designed, and even composed a number of the music selections.   Come early, seating opens up at 7PM, and bring a blanket- along with any food or drink you'd like to enjoy during the performance.

See you all out and about this weekend!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Line Dances From Easy To Hard

During my year in Malaysia, I stayed at a remote, jungle-ridden boarding school about a hundred miles from the nearest dance scene.  How could I possibly stay fit and keep up my dance skills?  Why, by learning all sorts of line dances in the privacy of my apartment!

Swing line dances are packed with awesome jazz moves, rhythms, and footwork.  Learning them will improve your dance vocabulary as well as your technique and body control.  And even better, the next time you hear that song come on at a social dance, you don't have to stand back and clap anymore - you can jump right in with everyone else!  Here are some of my favorite swing-related line dances, from easy to hard:

The Shim Sham

Choreographed by Frankie Manning from the original tap version, this dance is a classic and quite accessible to beginners. It features a section of partnered dancing at the end during which a caller traditionally calls out "freeze!" and "dance!"

Frankie Manning and Erin Stevens perform the Shim Sham:

Patrick and Natasha offer a series of instructional videos linked to this demo video; a great resource for learning this line dance at home!

The Jitterbug Stroll

This line dance was choreographed by Ryan Francois and is usually done to a recording of "Jitterbug Stroll" in which Steven Mitchell calls out the moves in his unique, groovy style.  It features several classic jazz moves and is also simple to learn thanks to its repetitive nature.

Here are a group of fun-loving dancers doing the Stroll:

Someone had the great idea of using this line dance for a flashmob in the Taipei Airport:

And here's an instructional video that breaks it all down (somewhat upright and ballroomy in style, but very detailed and clear):

Doin' the Jive

This line dance was choreographed by the great Mike Faltesek, who also recorded the song that it is done to (with the Careless Lovers swing band). Almost every phrase in the lyrics refers to a particular move in the dance. For this reason, a previously unnamed slow-motion, high-stepping shimmy is now called the "smarty party" (in the first video, at 1:07).

The dance crowd at Stompology VII do the Jive together:

An instructional demo video to help you learn it at home:

The Tranky Doo

This is a classic line dance, revived from an old movie clip ("Spirit Moves") in which Al Minns, Pepsi Bethel and Leon James demonstrate what is then titled the "Trunky Doo". The moves in the modern version remain largely faithful to this clip, and it is usually performed to the same music that was dubbed over the clip, the "Dipsy Doodle". However, dancers today often offer their own unique styling on its classic moves.

The original Trunky Doo movie clip:

Mike, Casey, Stefan, Bethany and Peter perform the Tranky Doo with their own unique variations:

An instructional video of the Tranky Doo, counted out slowly:

The Big Apple

Like the Tranky Doo, the modern Big Apple line dance was revived from an old movie clip ("Keep Punching"). This version was choreographed by Frankie Manning and performed by Whiteys Lindy Hoppers, back in their heyday, based off of a dance craze in New York by the same name. It is unique in that it is performed in a large circle instead of a line, only breaking out of this formation toward the end of the dance.

The original Big Apple routine (the routine ends about halfway in, but the movie clip goes on for some more dancing and a bit of plot):

Patrick and Natasha offer another great, detailed web of instructional videos for the Big Apple, linked to this one:

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Following: The Invisible Art


I once had an argument with a dancer who thought that following was far easier than leading.  He had no experience in following, but was nevertheless very sure of his opinion.  As he said, leads have to direct the dance, plan each step, and move both people around on the floor, and follows only have to do what they're told.  Leads spend the whole time pulling and pushing, and follows spend the whole time just being pulled and pushed.  Following is so passive - how hard could it be?

I can't even tell you how much that got my goat.

Following is far harder than it looks, and if you doubt me, I dare you to try it.  First of all, good follows do much more than just go along for the ride - they are active participants in the dance conversation.  And second, even when a follow simply does the things that are led, there is a world of skill involved in doing this right.

Learning Curves

This graph may or may not have been completely
and utterly made up.
It is generally harder to learn to dance from scratch as a lead than as a follow.  When you are still figuring out how to move your body, it can be extremely tricky trying to figure out how to move someone else's body at the same time.

However, after this awkward beginning stage, intermediate leads and follows tend to have an equally difficult time improving their respective skills.  I've heard that it gets even harder for follows as they get more advanced.  The good part is, the rewards are even greater - the better a dancer you are, the more fun things are possible on the floor!

Let's go through some skills that we follows need to learn to make the dance seem so easy for the leads:

Follower Skills

Musicality, Rhythm, and Footwork - just like leads have to learn!

Frame - how to keep different parts of your body connected and consistent in relation to one another, without use of rubber cement or welding materials.

Connection - an engaged, relaxed responsiveness that allows a lead to communicate with your body's motions.

Posture - balance, athletic bearing, and internal cohesion; how to dance from your core.

Vocabulary - just like leads, follows need to learn moves.  And the more things that you know how to do with your body, the more creative options you have each dance.

Zen - the ability to slow down your mind so that it doesn't interfere with your dancing (i.e., not anticipate, which is much harder than it sounds!).

Variations - how to put flair into regular moves when they are led on you (still without anticipating them!).

Newton's Laws of Following - how to maintain the same direction, speed, and amount of rotation that you were last given, even if you have no idea what the plan is and you are anxious about running into a wall.

Adaptive Following - how to get back on the correct foot with your partner, how to decide what to do when a lead is unclear, how to follow someone who doesn't stay on beat, how to abort a variation gracefully, and how to adapt your dancing style to your lead's style.

Defensive Following - how to protect yourself with partners who yank, twist, flail, fling, stir, vice-grip, shoulder-lock, throw-dip, attempt to twist your body into unnatural positions, and/or don't pay attention to their dance surroundings.

Active/Interpretive Following - how to bring your own style, musical interpretations, and moves to the dance in a way that doesn't interrupt the lead/follow dynamic, but engages your partner in a musical conversation.

Following is non-gender-normative!

More About Active/Interpretive Following

This week at Monday Night Musicality, we are going to have a Follower Takeover class.  We will explore ways that follows can step up and be an active part of the dance conversation.  If we think of leading as an invitation, then good follows should bring something to the party!

To clarify, there is a difference between backleading, adding variations, and active/interpretive following.

Backleading is the equivalent of making up a lead that never existed - "I want to turn now, so I'll pretend that you led a turn!" - or ignoring a lead that was given - "You led me straight forward, but I'm gonna go diagonally instead!"  Backleading should be destroyed with fire, unless it is in clear self-defense.

Variations are the equivalent of taking a lead, following it faithfully, and tacking a little cherry on top.  They are fun, and they generally don't affect the connection much or require any attention from the lead.  "Yes, I will absolutely do that turn, and I'll even throw a kick or two in there!"

Active/Interpretive Following is the equivalent of taking a lead, or the space around a lead, twisting it into something really cool, and throwing it back to your partner like an invitation in return.  It often affects the connection in such a way that the lead knows that something different is going on.  "Yes, I will absolutely turn, and my turn is going to involve this rhythmic variation and some slowing, because that's what I hear in the music!"

The main way that active/interpretive following is different from backleading is that you are fully responsive to all of the things that your lead is giving you.  However, instead of simply following them straight up, you are riffing off of them like a jazz musician riffing off of a melody.  You are dancing out your own personality, your own interpretation of the music, and your own invitation to your lead to engage with your ideas.

When this goes well, it becomes a back-and-forth conversation, even a duet of musical interpretation.  You never leave the lead-and-follow framework, but instead of being constrained by it, you use it as a foundation for your creative interaction.

Then the song ends, and you stare at each other and go, "That was AWESOME!  Let's do it again!"

An Amazing Video Of Some Amazing Following

Mikey Pedroza and Frida Segerdahl dance in a Jack & Jill finals at ILHC 2009.  A very insightful post from another dance blog, Dogpossum, goes over the great following moments in this video in detail - check it out!