All posts by John White

I first saw a date of mine dancing Lindy Hop in February 2007. I thought, "If I'm going to keep dating her, I'd better start taking some lessons!" The relationship didn't last, but the dancing did. Actually, so did the lessons.

Lindy Hop Approach Anxiety Part 2

In Lindy Hop Approach Anxiety Part 1, I discussed the fear of asking someone to dance.  I was hoping to look at some solutions, but first some reality checks.

Novice Reality Check

Here’s a reality check for the novice:  Are you worried that you won’t be good enough at dancing as you start out?  I have a mixed message for you.  You’ll almost certainly be bad at it but that’s probably still good enough.  I’ve been a novice dancer.  I was bad at dancing.  I’ve danced with lots of novice swing dancers.  They’re bad at swing dancing.  Follows with 10 years of jazz/tap/ballet on their first night of Lindy Hop?  Bad at it.  Students with six months of classes under their belts on their first night of social dancing?  Bad at it.  Here’s the good news:  The community doesn’t care that you’re bad as a novice.  They care that you enjoy yourself, work at improving, come back, and keep coming back.

John Reality Check

Well, this is for me and anyone like me who as Approach Anxiety when it comes to pros.  Yes, the professional Lindy Hop dancers out there probably don’t want to spend their whole night dancing with novices.  And yes, a lot of pro’s use a night of social dancing to work with their partners.  So what?  They’re not avoiding all social dances and they’re not only dancing with their partners.

Overcoming Approach Anxiety

I’ve done all these things.  And sometimes still do.

Scout out lower status dancers in class situations

As a novice, I quickly learned to make sure I took the beginner class offered immediately before social dancing started.  During those classes, I specifically made reservations to dance with a follow during the dance (“What was you name again?  Are you staying for the dance?  Let’s make sure to practice this material during the dance, OK?”).  I’ll cop to doing this just last year, while traveling.  My plane landed in Montreal (on a business trip), I checked into my hotel, stashed my bags, and hopped in a taxi to Studio 88-Swing for their night of social dancing.  I took the beginner class to meet people and establish a presence as someone who would dance (funny aside, Claudia Joyal-Lapante taught the class completely in French until I made a joke in English about two thirds of the way through and she realized I’d been getting by on watching her physical demonstrations).

Raise your self-perceived status

My second tactic was to do everything I could in my own mind to be higher status, even if the other person didn’t know it.  That mainly meant doing everything I could to improve as a dancer.  In the short term, it also meant carefully scouting someone to make sure she was at my level or lower.  In the medium term, it meant taking lots of classes to get better as fast as I could.  During my aforementioned business trip to Montreal, I danced at Cat’s Corner which I was told was the biggest night of dancing in the city.  It took me about two songs to get oriented in the bar and figure out who the good dancers in the crowd were.  After those few minutes, I approached someone who was a good dancer, but not quite as skilled as myself.  In that situation, I was confident in my ability to have a great dance with her, resulting in a big smile and, I assume, a good recommendation to her friends.  After doing that a couple more times, I don’t think I stopped dancing the rest of the night despite the fact that deep the the Francophone part of town, sometimes the only language my partners and I shared was Lindy Hop.

Focus on sensations, not the narrative

OK, this is a bit more abstract, and I can’t even source it directly.  One of the places I came across the general idea was Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic Thinking & Learning (where I first heard about the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition as well).  Hunt presents a metaphor for the working of the brain which distinguishes between Linear processing and Rich processing.  The relevant idea for me was operating modes of the brain, either in the narrative, story-telling mode or the sensation-processing mode.  The brain can’t process in both modes at once.  So get your brain out of the narrative mode.  You should be focusing on your immediate sensations, living in the moment, not in your narrative about your life and what brought you to that point (and any ideas about that narrative which are causing that anxiety).

Other Sources

As I mentioned in Part 1, one the community that coined the term “Approach Anxiety” is the seduction community.  What do they have to say about solving the problem?  Wayne Elise addresses it in his Psychology Today column, Art of Charisma,  How To Deal With Approach Anxiety.  Digest version?

The problem is not the anxiety. The problem is the lack of action. If you experience [Approach Anxiety], don’t look for a way to magically reduce your fear. Instead, I want you to do something revolutionary that most “experts” would never recommend. I want you to suck it up and go talk to that hot guy or girl anyway. See the hottie, feel the fear, go approach anyway, act nervous and stupid, be rejected (maybe), chalk a victory up to action, become better at tackling a fear.

Hmmm… The advice is “just do it.”  Or, in his language, “develop the habit of confronting fear.”

Something else I came across was the idea of “tapping.”  There were a couple variations on this, but it came down to self validation while tapping firmly on a specific part of the body.  That’s a mixture of self-hypnosis (tying the validation to the physical sensation) and Rich brain processing (if you’re concentrating on the physical sensation, you can’t concentrate on any anxiety-causing self-narrative).

Another idea I came across was  the “newbie mission.”  This was an exercise that instructed the user to dress nicely but casually, head to a mall, and make eye contact and greeting with strangers for a while.  The idea seems to be to build up comfort by easing into the process of approaching strangers.

Here’s an Approach Anxiety Destroyer video.  A day of imagining looking at situations and thinking about how one would approach, but not approaching.  A second day of looking at the situations, making a superficial greeting, and moving along.  And a third day of going through the first two days’ exercises, then some time actually following through.  The really interesting idea here is that of generating momentum, the desire within oneself to just actually follow through, instead of feeling anxiety.  Quite valuable for the person who is having problems doing any kind of approaching.

Conclusion

So there’s some techniques that have worked for me, and some recommendations from the other sources.  Is there any technique that you’ve come across that you or your social circle has found helpful with approach anxiety?

Lindy Hop Approach Anxiety Part 1

I have a friend who I brought out social dancing for the first time this past Friday, and I witnessed “the fear.”  It’s something that I’ve seen before.  It’s something that I’ve felt before:  Overpowering anxiety at the prospect of asking someone to dance.  I call it The Fear.  Hilariously enough, the group that has studied this the most is the seduction community.  They call the fear of walking up to someone “Approach Anxiety.”

One group I see with approach anxiety is Novice leads.  They’ve taken some classes, come to a social dance and run smack into it.  Maybe it’s being intimidated by people with higher skill.  Maybe as someone new to the scene, the lead has feelings of lower social status, or like an outsider/loner.  Maybe dancing is still linked with relationships or sensuality.  Maybe it’s just the simple fear of rejection.  Another possible source is the fear of being bad at dancing.

Another group I see with the fear is…  most follows.   Yes, I know, that’s a generalization.  But today, in 2011, lots of women feel the echoes of gender roles set in the nineteenth century.   “Men are supposed to ask women to dance.”  Breaking out of that role is scary regardless of how high status one might be perceived to be.  Or this might work against the high-status follow who shares the problem of the apocryphal pretty girl who never gets asked out on dates (they’re both too scary to ask), which feeds the idea that maybe no one wants to ask.

My Experience With Approach Anxiety

My first night of dancing social Lindy Hop (just about four years ago), I didn’t actually do any dancing.  I leaned against a column for over an hour, watching the dancing, then lied to myself about needing to leave.  Seriously.  You can read about it right there in the blog entry.

To this day, I still have the fear.  There are people who I won’t ask to dance because I’m intimidated.  Lots of the local professionals are on that list for me.  Why?  Well, lots of times, I perceive that professionals project an invisible wall around themselves to avoid being approached.  Sometimes my perception is that professionals are at a social dance really just to work on dancing with their partners and maybe with the occasional other high-status dancer, a group which I just unconsciously discounted myself from.  And sometimes it’s just fear of being judged.  And yes, I recognize that all as internal stuff, as opposed to reactions based on actual statements or attitudes held by people.

What To Do?

There isn’t a single simple solution that matches up with everyone, but in Lindy Hop Approach Anxiety Pt 2, I’ll discuss some ideas and tactics I’ve used.

Have you ever struggled with Approach Anxiety?  Can you figure out specifically what you were afraid of?

Novices Should Practice Footwork

After chatting to people about their raw novice phase of dancing I’ve found myself saying something again and again: Practice your footwork by yourself.

Why?

  • When you’re in the raw novice stage, there are two mysterious things about dancing, the footwork rhythms and lead-and-follow.  You need a partner to practice lead and follow.  You don’t need one to practice footwork rhythms.
  • You’re maximizing the value of your instructor-led class time, whether that’s private lesson time or group class time.  You can focus on the things you can only learn in person (how the lead and follow should feel, how your body position should be, dance frame).
  • You need to know the footwork well enough to be able to do it without much thought.  That takes time and repetition.  Make that time and repetition work for you, not against you.

What?

If you know the footwork rhythm that you’re going to practice, you’re fine.  But if you don’t feel you quite have it solidly in your head, it’s worth asking the instructor to demonstrate the footwork for you while you video it.  Make sure you video the feet!  Ask the instructor to demo the rhythm at slow to medium tempo a few times with numerical counts and a few times with words.  And make sure you get the name of the rhythm that’s being demo’d at the top of the recording.

How?

  1. Play whatever music you have handy, though mid-tempo swing will help other aspects of your dancing.
  2. Do your footwork rhythms to the music.  In place, without moving.
  3. You can stop after 5 minutes.
  4. Repeat every day for at least two weeks.

When you’re in class or on the social dance floor and you don’t have to worry about your footwork rhythm, you can work on other important things.  That will speed up your improvement a lot.

And don’t forget this exercise as you climb the skill ladder.  You can use it with every new footwork variation you pick up along your journey.

Have you ever had a problem learning footwork?  What process did you use to get through that block?

Pull On 2

Chatted with Augie Freeman about dancing at Memories on Monday.  Mentioned my desire to compete and he had an interesting piece of advice:

Pull on 2, not 1 if you want to do well in competitions.

My Personal History

It’s far from the first time that I’ve heard that.  In fact, I remember taking classes from Jerry Jordan (who teaches beginning leads to lead follows forward on 1) and Shesha Marvin (who taught leads and follows to both rock on 1) and not being able to reconcile the correct way to do it.  I asked both why and I never really understood the reasoning behind each, though Shesha wanted to emphasize a stretch away on one which caused a spring together on 2.  Why?  Again, I was never clear why.  That’s not to say they didn’t explain, just that I never understood.  I came away from those conversations with a feeling that they just liked one way over another, a personal preference.  Again, I want to emphasize that this was during my time as a novice.  I very well might have been asking about philosophy during a time that I needed rules.  Or during a time when I didn’t have the vocabulary or experience to understand what they were trying to explain.

Years later, when talking to Jofflyn Valencia and Amber Villa, I got some philosophy from them which made sense to me.  They taught beginning leads to lead towards them on 1 because that was the most simple, efficient way to do a swing-out.  Valuing efficiency of movement naturally led to bringing follows in on 1.  Which isn’t to say that doing things a different way is wrong.  Just maybe not the most efficient way to do it.  And at times you’re not dancing for efficiency, but musicality, showmanship, energy, styling, or any number of values.

Back on Topic

Pull on 2 is a rule.  And I feel that to properly incorporate what I’m doing into my world-view, I have to absorb things in a way that makes sense.  That is, I’ve moved beyond the novice stage of dancing rules.  But I have a framework already for varying from simple ways of doing things.  I vary my footwork as a result of hearing things in the music and expressing that.  So if I take that as a basis and generalize that to every part of a swing-out, I should be able to vary when I lead my partner forward based on how the music is making me feel.  Maybe that’s a small rhythmic thing at a certain part of a song, so I vary my lead during a single swing-out.  Maybe the entire song has a stretchy or languid feel which encourages me to leave the follow out for long periods of time.  Maybe the song has the opposite feel but I want to counter that for a visually jarring aesthetic.  The motivations for it could be countless.

Conclusions?

What I’ve realized, however, is that delaying the lead in is  a part of my dancing skill-set that I’ve neglected.  I probably shouldn’t wait until I feel moved to do a thing before I practice the skill needed to execute it cleanly.  Hmmm… there’s a topic for another post…

At any rate, many thanks to Augie for pointing that out to me. 🙂

Permission to Fail

If you aren’t willing to fail, you won’t succeed.  Period.

I think the Talent Code reminded me of the Beckett quote:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

I need to give myself permission to try something new, and fail.  That’s the key to gaining new skills.  If I don’t give myself room to experiment and fail, I’ll never grow.  This is closely related to willing to be uncomfortable.  If I always choose to do the things I’m comfortable with, I’ll never grow either.

If only we could find a highly skilled individual to endorse this position.

Slowing Down Practice

Spoke with a guy a few months ago after watching him practicing Shag.  Now, I don’t pretend to be a terrific Shag dancer, but I like to think that I’m a terrific learner.

I helpfully volunteered my advice, which is a terrible, terrible thing to do.  But I like A, and hoped he could take my advice in the context that I meant it: wanting to see him succeed.

Once we’ve learned basics, it’s easy to get trapped in a place where we want to make those basics extremely dynamic, extremely fast, or extremely stylized.  In my mind, it’s too easy to focus on the end goal (in A’s case, the speed of the music he wanted to dance too) and not enough on a good path to the goal.

I came across a story about how Ben Hogan (widely regarded as having one of the best swings in pro golf, ever), would practice his swing:  slowly.

I even like the quote in the description of this second clip:
“Fast playing is not based on fast practice. It’s based on flawless execution at slow speed.”  — Daniel Bonade – World class clarinetist


Speed can cover up the technique problems in movement.  Can I perform my movement perfectly at very slow speeds?  Once I’ve corrected gross problems at slow speeds, I move on to performing it at close to normal speeds.  Then a bit faster.  But I try as hard as I can to perfect my movement at each speed level before speeding things up again.

How We Step

I recently saw this video on barefoot running that reminded me of some thinking I’d done about how we step in Lindy Hop.  Starting at about the 3 minute mark, there’s an interesting discussion of how the forefoot running stride differs from the heel-strike based stride.  But what triggered this memory was the image of the force transfer at the end, when presumably the runner was taking the next step.  There’s a propelling force off of the back foot that naturally happens in running that’s a bit hidden in walking or dancing.

Imagine taking a step forward on a specific count.  Lindy Hop instruction tends to focus on the foot we’re transferring weight onto.  But as thinking dancers, it’s just as important to consider the foot that we’re pushing off of.  A step forward on count 1 implies thinking of propelling off of the other foot after 8 but before 1.

Video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jrnj-7YKZE

In Lindy Hop instruction, I’ve heard a lot of instruction that doesn’t help people understand this idea.  Something like, “Use the floor more!”

I think it would help if we spoke of pushing off of one foot onto the other.

Madd Chadd

Hip-hop isn’t my genre of dancing at all, but this is an amazing tip from an amazing dancer.

Spoiler: “Be patient.”
When one’s a novice dancer, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to advance quickly, to jam lots of learning into as small a time a period as possible.  But imagine the process of learning how to do this kind of body isolation movement:
Does he have an amazing skill?  Of course!  Did it pop into being suddenly?  Almost certainly not.  In fact, watch this:
Still good.  Still obviously skilled.  Same fluid, body-isolation aesthetic, but clearly not as good.  And that was six years ago.
So now think about how he’s saying to be patient.  To not rush.  He’s clearly lived that.  And in fact, it seems to infuse his entire aesthetic sense.
And if you’re wondering where you’ve seen him before:
So what is your impatient voice saying you should be doing or achieving?

Dance Like You: Kelly vs. Astaire

Jofflyn Valencia repeated something in a class that I’d forgotten about his “dance like you walk” story.

“Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly:  Both amazing dancers with different bodies and styles.  Astaire was taller and leaner.  He used his longer limbs to make elegant looking lines.  Kelly was more muscular and powerful.  Was one better than the other?  What’s more important is that they each danced in a way that fit their own bodies.”
Are there particular dancers out there who are inspiring you right now?  When you watch them, do you think about adopting their look?  Or is there something else you can learn from them?

A Conversation

This is a re-post from my informal, catch-all blog.


[Author’s note:  I have numerous advisers, mentors, and even peers I bounce ideas off of.  I also have a dance mentor who lives inside my head.  The advice he gives is a synthesis of all the advice I’ve gotten from real conversations, arguments, and “ah ha!” moments.  This is one of those discussions.  If you recognize your words, that’s because I probably absorbed your lesson.]

“So what is it that you want out of Lindy Hop,” he asked me.

“I want to be an advanced dancer,” I replied.

“Where are you now?”

“I think I’m solidly intermediate.”

“And what does becoming an advanced dancer mean to you?”

“That’s tough to say.  I’m not worried about flash. Or performing.  Or competing.  But I am worried about making a dance fun for my partner.  I’d like to be able to dance with a beginner or a visiting pro and have that person walk away thinking, ‘Now that was a fun dance.'”

“That’s a good goal.  What do you think you need to do to achieve it?”

“Well, I feel like I’m solid in what I can do now.  But that I need more moves, more vocabulary…”  I stopped as he shook his head.

“No.  What you need is basics.”

“I’m … not sure what you mean ‘you need basics,'” I replied, trying not to be offended.  I mean, I knew my basics.

“Well, you said you needed more vocabulary, right?  You chose that metaphor, and one of the old tropes you hear instructors use feeds right into it: ‘Dancing is a conversation.'”

“Sure….”

“Well, have you ever thought to yourself, ‘I need to learn some more words so I can have better conversations with my friends’?  Of course not!  You have better conversations by mastering your basic vocabulary then using it to maximum effect.  Ever seen a poetry slam?  Or a ‘spoken word’ showcase?  Or an actor doing a one person show with multiple characters, accents, and points of view?  Or a great stand-up comedian with the audience in the palm of his hand?  Or a an political orator swaying the feelings of an audience?  Those people don’t use words you don’t know.  They have mastery of basic vocabulary.”

“That can’t be all they have.”

“Of course not.  They’ve also mastered the artistic use and effective timing of their words as well as the ability to read a crowd.  The way they use vocabulary might be different from yours.”

“But I see advanced dancers doing moves I don’t know all the time.”

“You’re forgetting that this is about having a conversation.  Can you conceive a thought, begin it, and complete it with clarity and directness?   Can you construct a thesis statement and supporting points?  The first step is working on your basics.  Variations and new moves come after that.  I’m sure you can probably think of local dancers who know lots of moves, but they don’t seem … quite right.  Or people will complain after dancing with them.  About clarity.  Or harshness.  Or injuries.”

“Yeah, I can, now that you mention it.  So you’re saying I need to learn how to express my feelings…”

“Feelings?!  No, not your feelings.  I’m saying you should learn how to have the Lindy Hop equivalent of a polite, clear, superficial, conversation with no nuance.  Feelings?!  Feelings are a whole other conversation!!!”

Are there any conversations or observations that you can remember which changed your dancing?   What is the metaphor for dancing that you use most often to express basic concepts?  Has anyone ever told you that you needed more work on your basics when you felt they were already very good?  How did you take it?