Category Archives: advice

Men Following

vernacular jazz dance.

I’ll always remember Jo telling us girls that learning to lead would improve our dancing, but noone ever told the men that learning to follow might just expand their horizon as well. 

I don’t mind saying it again.  One of the most important classes I took during my novice/advanced-beginner phase of learning was a beginner series as a follow.  I remember the epiphany I had, “I have no idea what this guy wants me to do now.  I wonder if my follows feel that way when they’re dancing with me?  I’ll make sure that never happens!”

That led to a phase of over-leading, but I eventually dialed it back to something clear without being exaggerated.

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?

Be Water

I came upon this video excerpt of a Bruce Lee interview (“Be Water”) back in September of 2008, and it’s stuck with me:

What it means to me has changed over time.  When I first saw it, I felt like I wanted all follows to dance “like water.”  If the lead creates something powerful, be powerful.  If the lead creates something calm, be calm.  “Empty your mind” of preconceptions.  Just follow.

I think that there’s value to that attitude, but when dancing with advanced or just assertive follows, it’s not the reality of every partnership.  Sometimes a musical phrasing, emphasis, or hit will inspire the follow to do something that the lead isn’t thinking.  And that should be OK in a partnership.

So some notes for the dancers at the early stages of the Dreyfus model:

Be Water

Novice Follows
Carry no expectations into the dance.  Do the moves that are led.  Don’t worry about styling.  Worry about basics.

Novice Leads
Be clear about the shapes, forms, and expectations you’re placing on the follow.

Advanced Beginner Follows
Let the lead set the tone, energy, and character of the dance.  If he’s a bottle, be a bottle.  If he’s a teapot, be a teapot.

Advanced Beginner Leads
Try to let go of some of your preconceptions of the moves you’re going to do.  Experiment with emptying your mind before each dance, and leading each move as an extension of the move before it.  It’s difficult at first, I know!  You don’t need to do this with every dance.

Does this clip stir any ideas in you or your dancing?