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?

Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition

One of my main motivations for starting this site was to discuss some of the mental models that I use to think about dancing.  I previously referenced my reasons for calling the blog “Black Belt Lindy,” which implies the use of the martial arts as a model.  Unfortunately, the belt system in martial arts is a system of colors and can be fluid in the meaning of certain colors.

About a year ago, I read Andy Hunt’s “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning” which stimulated an avalanche of thinking and re-thinking.  It’s nominally about computer programming, in that it’s written from the perspective of a programmer and a lot of the examples reference programming, but the lessons are quite easily applied to things like dancing.

Today I’d like to focus on a single idea I was exposed to: The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition.
The idea behind this model is to classify someone’s skill level so as to better give an instructor guidance on what a student needs to work on to advance.  Here’s the description from the wikipedia page on the Dreyfus Model:

A helpful summary of the model is provided by Eraut (1994)[2]:
1 Novice

  • rigid adherence to rules
  • no discretional judgment

2 Advanced beginner

  • situational perception still limited
  • all aspects of work are treated separately and given equal importance

3 Competent

  • coping with crowdedness (multiple activity, information)
  • now partially sees action as part of longer term goals
  • conscious, deliberate planning

4 Proficient

  • holistic view of situation, rather than in terms of aspects
  • sees what is most important in a situation
  • uses maxims for guidance, meaning of maxims may vary according to situation

5 Expert

  • no longer reliant on rules, guidelines, maxims
  • intuitive grasp of situation, based on tacit knowledge
  • vision of what is possible

6 Proficient Expert

  • Knows the evidence base and underpinning knowledge to entirety
  • Can teach the skill to others
  • Can utilise the skill interlinked with other skills

This is evocative of so many memories!  Being a novice all all about needing the rules explained.  Ever remember a someone asking, “How do I know when to do six or eight count footwork?”  Someone looking for a hard and fast rule is placing themselves solidly in the novice range.
What about the inability to understand priorities?  I remember acting as a teaching assistant at a workshop and asking the instructor what the priorities in fixing problems were.  Frame before footwork?  Footwork before lead?  The inability to prioritize the focus of my instruction was the mark of an Advanced Beginner.
As we shade into Competent practitioners, we start to see more of the big picture.  We can see how decisions we make in our dancing affect the aesthetics.  How actions in one part of a move affect latter parts.  How the end of one move naturally feeds into the beginning of another.  How changes in the music should elicit changes in the dancing.  How the structure of the music helps us to anticipate future decisions we’ll be making.
I don’t claim to be a Proficient practitioner, though maybe I’m shading towards this level.  I’ll be working for a while at getting enough practical experience to really claim this.  At this level, rules get abstracted into maxims, which might be so nuanced as to seem meaningless to the Novice.  One I’ve heard is, “Dance the way you walk.”  That meant almost to nothing to me until I was shown a practical application.
OK, so how does this help us become better dancers?  Well, I’ve never talked to someone in swing dancing who’s heard of this model, so I kind of doubt any workshops will be adopting it to mark teaching levels.  To be honest, I’ve never talked to anyone who’s heard of this model, so it’s not something unique to swing dancing.  What it can help us do is to better understand where we are in the process of learning.  It’s actually a continuous spectrum, not a series of discrete steps, so you may have characteristics of multiple levels.
I’m classing myself as a Competent shading towards Proficient swing dancer.  I can very quickly see whether someone is fitting my aesthetic sense and kinesthetic sense of “good dancing,” and figure out why with minimal review.  I’m someone who’s able to think before I walk, so I feel like I grasp some of the ideas behind being Proficient while I lack a lot of the experience.  For example, I’m usually fine on the social floor at most speeds, but tend to freeze up when asked to jump in and do 8-8’s in the middle of a song.  I need a lot more practical experience before that becomes a natural part of my dancing.  I’ve spent most of the past 18 months ironing out my basics and adding in rhythm changes and very minor footwork variations as my styling.  I need to add a lot more styling variations and get comfortable with them as part of a “flash” library.  My personal style tends to be more subtle so I need to be more comfortable with a “bigger” style if I want to compete.  My reactions aren’t geared towards “listening” to an assertive follow telling me she needs extra time or wants to play with a theme.  I need a lot more practice at being responsive to this.
So let me throw this out there.  Where do you rank yourself as a swing dancer at the moment?  Do you have any specific memories that are linked to anchoring you at a point in time to a specific characteristic in the Dreyfus model?

How does this affect your thoughts on basics vs. styling?

Basics and Styling

I recently read Mary Freitag’s post on The Secret to Swinging your Follower Stylings where she advocates adding triple-steps to stylings to really make them swing.
Really cool idea.  I like it on multiple levels.  First off, it emphasizes to the advanced dancer that good stylings work so much better when they’re musically inspired.  You can explore using a triple in any two beats (either a triple-step or triple-stamp).  You probably already know it, but it’s always eye opening to see someone apply that in a way that I haven’t thought of before.

h/t to Mary for the video reference.  Frida at 1:00:

To the novice:
Do your triples.  Seriously.  Do them.  It’s so much easier to tap-step or kick-step in every place where you should be tripling.  And it’s not that you shouldn’t ever do those variations.  But if you can’t triple-step, then your styling variation has become your basic.  And my philosophical position is, “It’s bad to let what should be a styling become one’s basic.”

And believe me, I’ve been there.  Here’s some teeth-grinding video of me on the Atomic Swing Team, not doing triples.

Do your triples.

Why Black Belt?

“Black Belt” is verbal shorthand I used to describe the advanced form or level of something.  If you were doing some badass knitting, well, that was black belt knitting.  Know what I mean?

When I’d been swing dancing for a long enough to be focusing on intermediate classes, an instructor mentioned that he taught a different version of the fundamental move in Lindy Hop, the swing-out, to beginners.  “Here’s your beginner swing-out.  Here’s what I teach to an intermediate dancer…”

“Ah!”  I couldn’t help but interjecting my terminology.  “Are you teaching the black belt swing-out today?”

That stopped him for a moment.

“That’s a really interesting way to think about it.”  He cocked his head to the side for a moment, thinking, then moved on with the class.

That moment has stayed with me during the intervening years.  Teaching different movements to different levels of dancers is probably worth a philosophical discussion, but strip that issue away and we’re still left with fact that there are layers of understanding that go into just this simple, basic movement.

My desire isn’t to turn this note (or this blog, for that matter) into a discussion of the actual movement.  (I’m sure there’s an abundance of instructional video available now).  I would like to marinate in the idea that learning how to do a swing-out is a process, and one that exists on multiple levels.  There’s a basic level of learning footwork, rhythms, connection, lead, and follow.  Then there are deeper and deeper layers of understanding in each of those topics.  I’d really rather be having meta-discussions on the process of learning in all of these stages.  And not just on the black belt level.

There’s so much to learn about the fundamental moves in Lindy Hop, and yet as humans it’s easy for us to not want to focus too much on them.  We judge ourselves and each other by variations, not fundamentals.  So is it a sign of a black belt to be focused on fundamentals rather than flash?

Hello World!

My name is John White, and since 2007, I’ve been a dancer.  When I told my sister I was learning to dance, she thought I was joking.  “That was the most un-John thing I’d ever heard,” she later told me.  “I was waiting for the punch-line.”  At the time, even I thought it was uncharacteristic, mentioning dance classes in a list of scary things I was trying in the new year.  At age 34, I had decided to start studying something that Americans either pursue as children or never learn at all.
For a major portion of my life, learning was a solo process. I used books, brute force, and ego as my tools to bludgeon my tasks into submission (and sometimes, to spectacularly flame out).  Dancing was something daunting, a skill that I had no natural affinity for, no background in, and no mentors to guide me.  Though I looked, there were no instructional books written about the type of dance I was studying, Lindy Hop.  Dance is movement, rhythmic movement, the rhythms of music (though sometimes that music can’t be heard by anyone but the dancer).  Even if there were a book on Lindy Hop, it would probably be close to useless for the beginner who had no grounding in any kind of technique.
It’s been a journey, both in learning to dance, and in my gradual examination of my learning process.  Recently, as I’ve had to examine the lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning!), it occurred to me that I should write it all down.  I know that I’ve been strongly influenced in my thinking about dance and maybe I can influence others, even if it’s inspiring them to opposition.
At any rate, welcome to my brain.