Tag Archives: novice

There’s No Progress Without Challenge

For the past seven months or so, I’ve been faced with a new challenge in Lindy Hop: very slow progress on something I’m focusing on (aerials).  Not progressing the fastest among my peers.  For the past few years of my dancing, that’s been really uncommon.  Maybe I’ve been prideful about it?  No maybe’s about it.  I’ve taken great satisfaction in it.  I’ve been a high achiever.  No so much with this work.  It’s been slow, grinding progress.  Extremely slow.  Sometimes it feels like two steps back, one step forward.

And yet, throughout this time, I’ve been able to keep from getting frustrated by focusing on my process.  Watching a lot of other people’s progress.  Trying to understand what was making successful people successful.  Trying to get a lot of feedback from expert coaches.  Trying to get feedback from my partners and peers.  Accepting and trying to internalize suggestions and critiques.  Trying to get video of myself for self-critique.  Keeping my goals in mind.  Remembering other challenges that I’ve met and overcome, and how that’s worked in my favor.  My emotional state hasn’t been perfectly serene the whole time, as I’ve definitely had my valleys, but it hasn’t ever been … bad.

I’ve been trying to use it as a reminder what it’s like being a novice.  When you’re a novice, the number of problems to fix can seem overwhelming.  When you’re a novice, it’s difficult to know what order to fix things in.  When you’re a novice, on any given practice repetition, it’s difficult to concentrate on fixing more than one thing at a time.

How do you deal with learning something that you have a high desire to do, but make much slower progress at than you’re used to making?

Should Lindy Hop Follows Step Forward Or Back On 1?

I recently was asked this question:  “Step forward or back on 1 for follows in lindy hop?”  Ok, it was a search term that came to the site, but that’s the same thing, right? 🙂

Ok, first things first.  If you’re asking the question, you’re putting yourself in the novice stage of the Dreyfus model;  You’re asking for a rule.  That’s fine.  Novices need rules.

So what’s the answer?  Let me be careful and specific about my opinion: Novice follows should step in the direction they’re led in on 1.  If you’re led forward, step forward.  If you’re led into a rock step OR if you have directional momentum from the previous move which leads you into a rock step, then rock-step.  If you’re given no directional lead, do your footwork in place.  That’s not quite as simple as stepping forward or back, I know.  Step in the direction you’re led on 1, otherwise step in place.  Perhaps that’s simpler re-statement.

Ok, so what are the real-world implications of this rule?  Well, leads and follows have to be working on frame.  If, as a novice follow, you’re not connecting well to your lead, you might miss the direction he leads.  Leads, you have to lead in a direction.

Great, that’s the novice version.  What’s the roadmap to the future?  First there’s lots of floor-time experimenting with connection.  Experimenting with tensing and relaxing different muscles along the arm, in the back, and in your core.  Experimenting with different frame at different speeds, with different leads, to different rhythms, in different directions.  Along the way, you’ll begin to appreciate that the directional lead can be a combination of the momentum from the last move, the connection from the lead, and choices the follow makes (presuming the lead is listening on your dance connection and not just speaking).

What rules were you given as a novice?  Do you still follow them all the time?  What’s the philosophical grounding for the rule?  Do the lead and follow both have to agree on philosophy before agreeing to dance?

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.


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.


  • 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.


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.


  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?

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.'”


“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?

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.