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Reactions to The Female Lead’s Manifesto

My immediate reaction to the ‘The Female Lead’s Manifesto’ is about as mixed up as my reaction to feminism as a whole. *

I spent two years studying and struggling with feminist philosophies as part of my masters degree. The details are now largely forgotten but I read some brilliant social science research written by women looking at how knowledge is constructed, some badly thought out philosophy, some extremely biased history (which is supposed to be ok in our postmodernist it’s my view and that’s as good as any other world) and some really thought provoking commentaries. I’ve never resolved for myself whether or not I should embrace the essential differences between men and women or think in terms of social constructivism and strive for equality.

Regarding the Manifesto, is outlining the differences between male and female leads in this way helpful?

Experience tells me that female leads are usually more considerate, more interested in teamwork, better at picking up on body language, not competitive and so on but I am not sure that I want to see female leads described (pigeon holed?) in this way. Do ‘female’ traits really make you a better leader? I find the touchy feely descriptions of female leads implied by the manifesto restricting. I wouldn’t mind seeing some fiercely competitive female leads giving it their all in a competition.  What words would I want to see used to describe a lead? Confident, considerate, clear, exciting, musical, maybe rebellious … (my exact word choice will depend on my mood and the music but I want a mix of male and female traits).

Experience also tells me that female leads are not always better than male leads at the same level. Female leads tend to have danced both roles so they generally dance with more understanding of their partner from day one but given time most male leads seem to pick this up too.

I learnt to dance in a scene with a very strong female bias – female dance teacher/organiser with a supporting usually (but not always) male teaching partner so perhaps these issues simply don’t resonate as strongly for me as they might do for others? A more interesting question for me is why, in a female led environment, where there are usually too many followers, where women are really given the choice to lead or follow, do almost all women (myself included) still choose to follow? I’m not sure how the Manifesto will change this, gender roles are very deeply embedded in western culture.

A final thought, dancing might be about “having fun moving your body with another person” but “heterosexual romance and attraction” seems to play a large part in my local scene. People dance for many reasons but the given the number of people that dance, hook up and then leave the scene I would say heterosexual romance and attraction is high on many people’s agendas. Dancing just for the fun of dancing is mainly for the hardcore element.

 

* These are my initial thoughts, I might well change my view!

My reactions to Carsie Blanton’s new video Backbone

Jerry Almonte posted a link to a Carsie Blanton’s new video Backbone which features Sarah Breck and Sharon Davis dancing a little while ago. Here’s the video:

I think the video is arty and clever but I don’t particularly like the dancing. Not saying anything is wrong with the dancing, its just that as a performance it doesn’t grab me and make me want to keep watching. I found it interesting that the YouTube comments included “Titillating” and “So sexy!” I didn’t find it sexy at all, more like strangely asexual (if you can use that word in this context). The dark eye make up and sad faces don’t do it for me.

What interested and bothered me more about this video is my reaction to it. Instead of watching the dancing I ended up looking at the (very slight) bulge of flesh at the top of their stockings and thinking hey they’ve got some fat on them.

Am I a complete bitch? Probably! Am I envious of their bodies?  Yes, I would love to have a body that looked that good. Am I jealous of their success? No. A lot of hard work has gone into that success, work that I wouldn’t have put in.  Am I guilty of being manipulated by the media? Hell yes. I mean seriously, fat thighs? Here are two healthy, slim dancers, put a tight band around anyone’s leg and you will get that bulge effect! Where did that thought come from? I really am quite ashamed of myself…

Do you acknowledge who you learnt your dance moves from?

Cookie’s post recounting a story about a newer dancer not knowing who Frankie Manning was reminded me of a fairly a recent drop in class I attended where the teacher was teaching around the world and points (http://youtu.be/yQ81SicWF5U) which I think of a classic Frankie Manning move but, sadly, Frankie didn’t get a mention.

Do you acknowledge who you learnt your dance moves from? I have noticed that local older dancers (dancing 10+ years) seem to be more willing to acknowledge where there dance moves came from, who taught them (know who taught their teachers) and appreciate that there are many ways of executing a move. I learnt to dance Lindy and Bal from revivalists who learnt the dance from Frankie Manning/Bal old timers/video clips (and had to make up a lot of the dance themselves along the way), these teachers usually acknowledge in class where they got their material from, e.g. ‘today we are going to learn a classic Frankie Manning move which you can see in the movie XXX’. I think this is a lovely way to introduce the move and its history; it takes seconds and can be easily ignored but it gives those who are interested a way into the history of the dance. I don’t usually get the same info from some newer teachers who seem to teach as if there is a Lindy Hop moves textbook which defines the correct way to execute each move.

Which brings me on to a thought provoking post by Harri Heinila about “Google-historians” and the history of Lindy Hop. Harri writes about dance history:

“One striking feature in these opinions has been that, how easily these “researchers” speak about their subject. Even large subjects are explained easily like they are simple entities. No complicated and versatile subjects at all. Anybody, who has lived this life by somehow looking at what happens in this world, realizes that life is not a simple thing to perceive. So, how history can be that?”

The good local teachers who have been around a while seem to understand the layers of interpretation that teaching a historic dance entails. There’s subtleness in their teaching that often stresses ‘this is the way I teach X’. Sometimes if the audience is right they will expand on why, which might be as simple as an old timer told me not to do that, or explain how they tried different techniques whilst learning the move initially and they decided that in their experience technique x works better than y. There’s no right way to do anything, some ways might be more ‘right’ than others but there’s no definitive right/wrong.

I love the ambiguity, humility and complexity that teaching this way brings. I’m in a rebellious mood at the moment and I find it liberating when someone says this is what I teach because….  Doing this leaves the door open for me to challenge them, try out other techniques (and them almost always bow to their experience) it gives me more scope to learn, not just learn by rote.

Fascinating stuff from Nathan Bugh – Ladies first

Fascinating stuff from Nathan Bugh – Ladies first

…when it comes to learning and teaching lead/follow skills, the follower’s technique is a much higher priority than the leader’s. Her dancing ability, her awareness, strength, balance, use of the floor, etc. are the elements from which spring her following ability AND the leader’s leading ability. She is the beginning of the logic in the dance. In class, the followers empower the leaders to learn. Leaders judge their progress according to the results that their partners embody. Followers are the focus of the lead/follow process, and they have to follow before the leaders can lead….

Although I agree with this:

“Oftentimes, good following is the answer to bad leading. For example: the best way to help a slow leader is to wait for him”

You also need this to happen:

“If you are a leader, have patience with the teachers who are follower-focused, because they are actually working for you too! Be kind to your partners, and encourage your partners to dance honestly. Don’t make your partner feel pressured to act out the steps you are attempting to lead. Make sure she gets, from you, the support she needs to master her technique.”

In my experience, it’s pretty rare that a lead will give you the support necessary to do this. I know I am a pretty sh*t follower. I know this because during class I get tutted at, given disapproving stares, been told I am not doing it right, been told it must be me because the move works with everyone else, get plenty suggestions about how to improve, and during one particularly humiliating class, I’ve even been told by a leader that they didn’t want to practise with me because I was doing the move wrong and they didn’t want to learn the wrong technique!

Sometimes I wonder why I still dance!

BQOTD – What skills or concepts would you consider to be important for follows to be working on?

Liked today’s BQOTD:

“As a follow I get most out of classes and workshops when it is explicitly explained what skill or concept I should be focusing on during each exercise/move figure. What skills or concepts would you consider to be important for follows to be working on? If there were a list of the top ten skills for follows what would it include?”

Couldn’t agree more with Jake Miller’s comment:

“I really appreciate this question because (and I don’t think it’s just my scene) there is a shortage of follows going to classes and workshops. If classes are just learning new moves, it doesn’t do much good for follows who can’t make the decision later on to lead that move–they could have learned just as much from social dancing with people who did take the class”

I don’t have a list of skills/concepts but I’m interested this topic because a small group of us are trying to start a series of technique classes (probably followers only) and we’re thinking about what we can work on together.

I am currently thinking about waiting longer for the lead.

When dancing with people I know well I have gotten into the habit of responding to their lead preparation rather than their lead. E.g. them taking a deep breath in a certain way means a swingout is coming, or that weird tension in forearm/hand being the prep for a specific move.

It freaks out one particular lead because I effectively know what he’s going to do before he’s consciously done anything but it also means that I am subtly ahead of the lead.

Improving as an intermediate-advanced dancer – finding balance

I like the post on move(me)nt about how to improve as an intermediate-advanced dancer (read the comments section too). I am very lazy about trying to improve my dancing but there are some things I have done to facilitate self-improvement.

Back in March 2011 I decided to give up on Lindy choreography and general Lindy classes so I could focus on body awareness instead. The choreography classes were stressing me out and making me feel bad about myself/my dancing abilities and I wasn’t getting much out of the Lindy classes and felt my time was better spent doing something else.

I have tried a number of things to improve my dancing but the things I am getting the most benefit from include:

Balboa

Learning Balboa has definitely impacted on my Lindy Hop.  1 hour of beginners Balboa and I get more technique thrown at me that I might get in a year’s worth of intermediate Lindy classes. (I appreciate that this might be very scene specific). The focus on technique and a teacher that takes the time to demo how, for example, moving your left arm out of the way by moving your whole body throws your balance but simply lifting your left arm over your partner’s without moving anything else makes the dance go more smoothly, has been a great learning experience and I am much more aware of the impact my actions are having on my partner.

Alexander technique

Almost 2 years ago I started taking Alexander Technique lessons because I wanted to change how I looked when I was dancing. The Alexander Technique is not a quick fix and it’s expensive but I have learnt a lot about my body, where I hold tension, what my patterns of movement are and I am slowly but surely seeing the benefits of ‘thinking up’. It’s hard to define what impact these lessons have had on my dancing but I am more balanced and I can spin on the spot multiple times without wandering all over the place, I am more aware of where my feet are and what it means to keep them underneath me, I am not so stuck the floor and I am more responsive in my movements.  I like the way my dancing feels more that I did, even if it doesn’t look better.

Yoga

Yoga has also made a huge difference to my dancing by increasing my flexibility. Increased flexibility in my shoulder means that I don’t tense up as soon as I feel a badly done Texas Tommy move coming.  I know my arm/shoulder can cope  so I am more relaxed when I dance.  I don’t perform so rarely think about the lines my body is making but I have noticed that increased flexibility/strength means that I can make longer, straighter lines which look better.

Dancing less

Emily Kate Long (a ballet dancer/teacher) has a great post called Finding Balance: Dancing Through Summer, where she put together the following checklist to keep sight of her priorities:

  1. Am I meeting my body’s physical needs as best I can? Do I need to ramp it up or back off to get the most from myself?
  2. Am I managing my time well? Are my activities promoting or detracting from my wellness?
  3. Am I keeping track of what works and what doesn’t? Am I sharing my experience and knowledge generously and asking for help or advice when I need it?

Over the past year many of the decisions I have made about my dancing have been based on the rather clinical notion of return on investment. What will I gain by going to a specific class/workshop/social dancing/weekend event and more importantly what will it cost me in terms of health/money/stress/time?  I like Emily’s question “Are my activities promoting or detracting from my wellness?” a lot more.

I had some bad dancing experiences in 2010/2011 that left me feeling ripped off, incredibly stressed, physically exhausted and that I had wasted my time. Thinking about what I am doing and why and finding balance between my dancing, work, family and other activities means that I am dancing less but when I do dance (usually twice a week but not all night) I enjoy it more and my dancing is better when I enjoy it.

Things I haven’t found so useful:

Solo jazz

At the moment solo jazz doesn’t inspire me so I don’t make time to practice and I don’t work on it in social dance situations.

Tap and Hip hop (solo dancing)

Time pressures have meant that tap and hip hop classes happen infrequently. I love the way my feet seem to respond to rhythm of their own accord after I have been to tap classes. Hip hop classes have taught me a lot about choreography and that the small things matter – facial expressions, clarity of movement, best direction to do perform a move for an audience. No idea when I will ever use this knowledge in my own dancing but it has given me a more critical eye when I watch performances. Has solo dancing improved my Lindy Hop dancing? It’s really hard to tell but at the moment I remain unconvinced. For me to have a good partner dance I still need to direct my attention to what my partner is doing, too much solo dancing and I end up focusing on me and I break the partnership.

Learning to lead

I would say that learning to lead (I am still very much a beginner lead) has hindered rather than helped my following. I am beginning to understand the mechanics of the dance better but when I follow I am fighting rather than following my lead half the time. Leading has given me greater understanding but I’ve yet to translate that into better dancing.

Lifelong dancing requires lifelong learning?

This post Creating Life Long Dancers and/or Better Dancers by Apache caught my eye, particularly the comments by Alex Zorach.

I can easily imagine myself dropping out of the Lindy scene within the next year or so. There are many reasons but one of the big ones is that there is not a lot more I can easily learn in my scene. Note the emphasis on easily.

Alex’s comments really resonated with me:

One reason I have withdrawn a bit from my local dance scene is that I don’t like the intensity of the more advanced lessons. I live in Philadelphia where there are ample opportunities for more advanced lessons.

But I find that these lessons are too intense for me. When I became more experienced as a dancer, I did not become any better or faster at learning things. I still like to learn slowly. And I didn’t become any less interested in social dance for meeting people and being social and having fun.

I feel like a lot of advanced lessons are run like drills, run like teaching people to perform. The pace is faster and there is less down time. And I hate this.

I have plenty to learn and there are classes and workshops I could go to but as a social dancer for whom dancing is a hobby and not an obsession I simply don’t fit into those classes.

Advanced classes tend to be full of people who are obsessed by Lindy Hop, who are/want to be teachers, performers or competitors, people who pick things up very quickly, people who go home and endlessly practice, etc. The pace of the classes is usually pretty quick and there is pressure to perform and get things right almost immediately from both students and teachers. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of this, advanced classes are supposed to be advanced and all that.

However, what about those of us who aren’t natural dancers and take a bit longer to pick things up? Or those of us with stressful jobs who have no desire to add to this stress during our free time? Or those of who feel that 2-3 hours of new material is more than enough and find weekend workshops overwhelming?

If we’re talking mainstream education, we’re the people who were in Set B for maths. We might have ended up with the same grades as the people in Set A but we needed to go at a slower pace and do a lot more worked examples that our classmates in the A Set who instantly got the material. There’s not a lot of Set B style teaching going on out there but there are a fair few people who have the desire to carry on learning and improving their dance skills but can’t find a suitable class.

Whilst I don’t entirely agree with Rebecca’s post on The Hidden Reason We Become Lindy Hoppers [challenge] I do think that without the opportunity to carry on learning many of us Set B types end up drifting away from the Lindy scene (and in London at least, seem to end up doing Tango). After 5+ years of classes and workshops there isn’t really anywhere to go to learn more if you’re not up for advanced classes and all that goes with them.*

* Of course there are plenty of other ways to develop your dancing but if you’re not an obsessive Lindy Hopper and you’ve still got friends in the real world then your are more likely to be doing ‘normal’ stuff rather than working on your solo jazz moves in front of a mirror!

A summer break

I have been enjoying a bit of summer break from dancing and thoroughly enjoying myself doing other things.

As my dancing peers develop hobbies as swing DJs, start swing bands, build their teaching skills, practice for performances, set up their own events or just head off to Herrang for weeks on end I am left wondering where I should take my dancing next.

I have a feeling I am going to end up as one of those people that dance once a week, never take classes, don’t travel, aren’t interested in developing their skills, etc. I’m not sure I mind, the world is full of interesting things to do and interesting places to go and I feel like venturing out.

Defensive following

Went to a really interesting Bal class last week, the teachers were trying something new and I enjoyed the approach.  For part of the class the leaders and followers split and the followers discussed out and ins and how to cope when they are being poorly led. For me the conclusion was to follow less and think about what I would describe as defensive following.  Some of the things we talked about were:

  • Really relaxing right arm, hand, fingers/not responding to leaders tension
  • Ways to get out of the tension cycle
  • How to let go of frame to protect shoulders
  • Moving hand and arm position to protect ourselves
  • How to dampen the bumper car effect when you being pinged out and in
  • How to rotate subtly within leaders frame to avoid grasping and inappropriately placed hands

I think defensive following is something I do in Lindy Hop fairly unconsciously but because I’m far less experienced at Bal I try very hard to follow what the leader is doing.  (Plus I am trying really hard to focus on my the following at the mo and cut out some of the habitual things I do that are unhelpful)

I think that’s the first class I have ever taken where time was spent thinking specifically about a follower’s needs and what a follower can do to help and protect  themselves. Made a nice change to thinking about how a follower should respond and meet a leader’s needs.

How much of your following is experience Vs skill?

I had a rare compliment about my following recently which got me thinking about how much of my following is down to experience and how much is down to skill.

I was led into a move that required the follower to keep spinning and do a second turn to make the move work, the lead in question was thrilled that I continued to turn and dismayed that most followers did not keep going – because I kept turning I was deemed to be a good follower.

Now, I know that I am not a good follower, I anticipate, I am often off in my own world, I rush things, I frequently cock-up, sometimes I am just going through the motions, I don’t exactly hijack but there are times where I communicate to my lead quite strongly that I want a couple of beats to ‘express myself’ or to slow the dance down and so on. So what prompted the comment?

Followers are often told to keep going until the lead stops you but I know very few follows who can really do this out on the social dance floor. I mean *really* do it, really can carry on a movement they have been given with commitment and without hesitation until something else comes along. Think for a moment about what that actually means and how accepting and how much trust you must have in partner to make that work. This is a skill and it’s a skill I don’t have.

I know to keep turning at the end of a spin because I have been to classes where I have been taught that a double spin is a possibility therefore I need to keep going.  I know I can follow a number of moves that other local lindy followers can’t because I have learnt certain moves in workshops and now I am open to the possibility of them happening again. At some level, I know what to do through experience rather than skill.

Not too sure where I am going with this other than it makes me feel a little bit more positive about my dancing. I doubt I will ever develop awesome following skills but I can get by with experience and the more experience I get the better I will become.

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