My original intention when I started my Lindy Hop paper a couple of years ago was to talk about some of my favorite routines and why I liked them. Circumstances led me in a slightly different direction which ended up becoming the “Artisry In Rhythm” paper that I’m now posting bit by bit. I do talk about some videos and why they’re interesting or important, but I never got around to discussing my favorite one. Maybe it wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things, but it affected the way that I looked at the dance.
Now that I have a blog, I can properly explain why. The routine that I’m going to talk about was done by Naomi Uyama and Matt Smiley both originally from the Washington, DC area. They performed a routine to Artie Shaw’s “Frenesi” at the 2001 American Lindy Hop championships.
The song itself is non standard in a lot of ways. First is the frequency of breaks. On top of that are the huge differences in the feel of the rhythm of those breaks. Those breaks also often signal a sudden and drastic change in mood of the song from light and airy to ballsy and brassy. Then there’s Artie Shaw’s trademark use of strings, usually a deal breaker for most Lindy Hop DJ’s. It’s a challenging song even for experienced dancers just to social dance to, never mind choreographing a whole routine.
When I first saw this routine in person at ALHC that year, I thought they had only done a partially choreographed social dance. That sort of thing is rare, but not unusual for competitions. It took me a few repeated viewings (on tape no less) to finally figure out that the routine was choreographed. In my defense, I hadn’t been dancing for very long.
I think I mistook this performance for a social dance, albeit a very good one, because it has a very organic feel to it. Quite a few Lindy Hop routines are usually built around big, acrobatic aerials or some otherwise dramatic movements. This one definitely lacks any of those elements. The closest you get is the point at 1:44 where Naomi shines with her then newly acquired belly dancing skills.
The thing that always struck me about this part is the way that Matt literally drops out of the routine without breaking contact with Naomi. (The reason for that is the poorly explained rules for the division at the time which eventually affected the outcome of the contest.) Matt is a tall dude, much taller than Naomi. By dropping his level he disappears, but if you were somehow still looking at him, he makes sure to focus his attention on Naomi to help draw the audience to her. Matt himself gets his moment to shine at when he pops out from a simple under arm pass at 2:44. This time he uses his size to obscure Naomi for beat.
Despite these moments, this routine maintains a subtle theme of fun and playfulness while managing the shifts in mood of the song. With no standout singular moments, you have to consider the routine as a whole and not in parts. This caused me to focus on the way they moved and flowed from one section of the song to the next.
I remember Matt being one of the first people to talk about the concept of lines on an internet discussion board. Here’s his post on the subject from the “What Have You Been Working On” thread on SwingoutDC.com backin 2003.
The best dancers seem to know exactly what every muscle in their body is doing any given moment of the dance. Work on being mindful of what your muscles are doing and then work on doing it better. If you really want to get good lines, start imagining that every millisecond of your dance is being photographed, then mentally go through your movements millisecond by millisecond to make sure that each image captured will make the best picture possible. If you want to be better than good, then once you done that, start changing things up and take some real risks with your choices. [emphasis mine]
Check out these pics of the routine. They were originally posted a long time ago, and I can’t remember who took them or where I got them. If you have any info please let me know so I can give photo credits.
Many dancers these days focus on lines, but they tend to forget or ignore that last element that Matt talks about in his post. The danger is that straight lines are objectively easy to see and attempt to replicate. If everyone is going for the same lines, then naturally they’re all going to look the same. Deciding just on the right time to do something different is the risky part.
Going back to Naomi’s break at 1:44; she told me that she had just started to learn belly dancing not long before that event. In retrospect, she admitted that this particular moment probably wasn’t a good idea. However, that kind of risk in choices is what makes some routines more memorable than others.
Maybe the choice isn’t always right, but the ability to take risks is one of the things that separates great dancers from good ones. It’s the heart of what makes Lindy Hop a jazz dance. In fact that’s what I think makes jazz swing, more so than a tempo or a time signature.
You’re trying to take an inarticulate thing and take notes and make them come out in a way that moves you. If it moves you, it’s gonna move others. If you know it’s right and you feel this is something I meant, that happens. But very rarely does it happen, and when it does you remember it for the rest of your life. It’s most, what can I say, it’s the most exuberant experience you can have. It beats sex. It beats great food. It beats anything. When you get it right, you know that’s right.
The tricky part is that it’s not always right at the same time for anyone else as evidence by the fact that this performance originally came in 8th place. However, through a very convoluted set of circumstances that disqualified the seven couples that placed before them, Matt & Naomi eventually ended up in 1st place. That was because they earned one first place vote from Sylvia Sykes. How all that happened is another matter than can’t be recapped here succinctly. I’ll eventually talk about it in the “Artistry in Rhythm” paper that I am posting.
However, I would like to take a moment to point out this post by Matt on Yehoodi.com during the ensuing controversy.
I have been in a lot of competitions.
When I placed last I never felt that I was the worst dancer there.
When I placed first I never felt that I was the best dancer there.
Having now placed first, but really 6th or 7th still doesn’t affect my perception of my own dancing.
I have never used the judges scores to place value on art. What do I care what judge 77 or judge 96 thinks of my performance? I am not doing it for them. I am not doing it for a title either – it’s not going to help me find a job after I graduate. I’m not doing it for the plaque. Though prize money is a nice bonus, I’m not doing it for that either. I, and I suspect that most other competitors, put routines together for the sake of creating something beautiful. In my mind, the routine that Naomi and I performed was a tribute to a beautiful song and a gift to my friends in the audience who have inspired me so much over the past years, and who continue to inspire me today. My friends appreciated what I had made, so I have no guilty feelings about placement either way. My accomplishment is not, in my mind diminished, because my accomplishment was not based on some judges opinion. Whether we came in 1st, 7th, last or whatever, our routine served its purpose, and I am proud of it. I hope that all the other competitors (DQed or not) can feel the same way about their performances. Everyone did a fabulous job, and years from now when we (or even the next generation of dancers) look back on the tapes of 2001 ALHC, it won’t be the placements, but rather the merits of the routines that matter.
“There’s something to be said for putting something out there in the world. For making something where there was nothing. I’ve been so inspired by watching what some people have done with choreography, how they’ve expressed a song. I’ll rewatch strictlys sure, but sometimes choreographed pieces can be so rich I have to watch them 50 times to digest them, to appreciate them. That’s what I think should be rewarded- digestion time. There are flawless numbers that I watch once and thats all I need, I’ve seen it all before and I’ll see it all again, they didn’t push themselves artistically and it didn’t push me to take it in, truth be told it didn’t make me care. Then there are routines that you wish your brain had a tivo button installed for instant replays, for slow moes, for pausing to ponder on it. There haven’t been many but those are the ones I care about. Those are the ones that tend not to play the game but they are the ones that I think should win. I don’t care how many aerials they have, I don’t care if they have a minimum of 8 people dancing, I don’t care how long they don’t touch hands for, and I really don’t care what percentage the imaginary dance meter man will read on their lindy hop dials. I care if they make me want to watch a second time, a forty ninth time, if they make me care period.
This performance may easily get overlooked if it was done today. In fact, it was actually overlooked at the time it was done.
However, I never get tired of watching it – not just for the sake of watching it, but because it reminds me of why I like dancing. Up until that time I had a fairly narrow view of what could be expressed through the dance. This performance opened up a huge range of possibilities in my mind. Possibilities that I’m still exploring today.
As most Lindy Hoppers know, Naomi can still be found performing and teaching around the world.
Matt is no longer active in the national scene, but he does maintain his interest in movement through his blog “Stuff That Moves.”
The song “Frenesi” can be found on most Artie Shaw compilations. I recommend Begin the Beguine from Bluebird/RCA for a good 20 song overview of classic Shaw. If you’re more ambitious, there’s the Self Portrait box set which is a 5 disc compilation of songs personally chosen by Artie himself
You can order a copy of the 2001 ALHC on the ALHC web site.
I’ll leave you with the second and only other performance of this routine at The Danver’s New Year’s Dance Extravaganza 2001-02.