AIR pt. 14: The Plot Twist

This is part of a paper I wrote entitled “Artistry In Rhythm: Dialogue Through Dance in the Lindy Hop community.”  Previous and future posts can be found by searching my blog for the category “Artistry In Rhythm”

Two years ago, I compiled a list of my favorite routines from The American Lindy Hop Championships in response to an open request by that event’s promoter. As I was making the list, I discovered that I found it harder and harder to come up with stand out moments as time went on.  It wasn’t because the dancing was bad—in fact it was much better technically as years pass—but very little stood out creatively in the way Minnies’ Moochers, Jenn Salvadori & Justin Zillman, or Mad Dog did during their times.

Upon reviewing many of the routine divisions from 2003 and on, it seemed to me that that people became acclimated to the “competition philosophy” that Paul Overton prophesized in the 1999 WLHC debate.

The best example of this occurred at the 2006 Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown when Dan Newsome and Tiffany Wine performed a routine to the same song that the Silver Shadows did at this same event in 2005.  The Silver Shadows were founded by several members of Mad Dog (Nina Gilkenson, Naomi Uyama, Andy Reid and Skye Humphries)

The song was “Rock N’ Rye” by Earl Hines.  Not only did Dan and Tiffany perform to the same song, but they also replicated a few movements to at exactly the same moments in the music that the Silver Shadows did a year previous.

Considering that they performed it only a year later at the same event, it’s unlikely that Dan and Tiffany had any ill intentions.  It may have been a homage or simply an insiders’ nod, but instead it came across as simply derivative.

This turned out to be a harbinger of things to come.

In 2007, Skye Humphries and Frida Segerdahl won the Choreography Showcase at the 2007 Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown with this routine.

A year later, in the aftermath of  the first International Lindy Hop Championships, Nicole Frydman made the following observation about the Classic division at that event.

“An interesting note, almost the entire Classic division at ILHC this year reminded me of Frida and Skye’s routine and after talking to more than a few of the competitors, they all admitted they were inspired by that very routine.”[1]

Around the same time, Nick Williams noted something similar in the dance scene in general in his Lindybloggers interview.

“Also, I see some dancers who are very unique (which is great) but those who copy those great unique people don’t fully understand the movement and the lead so they are doing a caricature of that person and it never turns out well.”[2]

The irony of Mad Dog was that it was created to get people to think about the dance differently than they were doing at the time.  But rather than liberating themselves from old paradigms, it seems as if many dancers merely traded one set of rules for another—copying Mad Dog’s style if not spirit.

The main problem with the community’s attempts at artistic dialogue is that communication seems to only go one way: from top tier dancers to the rest of the community.  That’s not dialogue, that’s a sermon.

Written dialogue on the internet has proven to be a limited medium for a subject such as dancing, which needs to be seen and in some respects felt.  Otherwise most online discussions just resulted in mis-communications and bruised egos.

It’s becoming more limited as online forums are being abandoned in favor of social networks formed on sites such as Facebook as recently observed by one of the administrators of Yehoodi, Lindy Hop’s largest online forum.[3] Forums can provide a “public square” for anyone to participate and exchange ideas.  However, that openness probably contributed to people withdrawing from those forums as some discussions got too heated especially for more casual participants.  Some discussions still occur through social networking sites like Facebook, but they tend to take place within a more select group of people that theoretically share many of the same values.

Performances by Minnie’s Moochers and Mad Dog proved that the most effective form of communicating ideas in the dance community is on the dance floor itself.  In fact competition performances with the help of online video sites such as Youtube, Daily Motion, or Vimeo are now the dominant form of creative exchange in the scene today as demonstrated by the reaction to Skye & Frida’s 2007 ULHS performance

However, competitions are limited in some respects because they pressure dancers into a particular kind of dancing; to be direct about their motivations when choreographing routines or even in social dance contests. There’s not as much incentive to take creative risks unless winning isn’t a top priority.  That’s one of the reasons why a dancer as accomplished as Skye Humphries has played a role in many of these significant performances.

I do realize that these criticisms of dance competitions are unfair because competitions are not primarily artistic venues.  They are contests, and contests are usually designed to reward “better” not “different” or even “interesting” in part because “better” is easier to quantify and rank.

One of the pioneers of organized competitions in the West Coast Swing community, Annie Hirsch, noted about judging dance contests, “First thing that jumps out at me as a judge is Technique.  . . .  One side pass and I know that the technique is good or not good.”[4] Specifically she talks about the “Three T’s of Timing, Teamwork, and Technique” which are some of the most consistent hallmarks in the rules of most WCS competitions. They have also made their way into the rules for the American Lindy Hop Championships and other Lindy Hop competitions.

This is part of what leads dancers to forgo artistic risk and focus on simply dancing better than everyone else.  Then other people looking to these performances for inspiration replicate that.  This in turn promotes the sameness and structured rigidity.  This is the domino effect on community values that the debaters in the WLHC controversy feared would take root in Lindy Hop.

But can this be the only outcome of competitions?  Naomi Uyama provides her perspective as a veteran of several Lindy Hop competitions.

“Competition [truly] challenges me, but not in the way you think. It puts me in a situation where I am literally being judged, I’m putting myself in front of a huge crowd of people, and I am challenged to remember who I am during it. I have to remember what is important while I’m out there. I have to be completely present, trust, and enjoy the ride.  . . . . So there is a purpose for competition, it is to know it is an illusion and love it for allowing you to remember yourself in those crazy conditions, cause if you can do that there, you can do it anywhere and always, and then your dancing is free.”[5]

Probably one of the most powerful statements made in a Lindy Hop competition was made by a man that really had nothing to lose.  In 2004, despite going through the late stages of Lou Gherig’s Disease, Craig Hutchison made the trip from his home in Virginia to Connecticut and entered the Masters Division at ALHC that year with Nici Mahlandt.  They performed a short dance to Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me.”

Barely able to walk, actually hobbling on the dance floor and exerting an incredible amount of effort into even the most basic movements for no other reason other than to show that he still could.  It was a heart wrenching statement by a man who had already given 40 years of his life to making the dance community better.  It brought several observers to tears as he struggled on the dance floor to give it one more, very personal message.  He would pass away three years later.

So far this paper has detailed a community’s struggle to bring a vintage dance back to life in modern times. But this process brings up an interesting  question of how people use the dance to reconcile their own sense of identity, and how that tension affects the dance on the floor today and in the future.


[1] http://www.yehoodi.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?p=951078#951078 last accessed 11/15/09

 

[2] “Interview with Nick Williams” by Bobby White http://www.lindybloggers.com/2008/09/29/interview-with-nick-williams/ last accessed 11/23/09

[3] “Facebook vs. Yehoodi: Social network deathmatch” by rikomatic (site administrator) http://www.yehoodi.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=87416 last accessed 11/23/09

[4] Yehoodi.com interview: “Makin’ or Breakin’ The Rules” http://www.yehoodi.com/talk/shows/YArc_MakinorBreakintheRules.mp3 last accessed July, 2007

[5] “The Illusion of Contests” blog posted y Naomi Uyama on 6/10/06 http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=82763234&blogID=131168195&Mytoken=93271316-8892-4CDE-B085177371A88A2179037613 last accessed July, 2007

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2 Comments

  1. Alice said,

    November 24, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    “The main problem with the community’s attempts at artistic dialogue is that communication seems to only go one way: from top tier dancers to the rest of the community. That’s not dialogue, that’s a sermon.”
    WOW.

  2. David said,

    November 27, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I appreciate and agree with your sentiments in your articles about the importance of and difficulty of creating an artistic dialogue. I think it is difficult to create a meaningful dialogue with dancers at different levels or even at your own level. It depends upon the person of course, but often times practices turn more into how to do a move rather concentrating on expressing your own moevement more authenticly. I would like to see more people create their own practices in which they ask what affect their dancing is portraying. If more people took this approach locally then I believe the national scene’s preferences at dance weekends would also change.

    Nevertheless, it is wonderful to read your AIR series and see how the modern history of lindy has grown. It certainly shows me that dialogue is taking place at some level however imperfectly. I also appreciate your comments as a contribution to that dialogue and an attempt to further it in a thoughtful way.


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