AIR pt. 15: Yin & Yang

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”

When asked, Fred Astaire liked to describe his dancing as an “outlaw style” because he didn’t want to be confined or limited.[1] However, competitions by their nature tend to do exactly that due to the narrow focus on winning rather than creative expression. That pressure tends to curb intellectual and creative honesty as Lucy Dunne talked about after NADC 2002.  Compounding this problem is the fact that the majority of performance opportunities available in the Lindy Hop community were mostly limited to the competition events.[2]

The irony is that many people generally fear being judged.[3] This causes them to fall back onto well worn tropes such as pointing at the audience, and generally avoid taking big artistic risks in their performances.  History illustrates that that aspect of being judged has always been part of American vernacular dances and is unlikely to go away.[4] Regardless, I think that this fear contributes to the previously noted pattern of one way communication that comes from the top to the rest of the community.

It’s natural for groups to rely on a small number of individual’s to guide and inspire the rest no matter what the endeavor.  Not everyone has the wherewithal to accumulate all the necessary tools to be the best Lindy Hopper they want to be.  It helps them to have a definite structure to climb.  It fits into the linear thinking that is particularly prevalent in western culture as evident in West Coast Swing with their point system and especially ballroom dance competitions and their accompanying level based curriculum.

“If I do A, B, & C, then I am a Level X dancer.  When I accomplish D, E, & F, I can move onto Level Y,” etc.  The structure gives people comfort, but it’s also easy to become a prisoner to that system by seeing conforming to that structure as the goal rather than a framework to build upon.

The general knock on Hollywood style dancers used to be that they tended to look contrived and formulaic.  It’s an easy observation to make because many people concentrated on replicating Erik & Sylvia’s look. The running joke asked, “How many Hollywood dancers does it take to change a light bulb?  None, because there’s no clip of Dean Collins doing it.”

However, that is not necessarily a characteristic unique to Hollywood Style.  It’s more of a philosophical shortcoming whenever people focus on replicating someone else’s style or success rather than trying to use the tools given to them to find their own voice.  It doesn’t matter if they are trying to imitate Erik and Sylvia or Steven Mitchell or Al Minns or Josephine Baker.  The tunnel vision that results from such focus usually limits people from other possibilities and results in an inflexible vision that doesn’t look quite right on them.

Decrying a similar stagnant state in martial arts in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Bruce Lee noted in an interview,

“Most people only live for their image, that is why where some have a self, a starting point, most people have a void, because they are so busy projecting themselves as this or that, wasting, dissipating all their energy in projection and conjuring up of a facade, rather than centering our energy on expanding broadening their potential or expressing and relaying this unified energy for efficient communication, etc.  When another human being sees a self-actualizing person walk past, he cannot help but say “Hey, now there is someone real.” [5]

In making her case to the Lindy Hop community in 2002, Janice Wilson argued that that it was important to re-emphasize the African heritage of Lindy Hop, which she felt had slipped to the wayside during its resurgence.  Jazz musician Bjørn Alterhaug best characterized the main contribution of the African tradition as, “the celebration of the unpredictable – improvisational – rooted in tradition and internalized knowledge and experience combined with a training to act ‘on the spot.’”[6]

However, she did not advocate emphasizing that side over the European influences.  Instead, they should work in conjunction with one another.

In merely trying to replicate other people’s ideas, people fail to appreciate the amount of work it takes to be good at anything and that is what Janice Wilson thought needed to be learned from the European contribution to Lindy Hop:  precision, control, and discipline.  However, that attitude flies against the instant gratification mindset that has become prevalent in the new, rapidly expanding, globalized society

This idea is manifested in beginner lesson at the beginning of many swing dances around the world.  Experienced dancers know that Lindy Hop is a fairly complex dance just to do adequately, but you’d never know that from the way promoters teach those 30-60 minute introductory lessons.  And it is not limited to beginners.  A Lindy Hop instructor once told me that one of the most common requests that she gets in private lessons with budding intermediate and advanced dancers is for her to tell them “the Secret.  The magic button that I push to become a “good” dancer.”

In studying intercultural conflicts, German researchers Ariane Berthoin and Victor J. Friedman, studied an interesting behavioral tendency in humans which they dubbed “Dangerous Learning.”  Essentially, people tend to exacerbate conflicts by imposing their pre-dispositions and assumptions into situations, locking themselves into comfortable, recognizable structures rather than making honest evaluations about themselves and the situations.

“The problem is that these same structures lead people to perceive what they already know (Weick 1979), making it difficult to pick up cues suggesting the need for a radical rethinking of interpretations or behavior. Thus, in cross-cultural conflicts, people’s reactions are rarely “Maybe I should reflect on how I may be misinterpreting the situation?” or “Maybe I should consider the logic in the other’s person’s arguments or actions?” The obvious fact of cultural differences is used to explain away the conflict rather than reflect on it. As a consequence, individuals become less receptive to information and feedback from their environments, making it difficult for them to learn new ways of interpreting reality and acting on them.”

There are hundreds of pages of posts on dozens of message boards around the world arguing over meaningless details between “Hollywood style” and “Savoy Style” or “Old School” vs. “Groove” because people find it easier to fall back onto what they know instead of exploring new ides or even worse, come to the realization that what they thought they knew before is incorrect.  This lead them to limit their access to new movements or creative ideas.

Conversely, Berthoin and Friedman emphasize that most people see conflicts as “endpoints” with dead ends as opposed to “openings for inquiry.”   Duke Ellington used to be fond of saying that “problems are opportunities to be your best.”  However, people tend to sacrifice opportunities for self criticism in exchange for rewards or some other form of positive reinforcement by retreading tired ground.  Artie Shaw saw that as a weakness of a Swing Era contemporary of Ellington, Glen Miller:

“Miller was, he had what you’d call a Republican band. It was, you know, very straight laced, middle of the road. And Miller was that kind of guy, he was a businessman. And he was sort of the Lawrence Welk of jazz. And that’s one of the reasons he was so big, people could identify with what he did, they perceived what he was doing. But the biggest problem, his band never made a mistake. And it’s one of the things wrong, because if you don’t ever make a mistake, you’re not trying, you’re not playing at the edge of your ability. You’re playing safely, within limits, and you know what you can do and it sounds after a while extremely boring.”[7]

For example, pointing to the audience is often considered pandering to the lowest common denominator in competitions.  However, that hasn’t lessened its use in competition pieces probably because it the most easily replicated.

Micromusicality is also fairly common feature in routines because I think it is easy for dancers to do and to show, however superficially, an audience that they are “connected” to the music.  Rather than interpreting the music, it conveys the image that the dancers are mere puppets of the music with no independent thought or emotion.  Many people uncritically appropriate this idea superficially thinking that this is part of the winning formula without understanding what made the rest of the routine look so appealing.

Skye Humphries noted the challenge of matching the music obviously versus emotionally and creatively:

“I feel like musicality, as I will continue to call it, is a great deal more than dancing to a beat, or even doing an aerial with “big” music. I feel like every music has a feeling. Every instrument and [] every song has a different feel. I think dancing with the music really just involves matching the mood of that music. A dancer should be an illustration of the song. It should be another way of looking at music. a kind of physical view of the music. I also feel like the dancer shouldn’t be totally controlled by the music. If you think about musicians when they take solos they aren’t just sticking to what everyone else is playing, they kind of play away from the set song. I think dancers can do this to, provided they come back to the music.

I feel like when I dance I want to kind of extend the music, kind of bring another sort of life to it. I think it is the hardest part of dancing, but one of the most important[8].”

Contrast this to the opinion from several years ago from a thread on Yehoodi, of one of the more vocal supporters of slower, groovier music, Greg Avakian a DJ:

“To sum it up, most “swingin’ ” music breathes, I don’t hear that as much in “swing era” music. You can dance anywhere around the beat you want to whether it’s laid back or not, but just because you can doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Dancing on top of the beat is very straight; dancing ahead of it is …well, not for me. I try to react to the music, since a recording can’t react to me[9].”

He does have a point in that a recording cannot react to him, but by limiting themselves to simply “reacting to” the music, dancers do not let themselves dance “with” the music. This philosophy is probably what drove the reliance on micromusicality. As a result many dancers let themselves be “controlled by the music” as Skye warned.

To illustrate this visually, let’s look at a video clip of the final round from the slow division of the 2005 Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown.  In particular I’m going to talk about Skye dancing with Naomi Uyama.

There is a specific move that I am going to talk about which starts from either open or closed position.  He brings Naomi into a close embrace as he leans back on his left foot while supporting her, before bringing her up again into a standing closed position.  Sounds simple enough, but check out how he makes it different each time he pulls it out.  The numbers refer to the time stamp in the clip.

2:53-They start off their first shine and Skye decides to make a statement by coming out big.  He pushes the beat, almost rushing the lean, but it gives him time to milk the slide coming out of it.

3:18-Second appearance of the lean and it is a contrast to the first by being small and subtle.  Starting from open instead of closed, he alters it some more by repeating the lean a second time in rhythm, before shyly stepping out of it.

3:26-Almost back to back with the previous sequence, still small, but with only one lean, no use of his left arm, and with more of a slide than the last time, but not as much as the first.

6:07-Second shine.  Starting from closed position, he goes big, grabbing air as he draws Naomi in, almost making her lunge through his body.  This takes a little extra time, so he forgoes the slide altogether coming out of it.

6:28-Coming off of a different move that draws the biggest reaction of the competition, Skye builds on that and delivers the coup de grace. He catches Naomi off of a spin from open position and forgoes the use of his left hand again.  It’s only a brief lean this time (at least relative to the others), but he makes up for it by taking to the air again coming out of it.  It’s brilliantly timed with a piano flourish.  Remember it’s a live band, so he doesn’t know it’s coming, he and the piano player just happen to be in the same place, musically and emotionally speaking.

7:06-It’s not over though.  In the all skate, the band begins to build to a climax.  Skye repeats the lean that’s in between the subtle and flashy ones he’s already done.

7:55-Previous to this, notice how big and expressive Skye and Naomi are, matching the intensity of the band, before bringing it back inwards as the band winds down.  Skye ends with the same move he started out with earlier, but making adjustments for the ending.  He starts to come out of it after the first lean, but sensing the music ending he repeats the lean twice more, working it in time to the piano coda and adds a little hop to the exit to go along with the final bass drum bomb.

Such dancing is not easy to learn and harder to actually perform.  It requires a high level of connection with the music, creative freedom, and physical control. The late jazz clarinetist, Artie Shaw, articulated the creative side:

“You’re in some realm of your own, and you’re trying to do something.  You’re aware of what you’re doing, you’re conscious, but you’re really letting yourself go.  I tried to explain it once, to a guy one time, it’s like jumping off of a cliff in the dark.  You don’t know what you’re gonna grab onto.  Whatever you grab onto, though, it’ll save your life.  And if you hit a note, or hit a note that you didn’t expect, you take that and make it part of what you’re doing.  And in that way you find yourself doing things you’d never have thought of before.  So you’re not planning it.”[10]

As most Lindy Hop dancers can attest, these are not concepts that are usually taught in weekly classes or even special workshops.  Rather these are revelations that come from intensive study, work and trial & error.

Janice Wilson warned that the negative affect of the European influence on Lindy Hop was an emphasis on technical perfection in the sense that it leads people to copy what has been successful before whether it was Sylvia Skylar’s swivels or contorting one’s own body to “match” the music.

She urged balance, but the community still struggles with how to achieve that.


[1] Taken from John Mueller’s DVD audio commentary of “Swingtime.”

[2] The other main motive for performing is for marketing; to demonstrate to non dancers how fun the dance is.

[3] We have an interesting phenomenon in DC where anytime a spontaneous jam breaks out, even the most experienced dancers tend to sit on the sidelines waiting for the dancers perceived to be at the top tier to enter the jam.  However, that only occurs when those dancers happen to be there.  When they are not, those same passive dancers are usually the first to enter jams, sometimes multiple times in the course of a few minutes.  I think this exemplifies a general intimidation that many dancers feel in the presence of who they consider “better” dancers.

[4] “Already at the beginning of jazz dancing, there fore different with different interests has come to have an investment in “authentic” jazz dance.  Ever since, jazz dance criticism (like jazz music criticism) has had its cartographers, critics who found it important to chart the boundaries of where dances came from and who devote considerable energy to erecting or denouncing those boundaries, and praising or condemning those who transgress them.” P.74 in reference to quote by Zora Neale Hurston commenting on whites imitating blacks in 1920’s found in  (Hurston 1995, 844-5) Folklore, Memoirs & their writings 1995” The Cambridge Companion to Jazz “Jazz & Dance” by Robert P. Creese

[5] P. 54Bruce Lee: The Celebrated Life of the Golden Dragon Edited by john Little

[6] “Improvisation on a triple theme: Creativity, Jazz Improvisation and Communication” by Bjørn Alterhaug.  http://www.arkitektnytt.no/files/news/SMN-04-5-Alterhaug1.pdf last accessed 12/1/09

[7] Interview with Artie Shaw for Ken Burns’ Jazz from the PBS web site http://www.pbs.org/jazz/about/pdfs/Shaw.pdf Pg 12 last accessed July, 2007

[8] Unfortunately, I can only cite myself citing someone else who posted it on JiveJunction.com.  I did find the original post on the original Jive Junction forum on www.Delphi.com last year.  Since then, the administrators of Delphi have restructured and placed old posts in an archive with limited access.  Since I am unwilling to pay to upgrade my membership to retrieve the exact url, you’ll just have to take my word that Skye wrote it, or you could just ask him. http://www.yehoodi.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?p=742311&highlight=musicality#742311 last accessed July, 2007

[9] “Is the national lindy scene becoming divided?” Posted: Sat May 10, 2003 1:45 pm by Swingboy aka Greg Avakian http://www.yehoodi.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=60260&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=390&sid=04c009251f4153fabd1b2e14040db37d last accessed July, 2007

[10] Interview with Artie Shaw for Ken Burns’ Jazz from the PBS web site http://www.pbs.org/jazz/about/pdfs/Shaw.pdf Pg 12 last accessed July, 2007

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19 Comments

  1. December 10, 2009 at 3:01 am

    Every time you manage to blow my mind.
    You are so awesome for posting this here! I am in eternal gratefulness to you!!!

    • Jerry said,

      December 10, 2009 at 10:12 am

      You’re welcome. 🙂 It’s been a bit of a struggle these parts out because I’m revising and re-writing a lot of stuff. But I think I’ve gotten a better handle on where I want to take this so hopefully the rest won’t take that long to post.

  2. David said,

    December 10, 2009 at 10:41 am

    It’s funny that you note that many who ask for privates want the magic button. It seems many people take the causual, improvisational spirit of jazz to mean that intense study similar to other dances such as ballet and ballroom are not needed. It seems many of the best dancers devote intense study not just just to swing but to other dances as well such as tap, african jazz or belly dancing. Could it not be that talent and training are limiting the ability of dancers to be more genuine more than the competition enviroment? Accepting of course that competition does influence the artistic choices of dancers.

    • Jerry said,

      December 10, 2009 at 11:18 am

      This will be addressed more in depth in the upcoming parts, but in short, I don’t think so. Talent and training don’t have anything to do with being honest. It can make you more “articulate” in what you want to say than others who don’t have the same amount of training, but ultimately being genuine is a value that’s not entirely dependent on skill.

      • David said,

        December 10, 2009 at 12:42 pm

        I look forward to reading the future posts on that subject. To clarify I did not say that talent and training are the only factors. Far from it. I was just posing the question that perhaps talent and training are less developped in the lindy world than some other dances. As you say talent and training helps you become articulate and if there are not enough articulate voices out there then it is harder to have an artistic dialogue. So my question for further reflection would be to what extent is dialogue limited by the medium of exchange (ie competions) versus the number of articulate voices. In advance I am thinking that the greater the number of articulate voices there are (namely having the necessary tools), the more likely that more of them will find their own artistic expression regardless of the medium of exchange.

  3. Kevin said,

    December 10, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    I agree with David. I think that in Lindy Hop, strong technique and understanding are seen as divorced from, or even contrary to, good honest dancing. It reminds me of a discussion my good friend Luke was in with someone who commented that he was too focused on technique and wasn’t “feeling” the music enough. Finally he responded,
    ” Look, I’m practicing my technique and my dancing so that I have the freedom to do what I want on the dance floor.”
    That simplicity really stuck to me. Expression without form and control isn’t art, it’s merely catharsis. A technically great Lindy Hopper with no passion or spontaneity has only quotations to give, and spirited and passionate Lindy Hopper who doesn’t have a strong command of the language speaks mostly to himself. Both situations can be enjoyable, but combined is when real communication happens. I feel that many people misunderstood the type of dance that Skye did in instances like your clip as being too wild and spontaneous and uncontrolled, and now that I look back at it, it’s simply much less “safe” in the terms of adhering to the middle of the road of what people accept as Lindy Hop. Great art and dancing aren’t bursts of emotion. They start there, and then they’re given form and purpose and then communicated as art, and this is what I feel is Skye’s greatest talent as a dancer (which I could put into words thanks to this awesome article).
    Not that he has super duper cool moves, or that his style is super distinct, but that his dancing and his lead (his artistic and technical) are one and the same. His dancing IS his lead.
    Go team

  4. December 11, 2009 at 4:19 am

    […] fantastically talented friend Jerry has an amazingly brilliant blog called Wandering & Pondering. He is gradually posting an essay he wrote about the modern lindy hop community and how it became […]

  5. Alex said,

    December 11, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Jerry. Two Thumbs Up!

  6. Katie said,

    December 12, 2009 at 1:43 am

    Hi Jerry,
    Thanks for this blog!
    I have one comment–I’ve always loved watching people contort their bodies to match music / loved watching people do things that look “controlled by the music.” I definitely see how that’s not art…but…well…neither is holographic-rainbow tinsel, but I sure did love getting to be at a table covered in such a tablecloth at an office Christmas party tonight. 🙂

    What I’m saying is…I don’t want artists to be unhappy, but if someone doesn’t give me my holographic-rainbow-shiny–oops, I mean micro-musicality!–I will spend a little less of my free time watching competitions and a little more if it looking for that somewhere else (like maybe at a drill team competition or something). 🙂

    • Jerry said,

      December 12, 2009 at 3:00 am

      Katie, I think saying that it’s not art is too harsh. And that’s not what I’m going for here. What I am trying to illustrate is that some people have been aiming for something, and not quite getting there, or just not even sure what they are trying for to begin with. This blog is just another way to explore those possibilities.

  7. julius said,

    February 10, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    I think one of the most useful explications of artistry I have ever encountered is the concept of “imitation, assimilation, and innovation”. I’ve mentioned it on Yehoodi and Jive Junction about a billion times before, but the evolution of artistry passes through those three phases. Most lindy hoppers get stuck at imitation. A few realize that you can derive inspiration from more than just one source, and a VERY few discover that they themselves have become inspiring, i.e. they are truly innovating.

    It’s a little muddy when applied to Lindy Hop, since as you discovered, innovations in modern Lindy Hop can actually take the form of resurrecting the past.

    Not to be too self-congratulatory, but I believe this concept is what binds all your chapters of Artistry In Rhythm together. Mad Dog and Minnie’s Moochers were innovators. The WLHC debate was about killing innovation. The evolution of Hollywood Style was imitation followed by assimilation — and so on.

    • Jerry said,

      February 10, 2010 at 11:20 pm

      I’ve always been a fan of your thoughtful posts online over the years. You bring up excellent points and its basically where my posts are going. For awhile I was lamenting the lack of originality in the scene no matter what period, but its become apparent that precious few people are truly going to lead any creative community and most everyone else is going to be followers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think its something that people should be more aware of especially those that are planning to take a more active role in our scene.

      • julius said,

        February 11, 2010 at 2:38 pm

        I have never been able to decide whether innovation and creativity in Lindy Hop is good or not. Let’s face it, we are dancing an extremely old dance that is unlikely to ever become mainstream (if it ever was). If you innovate too much, it is no longer Lindy Hop. If you innovate too little, you are just aping the past and the dance will die out once again.

        When “groove dancing” was king I felt that we needed to innovate less and focus more on the spirit that had been lost. Innovation these days consists of ever higher standards of athleticism in competition, but there is a limit there too — eventually you just wind up doing rock and roll aerials at amazing tempos.

        In my opinion we have recaptured the spirit of Lindy Hop; pretty much everybody (except Greg Avakian) at least recognizes the importance of preserving that spirit. But we need to focus on one last attribute from the past that is virtually extinct today — joy. When I watch top competitors I am rarely moved by their passion, because I don’t see any. For many of them, dancing has become a job, figuratively and literally.

      • Jerry said,

        February 11, 2010 at 9:38 pm

        My latest project is ripping videos from old tapes just to show that joy. A lot of people write off dancing from back then, but there’s a great energy and vibrancy about the dancing of some of those dancers that really isn’t matched by newer dancers dancing twice as long and ten times as skilled. The question becomes how, do you teach that or at least pass that on? Or is the structure and size of our scene going to naturally limit that?

  8. March 21, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    […] March 21, 2010 at 12:24 pm (Uncategorized) Artie Shaw on creativity in Jazz: “You’re in some realm of your own, and you’re trying to do something.  You’re aware of what you’re doing, you’re conscious, but you’re really letting yourself go.  I tried to explain it once, to a guy one time, it’s like jumping off of a cliff in the dark.  You don’t know what you’re gonna grab onto.  Whatever you grab onto, though, it’ll save your life.  And if you hit a note, or hit a note that you didn’t expect, you take that and make it part of what you’re doing.  And in that way you find yourself doing things you’d never have thought of before.  So you’re not planning it.”[10] […]

  9. Sara Wallen said,

    December 15, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    You’ve distracted me from the university work I should have been doing. THANK YOU – fascinating – I’ve been dancing for nearly 4 years now and you’ve offered me real insight into what I’ve seen hints of at various camps, exchanges, and videos online.

    The Lindy community is clearly subject to fashions, crazes, waves and distractions just like everything else – and crucially, nothing is set in stone. It’s wonderful.

    Thanks again. I’m blogging you up to for our local dancers in Bristol, UK 🙂

    • Jerry said,

      December 15, 2010 at 2:37 pm

      You’re welcome. I’m glad I can provide some distraction from across the pond.


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