Creativity & Competitions

While I was away at DCLX, I got some interesting and well thought out comments in last week’s post, “Your Bio Sucks.” I’m way too busy this week to respond, but then I remembered that I’ve already addressed some of the issues brought up there in a series of posts a year and a half ago in a thread on Yehoodi entitled “How To Get Professional.” That thread turned towards the role of competitions in our community, and I eventually belted out one particular reply which is relevant to the current discussion.  I am re-posting it below.

That Yehoodi thread went on forever, so if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I’d like to point out Lucy Dunne’s brilliant post on fostering creativity in competitive situations.  You may remember me mentioning Lucy a few times, most notably in her and Ben Furnas’s send up of compeitions at the 2000 ALHC.

I do realize that this only partially addresses some of the issues in the comments, but I’m hoping the other project that I’m working on will address the others in a rather interesting way very soon.  Until then, read on.

It s a damn shame that most of the Yehoodi archives got toasted because there was an amazing discussion after NADC 2002 (North Atlantic Dance Championships), and leading up to the first Harlem Jazz Dance Festival where Janice Wilson laid out the vision of her event and challenged the community to think about and discuss what everyone valued. It introduced the word vernacular into the modern Lindy Hop community’s vocabulary, and was remarkable because it was the last time many of the top tier dancers of the time participated in an online discussion en masse.

Lots of people took different things out of that thread, but this is what I learned:  There’s a difference between doing a “swing out” and swinging out. Everyone here can do the former. (I would hope)  Nina Gilkenson and Mikey Pedroza showed us an example of the latter at this year s Camp Hollywood/National Jitterbug Championships starting at 3:58 on this clip.

Does anyone here seriously think that there’s a way to teach that?  Can you even do it justice by trying to describe it with the written word?  Something happened there that can’t be learned if you took workshops and private lessons from here until the day you die.  It’s not something that can be boiled down to just the three T’s of Timing, Teamwork, and Technique.  It’s about heart, soul, and passion. That’s the originality that I m talking about, not just some new aerial or footwork combination. Watch the other ten minutes of that contest, and no one reacts the same way like they do to Mikey and Nina.

I like no holds barred contests, and I don’t mind that judges for most events don’t list what they look for in a comp.  I feel that this forces people to dig down deep inside and show us what they’re about.  When we’re lucky, they tap into that intangible factor that makes judges jump out of their seats, fellow competitors scream, and the whole crowd go apesh!t crazy for 10 swingouts. Some of the craziest aerials and stunts I’ve ever seen in a contest happen in that clip and Mikey and Nina almost started a riot with ten examples of the most basic pattern in Lindy Hop.

I’m not comfortable with categories, and I distrust most definitions. The word definition is based on the word finite, which would seem to indicate that once we ve defined something, we don t need to think about it anymore.  -Artie Shaw

Dave you mentioned that you ve been dancing for 14 years, and that you’re pretty comfortable with Lindy Hop.  So why do you or anyone else need the input of all these judges?  To win?  And then what?  To become a professional dancer?  Is this a competition or a marketing opportunity?  Honestly, I don t see how you can advocate getting people to make original contributions to the dance, but also be on a mission to fulfill someone else s preconceived notions.

Great dancing, or art in general, isn t just about technical skill, or even how creative you can be.  Important factors?  Certainly.  But there’s also the ability to reach out to an audience and get them to react on an emotional level; to see what you see rather than settling by just giving them what they want, whatever you think that is.

Yes, the choreography for Skye and Frida s 2007 routine was relatively simple, especially if you compare it to some of the stuff that people can throw down today. But complexity of movement wasn’t the point.  They had a little idea that they wanted to explore and share with everyone.  How you measure that? You can’t, which is why competitions suck for these kinds of things, but they’re the main venue we have right now for dancers to showcase their ideas. So until a more creative outlet comes along, I think it would be a better to have fewer rules in place in order to continue and encourage dialogue.

Dave mentioned having a continuous conversation about our dance, and I agree, but most of the arguments for this debate are ultimately going to be made on the dance floor. For better or worse, competitions are our main forums for this discussion.

Go back to my Silver Shadows example.  Even with what seemed like an objective standard, there was still a difference of opinion that cost the Shadows.  They had thought they had choreographed enough movement to fulfill the judges expectations.  They were wrong.

Theoretically, I could have gotten seven of my friends, did swingouts for 3 minutes, and beaten the Silver Shadows. (assuming there weren’t six other teams in the division :P) As awesome as that sounds to me, what would have anyone gotten from that?

That s what this mentality of inventorying judges opinions and setting official standards says to me.  Play it safe, color within the lines, and you’ll do well.  Judges: I want to see this. Competitor:  Here it is.  End of discussion.  Swing Heil.

In my opinion, the best way to keep this conversation going is to let the dancers dance; to show us what they have by fostering an environment where people can contribute their ideas without being held prisoner to other people’s expectations. Besides, it’s not like we don t have standards in the form of vintage clips and the great new dancing that happens every year.

Some people want the best aspects of these clips enumerated in some sort of easy to reference list, but as I’ve mentioned before on this thread:

. . . . people are always looking for an easy to follow recipe to win more competitions, become a professional dancer, or what religion or political party, if any, to follow. And the answer that people don t like to hear is that its all very complicated and depends on a lot of stuff, some of which you can control, and a lot of which you can t. But they don t have time for that kind of critique or self reflection especially for something like Lindy Hop.

What are we about?  Are we about certain types of music?  How fast or slow our dancing is?  What kind of lines we can draw with our bodies?  To me, all that stuff is incidental.  Who are you?  Why do you dance?  What do you want to say?  How are you going to tell other people?  Those are the core questions that I think, if answered honestly and courageously, will keep this conversation going on the dance floor.


  1. Apache said,

    April 15, 2010 at 11:39 am

    “There’s a difference between doing a “swing out” and swinging out.”

    This, is it. It is so difficult to try to convey this concept to people who don’t understand it.

  2. Kevin said,

    April 20, 2010 at 2:57 am

    I’ve been thinking about this apparent contradiction within our scene, the one I posted about in “your bio sucks”, and it actually started bothering me up until a few days ago. Then I read this, and I started thinking about it differently. and I realized something.

    “How do you compete for the judges while being yourself and still feed off of the crowd without being a sham and still get gigs?”

    You can’t. You’re not supposed to. You have to choose to dance for yourself or for others. You have to choose to either share yourself or sell yourself.

    In a way, watching competitors like Andrew Hsi or Todd Yannacone or Mikey and Nina are reminders that we don’t judge ourselves the same way other organized dance competitions do. We’re much more similar to modern dance than we are ballroom or ballet. We have only a vague outline of what makes us us. Whenever we try to peg down what Lindy Hop should look like, someone comes along and blows our perceptions out of the water. And we love it.

    What I’ve realized is that our competitions aren’t actually competitions. We don’t actually compete against anyone or anything, and as far as I know, dancers don’t strategize on how to beat other dancers. We just don’t yet have a better avenue of sharing in the high pressure, highly visible, highly improvisational way that works best for our dance. Jam circles are probably the closest thing we have. Our competitions are about creation, and the winner tends to be whomever creates that energy that everyone can share in.

    So I’ve come to believe that our competitions are our venue to share who we are and why we dance the dance we do, and those that stand out are those that remind us that we are a living, breathing, growing, dance.

    Go team

  3. Neima, aka One man flash mob. said,

    April 24, 2010 at 8:43 pm


  4. Neima said,

    April 26, 2010 at 6:04 am

    Great post. I found out about this blog because my friend told me that I was featured on it. I will reply to that post later, when I have prepared. It’s good to see that there are people who think about Lindy Hop even more than I do.

    In addition to everything else they achieved, Mike and Nina got the band behind them during those 10 swing-outs. “Watch the other ten minutes of that contest, and no one reacts the same way like they do to Mickey and Nina.” Of all the people watching the competitors, the most important were the band members. They were watching closely. When they saw Mike and Nina throw down that groove they jumped on it. After the second swing out, the band starts to swing the shit out of that riff! I want to ask Mike and Nina if they heard that and just kept on going.

    I’m sure everyone who reads this blog has heard Frankie Manning’s story about landing his first airstep in a competition. When I heard him tell that story I remember him saying that the band was watching him and they hit a break as his partner hit the floor. Frankie had aura, he inspired the band. Mike and Nina had that too. The fact that dancers and musicians are able to feed off of each other at this level is a better indication of Lindy Hop’s ‘cultural vitality’ than the progress of air steps, growth in workshop attendance, or the popularity of Lindy clips on Youtube.

    “What are we about? Are we about certain types of music? … To me, all that stuff is incidental.”

    I am about Lindy Hoping to live music. This is an improvisational dance. With recorded music half of the dancer’s “improvisational horizon,” the band’s response to his dancing, is lost. The problem that I have with competitions is that the economy of judgement motivates dancers to sacrifice musicality to sensationalism. Why were Mike and Nina’s 10 swingouts so mind-blowing? They were an order of magnitude closer to the music than anyone else.

    “Yes, the choreography for Skye and Frida s 2007 routine was relatively simple, especially if you compare it to some of the stuff that people can throw down today. But complexity of movement wasn’t the point. They had a little idea that they wanted to explore and share with everyone. How you measure that?”

    I’d say Skye and Frida created a routine that was more musical than everyone else’s. One reason Skye and Frida were dancing way closer so close to the music than anyone else is their song choice. They used a fun, dynamic, expressive song and maintained an intense, close connection to it (and each other) for the duration of the performance. I just took a look at Max and Annie’s, Dax and Alice’s, and Henric and Joanna’s UHLS 2007 routines. They used songs that very loud and exciting, but lacked dynamics and offered less ground for musicality. All of these dancers were extraordinarily musical for most of their performance, but there were a few moments when they exchanged musicality for brilliant ground-breaking moves or air steps. Their songs were fast, making improvisation much more difficult.

    • Jerry said,

      April 26, 2010 at 10:56 pm

      Thanks for the response. No time to respond in depth now, but good points especially about the live music factoring into the Camp Hollywood contest. Welcome to the blog.

  5. October 11, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    […] do. I was re-reading some of Jerry’s old posts and one really stood out to me. He wrote about Creativity & Competitions a while back and I just wanted to throw in my two cents to the epic lindy loggers […]

  6. January 10, 2011 at 3:22 am

    […] with my peers. And I compete because every once in a while, when all the stars are aligned, I can share an emotional moment with an audience and give them something to […]

  7. April 23, 2011 at 7:46 am

    I´m so glad i found this!
    This is exactly the kind of thing that moves in my head right now, and as pointed out it also applies to other artforms (in my case acting).

    At the moment i´m frustrated on a personal level from dancing to the “wrong” music all the time. Not because i think one MUST dance to Benny Goodman but because i feel that if you never even dance to actual swing you lose the attitude and thus a big part of the creative expression (a bit like dressing up like a punkrocker without ever having heard the Sex Pistols or talked to a real punk.Thats Halloween, not expression or attitude).

    My instructor teaches Ballroom (international 10 dances / standard – Latino),Salsa,Boogie Woogie , and the Swedish swing dance Bugg too and i sometimes get the feeling he gets a bit Ballroom on us in the Lindy too.

    He often emphasize that dancing is 50% theater and he should thus be aware that there is more than the steps that differ between Lindy and Quickstep EVEN if you should dance to the same song.

    So i spin her this way and i pass her that way, back Charleston and then some jig kicks…..but where´s the sailor on shore leave in Paris 1944?

    Where´s the guy who´s gonna show the Savoy how it´s done?

    And it´s not only the Lindy character but also the character of the song and perhaps even the ambience in the house, on the floor, between the partners.

    To feel restricted in competition might be irritating but to feel that in social dancing is downright infuriating.

    I might never compete (i have only danced for 3 years) and if i do i might not win. That ok. I just want to leave the floor having given me, my partner and whoever looks on an experience…a lasting one.

    In my eyes Lindy will always have more in common with Hip Hoppers and B boys / girls than Viennese Waltz.
    It is a street dance before it´s anything else. It is the guy and the girl, not the buttocks in and the rebounce.

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