The Line

I was at an event a few years ago chatting with another dancer during the last dance of the weekend.  We were watching a particular follow, and I’ll admit we were not paying attention to her connection or style; we were just straight up checking her out, and her considerable . . .  talents.  But oddly enough, the more we watched her, the less attractive she became.  It just came down to the fact that we just didn’t like her dancing.

This was a significant moment to me because up until that point it was fairly easy to identify what I didn’t like in a person’s dancing based mostly on their technical deficiencies.  We were (an still are to a certain extent) collectively learning how to connect and how the dance generally worked.  I’m talking about a time when people thought that Hollywood and Savoy were two entirely different dances and stopped dancing when they couldn’t find enough people to agree with them.  But here was an advanced dancer with no such issues.  I just couldn’t get into any of the creative or stylistic choices she was making.

A recent discussion in the comments section on a previous post makes it sound like I’m being overly hard on a person who is otherwise considered an excellent dancer.  For the purposes of that discussion, I will admit that I am.  But that’s only because I’m comparing that person to his dance peers, of which I (me personally) think only includes maybe 40 people in the whole world.

I mentioned in my 1st anniversary post that I’m not necessarily interested in perpetuating this unofficial social hierarchy that’s been established around our very best dancers.  Or at least the most popular ones.  However, it’s hard to have an intelligent conversation without singling these people out, and pinpointing their strengths and weaknesses if only to help ourselves identify what we want to achieve through dance.

Because of this, I’ve come to the realization that some dancers are just going to be put on pedestals, atop a social structure that other people want to climb.  Given what I’ve observed in other social situations, I tend to think that this is unavoidable.

When you work hard at your craft and put yourself out there especially in situations specifically to be judged, observers are going to look at you closer than they would most other people.  That’s just the way it is.  In a way, the Lindy scene is like a secret democracy where candidates may often do not realize that they are running for the office of “dance leader” until they are elected.

It is quite interesting to watch people purposefully “run fo roffice” and try to work their way up this vague social ladder.  It’s especially amusing in the sense that I’m not sure these people realize that they want to be included in the kind of conversation we reserve for these top dancers.  In talking about the majority of the Lindy population, I tend to use a relatively pretty low standard; Mostly because everyone is just learning and enjoying themselves through this social dance.  When I’m looking at most videos that pop up on YouTube, I tend to evaluate effort more than execution.

When we start talking about what certain top dancers can and cannot do, it can be downright brutal because it’s such a high standard that can be only really be appreciated when you focus in on the little things.  Of course when you get this close, it becomes easy to sound like you’re delegitimizing everything else about them.

Does it have to be that way?  For the purposes of specific, narrow conversations?  I don’t see why not actually.  This is how we learn.  But in the end we have to keep some sort of perspective.

A friend of mine recently emailed me about her high school reunion.   The Lindy scene often gets compared to a perpetual high school, and I think it’s an apt description.  Just like school you socialize and work with a range of people that you wouldn’t normally know under any other circumstances.  The main difference is that it’s possible to be around these people for a super long time.  I’ve been seeing some people several times a month for 10 years now, and its probable that I’ll see some of them on a regular basis for years, maybe decades to come.

Because of that I think it’s necessary to practice some détante with people you don’t have anything in common with outside of dancing in order to maintain some level of harmony.  Unfortunately that also keeps public criticism to a minimum.

I miss the old Jive Junction message board which was a Lindy Hop forum based out of Southern California and run by Reuben Brown.  It was often crass and juvenile, but almost always brutally honest.  And most importantly, it was populated by people who knew what they were talking about.  Dancers like Peter Loggins, Mike Faltesek, and a whole host of others, even Nick Williams, were not afraid to call each other out on whatever nonsense was going on the floor or online.  And people weren’t afraid to come right back at them and  tell them that they were full of sh!t.  Sure enough, the in your face approach drove off the more sensitive egos but it produced far more interesting conversations than forums like Yehoodi did/does with a more kid gloves moderating approach.

The most important thing I learned from Jive Junction is that you can be nerdtastically passionate about the dance, while still remembering that it is just a dance.  No one is going to die because of it.  Well, except for that one time in Herrang.  But other than that, it’s not typically a life or death matter.

In the aftermath of Frankie’s passing last year, quite a few leaders in our scene were humbled by what Frankie accomplished by being so generous and welcoming.  I’ve heard quite a few of them tell me that they’re backing off on their criticisms of each other.  It’s a nice sentiment I guess, but sometimes we lose something when we trade honesty for harmony.

Skye Humphries once told me that one of the most important things that happened to him when he was still an up and coming, but highly regarded dancer, was Steven Mitchell taking him aside one day just to remind him that he wasn’t that good.  Skye is one of the most humble people I know, and I think experiences like that is what helps him keep things in perspective.

I’m not claiming to be Steven Mitchell, but I’d like to continue to look and write about our little scene with a measure of honesty and an eye towards learning from everyone’s strengths and shortcomings; successes and mistakes including my own.

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7 Comments

  1. angie said,

    July 9, 2010 at 11:59 am

    here here. as always jer, excellent insight. I’m all for keeping it real, especially since the last event I went to felt a bit too plastic (which, is not really what you are talking about, but I think, is somehow related to the microscopic-world-wide-scene phenomenon specific to Lindy Hop).
    I had to take a break after that event. Still haven’t been out actually, though in part it’s been because I’m being pulled away by my other time consuming hobby.

    This is JAZZ dancing, people! c’mon. Jazz? Anyone? History lesson?

    My favorite two dancers in the world are two of the most humble people I know. They are also brutally honest. They are two of my closest friends outside or inside of dancing, so perhaps that makes me biased, but I think others would agree with me that their sincerity comes through in their dancing; and aside from their talent, it’s what makes them so amazing. And, yeah, they talk some shit when they need to. They make the dance their own in every way.

    Anyway, point being: agreed.

  2. Sandy said,

    July 9, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Hear, hear! I agree wholeheartedly. On an even smaller level, there are lots of individual scenes that won’t even allow instructors to correct students in class without first softening the blow with a bunch of useless phrases.

    • Jason Meller said,

      July 9, 2010 at 4:13 pm

      Do you have an example of these useless phrases because I am having trouble picturing what you are describing as a bad thing.

      I believe that instilling a student with (founded) confidence is an important part of the entire teaching experience. People dance/play music/wrestle alligators better when they think they can; when they stop worrying about “can I do this” and simply do.

      Which is not to say confidence is everything. Confidence in mediocrity or inability is crap. There are rights and wrongs and inbetweens and it is more important for a teacher to correct wrongs and instill rights than it is to build students up. But there are many ways to correct.

      The truth often is brutal, it often hurts, especially when you are being told you are wrong or inadequate, and all of that can do bad things to a student. Couching the criticism softens blows and helps maintain a student’s confidence while still communicating the fact that they are wrong. My best teachers in high school/college/dance have all been both nurturing and exacting. Its not an either or proposition.

      On the larger scale I think the matter is less about nurturing and more about intent and respect; the difference between constructive criticism and simply laying into people. This is not to say we all need to be plastic kumbaya singing people. Depending on time and place, the tone we use can be rude and crude while still being fine. “Your rockstep looks a bit off” and “Your rockstep looks like ass” can both be appropriate when talking to different people. But even in wilder “no holds barred” discussions there are still lines which do become visible when people cross them. And for what its worth I think Jerry reliably stays on the correct side of these lines.

    • angie said,

      July 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm

      haha.. I like your correct spelling of hear, hear, Sandy.
      I’m such a stickler for spelling, usually! eeep. 😉

  3. angie said,

    July 9, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    I’m pretty sure Sandy wasn’t implying that she thinks instructors should say “your rock step looks like ass” or implying that an instructor should BE an ass.

    That is all.

  4. Libby said,

    July 13, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Hmm. I think there’s a distinction to be made between dancers who dance for fun and those who choose to perform and compete.

    A lot of people in the U.S. who come into swing dancing have never danced in their lives, or only danced a little, or only danced when drunk or alone. Dancing is for them, an extremely vulnerable thing to attempt to do, even moreso when it involved asking, and potentially being rejected by, another person to dance with you. The judgement wrapped up in that interaction of asking and being asked alone is scary for a lot of people. So I do think when new dancers show up in a class, it should be a pretty “safe” space – they’re not trying out for the Bolshoi – they need their confidence built up to the point where they can walk up to a stranger and feel comfortable about dancing with them for 4 minutes.

    It’s totally different when a dancer is performing and competing at the highest levels of our scene. They are at least trying to win a competition and at most trying to make a career out of their talents and abilities. I think at that point, Jerry’s right – it’s worthwhile to criticize them. Seems like they’d want that feedback. Frankly, if I were a high-level dancer and people were saying things about my dancing (why does she always curl her arm around like that? doesn’t she know it looks like a claw or something?) I’d want to get that feedback, as long as it was constructive.

    If it were a creative choice that I made and felt authentic to me and someone else didn’t like it, then I’d probably ignore the criticism, but if I was striving to be the best performer I could and someone had noticed something like the silly faces I make for the judges or that I lacked subtlety or made weird lines with my body – wouldn’t it be worthwhile to know that?

    I think there’s a difference though. And the difference is, for an average social dancer – especially a new one who hasn’t made friends in the scene yet – they’re not asking for your criticism, and they probably can’t take it, because they need all the confidence they can hold onto just to show up week after week.

    For someone who is putting themselves out there for competitions and performances – they are asking for your judgement. It’s implied. Not everyone’s judgement is worth having, but I think we’re all entitled (and we can’t help ourselves) to critique what they’re putting out there.

    But social dancing isn’t performance. It’s the difference between having a private conversation with one other person vs. giving a speech or performing a play in front of an audience.

  5. July 18, 2010 at 10:19 am

    […] also couldn’t agree more with Jerry’s follow up post ‘The Line’. There is very little informed dance criticism within the Lindy Hop and I think the community is […]


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