O ULHS, Where Art Thou?

I’d like to be as honest as possible on this blog. Because of that I tend to shy away from negative criticism of events or performances. The scene is pretty small, and I’m pretty aware that any kind of chatter is bound to have some impact on teachers being hired or events succeeding or failing. At the same time I don’t want this blog to be just about sunshine and rainbows either. So talking about other events especially competition events, (and ones I have not attended to boot) is a little dicey for me given my work with the International Lindy Hop Championships. I usually get around this by just commenting about videos, but in the case of the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown, its getting harder and harder to do that without putting those videos into some sort of context.

In my mind, there are local events, regional events, super regional events, and national/international events. There are only a handful of events that I would consider touchstones.  Events that everyone talks about even if they weren’t there.  Events that drive the scene.

I consider Camp Jitterbug and Herrang such events. I’ll add ILHC, even if it is self serving.  ULHS used to be the definition of this kind of event. That is a bit ironic because it started out as sort of an underground, counter culture movement to the prevailing events at the time like the American Lindy Hop Championships and the West Coast Swing events that hosted the majority of Lindy competitions back then.

But ULHS eclipsed them all.  In particular, the ULHS 2006 Liberation Finals casts a long shadow. Not just on Showdown, but on every competition out there. That now legendary contest was a perfect storm of circumstances that would be hard to recreate even if you wanted to. In many ways the 2007 Liberation final should have been better given the participants dancers and band , but that contest and all others suffer in comparison to the execution and energy of 2006.

But we get to see those videos and make those comparisons because of Amy Johnson’s decision to not only allow people to record their own videos of Showdown, but to also distribute them however they wanted. That probably ranks as the most important turning points of the modern Lindy era in my book; right behind the decisions by two swedes to look up Al Minns or by a southern California couple to phone a New York City postal worker.

Lindy Hop is a dance, and dance is meant to be seen. Before Amy Johnson and the  upstart ULHS came along in 2002, collectors hoarded clips, instructors discouraged filming of workshops and competition videos were only accessible after paying exorbitant prices. Amy made Lindy Hop more open source.

That decision helped to catapult ULHS into its status as the premiere Lindy Hop competition. With the scene’s flagship event operating with such an open policy, it created pressure on other events to do the same or else languish in obscurity and become irrelevant. It’s gotten to a point now where people race to get their footage uploaded to YouTube just hours after they record it.

Which is why it’s more than a little surprising to see videos of the finals from this year’s Showdown take more than a month to hit the ether.

This year’s contest is a loose yet solid effort, but suffers in comparison to its predecessors.  Watching that video in relation to showdowns past makes it hard not to wonder: what happened?

A lot of that has to do with Amy changing the focus of what ULHS was to something else. This is from the “About” section of the Showdown website.

With its move to New Orleans in 2009, ULHS became more than a mere competition event. With more social dancing, more live music, historical lectures, dance classes, special guest performances, and a traditional New Orleans second line, the event has simply outgrown its name.

That new complete name is “The New Orleans Swing Dance Festival & The Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown” which tells me that the competitions are going to be secondary to the main purpose of the event: to celebrate the relationship between the dancers and the musicians in the place that birthed the music.

This shift in focus is causing an adjustment of expectations for attendees and outside observers alike, but in doing so, Amy is positioning it to be the most unique event in our scene.

The irony is that ULHS’s origin as a hard-core-best-of-the-best-no-holds-barred-competition was viewed as the antithesis of the social nature of dance by many people. However, if anything, this new shift actually emphasizes a much more exchange vibe. Not just between dancers from all around the world, but with also some of the most talented and passionate musicians around.

But even that is a double edged sword.  There’s a lot of griping about the focus on New Orleans style music in our scene these days, especially oom-pah-y Charlestony music.  There’s a building backlash against this kind of music and I think that ULHS will continue to feel the effects of that.

That aside, more than the Showdown final, I was looking forward to the choreographed divisions.  The focus on working with bonafide New Orleans musicians to provide live music for these performances , I thought, was an exciting development. But in retrospect it adds multiple levels of difficulty that has discouraged some people from competing. That may be the reason why you’ll notice on all the showcase videos that everyone is performing to recorded music. If you look on the ULHS website, you’ll see all the live music performance guidelines are still up there. When the change were made, I’m not sure.

I have not seen official results posted on the website or Facebook, but according to  un-official ones in the comments section of a previous post, it looks like Juan Villafane & Sharon Davis won the couples’ showcase while Rainier Rhythm won the team showcase.

Finally, I’ll end with what I think are the two main highlights, Evita Arce’s performance in the Solo Blues contest and Chance Bushman and Bobby Bonsey in the Solo Charleston Tie Breaker.

Some people like to talk about how competitions hurt the scene, but think about where everyone was 8 years ago in terms of solo dance before ULHS introduced these kinds of contests, (I’ll give you a hint: nowhere) and see the skill and creativity on display in these solo divisions.

As long as Showdown has a place for this kind of dancing, I think there will always be a place for Showdown The New Orleans Swing Dance Festival & The Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown within the greater Lindy Hop community.

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13 Comments

  1. Nick Olinger said,

    November 19, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Nice post Jerry. About your point on the shirt of Showdown’s focus, I would have to agree, and regrettably so. I think the venues, competition layout, and band set up in Minneapolis made Showdown one of a kind. From watching videos of 2006 and a certain DVD of 2005 uploaded to poy.no sometime ago, I think the bands were a driving point of energy for the event. Even though the Wolverines (I believe) were playing in 2007, it felt like the downsizing of the size of the band had a direct relation to the energy / quality of the competitions. While I love the Boilermakers, Blue Skye 5, and Brooks, I find that it’s hard to rival a quality of a mid-full size band. I think that also makes sense in the context of Lindy Hop history, because I think a quartet would not been able to carry the energy needed at the Savoy for a night of dancing. That’s why when I watch 2005/2006 videos of ULHS competitions still feel like those are the best the Lindy Hop community has to offer. Though Lindy Hop has progressed much as a dance in the past five years, I don’t feel like the community has offered up a competition comparable in terms of energy to ULHS 2005/2006.

    The last thing I’d like to note about the earlier years of ULHS is that it was a large event with an actual hardwood floor. To a rubber sole dancer like myself, I think that’s invaluable. Pieced together floors are a novel idea, but they are rather rough on the joints when not wearing suede/leather.

    (Promise the band/shoe thing wasn’t poking fun at ILHC, I was merely attempting to point out a couple of not so obvious things that I thought made ULHS successful back in the day)

    Cheers,

    Nick

  2. Alex Dupler said,

    November 22, 2010 at 2:44 am

    The other thing to consider, Jerry, is that all these high quality videos that we’ve come to love, uploaded overnight are taken by the same few (2 or 3) people at every event, at least as far as I’ve seen in American events. Thats not say that others wouldn’t rise to the challenge if they didn’t (this years camp jitterbug for example points to that conclusion), but I think there is perhaps some evidence that this is not the case. for example take European events. I don’t think there have been the same sort of youtube video coverage of jazz jam in past years, though videos have surfaced, I say this with some caution because i have no idea how many competitions or routines each event has, so I never know if I am seeing everything. I think that is one of the reasons why people have been so impressed with the videos from Lindy Shock recently. Its not that there is all these new fantastic dancers in Europe or that they are new to having awesome events with great choreography divisions. Rather we haven’t been exposed to this dancers as well due to a lack of footage (and not knowing what to look for as well). Basically, we don’t see the same video coverage that Dave or Patrick and Natasha, or Lindy Library provide (without nearly enough thanks and no support from events), which is incredible.
    Since they do such a good job, perhaps people assume that they will just do, it. At the same time, at ULHS, Jonathan Jow (i’m pretty sure it was johnathan, and he runs lindy library, yes?) was taking video of all the competitions, and in at least one competition standing in front of people sitting to make sure he got good footage, yet we have not seen any of that footage on youtube. on the other hand he may have been “official” and the footage is going through amy, though this seems unprecedented.
    I guess my point is that I think our community is not so large that we should assume that footage is going to be taken by someone, and we should be more appreciative for those few individuals that do such a fantastic job of filming and posting footage.

    that turned into a longer reply than I had planned. I didn’t do any searches verify what I said, but rather went from memory, so I could be completely wrong.

    Also, I think you are correct largely correct in your conclusion about the shift in focus of the event. I know I didn’t go for the competitions (inspiring as they were) or classes. It felt to me like a smaller subset of the lindy hop community, but that everyone that was there wanted to be no where else. However, it was the first event I have been to outside of the seattle/portland corridor, so what do I know.

  3. Alex Dupler said,

    November 22, 2010 at 4:01 am

    It occured to me as I was walking home from the library that I implied that Dave wasn’t at and didn’t take videos at camp jitterbug this year. He definitely did. My point though is that more so than other events, I felt that camp jitterbug this year had video from a variety of people (at a variety of angles). At least of the couples finals. Then again, I probably spent more time look at it than other events because I was so enamored with pontus and frida’s dancing.

  4. Tena Morales said,

    November 22, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Hi Alex, so I can speak for my events. Especially ILHC. It so happens that the 3 sets of videographers you mentioned (Patrick & Natasha, Jonathan and Dave) were all given free passes to the event. In exchange they had to do 3 things.
    1. Use our logo and website address 2. Upload the videos immediately to YouTube or as soon as possible. 3. Not make any money off of the videos
    We also provided them with the names, numbers and placements of everyone immediately. I also gave Patrick & Natasha a wireless internet code that worked in the whole hotel including the ballroom so he could upload for free.
    They were chosen because they do an astounding job and always produce high quality videos.
    So it may be true that other events there isnt that much footage or completeness of footage, but I don’t know what they do to ensure it. This is what I chose to do to make sure people everywhere get to experience the event. It is human nature to want to see breaking news as soon as it happens or while it’s happening. That might be our next step! =)

    Tena

  5. Tena Morales said,

    November 22, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    BTW, I know they live streamed ULHS last year. Which I thought was great. Don’t think it happened this year. I was in negotiations with a company to do that last year with ILHC, but it would have required a quarantee fee that we just couldnt afford. So we’ll see where we go from here.

    Tena

  6. Alex Dupler said,

    November 23, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Thats awesome. I didn’t realize that. I know I watched the videos as they were posted during the event, so thank you.
    There was a TV crew set up at the saturday night dance again this year at ulhs. I suspect the same sort of deal was set up as last year, though I don’t think it was as well publicized (though I wasn’t paying attention as I was going to be there).

  7. November 27, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    […] (unless you’re reading Wandering and Pondering, in which case you’re of course savoring each and every one). Filed in General No Comments […]

  8. Reuben Brown said,

    December 3, 2010 at 1:17 am

    “There are only a handful of events that I would consider touchstones. Events that everyone talks about even if they weren’t there. Events that drive the scene.

    I consider Camp Jitterbug and Herrang such events. I’ll add ILHC, even if it is self serving. ULHS used to be the definition of this kind of event. That is a bit ironic because it started out as sort of an underground, counter culture movement to the prevailing events at the time like the American Lindy Hop Championships and the West Coast Swing events that hosted the majority of Lindy competitions back then.”

    How it is ironic that ULHS has once again become an underground, counter culture movement to the prevailing events of our present time? 😉 Think about it.

    Pondering is good, but I think you should get Amy on the horn and interview her about why she’s done what she’s done with the movement of the event to New Orleans. Should prove to be an interesting read.

    • Jerry said,

      December 3, 2010 at 1:41 am

      I guess I didn’t write that clearly, but the irony part came from being underground to flagship status. Going back to underground would probably be considered poetic.

      I actually thought about talking to Amy, and if I had any journalistic standards, I probably would have. But this post actually evolved from a short video recap to this lengthy piece in a very short amount of time, which is pretty uncharacteristic of me. Although a interview with Amy isn’t a bad a idea.

  9. December 21, 2010 at 12:12 am

    […] I read an interesting blog post about the topic of videos and compeitions on Wandering and Pondering recently. But back to […]

  10. dogpossum said,

    December 31, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    I’m interested in your points about putting clips online, Jerry. And I’m excited by Amy’s actions to promote dancers’ use of Youtube in connection with events.

    I live in Sydney, Australia, and I don’t travel overseas to dance, simply because I can’t afford it. This is the case for most Australian dancers. So my contact with overseas dancers and dancing is via a) traveling Australians coming home, b) visiting dancers and teachers from overseas and c) the interkittens. The last is most important.

    Youtube changed the way I learnt about and thought about contemporary lindy hop (and charleston and bal and so on). We saw a change in the way new dance moves and new ideas about dancing arrived in Australia – suddenly we were up to date. And while traveling to dance took a huge leap when our dollar kicked a little arse a few years ago, I think Youtube owes a great deal of credit not only for lifting the general standard of dancing in Australia, but also for injecting new energy into the relatively isolated local scenes in each major city. I’m not suggesting that dancers here simply copied what they saw in clips, or that Youtube is _the_ reason why dancing in Australia is where it is. It’s been more that suddenly being able to watch (and rewatch) dancers from all over the world inspired us all. To change our dancing, to travel, to DJ in new ways, etc etc etc.

    I think Facebook has been just as important, tightening up connections between individual dancers, facilitating the sharing of footage and so on.

    But clips from comps like ULHS, ILHC and so on are really important for us here, so far from the competitions and events themselves. They’re promotional tools not only for the events, but for the competitors who are flown here to teach. Songs used in comps because massive hits here (‘Communication’ is a good example). Footage spawns dance step fads which encourage us to experiment and learn independently, from clips, rather than relying on (relatively infrequent) workshops.

    I noticed the absence of footage from ULHS down this year, and I think it was a bit of a problem. It lowered the profile of an event that’s really quite important. It meant that we didn’t see the change in competition format (which, hopefully, will one day reach our own local comps). Still photos turned up online with greater alacrity than clips. Which was interesting, as we saw a lot of photos detailing the broader ‘NOLA experience’, which seems in part the main focus of ULHS these days anyway.

    I do understand the reasons why it’s hard to get clips up, and I don’t want to sound narky.

    Incidentally, while streaming comps live is rockhardawesome for locals, it’s not so good for us. We have shitpants interkittens here in Australia, and the streaming just isn’t high enough quality, even for me here in a city with the best internet speeds and services in the country.

    Ironically, we don’t have a very good record for getting our own local clips online here. Sometimes I think it’s a bit of cultural cringe (Australians feeling a bit shy to put their dancing into the public sphere), but I also think it’s because we don’t have the presence of mind or PR-oriented nous to get footage online to promote our events.

  11. Freddie said,

    January 5, 2011 at 8:09 am

    I think live music for choreographies is very hard to get right if the dancers can’t work with the band for some time, or adapts the choreographies to the bands. ULHS 2008 used live music, but the small band setting wasn’t able to do justice to some of the music, e.g. Rockin’ in Rhythm.

    • Murray Echols said,

      December 23, 2012 at 6:35 am

      I am a ballroom and swing dancer in Birmingham AL. Started very actively on Jitterbug, now East Coast Swing, in high school in 1948. My partner and I are still very active in Ballroom Dancing and West Coast Swing and have been on the Board of JBY Ballroom Dance Club for 20 and 14 years. We use a lot of dips, slashes and lifts, that we have collected from event videos filmed at the U.S. Swing Dance Championships in California every year and similar events in Atlanta every year. We also have a very complete newsletter that promotes every type of dancing, dances and lessons to the 1,600 dancers on my email list 3 or 4 times a month – including Lindy Hop. LH has suffered the past 15 months here while strong LH promoter in Birmingham, Jered Faires is finishing two years in China teaching English to Chinese. There might be a lot of Chinese walking around China speaking with a Southern accent. My reason for writing is because of the extreme class used by Jerry Almonte in his great very thorough Wandering & Pondering blog on the great 2006 LH event in Minneapolis, and more recent events. And the same intensity, knowledge and input by the 12 responders. So very impressive. Your service to the LH dancers and community has to mean a lot to them. At one of the 3 day WCS & ECS events we attend, not a competition, the organizers in Columbus, Ohio (or Nashville or Atlanta) include a workshop with Frankie Manning about 8 years ago. As others write, what a very impressive person, dancer and personality. Thank you for the time and thoroughness you spent on your information and thoughts. Murray Echols


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