AIR pt. 16: Not Really The End

So the last part of this paper got posted about a year and a half ago. The whole thing has actually been done for almost four years now, but in posting it here on this blog, the plan was for me to revise it as I went along because I actually don’t agree with some of the original conclusions. However, as time goes on, it is becoming apparent that I’m just not going to have the time to do a full scale revision. I’m also not close to finishing any other posts anytime soon, so in the interest of completion and just to post something this is the thrilling finale of Artistry in Rhythm.

Astute readers will note that some elements from the previous parts are included here because I was taking the paper apart and reassembling it as part of the revisions. I kept some of those things in this post since it just makes the whole thing easier to read. And let’s face it, it’s been a year and a half, you probably don’t remember those parts anyway. However, I will admit that I have cannibalized quite a bit of this paper for other posts so the likelihood of deja vu is very high. 

Note that since this was originally written in 2007, all time references count back from that year.

Previous posts can be found by searching my blog for the category “Artistry In Rhythm”

Thank you for your patience.

Fred Astaire was known for his light and effortless looking dancing.  During his epic nine picture run with RKO Pictures with Ginger Rogers in the 1930’s, Astaire demanded a rigorous rehearsal period of several months just for the dance sequences before the filming of each movie.  His reasoning was that the better they knew the routine, the more relaxed and spontaneous they would appear when they filmed the definitive take for the movie.  He attributed his spontaneous look to those extensive rehearsals   “You know it sort of well that it just becomes part of you.”[1]  It’s by becoming a part of the routine by becoming intimately familiar with the choreography that Astaire and Rogers were able to be more relaxed when they performed and make their performances as lively as the last for each take a director needed to film.   There is a fine line to be tread though.  Bruce Lee provides a warning as to what happens when one mistakes constant repetition and perceived perfection as the end result.

“One cannot “express” fully-the important word here is fully-when one is imposed by a partial structure or style.  For how can one be truly aware when there is a screen of one’s set pattern as opposed to “what is.”  What is total (including what is and what is not), without boundaries, etc., etc.  From drilling on such organized “land swimming” pattern, the practitioner’s margin of freedom or expression grows narrower and narrower.  He becomes paralyzed with the framework of the pattern and accepts the pattern as the real thing. He no longer “listens” to circumstances; he “recites” his circumstances.  He is merely performing his methodic routine as [a] response rather than responding to what is.  He is an insensitized pattern: Zen robot, listening to his own screams and yells.  He is those classical blocks; he is those organized forms; in short he is the result of thousands of years of conditioning.”[2]

Branford Marsalis put it another way in commenting on what made basketball players like Erving “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan so great in an NBA anniversary show when he said, “They say ‘practice makes perfect.’ Well, there’s no such thing as perfect. You practice not to be perfect, but to have the mental awareness to be able to recover when you do make a mistake.”  Artie Shaw elaborated: “Well, what you’re aiming at is to come across as a person in charge of what you’re doing.  And you only approximate it, you can never really hit it.  You try, you gotta, it’s like looking for perfection, there is no such thing.”[3]

Generally I think it takes a lot of balls to do a routine to a song that another couple or team has truly made their own like “Love Me or Leave Me”, but Todd Yannacone and Jo (formerly Emily)  Hoffberg almost managed to pull it off in the Junior Division at the 2001 ALHC.  “Almost” because of some miscommunication that caused the DJ to play the wrong track on the CD they gave him. Most people that see a clip of that performance usually do not realize that the routine falls apart about a third of the way through because it is the wrong version of the song.   Todd even yells it to the judges at one point.  Unexpectedly working with a different cut of the song, they don’t freak out, but just keep social dancing, pulling off some impressive moves in the process, until they they’re able to sync up with the music again and eventually walk away with first place. The organic transition between the choreographed parts and the social dancing was only possible through not only rehearsal time, but tremendous effort put into their social dancing skills.  The choreography also matches their personal styles at the time so there was no need to switch between different styles which also contribute to the camouflaging of the near seamlessness transitions.

The Next Note

When asked, Astaire liked to describe his dancing as “outlaw style” because he didn’t want to be confined or limited.[4]  However, competitions by their nature tend to do exactly that because they focus people’s attention onto singular performances where the crowd has an unofficial (depending on the format) say on bestowing legitimacy.  That pressure tends to curb intellectual and creative honesty as Lucy Dunne talked about after NADC 2002.  I recently tried compiling a list of my favorite ALHC routines in response to an open request by the event’s promoter, Paulette Brockington, and I noticed that I found it harder and harder to come up with stand out moments from the past few years.  Upon reviewing many of the routine divisions from 2003 and on, it becomes apparent that people became acclimated to the “competition philosophy” of choreography which emphasizes giving the audience what it wants, what it expects.  But if you just give them what they want, then they do not have any reason to remember it.  This is not a good sign for Lindy Hop as a jazz inspired dance and its African roots.  That was the other part of Janice Wilson’s case to the community in 2002, the piece that could balance out the European influences, which is “signifying”, or being able to imprint each dance with personal signatures that make them different from what is currently around or what has come before.   Jazz musician Bjørn Alterhaug characterized that 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.’”[5]  How does one achieve such individuality?  Naomi Uyama provides her perspective as a veteran of several Lindy Hop competitions:

“Competition truely 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.”[6]

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, 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 performing 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.

This was also part of the message of Mad Dog, but five years later, it’s becoming apparent that that message didn’t completely get across.  In the realm of choreography, routines have seen more and more people adopting the “newer” philosophy of being “raw” and fast, typically to vintage style music.  However, after five years, the vast majority of pieces look alike.  2006’s ULHS and the Classic division at ALHC that same year are the most recent examples of this trend. Resulting competition pieces have ended up copying Mad Dog’s style if not spirit.

The best example of this occurred at the 2006 ULHS 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 song was “Rock N’ Rye” by Earl Hines.  Not only did they perform to the same song but they 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, its unlikely that Dan and Tiffany had any ill intentions.  It may have event been an homage or simply an insiders’ nod, but instead it simply came across as simply derivative.  It’s that kind of philosophy that has filtered down to the social dancing of all the styles of dancing.  Rather than liberating themselves from old paradigms through the discovery of new dances and styles, it seems as if the community merely traded one set of rules for another.[7]

I think that is the primary obstacle in the communities’ progression to the next step of mutual artistic dialog.  As we have seen, performance pieces can have a profound affect on a community given the right circumstances.  But 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.  There was some attempt at written dialogue after NADC 2002, but that had a limited effect because of the difficulties related to online discussions that resulted in miscommunication and bruised egos more than anything else.  Dialogue is happening on the internet but that is a limited medium for a subject, such as social dancing, that needs to be seen and in some respects felt.  Competitions are limited in some respects with their narrow parameters because they pressure people to be direct about their motivations when choreographing routines. There’s a difference between creating a piece that invites people in to think and discuss and one that “gets up in their grille,” and leaves no room for interpretation.  The former gives people options for personalizing the experience.  If as Naomi says people want to live vicariously through the performers and taken for a ride, competitors generally try to hit the audience upside the head with reality of their motivations.

Some of these criticisms 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.  In one of the most recognizable sequences from the old newsreel report on the Harvest Moon Ball, a couple is seen moving in slow motion.  They do that in an effort to distinguish themselves from the frantic movements of the other contestants.  They promptly give up when another couple starts mimicking them since they no longer stand apart from anyone else.  That is not an approach that would probably be rewarded in many modern competitions.  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.”[8]  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 ALHC and other Lindy Hop competitions.  This almost forces dancers to forgo artistic license and focus on simply dancing better than everyone else.

Another obstacle is the design of typical competition spaces that puts a vast amount of space between the audience and the performers; usually the entirety of the dance floor which already covers the majority of the room.  The format was probably influenced by the WCS environment which in turn was influenced by ballroom competitions. Already trying to do their best to reach the audience across this space, an added focus on technical proficiency puts performers further away emotionally.  With the competitors’ intentions up front, leaving nothing to think about creatively when watching competition routines, one is only left to dwell on the technical precision of the routine.  People looking to these routines for inspiration then 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.  Paul Overton’s prophecy of contests’ influence on dance trends came true as this competition style of dancing not only manifested itself in routines again and again through the years, but also affected some of the social dancing.[9]

The dialogue that I think is lacking would happen at the performance level with the community contributing creative ideas on the dance floor in front of their peers and hopefully inspiring more contributions.  It would be a different kind of forum other than competitions that would encourage mutual dialogue and facilitate multiple voices in this “conversation.”  One issue preventing that is the lack of any event where people can do that.  The closest thing that the Lindy community has to such a forum is competitions.  Competitions are problematic, of course, since the desire to win or place subverts creative risks because dancers are primarily concerned with doing “better” than their competitors.  In that sense, one can argue that competitions don’t encourage drastic innovation, since the audience and particularly the judges need to be able evaluate and compare performances.  It’s naturally easier to rank quantifiable factors such as timing, number of mistakes, tempo, or even difficulty.  Part of the reason Mad Dog made such an impact was because none of these things, including winning, were priorities.  They did not have to worry about conforming to people’s expectations.  In doing so, they caught people by surprise and gave them something that they really needed to digest as illustrated by the discussions it spawned online from San Francisco[10] to Washington, DC.[11]

Despite the influence of Minnies’ Moochers and Mad Dog on the social dance level in Lindy Hop, the decline in the number of performances in the years afterwards may be indicative of the negative creative pressures of competition events.  That’s not to say they are completely bereft of value, but there are definite pitfalls.  In the original 1999 WLHC debate Steven Mithcell declared, “Competition is good for Lindy Hop, but if it’s the engine that drives the dance it will drench the flame and ‘flava’ of innovation that comes from social dancing.”[12] Long time dancer and jazz music enthusiast Allen Hall echoed those sentiments and elaborated on a thread about the purpose of competitions on MinnesotaLindy.com:

“The over-arching purpose of competition is (though there is no one who cares about it) to raise that standard of the dance, and that is both its value and its danger. When the standard for any social dance becomes too difficult, the social dance [suffers].

. . .

The purpose of competition for those who claim to be creating art by choreography or other means, seems likes self-serving BS, [because if] they want to [create] art, let them teach or become role models outside the [completive milieu]. The inexorable temptation to showboat in competitions is contrary to the creation of art.”[13]

Allen touches on a possible solution.  Some sort of an event that included a non competitive recital aspect could provide an outlet for more creative pursuits in Lindy Hop and the other American vernacular jazz dances.  The closest things that currently exist are The Jump Session Show in Seattle, Washington and the “Meetings” at Herrang Dance Camp.  The Jump Session Show is a good model, but it has a specific historical and educational purpose, and despite being the most popular Lindy event in the world, Herrang is too inaccessible to most of the Lindy Hop community.  An ideal model would be more open ended and more accessible to allow a wider array of prospective performers the freedom to explore whatever theme they want with the only possible limitation being that it related to American vernacular jazz dance.

Why is such an artistic dialogue important?  I begin answering that question with the following anecdote.  One of the criticisms about the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Indian is its perceived focus on artwork and not history.  The former director waged a vigorous defense of the museum and in one of his speeches said the following about art as history which can also speak to the relevance and importance of Lindy Hop as not only art and history, but also why Lindy Hop as an art form should not be considered “just a dance.”

“In creating and making the art we have, both for the ages past and for the present, we are, in the end and as Native people, not merely creating objects for commerce.  We are, as we always have, also marking, for the world to see, to know, and to value, profoundly important pieces of our lives, our worlds, our experiences through time – ultimately, our realities.  Those acts, among the most significant for any human being, really are for us rather than for someone else in the end, and for that reason alone we must respect and treasure them always – for ourselves and as our legacy to those who will come after us.”[14]

Contrary to popular belief there were still some people who still danced and taught Lindy Hop in the period after the Swing Era and before the modern revival of Lindy Hop in the 1980’s.  Mama Lu Parks was one of those people who dedicated herself to passing along her knowledge and love of Lindy Hop to a new generation of dancers from the 1950’s all the way until her death in 1990.  Some of the people from her dance troupe showed up to the Basie Ball during the Yehoodi.com 6th Anniversary (Y6A) in 2004 which was dedicated to the 100th birthdays of Count Basie, one of giants of Jazz, and Shorty George Snowden, the man who is credited with creating Lindy Hop.  For this event, the organizers made a concerted effort to spread the word into the Harlem community to invite anyone who had danced at the Savoy Ballroom or had ever done Lindy Hop to join the festivities.  Upon hearing of this event, Mama Lu Park’s former troupe members got together to put together an impromptu routine which the organizers of Y6A did not know about until they showed up the evening of the Basie Ball with an audio tape asking if they could perform.  They proceeded to electrify the 1200+ attendees with a performance that not even technical glitches could stop.  At one point the music cut out unintentionally, but the dancers simply rode the energy of over 1200 people clapping.  The auditorium exploded when the troop started swinging out.  The capper is a series of aerials performed by one of the couples.  At the end of that sequence, the leader posed and looked into the crowd defiantly, challenging them to disbelieve what they had just witnessed.  He ends the routine by leading the dancers in a train as the proverbial head of the beast, taking themselves off the floor not only leaving new inspiration to the current generation of Lindy Hoppers, but also reminding the community who kept the flame of the dance lit in those dark times when it was almost extinguished from the panorama of American culture.

One of the aspects of good art is how much a work allows different people to read into it and personalize it, providing a level of participation with it.  I previously mentioned the blooming flower formation in Minnies Moochers’ “Love Me Or Leave Me” routine.  It makes one wonder why it’s there, but the actual meaning is almost irrelevant.  What does matter that it leads viewer to think about it.  Naomi Uyama notes:

“There’s something to be said for putting something out there in the world. For making something where there was nothing. I’ve been so inspired by watching what some people have done with choreography, how they’ve expressed a song. I’ll rewatch strictlys sure, but sometimes choreographed pieces can be so rich I have to watch them 50 times to digest them, to appreciate them. That’s what I think should be rewarded- digestion time. There are flawless numbers that I watch once and thats all I need, I’ve seen it all before and I’ll see it all again, they didn’t push themselves artistically and it didn’t push me to take it in, truth be told it didn’t make me care. Then there are routines that you wish your brain had a tivo button installed for instant replays, for slow moes, for pausing to ponder on it. There haven’t been many but those are the ones I care about. Those are the ones that tend not to play the game but they are the ones that I think should win. I don’t care how many aerials they have, I don’t care if they have a minimum of 8 people dancing, I don’t care how long they don’t touch hands for, and I really don’t care what percentage the imaginary dance meter man will read on their lindy hop dials. I care if they make me want to watch a second time, a forty ninth time, if they make me care period. So here’s me hoping next weekend we’ll all see something at some point that makes us sit back from our dining tables and say “Whoa, I need some time to digest that”.”[15]

How is such interaction with a piece motivated?  Consider the following posts detailing.  Jenn Salvadori wrote the following after her disqualified routine from the Classic division of the 2000 ALHC.

“Nobody will ever be able to take away the feeling of SHEER joy and accomplishment that I had when I got off the floor after our performance. When Justin and I left the floor, I was shaking. I felt like we had a [purely] magical moment. We danced our hearts out to that song, and it wasn’t FOR anything/anyone. It was just for the sheer joy of dancing. We weren’t supposed to be able to compete at all that weekend, we were totally unprepared and we had the friggin TIME OF OUR LIVES. If you watch the video, the couple that goes on after us, is Hilary and Jeremy, in the background you can see me jumping up and down because I felt so good. I was thrilled, and shaky, and needed to move, I couldn’t stand still. No judge or bystander or ANYONE will ever be able to take that away from me, and THAT is what it’s about. Skye came up to Justin and I and gave us a huge hug, and was almost crying. THAT is what it’s about. It’s that moment of absolute perfection. And it’s INSIDE, it’s not what anyone else can give you. Are you hearing me? We were disqualified and it didn’t matter. It REALLY didn’t. I was so proud and so happy, that I wasn’t going to let ANYONE take that feeling away from us. I think everyone is WAY TOO focused on the robbery. Did you enjoy yourself? Did you give the performance of your life and show everyone what you’re about? If you did, than be proud. Hold your head up and KNOW that you did ALL YOU COULD, and you shredded. Take it from someone who has “been shafted” time and again… it has NOTHING to do with what the judges think. It has nothing to do with the outcome and scores.”[16]

Matt Smiley echoed a similar sentiment in his win with Naomi Uyama in the contentious 2001 ALHC Classic Division:

“I have been in a lot of competitions.
When I placed last I never felt that I was the worst dancer there.
When I placed first I never felt that I was the best dancer there.
Having now placed first, but really 6th or 7th still doesn’t affect my perception of my own dancing.

I have never used the judges scores to place value on art. What do I care what judge 77 or judge 96 thinks of my performance? I am not doing it for them. I am not doing it for a title either – it’s not going to help me find a job after I graduate. I’m not doing it for the plaque. Though prize money is a nice bonus, I’m not doing it for that either. I, and I suspect that most other competitors, put routines together for the sake of creating something beautiful. In my mind, the routine that Naomi and I performed was a tribute to a beautiful song and a gift to my friends in the audience who have inspired me so much over the past years, and who continue to inspire me today. My friends appreciated what I had made, so I have no guilty feelings about placement either way. My accomplishment is not, in my mind diminished, because my accomplishment was not based on some judges opinion. Whether we came in 1st, 7th, last or whatever, our routine served its purpose, and I am proud of it. I hope that all the other competitors (DQed or not) can feel the same way about their performances. Everyone did a fabulous job, and years from now when we (or even the next generation of dancers) look back on the tapes of 2001 ALHC, it won’t be the placements, but rather the merits of the routines that matter.

Everyone who competed should be proud. Not because they came in ____ place or because so-and-so ranked them ____. They should be proud because some of the best dancing the Lindy Hop community has ever seen was at this event.”[17]

Those two remarks were written six years ago, and the community has only gotten better in every aspect.  The tools that allow dancers keep their individuality while still contributing to the whole in a couple or even in teams are now readily available.  The challenge now seems to be to find a way to extend that philosophy to a community wide creative dialogue.  In defense of competitions in the burgeoning blues dance community, Damon Stone advocated the following by the community:

“This is why I think it is important for communities to embrace competitions… as a matter of fact people who are primarily if not exclusively social dancers are more needed to embrace the competitions than the competitors, because they will give them context. As a group we get to decide if we are going to stand in awe at winners and put them on pedestals or if we are going to cheer for them while they are competing and then absorb them right back into the masses when it is over.[18]

On the flip side of that coin, the issue for prospective performance events would be to encourage involvement from a different levels and segments of the community.  The ideal situation would be inclusive, but to encourage dancers them to present their ideas.  Artie Shaw once admiringly said of Duke Ellington and his band,

“Duke’s essential thing was total freedom.  The men could do what they wanted to do, and as a result, when they were good they were good, when they were bad they were horrid.  The little girl with the curl in her forehead.  The band could be terrible.  And other times it could be absolutely great.  So there’s a great price for freedom.”[19]

It sounds like a precarious place, but that is the place where I believe Lindy Hop or any art form can truly thrive.  As a social dance, Lindy Hop is as vibrant as it has ever been with communities on almost every continent.  Contests and other events have elevated the overall skill level of the community, but they all provide varying degrees of constraint.  While the formulation of a new event is beyond the scope of this paper, it does seem to be a worthwhile endeavor if not to provide true and total freedom, but at least as another avenue for the dance to grow.  Strictly performance venues are few and far between in the Lindy Hop and vernacular jazz dance community.  Contests are about winning, but they are not everything.  The most influential routines of the modern era such as Minnies’ Moochers’ “Love Me Or Leave Me” or Mad Dog’s “Well Git It,” did not win their respective divisions.  In fact, most of the routines discussed in this paper either did not place first or were outright disqualified.  However, this paper is not an indictment against competitions.  Competitions serve a useful purpose by bring people together and elevating the level of the dance, but they are limited forums for a still maturing dance community.  Still, that has not stopped them from being important platforms for creativity.  As we have seen through these events, Lindy Hop can be used to communicate a variety of ideas and emotions, transcending language barriers.

In 2005, the United States once again hosted the World Lindy Hop Championships with less fanfare and controversy that greeted it in 1999.  There were representatives from all over the world, some of whom did not speak English.  The finals included dancers from Belgium, Italy, Sweden, and across the US.  Who knew such a thing was possible when Shorty George Snowden broke away from his partner for the first time 80 years ago?  Could even he imagine it?  This is the power of art, of movement, of dance, of Lindy Hop.

Conclusion

This paper covers a roughly 10 year period in the history of a dance than can trace its roots to before the founding of the Republic and in lands far removed from the streets of Harlem .  Yet as we can see, the current Lindy Hop community is still maturing in its understanding what is possible through the dance.  I started with the written exchange of the World Lindy Hop Championship debate because it showed that some people understood those possibilities after laboring for years until that point to simply grow the community.  Yet they were beginning to witness significant changes within a short period of time starting with the initial spread of “Hollywood Style.”  One of the main characteristics of people that take an interest in Lindy Hop and jazz dancing is not only their typical unfamiliarity with dancing in both its solo as well as partnered forms, but they are also usually not familiar with the rigorous discipline that is required to become simply proficient in art forms such as dance.  This is compounded by the fact that swing dances, particularly Lindy Hop, are usually marketed to people as simply low pressure social outlets.  Hollywood style presented a structure that many people new to creative endeavors could navigate through imitation of old clips and interaction with original swing era dancers.  While those resources were a great treasure to be mined, the resulting structure also served to limit people’s vision of their abilities and of Lindy Hop.  However, it was the contribution of some of the community’s youngest members that would trigger massive changes across the national scene because their performance was so out of the ordinary.  In retrospect it’s obvious that only a group that young could attempt something like that because they had yet to be inhibited by the greater expectations of their peers or elders.  However, the new ideas they inspired were very amorphous, and spread with little or out of context guidance. Knowledge gaps were filled in with values from other dance communities.  The “Groove” movement suffered from the opposite problem of the Hollywood trend in that people were making undisciplined and ill-informed creative choices.  Meanwhile other parts of the community were focusing narrowly on partner connection and making the dance much more withdrawn.

After some years, these trends started to become entrenched and people made limited and often times counterproductive attempts at online discussions about creative ideas.   In a bit of inspiration, it was realized that discussions about dance would not be as effective as the actual dance itself, and thus a new message was sent via the Mad Dog routine.  That routine and the accompanying Harlem Jazz Dance Festival and Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown events made significant inroads to introducing new old music and movements to the community, but those ideas competed with not only the previous ones, but also with the introduction of new sub-communities.  The result is now a diverse community armed with many tools for expression, but with few appropriate forums to employ them.

As I hope to have demonstrated here in this paper, we have seen the Lindy Hop community engage in limited discussions about creativity and expression.  Most of those discussions have taken place in verbal forums either online or in person.  However, I hope that I have illuminated the usefulness and power of actual dance performances in contributing to these discussions.  It is my hope that more people take the time to ponder the artistic implications of various performances and respond with their own, making this a more democratic conversation involving mutually beneficial contributions rather than mere regurgitations of the latest stylistic trends.  I understand there is an irony of trying to convey that message in this format, but I understand that many of the people that make up the Lindy Hop community do not come from purely or primarily artistic backgrounds, including myself. I hope this contribution can help other people understand the basic communicative ability and sheer power of Lindy Hop and American vernacular jazz movement. Writing about that power Naomi Uyama observes:

“Dancing has given me the moments in my life when I’ve felt most alive and the thing is that half those times I wasn’t the one dancing. There are moments my heart was bursting and that could never happen if I felt separate from what was going on. There is no performer in the middle, no audience on the outside, just one living breathing circle. One hive mind. Everyone tapping into the same place at once. It can be so insanely beautiful.”[20]

That concept is illustrated in to a routine that she helped to choreograph and perform along with the rest of The Silver Shadows at the 2006 American Lindy Hop Championships. There is a section after dancing for some time without partnering where they tease getting together as couples, but instead they break out into a symbolic jam with all the dancers circling around Todd Yannacone and Naomi Uyama.  Rather than standing and clapping as is usually done in dance jams, the rest of the troupe alternates waving their arms and jumping into the air while circling around the couple giving the impression of a whirlwind of energy.  At the end of the phrase, everyone stops and looks at Skye Humphries and Frida Segerdahl as they leap in time with a trumpet shrill signaling their desire to join in.  Todd and Naomi leap in acknowledgment with the next trumpet shriek as everyone looks to them.  Everyone’s gaze returns to Skye and Frida as they leap at the recognition and they begin their shine in the circle, this time with the rest of the dancers repeating their previous movements, but moving in the opposite direction signaling a similar but new dynamic in the jam.  The whole sequence illustrates the participatory and interactive aspect of Lindy Hop’s original forum, the jam, for creative discourse and provides a hint of how those discussions can continue.

Probably the most important lesson to be learned from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, The Ray Rand Dancers, Mama Lu Parks, The Rhythm Hot Shots, Minnie’s Moochers, Mad Dog, The Silver Shadows’, and everyone else that has come before is that this is what we can do, but not necessarily what we should do.  Legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry once said of Duke Ellington that, “[Ellington] wants life and music to be always in a state of becoming.”  While there’s always room for improvement, it is important to realize that we now have a wide variety of tools to communicate just about anything through solo and partnered vernacular jazz dancing. All that is needed from dancers is the courage to jump up and be seen.

“Just Remember that there’s no such thing as a wrong note; what makes it wrong is when you don’t know where to go after that one.”- Art Tatum[21]


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

[2] Bruce Lee: The Celebrated Life of the Golden Dragon Edited by john Little P. 84

[3] Interview with Arvell Shaw for Ken Burns’ Jazz from the PBS web site  http://www.pbs.org/jazz/about/pdfs/ShawA.pdf Pg. 8-9 last accessed July, 2007

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

[5] “Improvisation on a triple theme: Creativity, Jazz Improvisation and Communication” by Bjørn Alterhaug.

[6] “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

[7] The other harbinger of a stylistic nadir is when a division begins and ends with two separate couples performing routines to the same song as it happened in the 2002 ALHC Classic Division with couples performing to Barbara Morrison’s “Stormy Monday” and again in 2006 when couples at the start and end of the division performed to Jimmie Lunceford’s “Harlem Shout.”  But that could just be a coincidence.

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

[9] http://youtube.com/watch?v=ENjFJzKykP0 last accessed July, 2007. Doug Silton and Debbie Gitt’s performance at ALHC 2003.  The routine was actually performed at ALHC 2003 not 2004 as labeled, so it’s only a year and a half from NADC 2002.   They replicate Kevin and Carla’s formula to excess.  The video is book ended by Doug’s rehashing of the issue of dq’s.  For those of you wondering, the two judges who dq’d him were Ryan Francois and Kenneth Norble.  It’s interesting how he chooses to highlight the people who did not dq him, but not those who did.  It plays to the hierarchy of Lindy Hop.  While the other judges are significant in their own right, Ryan and Kenneth are two of the community’s elder statesmen.  Acknowledgement that they dq’d him for lack of lindy content would be the kiss of death and would almost be enough for many people to discount his attempt at mitigating those dq’s.

[10] “Mad Dog, Gimme the 411, please” discussion thread on SwingTalk.com started on 1/26/03 by “ThatAdamGuy” http://www.swingtalk.com/forums/index.php?s=b8dcc04148898d1a16653a37cfb773a0&showtopic=1340&st=0 last accessed July, 2007

[11] “ALHC 2005?” discussion thread  on SwingoutDC.com started on 10/30/02 by “swingcatkid” aka Eric Jacobson http://www.swingoutdc.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=829&start last accessed July, 2007

[12] “Steven Mitchell Speaks Up” TC Swingin Hepcats web site World Lindy Hop Championship Debate 2000 archive http://www.swinginhepcats.com/debatepage2.html, last accessed July, 2007

[13] “[THERAPY] What is the purpose of competitive dancing?” discussion thread posted by “Allen Hall” aka Allen Hall on 12/22/06 http://www.minnesotalindy.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=30874&highlight=&sid=#30874 last accessed July, 2007

[14] “Native Weaving:  Enduring Traditions of Life and Commerce”, Selling Yarns – Australian Indigenous Textiles and Good Business in the 21stCenturyConferenceMuseum andArtGallery of theNorthern Territory

Darwin,AustraliaAugust 13, 2006By W. Richard West, Jr. Director,NationalMuseumof the American Indian

Smithsonian InstitutionWashington,D.C.

[16] “ALHC Competitors Speak Up!” discussion thread on Yehoodi.com posted by “JustJenn” aka Jenn Salvadori on 11/2/01 http://www.yehoodi.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=49821&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=30 last accessed July, 2007

[17] “ALHC Competitors Speak Up!” discussion thread on  Yehoodi.com posted by “Matt Smiley 2.0” aka Matt Smiley on 10/31/01 http://www.yehoodi.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=49821 last accessed July, 2007

[18] “the value of compeititions” discussion thread on www.GargleBlasterBlues.com posted by “dangermouse” aka Damon Stone on 4/15/07 http://www.gargleblasterblues.com/forums/showthread.php?t=825 last accessed8/20/07

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

[21] Final Chorus by Nat Hentoff.  Playing Changes on Jazz Interviews Jazz Times April 2007

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1 Comment

  1. Lindyspice said,

    June 13, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Just wanted to mention that the Melbourne Swing Patrol crew does an *awesome* event each year, called the Performance Ball, and it was a really fun way to showcase creativity and also offer the experience of performing to people who wouldn’t otherwise do so (those too shy to compete or join a regular troupe). The way I remember it, for a month or so beforehand, the instructors at each venue around the city create and teach a unique routine for their students; at the ball itself, all of the different groups perform for each other, along with special pieces by the local dance troupes and teams of instructors. The night was broken into chunks of performances and social dancing, and I remember it being a really fun and exciting event. Because there were no divisions or categories, the types of pieces presented were quite varied, and all enjoyable on their own merit.

    The community in Melbourne is very different to what I’ve experienced stateside- one large organization hosts multiple venues throughout the week, and although the members of each local group develop a strong social bond, they maintain a very welcoming extended-family-like vibe at the big get-together events. I keep hoping to see something similar blossom in the community where I dance now in the states, but I’m not holding my breath; there seems to be too much inter-venue politics and competition to allow for such a collaborative program to occur…


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