Inspirational Dancer Awes Us at 61!

 

Innovative dancer Maya Plisetskaya

The Great Dancer at age 86

Maya Plisetskaya is one of the most gifted dancers of all time, so if you had to pick one to beat the odds on longevity, you’d be hard pressed to find a better candidate.    She has had a huge influence on ballet with her unique style, charisma, and dramatic as well as technical genius.  The clip that inspired this post is of a performance at age 61.  Actually, the great dancer is a lot older than that now (88), but what’s really amazing about this clip is that she was performing ballet.  Ballet is the only dance form that trains the body to do that which is unnatural to it and for this reason classical dancers nearly always retire when they are in their thirties.  Dancing like this at 61 is like playing professional football at that age.  It’s not unusual to see tap dancers still hoofing it in their 80s, but ballet?  Teaching, creating choreography, running a ballet company, definitely, but a professional soloist with a world class company?  Unheard of!  And as you can see, at 61 you can’t tell she isn’t still a young dancer in her prime.  She actually retired as a soloist for the Bolshoi at the age of 65, but I couldn’t find any examples of her dancing at that age.  Anyone have a more recent clip than this one?  My thanks yet again to Rebecca Shannon for turning me on to this wonderful video:

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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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What is Shag Dancing?

 

famous teachers from Santa Barbara show off their style

My First Shag Dance teachers, Sylvia Sykes and Jonathan Bixby

British dancers not doubt get a kick out of the fact that what is slang for a four letter activity to them is the name of a dance to us. Three dances to be specific: Collegiate Shag, St Louis Shag, and Carolina Shag. The first two are more closely related to each other but still are quite different dances. Both originated in the 1920s as off-shoots of the Charleston, and both are usually (but not always) danced to fast music. They both look harder than they are, especially when speeded up. They both use a lot of physical energy and require stamina to get through the song. The basic step is completely different so if you were to take a class in each dance the difference would be obvious.

Here’s Valerie LaFemina and Mario Robau, more famous for their West Coast Swing, giving us a good example of St. Louis Shag:

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I learned St. Louis shag first. It was popular in my community about 20 years ago, but very few people do it here now. Like many dances, it had a brief heyday and people lost interest. Now, and for quite some time, it has been replaced by Collegiate Shag. I can’t explain why, and if if any of my local readers have an insight I’d be happy to hear it. I couldn’t find as joyful an example of St. Louis Shag as this delightful demo of Collegiate, so maybe it just inspires more fun and that’s why it’s more popular. Fans of St. Louis will disagree of course, so if any of you have a really great clip, please do send it my way.

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People who dance Balboa often also do Collegiate Shag. Shag is not difficult to learn (relatively speaking) but is physically tiring to do. Balboa, also usually danced to very fast music, is complex and hard to learn but not tiring and can be danced all night without breaking a sweat. Nope, can’t have both qualities in the same dance. You have to pick one. Here’s a look at Bal, and I’ll address that one more in another blog

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Carolina Shag is so different from the other two that it defies logic to give it the same name. You can see a wonderful demonstration of it in my last post, Veteran Dancers Make it Look Easy. Unlike the California state dance, West Coast Swing, which is danced all over the country, Carolina’s state dance is still largely a southern phenomenon. We’ve been introduced to it here in the west, but it hasn’t caught on. It’s a closer cousin to West Coast Swing than to it’s other namesakes. Dancer and dance historian Peter Loggins suggests the possibility that Collegiate Shag may have been the original Carolina Shag. Certainly it is not unheard of for a dance to change it’s style over the years so this is indeed possible. For more of Peter’s insights into the subject, click this link to Peter’s Shag Dance Blog.

And NONE of them have any connection to the British slang definition as far as I know. But if any of my readers have an insight to this curious coincidence, I’m all ears!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Veteran Dancers Make it Look Easy

Charlie and Jackie dance carolina shag

carolina shag champion dancers Charlie Womble and Jackie McGee

When I write about older dancers I usually try to find dancers still wowing us in their 80s and 90s. Today I’m going to feature Charlie Womble and Jackie McGee, even though they’re only in their 60s. The reason is that I want to talk about the ease that comes with experience. You’ve heard the expression “They make it look easy.” when people talk about very good dancers. I would amend that to say, no, it doesn’t look easy but it looks as if it’s easy for them.

With age (if you started early enough) comes experience. With experience, eventually comes ease. When I go out dancing, I like to dance every dance. I don’t like to sit out dances unless I don’t like the song, and even then I kind of want to be on the floor. People are amazed that I have the energy to out dance people half my age and younger, but it’s not that I’m in better shape. I’m just more efficient. When you’ve been doing something long enough, your muscles figure out which of them are needed and the rest of them take a break.  When you’re new at it, every muscle in your body thinks it has to participate. New dancers just plain work harder and tire sooner. Of course, they get more exercise, so there’s a perk for every stage in the dance of life.

Jackie and Charlie are famous for Carolina Shag and there couldn’t be a better pair of ambassadors for any dance. If you had to find one word to capture what is amazing about them, (aside from “Wow!”) it would probably be “ease”. Every move uses the precise amount of energy necessary and not a jot more. They are completely relaxed and their dance is effortless.

There is no shortcut to having the element of ease in your dance. It only comes with experience. You can either put in a LOT of hours when you’re young, or just keep dancing until you turn gray. Or, like Charlie and Jackie, you can do both! And if you are lucky enough to find yourself in their neck of the woods, take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the masters and try your hand at Carolina Shag. Enjoy!
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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Stealing in Partner Dance

 

lindy hop stealing routine

A dancer waits in the wings to steal the girl!

Stealing is the art of slipping gracefully into someone else’s dance and stealing their partner. Ideally, you do this so artfully that the stollen partner hardly knows how it happened and the former partner can’t figure out why they are suddenly alone. It’s a version of cutting in, but more playful and requires considerable skill. In this delightful routine, the stealing is choreographed but the steals are real and can be used socially as well.

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By the way, this routine is also a great example of excellent use of aerials in a dance routine. See previous post Using Aerials in Swing Dance.

In the Lindy Hop community, birthday jams are a great place to practice your steals. In a birthday jam, birthdays are celebrated with a jam. If it’s your birthday, you are in the center of a circle and you dance with a number of partners who cut in on each other after a few bars of music. You could just sidle up to the couple and wait until the birthday dancer notices you and turns away from their current partner to connect with you, but you could also slip in with a steal. If you blow the steal it’s no big deal since most people don’t even try. It’s a tad embarrassing when it doesn’t work, but it’s REALLY FUN when it does! It’s also fun when it’s your birthday to experience an elegant steal. I’ve had my share of steals I’ve screwed up (that’s what the word “oops” was invented for) but well worth it for the appreciative looks on my partners faces when I slip in with a perfectly executed one.
If you’re at least an intermediate level dancer comfortable with your floor skills, try practicing a few steals. Assuming you’re careful of who you cut in on so you’re not stepping on anyones toes, it can add a new level of fun to your dancing. Give it a go and tell me how you like it!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Thoughts on Competitive Dancing

dancers competing

Skye and Frida are amazing dancers socially and in competition

It’s always a pleasure to read a post that agrees with one’s pet peeve, isn’t it?  I’ve never liked the concept of competitive dancing, but I do agree that there is a place for it for those who do.  Click on the pink link to see a blog about a new kind of (anti) competition dancing from Mandi Gould in Toronto.  It also presents good ideas for sharing thoughts, so feel free to express your own opinions on the subject.  I always like to hear what others think about subjects about which I am opinionated!

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Effortless Dancing

Eleanor Powell dancing

Eleanor Powell’s effortless dance style shows even in a still shot

What is it about real masters that makes their dancing so irresistible to watch?  It’s not that they make it look easy.  It’s that they make it look effortless.  Some dancers have it and some don’t, but the difference is striking.  Ruby Keeler was a prolific movie star who made a ton of musicals in the 30s and 40s.  She tapped her way through them all, never losing her effortful, heavy footed style.  She was cute and had good chemistry with costar Dick Powell, but clearly was successful in spite of her dancing, not because of it.  Here she is demonstrating her famous lack of grace on the dance floor:

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Contrast this with Eleanor Powell, who was so good some of the best dancers of her time did not want to partner with her for fear she would show them up.  She was the epitome of effortlessness.  I love this clip of her dancing casually in her living room with her dog.  Button  is thoroughly enjoying himself with no ego issues while Eleanor drifts through the dance with amazing ease.  Watch how her dancing suddenly comes alive the moment the music starts.  There is no wasted energy in the way she moves.  Only the muscles she needs are being used while the rest of her is totally relaxed.  You don’t see any effort.  This kind of dancing is truly inspirational.

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I don’t work with professional dancers, so few of my students will every achieve anything close to this level of grace, but I will say this.  Most people get closer and closer to it simply by doing it a lot over the years.  The more you dance, the more your body figures out on its own how to conserve energy and move with less effort.  Learn to do it right first, then go dancing, and dance some more.  It never hurts to hold an inspirational dancer in mind and channel them when you dance!  Who is your favorite?  Pick someone who inspires you and imagine dancing like that and see if it doesn’t make a difference!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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If I can’t Dance to it, It’s not My Revolution! Political Dance Vs. Propaganda

chinese dancers for Mao

dancers in cultural revolution ballet

Emma Goldman is credited with the title quote, and it’s one of my favorites.  I think she was simply saying that she’s not going to fight for a joyless society, a point that is so easily forgotten when the focus is on struggle.  But music and dance have also been used throughout history to make political points.  From the blatant propaganda of this little ballet melodrama from China’s Cultural Revolution

 

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to this wonderful statement about the sex slave trade, beautifully designed to make people stop and think:

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Art goes straight to the heart and that’s why it’s used, not always this eloquently, to make political points.  This video in particular got me to thinking about the difference between a thoughtful political statement and propaganda.  Both are designed to influence emotion.  My Chinese example was easy because it was so obviously designed to raise certain very specific feelings with a strong undercurrent of “You are supposed to feel this way!”  but propaganda can be much subtler.  According to the dictionary, propaganda is information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

Except for the misleading part, the definition applies to the second example as well.  So maybe that’s the only difference.  If it’s designed to mislead, it’s propaganda.  If it’s merely biased, it’s not?

The sex trade clip brings awareness to a serious problem, an ongoing injustice.  But the Cultural Revolution was founded on a fight against a corrupt government that was certainly responsible for its share of heartbreaking injustice.  I remember how much I loved that image of the strong woman fighting oppression with a rifle and Bermuda shorts.  It had a huge impact on me when I was in my 20s.  Really, what was the message here?  Fight oppression in solidarity with your fellow freedom fighters!  Not so different from the red light dancers.  Their message included the element of surprise, but boiled down to “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself now?  So go do something about this now that you know!”

If Mao had succeeded in replacing a repressive government with one that truly supported the best for its people, instead of succumbing to another form of tyranny, would this historic dance piece still strike us as propaganda?

I think Emma was on the right track.  If you take joy out the revolution, you wind up with a joyless post revolution.  Dance can make a powerful point, but ultimately it’s a joyful experience and that’s why we do it.  I believe, in fact, that if most people danced there would be no need for revolution.

When people from different cultures dance and play music together, there is no room for hostility.  That’s my vision for the future!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Why do You Want to Learn to Dance?

Why do you want to take dance lessons? This is one of the most important questions to ask yourself before you start.  I know people who just walked into a studio and signed up for the first class they saw and wound up feeling so discouraged that they never danced again.  They didn’t know that they had inadvertently chosen one of the most challenging dances in existence. They never took stock of what they really wanted.  They just wanted to learn to dance.  Any dance would do to start, so they thought.

Not everyone wants to make going out dancing a regular part of their lives.  I’ve had students who wanted to dance together romantically in their kitchen and nowhere else.  Some people want to be able to say yes when someone asks them to dance at a wedding.  Some have a special event in mind, like a New Year’s Eve event or their wedding.  Some want to meet a potential romantic partner or please the one they already have.  Others have friends who dance and they want to be able to join them at private parties or when they go to clubs.

The vast majority of people who know little if anything about social dance think they should start with Ballroom.  There seems to be a prevalent myth that ballroom is basic and everything else is built from a ballroom foundation.  The truth is that Ballroom is only one genre and there are many other choices that might be way more appropriate for your lifestyle and needs.

Once you’ve answered this question and are clear about your motivation, check out my Sept 13 post, “How to Know Which Dance is Right for You”  http://www.stepsontoes.com/2013/09/how-to-know-which-dance-is-right-for-you/ to to move on to the next step!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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The Art of Photographing Dancers

 

beautiful photo of a dancer

photographing dancers is a difficult art

Sept 26 marked the birthday of Weiferd Watts, one of the best known photographers of dancers. Watts’ style was unmistakable because he posed the dancers in ways that both captured who they were and created an artistic composition as well. Dancing is an art, and photographing art is also art. In honor of his birthday, I’m including a sample of his outstanding work for your pleasure. If you want to see more, there is a show at the SF public library which will run through January 2, 2014. More information about that show here.
There is also an informative article on his life in this blog from
DanseTrack

Enjoy!

7 2 nicole kathleen-elaine

rachel-crystal laurarutledge allison