A Bit of Swing Dance History in a Beer Ad!

vintage swing dance

Still from the new Guinness ad

I’ve blogged in the past about my appreciation for dance in advertising, and now along comes one of the best yet.

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I confess I don’t really get what this has to do with Guinness, but more power to them. It’s pretty wonderful all on it’s own so I’m happy to spread it around.  The dancing is top notch, the message is timely, and the history is accurate.  If this kind of dancing excites you, and you live in the bay area, call Steps On Toes and learn how to do it.  The bay area hosts a vibrant Lindy scene. You can be part of it!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Using Dance to Explain Music

picture of interpreter

Swedish interpeter steals the show

A dancing interpreter for the deaf is winning hearts across the internet with his heartfelt signing of musicians.  It’s a great example of how to interpret music for those who can’t hear it.  He is so fun to watch because he dances as he signs, his body movements feeling the music as his hands interpret the words.


A few decades ago I studied American Sign Language because I had a deaf friend and occasional deaf students in my self defense classes for people with physical disabilities. I never got fluent enough to sign for my students or converse with ease with my friend, but I spent a lot of time with the deaf community in order to practice.  They all thought I had recently lost my hearing because I was such a novice at signing.


Dancing is popular among the deaf, but I never attended any dances because the music was too loud for my sensitive hearing. They crank it up so they can feel the bass through the floor and find the rhythm.


Feeling the rhythm section to get the beat is not the same as understanding music, however.  When the interpreter moves to music as he signs, the nuance of the music comes through.  I’ve seen this before in some of the best interpreters and wonder how much of the music comes through this way.


When I watch without the sound, it’s definitely not enough.  But when the beat is added, the baseline that can be felt if not heard, the dance makes sense.  It may be impossible to really express the idea of music to those without hearing, but this combination of dance and signing comes as close at it can.

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by LaurieAnn Lepoff
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Dancing in Atlanta

Real southern food!

Enjoying the local fare with dance partner Jose and his husband Jim

A couple of decades or so ago I taught a series of monthly country western workshops with a close friend.  I usually teach alone because a teaching partner automatically cuts the take in half, but I loved teaching with Jose so I mostly did it for fun.  There was an expensive Japanese restaurant in the neighborhood where we had our workshops.  We loved the food there, so after we finished our class, we’d go there and blow our earnings on dinner and catch up on our lives over the previous month.  Then Jose’s day job took him out of state and our teaching team was history.

Dance partnerships never die!

Our friendship, however, remained intact, as did mine with his spouse Jim, who shares my love of gardening and old musicals.  Last weekend I finally visited them in Atlanta, combining my visit with the renowned Peach State Country Western  Dance Festival.

During Jose’s time in the Bay Area, Country was very popular.  There were C/W dance bars everywhere.  I taught a lot of country and went dancing frequently.  Now the country scene has all but disappeared here, although it appears to be thriving in Atlanta.  (I noticed differences, though. At least in the competition scene, the ballroom influence is so strong I could barely tell the difference.  In the early days of Country, the dancers prided themselves on NOT being ballroom.)  It begs the question: why do some dances disappear and others stay for good?  Why are some a flash in the pan, like the Lambada, only to be gone a year later, while others are around for years and still thrive in some areas but are gone from others?  And others disappear for a while and then come back with a resurgence a few decades later, like Lindy Hop.  Lindy is popular in the Bay Area, but fragile.  It takes work on the part of the dancers who love it to make sure the scene thrives.

Salsa in the South

I managed to get a little Salsa dancing in as well, to my delight.  Jose is from Cuba and still my favorite Salsa partner.  Salsa is a dance that seems to be popular everywhere and here to stay.  It’s hard to imagine a stronger dance scene than Salsa, yet it’s a relatively new dance.  By that I mean that I was a young woman when Salsa was a new dance.

I never expected Country to leave the Bay Area, but even the gay community is not supporting Country dancing as much any more.  We may soon see the end of it all together.  Jose suggested the theory that it may be the music.  There is little distinction between Country and Pop today, so there is not as much reason to do a different dance.  That may be, but doesn’t explain why it’s still popular in the South.  It’s an interesting question.  Why do you think some dances come and go while others seem to be here to stay?  I’d love to hear your ideas!


by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Art, Percussion, and Dance

Music and dance go hand in hand, but sometimes the dance IS the music, or at least part of it.  The most obvious example of this is tap dance, where the dance creates the percussion.  Tap is the perfect blend of music and dance because the dance is part of the music.


Watch how this Latin Jazz combo works with the dancers as percussionists.

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There are, however, other examples where art and percussion and dance come together.  When I was in college I discovered for the first time an Appalachian dancing doll.  A friend and I were transfixed by the concept and bought the doll at a crafts fair.  We were art school students so we bought a blank one and painted it.  My friend moved away after graduation and we used to lovingly ship the doll back and forth like a child from a broken home.


In this video you can see how the doll is a musical instrument and a dancer at the same time:


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Don’t miss next week’s post on dancing marionettes!


by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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A New Take on Disability and Dance

Viktoria Modesta shows off a beautiful fake leg

Viktoria Modesta sporting a prosthesis as glamorous as she is.

I’ve written in the past about dance troupes like Axis that feature dancers in wheelchairs performing with able bodied dancers, blind and deaf dancers, and a hip hop crew composed entirely of physically challenged dancers.  This is a subject near and dear to my heart because of my background in working with people who live with physical disabilities.


You may have seen the video I’m featuring today because it’s gone viral.  Pop singer Viktoria Modesta is an amputee who in the past has made videos in which her prosthesis was hidden and she looked like a classic beauty with all of her limbs intact.  In “Prototype” she features two different artistically designed prosthesis and at the end of the video does a dance with one of them.  The first one looks elegant and exotic, a perfect fit for her fashonista style. Her movements are graceful and natural as the prosthesis lights up like a futuristic bionic body part.


The second one is a spike that comes to a point and it looks as if the dance is designed for it or it was designed for the choreography.  If you want to fast forward to the dance, it starts at 4:57, although she does dance here and there throughout the video.


This video sparked a ton of comments, many from people who dislike her music and therefore find the whole thing pointless, or a shameless use of a disability to get attention.  I confess I’m not a big fan of this type of music either, but I think the way she showcases her prosthesis is groundbreaking.


I would enjoy it a lot more if I liked the music, but that doesn’t change what she’s doing in this dance.  She could easily hide her leg and still dance.  We wouldn’t be able to tell.  So what is so new about this that makes it different from some I’ve the other artists I’ve written about in former posts?


She doesn’t just show the world that she can dance just as well as an able bodied artist in spite of her missing leg.  She creates a work of art out of the leg and showcases it.  It’s a thing of beauty in its own right.  One viewer commented, to the disgust of many others, that he almost wished he had a fake leg that lit up.  He voiced what many were thinking.  It’s that cool.


Born with this disability, she’s comfortable with it and it’s a big part of who she is.  I’m glad it’s sparking controversy because it means people are thinking and talking about it.  I give it a thumbs up!  Here you go:

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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Do Justice to the Culture Whose Dance You Are Borrowing Part II

Yismari Ramos

Yismari in performance

Last week I wrote about my Samba teacher Jacqui Barnes.  Today I’ll introduce you to my latin rhythms teacher, Yismari Ramos.


Like Jacqui, Yismari is passionate about the music of her culture (Cuban) and the the way the dance feels.  Her classes consist of complicated choreography that incompasses the various rhythms of Cuban dance.  This is a class for dancers and the choreography is as challenging for the brain as it is for the body.


Here’s Yismari teaching our gym class.  She’s in the blue top and black pants in the center.  If you look hard, you can catch me in the 3rd row struggling to keep up.  (In my defense, this was my first encounter with a routine she had been teaching for 2 weeks.)  This is a typical routine which she teaches for 2 weeks before choreographing a new one.


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Just like Jacqui, she wants us to learn the moves but is more concerned that we put feeling into it.  She’ll often parody how the dance will look without soul and tell us to just do SOMEthing.  “I don’t care what, just move your BODY.”

I love learning from these women, because they are inspiring in the impossible ways they can move, but also because of the love and passion they have for their art and their music, and the culture represented by the dance.


Here’s an excerpt from a performance by Yismari and another great local teacher, Erick Barberia.  If you are lucky enough to live in the bay area, consider taking advantage of the amazing talent available to you here!

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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Do Justice to the Culture Whose Dance You Are Borrowing


Jacqui Barnes

Jacqui Barnes dancing in Carnival

Dance teachers in my present

I wrote a post a while ago about dance teachers in my past who influenced me.  I’d like to write now about teachers who are influencing me now.  Yes, dance teachers do still study.  It never ends!

Brazilian Samba

I am lucky enough to be able to study Brazilian Samba with the great Jacque Barnes.  Just getting the footwork is challenging enough in this beautiful dance, but that’s not enough.  “Don’t just go through the movements,” Jacque tells us.  “Do justice to the Brazilian people and their culture.  Put your soul into it and make it your own.”  


What I love about working with Jacque is her passion for the music and the culture that created the dance.  You can’t help but pick up that passion and feel inspired to let the music move you.


When I was in Europe studying the delightful European swing dance they call Boogie Woogie, one of my favorite teachers once said, as if she was eating chocolate, “I just LOVE every step!”  That’s the spirit of Jacqui’s Samba classes.


Everyone learns differently and some people get the feel and style before they get the footwork.  But most people first have to learn the mechanics and then can put their attention to the styling.  I’m like that, but I’m constantly inspired by the effortless grace of Jacqui and her advanced students, so that as I learn the footwork, I also get the feel of how the movement relates to the music and can throw myself into the spirit of it all.

Ballroom vs. Street Dance

If you don’t understand the difference between Ballroom  Samba and Street Samba, it is this.  Ballroom dance has a styling that infuses every dance in it’s genre.  Even though there are many different Ballroom dances, they all look kind of similar.  They no longer have the feel of the original culture and have often, as in the case of Samba, morphed into a dance that bears little resemblance to the original.  There is a unique styling to the genre of Ballroom Dance and it infuses every dance in that category.  


Street Samba is unique to the Brazilian culture.  It’s not a partner dance and I don’t teach it.  I just do it for fun and to broaden my skills to keep myself sharp.  If you are intrigued by the dances of Carnival, and are lucky enough to be in the bay area, I encourage you to take advantage of Jacqui’s expertise and supportive teaching style.  Maybe I’ll see you in class!


by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dancing vs Clapping: It’s Better to Look Like an Idiot Than to Sound Like One


Thank Rocky Jones for this delightful cartoon.  And I also thank my friend and fellow dancer Shala Marie for bringing it to my attention.

This is the best explanation of clapping on the 2 and 4 I’ve ever seen.

The info about the snare drum was news to me.  Dancers for the most part clap on the 2 and 4 because, well, it just feels right.  And as Duke Ellington so eloquently put it, it’s hip to do so.  Until now, however, I never really understood why.

In a recent dance blog, I not too long ago wrote about this very subject, so if you haven’t had enough of this topic yet, watch this charming explanation!

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By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Music for Dance: When Fast is Slow and Slow is Fast


I teach a lot of first dance lessons for weddings.  Usually my students have a song picked out or they have several they are considering.  Often they’ll say something like this to me: “I don’t know if this will work.  It’s kind of fast.”  “The music changes part way through.  It’s slow at the beginning and then it speeds up.”  Usually the music they fear will be too fast is not fast at all, and dance music that changes speed mid song is extremely rare.  So what’s really going on here?

Groove vs. tempo

Dance music has a steady beat that is consistent throughout.  There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but let’s stick to the norm here.  When you count the timing of the steady beat, that’s the actual speed.  If you are someone who can easily hear the beat in music, you’ve had the experience of hearing a song that sounds fast but the beat is actually slow.  Sometimes it’s the other way around, sounding slow when the tempo really is fast.  Jazz musicians call that the groove.  It’s the way the music feels, regardless of the actual tempo.

Sometimes the groove changes, but the speed almost never changes with it.  That means that the dance you learn for the song will work through out no matter what the groove is doing.  The groove, however, influences the steps you may choose to use in various parts of the song.  If you are a brand new beginner and find the dance challenging, music notwithstanding,  you may choose to ignore this more advanced concept and just do your steps no matter what the music is doing.  You’ll still be on beat and the dance will work.

Playing with the music

If you’re more advanced, and your song’s groove changes, you might choose to be more creative with the nuances of the music.  Just as the music can feel slow when the beat is fast, so can the way you dance.  You can use steps that glide, with very little body movement drawing attention to speed of the actual footwork.  Conversely, you can use steps that bounce or emphasise the beat, making your dance feel jaunty even though it’s slow.

Just for fun, try listening to your favorite genre of music and see if you can find songs in which the groove and the speed don’t match.  Now that you’re aware of the phenomenon, you’ll start noticing it everywhere!
by LaurieAnn Lepoff
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The Complexities of Finger Snapping to Music

I’ve written previous posts on White Man’s Clapping Syndrome, but even if you can clap to the beat, do you know on which beat to clap?

Jazz dancers clap on the upbeat

I’ve heard it said that black people clap on the upbeat and white people clap on the downbeat.  Or that jazz dancers of any race clap on the upbeat, except for Germans who tend to clap on the downbeat to everything.

So do swing dancers

The only thing that is consistent is that if you can hear the beat at all, you clap on every other beat.  Which is to say, the down beat (1 and 3) or the upbeat (2 and 4).  I’m a swing dancer, white but not German, so I clap on the upbeat.  Why do I do that? Because it feels right for the music.  And of course because it’s cool.

Wikipedia agrees with me.  Here’s their definition of finger snapping (in music):

“In music[edit]

In Sumatran culture, finger snapping, along with chest slapping, is a common form of music.[7]

In Western music involving snapping of fingers, the sound of the snap is usually on 2 and 4 (the offbeat, like the clap).[citation needed]

The sounds of a fingersnap also are sampled and used in many disparate genres of music, used mostly as percussion; the works of Angelo Badalamentiexhibit this in the soundtracks to, e.g., Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, as does the theme song for the television series The Addams Family.”

Here’s the best explanation I’ve ever heard from one of the coolest jazz cats who ever lived, Duke Ellington.

He says it best, so no more words needed from me:

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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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When Is A Dance Too Acrobatic?

acrobats from Cirq Du Solei

The incomperable Cirq Du Solei is famous for combining acrobatics and dance

Controversial dance

This surprising controversy in the dance community popped up when this video started going viral:

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But is it really dance?

Some people commented that is isn’t really dance because it’s really just a bunch of aerials and really qualifies as acrobatics rather than dance.  If you’ve read my previous posts about acrobatics and dance, “Are Gymnasts Dancers? Part 1” and “Part 11”, you know that I feel that just about any movement that goes to music qualifies as dance and why are we arguing about this anyway?  We should all get a life.

Dance Aerials in other countries

Nevertheless, it put me in mind of the German dance that they call “Rock and Roll”.  Now that, unlike the previous example that had beautiful musical interpretation and expression, really does fit the description of a bunch of aerials stuck together with a few very peculiar basic kicking steps.  Here’s an example of Rock and Roll:

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If that qualifies as dance (and it definitely does) then how can anyone argue with the first example?  Yes there is more to dance than stunning air steps, but no matter what I think of the filler steps, the spectacular aerials and the basic step that glues them together are all on beat and do go with the music.  That’s dance!

In fact, the concept of a cultural dance that consists primarily of air steps glued together with a basic step of some kind and very little else, seems to exist in vastly different cultures.  Odd though Rock and Roll’s basic straight forward kick step may look to us (or at least to me), it is in it’s own way distinctly German.

In this stunning example of Mexico’s Quebradita Acrobatica, you see the basic step continually repeated in the second part where the music speeds up.  The sexy fluidity of this movement reflects the culture of it’s parent country as well.  Gorgeous, isn’t it?

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Does it really matter what you call any of it?  It’s all highly skilled movement to music.  That’s good enough for me!


by LaurieAnn Lepoff
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Rhythm, Dance, and a Neurological Disorder

a complex musican score

Finding the beat can be daunting for many a would-be dancer.

Can’t find the beat?

I’ve written before about people who can’t find the beat to dance to, and I’ve given my best guesses as to the cause.  But today I heard about a new study of a rare neurological disorder that actually causes White Man’s Clapping Syndrome.  The disorder was discovered so recently that it’s only just now being talked about.  Hundreds of people, apparently, lined up to be tested.  They all were sure they were victims of this malady.  Only one of them actually qualified.

So common is this inability to find the beat in music that people who have it think they were born with something missing.  If you’ve read my previous posts on the subject, you know that I believe they were born with their sense of rhythm intact.  They lost it somewhere along the way.

Clapping offbeat in Germany

What I thought was so interesting about this interview, which I heard on public radio, with the scientist who found the disorder, was that they spoke about it as the inability to clap to music.  Jon Carroll coined the phrase “White Man’s Clapping Syndrome” and I fell in love with it and have been using it ever since although I try to remember to give him credit when I do.  A musician on the show pointed out that clapping offbeat can be cultural, using Austrians an example. At a concert in Austria he noticed (how could he not) that the entire audience was clapping on the wrong beat.  The scientist clarified that while they were on the wrong beat, they were at least on a consistent beat in the music, hence not suffering from her new found malady.

I’ve never danced in Austria, but I certainly have noticed that Germans, as a society as a whole, do clap on the downbeat to jazz, to which everyone else claps on the upbeat.  I used to spend the month of July at a four week  international dance camp in Sweden where about fifty different countries were represented and you couldn’t miss that interesting cultural difference.

But the scientist is right.  If you can clap on the downbeat you can hear the beat in music even if it feels “wrong” to the ears of others.  It’s a totally different issue than that of not being able to find a consistent beat at all.

If this topic interests you, check out my previous posts on the subject:

Can You Dance with White Man’s Clapping Syndrome?

Deaf Dancers: Can You Dance if You Can’t Hear the Music?

Rhythm and Dance in Nature

Is Rhythm Innate?

Rhythm: Our Birthright

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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