Dance Contest Played for Laughs Raises Consciousness Anyway

 

me and jose when we were young

Dancing with Jose in younger years

Jack and Jack Dancers

During the Peach State Country Western Dance Festival in Atlanta, there was a Jack and Jack competition in which men partnered with other men in texas two-step, waltz, west coast swing, and night club two step.  These guys were all excellent dancers and many of them were teachers.  They were also all straight and they camped it up, somewhat offensively, playing for laughs even  while dancing masterfully.  There was no Jill and Jill counterpart.

 

My friend Jose, who was my host, says they do this every year and we tried to avoid it by going Salsa dancing earlier but managed to arrive right in the middle of it anyway.

 

C/W dance teachers never die..

I noticed that they seemed to know each other well and were good friends.  They clearly enjoyed showing off their considerable skills together and they were having a lot of fun, but they couldn’t give themselves permission to just enjoy dancing together without making a joke of it.  When one of them made a particularly lewd dance move, the announcer to my astonishment said with a laugh “Dave Getty better not see that one!”

 

And neither does homophobia

Dakota Dave Getty was my first country western dance teacher at a now defunct club in Hayward called the West 40.  He was also the head honcho of the people who made the rules of C/W competition.  Because there was a gay couple who were so good they were likely to walk away with all of the awards, Dakota  changed the definition of a couple to “a man and a woman”.  He also would not let me dance lead in his classes even when there were extra women who could not be in the class because there weren’t enough men.  I haven’t heard anything about him in years, but I guess his homophobic reputation  is still known far and wide.  After the contest, during the dance, Jose was invited to dance by a man 3 times, and we noticed same sex couples on the floor dancing without raising a hint of hostility from the mostly heterosexual crowd.

 

“That never happened before,” said Jose later.  “Maybe some change was brought about by that contest after all.”  What do you think?  Coincidence?  Exposure over time to the sight of men dancing together even for laughs? Maybe the unmistakable friendship and real caring between the dance partners?  Or the changing times coming into play in spite of the homophobia of the contest?  Readers, weigh in!

 

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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Banning Same Sex Partners in Competitive Ballroom Dance

two women dancing

Bay Area champions Zoe Balfour & Citabria Phillips
strut their impressive stuff!

I’m not a fan of competitive dance, particularly Ballroom, but I have no objection to it’s existence. Many people love it and more power to them.  When I write about it, it’s because something in that world has captured my attention.

 

Same sex dancers still strike fear into some 

I’m having a hard time believing that, at a time when many sports are reversing long held homophobic beliefs and policies, the British Dance Council is considering a proposal to define dance couples as consisting of a “man” and a “lady”.  Maybe some of the women will then be disqualified on the grounds that they are too crass to be considered ladies.  I mean, just take a look at some of those costumes.  Would a lady wear that?

Country Western Dancers preceded Ballroom

I miss the Country Western dance scene which has all but disappeared from my neck of the woods, but I don’t miss the homophobia.  After a couple of gay men were so good that they started winning too many competitions, the powers that be did indeed pass a rule banning same sex partners from competing.  The flourishing gay competitive dance community, on the other hand, had no problem with opposite sex partnership.  Everyone was judged on dance skills.  Period.

Women banned from dancing lead

Homophobia was so rampant in the early days of Country dancing that women could not lead in the lessons.  At the now defunct but then thriving West 40, where I was studying advanced Country Western dancing in earnest, you had to find a partner with whom to take the lesson because there was no changing during the lesson.  There were always extra women who wanted to be in the lesson but couldn’t find a partner.  Even though I would be doing the service of providing an opportunity for 2 extra women to take (and pay for) the lesson, the teacher made it clear by a combination of ridicule and ignoring us, that women were not welcome to learn the lead in his class.

 

It saddens me now to see the same thinking mirrored in the ballroom community. A big hue and cry complete with petitions, of course, is occurring in response, so maybe they’ll have a change of heart in time.  The internet was a baby during the time of the Country Western policy change, so nobody knew about it until after the fact.  Stay tuned for the aftermath when the decision is made!

 

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Men Dancing in Heels

 

 

I’ve often heard it said that in their dance routines Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did except she did it backwards and in heels.  It’s a popular comment, except of course she didn’t lead and she didn’t choreograph the dance.  She did, however, dance in heels and had the bleeding feet to prove it.  Fred was an infamous task master with no sympathy for his partner’s disadvantage due to her tortuous footwear.  It’s no wonder they disliked each other.  Fred had no idea how hard it is to dance in heels.

Heels and Skates on the Dance Floor

 
Dancing in heels is not for sissies, except when it is.  You’d never catch Fred Astaire in heels, but there have been occasions where men have risen to the challenge.  I found this clip and don’t know the story behind it.  Kevin St. Laurent on skates and Mark Muthersbaugh in heels while swing dancing. Both of these guys are champion swing dancers and I have no idea why Mark is in heels at this event.  One of things I love about the swing community, though, is that in keeping with the Savoy tradition of mixed races, SF swing dancers mix gender identities.  

Integrated Dance Floors

 
The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem during the heyday of Lindy Hop was the only integrated ballroom in America.  Frankie Manning used to say all anyone cared about was “Can they dance?”  Mixed race couples don’t raise an eyebrow anymore, at least not in the bay area, but our version is straight guys dancing with gay guys.  All we care about is “Can they dance?”  The answer is obvious here.
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More Guys Dancing in Heels

And while we’re on the subject, here’s another delightful example of dancers hamming it up in heels.  These guys make it look natural.  They do Ginger proud!
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by LaurieAnn Lepoff
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Switching the Lead and Follow in Partner Dancing

Switching the Lead and Follow in Partner Dance

classic painting of 2 women dancing

Same sex dancers were common at the Moulin-Rouge

When both partners know how to lead as well as follow, dancers can switch roles during a dance.  This is truly the ideal solution for people who are worried about sexism in the roles of lead and follow, but not everyone wants to learn both parts.  Yes, it does make you a better dancer, but so does constant practice.  We each do what works for us with whatever commitment we have to the learning process.

 

That said, switching roles is fun when you both know what you’re doing, but it is definitely not traditional.  You can only do it in a community where it is normal for both people to know both parts, or if you dance with a particular partner who can do it with you. 

 

It’s most common, not surprisingly, in gay dance communities where the roles are not defined to begin with.  However, it’s also common in the Lindy Hop community in the Bay Area (but not any other dance for some reason) and in the waltz community at Stanford University.

 

Dance teachers have a lot of power when teaching beginners who not only know nothing about dance but also nothing about dance culture.  Sometimes students ask me if it’s traditional for men to lead and women to follow and it’s always tempting to say “Not at all.  Do whatever you want.”  I can’t do that because when they get out in the real world to go dancing they would find out I lied.  But Richard Powers, who heads the popular vintage dance program at Stanford, does exactly that.  He teaches a lead switch in Cross Step Waltz as if it’s a traditional move.  It flows easily in Waltz because the footwork doesn’t have to change with the switch.  As far as I know, Richard is the only one who does this, but his students don’t know this.  They all are part of the same community and they all learned from the same teacher.  Here’s a clip of Richard and his partner Angela Amarillas demonstrating Cross Step Waltz.  You can hear him call the partner change along with the other steps as if it’s a natural part of the dance.  And of course, since he teaches it that way, it is.

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 It also has something of a history in Lindy Hop, as women often danced together when the men were off at war, and so did the men, while off at war without the women.  I doubt that that has anything to do with the popularity of role switching in today’s Bay Area scene, but it is interesting.  Here’s a wonderful clip from the 1944 movie The Canterville Ghost with Margaret O’Brien.  I don’t know who the dancers are, but they are doing classic Lindy Hop.

If you’re intrigued by the challenge of knowing the lead as well as the follow, give it a go.  I recommend getting solid in one part first, however, before tackling the other. Leading and following are very different skills with their own challenges and it’s not easy to learn them both at the same time.  This is particularly true in Swing dance where the foot work is also different. 

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Have fun, you all, and tell me about your own role switching experiences in partner dance!

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Leading Vs Bullying in Partner Dance

daning coupe

Lead your dance partner. Don’t bully her!

A New Year’s Eve dance included a brief dance lesson for people who didn’t know how to do a basic waltz step.  The instructor kept making a big deal about how the men should be leading even though he gave no instruction in how to lead, or follow for that matter.  “Who’s the boss on the dance floor?” he demanded loudly.  “The leader” said someone helpfully.  “The MEN!” he corrected, despite the presence of several lesbian couples on the floor.

He kept admonishing the men to take control and not let the women take over, as if the only skill required to lead a dance was to be obnoxious.  Granted, this guy was an extreme example of both sexism and general insensitivity, but it did get me to thinking about the difference between leading and bullying.

In my November post Is Partner Dancing Sexist? I address the question of sexism in the roles of leading and following but I didn’t address the issue of bullying.  I’ve seen this attitude unfortunately in insecure (my assumption) men of differing skill levels.  I’ve danced with beginners who blame their lack of leading abilities on me or who “correct” my response to their non-existent lead.

I try to be tolerant when guys exhibit these social faux pas, hoping they’ll get better as their skills improve, but I’ve occasionally been exasperated enough to say “If you’d like to know why your lead isn’t working, I would be happy to gift you with a free mini lesson.”

Obnoxious behavior isn’t the private domain of beginners though.  I’ve danced with advanced dancers who manage to make it through an entire dance without seeming to notice me at all, communicating with their body language that I should be grateful that they deigned to dance with me at all and that they only make eye contact with cute young girls to whom they are physically attracted.  (Again my assumption, shored by my observance of how they dance with said young ladies.)

While this is mostly a leader’s issue, followers are not without their contributions as well.  A follower can devastate a beginner if she makes it clear from her body language that she is barely tolerating the dance.  I’ve also known followers to make corrections on the dance floor to fragile egos who are not at all open to hearing it.  If you accept a dance, finish it with grace.  You don’t have to dance with him again if it was that bad.

penguins

How it feels to be turned down for a dance

I’ve also known followers to turn down a request with unnecessary rudeness.  It’s hard enough to ask.  If you can’t bring yourself to be gracious, at least give a plausible excuse.  I don’t usually ask other women to dance unless I have some sort of connection with them, but once when I had been leading in a workshop, I asked a woman who had been in my class if she’d like to dance.  “I’m not that desperate,” she said.  Hey, it’s OK if you don’t care to dance with another woman, but “I’m sorry, but I prefer to dance with men” is a much less nasty way of putting it.

Bring as much joy as possible to   your dancing.  Appreciate whatever you can in your partner.  Take responsibility for your own mistakes and current skill level.  You’ll learn faster and have a lot more fun!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Favorite Dance Teachers From My Past

 

Jonathan Bixby and Sylvia Sykes

My first Lindy Hop Dance Teachers, Jonathan and Sylvia

The wonderful video at the end of this post from 1995 inspired me to write about these dancers because they were both a huge influence in my early dancing years.  Sylvia Sykes was my teacher for the first six years I studied Lindy Hop and she, along with her partner Jonathan Bixby, also introduced me to Balboa and St. Louis Shag.  They used to come to the Bay Area from Santa Barbara twice a year for a weekend workshop.  This was before there was any Lindy community here, so their workshops were filled with West Coast Swing dancers.  Since there was no place to dance Lindy, my practice partner Belinda Ricklefs (see How Dancers Usually Age for a post about Belinda) and I used to buy the workshop video and practice for 6 months in between workshops.  Sylvia is still one of my favorite teachers, although I have much less access to her these days.  She has a sharp take-no-prisoners wit and a clear, patient, teaching style along with her dynamite dancing skills.  Her classes are as fun as they are educational and she can hold her own with the best comics when she tells a story.

Ramiro dancing with a man

Ramiro dancing follow

Ramiro Gonzales also used to come to the Bay Area periodically from Texas.  He taught weekend workshops in West Coast Swing and Salsa and is one of the most gifted dancers I’ve ever known.  Many years ago Ramiro and Jonathan Bixby were doing a series of workshops called “East Meets West” in which they were attempting somewhat unsuccessfully to combine West Coast Swing and Lindy into one dance.  It was obvious to everyone that they were just using it as an excuse to see each other and visit San Francisco, but all the more fun for us.  Balboa at that time was rarely seen in this area so every time I had a chance to take a class I would often find myself the only student who wasn’t a beginner.  This was the case that year when Jonathan was teaching a bal class and Ramiro was in the room waiting for him to finish.  I took the opportunity to take advantage of his presence.

“Ramiro, I need a partner.  Do you know Balboa?”

“No,” he said, “but show me.”

Balboa, for those of you who are not familiar with it, is a very complex and difficult dance, but Ramiro followed flawlessly as I practiced the new steps that Jonathan had just given me.  After a while he said “Let me try.”  He took over the lead and danced just as flawlessly, with no practice or previous experience with the dance.  Ramiro is also one of the few dancers I know who follows as easily as he leads.  He’s so good, in fact, that I’ve seen homophobic straight men line up to dance with him.

In this clip, Sylvia and Ramiro are in a contest where they were allowed to choose their own partners (unlike a Jack and Jill where you are partnered by chance) but the music is a surprise.   Like a Jack and Jill, it’s essentially social dance, but with the partner of your choice.  These two don’t live in the same state, and don’t usually even do the same dance, but you can see by the grins on their faces that it’s a real treat when they get a chance to dance together.  Sylvia’s specialty is Lindy, but she has no problem following Ramiro’s impeccable West Coast Swing lead.  He also throws in a lindy step to give Sylvia a chance to show off her signature swivels.

This is also a terrific example of how skilled dancers with great musicality can create a spontaneous dance that looks better than choreography.  Hard to believe none of this was planned or rehearsed in advanced.  This is leading and following at it’s best!  If you’re wondering about the side by side routine, this is a great example of a called step.  If both partners happen to know a particular move that is unleadable if the follower doesn’t know it, the leader can lead it and the follower will recognize it and follow along.  If he doesn’t know if she knows it, and it’s a common step, he can ask.  “Do you know Toe-Heel-Cross?” for instance.  They both knew this one from their past so Ramiro threw it in and Sylvia recognized it and joined in.

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And for an extra treat, for those of you who are curious about Ramiro as a follower, this one not only showcases Ramiro’s following skills, but it’s also another great example of stealing in social dance.  (For more on that, see my post from last October, Stealing in Partner Dance).  The dance they are doing is six count hustle.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESI6ecRlC3g&list=PL5876[embedplusvideo height=”507″ width=”640″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1h2gUsb” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/ESI6ecRlC3g?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=ESI6ecRlC3g&width=640&height=507&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep8907″ /]322C1DC3BD32

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Dance Fusions-Blending Different Styles

Fusion in physics

Fusion in physics reminds of the same concept in dance

The term fusion is used to mean a mix of music as well as dance.  In this post I’m focusing on dance fusion.  By that I mean two different dances or dance styles fused into one dance.  This is a surprisingly controversial thing to do, given that it pretty much mostly happens with street dances which are open to interpretation anyway.  By street dance, I mean a dance that was made up by dancers in response to music that was new at the time.  Street dances evolve with the creativity of the dancers and are constantly changing, but they do retain something in all permutations that enable them to retain the integrity of that particular dance.  This is as opposed to a studio dance like Ballroom, which has very specific rules and never changes.

So why is it controversial?  Because people are afraid of the dance they love getting lost if it fuses with other dances.  Purists get upset if you name something and they don’t see what they consider the integrity of their dance surviving in that particular version.  Fusion shows up every so often in various swing dances.  Hip Hop is the most common culprit and it’s usually the hip hopper, not the swing dancers, who get upset.  This doesn’t really surprise me because what you see is a swing dance with hip hop styling, not the other way around.  If you dance that style of swing, it’s obvious that it’s still very much lindy, or west coast swing, styled for hip hop music.  The hip hop dancers don’t see enough hip hop to consider it legitimate so it’s not unusual to hear scoffing comments (“There’s no real  hip hop here!”  “Where’s the Hip Hop?  The baseball caps and baggy pants?”)  I have to admit, when I saw a hip hop troupe incorporating swing, I had a similar response.  There wasn’t much swing and what there was wasn’t very good.  It must be extremely challenging to do justice to two completely different dance styles in one performance.

In this clip two of the world’s top Lindy Hoppers, Max Pitruzzella and Thomas Blacharz, put some hip hop into their routine.  The result is a highly entertaining, absolutely stellar lindy performance, but hip hop dancers remain unimpressed.

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If you are not being distracted by the fear of your dance not being properly represented, you’d be hard pressed not to enjoy that charming little show.  I featured these guys in an earlier post about stealing in partner dance  with Annie Trudeau in case you want to see more of them.

Here’s an example of West Coast Swing infused with Hip Hop.  Similarly, the West Coast Swing is unmistakable, that hip hop just adds styling to the dance and fits it to the music.  Well, this WAS for a west coast swing competition, not a hip hop contest.

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So I suppose you want to know what I think of fusion dance?  Well, I do have a concern for the integrity of each dance.  I don’t want to see all dance styles melded together  so they all become the same, but I’m not really worried about that.  I remember attending a workshop with Frankie Manning, one of the original creators of the Lindy Hop who would be turning 100 if he were still alive.  Frankie taught the running man step in a Lindy class.  He learned it from his hip hopping granddaughter and thought it was a great move.  Street dancers are constantly stealing ideas from each other and from other dance styles. But when those moves are incorporated into a different dance, they become part of that dance.  And, frankly, when I see dancers this good I just appreciate their creativity and enjoy the show.  Life is too short to do battle with my fellow dancers.  There’s room for everything in the world of dance.

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Who Leads and Who Follows in a Same Sex Dance Partnership?

two women dancing together

The Author in Dance Rehearsal with Lynne Jassem, Having a Blast!

Leading and following are very different skills and most people are either natural leaders or natural followers.  Not unlike the rest of life, you have about a 50/50 chance of falling into the category society has assigned to your gender.  If you’re heterosexual, you won’t have much opportunity to dance if you choose the non-traditional option, but if you’re gay you have choices.  I once saw an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation featuring a planet where there is only one gender.  Everyone looks kind of like an androgynous  lesbian.  One of the crew asks one of these people, “who leads when you dance?”  The response was “Whoever is taller.”  A pretty unimaginative response, I remember thinking at the time.

If you are learning to dance with a particular partner, and you’re lucky enough not both want the same dance role, that’s not the criteria I would choose.  And if you’re single, you can just pick the one you want. Here’s how I help my students decide.  Leading is a left brain skill.  The leader is directing the dance.  People who like to be in control are usually natural leaders.  Do you like to drive and hate being a passenger?  Do you think of yourself as a control freak?  Do you like to know in advance what’s going to happen?  Leader.

Following is a right brain skill.  Followers don’t have to think or memorize any moves.  People who like letting go and turning off their brains when they’re on vacation usually like to follow.  Do you like going for rides?  Like surprises?   Follower.  There are other questions if these don’t fit, but you get the idea.

You also have the option of learning both parts, and that’s fun even if you strongly gravitate to one role.  You can dance with more people and be more in demand as a partner.  I’m a natural follower.  For me, following is fun and leading is work, but I enjoy leading under the right circumstances. Leading is all about giving a gift to your partner.  A good leader’s goal is to create the most delightful experience possible for the follower.  When I’m dancing with a really good dancer and she say’s “You’re my favorite lead!”  I feel like a million bucks.  Leaders get to be heroes and everyone likes to be a hero now and then.

It’s also fun to switch back and forth when dancing with a partner who also knows both parts.  The hardest thing about leading, once you’ve got the how-to-dance part handled, is remembering your repertoire.  You forget when you’re under pressure, but get all kinds of ideas when you don’t have to.  So when I go blank, I can pass the lead to my partner and when I get a great idea, take it back.

Nevertheless, I don’t subscribe to the idea that everyone should learn both parts.  Dancing is for fun.  If you love to lead and hate to follow, then lead!  There are few enough advantages to being gay in a homophobic society, so take advantage of this one!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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