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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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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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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Music and Dance for Everyone


Music and Dance and Community: Landfill Harmonics has the right spirit!

Dance and music are intrinsically linked.  My favorite dances are the ones that arise organically from the music, street dances like Lindy Hop and Hip Hop.  There is something special about a dance that makes a dancer out of someone who fell in love with the music, as opposed to a dance with rigid rules that requires very specific training.  There is definitely room for both.  I just really like the idea of people creating a dance and sharing it and playing with it on a grass roots level.

Part of the charm of this type of dancing is it’s accessibility.  If you fall in love with Ballet, you have to train in a particular way.  It’s very time consuming, expensive, and hard on the body.  A street dancer does have to achieve certain skills in order to do that particular dance, and of course can still benefit from training with the right teacher, but a lot can be picked up from other dancers.  There’s an aspect of community to street dancing that I’m particularly drawn to.

I’m no musician, but I think a similar thing can be said of music.  There is classical music just as there is classical dance and there is music that arises from musicians jamming together.  And then there is classical music on a community level.  I never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity of the human mind when it is focused on love of and service to others.

Because of the link between music and dance, and because I so love this project, I wanted to feature it in my blog.  I’m incredibly moved and inspired by this group of people bent on making music available to everyone.  This is the best example I’ve ever seen of making use of what you have to create something outstanding to raise the artistic opportunity of people who have very little.  Music raises the spirits and increases anyone’s quality of life dramatically.  In the poignant words of one child in this video, “My life would be worthless without music.”  If you don’t think music is trans-formative, see if this story doesn’t change your mind!

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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Is Partner Dancing Sexist?

leading a dance

The author dancing lead

I know a dance teacher who feels strongly that the whole concept of leading and following is sexist.  She is trying to teach Lindy Hop as an equal partnership where no one is in charge of the dance.  It’s an interesting subject, and I have very strong feelings on the subject as well.  It is true that the tradition of men leading and women following has it’s roots in sexism, but I don’t think that’s a reason for trashing the whole concept.  Nor do I feel, as some do, that everyone should learn both roles.  I do think learning both parts makes for a better dancer, but let’s face it.  We dance for fun.  If you love to follow and hate to lead, it’s not going to be fun to learn both parts.  And if you dance in a heterosexual scene, you may not have much opportunity to use your skills if you learn the part not assigned to your gender by tradition.


So let’s talk about traditional roles for a bit.  Man leads.  Woman follows.  Is that inherently sexist?  My thoughts on the matter may be controversial in some settings, but here they are anyway.  Regardless of gender, it’s the job of the leader to create a joyful experience for his or her partner.  In a traditional coupling, the man is giving a gift to his partner.  She may be in charge of most of the rest of her life, as are most modern women, but on the dance floor she’s on vacation.  She gets to turn off her brain and go for a ride.  Someone else is doing the driving for a change, and she gets to enjoy the ride.  It’s part of his job to decide what steps to lead and she does have to follow his lead, but if he’s a skilled leader, he creates the choreography for her.  He keeps the dance at a level that challenges her enough to be fun without making her feel stupid.  If her facial expression shows that she isn’t enjoying a particular step, he doesn’t repeat it.  And she has verbal say as well.  She can tell him that she doesn’t like to spin very much or that she does.  A leader who makes the dance about himself instead of his partner won’t be a popular partner no matter how skilled he is.  It’s an old fashioned scenario where the guy gets to be a hero and the woman gets to accept a gift.  It doesn’t make him in charge of the relationship.  It doesn’t make her subservient.  It’s just a dance.  It’s a break from life, not a formula for behavior.


The lead/follow relationship is what makes a partner dance work.  But in a jazz dance like Lindy Hop, there is plenty of opportunity for the follow to be creative within the context of whatever is lead.  The conversation that is created between the dancers and the music is what makes the dance so exciting.  If you are a woman who feels demeaned by the role of follow, then by all means learn to lead.  I have no problem with either gender learning either role, but I do take exception to the elimination of those roles.


At a Boogie Woogie workshop in Norway, one of my teachers had us play with the vocals in a duet song.   The men took over the jazz variation when the man was singing and the women did so during the woman’s part.  He was adamant that the women should not break out her dance  while the man was singing.  He also was equally adamant that dancers should stick to their gender defined roles.  To illustrate his point, he danced to the woman’s voice prancing around like a drag queen to show how ridiculous it was.  I was duly shocked at his blatant sexism in this day and age as this was only about 10 years ago.  The truth is, everyone adds their personal styling to the dance regardless of their gender or their role.  A woman can add a feminine styling to her lead without looking like a drag queen, or she can use a more masculine style if it suits her personality.

It’s also fun to switch lead and follow during a dance if both people know both parts.  Richard Powers, who teaches vintage dance at Stanford University, teaches his waltz students to switch roles during the dance.  Since the footwork is the same for both roles, this is particularly easy to do smoothly in waltz and adds a delightful non-traditional touch to the dance.


None of this takes away the roles of leading and following.  You can be creative with the way you play with those roles, but I believe they are still important to partner dance.  Whether the nontraditional gender is leading, whether the roles are switched, or the traditional roles are kept, someone has to be leading and someone else following at any point in the dance.  If you take that away, in my opinion, you take away the fun of partner dancing.

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Wedding Dances: Too Many Choices!

Your first dance, your father/daughter dance, a mother/son dance.  Which ones should we do?  In what order do we do them?

“What is the proper tradition?” is a question I often hear about all of this. Lucky for you, the answer is that none of this is really traditional at all. The original tradition (I know this because I read Miss Manners) is simply for the couple to open the dance floor because it’s rude to start dancing before they do.


A dance performance is a relatively new concept, so you really can put it together any way you like. If your parents love the idea of a father/daughter/mother/son dance, then by all means, do it. If they are mortified by the idea, either spare them or put their dance at the end, have them dance for a few merciful seconds, then have the DJ invite the crowd to join them.


The one thing I do suggest is unless you and your parents are dancers or are taking lessons, don’t subject your audience (and yourselves) to an interminable dance after dance after dance of rocking slowly back and forth until the song ends. The bridal couple can always make a dance shorter by telling the DJ (or band) to fade out the music when they see you dip. A dramatic dip, by the way, is a must for ending any first dance. If your materiel is small, the dip is what they remember and it gives the impression of a fabulous dance.


You have options for how you organize these dances too. If your parents are dancers, let them show off with as long a dance as they want and let them have the floor to themselves in each dance. If the opposite is true, you can have the father/daughter and mother/son at the same time. If you’ve picked special music, of course, then this option won’t work. The point is, it’s up to you. There is no tradition. Keep in mind that this is a day of joy and celebration. You are honoring your parents in your dances with them, so consider their feelings first.


It’s your wedding and your day. As long as you treat everyone involved with love and respect, remember why you’re there, and keep a spirit of fun in your hearts, you can’t go wrong!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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