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A Spiritual Definition of Following in Dance

Some wise teacher once said the definition of freedom is not needing to know what comes next.  I can’t remember the originator of the quote but no doubt one of my readers will recognize it and come to my rescue.

When I saw the quote I thought, that’s a perfect definition of following. Both the joy and the challenge come from being able to let go and let someone else do the driving.  If you are following, you DON’T know what comes next.  Every move is a surprise even though it’s often familiar.

Letting go is a phrase that is common in spiritual speak.  Organised religions as well as non-denominational  practices like yoga and meditation all refer to “surrender.”  In dance it means to stop trying and to let the flow of the dance and the music take over.

Of course you must first learn to do it right so that when let the music take over you are still connected to your partner.  But once you’ve learned the skill of following, it indeed becomes a meditation.

Are you one of those people who hates meditation?  Me too.  That’s why I was struck by the opening quote when I first read it.  I realized that I do have meditation in my life.  Every dance I share with a competent lead allows me to turn off my brain, take a thinking break, and surrender to the dance.  Not only do I not need to know what comes next, I don’t want to know.

If you are resistant to meditation and you want to find a way to make it fun, learn to follow.  Sheer joy in motion!

by LaurieAnn  Lepoff

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When Is It OK to Say No to a Request for a Dance?

animation

How it feels to be turned down for a dance

At a recent outdoor dance event I was approached by a couple wanting to know if this event was open to anyone.  I chatted with them briefly and after learning that they didn’t know anything about dance, told them that there would be a lesson in about half an hour.  Then they asked if I would teach them something.  They didn’t know I was a dance teacher, so this wasn’t a rude request.  I taught them a basic step and danced briefly with the woman to show how the basic was all she needed to know in order to follow this simple dance.

Getting stuck with new dancers

A woman who had been watching us immediately jumped in and took my hand in indication that we would dance together.  It was obvious after the first step that she didn’t know anything either.  She clearly wanted to dance and didn’t know how, saw that I more or less instantly turned another newbie into a competent follower and wanted the same experience.

 
I’ve mentioned before (see how to tell if you need dance lessons)  that a mark of a great leader is the ability to instantly assess the skill level of the follower and lead a dance that she can follow without feeling stupid and that makes her feel like a great dancer.  I can do this, but unless it’s a friend I’m fond of, it’s not much fun for me.  In this instance I did dance with her, but I did have the thought that if another would-be dancer was waiting for her turn that I would have to come up with a polite excuse to turn her down.

Rules of  Dance Etiquette

Generally speaking, if the music tends to be short numbers and the custom is to dance once with each partner as it is in the swing community, it’s ungracious to turn down a dance.  However, if the request is from someone who is dangerous, drunk, or inappropriate, it’s definitely OK to do so.

You can say “no” to drunk dancers

Several years ago I was at a dance in a club.  A family was having dinner, celebrating a birthday.  They were all drunk and the birthday boy asked me to dance.  I have long curly hair that’s very distinct and seems to be a magnet for drunks.  I didn’t want to put a damper on the occasion so I accepted, but afterwards he informed his family that I was great and they should all dance with me, which is how I ended up dancing with an entire drunk family.  I was too polite to say no, but I don’t recommend this.  Being too polite to say no has gotten me in far worse trouble than this, so I suggest practicing in situations like this if you have this problem too.

 
In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been hard to simply excuse myself saying I had promised the next several dances and had to get back to my friends.  It can be hard to come up with a good exit line when you are taken off guard, so I also recommend practicing in advance.  You don’t have to be rude to say no, but if you don’t prepare, it can come out that way.  “Ask me again when you’re sober.” will get you out of there, but is unnecessarily rude.  Think up a few good excuses to have at hand for emergencies and you’ll be able to get away without creating a negative vibe.

 
And if you’re an advanced dancer, do be nice to the newcomers and grace them with an occasional dance.  They’ll remember you when they gain more experience and you’ll be rewarded in the future!

 
by LaurieAnn Lepoff
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Dancing blind

blind-folded dancer

Dancing blind opens up all kinds of new insights

When my dance students are learning the skill of following, I often suggest they close their eyes.  Closing your eyes takes away a lot of the urge to back lead, and it brings forward the senses you use to feel the lead.

Even when social dancing, I often close my eyes because it’s relaxing and feels good.  Leaders, however, are in the driver’s seat, so they need to keep their eyes open. 

That’s why I was blown away by this video of a West Coast Swing performance with a blind-folded leader.  OK, this is a rehearsed routine, but it’s STILL pretty impressive even though I doubt they used the blind fold before they had mastered the choreography.

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Even though the lead is in charge, there is a certain degree of sensing what’s happening with your partner, especially with a jazz dance like West Coast Swing or Lindy.  Practicing with your eyes closed is a good exercise for leaders, too.  Just make sure you have plenty of room, and unless you have a LOT of room, not a good idea for you both to be blind-folded at the same time.

Dancer Rebecca Niziol talks about performing  blind when she lost a contact right before a performance.  Although she never would have done so on purpose, she was surprised to find out how tuned in she was and what came out of her when forced to rely on her other senses.  For the full article, see Dancing Blind Taught me to Be Present.

You may find yourself surprised at what you get in touch with when you can’t use your eyes.  Try it just for fun, and if you discover something interesting, let me know!

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.

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by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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What is Blues Dancing?

dancing with my partner Bill

Blues Dancing is like a one song hug

Blues dancing has been around for decades in one form or another.  It’s one of my favorite dances because it is so open to interpretation that it can look drastically different from one dancer to another.  As long as the character of the dance remains intimate and, well, bluesy, you can trade on pretty much any moves in your background from Lindy Hop to Tango.  This doesn’t mean you can just go off on a tangent and forget about your partner.  Blues is not an easy dance to lead, and if your lead is not crystal clear, it’s no fun for your partner.  You can see in the clip at the end a number of different styles and it’s still easy to see what they all have in common.

Blues is a street dance and as such has evolved from an offshoot of the Lindy Hop community (what Lindy dancers do late at night when everyone is tired, but one wants to go home, and the DJs start slowing the music way down to fit the energy level) to its own art form.  Now there are blues communities, blues dancers who never dance Lindy, and Blues workshops and camps.  It’s no longer something that dancers just DO.  You can learn it from dance teacers

.Here’s a story I love about Blues dancing.  Several years ago Steven Mitchel (one of the world’s greatest jazz dancers) was giving a swing workshop.  He decided by popular demand to teach Blues for one section of the weekend.  I was hanging around during the break when a local friend of Steven was meeting him for a visit while he was in town.  “What are you doing now?” asked the friend.  “Blues,” said Steven.  “What’s that?”  “You know.” Steven looked around for a victim, grabbed me and did a little blues demo.  Unimpressed, the friend said “You have to teach that?”  “Evidently,” replied Steven.

If you know a partner dance and do it well, especially if you are music oriented and can easily respond to the feel and mood of a song, you probably can dance blues already.  But as you can see by how these talented dancers play with the dance, you can also pick up some really cool ideas from other dancers and step up your game by taking a class or going to a blues camp.  Find a teacher whose dance style and teaching match your taste and learning style.  I prefer a style that requires no skill to follow, like the second couple in the clip, although of course a skilled follow will enhance any dance and be more fun to dance with.  There are styles that are based on very complex dances like Argentine Tango where the follower has to know the dance it’s based on in order to follow the blues version.  There are styles where the follower just has to not be afraid of being that close, but needs no other training, and everything in between!

If you decide to try your hand at Blues dancing by learning on the fly, don’t be afraid to steal from other dancers.  All street dances have a tradition of getting ideas from other dancers.  Usually by the time you put it into your own dance, it doesn’t look anything like the step that inspired you.  But even if you steal it directly by asking the other dancer to show you how to do it, it’s still OK!  Just take the time and trouble to learn to do it right, and have fun.  Partner dance is a great way to have human contact in your life and Blues is like a long playful hug.  Learn to lead well, don’t be creepy, and everyone will want to dance with you!

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By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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How to Tell if You Need Dance Lessons

This dance question may sound obvious, but it’s not just “If you can’t dance and want to, you need lessons”.  That’s true, of course, but what if you don’t know you can’t dance?  What if you think you can dance but your partners disagree?  What if they are too polite to tell you?

 

Here are some classic lines I hear from people who need lessons and don’t know it:  “When I’m dancing with a really good lead, I never have any problems following.”  When you follow really well, but only with the best dancers, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking the problem is with the leaders, not with you. What these followers don’t realize is that the mark of a great leader is the ability to assess the skill level of his  partner and dance at a level that doesn’t make her feel stupid.  In other words, he’s dumbing down the dance for you.  The worst follower in the world feels like a pro with a great lead.

 

“Nobody ELSE has a problem with my lead!” in response to a gentle suggestion.  Or “Women seem to like dancing with me.  I haven’t heard any complaints.”  It’s important not to confuse politeness with pleasure.  Just because she’s not willing to be rude doesn’t mean she enjoyed the dance.  If you really want to know if women enjoy dancing with you, notice how often they approach you after you tell them you’d enjoy dancing with them again later on.  If you’re still in doubt, ask an advanced follower for honest feedback.  This takes guts because it’s hard on the ego to admit you could use some help when you’ve been entertaining the notion that you’re great on the dance floor.

 

Many years ago I met a young man who had fabulous style. He was good looking and always looked great dancing.  All the girls lined up to dance with him.  I asked him to dance and was amazed to learn that he led so badly that I was afraid of being injured.  I had to stop before the dance was over and told him “I’m sorry.  My shoulder can’t take this rough a lead.”  “Am I that bad?” he asked.  “’Fraid so,” I told him.  He could easily have blown me off because, in fact, nobody else HAD ever complained before and women DID like dancing with him.  But he respected me, took it as a wake up call, and began studying in earnest.  He became one of the best dancers in the community and later confided in me that he blushed with embarrassment whenever he thought of what he used to put his partners through on the dance floor.

 

Great style and good looks will bring you plenty of partners, but the ugliest guy in the room will have more partners lined up to dance with him if he’s a great lead.  Likewise, if you’re a cute girl, all the guys will want to dance with you, but it really has nothing to do with dance.  They want to do ANYthing with you!  If you really want to find joy in dancing, learn the skill of following.  It’s worth it in the end to take an honest assessment of your skills, and take dance lessons if you need them!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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