Monthly Archives: December 2010

Santa Loves Us Dancers!

This year, Santa was very good to Susanne and me. Under the Christmas tree, we found lots of goodies, many of which have the makings of future blog postings! I want to take time to thank my parents and my brother and sister-in-law for fueling our dance addiction. Here are some dance loot highlights.

We’re looking forward to watching our new DVDs. We both believe that to have a vibrant dance scene you need to grow strong roots just as much as you need to grow new branches. So we’ll be using our slow motion to dissect clips from “The Spirit Moves.” As for me, I’ve read a lot of great books on jazz history already, but I’m looking forward to the Ken Burns “Jazz” documentary with all of the videos, pictures, and other multimedia mixed in.

We both received new dance shoes this year. Mine are a pair of black, wingtip shoes from Cole Haan. I bought a pair of brown ones earlier this year that I’ve really enjoyed, and needed to replace my black dress shoes as well. Susanne’s new shoes are super awesome, and my sister-in-law deserves a special shout out for them (Holla!). She designed them especially for Susanne on the create your own custom keds website. I’ve poked around on the site a little bit, and the possibilities seem endless! For us dancers who are constantly battling to find the right balance between comfort and style, this might very well be the perfect solution.

We received two books this year. I’ve already started reading Norma Miller’s memoir “Swingin’ at the Savoy,” and have ideas for three new blog posts just from the introduction. The second is The Best Dance Moves . . . Ever! because everyone needs an illustrated, step-by-step guide to doing such classics as the Macarena, the Hand Jive, and Thriller. At least the author was smart enough to include the Charleston.

Our thanks to everyone who has fueled our dance habit this year. We feel very fortunate and grateful to have you in our lives.

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Filed under Jazz, lindy wardrobe, tools of the trade, Video

The Twelve Days of Dancing

On the twelfth day of dancing, my Naptown gave to me:

 

Twelve drummers swingin'

Eleven Leads a Leapin'

Ten Horns a Blowin'

Nine Ladies Twirling

Continue reading

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Filed under C-Jam, Charleston, community, lindy hop, Technique

Pillow Talk: Lindy and the Internet

When swing dancing was first being revived in the 1980s, the Internet was an infant in academia. Passionate lindy hop aficionados hunted for VHS tapes of old dance videos trying to steal moves, and local dances and lessons were listed in newspapers. Today, technology has vastly changed how we communicate, and the very nature of the swing dance community. Our new “Pillow Talk” feature seemed like the perfect vehicle to discuss it. Listen in on a little late night conversation.

Susanne: Hey babe.

Craig: Hi! So when did you start dancing?

S: I had a rough introduction in the late 1990s around the time of the infamous Gap ad, but I got a serious introduction in the early 2000s when I moved to Washington, D.C. What about you?

C: I started around the summer of ’99 after the Gap ad, too. My girlfriend at the time discovered Friday Night Swing up in Towson, Md. I don’t know if she heard about it on the Internet or from friends, but I know we used to go to their website to get info. Its still just as crappy as it was then, except back then, everybody’s web site was crappy.

S: Hahaha. So true. After I started taking lindy hop classes for a while, I identified all of the major promoters and bookmarked their websites. And then I learned about Jitterbuzz. Did you use that site any?

C: I used it a little bit, but honestly, I moved to Pittsburgh for grad school in fall of 2000. I would check Jitterbuzz when I was home for the holidays to find the best places to dance.

S: Right. It was a great event aggregator. But oh, the frames on that site. And the mysterious Asian symbols, which I never quite understood. At the time, it was and is a great service for the lindy community.

C: I had mixed feelings about the ranking system. Sometimes, it seemed sort of arbitrary. Top ten dances for the week based on. . .where the one guy who put it together wanted his friends to go.

S: I know you aren’t alone in that. It was one person’s opinion. Mostly I just used it to see what the options were. The one thing to watch out for was his strong anti-Boilermakers streak. Continue reading

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Filed under community, lindy hop, Music, Pillow Talk, Video

Gordon Webster On Another Level

Last January, Susanne and I went to Philadelphia for the first night of LABLove.  Gordon Webster played both Friday and Saturday night, recording the evenings for a live album. Neither of us had heard of Gordon Webster, but we both fell in love that night. I bought his previous CDs, and pre-ordered my copy of the live album.

When I got home and listened to Gordon’s earlier works, I felt a little disappointed. There were some good songs and everything was well polished, but the albums lacked some of the joy and vitality I experienced dancing to his band that night. It was like putting a true jazz cat in a tuxedo with a starched collar; the lines were too clean and the band was too tight. Clearly, a live recording to capture the energy of the band at its best is the right vehicle for Gordon’s crew, and I got excited when the new album, Live from Philadelphia, landed on my doorstep last week.

Listening to the album, I thought, “This is the band I remember.” The band sounds loose and comfortable, even on the more uptempo numbers, and there’s a great playfulness between the members of the band. On “Honeysuckle Rose,” Gordon starts off with the melody, a light and delicate meandering through the tune with a carefree attitude. Before its over, Adrian Cunningham adds his clean clarinet to the mix, punctuated by Jesse Selengut’s full bodied work on trumpet. But the real star is always Gordon on piano.

Gordon’s piano work channels the hot jazz of Fats Waller while simultaneously capturing the easy, blues infused sounds of Gene Harris and Junior Mance. And Gordon’s piano chops are on par with all of these stand out pianists. Even when the trumpet or clarinet play through the head, Gordon’s piano sits in the background and quietly comments throughout. If you listen carefully, you can hear him encouraging the band along. . .”Sweet lick!,” “Is that all you got?,” “Oh really?,” “Where are you gonna go with that?,” “See what you can do with this!” At every moment, Gordon is a well-edited leader.  Listen to “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” or “Joshua Fit the Battle,” and you’ll hear what I mean.

When Gordon does step out to the forefront, its magical. Looking at the tracks released on the album, I was surprised to see the Fats Waller tune “Twenty Four Robbers” on there since he released that on a previous recording. Then I listened to it. It’s ripping fast, a good forty beats per minute faster, but more relaxed.  And the solo work. . .as Gordon tears through the tune, all I could think is “DAMN!” As a pianist, Gordon makes me want to lock myself in a room with my piano until I no longer have to hang my head in shame.

My one criticism of the album comes from some of the vocals. Jesse Selengut has a rough voice, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. On tunes like “Milenburg Joys” and “When I Get Low,” his voice is well suited and brings out the joy in the songs. But on more tender songs like “Honeysuckle Rose” where the band’s work has been delicate, his voice lacks the tenderness and warmth that, for me, the tune deserves. While I was there dancing, I didn’t noticed it, but it seems more jarring on the recording.  Still, its a small quibble on an album that shines.

One last thought, I want to thank Gordon for thinking of dancers.  On the back of the album, song lengths are listed in parentheses while the truly important information of beats per minute take the prime spot! Thanks for making my job so easy, Gordon! Seriously, though, the tempos are all well suited for dancing, and his solid rhythm section (Cassidy Holden, Guitar; Rob Adkins, Bass; Jeremy Noller, Drums) are emminently danceable. I expect this album to become a staple in the swing community, and look forward to a long and celebrated career for Gordon and his crew.

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Filed under Album Review, community, Jazz, lindy hop, Music

Proprioception — Know Thyself

Oh my God!  Is that really what I look like?” That’s what I thought the first time I saw video of myself dancing.

To be a great dancer, you have to develop a lot of skills: balance and center, rhythm and musicality, strength and stamina. One skill that often gets over looked is proprioception. Proprioception is the big fancy word that means knowing where your body is in space. If your arm is sticking out to the side, proprioception is the sense telling your brain, “My arm is sticking out to the side!”

With good proprioception, we have a much better sense of what our bodies are doing when we dance. For instance, a lot of leads let their right hands dangle like a dead fish when they dance, totally unaware of it. I, myself, am often guilty of this, and try to be hyper-vigilant about keeping the arm active. Plus, when we have a good sense of proprioception, we can more easily watch a video or another dancer and translate their movements into our own bodies.

The good news is that proprioception is something that we can improve and develop. When teaching piano, I often have my students close their eyes and imagine their eyes traveling down their arms to their finger tips to help connect their brain with the nerves in their fingers. Personally, my sense of proprioception has grown through Yoga practice, but there are many other techniques to develop it including the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkreis Method. Outside of these formal structures, it can often help us to use mirrors, to watch video of ourselves dancing, and to solicit feedback from other dancers. We can use these tools to engage our exteroceptive senses (the ones that observe the world outside us) while developing proprioception.

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Filed under Charleston, lindy hop, Technique, Theory

This Cake is Not a Lie

Everyone has guiding life principles, such as, when grocery shopping for a product you’ve never bought before, say fancy crackers, buy the box with the fewest left on the shelf, for it is likely the most popular. (Hat tip: Mom.) Here are two of my beliefs:

  1. Lindy hop is about community.
  2. To quote Deb, “I believe that everyone deserves a cake baked with a symphony of butter, eggs, flour and devotion on their birthday.”

As a lindy hop teacher and organizer I endeavor to foster relationships and fun. One way is through a birthday celebration the second Friday of every month at Naptown Swing with cake and a birthday jam. All of this is pretty typical, but when Craig and I started Naptown Swing earlier this year, I figured that since we had such a tight-knit group I would make a cake from scratch using my beloved KitchenAid for all my friends on their birthday. (See Fundamental Belief #2.) And after I started, it wasn’t really possible to stop! After making twelve cakes this year, I’ve learned a great deal about cake-making efficiency and techniques. I’ve also been repeatedly told, “I don’t really like cake, but I like your cake.” What I hear in that is that far too many people only experience cake from grocery store bakeries that leave an oily coating in your mouth that make you want to scrape your tongue. I will happily take the compliments. It’s good for my baking ego.

Many of you asked for the recipe and I’m happy to oblige. My fellow December birthday and I are both mint chocolate fans, so I decided to create my own. First off, the highly touted Cream Cheese Frosting received an injection of mint extract. Then, I applied it to three layers of chocolate cake. (Take a recipe for a two layer cake and bake it in three pans.) Finally, chopped York Peppermint Patties on the top.

Note: I’m not sharing the chocolate cake recipe because I thought the crumb was too fine and it wasn’t moist enough. I’ll be back once I find a worthy chocolate cake recipe.

(Mint) Cream Cheese Frosting
(Recipe from Better Homes and Gardens’, The New Cookbook, which I received as Christmas gift while in high school. I like this recipe because of the high ratio of cream cheese to butter. Most other cream cheese recipes don’t contain butter or only call for a small amount. The butter makes a nice, full frosting that’s not thin.)

12 oz cream cheese, softened (I use the one-third fat variety.)
1 cup butter
4 teaspoons vanilla or vanilla bean paste
1 1/4 teaspoons mint extract, if making mint frosting
9 cups powdered sugar (Buy two bags.)

Make sure cream cheese and butter are soft to start. Using an electric mixer, blend together until fluffy. Add vanilla and mint extract. Beat until combined. Incrementally add 4 cups powdered sugar, blend together on slow until incorporated. Slowly add 5 more cups powdered sugar. Taste. Adjust flavorings if desired.

Makes enough to frost the tops and sides of a three layer 9-inch cake.

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Filed under community, lindy hop

“In the Mood” for Swing Dancing

This piece was initially published in August 2009 on Mid-Shore Life in anticipation of a dance with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

My mother helped me remember my great-grandfather’s age by telling me he was a year older than the year. Born in 1899, he was wheelchair-bound from a youthful bout with polio by the time I formed any memory of him. He lived until I was in 7thgrade; a greatly revered member of the family. My final memory of him is the most poignant and clear-cut. As we said our good-byes after a brief visit, he took my hand in his and said, “Soon, the boys are going to be taking your hand and saying, ‘May I have this dance?’ ”

Turns out, he was right.

Driving back from Easter weekend with my girlfriends in college, all I wanted was to listen to Harry Connick, Jr.’s, “Come By Me” on repeat. I wanted to dance. I’d been introduced to swing dancing earlier that year, but it was a pale imitation of the glorious truth.

It wasn’t until a couple years later—after landing a job that afforded me discretionary income—that I really learned to swing dance. I loved the promise of possibility at the beginning of each song, the intelligent and witty friends I made, and the music. Oh, the music. Dancing opened the door to a range of musical styles that I only had a passing acquaintance with previously. The big band and swing sounds of classics like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller sailed forth.

Swing dancing became a refuge, something I did just for me. It was oddly emotionally satisfying and made me happy. Now for the cliché: I met my husband swing dancing. I hate to say that. Regardless of my intent, Craig and I shared a fateful dance in spring 2006.

Last year we began teaching swing dancing. I’ve grown as a dancer, teacher, and spouse as a result. Most of all, it has been an incredible joy to share our passion.

This Saturday, August 15, I am excited to be part of the team bringing the Glenn Miller Orchestra to Annapolis. This is not a big band that likes to play Glenn Miller or a tribute band. It is the Glenn Miller Orchestra, authorized by the late artist’s estate and using his original arrangements. The evening promises to be one not to forget. And if you’re like me and always wanted to learn how to move to Miller’s toe-tapping music, join us for the beginner lesson. Should you prefer just to sit, listen, and enjoy, well, that’s welcome too.

An added layer of significance for Saturday’s performance is that the Annapolis Recreation Center was initially constructed as a U.S.O. hall. The gym where we dance was originally a dance hall. Visible beyond the basketball net is the outline of a band stage. The city is constructing a new, more expansive recreation center that will be ready around the beginning of 2010. Rumor has it that the current facility will be used for offices. Please join us to celebrate the 1940s, the Greatest Generation, and the timeless music of Glenn Miller.

My memories of the dance itself are hazy. It was ungodly hot. Hello, August. Hello, old building with old HVAC system. But the beauty of a well-directed, talented orchestra using Miller’s original charts was worth it twice over. You know how sailors talk about boats as “she”? I see personalities in buildings. I envision what a particular building might have been like before the ravages of time. To me, the Glenn Miller dance was a fond farewall to a dignified U.S.O. Club that saw more lindy hop than I’ll ever know.

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Filed under Big Band, lindy hop, Music