Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Space Between

When I was in college studying music theory and composition, I had a great professor who pushed us to think deeply about aesthetics. He exposed me to many composers and approaches to music to broaden my perspective about what music is and what makes music good. I struggled for three years to figure out my own beliefs about aesthetics and to make a convincing and logical argument for my beliefs. It was a painful process, often getting my ideas shredded in discussions, but it made me a better musician and a better person. Those ideas I developed about artistry, beauty, quality and expression as a musician have deeply influenced my thoughts about dancing.

I remember early on being confronted with the music of John Cage. Cage was very zen about his music, wanting to be open to any sound and “writing” a lot of music using principles of chance. His most famous work is “4’33”,” a giant four minute and thirty three second rest. The idea is that the ambient noises fill the silence, and become the music of the piece. I struggled with the notion that every sound was music. I grew up thinking of music as the organization of sounds. Now music was being defined simply as sounds to which someone listened deeply.

My ears opened up, and I started listening intentionally to my world. The flip side was that my sense of value, meaning and purpose in music was pretty trashed. I heard so much, but now it all sounded meaningless. In the world of dance, I often hear people advocating for this kind of openness in dancing; let it all in, all movement is dance, its their own personal expression, there is no right or wrong. In those words, I hear that freedom of expression that John Cage brought to music, and that openness to limitless, unrestrained potentials.

Later, we studied the atonal and serial music of composers like Alan Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. These composers were hyper-rational, and saw their music as a natural extension of the work of Wagner. Wagner keeps the music meandering, infrequently resolving the harmony. Berg and Schoenberg made an art into avoiding any sense of resolution in the harmony. It doesn’t always make for the most pleasant listening experience (although its great if you need sci-fi/horror film music that makes people uneasy). I struggled with this music, too.

Here was another extreme, every decision meticulously planned out, systematic and prescribed. The music seemed so unlistenable, and I wondered where the audience was for something like this. My colleagues, rather successfully at the time, argued that it didn’t matter how the audience responded as long as the artist maintained their own integrity. It was supposed to be valuable for its meticulous, detail oriented thoughtfulness. Liking it wasn’t necessarily the point, although some people did, which brought up questions of personal taste.

I liked the idea of value stemming from the intense depth of thought put into something. That was something that I felt like I could hold onto in our pluralistic, everything goes world. But it lacked in passion, emotional content. I had trouble connecting with this music, as did many young musicians around me. I engaged with it as best I could, tried to appreciate it, find something to connect with and enjoy. I hear echoes of the “lindy hop should be done this way to this music or it isn’t lindy hop” arguments; systematic and structured, with a clear sense of right about it and easily identifiable values. But in this approach, there are costs to the kind of personal expression that Cage’s approach afforded.

Nothing seemed to work for me. I couldn’t whole heartedly embrace Cage, and I couldn’t connect with the world of the Berg and Schoenberg. I needed a paradigm shift, and I found just that when I started studying music from African culures. All of the conversations I had been having with my colleagues were rooted in the worth of the music, the value of the sounds. In most African cultures, the primary value in music is placed on the experience and not on the music. The best singer isn’t necessarily the one with the best voice, but the one who can create the best experience. When my aesthetic arguments expanded from talking about the art to talking about relationships, everything made much more sense.

So often we try to place the burden for beauty on the object, the music, the dance. “The rose is beautiful,” we might say. But how can an object be something that is a construct of human thought like beauty? So we say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but that negates the importance of the object. I’ve come to a place where beauty lies in the space between, in the relationships we build. And what we invest in those relationships influences the payoff from those relationships.

We see this at dances all the time. Some dancers have invested years learning about the dance, continually working to better themselves, master movements, learn the history, study the music. They have a mastery to be able to express themselves with a depth and articulateness where the music becomes visible, at once connected to the past and invested in the future. We also see people on the dance floor for the very first time, enraptured by what they see, feel and hear. You can see their joy and sense of discovery. And then there are the people that come out dancing a few times a year, certainly enjoy their time while they are there, but it isn’t really an integral part of their life.

Which one is more valuable and worthwhile? You wouldn’t say that the married couple who has been together for 50 years has a more valuable relationship than the young couple who are on their honeymoon. You’d celebrate both of them for what they are. Likewise, the dancer who has dedicated years to their passion and the new dancer in love with their discovery share a common journey. But we might draw a distinction between a relationship with a passing acquaintance and a lifelong love. I know I value my relationship with my wife much more than the relationship with my bank teller. Similarly, we can draw a distinction between the deep relationship of the passionate dancer and the casual relationship of the occasional dancer. It all depends on the kind of relationship we build, and therein lies the beauty.

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Filed under Aesthetics

Dancing for a Cause

This past weekend, Susanne and I hosted our yearly Luau dance which is always a crazy fun time. We partnered up with two dancers who are fund raising for an organization called 2Seeds that develops sustainable agricultural projects in Africa. One of those dancers, Kelly Trop, wrote up a very nice post about her experience, so I wanted to send her a shout out and encourage you all to check out 2Seeds.

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Filed under C-Jam

Tuning Your Instrument – Body Maintenance

Photo by Amy Groark

Recently, I had a piano tuner come out to give my piano a much needed tune-up. I also teach music lessons in a store that does repairs, so I constantly see people in and out with various instruments to get pads changed or a sticky key fixed. As a singer and a dancer, I think of my body as my instrument. Unfortunately, I can’t exactly outsource that kind of regular maintenance. Sure, once a year I’ll splurge on a massage, but I use my body way too much to rely solely on a once a year thing.

When I was still young and stupid, I treated my body carelessly without thinking about the implications. Then, I started having soreness in my knee which I later discovered was being caused by tight hamstrings and hips. Much like a beautiful woman got me started dancing, another beautiful woman got me started with yoga. My knees are much better now, and better than that, I am much more conscious about my body and its regular maintenance and upkeep.

Here are a few of my favorite poses for a quick tune up:

  • Hero Pose – This pose can be tough on the knees for those who are inexperienced, but there are a lot of ways to modify it. If you have trouble with it, find a good yoga teacher and ask them to help you out. Its a great way to compress and squeeze the hamstrings. It also minimizes the circulation to the legs so that when you come out of the pose the legs get fresh blood and oxygen.
  • Legs-Up-the-Wall – In this variation, they place a lot of support under the lower back/hips which creates a nice opening in the chest. Again, this helps the blood drain from the legs to circulate fresh blood into the legs. In a pinch, I’ll use this after hero’s pose to quickly refresh my legs. I can usually stay fresh for another few hours at dance weekends with this trick. Continue reading

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Filed under Technique, tools of the trade

Smooth Criminals: My Stompology Thoughts

“As he came into the window, It was the sound of a crescendo.”  – Michael Jackson.

After some time in the ICU of my bed recovering from the Stompology weekend, I’m finally coherent enough to put some thoughts down about my time at Stompology 2011. This was my second year there, and I was just as blown away as the first year. The quality of instruction there is amazing, and I always learn so much about dance. I was particularly taken with Nathan Bugh and Evita Arce and their incredibly thoughtful and articulate teaching.

I took a lot away from the weekend, and Susanne and I have posted our videos online for you to see some of the material that was covered. The thing that best summed up everything that the weekend embodied was the final class where each of the instructors presented their rendition of the Shim-Sham. Nathan Bugh’s shim-sham (it starts at 52″) blew my mind. I’m really sorry that I missed the first part of his shim-sham on the video, but I still captured enough of it for you to see what I’m talking about.

At the very start, Nathan’s shim-sham feels bland, small and uninspired. Little hand gestures (he called them “Magic hands”) would put his feet out. It was so simple and basic, and when he first taught it, I was thoroughly unimpressed. Then, he moved on to the crossovers where his hands came more to life, eventually “pulling” his body through the crossovers. By the tacky-Annie, he was full into it with a great little variation that grew the energy with this explosion of movement. Then, he hit the half-breaks. I don’t know that I can even break down what he did with words, but visually, he exploded. All the pent up energy from the small movements’ slow growth burst out of him. The video really doesn’t do them justice.

Nathan’s shim-sham was the sound of a crescendo, to quote Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” What I was thoroughly unimpressed with at first, I became totally enamored with in the end. Those tiny movements that started off his shim sham where a pianissimo, a soft dynamic, intentionally put there to create context for what was to come. I now find myself constantly thinking about dynamics in my dancing, both solo and partnered. Am I dancing loud or dancing soft? How am I shaping this phrase?

In her Charleston class, Laura Glaess talked about the need for repose after some awesome movements to give the audience a chance to take it in. This kind of thoughtful, composed editing is something that the instructors never explicitly talked about, but it was so deeply embedded in everything they did that I couldn’t help but notice. Every inch of the instructors’ bodies worked towards creating a shape, a motion, and a phrase all at once. . .this is what I am now working to accomplish in all my dancing. Its time to edit myself, and make my dancing a more coherent statement about who I am as a dancer. I want to be a smooth criminal.

Once again, my thanks go out to all of the teachers and organizers behind Stompology. The organizers did a great job putting together this event, even in the midst of some unexpected tribulations. And the teachers astound me. The depth of their knowledge and thoughtfulness and passion around the dance are a true inspiration.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Charleston, Technique, Theory

Songs of the Month Club: June 2011

Happy belated fourth of July, everyone! I actually DJ-ed that night, and spent most of my weekend tracking down patriotic music for dancing rather than writing this blog post. Thankfully, Christina Austin kept things going here with this awesome post on following. In addition to patriotic dance tunes, I also picked up some songs during my adventures at Stompology in Rochester.

Patriotic Songs:

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Filed under Blues, Jazz, Music

Necessary and Sufficient

Guest author, Christina Austin, shares some thoughts from Stompology:

photo by Kevin Quaderer

My greatest flaw as a dancer is probably my tendency to let my social anxiety strangle me.

My fear of screwing up on the dance floor manifests in frequent “thinking face” when I’m being led, even by familiar leads, through new or complex patterns, and in my tendency to choke when I ask a ‘high-status’ leader for a dance. My favorite definition of “choke” is from the book Deep Survival: a reversion to the state of being a beginner, wherein you consciously think about what you’re doing, as opposed to the more advanced state of performance where “muscle memory” largely controls the specifics of movement. To choke is to lose one’s flow.  The mechanics of this for me personally usually looks like bad posture and too much tension in my arms and body, which hinders my ability to follow sensitively. In either case, the process is too much thinking and the product is less than sublime dancing.

Which is a shame, because my favorite part of dancing, the high that I am always chasing that keeps me coming back, is found in the moments when I am not in my head but in my body, fully with the music and my partner.  There is a thrilling physicality to just letting go and dancing.

The off-the-dance-floor part of this story relates to my other passionate hobby, which is rock climbing. There is a term in rock climbing, “lead head,” [as in leading, not as in the element Pb] which refers to one’s ability to assume and manage risk while putting the rope up. There are genuine dangers associated with this- you can really die or (more commonly) you can really injure yourself badly as a consequence of failure. Nonetheless, the most rewarding climbs are those during which you do not dwell on the dangers or think about falling but simply climb.  Some people are never capable of this, and the state of having a good lead head is something most climbers pursue relentlessly and achieve only intermittently.

This spring, I have had an amazing run of weekends during which my lead head has been excellent. I have, for the first time in several years, been able to sidestep my panic response and concentrate on climbing.  The key to this has been discrimination between rational fear and irrational fear/panic response.  (See Deep Survival or The Rock Warrior’s Way for further reading.) Rational fear is dealt with by taking reasonable precautions and irrational fear is ignored/discarded/not consulted. And discarding irrational fear and moving through it feels amazing.

Lately, I have been thinking about these concepts as it relates to my dancing. Continue reading

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Filed under Blues Dancing, Technique, Theory