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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2 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, Charleston, Technique, Theory

2 responses to “Smooth Criminals: My Stompology Thoughts

  1. I’ve always thought of these ideas in the terms of my body being another instrument in the band. The shapes we make are our notes. How we make these shapes and how defined the shapes are equivalent to how hard we play any note. The flow from shape to shape is my musical phrasing. And so on.

    Normally we encompass a lot of the points you raised just following the band and a song’s musical phrasing. Strictly doing so often results in the ebb and flow of more subdued and then more exuberant dancing as the song builds towards the end of a phrase and then scales back, hits a new section, or comes roaring or limping into a chorus. Similarly awesomeness often is timed to match phrase ends and/or breaks and the music. These ends give listeners palette cleansing repose and suggest we should do the same with our visual performance. (Unless the music is bebop where the music is constantly slapping you upside the head with “look at me I am awesome” with no repose).

    I am a lot less skilled at doing the fancier extensions of my dancing body as an instrument though. Countermelodies, syncopated harmonies, being the muted piece in the ensemble composition, etc etc. I suspect that your background as a musician (compared to my dabbling with a few instruments) will allow you to explore these options a lot easier than I do.

    • craigsparks

      Yeah, that’s often how I’ve thought about it, too. Dancing as an instrument. What I’ve been noticing is that my arms/hands/torso is often so involved in lead/follow technique that I’ve really neglected what they can contribute to the picture if I integrate that into the rest of my movements. Also, I think so often I just let the music carry me where its going, but often I can hear the crescendo building, the break coming, the phrase coming to an end. I want to become more conscious and articulate about the construction so that I am thinking in these larger constructions in how I put things together.

      One thing that I already do fairly frequently is pick a signature move for a particular song; some little step, syncopation, motif that I can keep returning to. Its an easy way to put structure into my social dancing, and create a reference point for the follow. Now, I’m just thinking more deeply about how to construct the dance more in terms of paragraphs than just in sentences, and making sure that every gesture contributes to my thesis.

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