Category Archives: Aesthetics

The Hardest Thing

Today, I was driving down to work, mulling about things, and my thoughts turned to dancing. There’s been a dearth of dancing in my life lately. I’ve been preoccupied with other activities like running my first race and my 5 year anniversary. But according to my meandering thoughts, dancing is never far from my heart.

I was contemplating the hardest thing about dancing. Balance? Frame and consistent connection? Maintaining a pulse and communicating rhythm? Maybe aerials and all of those high flying moves? But I don’t think the hardest thing about dancing has anything to do with technique, and has everything to do with life. For me, the hardest thing about dancing is being vulnerable.

Sure, many of us go to dances just to let loose and have a good time. We aren’t always looking for something deep and meaningful. For some people, dancing is an escape. But for me, the best part of dancing happens when I let my guard down, when I feel safe with my partner, when my partner feels safe with me and lets her guard down, too. In those music-wrapped moments, I have always found my profoundest dancing experiences. Those are the moments when the true joy of the heart can be released and the true sorrow of a soul can be exposed.

For me, that willingness to show up with everything that’s going on in my life, everything that I’ve buried inside, tucked away, locked up, and hidden from the world…that’s the hardest thing to do in dancing. But its transformative. When the heart is released, a kick can be a burst of joy or an act of anger. A turn can be a tender moment or a bit of heartbreak. I get that it isn’t for everybody. Its hard. Its risky. Hell, you may even just hear it as my pretentious ramblings on my sense of expression and artistry in dance. But for me, its the hard thing that makes it most worth while.

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Filed under Aesthetics, C-Jam

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

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

Where Shame Goes to Die

Last night, I was teaching intro to blues for the Towson University Ballroom Dance Club, and we touched upon the issue of self-consciousness in dancing. I firmly believe that to be a great dancer, you must leave your shame behind every time you step on the dance floor. You have to take risks with your body, make weird shapes, feel awkward, and be completely willing to make a fool of yourself. As my students will attest, making a fool of myself is something at which I excel.

It’s not that the goal is to make a fool of yourself. The goal is to free yourself from the critical, judgement centers of the brain to free your body to be expressive. The goal is to give yourself the permission to dance with wild abandon, with no reservations and no hesitations. Yes, you might end up looking ridiculous, but the path to looking ridiculous is strangely the same path to looking phenomenal. Continue reading

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Filed under Aesthetics, Blues Dancing, C-Jam, Charleston, lindy hop, Technique, Theory

Awesomeness has No Shape

It’s a common cliche to say “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Except the truth is that we all do it. All the time. And we judge dancers by their covers as well. Guys, I’m talking to you. You know you’re guilty of it. You look over to the side of the room, see two girls standing side by side, and you walk up and ask the “pretty” one to dance. I confess that I am also guilty of this, guilty of making those rash judgements.

But I also try to look past those snap decisions to ask everyone to dance. No matter what shape and size, how tall or how short, how old or how young. . .I am constantly surprised and amazed. I’ve danced with full-figured women who are as light as a feather and spin like a top. And I’ve danced with petite women who dance heavy into the floor so we can get a lot of rockin’ counterbalance and momentum going. I constantly have my expectations blown out of the water.

A beautiful face or the “ideal” figure isn’t going to make anyone a better dancer. A dancer’s passion isn’t determined by the fact that they are 21 years old or 61 years young. Having a great fashion sense won’t make anyone’s swingout better. But constantly making choices based on those instantaneous judgements does have an impact on our community. Do we want to create a space where women have to be enough? Pretty enough? Skinny enough? Young enough? Good enough? I don’t.

I want to create a space where you’re enough when you walk through the door. You are awesome enough. Awesome because you had the courage to try something new for the first time. Awesome because you light up every time you hear the sound of a big band. Awesome because you are dedicated and work hard to master that swingout or that swivel. Awesome because you are a passionate human being that wants to move and be moved, and you are willing to share that with me.

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Filed under Aesthetics, community

Flash, Smooth, and Comic

Recently, I’ve been nosing through Frankie Manning’s biography again, looking for a passage I recalled from my first reading. In it, Frankie talks about the three styles of Lindy Hop; flash, smooth and comic. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers was built with some of the best dancers in each of these styles. He also talks about how the generation of dancers before him, Shorty George Snowden, Freddy Lewis, and Leroy “Stretch” Jones, all danced upright. Frankie was the one to develop the bent over elongated style we think of today.  He was changing the dance to match the changes he was hearing in the music. There’s also a passage about how the follows used to rock-step at the beginning of swing outs. Swivels came later, and Frankie attributes them to Twist Mouth George Ganaway and Edith Matthews.

There were no formal rules, then. All of the great dancers were experimenting, trying things out, seeing what felt good, and learning what looked good and impressed the crowds. Every week, there would be a competition on Saturday night. If a dancer pulled out a flashy move that won them the contest that week, by the next week at least four other dancers would have copied it. So if you wanted to stand a chance the next week, you needed something new. There weren’t any teachers to go take classes with, just other dancers sharing moves, talking to each other, and practicing together. Continue reading

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Filed under Aesthetics, C-Jam, History, lindy hop

Dancing Inspired

This week, I’ve been searching for inspirational songs to program for the Bowie Senior Chorale’s spring concert. (Conducting the Chorale is part of my day job). It’s gotten me thinking about inspiration in all the aspects of my life, especially dancing. This past summer, I attended a workshop weekend called “Stompology” in Rochester that focused on solo jazz steps. One of the teachers there, Bethany Powell, taught this dance routine to Rose Murphy’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” In it, she incorporates moves from African dance, from a hip hop video, and from old Soul Train videos that she had been watching. It was a lot of fun to learn.
Working with Bethany and listening to her ideas got me thinking about the dance in new ways, looking for inspiration in lots of different and unusual places. The challenge is to take moves that are designed to fit with a different type of music and restyle them to fit into the context of our music while maintaining the spirit of the original movement. Lately, I’ve been working on footwork from Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” video. I’ve almost mastered the basic movement, and I’m now working on altering it to fit in my solo jazz dancing.

Beneath these conversations of inspiration and movement lies a deeper conversation about the aesthetics of the dance. What defines movement as swing dancing/lindy hopping?  What defines movement as vintage solo jazz/charleston? What defines movement as blues dancing? There are no easy singular answers to these kinds of questions, but I think its important to ask them because rooted in them are our concepts of authenticity and authority around the dance. Personally, I try to keep an open mind and listen to what other people value, knowing that, while there is no singular right answer to any of these questions, the deeper we delve into them the richer our dance becomes.

 

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Filed under Aesthetics, Blues Dancing, C-Jam, Charleston, lindy hop, Technique, Theory