Category Archives: tools of the trade

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

Drill, Daddy, Drill

In addition to being a great song by Dorothy Ellis, “Drill, Daddy, Drill” is a useful motto for any dancer. Most swing dance instruction focuses on moves, styling and technique. It’s not often that you see swing dancers practice turns across the floor like ballet dancers. I’m not saying that it never happens. We include it in our classes occasionally. But as an instructor getting people started with social dancing, many who have little to no dance experience, there are often other priorities like having fun and getting some sort of rhythmic pulse into the body.

That means that it is up to us as dancers to drill all of the body movements we use. This year, I’ve decided to make dance drills a part of my Lenten discipline. My goal for the next 40 days is to practice 100 rock steps a day. Rock steps are the most ubiquitous small component of swing dancing. They start and finish many moves. Good ones feel stretchy and secure. Bad ones feel like getting yanked. On a personal note, I have a bad habit of letting my shoulder round forward and disconnect when I rock step. Continue reading

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Filed under lindy hop, Technique, tools of the trade, Video

10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me

When I first started dancing I was super enthusiastic, much to the dismay of many a follow’s arms. I wanted to know big and flashy moves, and for me that meant the Texas Tommy. Now, as I look back at that green well-spring of passion and flailing arms from eleven years ago, there’s so much I wish someone had told me. I mentioned this to Susanne, and she helped me compile this list of things that don’t often get talked about in the lindy world.

10 ) Murphy’s law of extra shirts. You will always need one more extra shirt than you bring with you. Those days where you forget an extra will be the time you need it most. So always keep one extra shirt tucked away in your car or your dance bag. Or maybe just leave one for yourself in the lost and found of every venue where you dance.

9 ) Not everyone is what they seem. Not all creepy guys and girls, aka “creepers,” are actually creepy. Most of them are just socially awkward people that gravitate to swing for the structured social interaction. Some of them are amazingly awesome people that will become friends over time. Likewise, there are some seemingly super cool and suave people out there that are total lotharios. Then, there are the actual creepers out there.

8 ) Get feedback. You are not an impartial observer of yourself. What you think you look like may be very different than what you actually look like. What it feels like to a partner might be vastly different to what it feels like to you. Ask people for input. Ask friends to videotape you dancing. Open up lines of communication for critical feedback with people whose dancing  you respect and admire, and who you trust to be both honest and caring. Continue reading

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Filed under C-Jam, Charleston, community, lindy hop, Music, Technique, Theory, tools of the trade

They’re Doin’ Choreography

Lately, my dancing life is overrun with choreography. I’m currently working on a routine for the lindy hopping Midshipmen for the Naval Academy’s International Ball, choreographing a new solo jazz routine for the upcoming First Sunday Festivals in Annapolis, and working on some jam material for our upcoming dance in March. When I’m out dancing socially, I rarely think about what comes next, the benefit of years of experience and practice. But choreography forces me to think differently.

Choreography pulls me outside of real time, and gives me the opportunity to think about moves, transitions and styling on a much deeper level. Because its all preplanned and rehearsed, new levels of intricacy in footwork suddenly become possible, and I often figure out ways to link together moves in new and creative ways. Sometimes, I “invent” a new move, or at least a variation I had never done before. With all of the drill and repetition, I get very practiced at these new combinations, so they often work their way into my social dancing. Continue reading

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Vintage Jazz Buffet (2 of 5)

This post is part 2 of a series that lists one hundred different songs by one hundred different artists. It is designed to be used as an inspiration for dancers to explore the catalogs of our great vintage jazz recording artists. I’ve placed what I consider to be iconic artists in bold. If you are just starting to explore vintage jazz, I recommend you start with these artists.

Part 1 (1-20)
Part 2 (21-40)
Part 3 (41-60)
Part 4 (61-80)
Part 5 (81-100)

  1. “Till Tom Special” – Charlie Christian. In 1937, Charlie Christian started using an electric guitar. For the next five years, he defined what electric guitar meant for a generation of jazz musicians before his untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 25. At least he didn’t drink himself to death.
  2. “Lindyhopper’s Delight” – Chick Webb. Chick Webb never had the same commercial success as some of his peers, in part due to the limitations of recording technology to capture his powerful and innovating work on the drums. As the house band at the Savoy Ballroom, Chick Webb is the stuff of dancing legend, particularly legends of band battles at the Savoy that are still talked about today.
  3. “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” – Clarence Williams. Pianist, Vocalist, Jug player. Williams was at his best in a washboard band as his piano and vocal chops were merely passable. But his real talent was as a songwriter leaving us such classics as “Everybody Loves My Baby” and “T’Aint What You Do.”
  4. “Chattanooga Choo Choo” – Claude Thornhill. After training on piano in the conservatory, Thornhill worked his way up the dance bands in the Midwest, eventually playing for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. His own catalog often veers out of jazz/swing territory, but there are solid tunes in his collection, and his arrangements tend to be a little more mellow, later becoming an influence for the cool jazz movement.
  5. “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” – Count Basie. Count Basie had his first hit on the charts in 1937 with “One O’Clock Jump,” and produced a steady string of chart toppers after that. What I personally love most about Basie is how his piano playing can be full and robust or light and well-edited. He plays the piano as if it is an additional orchestra, sometimes commenting on the band and sometimes taking over.
  6. “Wave To Me My Lady” – Dinning Sisters. Three sisters from a midwestern family of nine, the Dinning Sisters started singing harmony in church, eventually moving to Chicago to sing for NBC radio and record for the Capitol label. While not as well remembered as the Andrews Sisters who they modeled themselves after, the Dinning Sisters were well-known and popular in their day. Continue reading

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Filed under Big Band, Blues, C-Jam, Dixieland, Jazz, lindy hop, Music, tools of the trade, vintage

Vintage Jazz Buffet (1 of 5)

After talking about pop music as a gateway for beginners to connect to lindy hop, I started thinking about how to get dancers more deeply invested in and knowledgable about vintage jazz/swing/big band. Some of that comes from time and exposure. Some of it comes from encouraging them to learn about the music, talking about it, sharing favorite songs, proclaiming “I love this song” when a great song comes on. We also need to ensure that information is available to start their own journey of exploration.

Here is a musical buffet of vintage songs. One hundred different songs by one hundred different artists. I’ll post twenty a day for the next five days. I’ve listed them alphabetically by author’s first name because that’s how I searched my music collection. Also, there’s no rhyme or reason to the songs I picked for each artist. Sometimes, I picked a classic like Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” and sometimes I picked lesser known songs like Glenn Miller’s “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” If I left out a favorite song or a favorite artist, it wasn’t meant as any kind of slight, and you should just add them to the comments.

Also, I didn’t list the recording info because the idea is for this to be an inspiration. Look up the artist and see what else they’ve recorded. Find different versions of the song by the same artist or by other artists. Allmusic.com is a great resource where you can look up artists, read their biography, see their discography, and get a list of similar artists. For beginners, I’ve highlighted some artists that I think are good to start with.

  1. “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)” – Andrews Sisters. The Andrew’s Sisters were the most successful female singing group of the time. Their collection goes far beyond the few well known hits that always get played. Its worth looking through their collection for some real gems like “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh” and “Hold Tight.”
  2. “Drinking Wine, Spo Dee O Dee” – Andy Kirk & His Clouds of Joy. Besides having the best band name ever, Andy Kirk recorded some solid tunes in the 30’s and 40’s. He never reached real fame with his band, but many great sidemen came through his band including Don Byas, Fats Navarro, and for a short time, Charlie Parker.
  3. “Watch the Birdie” – Anita O’Day. Anita O’Day started out with Gene Krupa’s band (featuring trumpeter Roy Eldridge), and these recordings from the 1940’s are the most approachable for dancers. In her later recordings, she started incorporating be-bop into her soloing. There are still some good tunes from those years, but you have to hunt for them a little more. Continue reading

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Filed under Big Band, C-Jam, Dixieland, History, Jazz, lindy hop, Music, tools of the trade, vintage

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