Walking in Memphis

This past summer, Susanne and I spent a week of vacation in Memphis enjoying the sights, sounds, and barbecue. We left with many great memories: Beale St., Stax Records, Sun Studios, Ground Zero Blues Club, the Delta Blues Museum, Muddy Waters house, the plantation where Pinetop Perkins drove a tractor. We ate barbecue five of the eight days we spent there, and soul food on one of the other days. Our lovely dancer friends, Michael Quisao and Annabel Truesdell, took us to a couple of great little local joints, including Di Anne Price’s “court” and a gods-honest Memphis juke-joint. We are both so thankful to them for the time and treasures of Memphis they shared with us.

For me, visiting Memphis was transformative. I feel as though I have a much more visceral understanding of the blues and of rock and roll. I know more deeply the roots of decades of our musical heritage. Living in Baltimore, I am no stranger to poverty. I’m not blindly walled off into little white-picket fenced plots of suburbia. I see it around me, and I see it often. But the poverty I see and experience here is nothing compared to the swaths of empty store fronts nestled in between vast fields along the Mississippi delta. I’ve often heard the blues talked about as a catharsis of the soul, a release of the worries of the day. There on the banks of the Mississippi, I felt but a drop of the depths of oppression, poverty, and struggle that the blues emerged from. Blues isn’t just a catharsis. It is a triumph of the human spirit; to be lifted so high from such lows.

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Filed under Blues, Blues Dancing, History

Swing Dancing, the Olympics, and Doctor Who

Not having a TV, Susanne and I haven’t had many opportunities to watch the Olympics, but that hasn’t stopped us from following the results online, reading articles, looking through pictures and some limited videos, and whatever else we can find. Looking at those chiseled athletes and what they have trained themselves to do is inspiring. I often have to remind myself that one reason I don’t have washboard abs like an olympic athlete is because that’s not my job. I don’t train my body for hours every day, at least not for a sport. As a musician, I do spend at minimum of an hour playing every day, usually more. I have amazing definition in my forearms, for what it’s worth. Continue reading

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Shared Moments

Hello Cats.

It has been quite awhile since we’ve posted something new, the results of being stretched too thin and getting burned out. Susanne and I both pulled back on our activities to seek more balance in our life. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling the urge to write and share more thoughts and discoveries about dancing.

Tonight, I went to a local blues dance, the first one I’ve been to in about a year or so. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it. Some good music, a decent crowd, good atmosphere for the night. I had a few good dances, and met some of the new people that I’ve never seen since I’ve been MIA. As I drove home, a sense of peace came over me, and I thought about the following:

This past year, I’ve taken up running as a way to get myself into shape and to help regulate my emotional well-being. In addition, there’s something about the repetitive nature of the activity that causes me to stay focused, to clear my mind, and to deal with all those nagging thoughts that I so often ignore. On my longer runs, time starts to blur into passing bricks and buildings as those pesky thoughts fade and my focus improves. Running exposes me to the vastness of time, and my relative insignificance in all of it.

But dancing is a different kind of magic. A dance is three minutes, maybe five. Concentrated goodness. A short burst of time to express something incredibly fleeting. Each dance is a shared experience of expression that connects me to something more than I am by myself, the threads of the music, of my partner, the other dancers in the room, the history to which these dancers are all connected, and the future we are building together.

While running processes my thoughts, dancing processes my emotions. While running confronts me with my insignificance, dancing connects me with my humanity. And so, with these words, the silence is ended. Its time to put myself back out into the world.

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Filed under Blues Dancing, community, lindy hop

Keeping Time – Dance and Marriage

In music, we often talk about the drummer keeping time, setting down the groove for the rest of the band to play over. As dancers, we keep time with our feet and our bodies. But there are other ways we keep time as well, we mark the changes. In Annapolis, we would end each dance with the song “Annapolis Shuffle,” by Them Eastport Oyster Boys. At any event weekend, Sunday afternoon is always a mountaintop experience for me, another way I keep time.

Four years ago, I married my co-author, dance partner, and all around amazing woman, Susanne Randolph Sparks. A year later, we started teaching dance together. We will keep this time with an anniversary dance extravaganza on September 23rd. But I thought I would take a moment before then to share some thoughts and recollections about our time together as a couple who teaches.

  1. Teaching dance together reminds me that we are partners. As much as I’d like to say that things are always rainbows and lollipops, the truth is that relationships are messy. But once a week, no matter what, I had to set aside whatever disagreements or wounds I was dwelling on to teach with my wife. For those three hours, we were a partnership, whether we wanted to be or not. And by the end, I always wanted to be her partner even more. I like to think that I’m a good teacher, but with my wife’s critical eye, feedback, and guidance during classes, I think we are pretty amazing.
  2. We won’t always agree, and that makes us stronger. Susanne likes to say that the lead’s left hand should be at the ladies waist. I prefer to teach it as a straight line from elbow to elbow. In our conflict, we have both become more thoughtful about the dance, and grown in our own dancing. We established a rule early on not to critique each other’s dancing. But in teaching together, we’ve both been able to explore and push ourselves, share our ideas with one another, and hear the other’s insights without ever criticizing. Plus, teaching holds us accountable to each other and our students to strive for better in our dancing.
  3. Success in dancing, teaching and relationships takes consistent, hard work over time. I’d like to start by saying thank you to all of our students who took lessons from us that first year. We have learned a lot about teaching since then, and appreciate your patience as we learned. After every class, we always decompress about what went well and where we can improve. Over time, certain things have become pretty standard for us, but we continue to evaluate ourselves. We are also constantly working to adapt to our students needs. I find that the same things are necessary in our marriage. Check in regularly. Examine your routines. Adapt to meet you partners needs.
  4. Love means having to say you’re sorry AND make amends for the wounds you cause. Whoever said, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” was full of it. Its an inevitable fact of life that people will hurt each other, whether intentional or unintentional. We’ll screw up on the dance floor. We’ll screw up off the dance floor. Say you’re sorry and make it right to the best of your ability.
  5. The greatest rewards are the hardest to obtain. When I first started dancing, it was fantastic, like a new relationship. I remember early on when I was dating Susanne, we danced in her kitchen while I sang “They Can’t Take That Away.” Shortly after, we danced at a Jane Monheit concert when she sang the same tune for her encore. I treasure those memories, but wouldn’t want to go back for anything. Much like years of dancing have seasoned me and revealed truths about dancing I never could have imagined, my years with Susanne have revealed to me truths about her and about our relationship that were once unfathomable.
For all of these reasons and more, I am a better man today. Sharing my passion, the support of our students, and the love of an amazing woman continue to transform my life. I hope you all will join us to celebrate on the 23rd, and help us mark the time.

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Filed under C-Jam, community

Pulse in Lindy and Blues

I am a firm believer that pulse is one of the core elements to all social dancing. I can’t claim to have an expert opinion on the matter because I lack knowledge in ballroom/latin/tango. . .basically, anything that isn’t swing. From what I’ve seen though, every dance has its own means of pulse. When we are teaching, Susanne and I emphasize that the pulse is the primary means of communicating rhythm with your partner.

That pulse is most apparent in Charleston, where there’s a pulse downward on every beat. I like starting beginners off with Charleston for just this reason. They can focus on getting pulse into their bodies, and feeling and communicating rhythms. Then, we can build up by adding weight changes moving forward and backward. Continue reading

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Filed under Blues Dancing, Charleston, lindy hop, Technique, Theory

ILHC from the Outside.

Confession: I didn’t get my ticket to ILHC, and ended up hunkering down with my wife and the kitties while everyone else basked in the dance awesomeness. But like many other dancers, I’ve been soaking in videos, and decompressing with friends about the event. I want to give a shout out to Max Desens who made the finals of the open Jack and Jill. A year and a half ago, the boy couldn’t even do a swing out, and now he’s turned into a rockstar. His work ethic around dancing has been amazing, and its been a joy and a privilege to teach him.

Watching competition videos, a few have stood out to me. It seems like Max and Annie are owning the showcase division, and everyone else is fighting for second. Their use of storytelling was interesting, and reminded me a lot of Ben and Jen’s winning routine at ALHC in 2006. I think that Ben got it from working with Natalie and Yuval. The real curiosity to me is how far the dancers will take it, and at what point does “the show” overshadow the showcasing of phenomenal dancing? Continue reading

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Social to Dancing.

The very term “Social Dancing” implies two very different types of activities coming together, socializing and dancing. I often find it hard to do both at the same time. I can talk to a partner, but then I can barely dance with her. Or I can dance, but its hard to talk when your partner is whipping through a swingout. There’s also the option to sit a dance out to have a more involved conversation, but that can be a challenge, too, if you’re trying to talk over the music. In the past few weeks, I’ve had two experiences at the opposite end of a spectrum that have gotten me thinking more about the nature of social dancing. Continue reading

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