Perfect Imperfection

April 3, 2010 at 6:02 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

This doesn’t really have to do with lindy or blues, but I’m taking a Contemporary Jazz class and we watched a documentary about Bob Fosse that had a quote I really liked.

“I always hunched my shoulders and I had trouble turning out my feet. My entire style was a product of my flaws. Thank God I wasn’t born perfect!”


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The Queen of the Soundies

April 3, 2010 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

Well, its been a while. I am way overdue for an update and have several things that I would like to discuss.

I suppose I will start with Mabel Lee, as I’ve wanted to write a post about her for a long time. She was a singer and dancer during the Harlem Rennaisance, performing with such stars as Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. She came to visit Rochester during Girl Jam a couple months ago and absolutely blew me away. She is now 88 years old yet had more vibrancy than a lot of the college-age zombies I know. She flashed a big smile and wiggled her hips at the boys and let out this energy that completely filled the ballroom. Her delightfulness was contagious and I thought to myself, yes, this is why I love dancing. I love that we are continuing something that started long ago, yet continuing to be innovative and contemporary with it. I love that interaction and admiration of those singers and dancers and actors and musicians who made Jazz what it is today…and, as I’ve been finding out from the Jazz class I’m taking, that encompasses a hell of a lot more than just lindy hop.

Here are a couple of clips of Miss. Mable Lee, Queen of the Soundies followed by her recent performance in Rochester:

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Dancing in my Photography

February 7, 2010 at 7:49 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

Because dancing has become such a big part of my life, of course I’ve tried to combine it with my love of photography. So I thought I’d post a few photographs I’ve taken and a video I made for Moving Media last year. Feedback appreciated! 🙂

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The Music

February 7, 2010 at 6:09 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

There are a lot of great stories in Frankie Manning’s autobiography about the Savoy Ballroom. One of my favorites is about a band that played at the Savoy and got annoyed when the dancers didn’t have as enthusiastic a response to a song as they wanted. Whitey, the Savoy Ballroom bouncer who carried a lot of weight in the place, overheard one of the musicians saying “So what? They’re just dancers! They’re not important. We’re the ones who make the music.” Whitey was the wrong person to overhear, for he spread the word amongst the dance floor that absolutely no one was to dance to their next song no matter how good it was. And so no one did and the song fell flat. It lost its energy, its passion, its motivation. In this way Whitey showed how profound an affect the dancers had on shaping their music.

I think this give and take between dancers and music is often overlooked. I am very interested in this perspective on a dancers relationship with music. Last year, I was lucky enough to get to interview Gordon Webster, one of the top musicians in the country that lindy hoppers want to dance to the most, and the amazing singer Brianna Thomas. As a friend of mine once put it, They are the rockstars of the dance world. Both professional musicians who started out in a very different musical community, had a lot to say on the subject. They said most professional musicians look down on those who play for dancers because it has to be simpler, you can’t do all the fancy stuff because its not danceable. However, the scenario of playing in a club for other musicians all sitting around chatting and listening, while rewarding in its own way, is not nearly as excitng.

When playing for dancers, there are times when the room fills up with so much power and energy that everyone just stops, gathers around the musicians and claps or stomps their feet to the beat, cheering them on. Its much more intimate and personal, and lindy hoppers/blues dancers are so grateful and appreciative of good music. When they play for us, they can draw inspiration and ideas from the way they see dancers responding and interpreting their music. Brianna Thomas said it took her a while to learn to interact with the dancers, that she can have them sing back to her, cause them to cheer and react a certain way. It changes the dynamic of not just the musicians to the dancers but how the musicians play and communicate with each other, as well as how dancers communicate with their dance partners. Its a completely different kind of challenge for musicians and one that is very personal and satisfying.

This is a video I made about Gordon Webster’s band. I am aware that there are a whole lot of things wrong with the video, but considering it was my first time really working in video and that it was such a large difficult topic to make a little documentary on, I think it mostly successfully gets the point across. One day I’ll get the time to re-edit it.

Of course, it isn’t always live music that we dance to. DJing really has an art and technique to it, and there are famous DJs within the dance community that get hired to fly across the country just to share their music with dancers. With Lindy Hop the music tends to be more classic swing music, a variety of big bands from the 1920s and 1930s to current bands such as Gordon Webster, Solomon Douglas, The Loose Marbles, Tin Pan and the Cangelosi Cards. All known as Jazz bands who often play specifically for dancers, music from their cds are often djed at dances. There’s more modern music that can be played  and danced to, as shown in the post below, but that occurs more often in blues dancing.

Music for Lindy Hop and Blues does sometimes overlap; there are uptempo blues songs that can be lindy hopped to. However, because there is no set footwork for Blues dancing and it is a lot more versatile, it opens the musical possibilities more. Blues tends to be slower but isn’t always. What makes it blues is more about the feeling, that heartbreaking, soulful, intense expression that is so inspiring to blues dancers. A lot of current music is excellent for blues dancing because it has a similar feel in a lot of ways.

For samples of popular music for lindy hop go here:

For samples of popular music for blues dancing go here:

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The History of Blues Dancing

February 7, 2010 at 5:38 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

If I seem to be having a hard time defining blues dancing its because it is very difficult to pinpoint an actual definition. So for this reason I will be putting here a lot of edited descriptions and articles I have found about blues dancing and its history from different websites.

“I’m often asked – ‘What is Blues?’

As a Musician I would answer that ‘Blues is a set of chord changes in a 12 or 16 bar pattern, differentiated with flattened 3rd’s, 5th’s & 7th’s often used by players as a basis for improvisation.’

The Dancer’s answer is more complex. ‘Blues is an elaborate fusion of ideas from every dance style, from the mambo of Dirty Dancing to the romanticism of Ballet. The tempo and space given by the music allows a freedom of interpretation and improvisation that is seldom found in partner dances.'”

“Blues dance, like Lindy Hop and Swing, came into being as a reflection of swing and jazz music. Many aspects of Blues dance (for example, call and response, emotional intensity and expressiveness, and tension and release) are directly related to the music to which it is danced. There are many types of blues music, rural, urban, up-tempo, slow, electric, gutbucket, delta, modern, etc., all with very different nuances and emotions.

Some who have tried to pick up blues dancing simply by observation overlook the nuances of the dance beyond its “sexy” side. The sensual appearance may overshadow the basis and structure of the dance. Some of the best blues dancing is rooted in subtle physical communication, and is almost impossible for anyone to learn simply by watching.

Blues dance enables intense individuality in expressing the music. It really is all about communication, emphasizing that the music, not the dancer, leads the dance; we are simply the interpreters. Blues dance demonstrates the passion of the entire range of human emotions, not just the sensual ones. If you don’t have a visceral reaction to the music, your partner, and the environment, then you are missing the wonders of dancing blues.

In addition, learning to blues dance will enable the dancer to more fully understand concepts such as simplicity, clarity, creativity, expression, intensity, active listening, and musical and emotional interpretation. The connection between these concepts is critical to advanced social dancing of any kind. It is for this reason that learning blues dancing will help and improve your Lindy Hop.”

“Writing about the first time St Louis Blues was played (1914), H.C. Handy, one of the first to publish many blues songs, notes that ‘When St Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightening strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels.

According to Albert Murray, blues idiom-dance movement has nothing to do with sensual abandonment. ‘Being always a matter of elegance [it] is necessarily a matter of getting oneself together.’ Practitioners of this style do not throw their bodies around; they do not cut completely loose. A loss of coolness and control places one squarely outside the tradition.

The revival of Lindy Hop in the 1980s and 1990s has prompted complementary interests in other dances from Black vernacular dance traditions of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In American Lindy Hop today, after the revival, Lindy exchanges, with their emphasis on late night programs of social dance events, saw the introduction of ‘blues rooms’ to these events in the late 1990s. While the amount of Blues music played at these events varied widely, the name and what Blues music was being played led to dancers patronizing blues music clubs and holding house parties that played a varying amounts of blues and blues-rooted music. In the late 1980s the Herräng Dance Camp (a week long swing dance camp that is considered the greatest in the world. It is pretty much mandatory to attend at least once in the life of all serious swing dancers.) began featuring an all-night “Blues Night” dancing party on Wednesday nights (later Tuesdays), which exposed swing dancers from all over the world to the idea of slow dancing to blues, jazz, and early rhythm & blues.

There are now blues dancing communities throughout the international swing dancing community, though local communities vary, reflecting local social and cultural values and contexts. The spread of blues dancing has been largely a result of individual dancers traveling between local communities and establishing blues scenes, individual teachers holding blues dance workshops in different cities and countries, and through the on-line community of blues dancers facilitating the spread of knowledge and music and encouraging dancers to found local blues dancing communities.

Blues dancing in swing dance communities today may range from traditional blues dances to much less historically grounded forms. Traditional styles and steps have gradually been reintroduced by teachers and dancers with an interest in the history of the form, some of which have been expanded or adapted to suit the needs and interests of contemporary dancers, and new dances have also been created, echoing these historical styles and traditions. Additionally, a freestyle form of partnered dancing – usually at slower tempos – has slowly developed alongside this process of rediscovery and popularizing of blues dance traditions. Partially based on the principles of partner connection, aesthetics and approaches to rhythm and timing of Lindy hop, this burgeoning form often combines elements of West Coast Swing, Foxtrot, and Argentine Tango. Its growth has, arguably, been largely a result of the lack of established moves or basic steps. This style of free-form slow dancing has much in common with other dances such as Modern Jive. It does not bear most of the Africanist stylistic elements that define the historical family of blues dances, though its acquisitive ‘step stealing’ approach to borrowing from other dance traditions to suit the needs and interests of dancers is very much a feature of historical Blues dance and vernacular dance in general. These newer dances often offer interesting and intriguing interpretation of emotionally intense music, where the melody and harmonies are given precedence over rhythms.

There are ongoing debates within blues dancing and swing dancing culture today about what constitutes ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ blues dancing. Some hold the position that a blues dance that does not possess the stylistic, aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of Africanist dance cannot qualify as blues dance. Others argue that a blues dance which has had very little creative contribution from black dancers or draw from the base of movement they created, does not qualify either. Yet a third position might hold that a blues dance is simply dancing to blues music, regardless of the steps performed or whether they involved partnered or solo steps, or whether the steps and movement are aesthetically tied. It is certainly the case that even non-black dancers, moving to music which is not blues, performing steps which have no Africanist features or historical tradition consider what they do ‘blues dancing’.”

“What I’ve noticed in the last year is that there is a literal “blues music” and then there is a more zyphiric “blues essence.” When I think of blues dancing, I feel the most connection with music that strives for that essence, that emotional connectivity. From the reading I’ve done on the history of blues dancing, it seems like that was what the intent of the original blues dancers were, and traditional ‘blues music’ just connected with them at the time.

I feel that by saying you’re not blues dancing just because you’re not dancing to ‘blues music’ does the art form a disservice. It probably also depends on what one considers to be blues music.”

– Quote by Jason Whitson

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Humor and Lindy Hop/Mixing Genres

January 17, 2010 at 4:32 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

One of my favorite things about Lindy Hop (and Blues Dancing) is how versatile it is. It is rooted in a rich history and yet can easily be combined with contemporary music and dance steps. Swing Dance itself has many different forms and variations: East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Lindy Hop, Blues Dancing, Charleston, Balboa.You can literally list all the jazz movements incorporated in Lindy from A to Z:

As can be seen by some of the steps above (such as Drunken Sailor, Peckin’, Crazy Legs, etc) and  in the video of Big Bea and Shorty George in the post below, lindy hop is not a dance that takes itself too seriously. It started out as a means of expression and innovation, with dancers always adding their own twist to it. This continues today, making it a dance that no matter how long you’ve done there is always something new to learn. People have successfully tried dancing to contemporary music and found it works quite well for some songs. In fact, in Portland, Oregon they’ve just begun a weekly blues dance only for alternative music. This happens more frequently with blues than lindy, and has become so popular that its started quite the controversy–the “alternative blues dancers” versus the “true blues dancers.” Personally, I think both have their merits, and it makes me happy that both exist.

Lindy Hop Routine to Here We Go Again by OK GO.

Other dance styles of course have been mixed as well, resulting in there now being not just Lindy Hop weekend exchanges or Blues dance exchanges but now Fusion exchanges, where pretty much anything goes. I believe Salsa, Tango and Hip Hop to be the most popular dances to intertwine with Swing. Many of the performances definitely follow the comedic route:

Lindy Hip Hop Routine.

Ska Swing Instructional Video.

And finally, for the most bizarre of older (1944) dance videos, this excerpt from Groovie Movie. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, it really starts about 6 minutes in. Really strange, really worth it! haha.

My point is this…its a dance that is constantly stretching the boundaries, taking you places and doing things you never thought you’d do. The creative possibilities are endless and there is enough freedom to the structure to allow a dancer to play, have fun, and even laugh with their partner and the music.

Whether its dancing in the fountain at Love Park in Philadelphia and getting away with it because its over 100 degrees:

or  dancing in a field with friends in the middle of the night when its 5 degrees and above theres a Lunar Eclipse barely visible through the snow:

This is why I love dancing.

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The History of Lindy Hop

January 17, 2010 at 2:51 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

If anyone really wants to know the history of Lindy Hop, they need to read Frankie Manning’s autobiography:

You can buy the book and read reviews here.

The shorter version however, is this. The Lindy Hop started in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, NY in the 1920s. Dancers gathered to hear the big swing bands play such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and the Savoy Ballroom’s own Chick Webb. The Lindy Hop evolved from a combination of several popular dances at the time, such as the Charleston (a dance in its own right but often incorporated with Lindy) and the Breakaway (which became the Swing Out.) There would be contests between the dancers (for a top $2 prize…oh how times change) that inspired them to create many new and innovative steps for the dance. Frankie Manning along with his partner Frieda Washington were the first to create an Aerial, or Air Step, that move most non-swing dancers think of when they hear of the dance. It got its name from a Newspaper reporter asking one of the dancers what this new popular dance was called. The dancer remembered that morning’s headline, “Lindbergh hops across the Atlantic,” and so replied “The Lindy Hop!” Of course, the name stuck.

Shorty George and Big Bea. The way the Savoy Ballroom dancers ended their performances is what inspired Frankie Manning’s first Aerial.

During the Great Depression it became one of the few places people could escape for some enjoyment away from their troubles. It was also one of the only places in the world where Whites and Blacks could come together and interact without prejudice. An excerpt from Claude McKay’s poem “Negro Dancers” (that I discovered on JoJo Jackson’s blog) sums up the feeling amongst the dancers pretty well:

“But oh! they dance with poetry in their eyes
Whose dreamy loveliness no sorrow dims,
And parted lips and eager, gleeful cries,
And perfect rhythm in their nimble limbs.
The gifts divine are theirs, music and laughter;
All other things, however great, come after.”

As the dance took on popularity, there became a market for it in live performances and, later on, movies. Herbert White, called “Whitey” for a white streak in his hair, was a bouncer at the Savoy Ballroom who had an eye for talent. He picked out the best dancers there and started Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. They included Norma Miller, Al Minns and Leon James. Frankie Manning often choreographed and starred in these performances. (There is actually a Lindy Hoppers Fund to assist the aging dancers of the Savoy generation.)

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers perform in The Marx Brothers movie A Day at the Races.

When World War II broke out many of the male dancers left for war, and tastes in music changed towards Disco (yuck) and Rock n’ Roll. Swing dancing all but disappeared altogether until the 1980s. Two dance students were learning the Lindy Hop from Al Minns, one of the few remaining of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. When he became too ill to teach them, he told them there was only one other of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers still living in New York City…Frankie Manning.

In the meantime, Frankie had long since retired from dancing and was working in a Post Office. When these two young dancers came to him and asked him to teach them, his initial response was no. However, their persistence paid off. They convinced him to teach them everything he could, and then they travelled across the country holding workshops to teach the lindy hop to others. Needless to say it took on strong and now every major city in America has a swing dance scene, not to mention in many countries abroad.

Photograph from a NY Times Article on Frankie Manning’s Memorial Service.

Frankie Manning became a celebrity and legend, continuing to teach until his death last year, a month shy of his 95th birthday. There was a gigantic celebration planned in New York City that became a look back at the life of this remarkable man and all the lives he touched. Dancers poured in from all over the world. There was a Second Line parade through the streets the likes of which have rarely been seen outside of New Orleans. For the Memorial Service, many came to the church and danced in the aisles and pews, while telling stories of how his life and willingness to continue Lindy Hop’s legacy  so deeply affected them. It was the largest gathering of Lindy Hoppers there have ever been and probably ever will be.

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Al Minns, original Savoy lindy hopper legend

December 8, 2009 at 9:31 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

“To say that one dancer is greater than another is very difficult because each one has his own personality and each one affects people in different ways…The thing is in Jazz dancing and Swing dancing you have no way of comparing—Tap dancers as well—because each one is an individual.” – Al Minns

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Lindy and The Blues: An Introduction

December 5, 2009 at 11:26 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

In the past two and a half years I have become very involved in swing dancing, particularly lindy hop, charleston and blues dancing. I love blues and jazz music and I find the 1920s to be a very fascinating time period. I am Vice President of the Swing Dance Club at RIT and go out dancing several times a week. I don’t even know where to start with this as there are so many things I could say on the topic, but considering how big a part of my life its become I’m excited to be starting this blog.

Frankie Manning choreographed and danced in this scene from 1941 film Hellzapoppin’. Its considered the greatest lindy hop scene of all time.

I suppose I’ll start with a short summary to be elaborated on later. The dance was invented in the 1920s in the Savoy Ballroom of Harlem, where dancers invented moves and competed with each other to big band legends such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and the like. It was one of the only integrated places in the country at that point and once the Great Depression hit, one of the only places they could still just let loose and have fun. By World War II the dance faded in popularity and became all but a memory. In the 1980s, two intrigued and stubborn dance students convincing Frankie Manning, the only original Savoy dancer still alive in New York at that point, to come out of retirement to teach them the lindy hop. They then traveled the country teaching the dance to others and causing a mass revival of it.

Kevin and Carla in Barcelona, Spain.

Today, ever major city in the United States has a lindy hop scene, and many other countries such as Canada, England, Sweden, Japan and Russia have prevalent lindy hop communities. Even Iceland just had their first Lindy Hop Exchange this past summer. These dance exchanges and workshop weekends have dance classes during the day and dancing to live music and well-known DJs all night long. Most just last a weekend but some last an entire week. When these happen, dancers in the area host other dancers, and as many are willing to travel, lindy hoppers tend to meet and befriend people all over the country and outside of it.

It is truly an amazing community and culture. The dancing itself is so personal and connected; its a wonderfully improvisational partner dance that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is grounded in a rich history. The music is incredible and the musicians who play for dancers really embrace it and are so passionate about it. Its interesting to meet such a variety of individuals from all over the world and I’ve met a lot of my closest friends as well as my boyfriend through dancing.

Joe and Nelle’s performance at a blues exchange in Chicago I attended last year.

Lindy hop is that athletic mid-tempo to fast-paced dancing they did on the dance floor and then in performances. Its what most people think of when they think of swing dancing, although its a lot more than just throwing people up in the air at 300 bpm. Blues dancing is more of what they did at house parties, after midnight. Its slower and more sensual and much more improvisational. It has become a very popular dance in its own right, with Blues Dance Exchanges and weekly dances coming into being all over the country, mostly consisting of lindy hoppers. There are places, particularly along the west coast such as Portland, OR where the blues dancing scene has become even more vibrant than the lindy. Many find the music and dance easier to connect/relate to, and it can be so fulfilling and emotional in a way that lindy isn’t. (Don’t get me wrong, lindy can be fulfilling and a lot of fun, just in a very different way. It just depends on the person and what suits their personality and style best.) Its done as well to a lot of current music, such as Ratatat for example, and is influenced  not just by lindy but tango, modern and other dance forms. Its a dance with a very different feeling than lindy.

Blues dancing finals I competed in during a blues exchange in Philadelphia.

Theres a big difference between social dancing and  competitions/performances. For competitions and performances, there are more showy moves and its more about how it looks to the audience. In social dancing, its more about your connection to your partner as you feel and interpret the music together. That may sound rather cheesy, but a social dance is more of a conversation than a performance. There is something really incredible about conversing in that way, without words. I only just recently entered into a competition for the first time a few months ago and I made it to finals. It was a Jack and Jill competition, meaning you don’t know who you’re going to dance with until the the competition itself. I had never danced with Topher before, but it was so much fun. For a shy girl who if told before college I’d be entering dance competitions I would have laughed at the idea, it was a scary but great experience.

So I doubt anyone actually read through all of that and watched all those videos, but either way its important to  me to write it out. I came to college with a passion for photography and certain expectations, none of which came true. I’ve learned a lot about photography as well as about life. I know when I look back this will be something I’m most grateful for having learned. I’ve met the most amazing people through it, had opportunities to travel to all sorts of new places and changed so much as a person because of it. I’m glad to now be starting some sort of documentation of this.

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