Come Together: What is community?

I’ve been a member of different dance communities for over fifteen years, but since I started Mission City Swing in San Francisco four years ago, I’ve been giving a lot more thought to the idea of community – and what makes for a “good” or “successful” community.

Community is a funny thing, in that there are so many ways to define it. The dictionary definition of “community” is essentially “a group of people with a common interest or characteristic living in a particular area or living together in a broader society.” When I think about how we use the word “community” in our dance world, it can apply to the people who go to a particular venue or studio (the Mission City Swing community), the people who live in a particular area (the Bay Area community), and the people all around the world who share an interest in West Coast Swing (the general community, distinct from the zouk community or the blues community). Community transcends levels, because it is about being tied together by a common interest.

But community is also more than just sharing a common interest. It is about sharing a common character, and along with that, shared attitudes, shared ownership, and in many ways, a shared identity. And this leads to another aspect that defines many of our dance communities: a sense of fellowship.

When we are a part of a community, we feel connected to others, we enjoy the camaraderie, we feel accepted and supported, and we get a sense of belonging. In our dance communities, we have not just a common interest but a web of relationships that tie us together. I often say that people come for the dancing, but they stay for the people. Yes, we love to dance, but for many of us, we love the community just as much.

Over the years, as I’ve met people from around the globe who share my interest in West Coast Swing, I have made some amazing friends, and I now spend probably as much (if not more) time socializing at dances and conventions as I do dancing. I love to dance, but I love getting to know people and catching up with people. Conventions are a great place to connect with friends I don’t see on a regular basis, and I will often pick dance events based on where my friends are going.

Our dance communities are often centered around places to dance – studios, venues, events and conventions – and the classes, social dancing, and competitions that take place there. The quality and quantity of opportunities for learning and dancing are important. But our communities are also the people who share a love of West Coast Swing and the relationships that bind them together. The way we feel when we go dancing with others, and the way we feel about the others there, certainly affect our sense of community.

And on that point, I would argue that a successful, healthy, thriving community is one in which: (1) there are plenty of quality opportunities to dance and to improve, such that the community attracts, retains, and develops both new and experienced dancers alike; and (2) there is an inclusive and cohesive group of people who feel welcome, accepted, safe, and connected, creating feelings of camaraderie, fellowship, and belonging. There are many communities out there that have achieved this, and others who struggle to build, sustain, or grow their communities. Yet even when they’re successful and thriving, every community has some challenges they struggle to overcome – challenges that may change over time as the community evolves.

In this series, “Come Together,” I’d like to share my thoughts, insights, and questions about community. How do we create a community? How do we grow a community? What are the factors that are important for a community? What does a successful community look like and how do we get there? How do we sustain it in the long term? And how do we measure or recognize success? I will draw upon my own experiences and observations in dance, my academic and professional experience in organization development, and my many encounters and conversations with others, some of whom are community leaders and teachers and others who are participating members of a dance community. I hope you’ll follow along and add your own ideas and observations along the way.

But what do you think? What is a “good” or “successful” community to you? How would you describe some of the communities you’ve liked? How do you feel when you are a part of a community? And what is the relative importance of the dancing itself and the sense of fellowship you feel?


The evolution of competitors

I’ve had the privilege over the years to teach a lot of dancers and watch them grow in skills and abilities. In recent years, as I’ve worked with more new dancers, I’ve noticed there are some commonalities to the journeys of these students as they progress, particularly as competitors.

Each dancer is different, and there are always differences in how students grow based on their own experience, backgrounds, personalities, innate talents, and efforts. However, for the group that really gets hooked on the dance and gets involved in competitions, I’ve noticed a particular trend – a trend that some of my fellow dancers seem to notice too.

Now, I need to qualify my observation, lest it be taken the wrong way. My observation has to do with how men and women change as they progress in competitions, and so it is important to note that my observations are based on men who lead and women who follow. I have not had the chance to work with too many men who primarily follow and women who primarily lead (and when I have, they weren’t competing in those roles) so I can’t speak to any trends among that population. I can only speak to what I’ve experienced, and that is watching men advance as leaders and women advance as followers.

What I’ve noticed is that as men advance as competitors, they tend to get more confident, while women who advance tend to get less confident. I’m not saying this happens to everyone, and even when it does happen, it doesn’t always happen to the same extent. (And, as I noted in an earlier blog, many people just don’t have an accurate sense of their own abilities, regardless of role or gender.) I’m just saying I’ve noticed this pattern, and it seems to be confirmed by others.

My hypothesis is that it has much to do with the nature of leading and following, as well as some gender differences. In my experience, leaders tend to evaluate their competency by what they can execute in terms of patterns and moves, and thus as they learn more moves of increasing difficulty, they think, “Hey, look what I can do!” and grow in confidence. Followers, on the other hand, are not the principal choreographers of the dance, instead relying primarily on how well they style and move through what the leader gives them. As a result, followers are often more focused on their quality of movement. While they certainly improve their movement over time, they also tend to watch – and admire – other followers. Followers will often look at other followers and say, “Gosh, she’s so amazing!” and compare themselves to such greatness, saying how they’re nowhere near as good. So while leaders grow in confidence as they advance in competitions, followers compare themselves to increasingly competent and talented followers as they advance in competitions, and they seem to get more self-critical and insecure about their own abilities.

I do think that some of this has to do with the nature of men and women – women are generally speaking more social and likely to compare themselves – but that’s not to say men don’t do the same on occasion. I just find that the men are more likely to compare themselves to other men and say, “I’m better than him” while the women are more likely compare themselves to other women and say, “She’s so much better than me.” (These men are often the same leaders who like to talk about their opinions of the dance and other dancers without prompting and with great certainty, something I’ve been guilty of myself….)

Again, I’m not saying this happens to everyone, and certainly there are confident followers and insecure leaders at the higher levels. And again, this is based on my own experience watching male leaders and female followers develop as competitors over the last few years, especially with an increasingly competition-focused community. But I’ve made the observation enough to feel it’s worth discussing, and when I talk about this observed pattern and my hypotheses to explain it, I find that it resonates with other fellow dancers.

But what about you? Has anyone else noticed a similar trend? Is it a regional thing or is this happening in other parts of the world? If you’ve observed the same trend, what are your thoughts on why it happens? If you haven’t seen the same trend, have you noticed any other trends as leaders and followers advance in competitions? And what, if anything, can or should we do about it?


Words, words, words: “delayed weight transfer”

Words matter. The language we use to teach and talk about West Coast Swing influences the way we understand it and the way we dance it. This series will look at some of the terms we use in our community, with the aim of clarifying them for greater understanding and learning.

How we transfer our weight in dancing is everything. It affects our balance, our aesthetic, our timing, and our connection. And the more control we have over our weight transfers, the more we can do as dancers. After all, dance is movement, and movement is dependent on how we hold ourselves and transfer our weight through space.

When we talk about transferring weight, we’re talking about how we send and receive our weight from one foot to the other. In West Coast Swing, we transfer weight much like how we walk. For as long as I’ve been dancing this dance, we’ve talked about “rolling through the feet” – moving our weight from one part of the foot to the other (i.e., toe to heel or heel to toe) with clear articulation. This was partly for the aesthetics of our footwork but more importantly to maintain smooth, fluid, and continuous movement as we transfer weight. The idea is that we should not be stepping flatfooted and transferring all of our weight at once, but rather gradually transferring weight as we move from one foot to the other. (Rolling count, for those of you familiar with it, was designed to help us pay attention to continually moving through the beat.)

In the last couple of years, a new term for this has become very popular – delayed weight transfer – but I find this term somewhat problematic, mainly because of the qualifier “delayed.”

Technically, the dictionary definition of delay is “the act of postponing, hindering, or causing something to occur more slowly than normal.” This last part of the definition – causing something to occur more slowly – is closest to what we want to imply when we call our weight transfers “delayed.”

Unfortunately, our vernacular use of the word delayed is more aligned with the first part, postponing… or simply being late. When we speak of something being delayed, we are saying it is late. For instance, if someone is delayed, they will arrive late. If a train or plane is delayed, it will not arrive (or leave) on time. If a meeting is delayed, it is starting late. If we delay a conversation, it means we have decided to postpone it for another time. Something may be delayed because it is slow, but colloquially, being slow and being delayed are two different things: something may be delayed without being slow and something may be slow without being delayed.

When we use a term like “delayed with students, we need to understand that they already have a meaning assigned to that word, and that meaning is likely “to be late.” This can be troublesome in a dance where timing is so important and yet so often it is a challenge. I mean, isn’t it ironic to tell students to be late with their weight transfers when we work so hard to get them to be on time?

I don’t hear it very often anymore, but we do use the word delayed with another term in our dance: “delayed double.” The more commonly used term is “kick-ball-change” but “delayed double” describes the rhythm while “kick-ball-change” describes the movement we may do to that rhythm. And what does “delayed” mean in that context? That’s right, it means to start late: in a delayed double, we don’t start our double rhythm on the downbeat but rather we hold on the downbeat and start our first weight transfer later than normal. In this context, “delayed” means late, not slow.

When we speak of a “delayed weight transfer,” we mean a slow, gradual, controlled weight transfer, but the weight transfer should begin on time. I like the way Brandi Guild talks about weight transfers, focusing on the rate of weight transfer. As she describes it, at the strike of the beat, you don’t commit all of your weight but rather a small percentage of your weight, and then through the rest of the beat you slowly transfer your weight, completing your weight transfer just before you begin transferring to the other foot at the strike of the next beat. We don’t delay our weight transfer in the sense that we start late, but rather we begin on time and control the rate of weight transfer with the beat. If anything, we delay the end of the weight transfer, but we are not delaying the start of it.

On a few occasions, I have worked with some people who interpret “delayed weight transfer” to mean they put the foot out first and then start transferring their weight after the strike of the beat. This can lead to being late or off time and a heavy or sluggish connection. This isn’t to say there aren’t times where this may or should be done, but generally speaking we should be starting our weight transfer on the strike of the beat (or behind the beat – another topic for another day) and then gradually controlling our rate of weight transfer through the beat.

The trouble with using the term “delayed weight transfer” is that we have to retrain students’ definition of the word “delayed” to mean “slow” and not “late.” It’s not that the term isn’t correct or accurate, but that we may have to overwrite the student’s understanding of the word – and distinguish it from other meanings of the same word (as in “delayed double”). This redefinition of a word can take a lot of effort on the part of both the teacher and the student, and do we really want to make learning this dance harder than it already is?

Personally, I don’t use the term “delayed weight transfer” in my classes, but I teach the same technique of controlling the rate of weight transfer. I refer to it as a gradual or controlled weight transfer, emphasizing that weight should be continuously transferred through the beat, not starting or finishing early. To help students control the rate of weight transfer on whole counts, I will sometimes count with quicks and slows, much to the same effect as it is used in ballroom dancing (e.g. a triple would be counted as quick-quick-slow). The goal is always the same: be on time, but control your weight transfer.

What do you think? Have you ever heard the term “delayed weight transfer” and how did you interpret its meaning? Did you find it challenging to learn or did the terminology make it easier for you? Teachers, do you use the term “delayed weight transfer” in your instruction? How do you get your students to control their weight transfers while reinforcing proper timing?