A hierarchy of needs (part 2)

In last week’s post, I outlined a hierarchy of needs for West Coast Swing. The idea of the hierarchy is that competency at higher tiers is dependent on first developing competencies in the lower tiers.

The hierarchy provides a framework for understanding the sequence of skills required to achieve a musical partnered dance. It also provides us with a useful way to look at expectations and evaluations of competitive dancing.  (more…)

A hierarchy of needs (part 1)

I often talk to students about setting priorities. It can be hard to know what to focus on, especially when there’s so much to work on, and so many things we want to accomplish.

The thing is that certain elements need to be in place to achieve other elements. For instance, if you really want to be musical with your partner, you need solid partnership skills. And in order to have solid partnership skills, you need to have an understanding and control of your own individual movement. So the more musical you want to be, the more you need to understand partnership and your own movement.  (more…)

Are you sure you have good timing?

My last post about dancing to blues raised some interesting thoughts about the rhythm of the music we dance to. Regardless of the music’s rhythm, however, we should always have proper timing.

We all know the importance of timing. (Or at least, we should.) Timing by definition is the precise placement or occurrence of something in time, and in the context of dance, that means executing movement at the right time with respect to the music. After all, our function as dancers is to express and physically represent what we hear, so timing our movements to the rhythms and melodies we hear is critical.

Annie Hirsch was invited to speak with the Bay Area West Coast Swing Community last year at an event hosted by The Next Generation Swing Dance Club. During the interview, she was asked what in her mind defined swing. Her response? “Three things: timing, timing, and timing.”

And for those of you who compete, you know it’s the first of the Three T’s upon which you’re judged (timing, technique, and teamwork).

But what exactly does it mean to have proper timing?

When I taught syncopations to my students last month, we came upon the discussion of timing, and I framed timing in three ways:

1. Starting with a down beat. This is the obvious one. The music we dance to has an even number of beats, paired in a downbeat (accented beat) and upbeat (unaccented beat). We sometimes refer to this as the “boom-tick” sound in the music. The downbeat is the odd count (1, 3, 5, 7) and the upbeat is the even beat (2, 4, 6, 8). Leaders should always initiate new patterns on the downbeat. It’s proper timing and it just feels better.

2. Spacing your movements accordingly. This one is pretty fundamental. You can start with a downbeat, but if the time between your steps doesn’t match the time between the beats, then you’re dancing off time. The rhythm of the music needs to match the rhythm of your movements, and that means that your movements happen at the same pace as the music (whether it’s stepping or something else). I see lots of dancers who start with the rhythm then lose it somewhere in the middle of patterns, resetting at the start of the next pattern. You should maintain the rhythm of the music throughout your dance.

3. Dancing triples on downbeat-upbeat pairs. This may not be as obvious, but it’s still important for keeping proper timing. We break the music into two-beat increments: a downbeat followed by an upbeat (1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8). A double is two steps in one of these pairs, a triple is three steps in one of these pairs. That means that a triple starts on a downbeat and ends on an upbeat (1&2, 3&4, 5&6, 7&8) – not the other way around (2&3, 4&5, 6&7, 8&1). I often see followers tripling off time, and it’s usually because the leader prepped the follower on a downbeat so the follower was forced to triple through a turn starting on the upbeat. This results in that awkward fumbling of the footwork after the turn. If you want to maintain timing, you should keep your triples properly placed with the music.

Timing isn’t just something we teachers and judges pick on for fun. It’s essential to being a proficient dancer, for your own movement, for connecting with a partner, and for expressing the music. So make sure you’re always on time (in dancing and in life!).

How do you think about timing? What challenges do you face with maintaining timing in your dance? How do you teachers approach timing with your students?


What do you mean you can’t dance to blues?

Someone recently told me that he had trouble dancing to blues. This was not the first time I’ve heard this sort of remark from a fellow dancer. And it’s not just beginners I hear it from, but even more experienced dancers too.

When pressed further as to what they mean by “I can’t dance to the blues,” there seems to be an unidentifiable culprit to their trouble, leading to answers along the lines of, “I don’t know. I just don’t get blues.”

What is this strange phenomenon? Is there an official diagnosis for this condition? Blues challenged? Selective musical genre disorder? Idontgetbluesia?

What don’t you get about the blues? It’s a straightforward musical form. It’s got a beat and melody and rhythm like any other song. In fact, blues by definition is grounded in acoustic instrumentation with a strong rhythm section, so more than much of the other music we dance to, blues has a clearly defined rhythm with a clear downbeat and upbeat.

And why can’t you dance to blues when you can dance to every other genre we dance to?  That category of music you dance to so easily that you call “contemporary” is actually several genres of music – R&B, pop, soul, funk, hip-hop, dance, alternative, and rap (and more). Each has a different kind of instrumentation and rhythm, and yet you seem to have no problem dancing to all of those.

Is it the swung rhythm that throws you off? Well, first of all, not all blues is swung. Blues is both a musical genre (or style) and a musical form (or structure). As a genre, blues is defined by its instrumentation, its themes, and a walking bass line. As a form, it is cyclical, meaning it is a repeating progression of chords (twelve-bar blues is the most common example of this but only one of many examples). So lots of blues are in song form (verse-chorus structure) and lots of blues have straight timing instead of swung rhythm. Heck, much of B.B. King’s music is song form and straight time, and he was the King of Blues. Coincidentally, there are pop songs with blues form (e.g. “Give It To Me Right” by Melanie Fiona) and some with swung rhythm (e.g. “Stutter” by Maroon 5).

As for having trouble with swung rhythm, a big part of the problem is lack of practice. Ideally, teachers are including blues and swung rhythm in their classes, to expose students to these forms. (Unfortunately, that probably isn’t the case. I’ve heard that in Europe there is a dearth of blues, though I was fortunate to hear it played in Germany…)

Of course, plenty of people might argue there’s no need to bother, that blues isn’t relevant or necessary, and we don’t hear much of it anymore anyway. (We probably hear more Latin rhythms in our music than swung rhythm these days…) But everyone should at least be exposed to blues and learn to dance to swung rhythms.

First of all, blues and swung rhythm are the foundations of West Coast Swing. It is this kind of music upon which this dance evolved and came into its own. So from a historical perspective, it’s important to understand where the dance came from.

Second, the instrumentation of blues creates a very downward feeling and the swung rhythm creates that pendulum or syncopated feeling – you know, what we and musicians call swing. Both the downward feeling and the pendulum feeling are integral to the foundations of this dance (and all swing dances) – they create the feeling we should have in West Coast Swing. Like learning to play Mozart before you play Gershwin, you should understand the proper feeling and movement of blues before you master the music that came afterwards.

Third, as dancers, you want to continue pushing the limits of your movement and your musical interpretation. We are constantly dancing to new music that challenges us to grow and develop our skill set. And blues is another genre of music that offers different musical rhythms and instrumentations that we can add to our toolkit. If the goal is to be able to dance to any music, then being able to dance to blues should be included. Blues can push you to apply and develop your musical interpretation skills in ways other musical forms can’t.

And if nothing else, competitions will continue to include swung blues music. This is in part because judges want to see that kind of music included, in part to showcase a more traditional style of the dance, and in part because they know that some people struggle with a swung rhythm and it can be used to separate the boys from the men. So if you want to succeed in competitions, you’d best get a handle on your blues.

I know I’m biased and fortunate to have had exposure to blues and swung rhythms early on, before I even started dancing (as a jazz musician) and before I started West Coast Swing (as a lindy hopper). So yeah, I guess I get blues – the feeling, the rhythm, the timing. But it’s not impossible to learn, nor is it even that difficult, if you simply pay attention and apply your swing fundamentals (body mechanics, footwork, timing) to the music. As with anything else you want to learn, it takes focus and practice.

So what is this nonsense about not being able to dance to blues? You’re very capable. Just put on some blues and dance!

Do you hear a lot of blues where you live and dance? Do you have trouble with the rhythm? Did your teachers expose you to blues in classes? Post your comments below!



The Joy of Blues Dancing

I’ve written before about how closed position creates more intimacy between the partners, and how it allows the partners to feel out one another together with the music.

Blues dancing is danced to slow blues – the kind that just begs for intimacy – and as such, it is danced primarily in closed position (depending on how much swing you mix into it). Learning blues dancing is a great way for all swing dancers to develop useful skills, such as leading and following, body movements, and musical interpretation.

Because the dance is in closed, blue dancing is a great way to understand leading and following. In closed position, the leader need only focus on the movement of his own body, and let the follower move with him. As a follower, she can learn to surrender to his lead and go with what she feels. With the centers close together, this dance is very much about dancing center to center.

Since the music is slower and in closed position, there is more time to explore body movement, rather than utilize patterns and footwork. With the partners’ bodies closer together, it is easier to communicate subtle movements, and it affords us the opportunity to really explore the music with different parts of our bodies.

Finally, because the music is slower, and because we’re in closed position, it allows us both the time and the freedom to focus on the music. Without the need to worry about leading and following patterns, we can get down to the fundamentals of movement to music.

Better body leads and follows, more body movements over patterns and footwork, and time to explore the music with your partner. Doesn’t that sound like a great recipe for amazing partner dancing?

Have you tried blues dancing? If so, how has it affected your understanding of swing dancing? Teachers, have you thought about using blues dancing to help your students focus on the fundamentals of swing dancing?