Friday, December 31, 2010

Musings on Good Dancers, Bad Dancers, and the Surprisingly Subjective Nature of Deciding Which is Which (A Very Long Essay)

Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
- Bob Dylan

It is a truism that the more one learns, the less one knows. When we know only a little about something, we have a shining certainty, but with knowledge comes perspective, which leads to the question: How sure can any of us really be about anything?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “good” dancers. Swing dancers, specifically, since that’s what I spend most of my time doing.

For many years, I thought of good dancing in purely linear terms. I had the image of a ladder in which there were people above and below me. I think most people I know are similar, feeling sure about who the good and bad dancers are, who is great, who is terrible.

Dancers also generally have an opinion of where they are on the skill ladder. They are often wrong. Most commonly, dancers who have been doing it for a while assume they are better than they are. Many dancers complain vociferously about dancers deluded in this way, and most of those complaining are just as deluded. Much in the way that people think they have great singing voices until they record their voice, most dancers assume they are moving beautifully until they see themselves on video. (Some dancers, newer to the scene, will, refreshingly, think they’re worse than they are.)

The cold hard fact of social dancing is that when the dance is bad, it might not be your partner’s fault. It might be your fault. Or it might be something else entirely, and that something else is the point of this essay.

What is a Good Dancer?

So let’s begin by thinking about what good partner dancing is.

In the most subjective sense, a “good” dancer is someone you enjoy dancing with. But among people who have taken a lot of classes and learned a lot of technique, the term is often used to refer to people who have good technique; good dancers have good dance posture, good balance, good musicality, a good connection with their partner and a feel for the physics of the dance.

To some extent, that is all true.

But before we worry about technique, let’s think about what partner dancing is; dancing to music with a partner.

At its simplest, it is what is referred to by dancers, derisively, as “wedding dancing.” Wedding dancing is what people who don’t dance do at weddings when they try and recreate the vague notion in their head of partner dancing. They hold hands, they sway back and forth, they spin around. Wedding dancing is ugly to watch and it is terrible to dance with someone who thinks that is what dancing is. But is it inherently bad?

It depends. If they are having fun and they are dancing on the beat, well, it is a successful dance. If they are communicating through movement – that is, if the leader successfully gets the follow to turn the direction he wants her to – then it is even a successful partner dance.

It is, in fact, street dancing, and street dancing can be a very interesting thing.

On Street Dancing

I learned to dance in dance schools, and wasn’t aware of street dancing for many years. It came to my attention first when I went salsa dancing at a bar in the East Village. The dancers there, all Hispanic except for me and my friend - were clearly not people who had learned to dance in a school. While I had learned specific footwork and a lot of turns, these people were holding each other close, moving to the music, doing nothing elaborate but looking really sexy and cool. They seemed not like people who were taking dance classes but like people who had been dancing in salsa clubs for years, just making it up as they went along. (Years later I discovered blues dancing and realized that street salsa was much closer to blues dance than to school salsa.)

I once spoke to a guy who had grown up somewhere in Central America and had started dancing salsa as a teenager. He said salsa dancing was just dancing to salsa music. When I asked how he learned the basic step, he said, “there is no basic, you just dance to the music” as though I was a little slow.

Not all dances are street dances. Some are created and popularized by dancers, like the Foxtrot, which was presumably invented by Harry Fox and popularized by dance superstars Vernon and Irene Castle. But many start as street dances. Thus dances are created locally to popular music. I met an elderly woman who told me when she was young, swing dancing was different in each borough of New York, where she grew up; it was just kids who knew how to dance figuring out how to dance to new music and teaching other kids in the neighborhood what they were doing.

Some of those kids were in Harlem, and their version of swing dancing, Lindy Hop, is the one that caught on. It came out of older dances like the Charleston, and was popularized first by entertainers like Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers then was brought in somewhat altered form to Hollywood by Dean Collins and was altered for the masses by the Arthur Murray Studios in the form of East Coast Swing, a somewhat simplified variant that focused more on 6-count than 8-count steps to make it easier to learn for people familiar with Foxtrot. (At least this is what I have gleaned over the years.)

On Dance Schools

When a street dance becomes popular enough, dance schools start teaching it and it becomes codified. Much in the way that grammarians did not invent English but did decide on a set of rules so that people would speak it the same way, dance schools take the street dance and chop it up into clearly definable, teachable movements bite-sized bits so that anyone can learn it. This is not bad in itself – we can’t all pick up dance steps just by watching – but it does create a mindset in which there is a right way and a wrong way to dance, whereas in street dancing right or wrong is more a matter of, does it work, is it fun, does it look good, and did anyone die?

I learned Lindy Hop at the Sandra Cameron Dance Center, a dance school whose main claim to swing fame was that they employed Lindy legend Frankie Manning as a teacher. Sandra’s had practice sessions for their students twice a week, and for the first few years that is where I did most of my dancing. It was pretty clear who was a good dancer and who wasn’t, and I generally had a strong sense of where I was in the skill hierarchy.

Things changed when I started going out to swing dance events. People did not dance much like my fellow students at Sandra’s. Many dancers focused more on musicality and flair than on learned steps. It was both exciting and annoying, as many people focus on style before they really understand how to dance. But the experience changed my dancing for the better.

On Snooty Dancers

When you go out social dancing, some people will not dance with you. Most will, but there are a few people who stick to a small circle of acquaintances. These people are often thought of as being good dancers, partially because many of them look good when they dance, and partially because we always assume that people who think they’re too good for us actually are too good for us.

For a long time I thought the same, but had to reconsider after a dance teacher gave me his thoughts on those cliquish dancers. What he said, as best I can remember, was:

“They don’t dance with you because they think they’re better than you, but they’re not. Most of them don’t really follow. They have memorized leads to certain moves, and if they feel that lead, they do that move automatically, regardless of what you are trying to lead.”

Was this possible? Were the snootiest people on the swing scene nothing but back-leaders? Did they look good when they danced only because they were favoring their individual movements over the integrity of the connection? I began to think that perhaps looking good was simply a different skill from feeling good. If you have a dance background in jazz or ballet or modern you might be able to look great, because you know how to move, but you might feel awful, because you have terrible partnering skills.

Every once in a while one finds oneself in a club so empty that one of those follows who always says no surprises you and says yes. And dancing with those cliquish dancers seemed to prove that dance right. Because I found most of them terrible to dance with. They seemed confused by simple leads; things I could lead flawlessly with almost anyone left them standing there looking confused.

I began to think these dancers simply had a narrow competence. That when dancing with people they were familiar with, that they’d danced with hundreds of times, that they’d taken the same classes with, they could be amazing, but that they were rigidly incapable of dancing outside of their social circles.

But like every neat theory, there were holes in this one. For one thing, there were people I didn’t like dancing with who I knew were much better dancers than me. It can often be almost as hard to dance with extremely good dancers as it is to dance with extremely bad ones, because they have simply reached a point of subtlety in their movements that you aren’t competent to match. Yet, there were some amazing dancers I danced beautifully with, while other dancers who gave every indication of being just as good just annoyed me.

One of the big ah-ha moments in my search for answers came when the same dance teacher who had complained about cliquish dancers back-leading told me that one of my favorite people to dance with, who was also a teacher, didn’t know how to do a proper Lindy Circle. This was clearly nonsense. The problem, I suspected, was that these two had learned how to dance from Lindy teachers with radically different approaches to the dance.

While Lindy has been codified, the best dancers always play with the concepts they learn, trying to perfect and improve them, and then they teach other people. Thus, dance teaching evolves along separate tracks. They are all teaching Lindy Hop, they are all doing Texas Tommys and Swing Outs and Tuck Turns, but they have different approaches to compression, to stance, to counterbalancing. I can often tell what teachers someone has learned from by the way they dance, and I find I can sometimes improve my connection with a dancer by doing things in a way I learned from some specific teacher.

On Argentine Tango

Consider, for a moment, the Argentine Tango cross.

In Argentine Tango, the man can choose to step to his left so that he and the woman are walking on separate, parallel tracks. When this happens, the woman may take a step back and then slide her other foot back so that her ankles cross. How does this happen? It depends who you ask.

There are two basic approaches to the cross. One is that it is a lead move. You walk alongside the woman, and when you want her to cross, you give her a little push with your hand that forces her to cross.

The other approach is that the move is done by convention. If a man takes three steps in the outside track, she will cross on the third step. You do not, under any circumstances, lead this. It is simply a convention of the dance of long standing that every dancer should be familiar with.

I don’t know which of these is correct. Presumably I could go to Argentina and ask a 100 year-old dancer and he or she could say, this is the tradition, and I could say, that’s right then. Or someone could argue that the tradition is not important, that Tango is a living dance and that regardless of what was being done 80 years ago, this is the way to do it in the modern age.

I don’t really care which is right. I go with the cross by convention, because that’s how I learned it, but if I’d learned it the other way, I would do it the other way.

My point is, these two methods are both taught by a great number of teachers, and they are incompatible. If someone schooled in one method dances with someone schooled in the other method, there are going to be issues. She is not going to cross when he expects her to, and he’ll think, she doesn’t know how to dance. He’ll force her into a cross, and she’ll think, he doesn’t know how to dance.

In fact, they both know how to dance, they just don’t agree on the ground rules.

With that in mind, let’s go back to swing dancing.

There is nothing I can think of in swing dancing with the sharp disagreement found in the Argentine Tango cross, but there are differences in how the dance is taught. I learned a sort of compression-release version, which is quite common, where tension is built up to the point where movement happens, at which point everything is relaxed until tension is needed to redirect the flow of movement. In other words, if I and a girl are holding hands, and I take a step back, tension will be created. When the tension reaches a certain level where the girl cannot comfortably hold her ground, she will move forward. At that point, the assumption is she will continue to move forward without any assistance from me, so I relax my arm and there is no tension until her movement takes her far enough past me to create tension again. (There’s more to it than that, of course; based on this description alone, swing dancing would simply involve the girl traveling back and forth as though she were attached to a pole by a bungee cord.

Some dancers, though, maintain a level of tension at all times. Some dancers are always a little slack. Some follows will always make big movements even if you lead small ones. When leading a follow at a certain speed, she may travel faster or slower than the lead intends.

Sometimes it’s just bad dancing. Sometimes the girl back leads, which means she guesses what is wanted and does it without really being lead into it. Sometimes the guy’s lead is so weak that there is no way to know what is wanted, and then the guy will be mad at the girl for not following, and sometimes a follow or lead grips their partner’s hand with so much force that a sprained wrist is a distinct possibility. There are definitely a lot of crappy dancers out there.

But when you get to a certain level, it’s not really a matter of crappy dancing anymore.

On Ebonics

Years ago I saw an English professor talking about the study of “black English,” by which was meant the dialect in which you hear phrases like “I be going to the store.” What the professor said was that, while this is generally described as ungrammatical, it is actually a dialect with its own built-in grammar. Its rules are different from those taught in school, but the rules exist, and just as every other mode of speech, children learn these rules by listening to those around them and then speak using these rules. It is an internally consistent dialogue that could just as easily be broken down and diagrammed and taught from textbooks as any other dialect. Grammarians chose a particular dialect and declared it “proper English,” but it is not intrinsically more right or more complex or requiring of more intellect than any other dialect. But it still sounds wrong to those of us who grew up with a different dialect that was reinforced in school.

Dance teachers have dance dialects, but there is no authoritative voice that can declare any particular dialect correct. If you are steeped in one Lindy dialect, others will sound wrong to you. And this is why great dancers say other great dancers don’t know how to dance, and great teachers say other great teachers are teaching incorrectly. Because they feel they were taught the right way, and any way that is not that right way is the wrong way.

Can differences in dialects be bridged? It probably depends on how wide the disparity is between two styles. I asked a teacher whose been performing and competing for years if at the highest level differences gave way to the underlying expertise of people with a deep understanding of body movement, and she said at any level there are people you just don’t connect with.

I came across an interesting post on a dance blog that starts with video of two top-flight Lindy Hoppers failing to connect well. They do fine a lot of the time, but then suddenly everything will fall apart and the follow will look completely perplexed. The blogger has an interesting analysis of why that happens, but the important thing for my point is that it happens.

That being said, the better I get as a dancer, the more people I can connect with. If I have trouble dancing with someone, I assume there’s something I could do different, and I like to try and figure out what that is. I don’t always succeed – it’s hard to pick up the rules of someone else’s dialect – but the attempt itself is instructive. Dancing is a conversation, and like any conversation, there is always common ground if you look for it. (Which is why, even though I understand the appeal of only dancing will people you feel are at or above your level, I still think people who do so are like those who go to a party and won’t talk to anyone but their friends: it’s a party, mingle for god’s sake.)

Concluding Remarks

There are bad dancers in this world. There are people who get on the dance floor and break even the most basic rules of partner dancing, sometimes injuring their partners in the process. But it is too easy to write off dancers you can’t connect with as bad, and more and more I see that what we call good dancers are simply dancers who speak with our particular accent. It is often easier to dance with a newbie follow who moves in a way that seems familiar than to dance with an experienced follow who does everything different from the way you learned it.

I know what I like in dancers, and what I don’t like. Some things I don’t like are, I’m pretty sure, just plain bad, but others are just personal preferences.

My current working theory is that it is impossible to figure out objectively how good other dancers are. Oh sure, you can tell when people are incompetent, and you can always tell the true dancers, those who move with breathtaking grace and beauty (most of whom are half my age and have been dancing twice as long as I have, meaning I can never come close to doing what they do), but all those people in between ... they may not be as bad or as good as you think they are.