Saturday, August 27, 2011

My Ever-Shifting Concepts of Proper Lindy Dance Form

So, you start taking swing dance lessons, and the teachers tell you to do things a certain way. Then you take more lessons, and a teacher tells you something that conflicts with what you thought you were supposed to do, and you realize you either misunderstood your first teacher or have encountered two teachers with different dance philosophies. You correct, change, reverse and revise, just trying to get it right. And while you can’t ever really get it right, because there is no right, you can, over the years, find what works best for you.

Until you learn something new that works better.

Over the years I have taken a great many dance classes. Most of these have been in Lindy Hop (a.k.a. swing, jitterbug, whatever.) I have spent a lot of time trying to understand and refine the basics, often misunderstanding what I was told at first, often being told different things by different teachers, and eventually coming to some sort of interim conclusion about what I should be doing. This conclusion is constantly revised; as I learn, I discover more misunderstandings, or learn new ways that, combined with old ways, make my dancing a little better.

I once asked a very good dancer, how does one resolve all this conflicting information, and she said you just find what works for you. That is hard to do, so I've decided to describe the history of the evolution of my basic Lindy stance and posture. The goal is not to tell anyone how to do anything (because what do I know?), but just to perhaps shed some light on the process of dealing with conflicting information, and to show how easily what one believes can get turned around, and that being open to the possibility that you have it wrong is essential to growth. A friend once told me that there is no truth, only the search for truth, and if someone says they've found the truth all they are saying is they've stopped the search. Some dancers think they've found the true way to dance, but the longer I've danced, the more I've understood how little I actually know, and how many ways there are to approach Lindy.

I'm going to mention specific teachers and what I understood of their lessons. I want to emphasize that this is my interpretation of what I think they told me. Nothing I say should be considered to be a completely accurate conveyance of any teacher's lessons. In some cases I may be completely misrepresenting them.

One of the first things I was told when I started taking lessons was that I should be on the balls of my feet. My interpretation of that was that my heels should be high in the air so all the weight was centered on my toes and the front of my foot. I found this very difficult. I used to try going up and down on my toes as an exercise, but when I danced I would still keep dropping onto my heels.

There were two teachers that made me re-examine the need to keep my heels up so high. One was a teacher named Yuval Hod, who yelled at his students to quit dancing on their toes. That was one of his pet peeves (he taught class in cowboy boots, and seemed to be able to dance just fine in them). The other was an Argentine Tango teacher who said weight should be on the balls of my feet, but heels should be on the ground. This is how I learned that this was more a matter of weight distribution than foot position. Having your weight forward does not mean you need to have your heels up. You may not even necessarily need all the weight off your heels; I've heard of one teacher who apparently likes the foot quite flat, but since this is second hand I can't explain exactly what he said he wanted.

Teachers seem to vary on how up on the balls of your feet they feel you should be. Currently I dance with my heels just off or lightly touching the ground with the weight on the balls of my feet. But I think less in terms of my feet now than in terms of where my weight is.

Posture and Stance
When I first took classes I wasn’t told much about how to stand. It wasn't until at least pre-intermediate that I was told I should stand as though I were playing tennis or basketball. Knees bent, waist bent, weight on the balls of my feet.

The problem with being told to stand like you're playing tennis is you'll only have good dance posture if you have good tennis posture, which I did not. It was like telling someone to jump like a rabbit when the only rabbit they'd ever seen was Bugs Bunny.

My early dance posture was terrible. I knew I was supposed to lean forward forward and keep my chest over my feet, but I did that by curving my spine. If a teacher told me to straighten my spine, I would be up too straight, even leaning back, because I didn't understand how I was supposed to be angled.

I was helped less by sports comparisons than by looking at the best dancers. Their backs were straight, their knees were bent, and their behinds jutted out. They looked as though they were lowering themselves onto a bar stool.

I think the best way to indicate the proper Lindy stance, and this is used by many teachers, is the jump method. You simply jump and land, knees bent, back straight. When you land, you will land on the balls of your feet and you will be bent forward (at the hips) because if you don’t bend forward you will fall down. So basically you bend at the hips, you bend at the knees, your ankles are bent enough to bring your knees over your toes (more-or-less) your back is straight and your arms are a bit out from your sides in a way that helps you keep your balance. It is a natural position, and natural is a good way to go when dancing.

A lot of teachers recommend a fairly low, athletic posture in which there is a lot of bend in the knees (although this belief is not universal). I aspire to keep my knees very bent and the rest of my body bent accordingly, but truthfully I'm pretty upright, simply because my knees are a little worse for wear. But I do find the lower I go the more I'm into the floor and the more control I feel over my movements.
Much in the way my knees are never as bent as I would like them to be, my back is never as straight as I would like. I've had bad posture all my life, so correcting it is a slow process. I've gotten a lot of advice on improving posture; the most useful was that I should straighten my back not by thrusting out my chest but rather by lifting my sternum. It is also useful to think of the crown of the head rising towards the sky. If I had the hundreds of dollars necessary to take private Alexander Technique lessons, which focus on improving posture, I would do that, but on my own I am improving, slowly. (One useful concept I read by an Alexander Technique teacher: “there is no waist.” What this means is that we do not have a bendable joint where our belt loops are, and if we try to bend there, we are just curving our spine. If we keep our spine straight, then to bend forward we bend at the hips.)

Update (8/14/2014): Recently I was helped in my posture by a teacher named Lainey Silver, who said I was much too straight, got me into the proper position and kept me there, bouncing from foot to foot, until I felt it. I worked with it for a while, at first trying to exaggerate the position (I used Michael Jagger as a template; at times his back is virtually horizontal). I realized that a lot of my problems with always reverting to a very upright position came from not pushing my ass back, I was simply bending at the waist. That didn't lock me in place; I was like a lawn chair with multiple back settings that was positioned in between two notches and would always slide back to the more upright notch.

When I pushed my ass back instead of just bending at the waist, I could feel my body lock into a new position, the weight shifting to the back below forcing me to lean forward to counterbalance with my chest.

Doing this made sense of something told me by Joe Palmer, that when you move back you lead with your ass and when you move forward you lead with your chest. I was so upright that I couldn't really feel what that meant, but with my ass really back and my chest really forward, I realized the chest and ass are like the bumpers of a car, which also leads with the front or the back bumper depending on direction.

Frame and Arms
Frame is a really tricky concept, and something that teachers approach in a variety of ways. Wikipedia describes it as the body shape maintained by dancers, particularly in the upper body, but what that means in practical terms can be elusive.

In writing this, I had to consider whether the arms should be discussed as part of frame or if frame and arms are actually separate concepts. When teacher Joe Palmer discussed frame, he said it exists in four places, the shoulders, the chest and the abdomen, and the relationship between these is frame. He didn't say anything about the arms when discussing frame. So perhaps frame is simply keeping your back straight and your shoulders in place. But rightly or wrongly I think of arms as part of the frame, so I'll discuss it that way.

The first bit of frame advice beginners are likely to hear is to keep their elbows always at least a little bent. Beginning swing dancers, holding hands as they travel away from one another, are likely to only stop traveling when both arms have been pulled straight and their shoulders have almost been pulled out of their sockets, which is a very bad thing. Keeping the arm bent prevents serious shoulder damage, because then you have a more controlled stop with the bent arm absorbing the shock.

The frame I learned at first can be created by imagining there is a table in front of you a bit below your belly button. Lay both hands flat on the table about shoulder width apart with your elbows by your sides and a little ahead of the front of your body. Now without moving the hands, raise the elbows. I've also heard this described as being like wrapping your arms around a tree trunk.

One of my early teachers, Laura Jeffers, had an exercise in which students would dance with their arms frozen in this position, like Barbie arms. In real dancing, you cannot keep your arms positioned like that, but it's helpful to understand how a lot of movement can be created by moving the body rather than the arms. Because that's a lot of what frame is about, leading through body movement with the arms simply used to convey what the body is doing.

Laura later pointed out to me that while I was keeping my elbows bent, I was letting my shoulders slide forward. Shoulders, I learned, needed to be kept in place. What makes this difficult is you also want your shoulders relaxed. I am still struggling with this. To feel where your shoulders should be, lift them up, roll them back then bring them down (the last stop sometimes colorfully described as putting your shoulder blades in your back pockets. I have been told that rather than tightening the shoulders, you should feel the connection through your lats (the muscles below/around the shoulder blades), although teacher Adam Lee said if you keep your chest up and out (what he described as a "proud chest") then that will keep your shoulders in place.

My concept of frame at this point was that it was very solid. My goal was to keep everything in place; if the follow moves away from me, I keep my arms taut, if she moves towards me, or if I'm doing a cross-handed Charleston, I do not let my elbows get pushed behind me. For me, this was frame, but I later found that there is more than one way of looking at the subject.

When I went to the school Hop, Swing and Jump the instructor, Yuval, had students keep their elbows virtually clamped to their sides. A friend describes it as a dinosaur style, because keeping them in that position makes them into little stubby Tyrannosaurus Rex arms. This really forces body leads; if you keep your elbows to your sides at all times, you have to lead by moving your entire body. (While Laura and her teaching partner Matt Bedel (the one dancing with Laura in my link to her above) were always telling me to keep my frame up - "engage your frame" - and Yuval was always telling me to keep my elbows in, when I watched Matt and Yuval dance socially they seemed to keep their arms in similar positions, neither against the body nor raised up much. So perhaps ultimately their differences were more in how they taught frame than in how they approached it.

Yuval had one exception to the elbows-at-your-side rule. When leading the follow in, Yuval told us to step back, leaving our hand in place, then pull ourselves forward, an action that would pull the girl forward (Yuval would not have used the word "pull," which is a word Lindy teachers disdain, but that was how I understood it conceptually). I tried to do this, but it was new and difficult to understand. I was told repeatedly my frame was too stiff, but I had trouble with concept of a more relaxed frame.

I didn't really understand what relaxing my frame meant until I took a workshop by Skye and Frida, who took relaxing frame to its extreme. After years of being told not to let my arm fully extend, S&F told us to do exactly that. They began by having us hold hands while standing near each other, our arms hanging loose. Then the leaders walked backwards, arms still long and loose, until there was enough tension to lead the follow to walk forward. Then we were supposed to dance this same way, letting our arms full extend when we were apart, letting them hang down when we were together. Everyone was having difficulty with this; the bent elbow was such an ingrained habit that almost no one in class was able to fully relax it.

It was perplexing to be told something different, but then, that's what happens when you start dealing with advanced concepts. It's best to tell beginners to keep their elbows bent so they don't hurt themselves and dance in a jerky way, but if you understand how resistance and tension should feel, then keeping your arm slack works just fine, and gives your dancing a more relaxed feel.

I began to think of frame not as a specific way of holding your arms and shoulders, but as a matter of control and consistency. It's not so much about having an exact position as it is about keeping the feel. I went from thinking of frame as very solid to rather fluid within certain parameters (i.e., your elbow can be fairly straight but it can't be hyper-extended, which is what beginners do, and you still shouldn't be letting your elbows go behind your back outside of a Texas Tommy).

As I worked on relaxing my frame, I found that some follows who I really liked dancing with began to feel too stiff, and some who had felt too loose were suddenly far more comfortable to dance with. Although dancers who strive to match what the lead gives them continued to feel good and simply mirrored my changes.

Right now my frame varies a bit. I strive for a relaxed Skye and Frida frame, which I got to after first revisiting Yuval's lead with S&F's concepts in mind (it is always good to find where different approaches meet). But often I dance in tight spaces where my main concern is making sure the girl doesn't crash into anyone, so often I keep my frame tight and in because there's not room for anything else (when I asked Skye about tight spaces, he says you can keep your elbow bent and still have a completely relaxed frame, but that it's much easier to teach a relaxed frame by letting the arm straighten. Adam Lee, who is also a strict no-bent-elbower, suggested having your body turned to the left a bit so even though your arm is fully extended, the follow is still pretty close to you).

And thus here I am, weight slightly shifted forward onto the balls of my feet, back straight, knees bent, arms sometimes relaxed, but totally ready to learn that all of this isn't quite right.

The process never ends.

(I'd like to explain how a lot of these concepts came together for me when I worked on my draw and rock step, but this is already way too long so I'll stop for now.)