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Photo by Shane Karns
There is an age old debate in social dance scenes. When, if ever, is teaching okay on the dance floor? Ask a dozen different dancers and you’ll probably get a dozen different replies. Some people forbid it outright, some people feel like it’s their duty. Most people fall somewhere in between. Here we’ll discuss the merits of both ends, as well as the most common solutions to the issue.
On the Dance Floor
In many dance scenes, any kind of teaching on the dance floor is considered rude. Especially if there are lessons before the dance, many blues scenes try to keep a clear line between class time and dance time. In these scenes, people just want to have fun during dances. When the music starts and the lights dim, you go into social mode. You want to see your friends, talk to people, dance and have a good time. Learning something more is the last thing on your mind. This is also true of teachers, who frequently just want to dance like everybody else, instead of teaching everyone who dances with them. In addition, not everyone has a thorough grasp of dance mechanics. When people start teaching on the dance floor, you get well meaning dancers giving lessons in dance technique that is anywhere from slightly off, to dangerous. While we do not all need to be perfect, technical dancers, discouraging instruction on the dance floor can help minimize passing on dangerous habits. (Dips and tricks are the thing most often taught on a dance floor.) Finally, discouraging teaching also discourages unsolicited feedback. There is nothing worse, for a new dancer especially, than being told after a dance about all the things they need to fix. So many scenes have discouraged any kind of teaching, in order to create an environment that is more welcoming for their dancers.
Some dance scenes go the other way and actually make teaching on the social floor an expected and regulated thing. Often called practicas or blues labs, these sessions range from formal dance and feedback sessions with a moderator, to something that looks like a normal dance, but started the night with a quick lesson on how to give and receive feedback. A benefit to these is the spirit of learning they foster. Dancers in these scenes can give and receive feedback gracefully, in a way that is incorporated into the fun, rather than diminishing it. This spirit also allows scenes, especially small scenes without access to professional instruction, to continue growing and improving when they would otherwise stagnate. Practicas are also used as a community building tool, fostering a sense of collaboration and ownership by everyone involved, often helping with retention in those same, smaller scenes.
In the Middle
Most dances around the country fall somewhere in the middle. Some allow teaching in their code of conduct only if a partner is doing something dangerous or uncomfortable. In some scenes it is rude to offer feedback, but if feedback is asked for, it is kosher to give it. When you come to a new scene, check in with the host or organizer of the dance you are attending. They should know what the implicit or explicit code of conduct is for that particular dance and can help you navigate whatever the rules and expectations for dance floor teaching may be.
So You Want to Grow Your Blues Community (or How to Help your City Catch the Blues)
By Pavel Tsinberg, San Diego-ish.
I live in a city that is better known for its fish tacos and draconian beach rules than for being a stronghold of blues dancing. We don’t suffer from a lack of blues bands, just haven’t really developed a thriving blues dance community. A little while ago, our only consistent blues (dance) venue ended its run and, coincidentally, some of the stronger dancers left town or sashayed into semi-retirement. My dance world developed a void, and I got involved to spread to word. Below are some thoughts on aiding and boosting the local blues scene.
Form a committee (yep, shades of Parks and Recs)
While the committee is not the end goal, it is a cornerstone to forming and executing successful growth strategy. A couple of like-minded individuals got together and contacted fellow dancers based on experience, reputation, willingness to put in the effort (thus including some newer, hungrier dancers), and ability to work within a group. Naturally, there were growing pains; our group went through a number of format and personnel permutations before settling on a formula that worked.
Create promotional/informational material (do people still use the internet?)
We live in the information age, so creating a web presence is paramount. Luckily, there is no shortage of people willing to be web masters, and, at the very least, Facebook is a very easy to use tool for promotion and organization purposes. And while it’s nice to have a beautiful, all encompassing page that includes history of dance and the like, the priority should be given to information pertaining to local dances: calendar of events, links to instructors, etc. As a final piece of self promotion, we printed out simple business cards with links to the web and Facebook pages, and the usual anonymous email address for questions.
Patronize a venue (well aren’t you a cute little dance floor)
The original idea of creating a brand new blues venue was eventually shelved as not being feasible in the short term. There just weren’t enough dancers to pay for space rental, and bars wouldn’t work since very few of the local dancers pay for drinks. We settled on setting up blues rooms at regular lindy venues, where we teach basic classes, and promote and demonstrate blues. I find that lindy hoppers are the lowest hanging fruit for seeding a blues scene (but that’s probably a topic for a separate article).
Follow up on the interest with blues bombs (social dancing to live music!)
This started out really small; just a few people getting together to dance for local blues acts. The main point was to create a sense of community and fun. Eventually, two couples became three, then…, some kind of numerical progression. We now organize well attended blues bombs almost every week. And so the joy spreads through live music.
Further solidify through practicas and house parties (all work and all fun)
Since we currently don’t have a consistent source of blues classes, we made an effort to increasing the overall blues skill through monthly practicas. At first, we kept them small, limited mostly to committee members and a few select friends. Once the format and location were worked out, practicas were opened up to general public. This proved to be a good platform for beginner dancers to get comfortable with the style without the pressure of actual social dancing, and of course, a place for more experienced dancers to exchange ideas and hone their moves.
When a critical mass of dancers was reached, it was time for regular house parties. I find these to be most successful in spreading the joy of blues dancing: they are intimate, fun, comfortable and safe.
Bring in instructors (invasion of dance gypsies)
There are always great out of town instructors available for workshops, however, there needs to be enough people attending to make classes financially feasible. During the early stages of our efforts, there wasn’t enough confidence that the scene could support a solid workshop. Eventually, we were ready to host a pair of traveling instructors. And while there were plenty of learning pains involved in figuring out the workshop format and pricing that would work for the local scene, in the end it proved to be a resounding success (and fun). Now, I have the confidence that we could hold smaller, cheaper, more focused day long workshops and that the scene would support it.
Conclusion (hey, I’m a scientist)
Growing your local dance scene is basically all about elbow grease, promotion and friends. It’s hard work, but at the end of the day, you get carried off the floor by a gaggle of follows (and that one lead who photobombs it)
Consent is a topic that has popped up everywhere in the last year and blues dance communities all over the country are no exception. Consent is often brought up as a piece of the larger debate centered around how to make our dances safer and more welcoming places, for both new and existing members.
consent – to agree to do or allow something : to give permission for something to happen or be done
When we’re talking about consent in the dance community, there are two categories of things that ‘can be done’ that we talk about. Dance things and non dance things. This article will focus on the dance related consent issues.
The historical model for consent on the dance floor looks something like this. Men are supposed to ask women to dance. Men are often encouraged to ask non-verbally with an extended hand or enticing eyes (maybe borrowed from tango’s cabaseo). If a woman declines, she should give an excuse, then sit out the rest of the dance.
This historical model has some obvious problems. For one it disempowers women. Not only are women not allowed to dance whenever they want, but they are penalized for being discriminating about who they want to dance with. If the people you want to dance with happen to be slower than the creepy guy who always breaths on your neck, you’re out of luck. It breeds a culture of fear and mistrust in women that leads to things like refusing to make eye contact and secret signals to friends when you need a rescue from a would be dance partner. This does not help make our dance scene as welcoming as possible.
At the same time, there are good things about this model. The guys who really believe in the chivalry aspect will often escort their partner back to their seat after a dance, offer to get them water, etc. The model allows them to take on the role of gentleman, which can encourage a really wonderful sense of respect in how they treat the women in their community. Especially when looking at the men who come from tango they treat cabaseo as a way to put the power in a woman’s hands. She may decline the dances she doesn’t want, without the requirement of sitting out because nothing has been said.
So while the historical model has some unfortunate gender issues, there is a sense of politeness and respect that comes from it that can often be very nice.
New Consent Model
On the other end of the spectrum, we have a very new consent model coming primarily out of the recess community. This model prioritizes degendered initiation and explicit verbal consent. Everyone is allowed to ask everyone else to dance and verbal requests are strongly encouraged. This model also takes consent beyond just consent to dance and includes things like consent to be dipped and consent to dance in different positions. Also, a no may be given without a reason and without sitting out for the rest of the dance.
Just like the historical model, dancers often run into some issues here. For many people, asking for explicit verbal consent is scary. Especially if you can receive a no without explanation, that’s a really hard thing to handle and takes a lot of courage. Especially for new dancers, this often makes the community feel less welcoming. And asking for consent for everything, including small dips and close embrace often feels cumbersome. Finally, the degendering of the community may make some new converts uncomfortable. It is true that men especially are often uncomfortable dancing with other men, and may be uncomfortable being asked by men. This is something that may make the community less accessible to new members.
On the other hand, this model certainly has it’s benefits. It is much more empowering to women, since they can ask for dances they want, and aren’t limited by their choices not to dance with some people. An explicit consent model makes it much less likely that anyone’s boundaries will be crossed. It’s true that not everyone will be comfortable dancing in close embrace and it’s nice to have the chance to tell your partner that, rather than awkwardly holding them away with a hand on their shoulder every time they try.
Most modern blues scenes fall somewhere in between these two extremes. At most dances around the country, it is acceptable for women to ask people to dance. There is generally some combination of verbal and non-verbal dance requests, often varying based on the existing familiarity of the partners. Frequently people who know each other well will use non-verbal cues, while still using verbal requests with new people. And most modern blues scenes have become lax on the the ‘if you said no, sit out the song’ rule, though this one is still up for debate in some places.
Overall, the goal of discussing consent in dance scenes is to make those scenes as safe and welcoming for dancers as possible. How that safety is achieved is different across different scenes, and different approaches will resonate with different people. Figure out what makes you, as a dancer, feel safe and comfortable. Then engage with your partners and engage with your scene to help get those needs met. If need be, travel around and find a scene where the expectations of consent most closely match what you want to see. All these things will help make sure we each have safe, comfortable dance scenes for everyone.
Connection and self-improvement. That’s it. These two things are the driving forces behind a person’s transformation from casual dancer into lifer. When blues, or any activity, continually provides people with opportunities to feel connected and feel that they are improving themselves, those people (provided they are not getting more of these things from other sources) will be hooked. Great, but what actual actions do we take, what areas do we build up, to continually reinforce these feelings for ourselves and for others?
Social dance venues are places where people gather together at least once a week. (Think: church or writing group or community center.) Everyone has people they hope to see whenever they go out dancing, people they have wonderful, playful, or deep dances with, people they would say they care about. These connections form a community, and the relationships in this community often transform into real friendships as people find themselves chatting over a breakfast platter and milkshake at 3 a.m. at Denny’s after a long night on the social floor or in someone’s empty dining room. Maybe someone has a birthday party or just feels like socializing, so you get together for board games or cocktails or an art walk or Super Smash Brothers. Social dancing is social. The more a person can build up and integrate themselves into a community of dancers, the more devoted they will be to dancing.
Of course, we can’t forget about the dance itself. Within each and every dance we have the opportunity for self-improvement and connection. When people go out to dance socially, they are not there to judge one another. They’re there ready and planning to have fun; this gives you a safe space to play in. As long as you follow basic tenants of dance safety, you have immense freedom to play around, to try new, maybe goofy or ridiculous or unintentionally not-so-smooth things, the freedom to improvise. If you do something you think looks stupid, laugh at yourself. Your partner is more likely to laugh with you than at you. Each person is just trying to express him or herself. It’s through this experimentation and the practice of those moves you kind of learned in that workshop you were in yesterday that you will learn and improve your dancing.
As for connection, well, you can connect with your partner and the music and the floor. Heck, you can reach up toward the ceiling. There are all kinds of options. It’s that connection with your partner that is often seen as the core of the dance. For many, maybe most, people, this is why we go out partner dancing. Blues gives us the opportunity to connect with a complete stranger or a friend in a way that can feel intimate for a few minutes. Then, the song is over. Maybe you dance to another one; maybe you don’t, but there are no expectations. You exchange a polite goodbye and move on to the next exhilarating experience, sharing the emotions of the song or what you’re going through with your partner, being vulnerable, connecting with someone.
Exchanges are those usually weekend-long social dance gatherings filled with people from around the greater region or the globe. These are opportunities for you to meet new people and see what other people are doing with the dance. If you’ve been getting into a rut, these give you the opportunity to mix things up and not so much be lifted out of it by others as be inspired by them to lift yourself out. These are opportunities to maybe take a road trip with other dancers from your scene and bond with them and with people who live in a place you might otherwise never have traveled to. Exchanges are opportunities to host out-of-town dancers or be hosted. These can be opportunities to wake up in a platonic pile of people and then dance with one of them in the living room as the smell of bacon wafts in. The cuddle piles are optional and not always present, but regardless, these are chances to be involved in something active and exciting, and if you want to be more involved and ensure that you’ll meet people, you can usually sign up to volunteer your way in.
Workshops are your opportunities to learn tangible new things, whether these are new ways of thinking about musicality, methods to get yourself to relax into that connection, or actual moves you’ve never encountered before or have never known quite how to do yourself. Workshops push you. They are one of your best resources for improvement as a dancer. Go out, try new things, take notes if that is part of your learning style, watch video recaps later if the workshop included them. Workshops are opportunities to see something, watch it broken down, hear it explained, try to put it into your own body (usually with mirrors in front of you to show you how that process is going), and get instructor feedback (as they address problems they see the group is having or answer individuals’ questions). If you or someone you know sees a workshop they think is beneath their skill level, encourage them to take it in their non-dominant dance role. Try to get your feet in every workshop you can. It can only help.
Practicas and Labs
The practica is a simple idea that doesn’t exist in every dance scene. A practica is basically a group of people getting together and working on improving their dancing. Want one? Start it. Invite people over, clear out a space to dance, pull up YouTube, and go for it. This is your opportunity to break things down with the aid of a partner, practice, and learn. Have spotters if necessary, be safe, and push yourselves. Not feeling inspired to learn something you’ve seen? Then, just dance with someone there with the agreement that one person will give feedback to the other. This is called a blues lab. Practicas and labs build communities and improve the quality of the dancers in those communities. Best of all, assuming you don’t have to rent a venue, they are entirely free!
Private lessons can be pricey, so maybe you can’t afford them all the time, but they can feel like a godsend when you’re up against a wall and nothing else seems to be working to move you forward. Look at the people you wish you could dance like, give them some money, and ask them to teach you how they do it. Be specific if you can. What is it you want to learn? Or what is it you want to unlearn? Ask for strategies. You’re not going to come out of it as a carbon copy of that admirable instructor, but that’s not what you really want anyway, and you will almost definitely come out of the experience with at least one revelation about how you dance or what you can do to improve your dancing. Instructors are people too, so this is a social experience as well, and maybe (hopefully) you’ll be less hesitant to ask this instructor to dance next time you see him or her on a social floor. (Side note: Always ask the instructors to dance. They are there to have fun too. They are not “out of [your] league.”)
Learning Different Dances
This last bit is especially useful for fusion dancing (also known as blues-fusion or alt blues), but it can be useful for traditional blues dancing as well. If you feel like you’ve hit a ceiling and can’t seem to progress to the next level in your dancing, go take a class in another style. If you are a fusion dancer, you may be able to fuse the new moves you learn into your dancing. If you are a traditionalist, you may learn or find more enforcement of fundamentals of posture, balance, floorcraft, body alignment, or other useful skills. Going out and learning something new allows you to look at your primary dance form from a new vantage point.
All of these areas are simply options for some of the ways you can build yourself and those around you into lifers. I’m sure there are more possibilities out there, so go out, discover, do!