Header Photo by Ashlee Duncan
All things start small. You and I both know shortcuts to success are for those flirting with laziness- though we all wish for them on occasion. Especially those who’s time limitations pinch away their freedom to procrastinate- not entirely a bad thing.
In dance, like everything else in life there are principles that hold everything together. Eyes that see are no match for eyes that see through. Prepare to see through the illusion of complication.
I want to plant an idea in you to start viewing yourself as a master in seed form after reading the insights in this article or taking my class in person. Let’s begin analyzing my method on reproducing lindy hoppers quickly.
Below will be my more elaborative teaching approach/examination on what lindy hop is at its most elemental form. This article will elucidate the specific methods I use to empower those wanting to master lindy hop as a student and teacher.
Readjusting your gaze towards principles will accelerate your learning curve, and eliminate unrealistic expectations. Trust me, there is no way I could have attend over 105 dance events and trained over 2500 hours in four years worth of time without focusing on principles.
Embracing principles will liberate and inspire you to gain good things the right way. Focusing on rules will plant seeds in your mind to break them- in many cases with the wrong attitude, and for the wrong reasons, missing the greatest value in the process.
In my classes my first goal is to communicate my expectations and the truth about the learning process. I compare what my students will learn to being an intern in college, while both my partner and I are doctors assisting them in a lab.
This is all so that they can shift their perspective of us from police officers to people who can empower them to be effective in the real world- so that when they graduate (metaphorically) and go into the “wild,” they don’t kill anybody.
My second goal is to get them to take action on simple things fearlessly. This is a difficult task, since popular culture suggest you need to know everything before you take action. This philosophy is completely contrary to reality- an invisible mental barrier canceling anyone’s attempt at mastery. Maintaining simplicity is key, and can be challenging when one lacks understanding.
I like to look at swing dance as three specific pillars working harmoniously, that if removed will make mastering or teaching lindy hop a complicated task. These 3 things are fundamental- much like taking a shower every day.
Also I might add that there are plenty subcategories under these three pillars that are not fundamental- similar to getting a massage every day, they are more preferential. Below are the pillars that I highlight in exact order.
Firstly, “Rhythm” is the foundation like any building- it must be solid in order to hold the entire structure erect.
That word means many different things to many people. Though when I explain it to someone learning how to master lindy hop quickly, I must illustrate what it looks like- so that there is a mutual understanding of the word we are using to build our foundation upon.
If I don’t explain what I mean by that word rhythm, any perspective will suffice to the student. Some might think a clay foundation, others might think a gravel foundation, but unfortunately I’m implying a concrete slab.
Without explaining my definition, I will undermine my entire attempts at simplicity- opening the gate for a barrage of questions asked in an atmosphere of nervousness.
Once I show them what rhythm is, I then illustrate and define 2 tools that will help them move around in rhythm freely with practice. The first tool is the hammer. I like to define it after having them imitate me as the “rock step.”
The next tool I refer to is the nail. After having them demonstrate with me, I like to define it as “triple step.” Here’s how we make it easy to do.
Most everyone in the class will do that without asking questions – much like a seven-year-old. After that we all hold hands in a giant circle and I put a rhythm pattern together. Rock step, triple step, rock step, triple step.
You will have people mess up, but most will try their best to work together since we are in a giant circle exposed to each other.
If you do this exercise and people are having a good time with smiles, you have won. You have set a precedent for mastery, without them even knowing it. Here is a chart of their success curve in process:
The next fundamental principle I share is called “Shapes.”
Shapes, in the context of swing dance are what we make when two bodies come together and move around.
Here is a big warning: Your students will be tempted to focus more on shapes than the rhythm, as they increase their knowledge. I tell my students repeatedly that the rhythm is more important than the shapes. Shapes are what you make “moving” around with the rhythm. But here’s an example of why we do not focus on shapes as our first principle.
Before we come together, we are solo dancers with independent wills. As soon as we connect, we become one body sharing energy at different points. This new connection demands clarity of one’s purpose in the union as we move around creating shapes, so that dysfunction is avoided.
It takes two people to come together to make a new body. But once the bodies are connected and begin to move, the administration of their purposes are different.
The leader: sets things up for the other part of the body, and is the initiator of the energy.
The follower: absorbs the energy and continues until it runs out, or until something changes.
I really emphasis this concept when it is time to take our simple shapes and make them come alive with rhythm. Here’s my 30 minute LindyHop lesson that shows you the common shapes that we do in LindyHop that I teach to beginners (look for the link in the greeting email.)
When examining both roles from this perspective, the follower is in control of the dance- since they control the energy absorbed. If they don’t want to move, the dance is over. It won’t matter how shiny the smile, how talented the leading, or how many moves the leader may know- the dance stops or continues with the follower.
It is much easier to start something than it is to persevere and finish. Understanding this life principle will help followers develop the right perspective in class. In class, followers learn a nice theory about following, but are mainly learning to lead since they are seeing everything the leaders going to set up.
It is a great challenge for maturity- so we have to help followers focus on the things they can change in class, so they can develop following skills on the social dance floor naturally over time. When they understand this dilemma in context, the classroom experience is more fruitful, and immediate self correction and empowerment starts to occur.
If we don’t explain this dilemma, the majority of questions asked by followers will be questions leaders should be asking, or a misunderstanding of the fundamentals and ones roles in the relationship.
From my view and experience, here are the most elemental skill sets that a follower can discover and understand in class. When they know these components, self correction in class can happen immediately even though perfection will occur over time.
Followers skill sets take longer to mature:
–Keep one’s feet underneath their shoulders to make rock stepping and triple stepping easy in rhythm.
–Ignore the urge to create energy and focus on absorbing and matching the energy given to you.
–Stay in rhythm, it will keep you accountable to gravity making it easier to match energy and execute your “rhythm tools”.
–Stay on a line when moving with the energy.
These are the main tools a follow can be made aware of in class, and can slowly make adjustments on their own. When you focus on fine tuning these concepts, you will mature. If you focus on obtaining the end result you will drift further away from mastering how to follow- inadvertently developing a leader mindset instead of a follower perspective.
Be more concerned about how your part of the body needs to “be”, so that the leader can determine where the entire body needs to “go.”
If you omit any of the above principles, it will complicate your ability to share energy with another body with ease. They will have to take “care of you instead of dance with you.”
People will say these same things different ways. But again this has been my effective approach. These are the same fundamental elements that make it easy to absorb energy, move with it until it expires or something changes.
Some people would like to debate you on the importance of the above principles more than their ability to actually do them well.
Talking more than doing is the mark of one terrified to take action “after” instructions are clear.
They know how to tell you everything wrong, but can’t tell you how to get what is right with simplicity. It’s ok. You want to be that minority who will master lindy hop quickly by doing the simple easy things perfected overtime. Just like babies who master walking without the capacity to read, or debate about it.
There are plenty of nuances to add, but again they are extensions of the main principles- not important enough to overshadow or replace the foundational pillars. Don’t waist one minute of energy on theory, semantics, or debating. It is much easier to give birth than it is to raise the dead. Do you want to reproduce lindy hoppers quickly or slowly? Just put my conclusion to the test, or teach it to a new person and watch how fast they mature over time.
The Leader skill set is different:
–Communicate with “clarity and lack of pain.” This promotes freedom and exploration of what “can” happen instead of what “can’t.”
–Wait for the follow after leading. This will help you become more aware of the energy you are transmitting, so that you can control it more efficiently over time.
-Master moving in rhythm with rock steps and triple steps. It’s harder to do less when you are first learning. As you mature, variations will birth out of your personality trying to avoid repetition- expressions of your unique fingerprint. For example: Intensity changes, stretch, syncopations, slides etc.
Again I will reiterate that it’s easy to start something without pain, but it takes maturity to communicate with clarity and with intention as a leader. Over time you will develop the mentality of being one body with two distinct parts. Your partner is not a thing to process moves on- they are the other part of the body, so take care of them as if they are your body.
Since leaders are responsible for setting things up, it’s very important to know the kind of personality you’re connected to. You will learn that by creating space for the other part of the body to express itself. If that person is talkative and you don’t let them talk, they will talk over you. If they are more reserved and you give them too much opportunity to talk, the conversation may have an awkward silence.
Either way you will have to listen to the personality that is connected to you, and be aware that you are responsible for initiating conversation- so have dialogue together don’t just talk at your partner. The dance can still work even if you talk the entire time, but in my opinion it’s not being considerate.
The one thing that you will not be able to control – as much as you would like to, is the follower being able to do “their fundamentals.” Don’t forget that you will have to work with the skill sets connected to you. Think first about the skill sets that you both have together, not just your own.
If your partner is not staying on a line, matching energy, staying in rhythm, or taking small steps- there is nothing you can do about it. The move will not work if they don’t work- forcing the idea, will put you and your partner in danger of creating pain. Be patient, you may not be able to do as much with them, make something beautiful together and take care of both of you.
The last principle that I cover is a culmination of the effect of what happens when a swing “body” does the first two principles.
Momentum is the echo effect of one body responding to another.
Remember that over time you will learn how to master this. I like to refer to momentum as being the people entering and exiting a building once it has been built. It’s the last thing that happens after the foundation, (rhythm) and structural designs (shapes) are in place.
Most of the time when we highlight the rhythm and start moving in shapes we simply explain why momentum is happening- we don’t have to teach them how to make it happen.
Much like why gravity pulls you back to earth after jumping. Teach them to jump, (Rhythm) bend their knees and use their arms to help, (shapes) and gravity (momentum) will pull them back to earth.
It’s cause and effect. If there are problems or misunderstandings it usually has to do with forgetting ones role as a lead or follow, or the growing pains of maturing ones individual skill sets.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon to watch. I can teach the same shapes to people who’ve been associated with swing dancing, and to brand-new people simultaneously. In many cases, those who know less about swing are able to understand the fundamental principles and apply them without anxiety. Much like a kid getting an iPhone for the first time vs. an adult.
It’s not that it’s something mystical, it’s just that if you focus more on these next categories more than the fundamentals it makes sharing energy harder.
Muuuuuuuusicality, syncopations, intensity changes, style, and swivels in all there varying meanings are a few of many subcategories within the dance. You don’t have to do any of those things to make the dance work. But if you focus on these things without the pillars, chances are you will be limited on what you can do with another body effectively.
For example: If you want to learn how to ride a bike by first learning jumps, popping willies, or focusing on your plethora of fancy gears, and you can- but you will be fundamentally unsound. I can take a beginner off the street and tell them just the rhythm part of the trinity, and within 2 dances they look as if they can dance. The only thing they can control is the rhythm aspect, while the leader moves in “shapes, causing the after affect of momentum.”
They may not know how to effectively control what they do with the energy when they receive it or the concept of continuing until energy runs out or something changes, and that is perfectly fine when social dancing- clarity of what is happening is what class is for. But, with those limitations and only understanding rhythm – I can still easily move them.
Rhythm, Shape and Momentum are as intrinsic to swing as peddling, steering, and balance are to riding a bike.
A follower who follows shapes without rhythm, when starting in the dance, will generally take big steps well past the width of their shoulders, and generally has a hard time matching how much energy. Again not every follow, but most. Similar to an ornate building structure with a precarious foundation- I would be nervous.
Rhythm will keep the follower accountable to gravity. Which in the case of mastering lindy hop quickly, is our friend. You can only move so fast as where your weight can be committed. Try jump robing with locked knees to illustrate this.
A leader who doesn’t communicate with clarity will frustrate the follow since they are depending on the leader to know what is going to happen next.
A follower who doesn’t carry energy down a line and instead does something else, will force the leader to protect the follow instead of dance with them. The leader will succeed in not creating pain, but over time the lack of clarity will stir internal frustration.
A leader whose focus is more on doing a shape “on” another body impatiently instead of that “other” body being part of “their” body- will simply miss out on the beauty and endless creativity of cause and effect.
So on and so on. The conundrum of complexity and frustration is uprooted when one shifts focus to the fundamentals, instead of blaming each other.
I teach the fundamentals in every class– expecting my students to become masters at lindy hop. To me they are masters in seed form when they know and begin apply the fundamentals. The difference between them and master dancers, is that the latter can apply the fundamentals more effectively.
I never assume that the fundamentals are understood. Everywhere I go, there are the exact same problems, followed by the same results when the fundamentals are understood.
The young and old who want to get better and apply the fundamentals with simplicity succeed. The students who ignore the simplicity and intrinsic nature of the fundamentals, are like someone who builds a building as they go. The building first is designed on paper before it’s built in reality- not the other way around. It’s from the bottom up, not the top down.
In order to master lindy hop quickly as a leader or a follower you will have to dance with someone who is more grounded in the fundamentals. If not, it will be the blind leading the blind. We are all in school, but we are just in different grades.
Your maturing process includes those who came before you and those that are just arriving. Everything that is happening to you, must also happen through you. You may understand the fundamentals more than a beginner – so dance with them.
You may be a master dancer and are stuck trying to mature dancers by teaching them the long journey of maturity that you endured without understanding the fundamentals.
Now that you’ve been exposed to a more simple success method, try something different. Just show them the fundamentals and let them mature through their process. I’m warning you, they will mature faster than you, so don’t be intimidated or jealous- be proud of their success, and help them master duplicating what they know quickly. You never know how that person will end up contributing to the overall value of the swing community in the future.
When I teach, my goal is to inspire my students to mature faster than what I did, if they want to. If you share the fundamentals it will allow your students to accelerate their learning curve, based on their own work ethic. They will be able to effectively self correct themselves, and sort non fundamental subject matter they may learn from others without confusion. All the extra subjects they will learn, will help add their personality to the dance without taking anything away from it.
I’m excited for you, and can’t wait to hear feedback about your community exploding with mature Lindy hopper’s. If you want more dance related articles, follow the blog via email and get access to the Dance Resource Library.