Category Archives: social dance

Dear Male Dancers Who Follow… an Open Letter.

I am currently social (swing, blues, fusion*) dancing on a sprained wrist, and as a result, I caught some of my own bias around role selection and gender. Then I wondered whether all of it was really coming from me. Having discussed the phenomenon with dancers from all over the spectrum, this is my response…

 

Dear male dancers who follow,

Thank you. Thank you for knowing the value of both roles, thank you for learning the unexpected, thank you for being some of the best dances I’ve had on the social floor and some of the best students in classes. Thank you for starting discussions about gender in social dance and then going out there and practicing for change. Now, let me help you with something.

I’ve noticed that when I’m out social dancing, and I know I’m not the only one who does this, I usually switch/lead women and I follow men. I have a lot of fun with people who don’t fall under that particular binary, but that’s another letter for another day. This isn’t because the men on my scene don’t follow, in fact I’m really proud of how happy the majority of our dancers are in either role, but the pattern still remains. A year ago I was asked by a lovely male switch dancer why I usually ended up in the follow role with him, and I came up with a couple of suggestions. Now I return to the question, I’ve boiled it down into three main ideas of how leads, follows and switches of all genders create, and could help address, these lingering threads of disparity.

 

State a Clear Preference

Early in my leading career, I remember being asked to dance by several male leads who wanted to show me that I wasn’t as good as they were, so they could play teacher. I was also asked to dance a lot by very nice dancers of all the genders who thought it would be most polite to give me the “lead, follow, or switch?” option, when they really only had one option that worked for them. Side note: it is, really really, ok to have a favourite role that you prefer to dance socially; whether that’s in general, on a particular night, or to a particular song. It’s ok to take only one role in classes. I’d encourage you thinking about why a particular role is your favourite, and what you could get from the other, but human beings have preferences, and dancing is all about enthusiastic consent.

Back to the social floor. What this behaviour leads (hah) to, is a bunch of switches who don’t actually know whether you are really giving them the option to lead/follow/switch, or not, and who will default to offering you the role you are statistically likely to want to assume. If you switch later, all well and good. From the best of intentions, we are trapping ourselves in roles in ways we might not intend.

The obvious answer to this is to state a clear and honest preference for what we want to do. “Would you like to dance?” “Yes, I would love to follow.” Tells me instantly how to make a dance work for you, and means I don’t have to listen so hard for the subtext of “but I meant I wanted to lead.” It also means that if you tell me you want to follow and I don’t have lead energy, I can let you know where I stand too. If you’ve agreed to a switch dance, and you start off leading, take a little but of initiative when it comes to transitioning to a following role. The happier you are with your choice to follow, the happier I will be about leading you!

 

Create Connection

A general failing of the social dance scene in general, at least in my own experience, is that we don’t spend as much energy teaching follows how to follow as we do teaching leads how to lead. I say energy rather than time because even in those scenes that ask everyone in the class to try every role in every class-section, the information being given to leads is usually clearer, more mechanical, more active and more accessible. Follow information tends to be sense-based, intuitive, passive, and esoteric. I mean I get it: you don’t want a load of follows who anticipate, but it does mean that transitioning from lead to follow is difficult to get the hang of.

The most common issue I notice when leading a male follow is that they don’t know how active a follow has to be in creating the connection. As leads, they feel a follow move in response to their suggestion, but not what the follow did in order for the suggestion to get through in the first place. This is particularly the case in move-based classes, where the work of the follow is not always made explicit.

On the dance floor this tends to go one of two ways: The first option is that you sit and wait for me to move you, which, with me being all of 100lbs, just isn’t going to happen. The second option is that you attempt to relax completely – jelly-limbed and frameless – and drift out from under my attempt at connection.

In case you haven’t been in a class where this has been said: the connection in social dance is created by both dancers. As a lead, you use intention and frame to offer suggestions to your follow. As a follow, you use intention and frame to respond to those suggestions. I call the intensity of that mutual intention tone, and it usually works best if the follow’s tone is under, but only slightly under, the lead’s. Posture/placement of limbs is also important, but varies enough from dance to dance that I’m not going to go into it here. As leads you know this, and you do your part. As follows, you don’t have the information/don’t have the brain space/forget.

This is something much more easily explained in practice rather than words, so if you feel like you love to follow but it’s really just not working for you, go find a dancer you like and ask them to give you some feedback on how you’re creating connection. Acknowledge the work of the follow, and learn to love it.

 

Balance the Fun Equation

Unless you are dancing with your social doppelgänger, who has been to every class and dance you have, and danced to all the same songs and took all the same breaks you did, one of the dancers in a partnership is going to have more experience leading than the other. One will have more experience following. It might even be the same person who has both! This is all ok and wonderful. What is does impact, however, is something I refer to as the Fun Equation: which dancer needs to go in which role(s)** in order to maximise the enjoyment that both dancers can get out of this dance?

Sometimes the Fun Equation makes a choice of roles seem obvious, but it also creates pressure for people to stay in the role they’re good at, rather than trying something new. We’ve all struggled through being a beginner at some stage of our dancing lives, and we all want to keep that awkward, flailing time to a minimum, especially if we know that in another role we could be having smooth, beautiful dancey fun times.

So my final invitation to all the dancers reading this, is to think about how you can re-balance the fun equation when one, or both of you are in your less-comfortable role. Are you going to talk? Not talk? Keep it slow? Make it silly? Have a spontaneous rock star breakaway session in the middle? These are, of course, all tricks you can employ when one or both of you is an absolute beginner in any role… again, dancing is all about enthusiastic consent, however long you’ve been doing it.

 

So male dancers who follow, thanks again for all the work you’ve put in to your dancing. Keep dancing! I hope this letter helps you have more, better dances, whichever role you happen to be in at the time.

 

*There are so many more social dances out there than swing, blues, and fusion, but it’s so much easier just to type “social dance” each time. Forgive me.

 

**Switching can also be the most fun. The most fun.

A Holiday Guide to Dancers

It’s that wonderful time of the year: presents have been received; the carols have finished, and now comes long stretch of parties and socialising that lasts until the New Year. Here at the headtail connection we know that dancers can be difficult to entertain. We don’t like to sit down. We often have cruel and unusual dietary requirements. But most of all, we’re really hard to talk to.

I know there are plenty of people reading this blog who know, in the very depths of their soul, that this festive season their job will be reduced to a comparative analysis of So You Think You Can Dance. Again. You’ll have relatives who can’t differentiate your successes from your failures, and friends who think your backbreaking job is the last phase of an extended hobby.

Never Fear!

This year, all you have to do in advance is present your friends and family with this handy hosting guide.

Those of you here in a panic because you have a dancer coming to dinner, this is your one stop solution to stress-free entertaining: simply work out what kind of dancer you’re dealing with (spotter’s tips included), and follow these very easy prompts.

Ballet Dancerindex1

Look out for: standing on one foot while the other sticks turned-out to the side.

Wearing: a draping cardigan and heels.

Most likely to be eating: very very fast.

Favourite tipple: white wine.

Ideal Gift: pointe shoes.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: Do you have to watch your weight over Christmas?

Better: What are you excited about in the repertoire this season?

Best: What do you think we should do about the lack of female choreographers?

 

Contemporary Dancerinvertigo550

Look out for: contact improvisation with the furniture.

Wearing: stretch fabric and leggings.

Most likely to be eating: gluten free.

Favourite tipple: artisanal beer.

Ideal Gift: studio space.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: So what is contemporary dance?

Better: Whose work should I introduce myself to this year?

Best: How do you think the London/New York dance scene compares with Europe?

 

Academic Dancer index

Look out for: raiding your bookshelves.

Wearing: eye bags and a great scarf.

Most likely to be eating: vegetarian.

Favourite tipple: red wine.

Ideal Gift: ask to read their work.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: Can you actually get a PhD in dance?

Better: What good books have you read recently?

Best: What’s the best use of interdisciplinary methods you’ve seen this year?

 

Dance Teacherdance_teacher_mug

Look out for: absently-mindedly marking steps with hands.

Wearing: accessories with a school logo.

Most likely to be eating: at all hours.

Favourite tipple: gin.

Ideal Gift: a spotify subscription.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: Don’t you just wish you were performing?

Better: What are you proud of in your students this year?

Best: I hate that dance is losing ground as part of education, how could we do that better?

 

Swing Dancer7430eef44971a83cef30dfc6e499cf82

Look out for: bouncing in seat whenever anything with a swung rhythm comes on.

Wearing: vintage.

Most likely to be eating: paleo.

Favourite tipple: whiskey.

Ideal Gift: event passes.

 

Conversation Starters

Bad: Aren’t there better ways to get a man?

Better: When was your last exchange?

Best: Could you swing out to this?

 

Happy holidays readers!

 

If you’ve got another dancer you want to add to the guide, please leave suggestions in the comments.

An Optional Rotation

Another summer, another round of dance exchanges. Holes worn in all my socks, far too much coffee and trailing dusty footprints behind me home at night. But also another summer of “leads over here, follows over there,” having my arm yanked around and “Wow, you’re great! Have you done this before?!” We all know that’s it’s hard to look young and female on the dance floor.

But this isn’t, actually a post complaining about that, although it is a post about gender in the dance class. This is a practical solution to a problem I’ve heard a couple of instructors talk about: how do we handle role switching in the social dance classroom. Or rather, how can we maintain the optimum balance of friendly and welcoming, opportunity to learn, and amount of material covered when there are two roles in the room?

There are, obviously, multiple schools of thought on the matter. There are those who believe, for whatever reason, that people should pick a role at the beginning of class and stick to it all the way through. Which has the plus side of allowing people to really concentrate on what they’re doing, making sense to new arrivals, and avoiding left/right confusion (which is a real thing that happens even when you switch all the time – it might even happen more, or maybe that’s just me). There are also those out there who, again for whatever reason, ask every couple to switch roles during every rotation, making sure that everyone becomes fluent in the experience and technique of both leading and following, and allowing beginners who would usually wind up leading to relax and follow when they run out of moves – actually, that’s not just beginners either, I absolutely follow when I’ve run out of inspiration.

But what about the experienced dancer who knows that they just don’t feel in the mood for following this class? Or who’s in a class with a snazzy new trick move and wants to learn both sides? What about the lead who wants to try following in the early part of class, but doesn’t feel confident switching as the material gets more complicated? How do we advocate for switching IF PEOPLE WANT IT, while letting people make choices about what they need from their own dance experience? How do we make the most out of classes while letting people try more than one part, whatever their experience level?

Well folks, I have the answer… or an answer… a method of rotation that’s working very well for me in my home scene that I though I would share with you all. It’s very simple. It goes like this: “We will do this thing twice. Put your hand up if this time you want to try it as a lead. Ok. People who want to follow please go and find a new friend to dance with.”

The pros:

  • People can decide whether they want to lead, follow, or switch, and they can change their mind for whenever they want, for however long they want.
  • It becomes as valid to stay in a role as it does to switch, and people learn to make good decisions about what they want from dancing and how they feel about it in the moment.
  • People can dip a toe in a new and scary role without having to commit to a whole class.
  • You get more of what you want out of your dance class, while being exposed to the choice of other things.
  • Classes can go at different paces and people can respond to that as they need to.
  • …. have I convinced you yet?

The cons:

  • People milling about the room in chaos, rather than traveling in neat circles.
  • …. I’m not sure of more.

There is a factor that is neither pro nor con that I’d like to consider: the milling about the room method of finding a new partner means that people may not dance with everyone, and if you have an odd number, there is no guarantee that sitting out time will be evenly shared. Ideally I would LIKE everyone to dance with everyone when they come to class, and I can use words to encourage that: “find a stranger,” “find someone you haven’t danced with yet,” etc. But my class is full of adults and if they want to ignore the hint they will ignore it. Waiting out is something I keep a better track of and I will shift pairs if someone looks like they’re going to miss a consecutive rotation.

As I said, this method is working really well for me in my home scene, and I believe that a number of other instructors have tried it. I’m not particularly interested (in THIS post) in the ethics of switching or not switching, but I would be interested in how it works for you practically. How does it work in partner dance forms that aren’t blues and swing? If you try it out, or if you can think of a strong reason NOT to try it out, either send me a message in the comments or through the Contact page, and let’s keep making social dancing better for everybody.

Introduction to comm lag – conversation magic!

Credit: I was introduced to the concept of comm lag by Ted Madry Andrew Smith, who are phenomenal social dance teachers.  You can keep up with Andrew at Life of a Southpaw.

Since then I’ve led numerous workshops, roundtables and excitable debates on the subject, and the concept has become so entwined with the management of my day to day life that I feel like a hard copy is worth putting out there for people to refer to. So whether you’re coming here having already talked about this with me, or whether you just want to try out my favourite way of improving your conversation/social interaction, this is a casually transcribed version of my introduction to comm lag. Enjoy!

What is comm lag?

Comm lag is the time it takes to parse and respond to communicated information. When someone asks a question, some people will reply almost instantly, where others will take a certain amount of time. The longer it takes, the longer your comm lag.

Obviously this will depend hugely on context: you’ll generally be able to respond quicker to “How are you?” than to “What were the five most significant moments of your life between the ages of 3 and 10?”… although people with fast comm lag will still usually answer both questions much more quickly.

Additionally, some people (in some contexts) will have negative comm lag: they feel as if they’ve understood what’s being said, and will respond before the speaker has finished. Sometimes this is more successful than others but, as with all ranges of speeds, none of this is prescriptively good or bad.

Even just given those three pieces of information, you probably already have some idea of whether you have fast or slow comm lag, or you already know some situations that can effect your speed. If you don’t feel like you know your own comm lag, or you want to give it a chance to appear, I’ll be adding some exercises shortly that you can try out. You also might have an idea of how your comm lag speed affects how you interact with other people, and how they interpret you, because comm lag can look like a lot of other things, which leads it to carry both positive and negative associations.

Wait a second, why is this on a DANCE blog???

Because dancing is communication. Because I’m passionately involved with the world of social dance, which leads me to think about socialising in general. Because dancers talk to each other. Because improvisation is a place where comm lag can manifest… and it can be a place where people can interact with a totally different comm lag style. Because as a dancer I have found comm lag to be useful, relevant and interesting to my practice. Because comm lag can be danced.

What is comm lag NOT?

Comm lag is not the same as introversion or extroversion, although I’m fairly sure there is some statistical correlation. What is definitely true is that we respond differently to individuals with fast and slow comm lag, and this can push them into particular social roles… roles they might not be best suited to or most comfortable occupying.

Traits associated with different types of comm lag:

Using a particular speed of comm lag can give an impression of your character. From group discussions, those impressions can be grouped as follows:

Positive Traits Negative Traits
Slow Comm lag Empathetic, attentive, understanding, respectful, community-focused. Slow, stupid, unfocussed, disinterested.
Fast Comm lag Smart, good leaders, enthusiastic, in-synch, capable. Brash, over-eager, disrespectful of groups.
Negative Comm lag Intimate…. fast comm lag x10. Arrogant, dismissive, bored.

The above may be true… or they may be how you are read regardless of your intention if you tend strongly towards a particular response speed. I have extremely fast comm lag, combined with an academic/articulate speaking style, so it’s very very easy for me to come across as butting in, taking over, and not really caring about what anyone else has to say. I also know that I’m likely to jump in and respond to questions or problems, even when others in the conversation are far more capable of answering, or more qualified to do so.

For my friends with slower comm lag, the opposite is true. Leadership opportunities, interview situations, and task management are socially geared towards people with faster comm lag. If someone jumps in before you have time to process, often you won’t get a say, and people assume you didn’t have anything to contribute. You come across as shy or anxious when you want to be social, and people think you need extra support when all you need is extra time.

So what can I do?

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that there are some good reasons to try and even out the comm lag divide. At the same time, comm lag is not something you do AT other people, it’s your particular comfort zone within a conversation. It’s much easier for people with fast comm lag to slow down than it is for people with slow comm lag to speed up, but speaking from experience it’s uncomfortable and somewhat frustrating… so what are some strategies that don’t require people to make long term changes to their speech?

For everybody:

  • Make your comm lag explicit. “I’m jumping really fast – I love what you’re saying, but can I check that you’re finished?” “I tend to take a minute to process, can you give me that time?” If people know what’s going on, it’s easer to accommodate it, and less likely to be read poorly.
  • Pick a comfortable medium. Technology is a great way of letting people take the time they need to respond. If it’s important to have a conversation, re-route it to a medium that suits the speeds of everyone involved.

For slow comm-laggers

  • State your intention to answer by repetition or affirmation. “That’s a great question…. let me see… ok, here’s what I think.”
  • Ask for what you need. “I’m really excited about this topic, but I need a second to process, can you come back to me?”
  • Gesture. Nod, “hmmm”, lean in… show that you’re engaged and with a conversation.

Fast comm-laggers

Sorry guys, you probably have more work to do. In part because slowing down is much easier than speeding up, but also in part because I’m writing from the position of a fast comm-lagger, and I’m much more able to come up with things that seem to work for me.

  • Multi-task. Take notes, do your hair, look salient points up on google… give yourself practical, useful reasons to wait until the end of sentences or slow down your processing speed.
  • Validate. Remind yourself of the value of the person speaking, and the fact that they have a viewpoint different to yours. Obtain it…. all of it.
  • Invite. Use your speed to the advantage of others in a group by directing the conversation towards those with slower comm lag. If you’re going to grab the ball, make sure everyone gets to play.
  • Keep a tally. How often have you been the first to answer? How often have you heard other people speak? Should you do something about it?

What you shouldn’t do, is stress about it. For one thing, stress will probably exaggerate your comm lag in the direction it already tends. If I’m anxious I chitter like a hamster on caffeine (it’s TERRIBLE,) but you might just as easily end up freezing like a rabbit in the headlights. I like to talk about comm lag not only because I think it helps conversations better, but because it helps people understand me. I know that when people ask me to slow down, they really ARE talking about my conversation speed, and not implying anything about my attitude or character. I’m also hugely touched when my friends notice my own efforts to slow down for them, or when we can mutually appreciate the satisfaction of an explosive, perpetually interrupting bricolage of ideas.

Conclusion

As I said originally, this article is usually presented as a discussion, with opportunity for everyone participating to join in and talk about how they experience comm lag, and ways that it can work for them. It can be role-played and tried out physically. Hopefully everyone can come away feeling like they picked up some useful information. To that end, I welcome all commentary on this post… of course, in your own time.

p.s. If you’re interested in having an in-person discussion/conversation/facilitated workshop on comm lag, please use the links about to get in touch.

… it’s STILL not what you think…

A while ago I put up a post about a video from SF Globe that you can find here, which is useful to read before continuing this post.  Half an hour after putting up I received this comment:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 6.19.49 PM

and this is from one of MY favourite dance teachers/partners/friends.

My initial thought was “Oh dear god I’ve been horribly arrogant.” After all – I’d criticised SFG for failing to understand what was going on in the video by claiming ownership of a particular community… and here I was totally failing to recognise one of that community’s major figures.

For those interested, Jean Veloz is a living legend who was a star of  swing dance on the silver screen and a fabulous live exhibition dancer between the 1940s-80s, who then came out of retirement in the 90’s to continue being kickass at community events worldwide.  Admittedly I had to go and learn all of that after watching the two linked videos – particularly recommend the one from Groovy Movie.  You can learn more about Jean through her own website.

So… are they going to take my swing dancer card away?  Should I be embarrassed about not knowing the history of my practice?  I mean, I do for other dance forms don’t I?  But how much of that is being specifically a dance scholar in those styles?  I sat for a while after receiving that comment alternating between mortification and a ton of questions, some of which I think I have answers for, and some I’ll be posing to you.

At the end of the day, my social dancing is… umm… social!  It’s a practice that links me to a community, and one which I very much love.  But is my practical participation enough to identify me as a member of that community?  I mean, I know some of the historical/contextual information, but clearly I also have some very large holes – do they matter?  I’m sure that for some members of that community the answer would be “Yes.”  But would they be right?

So what defines this particular community’s membership?  Practice?  Knowledge?  Skill?  Contribution?  Investment in the values of the community?  Self-identification?  A mix of all of the above?

My hypothesis is that all communities have different rules, worked out from a combination of the social norms of participating members.  I’m going to show my linguistic side here when I say that there is a difference between community participation and community membership – but going to admit that I’m lost about where to draw the line.

Also, where are the boundaries of the community?  Swing dance has local, national and global chapters, as I’m sure do many practice-based social groups.  I’ve participated at all those levels, but where am I actually a member?  Given that I’ve just moved countries, do I have to be accepted by the Columbus community in some way before I can identify as belonging there?  What constitutes acceptance?

My ties are strongest to skill practice and to values: dance as a method of positive community building; dance that can be shared with everyone; dance that seeks communication with others.  I call myself a social dancer because I’m always somewhat carrying those values with me wherever I go, and because I can identify others who share those community values around the world.  So perhaps I can hold on to my swing dancer card for now…

…and I’m glad I got the chance to discover Jean Veloz and work towards not getting it wrong.

It’s not what you think…

Update: I wrote a follow up post in response to a comment received on this post.  You can find it here.

 

SF Globe… you got it wrong.

A few days ago this article popped up on my news feed: She Looked Like a Normal 90 Year Old. Then The Music Started. Oh My God.

Total click bait I know, but I was in the mood, and elderly people dancing always makes me smile even if they are being hijacked by a facebook algorithm or million… so I clicked it!

SF Globe… you got it wrong.

From looking at your website, I can see that you’re largely devoted to click-baity video and feel-good articles, and I’m not going to judge you for that.  But I am going to point out that you have, in this case misrepresented the facts of what your putting up for us to see.

It’s not that the woman in the video link isn’t a pretty damn cool dancer, she is!  Kudos as well to her for keeping dancing well into her nineties.  But this isn’t spontaneous birthday grooving, nor are the her guests so moved they can’t help but join in – some of them might not even know her name!  This is a formal community tradition that is probably happening in a town near you tonight, if you live anywhere in the U.S.A., the U.K., and probably a majority of places in Europe.  And it’s a community that I share.

Here’s what I can see from watching this video: this woman is a swing dancer – a social dance form.  She’s probably done it for a while now, since she knows lots of the step patterns and she’s got some great style going on.  Give me five minutes alone in a dark room with google and facebook and I could probably tell you exactly where she dances, and what days and times, but that would be creepy and stalkerish and NO.

But anyway.

Lots of social dance forms have a tradition at dance nights that if it’s been your birthday that week, you get to join a birthday jam.  Someone plays a song, and you dance with as many people at the event that can fit conveniently into that song.  I’ve been birthday jammed myself and I love it.  Some people love it so much that they chose to carry on the tradition into private birthday parties, especially when they have a lot of dancer friends.  There are cities and groups I can’t HAVE a party among without it dissolving into social dancing, and I am all kinds of ok with that – so I’m not going to argue with their statement that it’s her own birthday party, it could well be.  It’s not uncommon even for social dance scenes to THROW the birthday party of a particularly contributory member, or one who’s reached a significant age.

This woman, whoever she is, is much MORE to me than click bait.  She’s a representation of how communities can come together and enrich the lives of everyone part of them.  It’s a video about how dance can bring together disparate groups of people in the practice of a skill, and protect marginalised groups, such as the elderly, from loneliness and isolation.  It’s a powerful point in the favour of historical, social dance forms being maintained and practiced today, with absolute contemporary relevance.  SF Globe completely missed out on the chance to have any one of those great discussions with us, which is kind of disappointing even if I don’t actually read them regularly.  We could have educated people about the amazing, vibrant and powerful dance world, but we didn’t.

So I’m sorry, if you were expecting more from the link, but this woman isn’t some kind of unheralded Twyla Tharp, I’m sorry she just isn’t.  She’s a human being, who is part of one if not several cultures that allow her to bring joy and dance into the world of the people she socialises with, and I wish her absolutely all the best on her birthday.  I congratulate San Francisco on having some great dance in their area, and I’m sorry that story got put to one side in favour of the cheap click.

I don’t know whether I have to hammer the point home here, but just in case: you might not see culture when it’s happening.  You can make judgements that misrepresent people and ideas if you have a gap in your cultural knowledge.  That’s not necessarily your FAULT.  But if you’re publishing your evaluation of an individual out there for people to see, let’s try and contextualise what we’re seeing before we turn people into unnecessary click bait, rather than relevant contributors to something far richer, and far more worth talking about.  Please?

Rock out Twyla.