Swing 101 — Beginning Your Swing Dance Education
You can learn to swing dance via many different methods: classes, workshop weekends, private lessons, or your own social dancing and study of clips. But before we look at these methods in detail (in the next episode of Swing 101), we wanted to talk about learning to swing dance in general. So, here are three pieces of advice as you begin your learning journey.
1. Start honing your most important tool: body awareness.
No matter how you decide to learn how to swing dance, your most important learning tool is, and always will be, body awareness.
But first you have to begin honing your tool. Because body awareness is what most beginner dancers don’t have much of, unless they’ve danced other dance forms for extended periods of time or have done a whole lot of athletics. Even then, swing will often require subtly different forms of body awareness than any other activities require. (People who have only danced ballet, for instance, are usually quick at learning movements and steps, but often have difficulty with the African influences in the dance, such as the downward pulse.)
Why is body awareness so important? Because one of the most important aspects of improving at something is knowing the difference between what you are doing and what you wish to do. And awareness is how you know that difference.
For instance, let’s say you throw a ball at a basketball hoop, and it falls short. Noticing this, you decide to add more power to the next throw. That one goes too high. So, now you throw with more power than the first throw, but less power than the second. The ball goes into the basket. Success.
This act takes several different forms of awareness: first, it takes the simple awareness of seeing what happened to the ball after it left your hands. Second, it takes the awareness of how much power and angle you’re putting into your throw. Without being able to correctly interpret these things, you wouldn’t be able to get better at basketball very quickly.
This is the same process we use to get better at dancing, except new dancers have a few disadvantages over those who are trying to learn how to shoot a basketball. First off, even doing a basic step well requires being able to move our body in subtle yet complex relationships with our arms and feet, and in connection to our partner, who is trying to do the same. It’s a lot of different things to be aware of.
Secondly, the more detailed your awareness, the better, and it’s very hard to get detailed visual feedback on what you’re doing in a classroom. For instance, in your first beginner class, there might not have been mirrors or someone videotaping you. So you tried to do what the instructor asked, but you probably couldn’t tell, for example, what you looked like while you were doing your triple steps other than what you saw looking down at your feet. (Which means you looked like a person looking down at their feet.)
Thirdly, chances are your partners in your beginner class are new as well, so they probably don’t have the ability to give detailed, helpful feedback.
All of this is why our number one piece of advice for beginner students, period, is to start developing your body awareness. As soon as you can. How do you do this? Here are a few ways:
Not to be cute, but simply being aware of body awareness helps a lot. So, when you dance, or take a class, try to focus on envisioning what your body is doing, and what it feels like to do it that way.
There are two basic kinds of awareness partnership dancers have — awareness of how they feel (which we’ll call kinesthetic awareness), and awareness of how they look (visual awareness). (One could argue we also try to have an awareness of others around us, which is very important, but it doesn’t really pertain to this post.)
To begin building your kinesthetic awareness, which will help with dancing comfortably with partners, start by playing with your “dials” when you social dance or practice. This is how you get your own feedback on the feel of your dancing. Conduct science experiments by seeing what happens if you give more energy, or if you give less. If you hold more tension or less in that arm. If you move this distance, if you move that distance, etc. Notice what changes by doing so. Not only will you get useful feedback about action and reaction (which is a great deal of what partnered swing dance is all about), but you will also build body awareness by simply trying different levels.
Ask for specific feedback from your dance partners. This is how you get outside feedback on the feel of your dancing. After a dance, say “Hey, I’m working on this one thing, can I ask you about it?” Ask a few people so that you get a wide variety of feedback to guide you. Just, you know, don’t do this every dance. (After fifteen years of dancing, I still usually ask for feedback a couple times a night on something I’m trying out.)
For visual awareness there are two great resources a dancer has. For starters, Use mirrors, but do so carefully. For instance, whenever you walk past a mirror, test yourself. Close your eyes, strike a pose or do a dance step, freeze, and then look in the mirror. (This is why it takes me a long time to try on clothes at the mall.) Does what you’re doing match what you thought you were doing in your head?
(Note: Always use mirrors to build awareness, not to substitute for awareness. By which I mean, once you use a mirror to correct yourself, close your eyes and envision what that correction feels like, and try to do it without looking at the mirror. That way, you’re not depending on the mirror to create the desired effect; you’re depending on your body awareness.)
Finally, try videotaping yourself. This may be one of your biggest battles of dancer self-esteem (don’t worry, every swing dancer I know has had some battles with dancer self-esteem at some point). And, there might be people who would strongly disagree with our advising you to use video this early in your learning process. Because doing so may make you sad or embarrassed that you don’t look like what you’d wished you looked like in your head. And you will give up all hope and instead of dancing turn to force-feeding yourself hoagies on your couch until your body is found when the neighbors complain about the smell.
But there simply isn’t a way to get more realistic visual feedback on your dancing than what video can supply — and realistic feedback is exactly what builds body awareness. Just keep reminding yourself that the sooner you get used to looking at yourself dance, the sooner you’ll be able to fix things and look the way you wish.
Now then. Occasionally I’ll be giving a student a tip in a private lesson, and before they have had a chance to try that tip more than once or twice, they ask “Okay, what next?” I then know exactly the next tip they will need if they are ever going to get better at swing dancing. And it’s this:
Trust me when I say that you don’t want to try to learn swing dance quickly — you want to learn it well. Ironically, trying to learn it quickly is the slowest way to actually get good at it. That’s what these next two tips address…
2. Don’t try to juggle.
Your conscious mind is not a very good juggler — nor is it supposed to be. That’s the job of the subconscious, what we nickname “muscle memory.” Yet when people learn how to swing dance, many have the counterproductive desire to force the conscious to juggle several balls at one time.
For instance, let’s say I am about to practice, or am out social dancing, and I decide I’m going to work on something. So I decide to think about this one tip I just got, as well as this other tip from a lesson earlier in the night, and, what the hell, this additional piece of advice I haven’t had time to work on yet from a few weeks ago…and I keep adding more things. I guarantee you it will not go well. The more “balls” my conscious tries to juggle, the quicker it’ll drop them.
And this is nothing to be ashamed of, because one does not get better at things by having the ability to mentally juggle dozens of balls. (Again, leave that to the subconscious, which does that fine without your help.) One gets better at things by being really, really, really good at simply juggling one or two balls at a time.
For instance, the next time you practice, try focusing on one thing until it becomes familiar and you feel you’ve gotten the hang of it. (Note: this is usually a dozen more times than people with ADD think it is.) For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re going to concentrate on making sure your rock step comes from your center moving, not just your feet. So, you do a couple dozen rock steps moving through your center (bonus points for using a mirror or video camera to check up on how it’s going).
Then focus on another thing until it becomes familiar: let’s say, keeping a nice flow from one triple-step to the next (so that the feet don’t stick to the floor after each one). After you’ve done that several dozen times to make sure you’ve really got it, then focus on putting them together: moving your center for your rock step, and then flowing through your triple-steps afterward.
At each stage, you’ve only focused on one thing at a time, even if that one thing is “combining the other things I’ve begun to familiarize myself with.” The second you try to combine things that you aren’t familiar with, those things start to demand your focus — you begin trying to juggle more balls.
So, you see, focusing on one or two balls at a time allows you to truly focus on what those balls are and will make every moment you do so very productive. The ones who try to juggle too many spend most of their practice time just chasing dropped balls.
Finally, one last piece of advice on being a beginner learner — or any level of learner, actually — in general:
3. Concentrate on the journey, not the destination.
Mastering Lindy Hop, Balboa, Collegiate Shag, or Solo Jazz is not going to happen in just a few months; there are no short cuts. If you spend so much time impatient to get to being a “great” dancer, you will be annoyed that it takes a long time, you will find practicing frustrating, and you will not find the happiness worth it to get there.
Instead, enjoy the steps you have mastered, and the ones you’re just now learning. Wallow in them, find the joy in them — because any dance step worth doing should inspire some level of joy. The fundamental steps and movements and basics are just as fulfilling in their own way as more advanced material — in fact, the basics are usually at the heart of the most advanced material.
In short, keeping in the present moment is not only how you become a Jedi, it’s how you actually enjoy being one. So, no matter what level you or others would describe your dancing as, enjoy being the dancer you are.