Essay by Bobby White
Edited by Chelsea Lee
Illustrations by Courtney Sieh
Ultimately, aren’t we all just looking for the most fulfilling dance?
And in a true partnership dance, fulfilling dancing is about other skills in addition to having good lead/follow technique and knowing moves and variations. These other skills are not often touched upon in classes.
One of the most important leading skills that isn’t emphasized much in the classroom, for instance, is listening. In fact, we would argue it’s one of the most important partnership dancing skills there is.
Here’s what we mean. The best swing dance leaders…
Listen to the music
Seems obvious, but you’d be surprised.
Part of the secret of being a musical dancer (leader or follower) is waiting for the music to tell you what to do. First the rhythm and feel of a song will start to lead the way. Then, a good melody and solo will give even more direction.
To improve at listening to the music you can take musicality classes, or even just watch Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz , but we recommend first and foremost simply listening and re-listening to great early jazz and swing music, which should give you a great subconscious education. You can hear this music at your local dances, at dance events, or even online on Spotify or Pandora.
A huge amount of our noteworthy swing-era dance footage comes from movies, from Day at the Races to Hellzapoppin’, to the many Southern California jitterbug clips where dancers like Dean and Jewel and Hal and Betty danced in packed scenes. Having watched so many great dancers on film and wondered how that experience shaped their dancing, I’ve had it on my bucket list for a long time to dance in a film. A few months after I moved to New York City, a few of the professional dancers in the city got chosen to dance in a new film set in the swing era, and one of them asked me to be one of the Lindy Hop leaders. These are my notes from that day of filming.
Due to my confidentiality contract, I cannot mention the name or plot of the film, nor the specific names of the actors/actresses involved at this time.
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Being 6’2″, I am used to never finding vintage that fits. Before I arrived on set I corresponded with the costuming department, and I offered that I had my own vintage suits that *do* fit in case they wanted to see those, but the responding email I got didn’t mention my request, and seemed to not mention it coldly. Knowing both my share of costuming designers and vintage fashion nuts, I wanted to respect that the costume department knew what they were doing and that fit wasn’t going to be a problem.
When I got to my fitting on the day of filming, they pulled out a pristine 1940’s shirt that fit me perfectly. And 1940’s shoes so thick that you could think of a lot worse things to chuck at someone in self-defense. The shoes somehow felt like they were made for my feet (unlike the vintage heels the followers were going to spend the day dancing in). The suit coat, however, was too short, as usual. It would have to do. I never did see myself in the outfit, because they didn’t have mirrors around.
A few years ago I did a “clip interview” with Norma Miller at Beantown camp (which you can find here) where we went through her great film footage while she talked about it. For this year I thought it’d be great to do a clip interview without any of the performance dancing — no Day at the Races, no Hellzapoppin — and talk instead about her every day swing dancing world in New York, where the dance was born and raised.
In this interview we use film footage to discuss 1930s Harlem, the Savoy ballroom, and rent parties. The result was, in my opinion, a fantastic companion piece to that first interview.
Also, some of the audio content is not safe for work. Love you, Norma. :)
In the new Swungover book, Practice Swing: The Swungover* Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Guide To Improving Your Own Dancing, the book ends with a special appendix that tells people how to build their own practice dance floor. David Rehm gets a good deal of the credit for the floor’s design (and for teaching me how to use a hammer); we built two of them over the last 6 years. As it can be a little tricky without pictures, here is a version of that appendix with photos to help.
(We recommend reading the entire article before starting to build your own, so you can choose which one you want to go with. Also, check out some of the comments, there’s some great advice there.)
Provided below are directions for (1) a simple raw wood floor, (2) a sealed floor, and (3) a floor with rounded trim, which is a lot more comfortable to hit in the middle of the night when you’ve forgotten it’s there. Read more…
Dear Swungover readers,
If you’ve noticed the blog has been a bit light on the posts during the last few years, it’s because I’ve been putting all my swing-dance-writing power into this: Practice Swing: The Swungover* Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Guide to Improving Your Dancing. It’s 450 pages long. More than a hundred chapters. And it’s available now.
I’m very proud of it and excited to share it with the community.
Follow the link below to buy the book.
Also here’s a little FAQ for those wanting to know more.
What does “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” mean?
When it comes to vintage swing dances, there’s no one path to greatness. (Or even simply better-ness.) Every great Lindy Hop, Bal-Swing, Shag, and Solo Jazz dancer in the world has taken their own path to get there. And that’s why Practice Swing is a choose-your-own-adventure practice book.
With more than a hundred chapters of advice to choose from, the book covers productive practice mentality, skill-honing, self-coaching, improvisation and competition skills, and what makes great vintage swing dancers great. It also addresses how to practice alone, with a partner, at a social dance, or in a group. You can read the chapters in any order and focus on those that speak the most to you right now.
Why is this book $32?
For every person interested in a book on getting better at vintage swing dancing, there are hundreds, even thousands, even tens of thousands, who are interested in getting better at tennis, cooking, or making friends and influencing people. If that many people were interested in getting better at vintage swing dancing, the cost of producing each printed book would be lower.
If you’re still feeling hesitant about paying $32 for a book, perhaps consider the fact that it’s 450 pages long and has more than 100 chapters of information on getting better at swing dancing. Most international-level instructors charge around three times that much for a one-hour private lesson, and trust me, you couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of everything that is in the book in a one-hour private lesson.
Are you going to make Practice Swing available as an ebook?
Not in the near future. Originally, Practice Swing was only going to be available as an ebook, based on the idea that surely this would be cheaper than printing actual books. However, the world of ebook publishing is actually quite convoluted when it comes to royalties, and e-publishers like Amazon Kindle are not designed for niche books. Perhaps in a few years it may be a more viable option.
Also—just throwing this out there—having a print copy around makes the book easy to lend to friends, or to get for your practice groups to have on hand at practice for inspiration.
Will you have copies at events you are at?
Yes. But, as transporting books around the world can be tough on the lumbar spine, I can carry only a limited supply. If you will be at an event where I will be teaching and are interested in reserving a copy, message me a week in advance and I’ll be happy to set one aside to bring to you.
How are you able to sell books online in a timely fashion while you travel around the world teaching?
A publishing company sells my book online—they take the order, print the books, ship them, and handle all other aspects of the transaction. So no matter where I am, the book will get to you. Do note that, as it’s print-on-demand, the book you order will take a few days for the publisher to print before it is mailed out. Hence, it may take a couple weeks to get your book.
You can buy the book here: http://bit.ly/practiceswing
And, as I mentioned earlier, I will be able to carry a few copies with me to events. See the previous question for more details.
What’s with this “Robert White” nonsense? You’re “Bobby White.” I can tell—we’re friends on Facebook.
Writing is my other passion, and I’ve published things unrelated to swing, and plan to publish a lot more non-swing dancing writing in the future. Since I prefer my author name to be “Robert White,” it’s good to have that on everything I publish. This way, when I sell my bestselling bodice-ripper/swashbuckling romance-and-cooking novel, those readers will also go buy Practice Swing. Ultimately, every one of my readers will improve their swing dancing. Master plan.
You all can call me Bobby. ;)
Who published this book?
Why, Swungover did. It’s officially listed as the book’s publishing house. (Kinda cool/strange to think that, just by buying the book’s ISBN number, I started an independent publishing house.) Blurb is the company that prints the book and through which I formatted the book.
Shameless plug time here at Swungover! Kate & I recently put out three new DVDs: Two of them go over the basic fundamentals of Pure Balboa & Bal-Swing, and a third is an intermediate/advanced collection of footwork.
For a decade we have been crafting the way we teach the dance to beginners, and the two beginner DVDs are a culmination of a lot of that crafting. For the PURE-BAL DVD, we try to approach teaching the dance organically — as a way of playing with quicks and slows — and then tackle almost the complete canon of original Pure Balboa moves.
For the BAL-SWING DVD, we build the dance with momentum, on top of giving what we see re the most important tricks and tips for mastering the rotation-based swing dance.
The FOOTWORK DVD is not only a collection of footwork for every basic Pure Bal and Bal-Swing movements— we try to cover all the major types of variations, from slides to kicks to tapping, from rhythmically punchy to rhythmically flowing. We also were excited to give variations that not only highlight each individual dancer, but also the partnership, reinforcing our belief that the best Swing partner dances highlight both.
Want them!?!? You can order them here.