A Year of Clips #1: After Seben
This is the first of a new installment where we over her at Swungover discuss a dance clip from the archives of past and present swing dance, the current goal to do so regularly for a year. This first clip is merely a sort of instructional on how to break down the basic styling of a dancer you see.
It makes sense to start the classic clips with “After Seben” (An early 1900s black American dialect way of saying “After Seven”), since it not only features the man who invented the Lindy Hop “step,” but actually has him dancing the step in his jam. First off, watch a great version of the clip below. We in the original swing dance clip business have to do a lot of time squinting at bad copies of ancient VCR tapes, but recently a lot of the original clips are being digitalized in great clarity. I was excited to see this one, clean even on You Tube.
This first write-up will be geared toward those dancers who want to “break down” swing clips but don’t know how. “Breaking down” a clip simply means analyzing the dancing in it. It doesn’t have to be a cold, heartless analyzation, either. When I do it, it’s often warm, loving, and filled with a lot of “Holy crap! That’s amazing!” Emotions can run high, is what I mean.
If you’re new to Lindy Hop history, then there are a few things you should know about the basics of this clip. First off, this is a 1929 clip, when Charleston was still the music and dance and Lindy Hop didn’t exist yet in the sense you see it today. So, I would still call this dance Couples Charleston, though you can probably see how it’s just a few steps away from becoming the Lindy Hop we know. (Some might argue about me calling it Couples Charleston, but it’s tricky to define something in this transitional period between Charleston and Lindy Hop.)
Second of all, this clip is a good place to learn how to “break down” a clip because there are three different couples with their own style of Charleston dance, a lot of them doing the same basic moves. We’re going to simply describe the things we see about each couple. If you look at the clip and think it mostly all looks the same, don’t worry. Try to find things that stick out about each couple, the things that make them different. Let’s start with the first couple.
First off, just watch it a few times and enjoy it. If you want, you can mentally note the random things that stick out to you, as first impressions are usually powerful. For instance, in the first couple, the very first thing you might notice is that he’s a tall guy. That’s okay, cause that is automatically part of his dance style, and he didn’t even have to try very hard. (You probably also noticed she’s wearing wicked boots.)
Then, if you’re interested in leading, you can look at the general moves (in the first couple’s case, a few swing-out steps, a few Charleston basics, a few mess-around-jig-kick type things) and the way they move together. They seem to stay in one spot on the floor (at least compared to the other couples), roughly, and they rotate a lot when they come together. Then, there are the basic things that stick out about their styling–He generally keeps his right hand on the middle of her back, his left hand up by his left breast, and he throws his right hand up every time they swing-out. She keeps her left hand on his bicep and moves her hips a lot when they do the final moves at the end.
Then, look at the feet. When watching a couple, you might be tempted to look at their feet first, but if you want to learn a lot from dancing clips, I recommend watching the bodies in general before actually trying to break something down, since a lot of great footwork is merely the final link in a chain reaction that starts at their center. You’ll have to be more of a detective with this method, but you’ll get better results. More importantly, you’ll start looking for causes rather than effects, which will really help you understand the dance.
The first couple’s footwork looks roughly like this: she has kind of a smooth skipping style and keeps her feet mostly on the floor the whole time, and him, for a tall guy, doesn’t actually move his feet a lot–he stands up straight, he doesn’t kick hardly at all, he just takes steps. So, there, roughly, is there basic style as a couple.
The second couple does some basics, a little bit of styling, and ends with the same move as the first. But there dancing looks different. Here’s why: First off, they’re similar in height.
Second of all, though he’s probably as tall as the first guy, he bends more into an athletic position (what I call an “athletic fold,” since “bending over” is ambiguous). This makes his dancing look more energetic, and such a stance allows him to kick his legs easier, which he does, really letting them swing, and generally take big steps.
He also keeps his hand generally low, and allows it to move around while they dance, which adds energy as well as a sense of being out-of-control. His right hand is on the side of her middle back. (Think about the ways this would affect their dancing, and the visual look of it.)
Thirdly, they as a couple rotate a lot less when they come back together, and actually spend a lot less time chest-to-chest. There is almost always some distance between them, whereas the first couple spent a lot of time coming into a tight body-to-body position. Fourthly, their pulse is bigger. Fiftly, “fiftly” is not a word. Sixthly, her footwork is punctuated rather than smooth, and her hips move in a noticeable figure-8 during the mess-around thingies.
The second leader’s footwork is marked by a lot of stomps, slides, and “hopping” through his footwork. (“hopping” that is caused by letting his strong pulse take his feet off the ground a lot). As a couple, though they are more flashy, they are also not as in control–he is more concerned with doing neat things than leading cleanly. The first couple appears more together.
When you’re watching these clips, all details, big, and small, are worth noting. For instance, the second lead has a handkerchief sticking out of his back pocket pocket. That right there is a tiny part of his styling, whether he intended it to be or not. To someone in that crowd, he’s “the guy with the handkerchief.”
If you’re not mind-bogglingly bored yet by how I like to spend a good portion of each week, the third couple, is Shorty Snowden and one of his partners (unknown name, though I think someone might know it. Please correct me if you do.) Shorty Snowden was, almost all original Harlem dancers agree, the best of the best of the first generation of Lindy Hoppers. Whenever you hear an interview of who the Whitey’s dancers watched, Shorty was mentioned.
The moves, aside from some beautiful Charleston Swing-Outs, are simple. Shorty gets in some styling, they get in some styling together by their mutual high kicks, there’s a trick, and then they have a flashy exit, which the other two couples didn’t have.
The first thing you might notice about Shorty and his partner is how “smooth” they are. Here I use smooth to mean the general flow of their movements, not their pulse. The way their bodies move, the way their feet move, the way they move together, has a pleasant flow to it without any strange hiccups or idiosyncrasies. Yet their pulse and their footwork provide all the energy that matches their dancing to the song.
Some other differences: Shorty keeps his left hand low and not really moving much throughout the dance. This puts more emphasis on every other part of the dance (We subconciously look at moving hands, especially if we are Italian.) It adds a strong sense that they as a couple are in control. He keeps his right hand low on the middle of her back.
They stay together often, like the first couple, but look more together–this is usually a sign that they are using their bodies working off of each other really efficiently, rather than leading/following with their arms or letting their footwork yank their body away from where it needs to be for their leader/follower.
As far as footwork goes, Shorty has precise steps and kicks, with noticeably good rhythm, which is something people don’t realize is an incredibly important part of the lead and follow of great partnership dancing (The other couples look a little sloppy in theirs). And his follower, on top of having good rhythm, retracts her feet really high after some of her steps, giving a really punctuated “Charleston” feel to her dancing.
Finally, something you probably noticed–at the end, when they do their trick, Shorty just stands there the entire time from the turn to the drop to the pop-back-up. I don’t really have anything enlightening to say about this moment, except that it sticks out. A good dancer knows when not to move their feet, and make a statement by not moving. Is this one of those moments? In the few clips I’ve seen of Shorty, he does enjoy those moments of silence, for they have great contrast to his otherwise fast feet, show control, and, if needed, give him a chance to catch his breath.
So, you can hopefully see why Shorty and his partner are revered as early Lindy Hoppers. Also, you can clearly make out modern dance historian Peter Loggins bouncing to Shorty’s dancing in the background. Clearly, even at that time, Peter knew what he liked.
If you are new to breaking down clips, I hope this will give you a good start. And that’s what this is, a start. We began with simply listing the basic visual differences between the dancers. But bounce all that information off of each other, and you can discover a lot about what makes good dancing good. (I added some of my own opinions in the write-up, I hope you will excuse me.) Also, You can look at a hundred different aspects of a dancer or partnership taking one simple step.
So now, the other important part of “breaking down” a clip is sharing what you learn with fellow clip watchers. In the comment section below, and in the comment sections in all of these future posts, I hope you will feel free to add what you see, what you disagree with in my findings, and anything at all relating to the clip or the write-up. I try to look at follows too when I break down clips, but not near as much as a follow probably does.
For a final thought, the solo dance move done at 3:05 where he sort of just jitters there for a few seconds is really hard, especially because you can’t practice it anywhere where there’s a possibility someone will see you.