In Response To “31 Signs You’re Not An Advanced Dancer Yet.”
Recently, Rebecca Brightly over at Dance World Takeover posted an article titled “31 Signs You’re Not an Advanced Dancer Yet.” The article has inspired a lot of people and I think, on the whole, that everyone could have something to learn from the list. I appreciate the sentiment behind the article, and the wide scope it is attempting to cover. However, I wanted to offer a different opinion on some of the items, and simply continue the discussion on some others.
I know this article has inspired at least one group of dancers to discuss it: Most of this post was developed because of a hotel room discussion that occurred at Boston Tea Party, among several advanced and professional swing dancers. We agreed there were several great points in the article, several things that could be misleading, and several things we disagreed with. So, this article is inspired by the thoughts of a group of obviously advanced and professional dancers.
First let’s look at the overall audience for this article. It is geared towards those who are wondering when they have become advanced dancers. And how do you define an “advanced dancer”?
The author mentions this difficulty, and offers her opinion:
“Being an advanced lindy hopper is about so much more than technique or even artistry. Advanced is a mindset, maturity, breadth and depth of study. It takes time and hard work to develop a deep partnership with the music and an intuitive understanding of biomechanics.”
I’m a big fan of any definition of “advanced dancer” that implies a maturity of things beyond the scope of technique involved in doing moves. Though the author doesn’t go into a lot of detail herself, I would argue any definition would include advancement in musicality, taste, personal dancing style, attitude, body awareness, partnership communication, dancing philosophy, practice method, and many other subtle things. These are hardly ever taught in classes; they are only found in watching and re-watching the best dances and performances in swing dance history, or social dancing or having conversations with other dancers.
Next I want to note that there are some obviously great ideas on the list. Like #2 (You’re still taking your follow’s feet out from under her when you dip her), #9 (You don’t add your own creative ideas to the dance), and #29 (You can easily tune out the music and still dance). I think there are many dancers who could benefit from working on these areas.
However, when we start taking many of the other items on the list literally — as in, the words written are taken at complete face value with no implied context — then some interesting discussion begins to arise (as do some problems). Please note: A few readers may imagine that doing so is being nit-picky and missing the overall point of the article, which was, I believe, to educate and inspire discussion. However, I think it’s vital for the article’s educational goals to examine how these poetic, somewhat abstract ideas might be realistically applied and developed in the real world — that’s what I mean by “taking it literally.” If upon doing so, these statements end up being unintentionally misleading, then the article is not accomplishing its goals.
Before we get into the details, here’s the interesting thing: The article probably doesn’t seem misleading to many dancers because there is an awful lot implied by every sentence but not said outright. I think this is mostly because of poetic brevity; many of the lines in the post have an impactful terseness to them — they are short and striking and powerful sentences, which are great for delivery, but it also means that the exact meaning is often implied rather than explicitly mentioned. So, a sentence can sound like it has an obvious meaning that you will understand, knowing what you know about swing dancing, but that meaning might be slightly (or greatly) different for many different people. (When I read the article, I spent a lot of time saying to myself “Yeah, I totally know what she’s talking about . . . I think . . . wait a minute.”)
I’d be very interested for the author to write another post where she goes through each point and elaborates on her intended meaning. But this would perhaps negate the author’s intention to stimulate “curiosity and discomfort” and inspire questions — which it did. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the 31 signs you’re not an advanced dancer yet…. I’ve divided the discussion into several sections based on the discussions our group had about them.
Potentially Misleading Points
These were the items in the article I thought had the potential to be misleading.
4. You’re still wondering whose fault it is when a move doesn’t work.
Taking this statement literally, there’s nothing objectively wrong with wondering why a move failed when it went wrong. I would even argue that that is precisely how advanced and professional dancers got better in the first place, and that’s how they continue to get better. Of course, if you’re always assuming it’s someone else’s fault without actually trying to figure out what specifically happened, that is not only a sign that you are not an advanced dancer, but also a sign that you probably won’t be one any time soon.
So, in fact, I think the real message in #4 is that it’s a problem to play the blame-game when moves go wrong. But I think it’s very important to clarify, because I wouldn’t want dancers to (1) worry that they are supposed to know exactly what went wrong every time something does go wrong — even professionals have to wonder what happens and seek answers, (2) assume the answer is some non-helpful and unrealistic axiom like “It’s always the leader’s fault”, or (3) think that investigation into why things went wrong is worthless. When something goes wrong, the goal is to figure out the sources of the problem and fix them. And without rudeness or assigning blame is the way to do that and have everyone still be happy afterwards.
6. You still think you lead with your arms.
Taken literally, arms and what they are doing and not doing are an integral part of almost every lead (the move not the person…though, they are also probably an integral part of the person, if they have them). What is probably meant by #6 is that “You still think you should lead moves mostly with your arms,” or something to that effect. If this is the case, then I doubt very many people really think this. That you shouldn’t lead with only your arms has been drilled in so many beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes worth anyone’s time, that I imagine almost every dancer will tell you that leading only with the arms is bad.
Now, many leaders *still* do lead with their arms, despite knowing it’s bad. So the problem is not what they understand, but that they either (1) don’t realize they are still leading with the arms, or (2) realize that they are arm leading but don’t actually understand how to engage the body in those particular instances in order to avoid this.
11. You’re still afraid of “messing up the lead” with your ideas.
What is potentially misleading about this is that it could imply that followers should be the opposite of “afraid” — and be fearless — in whether they “mess up the lead” or not with their ideas. I don’t think any person, leader or follower, in a partner dance should ever be fearless about whether or not they mess up their partner with their ideas. Now, should worrying about how you will affect your partner drive you to never take risks? Absolutely not. Regardless, the point is that always thinking about how your dancing will affect your partner is a part of being a great dancer, leader or follower. It’s not being afraid, but it’s not the opposite, either.
31 Signs You’re Not a 100% Self-Confident Dancer Yet
Several items on the list fall under what I would call personality traits, and not the kind that determine an advanced dancer, even under the broad definition of a dancer advanced in many aspects of their dancing personality. For instance, #23 (You’re bothered that people don’t realize how good you are), #19 (You’re still bothered when other people say no to dancing with you) and these next two below, which I think bear more discussion, are actually signs of self-confidence and the sources of that confidence. And I believe sometimes they work in perfectly healthy ways.
1. You’re still concerned about what level you are.
Taken literally, many dancers, advanced and professional, are concerned with their level. They are always trying to figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are, comparing themselves to their peers in order to get a better understanding of their differences and similarities, and all towards the aim of understanding how to be a better dancer.
Or, what if a truly advanced dancer doesn’t do well in a contest or in a level test that they thought they had done well in? They might very well be concerned about their level, because the information they are getting from feedback (you didn’t dance as well as required) is different than their personal opinion (I thought I did very well) and that difference can make people, even occasionally advanced and professional dancers, concerned. I think emotional investment and how it affects us is what’s at the heart of this one, and that’s something that isn’t always directly tied to skill level.
24. You still think winning a competition validates you as a good dancer.
Very talented dancers of advanced and pro level can still feel validated by contests results, and sometimes in healthy ways. There can be small validations (“the stuff I’m working on must be impressing my peers and/or judges”) or big ones (“I was having a dance identity crisis, and was afraid I was really sucking recently, but after placing in that invitational Jack and Jill, maybe I’m not doing as badly as I had thought.”)
I whole-heartedly agree, however, that competition results should not be the defining basis at the heart of your dancing self-esteem. The heart of your dancing self-esteem should be how you feel about your dancing and the choices you’re making with it, and I believe that’s what the author was implying.
This did make me think of a possibly good one for the list, however: You may not be an advanced dancer yet if… you always use contest results to form your opinions of the dance.
It’s Not As Simple As That
These are items on the list that have significantly more complex answers than I think the items suggest.
8. You don’t have impeccable rhythm.
This one seems like an obviously good thing to have. However, it should be mentioned that there are some incredibly talented, even professional dancers, who don’t have impeccable rhythm. And, this can also be situational — for instance, when advanced and professional dancers are playing outside of the box and taking risks, their rhythm might suffer because they are concentrating on other things. (Please do not take this as an excuse to not have incredible rhythm. I hesitated even mentioning this one, as I totally agree with the author that every dancer should strive for impeccable rhythm. Rhythm helps you lead better, follow better, look better, and, ultimately, have more fun, and, though I can’t prove it yet, it will somehow play a role in solving the gas crisis.)
21. You’ve begun to think you no longer have much to learn from classes.
I know of some advanced dancers who have gotten to a point in their dancing when they need to take a break from classes in order to concentrate on developing their personal voices or exploring their own path in dancing. (Also, followers have every right to feel this way if the teachers they take from aren’t giving followers enough to think about or work on.)
I really don’t want to keep using the “well, the old timers did it” argument (Reductio Ad Manningum), but I do think it’s really important to remember that very few original dancers ever had classes —- most of them learned how to dance and worked out a lot of it by themselves. And though it’s rare today, I do know of at least one professional dance instructor who hardly ever took a class: David Rehm. He learned how to dance on his own by breaking down clips, thinking about it a lot in his free time, watching other dancers, and grabbing partners at dances to try out stuff. In fact, thinking of my own personal advancement, I wish I had gone through a few more periods throughout my development where I tried to figure out a few things on my own rather than take classes.
Now, I still to this day go and watch classes and occasionally take one. As a student first learning the dance, even if I had gone over the material before, I could try to master it even more, or I could try to pay attention to the instructors and see if I could learn something from the way they did it that they hadn’t explicitly mentioned. Now I go to classes to see how other instructors teach, which usually inspires me in my own teaching. So, I do believe you can usually learn something from classes, but it’s still not everyone’s bag all the time.
Now, what is bad is when you simply think you have learned everything you need already. I think this is what the author is warning against, more than holding up classes as the only way to improve as a dancer. Great dancers get better by looking to explore more, to understand more, to push themselves.
Points of Disagreement
Finally, here are a few that I and other members of our group simply disagreed with.
7. You’ve never obsessively listened to and dissected music.
Obsessively listening to and dissecting music is certainly something that many great dancers have done, and I certainly love to do it myself, but I actually don’t think it’s mandatory to be an incredible swing dancer. And I’m one of the most music-loving and pro-study-the-stuff-you-love people I know. Many of the original greats (and several professional dancers today) didn’t dissect swing music; they just heard it and danced to it all the time. Sure, one subconsciously learns a lot about the music through this repeated listening, but I don’t think it requires forcing an interest in academic musical study if you’re not into it.
Though, it probably doesn’t hurt to know what a phrase is.
22. You’ve never seriously studied a dance other than swing.
There are many professional and advanced dancers today who have not studied other dances than swing. And that’s certainly the case for a large majority of many of the old timers. (For instance, modern dancer Nick Williams never seriously studied a dance other than swing for most of his career, other than dropping hats. Only recently has he taken up ballet classes.) What seriously studying another dance does do is aid in body awareness and force oneself to move in new ways. (I do recommend you give it a try, though.)
27. You think the music is your servant.
28. You think you’re a servant to the music.
These two lines have a gravity and power to them, and even a twist ending, which as a writer I really enjoyed. However I was a little lost by the first one, #27. What does it mean for a dancer to think the music is their servant?
The second line is easier to understand, but I think there are several advanced and professional dancers (and old timers) who would argue that if you’re not basically a servant to the music, then you’re doing it wrong. It’s not exactly what I believe, but it is a philosophy, and one held by several advanced and professional dancers. However if we take the route of discussing what the intricacies of “being a servant to the music” actually means in practice, we will run out of gas before we get to our destination.
30. You still get really sore after a weekend of dancing.
Taking this one literally, I often get sore after a weekend of dancing, especially if I’m inspired to keep going and going because the dancing or music is so good. In fact, the word Swungover came about because I was often physically and mentally fried (in a good way) after a dance event, whether teaching or attending, and it’s something that other professional and advanced dancers experience as well.
Perhaps the statement is meant to imply that a not-advanced-yet dancer would get sore because they are out of shape from not dancing enough the rest of the time; however, it’s often happens that advanced or professionals dancer spend a good deal of their life in perpetual soreness of different degrees because they dance so much.
31. You still don’t know who is the most important person in the dance.
The first time I read this sentence, I was left wondering what the author meant by it. I suspected I was supposed to know, but I didn’t. After further thought, I decided that the text probably literally meant “You still don’t know who is the most important person to you while you are social dancing.” (As a writer, I agree that’s not nearly as catchy as the wording the author went with.) After thinking of it that way, I felt the implied answer was “your partner.”
Many will applaud you if you choose this for your philosophy. However, I do not believe it’s the only valid philosophy for a master dancer to have. One could even argue that it’s a flawed way of thinking about the dance partnership to begin with. We brought this up and explored it in the Boston Tea Party discussion group. Here’s how I think of it:
Try to answer “who is the most important person in a marriage?” If, literally, one person is the most important person, then some problems are likely to arise when the “not-as-important” one realizes they’re getting the short end of the stick. Now, if we answer the question in relative terms, and both people are supposed to answer “ my spouse is the most important person in the marriage,” then we get each person subjugating themselves to the other, and problems will arise when both people realize they’re giving themselves the short end of the stick. Thus, asking one to assign importance to one person in the partnership is not ultimately the healthiest answer.
In the healthiest marriages I’ve seen or read about (so I have witnessed, but not experienced), each person acknowledges that, overall, each spouse is of equal importance. Each person takes care of themselves and their partner equally, the result being that each partner can make sure their own needs are expressed, they are keeping themselves safe and can help watch out for their partner, and that they are responsible for their own actions and how those actions affect their partner. And I think this is a great way to look at the person whose hand you’re holding when you’re dancing.
Unless you’re dancing with an old timer, in which case, they are more important. You don’t want to be the person who broke Jean Veloz.
After all 31 points are considered I imagine the post has gone beyond its author’s original intent — to list the traits of an advanced dancer — in order to show what is actually the author’s ideal dancer: One who knows where they stand in the order of things; one who knows what went wrong when a move goes awry; one who doesn’t blame the other partner by default; one who has an understanding of swing music; great rhythm; great floor craft; thinks their partner is the most important person in the dance; and finally, one who has tremendous self-confidence in themselves and isn’t bothered by contest results or when people say no to dancing with them. (However, I would imagine this ideal dancer would be turned down for very few dances.) It’s a fine ideal to have, but I hope I’ve shown it’s not the only ideal, and there are some much greater complexities to reality.
I also think the article makes some assumptions about the motivations of Lindy Hoppers, or in particular, people who want to become advanced Lindy Hoppers, that may or may not be true. Specifically, I wanted to address this:
We don’t start lindy hopping because we want easy popularity. We take the journey to becoming lindy hoppers because we crave challenge.
Please note: If craving challenges is thereason you become a Lindy Hopper, you’re missing quite a lot. Sure, someone who craves a challenge will find many in Lindy Hopping, but they will also find challenges in cave diving, the green berets, and thousands of other activities. And many of them are arguably much bigger challenges than getting to an advanced level in Lindy Hop.
For me, the desire to express myself and the incredible way swing music makes me feel and share that with a partner are specifically why I Lindy Hop. And this means far, far more to me than craving challenges. I surpass the challenges because doing so is the price for improvement. For me, challenges are simply obstacles to overcome while striving to accomplish something difficult. And there are many other reasons why people “take the journey to becoming Lindy Hoppers.” Some people absolutely love harnessing physics and the puzzle-aspect to swing dancing. A few people realize that even though they only kind of like it in the beginning, they’re naturally good at it, so they keep doing it and working at getting better and slowly over time start to take great pride in it and love it. These people may have fewer challenges to deal with as they try to become an incredible Lindy Hopper, and might even welcome having less challenges to deal with . (I certainly wouldn’t argue if some of my challenges were taken away, particularly the ones made by outside forces.) Sure, it can help you get better if you crave challenges, but I think it’s misleading to say it with such gravity as the reason we become Lindy Hoppers. We don’t want beginner dancers out there to read the post and think “Well, I don’t exactly crave challenges, so does that mean I’m not meant to be an advanced Lindy Hopper?”
And, sadly, even a few great dancers equate being a better dancer with being more popular, and that is partly what helps drive them to be better dancers. (I didn’t fully understand why the article mentions popularity with such emphasis— after all, I didn’t see popularity as a large part of the rest of the article’s discussion.)
Finally, I wanted to mention a small issue that’s caused me concern. The article seems at conflict with itself, because on the one hand it implies that truly advanced dancers are seeking new knowledge, always exploring further, and always have something new to learn. And yet the article also delivers this sentiment: “Ready for a reality check? Even if one of these applies to you, you’ve got something to work on.” So although the article encourages introspection (plus curiosity and discomfort) on the part of the reader, it does so in the tone of confidence that all these points are right — at least, right enough that no further explanation is needed other than a few esoteric pointers.
I thought a lot about whether or not to write this post and what points to dissect. After all, the author’s article had a lot of good information, and was written in order to inspire people to get better. I didn’t want to deflate that. But I hope I have shown that there’s a lot more the article should have said about those points than it did, even if its goal was to inspire questions. You don’t want to inspire questions by confusion.
I also want to give a huge shout-out to the article’s author, Rebecca Brightly. As she mentions, the post comes from her own personal development as a dancer. In many ways, she’s putting something very private up there for everyone to see, in the hopes that people will learn and be inspired by the things that she has learned and been inspired by. Such things open writers up to not just praise, but also some ridicule, as well as extremely long essay critiques of her work by fellow bloggers.
That reminds me — Aside from the praise and critiques I’ve given for her article and its scope, I will also say this: It’s a lot shorter than this one. One of the reasons Swungover* has such long posts is because I try to make sure to explain everything fully so there is no or little ambiguity, often at the expense of pith. I could certainly be inspired by Brightly’s brevity.