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Meditatin’: On the Nature of (Pure) Balboa

April 12, 2013

Meditatin’ is a new series that’s basically just a collection of small thoughts about various aspects of swing dancing. Photo courtesy of Beth Grover.

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Recently Nick Williams posted on Facebook, “Balboa people, we need to talk. What do you think Pure Balboa is?” He was partly frustrated by what people do in “Pure Balboa” contests, which I agree is often not what most of us Bal-Swing instructors think of as Pure Balboa. Anyway, I responded to the post with roughly the following, which I thought was a good quick response to people in general who wonder about what Pure Balboa is, and why it’s a different dance than Bal-Swing.

When I was coming up in Bal-Swing competitions, some would have (and still do have) “Pure Balboa” rounds. At the time, around 2003, I remember the main source of advice: “Pure Balboa means chest to chest. Don’t open up.” There may have been some more complicated advice given to me, but “just stay chest to chest” was what stuck with me (and you can tell in my early “Pure Balboa” contests). I now happily understand much more about the important difference between the two dances that the old timers called Balboa & Bal-Swing.

A dance should exist for a reason. By which I mean, it should have a nature to it that makes it its own dance and not something else. Balboa’s nature was shaped by its surroundings: It was a dance done on a packed floor, hence chest to chest. On a packed floor, no one can see your footwork; hence, it’s not a dance for showing off footwork. On a packed floor, no one spectates the dance; hence it is not a spectator’s dance; it is meant to be shared between the partnership and no one else. Pure Balboa was a date dance, done in coat and tie and skirts and heels; hence one of its goals is efficiency and not sweating all over your partner. These very literal boundaries gave the dance its identity and help shaped other aspects of its style: those boundaries also made it natural to shuffle the feet a lot, and play with rhythms and weight changes and small direction changes, to make things exciting. So you see, Pure Balboa has a very specific nature.

UPDATE: Upon further thought and discussion with Balboa instructors and historians at the Balboa Experiment, I have some slight updates to the description above. Though Pure Balboa was not a dance for being flashy or showing off, many couples still cared what they looked like. And many had very stern opinions about what looked like Balboa and what didn’t. So, it’s not correct to say it is only a dance about partnership connection. However, it was still not a spectator’s dance in the sense that it was supposed to wow or entertain. Many of them just appreciated looking good and felt it should have a certain aesthetic. (5/16/13)

Check out the dancing in this list of original (Pure) Balboa dancers to see this in action. [*]

Now, at some point in the 1930s, dancers of the open and expressive dance called “Swing” started throwing the Balboa steps they knew or saw into their growing collection of steps. (Note: Swing’s nature is open expression of both partner and individual, and is much more a spectator’s dance.) This was the beginning of Swing becoming what we know today as Bal-Swing. But, don’t be fooled by the joined name. It was the dance Swing that converted Balboa into steps fitting its expressive and somewhat wild nature much more so than the other way around. Here’s why this is important: Almost every single one of us in the modern scene is actually a Swing dancer who also knows a little about Pure Balboa, not a Pure Balboa dancer. I can’t think of anyone — surely no more than a handful of people — who have dedicated their dancing career to doing Pure Balboa and almost only Pure Balboa, according to the nature of the dance described earlier.

Modern contests often have Pure Balboa sections to honor the sibling (if you can call it that) dance of Bal-Swing and perhaps a desire to help “keep it alive.” But perhaps it’s too esoteric to have “Pure Balboa” contests or prelims, especially when most of the competitors are expected to understand what makes Pure Balboa its own dance different from Bal-Swing, but are apparently rarely explicitly told what that is by competition organizers or in their classes. (I’ve heard stories that many of the original dancers were even confused when they were told that we have Pure Balboa contests — they think we missed the point. Based on the nature of Pure Balboa described above, there can be a point in having contestants do it, but only to test their knowledge and/or give the audience a demonstration of it. Unfortunately, if students do not have the appropriate knowledge of it, then that means you will have a misleading demonstration of it.)

The result of all of this is that most competitors in a modern “Pure Balboa” heat simply do what I think of as “closed position Bal-Swing.” They attract attention, they do super fancy individual stuff, and they even have drops and lifts; they just happen to keep their partner chest to chest. (Some judges I know don’t even count the section, others treat it like it’s simply a Bal-Swing contest, and yet others give extra points for Pure Balboa, but otherwise don’t count it in their ultimate scoring.)

Some people have questioned that this dancing is merely us evolving the dance, and describe it as “Pure Balboa then vs. Pure Balboa now” — but I think that’s a false way of looking at it. Sure, we can certainly change and evolve a dance form and still keep its nature, like we have with Bal-Swing and Lindy Hop. But once you change the nature of a dance, I think you are officially no longer doing it; you are doing something else. (Hence the modern dancer doing flashy footwork and attention-grabbing individual dancing chest-to-chest is actually doing “closed position Bal-Swing” much more so than “Pure Balboa.”)

But it’s not all those dancers’ fault, and perhaps it’s hardly their fault at all. If we as teachers and organizers expect others to know what we mean when we say “Pure Balboa,” then it’s our responsibility to make it obvious. I know Kate and I and several of our peer instructors talk openly about making sure we are doing this. And I know many of the top Bal-Swing competitions have discussed (and will continue to discuss) this matter with their teachers and staff. So, I think we are working towards preserving the nature of the dance known as Pure Balboa while we grow it and evolve it.

I would like to end with something that really made me reassess things when I was coming up as a competitor. It’s Nick Williams and Denise Paulino Phelan doing a “Pure Balboa” round in (I believe) one of the Balboa Rendezvous contests. If you watch it as a Bal-Swing dancer or a Lindy Hopper, you’re going to miss a lot of what’s going on. But if you watch it like a Pure Balboa dancer, looking for subtlety in rhythm and weight shifts, and in musicality and partnership, almost all of it from the knees down, I think you’ll see how this is modern dancing that still very much captures the nature of Pure Balboa.

Nick & Denise doing Pure Balboa

[*] — It may appear that many of the people in these clips are just doing basics. However, I think to many Pure Balboa dancers, they didn’t really think of dancing basics as “dancing a basic.” This is obvious when you try to get original Balboa dancer Dean Raftery to do his “basic” the same way twice in a row. I think for them, every basic was full of subtle changes. Sure, they may appear to be doing step-step-hold-step, but if you look close enough… because of accent, shuffling, counterbody, triples, small traveling — Yes, they are doing “basics,” but they’re dancing those basics.

I think a lot of original dancers danced their basics in a continual “butterfly effect.” By “butterfly effect” I mean that theory of how a butterfly flapping its wings in India leads to a series of events that causes a hurricane in the Pacific, or the course of a skeptical monologue by a sketchy scientist in Jurassic Park. But, simply put, one tiny weight change difference at the beginning of a basic will have a ripple effect that will change the course of the basic in terms of weight changes, accents, shuffles, etc. — which is one theory on why original dancers like Dean Raftery and countless others have a hard time duplicating their “basics” the same way twice in a row.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2013 6:04 pm

    I think you’ve outlined this topic admirably here. Not that it matters, but if I had to pick just one style of dancing to do for the rest of my life, I would gladly abandon all others and do only Pure Balboa. There is no such thing as “JUST a basic” in pure bal.

  2. April 12, 2013 8:50 pm

    Great post, as usual. I so love dancing with Dean Raftery. And as you say, dancing a whole song -or many, with him, is never about just doing the basics

  3. April 13, 2013 3:49 pm

    “Balboa, er….finds a way…” :)

  4. Steve Mohns permalink
    April 14, 2013 4:03 pm

    Thanks, Bobby. So, from what you said, I infer that doing in-and-outs would fit within your definition of Pure Balboa; do you agree?

    • April 17, 2013 7:05 pm

      I’m not Bobby – but I suspect not? I thought the in-and-outs were very much a ‘swing’ thing, beach-clip style?

  5. David Fisher permalink
    April 17, 2013 1:04 am

    Many years ago some ballroom championships would include a “Basics and Standards” round where the top level competitors had to dance syllabus figures only. No open steps. That round counted 50% towards the couple’s score. Over time it was phased-out. But I always thought it was great idea as it forced you to demonstrate you could dance the basic steps. And some couples could dance amazing basics. They were a joy to watch.

  6. April 21, 2013 5:04 am

    I learned Balboa circa 2002-2006, mainly from Sylvia Sykes and her assortment of partners, and at events like All Bal Weekend. I understand that over the past few years, the “basic” has evolved somewhat, but I haven’t been to any events for about three years so I can’t comment on that.

    Back in 2006/2007, when I taught Pure Bal to beginners, I always explained that it’s a dancer’s dance, not a spectator’s dance like Lindy or Charleston. And that’s what I love about it. It’s pure dancing, weight-changing, body-leading, yummy kinesthetic pleasure.

    I explain to beginners how it should feel, not how it should look. You should feel (in my opinion) like you’re the puck in an air hockey game (here, I am totally dating myself for you young whippersnappers). The best Pure Bal, to me, is dreamy, floaty, and glidey.

    To David Fisher’s point…back in the day, it was called “figure skating” because skaters had to skate “compulsory figures,” which counted for 1/3 of their overall score. (I’m dating myself again.) Compulsory figures were the ABCs of figure skating, and taught skaters the very basics of the sport. Here’s a short piece from 1990, a couple of years after the compulsory figures were eliminated. I suspect some of the comments may resonate with people in discussion of Pure Bal and competition:

    Pure Bal is not a flashy, crowd-pleasing dance. I think you have to be something of a connoisseur to appreciate the nuances of it…you have to know what you’re seeing to understand how awesomely someone is performing it (like Nick and Denise in the clip that you shared, Bobby.) So I think it’s difficult sometimes to get beginners interested in it. In the swing world, there isn’t another dance like it. It’s the low-impact “finesse” dance.

    But I do think that awesome Pure Bal leaders are awesome Bal Swing dancers, because they do understand the subtlety and nuance of the body lead. And I think really good Pure Bal followers are excellent Bal Swing dancers, because they “listen” more closely to their leader. They pay more attention, and it takes a lot less effort to lead them, in my experience.

    My two cents. I can’t wait for ABW. :)

  7. April 27, 2013 9:06 am

    Great article Bobby, as usual. I’d love to see in contests a round where judges are looking for evidence of authenticity in the competitor’s dance. So just as the original dancers didn’t always do what we know as Pure Balboa they had distinct styles. So if a competitor moves around like Harry Berlin or does Dean’s back pivots or the follower kicks up and crosses behind like Ann Mills – you get the picture. If competitors know in advance judges are looking for that – they’ll have to research it, work it out, learn it. That way, elements of the origin of the dance is preserved and the names of the original dancers will always be a part of the scene.

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