Meditatin’ : Education & Individuality
Meditatin’ is a series for small random thoughts about swing dancing.
Note: This piece discusses swing dancing from the point of view of the swing dance artist, not the swing dance hobbyist. Meaning, there are many people who have a recreational love of swing dance, and do not desire necessarily to grow and develop an individual voice as much as play with physics and enjoy the simple pleasure of social dancing with people.
I deeply appreciate these dancers and their right to dance for the simple joy of it (they also help pay my rent, so there are several different levels on which I love and respect them). This essay, however, is mainly geared towards those who wish to express themselves artistically through swing dance.
Jazz & The Academy
I recently met a woman who had learned to play a classical piano piece just by listening to it over and over again, without ever having learned anything else about piano. She impressed a piano teacher one time by playing the piece beautifully — but what really impressed the teacher was how she was able to do so with such an inefficient fingering method.
In his book Jazz: The American Theme Song, James Lincoln Collier discusses how the academy affected individuality in jazz music. At the beginning of the jazz era, musicians were self-taught, and from that emerged a great variety of individual voices. For instance, take Louis Armstrong: he had a little formal musical education growing up, but “Pops” learned almost everything else he knew about the trumpet and cornet by himself and by talking to others, most of whom had learned via the same methods. To reach his skill levels took a great deal of practice, play, and listening — listening for what sounds worked and what sounds didn’t.
Now, Armstrong, the greatest single influence on jazz music, actually had bad embouchure — well, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say he had an embouchure that was unhealthy for his mouth. The force with which he played led to a lot of lip troubles, and it’s even suspected that as time went on, he sang a lot more because it was too painful for him to play trumpet (as discussed in Jazz: The American Theme Song).
Most jazz musicians were like Pops in that they would try really hard to come up with an individual sound, an individual voice. (I, like most of them, believe it is even integral to jazz that a great musician have an individual voice.) And, like Armstrong, many of the original jazz musicians learned to play without a lot of training, so they employed a wide variety of techniques and methods. Those techniques and methods helped shape their individual voices, because some techniques led to certain ways of playing, and others led to other ways.
However, since many of those players were reinventing embouchure and fingering, it’s understandable that what might have worked in the short term was not well suited to decades of daily practice and playing. To some extent a lot of practice will help smooth over roughness and make actions more efficient, but on the other hand, practicing doesn’t make perfect; it makes permanent. And if, say, your method of playing a high F involves a lot of force and more tension than required, then it’s only a matter of time before you’re going to wear out your lips.
Over time, however, the academy has changed the way jazz works: As Collier describes, most in the modern era learn jazz in a conservatory or through training — where they teach the healthiest embouchure, the best fingering, and where students study jazz scales and how the music works to a very wide extent. Then there comes a point where teachers try to get their students to improvise, to foster an individual voice. The problem is, these attempts at individuality don’t sound very different from one another — not nearly as different as the great swing tenors sounded different from one another, for instance, during the time in jazz when there were no conservatories.
Because students of the modern era have all learned the same approach, they aren’t going to sound very different until one of them goes away and spends some time alone long enough to try an approach that isn’t taught. Or unless one of them is lucky enough to bend their horn accidentally in a way that produces a different sound. (Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet was accidentally bent at a party. He really liked the sound of it, though, and decided to have his future trumpets made with that bend. To be fair, though, it was only one part of his individual sound; the rest was all his hard work alone.)
Anyway, by giving modern students the best embouchure, giving them the best fingering, and opening the world of jazz music theory to them, educators have given modern jazz musicians the gift of having sorted through all the bad and unhealthy embouchures, fingerings, and theories in favor of those that allow players the maximum freedom and ability to play well. These students should technically be able to play their instruments for most of their lives happily and without injury.
Ironically, though, even the most wide-open-to-interpretation choice has limits, because it cuts out all the other possibilities that come from less healthy embouchure or strange fingerings. Though this thought goes a lot further than we have time for here, the limitations of the other methods are an integral part of their individuality.
Jazz Dance & The Classroom
You can easily see the parallels to swing dancing. First off, I believe just as individuality is integral to the great jazz musician’s voice, so is individuality to the great jazz dance artist’s voice — and this means Lindy Hop, Bal-Swing, Solo Jazz — anything danced to jazz music.
This opinion is already shared by the scene as a whole, I believe. Our favorite original dancers — Frankie Manning, Jewel McGowan, Al Minns, Leon James, Jean Veloz, Dean Collins, Hal Takier, Irene Thomas — all have very strong individual voices. Most of the original dancers prized individuality as well. Original Southern California Lindy Hopper and Bal-Swing dancer Anne Mills, for instance, said that she thought all the dancers in her youth who tried to dance like Dean & Jewel as a path to greatness were missing the point of what it meant to be great.
To get some examples of individuality from the original swing era, look at the differences in dancing between the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and Shorty George and Big Bea. Both of these dance styles were on the same ballroom floor at the same time. Or, look at 1938’s Venice Beach clip and see the vast difference between the dancing of Jack Helwig (the guy in white) and Hal Takier (the guy in white top and black pants).
On the modern dance floor, you don’t see dancers this refined in their movement that look this different from one another. That’s because modern dancers get to an advanced level by learning in classes and watching YouTube videos of other dancers, almost all of whom have learned their technique in classes. Though many teachers may appear to have different technique philosophies and principles at work, most of them are pretty similar when compared to the kind of techniques that aren’t taught in classes, or the obviously strange techniques that a lot of dancers did in the old movies. The result: Individual voices today don’t look as different from each other as those of the original dancers did.
But, most of these modern techniques were chosen and are taught for a good reason: they work well and allow dancers to do a lot of cool things with them. (I want to note here that some teachers, like Kate and me and many others, do try to really impress upon students the joy and empowerment that comes with individualism. But more on that later.)
What Does It Mean For Us?
On the surface it looks like we in jazz dance have a pretty similar situation to what they have in jazz music. However, I think there are some benefits to this evolution for our scene that may not be evident unless you look closely for them.
First off, is this lack of really different voices in jazz dancing a big enough problem we should worry about it or try to dramatically change it? Sure, we’re missing out on some inspirational voices coming from new, exciting, different techniques. However, at the same time, because of our shared techniques, we can dance with almost anyone in our scene, in our country, and even across the world who has learned Lindy Hop in the classroom. And, we can do some pretty amazing stuff in those social dancing Jack-and-Jills.
So, perhaps, if we’ve lost any inspiration from seeing a lot of different styles on the dance floor, we’ve gained quite a lot in the amount of inspiration we can get from the large amount of social dancing partners, and how much we can create with those partners.
We know for a fact the original dancers had a much harder time of it; Southern California Lindy Hopper Irene Thomas had big problems dancing with the New York leaders. Hal Takier couldn’t really dance his desired individual style with anyone but the two partners he had in his life. With others, he danced a much-less-Hal version of Lindy and Bal.
My editor Chelsea summed it up nicely in a note she attached to the first draft: “There are trade-offs that come with any choice, whether that be individuality at the potential cost of efficiency (and perhaps longevity, like Louis Armstrong at the trumpet) or adherence to common standards at the potential cost of having a hyper-distinct individual voice. So it becomes not a matter of making the right choice but more one of making the right choice to align with your personal values as a dancer.”
Secondly, individuality exists on multiple levels, and I think some make the mistake of only looking for individuality on the obvious levels.
For instance, let’s say you have three tree leaves: a green oak leaf, a green maple leaf, and a red maple leaf. You might jump to think the oak leaf, large with its curved edges, is obviously the one very different from the sharply-cornered, starred maple leafs. And yes, the oak leaf is a different type of leaf than the others. But the maple leaves are themselves different from each other in their color. The oak leaf and the green maple leaf are different shapes but similar in color, making the red maple leaf different from them in that aspect. So all three leaves are powerful individuals; it’s just that the differences between them all exist on different levels, some slightly more subtle than others.
In order for us to appreciate these different expressions of individuality, however, we have had to shift focus. If you put all the great dancers of the original era on a stage, made them wear the same clothes and masks and then stood three hundred feet away while they danced, you could still probably make out all the different styles. Dean Collins would look very different from Frankie Manning, who would look very different from Al Minns. Today if we did the same with modern greats, it’d be a little trickier. You’d be able to do it at a hundred feet, maybe. (All this is hypothetical, but you get the idea.)
But I currently don’t think it’s a big deal if we have to shift focus. After all, a big difference is not necessarily better than smaller, more subtle differences.
I’m a big fan of the idea that, living in the modern world, we have the great advantage of being able to choose the best parts of today and yesterday to inspire how we live our lives (or in this case, dance our dance). Our superior technique does allow us to play with some pretty extreme forms of individuality. I would argue that at this point, it’s more so the lack of focusing on being individualistic that’s stopping people. And I’m not sure how much the modern scene is stressing this point. The general dancing I see leads me to believe it could be mentioned in classes and in general discussion a lot more, and perhaps given a little more consideration in contest judging.
And, what’s more, is that we today can be more purposeful in how we choose to be individualistic, which is awesome. A lot of the original dancers didn’t have that choice. Although the dance floors of the original swing era were full, those pushing the boundaries of the dance may not have had many others on the floor to inspire them, and were not able to travel much to see what other dancers in other parts of the nation were doing. They only knew what they made up and what their local friends who also hadn’t been anywhere did. Today, though, a dancer can have the whole world at their fingertips thanks to the Internet.
So, in short, making individualism more a topic of discussion in the scene is one important place to start. And teachers obviously play a huge role in changing the scene’s perspective. But here I’m not just talking about professional teachers — on the whole, it is the local teachers who are probably much more influential, as they account for most people’s introduction to swing dancing, and thus can dramatically shape the way those students view it.
There are a few specific Swungover posts coming on individuality and teaching, but I wanted to briefly talk a little bit more about how I’ve worked towards reinforcing the power of individuality in the way I teach. In technique classes for instance, Kate and I try to explain different techniques and the pros and cons those techniques offer, always reinforcing that dancers make their own choices for what they want.
In content classes, we teach that often the pieces of the moves are what’s important (to combat students going out and doing nothing but that one move that one way every time). Or that it’s the technique we’re showing in the moves is what’s important, because it leads to more choices for them. Often we try to offer multiple options, and why one might choose those options.
If we do teach something that is an example of our individual voices, we mention what aspects of it reinforce our individuality and talk about its individuality as one of the important aspects of the move. Another option is creativity classes, where people work in groups and bounce ideas off of each other, and then showcase their inventions against others’. This always shows how individual each partnership is. And recently, I’ve done a few entire classes on a simple way to begin finding one’s individual voice that I’m very proud of.
Possibly more important, though, is the overall change to the language I use in teaching. For one small instance, almost never is there the right answer anymore; instead, it’s this answer gives you this effect, for these reasons, implying that there are often other answers that give you other effects. Sure, we have chosen what we think are the best ones for us, and we like to explain why, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only option to our students. And it’s important for us to make that clear. These, and many other subtle but important changes, are very empowering both to me as a teacher, and, I think, to my students.
Finally, I’m a big proponent of students often working on their dancing outside of traditional classes to discover new ideas for themselves. Put away YouTube for a few weeks, stand in an empty room with some swing music, and see what you, and only you, think. At some point, invite some friends along to join and see what you all come up with together, focusing on how each individual does it their way. Once those seeds of individuality are planted, taking classes and workshops and watching YouTube are powerful ways to grow them, rather than stifle them.
Edited slightly 12/5/13 for better readability. No ideas or good sentences should have been harmed in the process.