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On #ImprovRespect

September 23, 2014
(Photo courtesy of Beth Grover)

(Photo courtesy of Beth Grover)

Recently on Facebook the Lindy Hop community has been engaging in a large discussion hashtagged #improvrespect. (The discussion was going pretty strongly but was then overshadowed by a different discussion on offensive gestures.)

The #improvrespect discussion arose following some of the ILHC strictly contests where many competitors appeared to have danced already-set choreographed jams to the music, not altering their dancing to anything happening in the music. (They could very well have altered their dancing to the music, but it didn’t look that way to many high-level dancers.)

Dancing that appears to be completely choreographed has happened often in previous strictlies and is a topic that fellow professional dancers have been talking about for years — I think recently it just became more obvious it needed to be addressed on a larger scale.

And, of course, this discussion is not about just one thing. There are several aspects to the problem, like what is expressed explicitly in contest rules, the use of choreography in an improvised dance, and who’s responsible for making the appropriate changes if we wish to change. And at the root of the discussion is exploring all the factors that have brought out, and continue to bring out, phrased-but-otherwise-unmusical choreographed jam-dancing. And it isn’t just “jam dancers tend to win”; it’s why they tend to win.

Most people are in agreement that yes, the music is there for a reason, and if competitors aren’t *really* dancing to it, then those hard-working (sometimes even live) musicians are wasting their effort, and the event should instead just mic a metronome.

All the master dancers I know are also all in agreement that, yes, choreography is part of performance Lindy Hop history, but if choreography is used in a modern contest, it should still be a *musical* choice. For instance, the dancers I love tend to either use choreography (1) in small enough chunks that it can be chosen for the right part of the music, or (2) in ways that can be changed or adapted to the music. This is the place where choreography gains the same elements of improvisation that other basic swing dance steps have.

If we want improvised dancing to flourish in strictlies, here are some thoughts on why unmusical choreographed-dancing sometimes wins, and some suggestions on how to change those factors (some of which are my own, but most of which are interpreted from or inspired by suggestions made in the Facebook discussions, especially in posts from Todd Yannacone, Chelsea Lee, Andy Reid, Michael “Falty” Faltesek, Carl Nelson, and Jerry Almonte).

Competitions & Comp Designers

Perhaps underneath all of this discussion is us coming to terms with contests in general.

Without question, contests greatly shape this social dance scene. There are a few reasons for this. First off, almost all clips of modern Lindy Hop (and Bal-Swing, Shag, etc.) dancers are contest footage; there is very little social dancing footage online. And online is where most people around the world watch their dancing and get their inspiration. Because of this, high level dancers know that contests results are great marketing, and if they desire to teach or possibly make swing a profession in any aspect, they believe that doing well in competitions is one of the most surefire ways of getting their credentials.

Finally, it’s in our nature to like competitions (of all kinds). They have dramatic, exciting elements that draw people to them. We love it when the stakes are high, and high stakes do occasionally produce incredible dancing moments. Some, especially many newer dancers who don’t feel they are qualified enough to have their own opinion, formulate their opinions about the dance based on placements in contests. (To those unsure newer dancers, I want to stress that dancing is not a sport, where scores are measured by objective results like goals, times, distances. Dancing is judged on artistic expression and form, and there are rarely clear winners to such contests.)

Before we go further, let’s look at the history of contest dancing in vintage swing dances. Contest dancing is a large part of swing dance history and how the dance has always been experienced (we are talking about a very expressive, entertaining dance, after all).

Probably the most famous Lindy Hop competition of all was the Harvest Moon Ball Festival. It was all-skate style where five couples at a time danced to two minutes of music by live bands (as Frankie recalled), knowing well that the contest rewarded acrobatic, exciting dancing — all of which meant competitors did improvisational dancing with choreographed steps thrown in, ideally at appropriate places in the music, though the footage leads us to believe they had more than their fair share of non-musical acrobatics.

There is at least one instance of a vintage contest using a spotlight format — the famous contest in which Frankie Manning did the first air-step. (By the way, in his book, he talks about how that was one contest where they “really danced to the music,” and how Chick Webb’s band helped them out to make it sound even more musical.) On the whole, my understanding is that though jam circles existed, they were not a contest format. I could easily be wrong, but from what I understand most of the contests involved dancers dancing for longer periods of time.

A lot of the original contests were all-skates with tap-outs, or the winners simply announced at the end (as shown in many old movies and recollections). Hal Takier was a famous competitor in Southern California swing contests and was known to wait for judges to look at him before throwing out his fancy moves.

A few decades after the swing era, dances like West Coast Swing began creating contests with labels like “Strictly,” where part of the point is to showcase “lead/follow” and “social dancing” skills, as stated in rules across the community’s competition’s websites. This is where the “Strictly” contest format comes from.

The early 2000s and the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown first brought the jam style contest to the worldwide Lindy Hop table. It was, to say the least, an exciting new way of doing contests that also tipped a hat to the great Whitey’s choreographies, which were performed in a short jam format.

The jam format has some obvious plusses: it is exciting for the audience, the competitors can draw instant inspiration from each other, and it takes a short amount of time so that people can get back to social dancing. (That is an ironic way in which this contest format supports social dancing.) The negatives, though, are that competitors don’t have very much time to show off their dancing. As has been discussed on Facebook, this encourages more choreographed dancing so as to increase the odds of doing something memorable during that short time period, especially if doing so has been shown to be rewarded in a specific contest.

This all means that many people are calling for promoters to express more clearly the purpose of a contest — both to the competitors as well as the judges — in the hopes that clarifying the purpose will produce competition dancing more in alignment with the values of the community (among which is improvisational social dancing). Is the purpose of having a strictly contest so that partnerships can show off social dance improvisational skills? Or is a strictly a place for couples to showcase performance Lindy Hop? Or are both elements expected to be there, and if so, in what proportion?

Todd pointed out that the strictlies are the only competitions where it is possible for partnerships to show off improvisation-heavy social dancing, whereas there are many other categories for choreographed dancing such as the showcase or classic. This is a very good point, because certainly there should be a contest to reward the improvisational skill set of partnerships (which I would argue is one of the greatest joys and products of partnerships). But currently it is not explicitly stated in most contest rules that this is the main judging criteria of the competition.

Some people express annoyance with giving Lindy Hop contests more rules, afraid that adding rules “kills the dance” or at least stifles it. But for me, it is only arbitrary rules that stifle or kill the dance, like specific requirements for how long dancers should be together or apart, for instance. Clearing up what the purpose of the contest is should actually make that aspect of the dance flourish and grow. (Also, worrying about contest rules and their effect on the dance is yet another sign of how powerful contests are in this social dance scene.)

Integral to this specific topic is the jam-style format. Some, like Chelsea, mentioned that if promoters want to promote improvisation in a strictly contest, then spotlight formats offer competitors the time to build and grow a dance better than do small chorus or phrase jams. Spotlights would also have the benefit of forcing dancers to be selective in their use of choreography — to use it more in the way the original dancers would have in the Harvest Moon Ball festivals.

Yes, more social dancing time would be eaten up at the event — but on the flip side, the world would see a lot more social dancing.

Competitors

Most high-level competitors have seen a lot of contests and to some extent keep track of what wins and doesn’t win. Clearly some of these competitors have decided to focus on highly choreographed dancing in competitions.

In a post, Jerry stressed the solution that if improvisational dancers want to get rewarded in contests, improvisational dancers should look to up their dancing. Those dancers who work with well-rehearsed choreography tend to look clean and dance very well together. Since part of competition judging almost always involves cleanliness of technique and partnership connection, improvisational dancing technique should strive to be competitive with choreographed technique in those ways.

Many offered the general advice, which I totally agree with, that dancers should strive to dance their own beliefs in contests. Yes, they should be aware of the rules and what they are getting into, and ask questions if they are unsure of the purpose of a contest — but, on the whole, Lindy Hop is a dance of self-expression.

Others, though, argue that dancers have every right to try to “play the game” in order to succeed in contests, and they do. (For me personally, I just have a game I like more: “showing what the dance means to me.” Do I still practice a lot of competition skills? Sure. Do I still try to understand the rules of the contest? Of course. But the ultimate goal is still expressing my dancing well, not winning.)

Judges

Speaking from experience, it is not common that modern day contests have clear-cut, obvious winners. (Just look at the range of judges scores in most competitions.) As has been pointed out in the #improvrespect discussion, most judges are scoring based on many factors. “Yes, this couple might have danced choreography and not listened well to the music — but they also had better mechanics, quality of movement, partnership connection, etc. than all the other dancers.” This is something a judge might have thought when putting a highly choreographed couple in first place.

The basic advice for judges in this discussion is understanding what the purpose of the contest is in case there is any ambiguity, and having a discussion with the promoters and other judges, if need be, to make sure everyone is communicating in some way.

Judges can also keep in mind that looking good and doing impressive steps is only part of what swing dancing is. Another, and some would argue equally difficult, skill is interpreting the music. The difficulty and skill of the second is sometimes much harder to see than the first. But that’s why we pay judges the big buc– oh wait. There are no big bucks in Lindy Hop.

And, it would be great if judges keep an eye on how the band is contributing to the musicality they are seeing. A drummer can make every air-stpe look like it lands at a great moment because they hit the kick and cymbals when the couple’s feet hit the ground. A trumpeter can show you a couple is *not* listening to the music by playing something unexpected (tricks musicians talked about at an ILHC LED Talk).

Audiences

Almost all of the instant feedback competitors get on their dancing is from the audience. The judges most often have their judging faces on and look recently-taxidermied because they are concentrating on processing everything they are seeing. And the audience’s reaction can be extremely powerful (I’ve actually had to work on tuning it out as a competitor — it takes me out of the moment too easily). Every time the audience cheers, dancers get reinforcement for what they did.

So, knowing this, an audience member invested in supporting improvisation can create a change in the dancing by cheering loudly for good examples of improvisation and by not cheering for flashy-but-unmusical dancing.

If you love to watch contests, another thing you can do is watch social dancing a lot more. If you’re at an event, and you see your favorite dancers social dancing, take a few songs to watch them dance. Maybe ask them if you can video tape them a little (key word being “little”).

Promoters

When choosing who to bring to their town to teach, promoters understandably often look to couples that are desired. And, as we have discussed, good competitors inspire dancers around the world, so often promoters look to hire top competitors to teach.

My advice for promoters is two-fold. First off, there are many top-level dancers who inspire people in their competition dancing. Choose the ones who personally represent the dance you love, the dance you have gone so far as to spend lots of time and money to promote.

Secondly, investigate the teaching ability of those instructors you want to bring in. Remember that great competition dancing and great teaching are two different skill sets. You can’t depend on the assumption that they will be able to do both.

The Average Dancer

Do what you’ve been doing, which is discussing this kind of stuff.

We’re all in the middle of a journey here, not at the end — we’re still learning new things about how our dance culture works and how we want it to work. It’s discussions like these that get us to better places.

Also, let your voice be heard to local promoters: tell them which couples you want to learn from at your local workshop.

Conclusion

I felt like part of this discussion was, in a sense, trying to figure out whose job it is to fix this problem. In doing so, I think the discussion has proven that everyone can take some responsibility for “respecting improv.”

It’s like moving something heavy — if everyone carries their portion of the weight, it’s a lot easier to lift.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2014 5:38 pm

    Hey Bobby great article by the way love your stuff and enjoy the history you tied to this because a friend of mine wondered if people choreographed in competitions back during the original swing era. Also, you mentioned “working on competition skills” what would those skills be exactly if you don’t mind me asking?

    • Bobby permalink*
      September 23, 2014 9:36 pm

      Sure — competition skills are basically all non-social dancing skills required to express yourself to an audience while social dancing in front of them. Some competition skills are mental — like overcoming anxiety while dancing in front of other people, and some of them physical — like knowing where to look and how to line up your moves so they are well showcased to the audience.

      • September 24, 2014 1:56 am

        Sweet!! Thanks Bobby I’ve gone to small workshops that discuss lining up your moves so the judges and audiences can see what you’re doing. I’ve been really studying that a lot lately when it comes to comps. I’m big on social dancing but having choreographed nuggets that can be thrown in based on where we are in the music but to have those physical skills you talked about I’d love to get insight on but be easier to get my skill technique up first before worrying about subtleties

  2. September 23, 2014 7:47 pm

    I think you’re perfectly right that we all have to carry this.

    I do think however that there is confusion about what the categories of Classic, Showcase, Strictly etc. really mean, as seen here: http://lindyhopproblems.tumblr.com/post/96623441759

    It’s not that the competitors don’t know – but that the crowd, not knowing exactly what is meant by each category, will just always cheer for what looks cool or impressive regardless – and often that’s the tight choreography.

    Maybe along with the crowd getting more clued-up and cheering impressive impromptu leading and following based on the music – we can announce what is meant by each category or maybe even rename them…?

    Strictly Improvisation
    Classic Choreography
    Showcase Performance

    It’s a bit of a mouthful I suppose, but maybe someone else can do better – or we can somehow include taglines that allude to the same so we all know where we stand.

    Just a thought, thanks again for your well thought-out posts Bobby :)

  3. The Lindbergh Girl permalink
    September 24, 2014 11:18 am

    *flops around a little bit*
    I’m a new swing dancer, and this blog is so awesome! Dancing is so much fun but my partner (most of the time my partner, anyway) is a senior and going off to college at the end of the year. He’s the one who introduced me to swing last year and taught me the basics and is who I feel most comfortable dancing with. I’m afraid that when he’s gone I’m not going to want to keep dancing.
    I’m not really asking for advice or anything (it would be appreciated, though!) but I just needed to get that off my chest. I felt someone would get it here. Thanks. :)
    Again, awesome, helpful blog!!

    • Bobby permalink*
      October 1, 2014 8:15 am

      Hi there! Thanks for your compliments :)

      Since you’re open to it, I do have some advice for you:

      Not knowing what motivation (or in this case, lack of motivation) you may have for not wanting to dance after your partner is gone, I can offer a few thoughts:

      (1) If you don’t want to continue dancing, then there is nothing that says you have to. Like many things in life, this might be a passion you have for a few years, and which you enjoy, but perhaps you might not like it enough to do it for the rest of your life.

      (2) If you are truly passionate about it, there is nothing that will probably get in the way of you pursuing it (or at least, you should do all you can to do it) I went to a college where no one but on other person did just a little. I kept seeking people to learn with me, and by the time I graduated, I had had six or seven different partners I had worked with and had had many great dancing experiences throughout that college which was a desert of Lindy Hop when I had arrived.

      (3) At the very least, don’t let “there’s no one to do it with” be the reason you stop if you really like it. There are many people who would love to learn this dance, and I’m confident you can find those people to partner with you. You can also learn the other role (as a leader, for instance, it’s a little easier to find partners to work with , or work on solo dancing.

      Hope all of that helps! Feel free to ask more questions if you have them.

      Bobby

  4. September 25, 2014 1:50 am

    I am trying and trying to get worked up about this topic, but I just can’t. I don’t mind whether a couple pull out choreographed or improvised dancing in a routine; I just want to see good dancing. Competitions should be entertaining. Make me want to spend $10 on a ticket to watch someone else dance. If that means pulling out 3 minutes worth of choreographed dancing, then I’m ok with that.

    …having made that (not particularly helpful) comment…

    I’m really interested in your points about competitions being essentially promotion for traveling teachers. I book teachers for a couple of events a year, and I’m often torn between booking someone high profile (who’ll pull the crowds) and someone who’s actually a decent teacher, not an arsehat, and representing the dance I want to see and do.

    For me, then, it means making decisions about the events I want to run. Do I want to attract one million people, or do I want to service the local community with quality teaching? This is a hard one for us in Australia, because it’s really expensive to fly anyone here. We actually do need to pull a decent number of people to the event. And we need to charge higher rego costs, because our scenes are smaller. And that means that punters have to really want to attend your event.

    Which means that you have to convince people that the event – not just the teachers! – is worth their time and money. One flashy routine from ILHC can be far more effective than a complex cross-platform promotional strategy.

    But I’m going to stick to my policy of only booking teachers who are decent people, and excellent teachers. Flashy routines really are easier to pull out than a thoughtful, useful class that changes people’s dancing. A fancy aerial is less important than a satisfying 3 minute conversation with a nice person. And one nasty snub from an international teacher will live forever in conversations in a community. And for many organisers, a teacher who’s a massive pain in the arse is just not worth the time and money to bring them out. And organisers talk to each other.

    …I think, ultimately, that if you want to get hired for teaching gigs, a million great ILHC routines aren’t going to mean a thing if you’re a difficult, unpleasant person to work with and learn from. Your gigs will dry up, and people will avoid hiring you. No matter how amazing your improvised or choreographed competition performances.

  5. September 25, 2014 11:10 am

    Reblogged this on I Kill My Darlings and commented:
    read this later.

  6. October 6, 2014 2:15 pm

    I think it’s cyclical : competitions make for flashy and exciting dancers who are perceived as being “good” and then book gigs where they teach and don’t necessarily perpetuate good social dancing skills but then they showcase their flashiness at the events where they teach and they judge at those events and the winners are the ones who work on their moves and can be flashier in a contest, so those winners are seen as “good” and book gigs and so on…

    This is why I don’t go to workshops that are competition heavy, because I don’t care. I hate competitions, since they take away from my dancing time and make events cost more. I hate the attitude I see when judges and instructors are also trying to focus on their competition later…OR…when the dancers at the event are so worried about their competition that they don’t want to dance with anyone before because they are rehearsing or after because they are tired.

    I prefer lindy exchanges and workshops, generally hosted by colleges, where you’re going to get teaching about social dancing and then a bunch of people at the dance who want to practice what they learned…or just a big social dance full of interesting people who just want to dance with everyone. I prefer the highly skilled dancers I find at social events to any flashy competitor.

    I think that there are really two circles in the swing community : competitors and social dancers. I think they are going to different events. There are so many really awesome dancers out there, who are dancing at a master level, and no one knows who they are because they don’t compete at all. They’re these magical jewels in any given social scene, and even the most beginners have the pleasure of dancing with them, since they are out there to be social and don’t have any pressures put on them for competing.

  7. kingired permalink
    November 3, 2014 9:39 am

    So maybe for comps there needs to be a round or two where the partners are drawn from a hat. It would be pretty hard to have a fully coreographed routine with a random partner.

    Then we’d see who the good leads and follows are.

    • Greg permalink
      November 17, 2014 6:19 pm

      It leaves a lot to chance, but the jack and Jill format is really the only form of competition that demonstrates social dancing in its truest form. You get a partner whom you may or may not have danced with previously, you get some music, and you get to make it as good as possible. The only real difference between normal social dancing is that there may be more space on the floor… Maybe it would be good to put a box on the floor for them to dance in… A good jack and Jill competition gets crazy, and that isn’t at all the case for other competition forms. The issue with other forms is that most pairs who train together probably won’t do things in a competition that they have never done before because they both know what their partner knows. But chances are good that improv can happen in a jack and Jill because the partners don’t know all of the other one’s tricks.

      • Bobby permalink*
        November 19, 2014 10:46 pm

        Often good partnerships work so well and magically *because* they dance together so often. Just think of great jazz musicians: Django and Stefan Grapelli, for instance, are artists who both improvise but also know how to listen to each other better than anyone else can — the result is they both know how to support each other without getting in the way of each other. Great dance partnerships dancing improvisation do the same thing.

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