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Consider This: “Huh-huh-huh-HO!”

April 25, 2018
Jams

Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Anne Johnson, next to Herbert “Whitey” himself, at the edge of a jam circle.

Several years ago a trend arose in jam circles where dancers started shouting “huh-huh-huh-ho!” to usher in the next couple jamming. This trend probably arose from very good intentions — it is a sign of encouragement and support to dancers entering. It warns jam dancers in the circle that a new couple is coming out, possibly with an air-step that would land where they are currently dancing. It helps emphasize the structure of the swing phrase as it is coming to an end for those jam dancers who are unsure of when they should go in. It has a sense of community to it.

The last few years have also seen another trend in the swing scene — a strong appreciation for incredible, live musicianship. A great musician says quite a lot when they take a solo, and many dancers enjoy listening to that and reacting to it. And something we should all realize is that a loud “huh-huh-huh-ho” covers up what musicians are trying to say, especially at the end of a phrase, a rich time in the music of conclusion, rhythm, and transition. In fact, a “huh-huh-huh-ho” not only covers it up, it literally replaces it with a generic phrase ending.

Ironically, our basic understanding of jazz music and structure, which most dancers have in the modern scene, has arguably caused us to lose perspective of some of the looseness of jazz and self-expression. For instance, who says a dancer has to enter a jam circle on the start of a phrase or be done by the end of a phrase? Are these particularly good times to do so? Sure, but they aren’t the only times.

For instance, look no further than the scene’s greatest heroes, the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who very rarely lined up their jams with the perfect length of phrases — instead, they seemed to dance til the end of ideas, movement or musical.

Now, just because the Whitey’s did it, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better. But I do think their example demonstrates some important things about how the inventors of our dances used to interact with the music. If we think of a musical phrase as a paragraph composed of sentences, original dancers would go out and dance to sentences, and didn’t necessarily care about beginning and ending with the paragraph.

The flow of such dancing is a part of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers’ flow — it’s part of how their dancing looks, and I think its unpredictability in that regard gives it an organic and exciting look that creates different energy than the modern jam, with its predictably phrased time-tables.

Speaking of energy, one of the biggest reasons people seem to argue for saying “huh-huh-huh-ho!” is that they like the enthusiastic energy it gives the jam circle. Energy comes in many flavors, some of them very subtle, and if we’re always pushing for ENERGY! then we’re missing the opportunity to enjoy the wide variety of energies that swing music has to offer.

A group of a hundred people standing close together experiencing something is already a lot of potential energy. When a jam circle is more organic — people entering and leaving when they feel inspired, and people setting the mood of how they want to dance, not to mention letting the musicians and how they’re ending the phrases help shape that — then we’ll have a richer experience.

(Also, if a jam is going to have great energy, all it needs are some great swing-outs.)

That is why I argue that we as a scene should move on from “huh-huh-huh-ho.” However, we should still keep the good of it. By all means, encourage people to get into jam circles, shout them on with joy, and yell when they do something that inspires you, on your own terms. Doing so will make you part of the experience, part of the community of that jam circle.

But let the music tell them when to begin.

flourish

By the way, the jam circle — the act of a community standing in a circle while people take turns dancing — has historical roots that are a lot more complex than most people realize. The jam circle goes back thousands and thousands of years of African history (often with the purpose of worship) and then hundreds of years of (often tragic) African-American history involving slavery and cultural destruction, before it became, not coincidentally, one of the foundations of jazz music and jazz dance.

This perhaps doesn’t have much bearing on the question of whether we should shout “huh-huh-huh-ho!” or not; Or perhaps it does — regardless, we think it’s important for modern dancers to reflect on that. A jam circle is a sacred thing.

 

Special thanks to Joey Shelley and Michael Quisao (and their FB game) for bringing up the conversation. And as always, editor Chelsea Lee.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg Avakian permalink
    April 25, 2018 4:29 pm

    “And something we should all realize is that a loud “huh-huh-huh-ho” covers up what musicians are trying to say, especially at the end of a phrase, a rich time in the music of conclusion, rhythm, and transition. In fact, a “huh-huh-huh-ho” not only covers it up, it literally replaces it with a generic phrase ending.”

    Says so much about the formulaic approach of the dominant culture.
    I really appreciate your understanding of joyful enthusiasm of jazz and dancing being overtaken by “our” thinking of how to participate and do things “right”. It’s so awesome that we love the music (and musicians) …so much so that we want to participate and share our love of the music with the band as they share it with us.

  2. Bobby permalink*
    April 25, 2018 6:01 pm

    As the discussion continues on Facebook, I found myself discussing another aspect of the Huh-Huh-Huh Ho debate that I find important. Here is the basic post:

    Perhaps it all boils down to control. The Huh-huh-ho, whether originally intended to or not, has to me a strong, underlying sense of control about it, a desire to control when people go in, when the next couple goes in, and how long to stay, and that jams should be phrase-based. I totally understand this desire for control — so that people know when the beat is, so that everyone gets their fair share of time. But how much is a jam circle about control? At what point does a controlling behavior stifle something organic. That’s not rhetorical — or at least, I don’t imply the answer is obvious. Though listening to the music is my main reason for thinking we should drop “huh-huh-huh-ho”, I *do* think it will produce something new and different to let go of the control it has. The ideal is that people learn more what a jam circle CAN be, and how to communicate via jam circle language, and the electric experience that can produce. Though I fully admit that another possible result is a lot of jam circles with people who fumble into a jam cause they are too excited to find the downbeat (not a crime at all) or who dance like jerks. Again, though, I’d like to think that we can learn ho to handle those situations through jam circle language. (I should also say, I’m not horribly offended by “huh-huh-huh-ho,” and if that were the occasional way to “reset” a jam circle or something, that might be as good a way as any.)

  3. Alex Abdoulaev permalink
    April 26, 2018 10:42 pm

    A few things.

    1. I have never in the entirety of my professional life felt that a group of people shouting in rhythm in some way covers up or replaces my, or anyone else’s, solo.

    2. The thing about jazz that most people seem to be deliberately unwilling to grasp is that there’s no wrong way to interact with it or enjoy it.

    3. West African music, which is where traditional jazz has its roots, is predicated on the notions of communal music making and polyrhythms. There are others, to be sure, but those are two of its most common unifying elements. Unless I’m completely misinterpreting intent here, the “hup-hup-ho”s contribute to the musical landscape in both of these areas. I guess I’m failing to see how this is a problem.

    4. A jam circle is not a sacred thing. There is literally nothing of the sort that has ever been said, ever, by any primary source or researcher. It is no more or less sacred than any other element of the music. Please stop creating mystique where there is none.

    Regards,
    -A

  4. May 15, 2018 9:05 pm

    Hi, Bobby! I was wondering if I can post a translation of this article on our blog.

  5. June 13, 2018 4:06 am

    I thought this was a super interesting post. Thank you for sharing. One thing that occurs to me is sometimes the “Huh-huh-huh-HO” can be more or less appropriate, not just based on what the musicians are doing, but based on what the dancers are doing too! For instance, I will find myself feeling inspired to yell “Huh-huh-huh-HO” if it’s the end of the phrase and the couple is doing something that builds up to a pop turn or a jump turn. (The word “hacksaws” is coming to mind, but I don’t think that’s quite what I’m thinking of.) But you get the idea -there are some movements that inspire the kind of ENERGY! from the rest of the circle that you talked about in your post.

    To add an extra layer of nuance to what you’re already saying, I think that in many ways, the way people in a jam circle experience the music being played is mediated by the dancing that they are watching. If the dancers in the middle are offering an accurate reflection of what’s happening with the band onstage, then hopefully the rest of the circle will realize when yelling is and is not contributing positively to the energy and feeling of the moment. However, if the dancers in the middle are going all-out (again, ENERGY!) when the band is getting quiet (I think of the middle of the song “Perdido”), then the people in the circle may become confused and yell when it would be a better choice to clap and smile.

    Finally, do you have any videos of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers or other vintage dancers that show this kind of mid-phrase (or “mid-paragraph”) dance starting/ending that you mentioned? I know that is a super specific and very obscure request, but I would love to see any if there’s even one you had in mind!

  6. Nathan permalink
    July 9, 2018 7:37 pm

    I agree. I am annoyed by this huh huh ho thing. I am also annoyed by the obligation that competitors feel to do a bunch of swing outs together. Both speak towards the need of the lindy scene and its constituents to find safety in mores instead of bearing the risk and burden of honest self expression in dance and in the moment.

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