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The Pieces of Individuality

April 3, 2020

As a professional dance instructor in the time of COVID-19, my income for at least the next four months has been erased. This post is composed with a suggested donation of $3. If you read it, especially if you found it thought-provoking, please donate! You will be *literally* helping support an artist, and have my sincerest gratitude. If you think someone else will enjoy it, I will also appreciate it greatly if you share it on social media. 

 

“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”

— Billie Holiday

Individualism is an essential part of the legacy of jazz, no less so the swing dancer. But though that’s easy enough to say, what are the forces that actually shape a voice into a unique one?

We came up with a few.

Individualism by choice.

To many, this might be the obvious one. But let’s see what else we come up with before we talk about it.

Individualism through imitation.

It sounds like a contradiction, but imitation has always been one of the most powerful ways artists create their individual voices. Almost every artist ever has gone through a stage of imitation, which isn’t surprising when we realize it’s the primary way humans have evolved to learn. It’s what they do after that that’s important for individualism. For imitation to lead to individualism, the imitation either has to (1) evolve in some way into something new, or (2) it has to be combined with different sources of imitation itself to create something new.

A great example is Leon James and Al Minns, who both, like many other Harlem dancers of the time, loved imitating Earl “Snakehips'” Tucker’s iconic hip-slinking move.

Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, one of the great eccentric dancers.

When Leon did one of his own versions of “Snakehips” in The Tranky Doo footage, it looked very different from the original — he kept his feet wide, and in place, and lifted his arms in the air. In Leon’s hands, “Snakehips” had evolved into something obviously different. (And was pretty much doing the move Elvis would become known for before Elvis did it).  Imitation to evolution.

Leon James’s unique take on “Snakehips,” right. (Al Minns left, Pepsi Bethel middle.)

Al’s version of “Snakehips” stayed more true to the original — but what he did, was put a little bit of “Snakehips” into a lot of his other steps, creating unique combinations. One of the tricks to his “Tacky-Annes” in his “Al & Leon’s Shim Sham” is a snake-hip motion that gives it a subtle twist.   Combinations of imitations.

AL Minns on left, using some “Snakehips” in his Tacky-Annes.

Individualism shaped by previous influence.

Some individualism comes from a strong presence of previous technique from other art forms.

For instance, one mark of SoCal Lindy dancer Irene Thomas’s individuality is her tap-inspired variations — she had a background in tap.

But Jewel MacGowan’s is probably the greatest example: She was originally a SoCal “Swing” dancer (as in, Bal-Swing), and so she tended to move in the ways Bal-Swing dancers moved — for instance, she tended to move rotationally by default, rather than linearly. When she learned Lindy and began crafting her swing outs and swivels, she did so by reacting a lot more rotationally than had been done before, and created a unique swing out and swivel that is still her trademark today.

Jewel MacGowan with Dean Collins in Buck Privates

Individualism shaped by strengths.

Our strengths as dancers — and humans — can help shape our individualism.

For instance, we can look at many of our Lindy Hopper elders to see how their individuality was designed around their bodies’ strengths. Anne Johnson and Frankie Manning did big air steps because both were very strong and were ideal sizes for their roles. Jean Veloz and Lenny Smith were shorter and smaller than average, and so Jean leaned back dramatically against her partners, and Lenny fell forward and sat into his movements in order to lead them.

Jean Veloz and Lenny Smith throw their bodies into it in Swing Fever

Al Minns’s jam in Hellzapoppin showed off his leg lines in almost everything he did — because his legs were long and flexible. Mildred Pollard was strong, and so she threw air steps on leaders and often carried them.

A lot of them would use and amplify their personality’s strengths. Though there are many examples in our elders, Leon James is a particularly great one  — he was natural at performance and humor, so he put a strong emphasis on facial expression and comical timing.

Leon James’ ‘Scarecrow Charlestons’ from “The Playboy Clip.”

Individualism shaped by insecurities.

Sometimes coping with our own insecurities can be the author of our individual styles.

Bob Fosse is considered one of the greatest individual stylists in dance history. He loved using hats in his choreographies and it’s one of the trademarks of his famous dancing style. The story goes Bob used hats so much in his dancing and choreography because he was self-conscious of his bald head. He liked wearing white gloves in dancing because he didn’t like his hands.

An example, however, of him owning a body-insecurity was how he turned his slumped posture into a trademark shape.  And now, decades after his death, all a dancer has to do is slump their posture, put out one “jazz hand” and touch the other to an imaginary hat, and people recognize the Fosse impression.

Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire often curled his middle fingers in order to downplay the size of his hands.

Fred Astaire also didn’t like the look of his hands, which he felt were too big. So, he put his two middle fingers closer together in a lot of his dancing, creating the unique shape he became known for. (He also was rumored to have worn a pair of long underwear under his tuxes to soften the harsh angles of his knees and elbows.) These are examples of great artists making choices driven by their insecurities.

An example from the world of vintage swing was Mildred Pollard and her air steps — We mentioned she did a lot of the throwing, but the main reason she started doing so was because she didn’t like being the flyer in air steps, it scared her. So she decided to be the thrower, and helped invent several unique air steps as the base, like the shake -the-change Al Minns does in Hellzapoppin.

Individualism inherent because of body type.

One of the things that is already individual about you is your body type. Your body is your own, and, trust me, no matter how hard you might try to do something exactly like someone else, it will most likely to be impossible to look like them if you have a different body type than theirs.

It’s hard to find a good example of this clearly in action — I can’t think of an obvious example where two of our elders of different body types are doing the same thing in exactly the same way. Most of the original dancers all did things in slightly different ways, even when they were doing the same move.

But I can give a personal example. One time while working with some peers, I put on loop a dance step of a dancer with almost the opposite body type of me. I started repeating it, tweaking it, timing and all, but was annoyed that it didn’t look like the dancer’s. I was getting frustrated trying to figure out what I was doing “wrong,” when my fellow dance instructor — who has a very keen eye — said, “You’ve got it.” I said I didn’t think so, it doesn’t look exactly like it.  My friend laughed and said, “It’s never going to look exactly like it.”  When I looked at it that way, I realized they were right — I was doing it pretty much exactly the same way, and I would never look exactly like the dancer in the clip.

Whereas this was once a frustration of broken dreams, it is now an empowering trick: Some things my body will automatically give an obviously individual flavor to.

Individualism shaped by isolation.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” — British novelist L. P.  Hartley

It is always helpful to remember this quote when thinking of our swing dance elders — from any previous generation. One of the biggest differences between their world and ours was how much isolation played a role in their dancing.

The Whitey’s dancers couldn’t take classes on Lindy Hop, they had to make it up for themselves. And so what they invented looked different than any other dancing being done at the time. Balboa dancers tended to dance and practice with their own friend groups, so much that Balboa dancers said you could tell which high school someone went to based on how they did their basic. These examples show how isolation is a mother of invention and unique style.

Ironically, until recently the scene had the opposite of this problem. The Lindy scene has been so connected through YouTube and event-traveling that a lot of  regions have lost their individual dance styles. Or at least, they are existing on a much smaller, more subtle level.

Individualism shaped by necessity.

You’ll probably never see another dancer like “Peg-Leg” Bates. And his dancing is an extreme example of how individuality can be shaped by necessity. So many of the things he does was shaped by the necessity of working with having only one foot and a peg leg.

But it happens in small ways all the time.  For example, the whole reason we have the unique dance known as the Whitey’s Big Apple is because Whitey told Frankie Manning he needed to invent a “Big Apple” style choreography for a movie they were filming. Otherwise we probably would never have the piece in the modern lexicon. (By the way, speaking of individualism — one of the coolest jazz dance geek experiences is going through the Big Apple and looking at each individual dancer, and see how different they dance the routine than the next.) And we as teachers make up moves all the time because we have to teach the next day, moves that often become part of our repertoire, and thus, individuality.

A great example of necessity driving individualism in our elders is George Lloyd. A large part of George’s individual style is his both his smooth sliding style and his calm torso. According to Lindy historian (and George’s dance partner) Margaret Batiuchok, George danced this way because he had a bad back, and anyone with a bad back knows that it’s only comfortable if you stay in good posture and don’t jostle it too much.  Hence, lots of sliding and a calm torso.

Savoy dancer George Lloyd, dancing with Margaret Batiuchok.

Individualism shaped by accident.

dizzy_gillespieDizzy Gillespie is famous for his bent trumpet. Occasionally he bent the truth and told people he had done it because he wanted it to sound that way. Then he told the real story, as recounted in the book Jazz Anecdotes: His trumpet was bent when some drunken friend of his fell on it at a house party. When he played it, however, he liked the softness of the tone it made in the trumpet. So he had an actual trumpet designed for him with that bend in it. Individualism through accident.

The Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers made quite a few of their air steps by accident. They’d be practicing one, and it would go wrong in such a way that it would create a new one.

And recently I was practicing a new dance move when I changed my weight wrong and my foot slid out from under me. I caught myself and was able to finish the move, but as it happened I noticed in the mirror that it looked kinda cool. So, I’ve been recreating the accident and shaping it into something that might very well become part of my individual dancing style.

Individualism shaped by time and repetition.

It’s a beautifully simple and empowering idea. Individuality (and creativity) are often simply the natural product of time and repetition. Do something over and over again, and over time, it will naturally evolve into something unique and individual to the person doing it.

A fellow instructor has a story about asking Frankie Manning a question when he (the fellow instructor) was a young but curious student. “What was your swing out like in Hellzapoppin compared to now?”  Frankie looked at him and asked “Do you know what your swing out was like two years ago?” My friend admitted he didn’t, probably seeing exactly where Frankie was going: Frankie laughed and said “Then how do you expect me to remember what my swing out was like 70 years ago?”

Frankie was acknowledging this very principle. Frankie didn’t design all of the changes that came over his dancing over the years, but he knew that changes had happened simply because he kept dancing over the decades, and hundreds of uneasy-to-pinpoint factors shaped his dancing, morphing it over the years and repetitions.

By the way, we can probably pin-point some of those factors — our bodies find and refine a groove over repetitions. The shoes you tend to wear, the floors you dance on, the clothes you tend to dance in, your partners and the forces they tend to enact on you — all of these will have a subconscious influence over your movement throughout those repetitions.

Individualism inherent because of subconscious personality.

Anyone who has had a cat, or dog, or baby, or other expensive household being knows that individualism simply exists even if the being isn’t aware of it. It’s genetics — a lot of your individual personality is going to be there, whether you know it or not.

Perhaps this is really best shown in the variety of original dancers’ styles — dancers who were inventing the dance as it went along, and a lot of whom purposefully tried to keep their personalities in their dancing.

For instance, just look at these jams in Spirit Moves. (Please note: We are not claiming these dancers weren’t aware of their personalities. We’re just saying that, overall, the wide breadth of differences among the original dancers just naturally shows a wide breadth of personalities.)

 

I think a problem with the modern scene is that a lot of dancers spend so much of their time mimicking not only their favorite dancers’ moves, but their personalities, and thus they stifle their own from shining brightly.

Individualism by selectivity.

By which we mean, the things we choose to do versus the things we choose not to do. I’d even add and why we make those choices.

Jewel MacGowan really only had a handful of “variations” she would do that would take her away from the basic Lindy and swivel footwork — even though she was seeing the playful dancing of other SoCal followers like Jean Veloz and Irene Thomas.  I’ve never seen Al Minns do a step the way Leon James did it, nor have I ever seen Leon James do a step the way Al Minns did it, and yet they both danced next to each other for decades. Bal-Swing dancer Willie Desatoff stuck with only one small group of steps to develop his intricate dancing, despite being on the same dance floor as movement-heavy Hal Takier and Maxie Dorf.

Willie Desatoff dancing with Anne Mills

These elders all have this in common: surrounded by a bounty of choices, they were very selective about what they did, and how they did it.

I think perhaps the modern scene could really take this to heart. We’re surrounded by so many choices that it’s easy for a lot of us to become dancers who simply do a lot of stuff. Whereas, if each dancer chose to do only the things they really truly enjoyed, there would automatically be a lot more individualism on the dance floor.

Individualism by choice.

“…I could copy their style down to a tee. People told me I looked just like them. Since they were the top dancers, I thought I must be getting pretty good. Except nobody ever said, ‘You dance like Frankie.’ ”  — Frankie Manning, from Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop.

So here were are again, back to choice. Though we discussed how some aspects of your individuality are there without choice, obviously, a great deal of these previous sections involve choice.

I think most dancers feel in their hearts it’s a very fulfilling aspect of jazz dance to exercise and express who you are in your dancing. And yet I think many dancers constantly find themselves trying to dance the way it’s “supposed” to be danced, the way you’re “supposed” to in order to win contests, the way you’re “supposed” to dance in order to be admired by your idols, the way you’re “supposed” to dance to get approval from teachers.

In this time of COVID-19, as many of us our finding ourselves in our own homes, away from social dances, away from regular classes and contests, it’s a great opportunity to take some time focusing on dancing the way YOU want to. And find out what that means to your fulfillment as a jazz dancer.

flourish

PRACTICE CHALLENGE:

Don’t just think about it, dance about it. For those of you looking for some solo practice inspiration during this time of COVID-19, take a few sessions to try this: How many individual traits can you explore by going down the list?

We recommend giving yourself a little time-limit stress, or else you could easily get swept away (maybe that’s a good thing, though?) Tell you what, try to get each exercise done in no more than ten minutes —- unless you’re looking to go down a few rabbit holes. ;) But that will give you either two hour-long practices or four thirty-minute long practices of material. 

  1. Individualism through evolving something you’ve imitated. Choose a basic jazz step you’ve gotten from a teacher or the Lindy Hop public domain. Choose one thing about it to tweak, so that you’ve turned it into something else that you like. Bonus: Do a tweak you’re pretty sure no one has ever done before, at least in any contest or camera footage you know of. Even if it’s really far out-there and you don’t know if you’d ever do it — at least you’ll know you have the power to come up with something truly unique.
  2. Individualism through combinations. Choose one way of moving and combine it with another jazz step or movement you’ve never done before. For instance, take a step of the shim sham and combine another jazz step with one of the movements. Maybe this is your new way of doing the Shim Sham, your individual style of that shim-sham step.
  3. Individualism through previous influence. This one is a tricky one to re-create in the practice lab, but it might look something like this: Forget every piece of advice you have been given by a teacher about jazz dance movement. Now, take a movement you are very used to from some other movement part of your life — ballet, soccer, yoga, power lifting  — whatever you got, that’s what you use. Now mess around with a jazz step that you think might be able to be influenced by that — perhaps you take your baseball pitching and put a little of that into your Charleston. Perhaps you take your roller skating and make that into a step. Perhaps you see how swimming technique can be a part of some of your jazz steps in a cool  way. It doesn’t matter if it’s “right” or “wrong” — it only matters if it feels good to do.
  4. Individualism through strengths. (1) What’s a strength of your body type? Come up with some moves — or ways of doing moves — that really show off that strength. (2) What’s a strength of your personality? Put on a song and dance everything from that mental place.
  5. Individualism through insecurities. Alright, we might be entering some emotionally-stressful territory, but ideally, it will lead to us knowing ourselves better. It’s also a very personal place to create Individuality from. Think of an insecurity you might have in your dancing. (My list would include things like my gangliness, my tallness compared to my partner, or my back’s natural tendency to arch.)  Now, we want you to try two different things to the same insecurity — (1) Choose a way to “hide it” by doing something to take attention away from it. (2) Choose something to own it — exaggerate it, show it off, say to yourself — My body’s choice is valid, and I’m going to support my body’s existence.
  6. Individualism inherent because of body type. Choose a dancer who has a very different body shape than you. Now choose *one* *relatively easy* shape that they do in a YouTube clip of their dancing. Take some time to try to do it as close to them as possible, and film it, or take a picture of it — when you feel you’ve got it, take a look. Process the experience mentally and emotionally.
  7. Individualism through isolation. Congrats, well done! In seriousness, try a chunk of practice where you isolate yourself from YouTube, from your notebook of things to work on, from anything mentally related to the bigger “swing” world. See what you come up with while filling the time.
  8. Individualism through necessity. Put a timer on for ten minutes. In ten minutes, you have to have a new solo jazz step or combo to teach to a class that’s titled “____your name here____  Style.” Go.
  9. Individualism by accident. Alright, we admit it, this one’s hard to do on purpose. It might take awhile to “dance until something happens by accident that you can use as inspiration.” Or, it might not. Give it a try for three songs.
  10. Individualism by time and repetition. Alright, this one is the long con. Choose one step and styling — you’re going to do only this step and styling throughout an entire song. Bonus points for doing this same exercise once every practice for several practices. Tape the process. When you’re done, take a close look at the beginning product, and the end product, and note the differences.
  11. Individualism inherent because of subconscious personality. For some of you this will be easy, for some of you, very hard. You’re going to move around and not care what you look like or what you do. And you’re just going to keep trying whatever comes into your head the moment it comes into your head. As you do things that you like the feeling of, do those things again, and keep coming back to them. When it’s done, try to remember some of your favorites and do them.
  12.  Individualism by selectivity. You probably know a great many moves/movements. Choose three to five of those, the ones you like the best (you could have many reasons.) Put on music and only focus on those three to five moves — don’t worry about any others. Afterwards, think about how it felt.

 

Individualism by choice. Now that you’ve done this, make a list of the things you really like that you did throughout the process. Keep doing those things. In the future, as you go to classes and learn new things, say to yourself:

I am thankful I have learned some new and inspiring ideas. Do I want to make them part of my dancing? If so, how do I want to do them?

(Sure, you might feel like you’re forcing it a little during all these exercises, but just because something is forced doesn’t mean you can’t get some really good, or at least interesting, results from it.)

 

Bobby offers online private lessons (30 min, 45min, or 1 hour) and in-depth reviews of videos (you send him video of your dancing, he gives a lot of pointers). Contact him at robertwhiteiii@gmail.com.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Mooney permalink
    April 8, 2020 4:55 am

    You almost say this. I’ve heard that originality comes from trying to imitate someone else and getting it wrong.

  2. April 10, 2020 6:44 pm

    I rarely dance anymore but really appreciate this post — it reminds me of what I appreciate about seeing dance on the screen and the experience of joy in social dancing. Maybe I’ll try solo dancing at home for fun and worry less about getting the steps ‘right.’ :)

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