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Recently we did a post on the sources of individuality in one’s jazz dancing. Something we went into a little is the modern scene’s relationship to individuality. We wanted to explore that a little further, specifically in regard to the teaching and learning of the dance.
In order to talk about this, we made up a few terms: Pan-style: with regard to many different styles, mechanics, or options, and Lone-style, with regard to a specific style/mechanic/option, or specific set of styling/mechanics/options.
Though we will be using extremes to explore this point, it’s more realistic to think of this ultimately as a scale. For instance, the most extreme Pan-Style teacher would teach absolutely any style or mechanic or option or variation that could be done in the dance. The most extreme Lone-style teacher would teach only their specific styling or mechanic, without any influence from other dancers. Obviously, most teachers fall somewhere between. But let’s explore what those mean for teachers and students.
The Pan-Style Teacher
Think of someone who definitely falls on the Pan-style teaching side of the scale. You may take a class with them in one specific style in a taster class, and then learn a totally different style in another of theirs. They may teach you several different ways to do a variation that all look pretty different from one another or use the body in radically different ways. They may be able to reasonably imitate a list of other dancers or mechanics. They may know lots of different dances really well.
The Pan-style teacher, as you can imagine, is a huge resource for students. Constantly giving them ideas, constantly showing them the range and breadth of possibilities in the dances.
But it’s a hard truth that the Pan-style teacher has their work cut out for them. First, they have to truly understand a dance principal, not just the shallow aspects of it, if they are going to teach it responsibly. But even then it is not enough to simply understand different swing dance principles. The Pan-style teacher then has to be able to dance that different principle well enough so that (1) they understand what is possible and not possible when dancing under that principle, what is harder or easier under that principle, and well enough that (2), they can accurately convey how to dance those principles to students.
For instance, imagine you want to do a class on Jewel MacGowan swiveling technique. Jewel was a very specific dancer with mechanics very different from anyone else mechanics that also happen to be reliant on a leader using very specific mechanics. The amount of work that this takes to understand and replicate accurately is a ton. So much that, even after several years of working very hard on it, my partner Kate Hedin would still say her Jewel MacGowan technique classes were only inspired by Jewel’s technique — she knew she hadn’t mastered the technique close enough yet to put the name directly on it. (By the way, after even more years of hard study, she is now comfortable teaching classes directly titled ON Jewel’s technique.)
If a Pan-style teacher spreads themselves out too thin over too many mechanics and techniques, they can become the proverbial “jack of all trades, master of none.” (Though, interestingly, the original quote was apparently part of a rhyme that changes the meaning: “Jack of all trades, master of none, often times better than master of one.” But in our context, the updated, shortened form still holds a valid criticism, so we will keep it.)
But, when it comes to individuality, the Pan-style teacher is in the perfect position to promote individualism explicitly. They are the teachers who might offer a class on counter-balance in a scene that doesn’t use it very much, giving some of their dancers a new tool to use and call their own, or a class on Whitey’s Charleston styling to a scene that hasn’t learned much about the heritage of the dance. They can offer three different options on how to do and style a tuck-turn and then tell the students to choose their favorite. You get the idea.
But, if the Pan-style teacher wants to pass on individuality as an important value, they have to constantly remind their students that individuality exists. Otherwise, all their students are seeing is that great dancers know a bunch of different moves and styles. (And furthermore, a lot of Pan-style teachers have to remind themselves that individuality exists. To use a favorite analogy first used by instructor David Rehm, the Pan-style teacher is very susceptible to becoming the equivalent of a dancing ransom note — a mismash of different styles and themes that look like small pieces of twenty different dancers rather than one dancer with twenty different pieces.)
On a personal note, this has been my journey. The swing geek in me has been drawn to trying to break down and understand my favorite individual dancers throughout history, with the ironic result that I often have forgotten to ask myself, what do I want to dance like. My first answer to that question was the equivalent of “Not like a ransom note.” I realized that, to ultimately answer that question, the first step was going to be to keep asking it over and over again.
If you are a student who wants to value individuality, you have additional homework when you go to a Pan-style class: imagine those teachers are showing you a lot of different recipes — your homework is to choose which recipes, if any, you want to cook with, and let go of the rest.
The Lone-Style Teacher
Now think of a teacher you’ve had that clearly falls onto the Lone-style side of the scale. They have very individual styles and movement — you could recognize them almost instantly by seeing a hazy silhouette of them dancing — and they pretty much only teach moves and movements that are in that style. If you’ve studied with them for awhile, you are better at doing their material because you’ve gotten better at understanding how they specifically move, and everything they teach comes from the specific way they move. They teach their students how to dance like they dance.
But don’t for a moment think it’s easy. In a way, the Lone-style teacher doesn’t have their work cut out for them — they have to cut it out for themselves. They have to be good and inspiring enough with their own dancing and themselves to have people desire them to teach in the first place, and then have to fuel class after class of students with their own material. It takes years of discipline and personal growth.
Furthermore, a lot of Lone-style teachers have to weather storms of popularity and un-popularity that can effect them financially and emotionally. If their unique style is not in demand, they don’t get gigs. And when it is in demand, they may feel they have to constantly force their growth in order to have enough material to fulfill that demand. Yet more years of discipline and growth.
Now, the relationship the Lone-style teacher has to individuality in the scene is really interesting. They teach individuality implicitly by their mere presence alone. The students have a model of an individual dancer before their very eyes. But, conversely, the students are learning how to dance like that individual dancer. To see proof of this in action, simply look around a dance floor — we’re confident that some of the dancers on your floor are pretty obvious imitations of famously individual instructors.
So, ironically, Lone-style instructors who want to teach the value of individuality ALSO have to constantly remind their students individuality exists.
If you are a student who wants to value individuality, you have additional homework when they go to a Lone-style class: Imagine those teachers are showing you how to cook one specific recipe — your homework is to choose how to adapt that recipe, if you choose to cook it, to your specific taste.
As we mentioned, few teachers are on the extremes of this scale. But, we would also imagine most teachers find themselves more toward one side or the other as part of their natural personality or the environment they began dancing in. But that doesn’t mean they can’t change if they desire to.
I’ve always admired Lone-style teachers — because they are very individual dancers, like most of my favorite swing-era heroes. Though, for various reasons conscious and subconscious, I tended towards Pan-style teaching myself. I have been very glad to see that, as my own individual dancing voice has grown over the years, I’ve noticed myself automatically shifting on the scale more towards the Lone-style teacher than I was. So far, I really like the balance. And I think I’m getting closer to finding my true place on the scale, finding my home.
But by no means should anyone feel they have to change. To truly inspire and honor the history, spirit, and legacy of the dance, the world will always need both.
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