(or perhaps just philosophical thoughts?)
inspired by Dan’s questions
(to accompany Week 9 of sWinging It)
One of the great things about Dan’s blog (a real-time report on being a new dancer) is how it’s making us old dancers think about things in a new way. It reminds me of a parent pointing out a field of cows to a toddler, it’s no longer just a field of cows, it’s COWS! LOOK! COWS! Lots of COWS!
(True story: when my son was about 3 (he’s now a whopping almost 16-year-old) I was on a train journey, looking out of the window at some COWS whilst nudging and pointing excitedly. Of course, I had forgotten that my son was at Granny’s, and I was traveling alone, and the person I was nudging was not a sleepy preschooler, but a be-suited and now bemused business man. Oops.)
Anyway, that digression aside, here is a whole bunch of thoughts that came about due to Dan’s Week 9 questions, thought by me, Paula.
Essentially, all of Dan’s questions take us meandering off down the same road, so rather than answering them in the order they were posed, I’m going to witter on in the way that makes the most sense, to me anyway.
I’ve embedded the most important video illustrations, and the bold words are links to further videos or extra info (as if this 3,500 word essay isn’t enough)!
What is ‘musicality’?
What is a ‘break’?
Why does Jazz start on the 8 and Lindy Hop on the 1?
Read Dan’s questions in more detail over here: Swingin’ It – Week 9
Let me preface this with a disclaimer – modern Lindy Hoppers are incredibly fortunate that many of the original top dancers from the 30’s and 40’s lived long and healthy lives (probably not a coincidence, dancing is great for a person, mind, body and soul) and this, combined with some incredible community historians, such as Peter Loggins and Bobby White, and some wonderfully committed and motivated dancers worldwide has given us a huge pool of knowledge to draw on. Nonetheless, finding answers to specific questions can be still rather difficult, mostly due to the maddening answers that our beloved, much treasured old timers have given us – for example, when asked about specific musical counts for steps and patterns, Norma Miller is credited with the perfect (yet entirely non-satisfactory) answer, “The only Count I know is Basie“.
So, the following is a mish-mash of partial secondhand knowledge and partial idle thought, filtered through the mind of a garish tattooed lady, sprinkled with love and respect for a dance that has been a part of my life for more than a decade, and a part of dance life for more than 8 decades. Think of it, as is best with most vernacular subjects, as philosophy rather than fact.
Let’s start with what Jazz music actually is, or at least, what it was when our beloved dance was born. This in itself is actually quite a hard task, and again, Wikipedia doesn’t help much: Jazz.
Still, we’ve got to start somewhere, and here will do. We can disregard the bebop bit, and the freeform stuff that comes after (even the most musical of dancers will be challenged to dance to THAT!) but from NOLA through the big band era, the music informed and inspired the dance (and indeed the dancers informed and inspired the musicians, too).
The bit from the Wiki above that we should *probably* be paying most attention to, is Swing rhythm, and syncopation. You can find many detailed, complex and confusing explanations of these terms online, but they are mostly aimed at musicians and are difficult to access without tons of prior knowledge. For new Lindy Hoppers, both the Swung rhythm and the syncopation of the music that Lindy Hop is danced to is actually illustrated in the basic footwork (and the almighty triple step must take a bow here). This is why Lindy Hop teachers sing the footwork directions, which probably sounds a bit weird at first (I promise it makes sense though):
rock STEP tri-ple STEP, step STEP, tri-ple STEP
The words (and their associated movements) in capital letters are actually a way of communicating Jazz syncopation – the emphasis is on the “back beat”, aka the “down beat” (when a band’s conductor would swipe their baton downwards) aka the “even numbers”. The tri-ple illustrates (in body movement and words) the way “Swung” notes are “tied” together.
So it’s the musical elements of Jazz syncopation and Swung rhythm that make up the Lindy hop basic step and that’s why the sound of Swing music and the basic step fit together so well. The dance steps are the physical manifestation of the music.
This is why some purist old fogies, including me, disapprove of dancing Lindy Hop to the “wrong” music. You see, dancers will naturally adapt their steps to fit the music they are hearing, and this sufficiently alters the dance to make it stop being Lindy Hop and start being something else – check out West Coast Swing videos on YouTube to see what happens when you dance Lindy Hop to other forms of popular music – give it a few years and it becomes a dance all of it’s own, which isn’t a *bad* thing, but it is a thing, and a very specific thing at that. Here’s another example, Take Some Crime:
I actually love this dude’s dancing and have spent quite a bit of time watching his videos – he dances to current music, including some Electro Swing, he even uses elements of Solo Charleston – but what he does isn’t Charleston, and in fact he’s given what he does a new, specific name, “Criming”. He’s incredibly hypnotic to watch, and I truly adore what he does, but he is also a very good argument against the inclusion of Electro Swing on the Manchester Lindy playlist – and perhaps also a very good argument to get out of my fogie-shaped rut and go to an Electro Swing night sometime?
When one plays music to emphasise the opposite, the up beat (on-beat, or the odd numbers) you get a completely different feel, it’s more upright, less laid back, and definitely not Jazz (check out some Polka music and Polka dancers for an example).
When we clap along to a Jam circle, we also do it on the even numbers, because we are further emphasing the important part of the Jazz rhythm.
Here’s a fantastic clip of Harry Connick Jr showing exactly how to cope with folk clapping on the odd beats to Jazz music:
Remember, friends don’t let friends clap on 1 and 3!
Ultimately, Duke Ellington sums up all of my above waffle with this very succinct answer as to why Jazz musicians and Jazz dancers emphasise the even numbers, “Because clapping on 1 would be considered aggressive.”
So, why do we start Jazz on the 8 and Lindy on the 1?
Well, authentic Jazz shares it roots with rhythm Tap dance – and Tap dance is essentially complicated clapping with your feet – tapping to swing music emphasises the back beat because again it emphasises the laid back nature of Jazz music.
The most obvious way to do this is to start on the last beat of the intro, the 8 – and that’s what we do in most Jazz choreography – we learned this from the classic routines, like the Big Apple and the Tranky Doo, passed onto us by the old timers, and we generally continue that tradition when we choreograph today.
So the real question isn’t, why start Jazz on the 8, but “Why start Lindy Hopping on the 1?”
The music we dance to is in 4/4 time so as Lindy Hoppers we take two of those groups of 4 and add them together to come up with our 8 beat basic (i.e., the Swing Out, the defining step of Lindy Hop). Musicians often freak out about the 6 count basic when they start learning to dance because it doesn’t seem to fit, but just add enough of them together until it becomes divisible by 8 (6×4 =24 8×4=24) and you’ll be ready to start on the 1 again – yes you’ll be triple stepping and step-stepping in the “wrong” places, but that’s easy to solve – just stop thinking about it in terms of right places and wrong places and in fact, forget about the 6’s and 8’s too – total anarchy!
But we’ll not stop thinking and we’ll not stop counting, we’ll just make the maths as easy as possible and start thinking of EVERYTHING as groups of two beats, with the emphasis back beat (the evens).
After we GET STARTED dancing is continuous, we don’t stop on the 8 and start on the one, we dance through the 8 and into the one
1 2 3-a 4 5 6 7-n 8
rock STEP, tri-ple STEP, step STEP, tri ple STEP
and to push that a little further (going BACK TO THE FUTURE or perhaps FUTURE TO THE BACK!)
(7-n) 8 1 2 3-a 4 5 6 7 -n
(tri -ple) STEP rock STEP tri-ple STEP step STEP tri -ple
and further back in time again
6 7-n 8 1 2 3-a 4 5
STEP tri -ple STEP rock STEP tri-ple STEP Step
And you can actually make any combo of two-beat movements and put the emphasis on the back beat (and remember, emphasising the back beat is the aim of the game)
1 2 3-a 4 5-a 6 7-n 8 1-a 2 3 4 5
rock STEP tri -ple STEP tri-ple STEP tr-iple STEP tri-ple STEP step STEP step
Heck, we can throw in a kick-STEP or step-KICK or kick-KICK or a kick-HOLD or a hold-KICK or even a walk-WALK or a walk-PAUSE or hell, a pausePAUSEpausePAUSEpausePAUSE
And that’s why we can do Charleston and Lindy interchangeably:
RockSTEP kickDOWN kickHOLD kickDOWN
and in fact (and this comes with experience) we can lead any combo in any order, and the reason it fits with the music is because we are still emphasing the back beat
rock STEP kickDOWN tri-pleSTEP walkWALK
So we can start anywhere, really, and the original dancers probably did prep on 7 to start on 8, at least some of the time, but they were dancing almost exclusively to LIVE music, and the dance was new and had no habits or convention.
However, because social dancing is team work (all be it a small team of two) and we want to be able to dance with as many other people as possible, regardless of where they learned to dance, and because we need to give beginners some kind of structure, and because we started to teach Lindy Hop in a dance studio/classroom environment in the 1980s (when the original dancers were located and persuaded to pass on their knowledge by interested dancers from a number of disciplines, dancers that had learned in studio based backgrounds) we started to arrange these groups of two into patterns of 6’s and 8’s (and less commonly, 10’s, 12’s and even 7’s).
(crikey, that was a long sentence!)
If you are going to start a pattern that takes 8 beats to complete, and you are introducing it to a beginner, or lots of beginners, it’s simply more efficient to start on beat 1 and end on beat 8. The alternative, starting on the 8, could still be taught (and as an example, a Lindy Turn, or Swing Out would be ‘step, rock-step, tri-ple step, step-step, tri-ple’) but a) it makes my head hurt and b) we’d all topple over after ‘tri-ple’.
So the answer to the question is, as I see it:
Both Jazz and Lindy Hop emphasise the same musical beats (the even numbers) but for ease of teaching we made Lindy Hop patterns start on the 1. Jazz still starts on the 8, because it is most often taught as choreography.
I finished typing this bit with a giant grin, easily mistaken for a grimace. I’m not sure if there IS an appropriate emoticon, I’ll leave you to imagine it.
So what is ‘musicality?’ well, it’s the ability to interpret the music you are hearing and give it physical form through your movement, and emphasising the back beat is one of the surest forms of doing this, when dancing to Swing music.
Musicality is one of the skills that separates good dancers from great dancers and it comes very easily to some people, and others have to work very hard at it. Some people will never really get it, but will learn to fake it pretty well. Others will find they get lots of Lindy enjoyment without it, and won’t mind too much if they never get it. The great thing about Lindy Hop is there is space for all comers!
Here’s a clip of a currently competing couple, Nicolas Deniau and Mikaela Hellsten (who I hope we will be able to entice to Manchester at some point). I think Nicolas and Mikaela have amazing musicality skills (although I have no idea how easily it comes to them :P), I’ve chosen this particular video because they are dancing to a Western Swing-type track (a bit like the kind of arrangements the Swing Commanders do) and I’m hoping that it being right on the outskirts of the normal range of songs we play at ML will help to highlight how they are picking movements that are the physical manifestation of the music:
(I also love how happy N&M always appear to be!)
Now the above is a choreographed routine, so they’ve likely spent many hours on picking those movements and refining them until they are as perfect as I believe them to be, so here is a video of the same couple social dancing to a live band, where their on-the-spot musicality skills are put to a real test:
Pretty impressive, I’m sure you’ll agree!
Choreography has always been a part of Lindy Hop, and this is reflected in the most often-used competitive categories today, which go from as close to random as you can get, to the absolutely rehearsed (although how much choreography is too much choreography is yet to be decided, search the internet for improvrespect for a recent debate and read about competitive divisions at the biggest event of the Lindy Hop year here) but (and I believe this is a paraphrase of another old timer quote, but 20 minutes of questioning Uncle Google have been fruitless) the best Lindy Hoppers make choreographed routines look as spontaneous as social dancing, and social dancing look as seamless as choreography.
So how do we develop musicality skills that enable our social dancing to look as seamless as choreography? Well again, we’ve established some short cuts to help with teaching musicality skills (and faking them), so here’s a few that newer dancers will come across in classes, and some that can be done at home too.
First things first, learning how to identify the 1 helps enormously. It’s less important for Followers than Leaders in the very early days, but later on, being able to identify your position within a musical phrase will give you freedom to execute learned variations and improvise new ones. For some new dancers, finding the one is so obvious they’ll wonder why I am even mentioning it, for others it’s more akin to finding a needle in a needle stack, so for their benefit I present Where Is The One? ( a video playlist created by Nathan Dias, click his name to find out more):
After you’ve located the one, you can learn to count phrases. Music of the period was written to (what was presumably at the time, a winning) formula, and almost all of the music you’ll hear at a Swing dance will either be
(aka AABA or 32 bar form – which lends itself well to 8 count patterns – read about it here: Christian Bossert on 32 bar form)
(12 bar form, aka “Call and Response”- which lends itself well to 6 count patterns – see a web slide show on both over here).
Learning how these structures work is one of the best ways to appear musical, even if you aren’t.
Something that may particularly appeal to Followers in the early days (and Leaders a bit later, after they’ve found THE ONE and learned how musical structure works) is identifying the tone of the song. Try listening to a bunch of songs at home, and giving each one a descriptive word, or group of words. Is it happy? Subdued? Smooth? Bouncy? Wild? Languorous? Miserable? Can you dance in a way that fits the same descriptors? Try it out!
Or how about identifying your favourite instruments and seeing how you can fit your movements to those? When I’m leading, I tend to be most inspired by the drums, bass and if there is one, the tuba. When following, I LOVE the clarinet, and am more likely to respond to the vocal. The trumpet tends to make me misbehave regardless of the role I’m dancing!
One fairly sure-fire way to hone your musicality skills is through solo movement, and in fact, it’s one of the biggest drivers we have for offering Jazz, Charleston and other associated solo stuff from day 1 (other similar dance groups don’t tend to prioritise Jazz to the extent that we do). It’s a bit of a trope that ‘Solo Jazz makes you a better Lindy Hopper’ and we rarely go into why that is – I know for me, the main benefit has been to my timing and rhythm i.e. my musicality (and of course, it also helps with shapes and lines too).
This rather neatly bring us around to the subject of Breaks, and what they actually ARE – like most topics in swing dance, there is a dance definition of break and a music definition of break and they may or may not be closely related.
In dance terms (and I certainly have more dance-knowledge than I have music knowledge) I presume the Jazz break (often first encountered as the Full Break and Half Break (I recognise those feet!) versions in the Shim Sham, although there are other break varieties in the Big Apple and the Tranky Doo, too) comes from Tap dance.
Time Steps are one of the defining elements of Tap dance – they come in a variety of types, single, double, triple etc. and they all follow the same structure, one thing happens a bunch of times (usually alternating on the right and left feet) and then something else happens. The something else is referred to as a ‘break’.
In this example there are 8 ‘single buck time steps’ followed by a break. If you can’t immediately discern where the difference happens, try listening to it rather than watching it (clue – the break begins at 0:25!). The reason the dancer breaks there, and not elsewhere in the song, is because the music is also doing something different:
The classic Jazz routines take a mostly similar structure – something happens a few times (usually to sets of 8 counts) and then something else happens (to one set of 8 counts, or perhaps to seven counts with a pause, to reflect the music).
In terms of non-choreographed dancing, whether that be solo or partnered, the aim is to figure out when something different is going to happen in the music, and reflect it in your movement. This is the phenomenon known as ‘hitting the break’.
What the break actually is and where it falls, is up to you to decide – sometimes it’s obvious, like a dead stop, or an almost dead stop (a famous song for this is Watch The Birdie) and sometimes it falls neatly into the musical structures described above – but it may be something much more subtle, and if you are dancing with a partner, you might not necessarily identify the same ‘break’. This is not a problem and although in the earlier dancing days, the Follower may be looking to the Leader to identify a break for the both of them, later on, the Leader may well find the Follower’s movements indicate a break is about to happen and the Leader can respond to that indication – this is one of the many skills in partner dance that is summed up by the idea of it being a physical conversation between two people, rather than a one sided lecture from the Leader.
As to whether it’s too early to be asking these questions? Yes! No! Maybe! And perhaps, all of the above?
Lindy Hop and its relatives are wonderful dances because you can dabble in them just enough to have fun for a short period, or totally geek out for a lifetime – whether it’s too early or not probably depends on where you will fall on the spectrum – some folk won’t ask these questions at all (they are probably still trying to find that tricky, elusive ‘1’) and that is perfectly OK.
As you can imagine, I suspect I fall on the geeky, in depth, lifetime, end of the spectrum, and that was the geeky, lifetime Lindy Hopper equivalent of nudging a stranger in the ribs and shouting “LOOK! COWS!”
Peace, love and Swing Outs