Saturday, November 26, 2011

Don't Be "That Guy"

Dear Swing Dancers,

Please, don't be "that guy." I have been That Guy on many occasions, and I had to learn the hard way about most of these - the hard way being, I've been kicked in the face by two people doing aerials, and I've had a shoulder popped out of socket by a lady backleading. So, sincerely, I beg of you, do NOT be "That Guy" (or "That Girl") described by any of the following:

GUYS, don't be:
That Guy that does Aerials in the Middle of a Slow Song
You probably didn't laugh in the theater when Dobby took one for the team, even if for some sick reason you found it comical. There's this thing called common courtesy - a respect for the mood and atmosphere of the people around you. And waltz or rumba is typically not characterized by "Hey dudes, check out this thing I saw on Youtube!" Save it for the swing songs.

That Guy that does Nothing But Aerials
It's dance, not cheerleading. No, seriously. Keep your feet (and your partners') on the floor for a bit and show that you actually know how to dance. Aerials, tricks, and dips are dessert - you need some substance in your dance-diet first.

That Guy that Does Nothing but Spin the Girl
DID YOU KNOW that the most impressive part of an art gallery is what's NOT on the walls? It's not about cramming in as much art as possible - only the good stuff, with plenty of wall space in-between to allow each high-end piece of art the respect it deserves. Similarly, each move in dance deserves some respect - dancing is more about when NOT to move, as opposed to constant movement.

That Guy that Dances Off-Time
There's a reason music is playing. Because otherwise you're just performing a long kata.

That Guy that Waltzes in 4/4 Time (ie, Chasing Cars)
Doing a box step in 4/4? That's called American Rumba. Waltz is, by definition, written in 3/4 time. Find some basic steps HERE if you're confused. Also, Waltz is not about how quickly you can get to 3. See above.

That Guy that Does Aerials in a Crowd
I had a headache for a week from two dudes doing a boxcar, resulting in a size 12 and 180 pounds landing between my eyes. Yeah, my friend Molly and I will do a Boxcar with people around. But that's because -
a. We've been doing it for years
b. We have insane control (we can stop on the vertical part and spin in place. In fact we can stop the move at any point.)
c. We can recognize the difference between a lot of people on the floor, a lot of people nearby, and a lot of people at risk for getting a foot in the face.

That Guy that Never Bathes/Shaves/Brushes his Teeth/Wears Deodorant/etc
Sweat happens. For everything else, there's the toiletries aisle at Walgreen's.

That Guy that Never gets Any Better
Ok, this one's kind of mean. But seriously, learn a new move or go to a workshop or ask someone better occasionally. You want to dance with the better girls? Fine. But they want to dance with the better guys.

That Guy that Bumps Into People Without Saying Sorry
Always assume it's your fault. Try to keep bumps to a minimum (I know I can tend to get a little crazy, too), but ultimately, they'll happen. Even if it wasn't your fault, play nice with the other kids. Ladies, you too. But mostly the dude, since he's steering.

GIRLS, don't be:
That Girl that Claims, "I Can Follow"
 - Me: "Do you Chacha?"
 - Girl: *pause* "Um...I can follow...?"
DON'T DO THAT. Especially if you and I don't dance often. Be upfront and honest. Even if you don't dance at all, let me know. If you're worried that if a guys asks you to West Coast/Chacha/Waltz/Etc, and you admit you don't know how, you've blown your chance, you're wrong. If you tell him you know how, and he dances with you and it prevents him from having fun, NOW you've blown your chance. I don't mind dancing with new girls. I mind dancing with girls that claim they're good when they're not.
 - Me: Do you chacha?
 - Girl: No, I'm afraid I only know swing.
(My options are now: "Would you like to learn?" "Oh, can I find you for the next swing?" "Do you at least know the basics?" MUCH better).

That Girl that Backleads
Ow. My shoulder. I asked her politely, with my distinct lead, to go right, and she took my arm (ligaments and all) to the left. *POP* - Ice and ibuprofen for a week. Ladies, the tradeoff is as such: he's in control, you look good. If he's not steering well, don't give him suggestions - just finish the dance and go find a better partner. Yeah. Unless his lead is hurting you, in which case, tell him (save the next girl!). And get this - the better guys like dancing with the better FOLLOWS, not the better LEADS.

That Girl that Doesn't Wear Shorts
Surprise, surprise. Or, if you are this girl, don't also be that girl that does aerials.

That Girl with the Flip Flops
Yeah, there's a song called "Flip, Flop, Fly" - but notice the next line is, "Don't Care If I Die." Because your ankles will. Or the skin on the bottom of your feet. Believe it or not, tennis shoes are cool at swing dances. And if you barefoot it, don't whine to me about the burns.

EVERYBODY, don't be:
That Person that Doesn't Say Thank You
Thank your partner, jerk.

That Person that Only Dances with One Person
Social dance requires sociability. No hogging, now!

That Person that Complains About the Music
There are other places to go. You can hate a song or two, but of the music really bugs you, write the DJ an email or go somewhere else!

That Person that Looks Down
Your feet will be there. And they will go where you tell them. BELIEVE!!! Plus the top of your head hides your smile - let your partner know that you enjoy dancing with them.

That Person that Grabs a Bunch of Friends and Starts Jumping Up and Down in a Circle
Don't. Please. Just don't. If you're really THAT insecure about trying to partake in the cultural experience of partner dancing, then show up to the lesson on time. If you don't want to learn in front of other people, ask someone who knows what they are doing - particularly a friend. If you just don't want to learn to actually dance, then GO TO A FRICKIN' RAVE WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!?!?

Do unto others....A little common courtesy goes a long way. If you need more clear "rules," check out this guide, "Elements of Dance Etiquette" by Aria Nosratinia.

5 Web Resources to Improve your Ballroom Dancing

"Every day's a school day"
~ Steve and Susan McFerran, U of M Ballroom Dance Team Coaches

Learning does NOT stop at the end of a lesson. There's no photographic memory when it comes to muscles - they need a bit more persuasion before they can manage technique and styling on autopilot. But learning doesn't have to start at a group or private lesson. There are plenty of places for new ideas and information to help you improve your dancing.

1. Youtube
Ok, so we all knew this one was coming. Saying "there are dance videos on youtube" is like telling you that there are books on Shakespeare at the library. But have no fear - I'll skip the Dewey Decimal System and point you straight to some of my favorites:
  • The Grand Ballroom - the largest studio in Canada produces a set of DVD's containing sets of steps and routines for nearly every ballroom dance. They have been kind enough to make a good number of these available to the public. The couple is professional and charming. They are by no means flashy, but they really break down the steps in an easy-to-learn format.
  • The Russian Latin Dudes - "Два и три и четыре Один" - "2 and 3 and 4 - 1" - at least, that's what google translate tells me they're saying. Part of, which chrome was kind enough to interpret for me. They upload quite a bit, so you'll have to search their channel. Still, it's going to be hard to find more clear-cut advanced latin steps. You can count to 4, right?
  • The Latvian Standard Dudes - Latvian? Google translate to the rescue again. Either way, I hope you can count on your own. These guys upload a ton of videos as well, so you may have to search their channel a bit - however, this is the place to go for some sweet waltz and foxtrot steps.
  • WSSDF (World SuperStars of Dance Festival) - This is the tip top of partner dancing. Seriously. As in, the human race is currently incapable of producing better dancers than these people - nobody can move smoother, sharper, or more controlled than these people. Use this stuff for showcases or open choreography or whatever. Still, though, try your best to see their subtleties. As my friend Vincent says, "Unless you can do a better Rumba walk than the world champion, you won't do the fancy stuff better. If your Rumba walk is better, you've already won."
  • Swing aerials and stuff - believe it or not, some swing dancers actually study technique! But still, don't be afraid to goof off a bit. Learn a new move every week. Search around on something like LindyLibrary to learn some of the fancy stuff that you can use to keep your partner from getting bored.
This one REALLY helped me get started. It has the bronze syllabus for EVERY SINGLE BALLROOM DANCE ready to go, complete with variations and some sequences. They even have Paso and Bolero! You have to register to see some of the videos, but it's free and to this day I have never been spammed.
It's also got resources for finding further instruction, finding the most popular music for any dance, and a few social connection features (ie, partner search, find a nearby instructer, etc).
Even if you're an experienced dancer, I recommend you check out their Variation of the Week - I've learned a few new tricks this way!

3. (formerly ExpertVillage)
This is where I learned Nightclub 2-Step and a bit of Argentine Tango. The nice thing about ExpertVillage is that instructers were paid to post lectures in a series, so you actually get a decent start-to-finish lesson structure. They have these for specific styles and some overall ballroom tips. Just make sure you only search the videos - many of the written articles are less than professionally drafted.

4. (the Syllabus and stuff)
Not everybody's a visual learner. And some people need direction before they can start absorbing information. Having your definitions down solid will make learning go a lot smoother, and maybe taking a look at the syllabus will help you figure out WHAT to search for when you're ready for the videos.

5. Freedom By Technique with Anna Mikhed (coming soon)
I hear this one's going to be pretty good. I met Anna Mikhed at IDB 2011, and she was a fantastic teacher. She was very excited about this upcoming series - I've been anxiously awaiting this for quite some time! On top of being an accomplished standard dancer, she is an excellent instructor (not to mention easy on the eyes :P). If it's anything like her in-person lessons, you can expect them to be simple, informative, and entertaining. I'll keep you posted as I hear about the site's progress.

At the end of the day, nothing beats proper instruction and focused practice. But don't limit your learning to studio time -  there's a lot of people out there who are offering you valuable information through the web.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How to Get Better at Dancing

If you've seen Space Jam (first of all, you're awesome), you know that Michael Jordan didn't have some "secret stuff" that made him an incredible basketball player. However, his skill and success certainly didn't come from a bottle of water and untapped self-confidence - although I'm sure that never hurt. Dance is just like any other sport - in order to improve, you need to practice.

But practice alone can only get you so far - it also takes guidance. A soccer coach of mine one said, "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." And how right he was. I only wish I could count and identify all the bad habits I have solidified in my dancing by practicing ineffectively and inefficiently. So, here are a few friendly tips on how to improve your dancing instead of locking-in bad habits:

1. Get a coach
 Yeah, this one can hit the wallet pretty hard. But, quite frankly, there's nothing that really beats it. Getting "expert help" from people who have paid their dues will really accelerate your learning curve. Rather than just learning "new stuff," a coach can identify which improvements will be most effective at any point in time. Do I work on shaping? Is my foot placement correct? Is my lead/follow a little rough? The answer to all 3 may be "yes" - a coach can help you determine which one to fix first.

2. Get the right partner
 Easier said than done. I have been fortunate to land a few partners who were VASTLY superior to myself. This has been the single biggest factor in my progress. But having a "better partner" is not always the same thing as the "right partner" - otherwise, nobody would ever have one. The "right partner" is the right mix of:

  • Talent  - Nobody wants to be feel slowed down by their partner. If you're the less talented of the two, catch up. Bring something else to the table in the meantime.
  • Commitment level - Set goals. Set expectations. "I want to be world champion - YOU want to have fun" doesn't work. "I want to win in Silver Latin - YOU want to win in Gold Standard" only works if you're both willing to give and take a bit. "I want to continue dancing Novice this year - YOU want to jump from Bronze to Open" works when the commitment aligns as well. Check to make sure you're on the same page.
  • Patience - No, really. This is huge. Understand that you are BOTH improving, and NEITHER of you is a world champion. There's a lot of common sense and courtesy to be applied here, which can be hard when you're under pressure. For instance, notice the relatively subtle differences here. Declare "semantics" all you want, but you can see how the same correction goes from picking a fight to being productive just by simple choice of words:
    • "I told you, stop pulling me with your arms. Lead with your hips."
    • "You're doing it again. Lead with your hips."
    • "Ouch - too much arm. Don't forget to lead with your hips, now."
    • "Hmm...that one felt a little...'arm-ish.' More hips?"
    • "Still could use more hips. I feel a little too much arm."
    • "Better - mind your hips though. It felt like your arms were doing the work.
  • Build - We all hate this one. And yes, sometimes you can get by while ignoring this (particularly if you're dancing something like West Coast or Salsa). But eventually, there comes a time that you and your partner need to be physically matched appropriately. It's different in almost every dance style. For competitive smooth and standard dancers, height is going to play a huge role. The same is true in latin, although your height becomes less of an issue and your physique plays a bigger role. In lindy hop and swing, leads are going to need a partner they can toss around, which can be a combination of height, weight and more. For the most part though, worry about this one later than the others.
  • Personality - You're hopefully ultimately dancing because it makes you happy. So you don't want a partner that will make you miserable. And yes, dancers can be prima donnas here and there, and you'll have to deal with it - but fighting on the dance floor is not productive. If you're serious about dancing, you and your partner will be spending a lot of time together. You that time to be something to look forward to rather than something to "deal with."

3. Youtube (and other video websites)
 USE SPARINGLY. USE APPROPRIATELY. This is NOT DESIGNED to replace a coach. If you have a question on footwork, look up an instructional video. If you want to learn the basic timing and alignment of a new step, this is great. If you want ideas for some "cool moves" to show off in an open routine or at a showcase, this is a great place for ideas. Probably the most useful purpose, however, is to find videos of professionals doing relatively basic steps and try to identify what they're doing that you are not. Getting a hold of legal DanceVision DVD's doesn't hurt either. But your technique will only go so far without somebody giving you constructive feedback.

4. Group lessons
 Don't knock it. There's always something for everyone, especially if the group is lead by a respectable instructor. This can also force you to practice your basics and keep you from handicapping yourself by only working with one partner.

5. Dance camps
 Few and far between, the only one I've ever even been to was the Independence Day Ball. But seriously, I've never had so much productive dance time in such a short span of time. Professional instructors, wonderful dancers, excellent practice space - what more could you want? Treat yourself to one of these sometime.

6. Go out and dance!
 Dance with new people. Get used to there being more people on the dance floor. Ask people who are better than you for advice/help. Teach some newcomers a thing or two. Dance for a full song without stopping to readjust. Try a new few new steps. See what other dancers are up to lately. And just hanging around other dancers will naturally inspire you. There are plenty of practical reasons for social dancing (meeting potential partners, checking your lead/follow against other people, etc), but really, every once if a while you need to remind yourself that you love dancing and that you're improving. It can be pretty easy to get tunnel vision and only focus on improving. But relax every once in a while and enjoy how much you've learned.

Also, congrats to all those who participated at this year's Ohio Star Ball!
And thank you to my lovely partner YanChen for all the work that went into our victory in Novice Smooth and Standard!

Friday, November 4, 2011

GROSS Get Serious

GROSS - Grand Rapids Original Swing Society: My first love [for dance].

Steve Zaagman, founder of GROSS, recently announced the start of a Swing "mentorship program" at their weekly Tuesday night gatherings. Basically, for a half-an hour, a more experienced dancer will take aside a group of participants, free of charge, and teach them the difference between swinging and swing dancing. With yet another competing dance event in the area, this may be just the thing Zaagman needs to keep some of his oldest members from fleeing to more...skilled venues.

Let's be honest - technique is tough. We'd all love to spend our dance-days watching youtube and learning some new dips and flips, or learning new steps to a new dance, or something that makes us feel like we can dance to MORE music for LONGER without our partner getting bored.

This was my mentality 2-3 years ago when I became a regular at Grand Rapids Original Swing Society. I came at it like this - if you have INCREDIBLE technique, but only 5 or 6 moves, what happens when a 5-minute song starts up? What if I'm expecting to dance with 10+ girls, but none of them really know the steps? And what if one of my friends shows up, and I have to be extra-fancy all of the sudden?

I totally get that. Let's say I could put 5 hours into learning dance stuff per week. I want to feel like I've got something I didn't have last time - and with GROSS dances happening every Tuesday, that means I want to have another couple of moves to show my various partners. After all, the same dance each week, fun as it may be, might get monotonous. And if I'm improving my technique without anybody else "keeping up," my improvements may go unnoticed.

But then again - selfish as it may be - what about me?

What if I want to dance with the best follows? [Hint: The better follows enjoy dancing with better leads]
What if I want to feel like I'm doing something well? What if I want to be entertained rather than feel like I'm struggling to keep my partner's interest?

Sure, there's a fun factor - it's more fun to dance with somebody who is fun than somebody who is good. We've all danced with that person, lead or follow, who is just so dang technical and precisely on beat and concentrated that it's no fun.

But these are also not fun - sore shoulders, being off beat, feeling (as a follow) like you're incompetent (when 95% of the time it's because of a poor lead), moves that don't flow well together. And once we stack up 20+ steps, 15 dips and 5 aerials (guys), we start to spend our time flipping through our index of "what can I do next?" rather than focusing on communicating properly and safely with our partners.

Some girls like to see how many times in a row they can spin. Or like being lifted in a rumba. Or don't mind being off-beat for a full 4 minutes.

But most of them just want to have fun and feel pretty. Spinning off-balance until you're dizzy ain't pretty. Backflips and rumba walks are a very different type of pretty. And off-beat is NEVER pretty.

Learn cool moves. Never stop learning new steps, new arm work, new dips. But it's like my friend Matt Dusenberry told me before I really started taking dance seriously:

"You can learn steps, and it'll make your dancing a little better. Or you can make your dancing beautiful, and then you'll learn steps *snap* like that."

So much truth in that. TRUST ME - a single proper Lindy Whip feels better than 6 spins. In the Ballroom world, there's nothing like a PERFECT 1-2-3 in a waltz [I would trade every backflip I knew if you told me I could do a perfect Half-Natural anytime]. If you think the most basic steps can't look cool, check out some old Slavik and Karina videos - they throw a lot of "basic" steps in their routines, but the styling and technique makes them unrecognizably beautiful.

Oh, and kids at swing - stay on time. One of the most important things about dance is learning how to stand still.