Friday, December 23, 2016

Out-of-town dancing report: getting involved in BULX (vintage swing)

Bradley University Lindy Exchange (BULX) happened in Nov 19, 2016 weekend. The university is located in Peoria, IL, which is ~ 1.5 hour drive from Champaign. When I signed up to go, I hoped that someone else from my swing club could come with me. The event was not expensive ($30), and one could volunteer to reduce the cost. Perhaps due to Thanksgiving break, I still drove on my own to this LX. I felt a bit sad, since I hoped our new members could value how dance trips helped their learning of swing culture.

To make up of going to the LX alone, I had a backup plan of getting more involved in an event. I volunteered to guard the entrance. I asked to be a DJ. I also competed for fun. This report will focus on my personal views on volunteering and competing.


Since my first dance volunteering in KissMe Ann Arbor, and then Whistle Stop, and then BULX, I find volunteering for a dance event valuable in many ways. Aside from getting reimbursed, helping out allowed me to see parts of the operations of dance events. When sitting at the reception table, it is not only about collecting someone's money or checking someone's wristbands, but also interacting with various dancers that I know or not. In addition, I cannot dance for the full night without feeling drained. Volunteering is a great opportunity to take a dance break. Volunteering is especially nice when you can still sit while listening to the music and watching people dance. Besides guarding the reception table, I had worked on preparing snack food and resetting a room after the event. I enjoyed these non-dance moments with people. Thus, volunteering is a double win for me -- saving some money while feeling of making good use of time in a dance event.

Besides volunteering, it was my first time to volunteer to be a DJ in a LX. Not every LX provides such opportunity, and seeing that I would like to experience playing music outside of my dance scene, I signed up for it. This was one of the reasons that I went to BULX for its entirety. At first, I had some irrational concern whether my set would fit the culture of the dance scene, but when I listened to the set before me, I was confident that my set would be fine. The music in this LX mostly respected the culture of vintage swing, and my set was designed to respect that. People were dancing on my set, so I was happy with it.

(As a side note: I should talk about my observations on training new swing DJs. I feel that the confusion of a variety of "swing" cultures in the US results in an incorrect perception that one can swing to any music. This was something that I had been wrong before. I corrected myself, and I hoped I could minimize this incorrect perception to the new generation of swing DJs. There are several bottom lines that I hold firmly for a swing scene, and the requirement of playing music that swing is one of them. This is a topic that I may write about in the future.)


I have a mix feeling on competing, even for now. Naturally, if one does not feel bored of dancing and quit, one will want to improve. Competing is a milestone that one can dance well. Although whether somebody gets the first place or second place do not necessarily mean that the first place dancer(s) is/are better than the second place, just knowing that you have entered the final round or placed before can still feel like a great accomplishment.

However, a few years of staying between social and competitive ballroom dancing make me realize that the fun of social dancing may not translate into competitive dancing. It takes months of practice, perhaps with frustration, to make myself more competitive. I feel that the time spent on being competitive is not worth it, since I have something called a Ph.D. to work on. I hope that dancing is just a recreational activity that makes me feel less stressful in life.

When I stopped doing ballroom and turned into swing, I thought swing is a very fun dance and easy to learn, but did not realize the difference between ballroom and vintage swing. The dance scene also began to be more competitive. I would like to catch up, but I was frustrated with the techniques that are different from ballroom. I already talked about this in "Why did I swing away", and the result was I stopped swing dancing for two years.

When I came back to swing, I was still cautious in competing. I did not know if my bad habit in swing dancing went away. If I know I still have major technical issues to fix in my dance, why bother competing? Moreover, I came back to swing in the hope that the swing scene can be more beginner friendly. If I compete, I may show myself as a better dancer, and make beginner more scared to me, making myself less approachable. Of course, this statement is a slippery slope that makes it false, but that was what I thought in the past. I wanted myself to be seen as friendly, and removing myself from being perceived as an elite was one of them. Thus, in the last year's BULX, even though Evan encouraged me to compete, I decided not to. I would consider competing if I could place not at the lowest level in a workshop audition. Competing costs money, and I would like to make sure that I have a chance to do well first.

So, I did pass an audition in Swing IN 2016. By that time, I also felt that being a better dancer or not do not decide whether a dancer is approachable or not, perhaps because I thought more positively when I came back to swing. Thus, I will try to compete, but make sure that competing will not result me from disliking my dancing. Moreover, I would only do Jack and Jill and not Strictly or Solo. The reason is Jack and Jill competition make you dance with several random partners, which tests lead-and-follow skills. I currently feel that Strictly and Solo are more prone to routines.

I tried novice Jack and Jill at Whistle Stop. It was fun, but I also felt some psychological stress. Although I did not get into the final, one of the follows that I danced to did get into the final. Later, she was also placed. I was happy about that.

Then, I did Jack and Jill at BULX again. These competitions made me recall the times before I left swing, when the swing classes covered how competitions were done in swing scene. In the heat round of Jack and Jill, a dancer will dance with 3-4 random dancers with different swing music. In the final round, a dancer is randomly matched with another dancer. There is an All-skate stage, when every competitors are dancing. Then, there is a Spotlight stage, where each pair dances a certain length of music alone, followed by another pair with the same segment length of the same song. The Spotlight stage will eventually change back to All-skate stage for the same song to conclude the dance.

After the heat stage, it was my time to guard the reception table. I sat there checking marks on people's hands, and did not want to think about the competition at all. I did not want my underlying competitive spirit to ruin my original purpose of dancing - to have fun.

However, when the MC announced the finalist, I was the first person to be called out. What should I do? It was my first time to be in a final.

After a random rotation, I met my partner of the final. "Hi. My name is Wangki". "Lance," he said. I met him in the Whistle Stop workshop before. He was also a follow at that time. (FYI, swing community is very active in making the dance gender-neutral. Either male or female can be a lead or follow. Even when I stopped doing swing and changed to salsa for that two years, I tried to bring the idea that "male can follow" in the salsa community. Some of my salsa friends were willing to try it.)

All-skate is fine, but I was a bit stressed out at the Spotlight stage. Lance and I were the first pair to get in. I need to device a way to dance into the center, dance for 16 bars of music, and device another way to dance out of the center. How to do it? I did not really plan, since I adapted myself to social dancing rather than competing. I also asked Lance to confirm the procedure of the competition, just making sure we were doing things right.

I think we had a lot of fun. I tried to show off as much as I could, while maintaining my fundamental connection right, especially relaxing my arms. Evan, one of my swing club's instructors, was one of the judges. I hoped there would not be any conflict of interest, so I did not talk to him throughout the competition. However, I asked him more questions about the competition when we met in Champaign after the competition. I was curious on how judges decided who performed better in the competition. What are the metrics?

In the end, Lance and I were placed second! After a lot of hand shaking, perhaps hugging, and a long bow, we discussed what prize we would get. Usually, the prizes are free entry to a certain workshop or lindy exchange. The first place picks first, and then second and third. It was so tempting to attend any of them, but I knew my time in the US was short. I could only pick the St Louis's blues workshop because it happened in February. Later, I found that I got a job in Hong Kong, and I had to go back in January to start working. Too bad that I could not take any one of the prizes!

I hope that I could do Jack and Jill again!

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