Monday, December 5, 2016

Out-of-town Dancing Report: Whistle Stop 2016 (Vintage Swing)

November 2016 was another surge of dance trips for me.  The first is Whistle Stop. The second is BULX. Whistle Stop is an annual workshop organized by Purdue Night Train, the swing club of Purdue University. Weeks before this workshop, I hope there could be more people from the Illini Swing Society (ISS, the swing club of U of I) to come to this workshop. It was inexpensive when comparing to other workshops ($49), and the cast was strong (Michael and Evita, as well as Peter Strom, are well-known professional swing instructors, from my knowledge before this workshop; Michael Gamble is a famous swing band). Moreover, poor students could apply for financial assistance or volunteer to reduce the cost of the workshop.

In the end, only the people in the know went. I guess aside from money, time also determines whether one will go to a workshop. When I organized one-day weekend dance trip, there was one or even two cars going to these events. However, full-weekend trips were harder to sell. I think this is because most club members, who are undergrads, want to finish assignments on Sunday. Still, I wish a few newer ISS members can attend these workshop at least once. The greatness of a workshop should be passed on in the ISS.

The Reunion, As Usual

After traveling for swing dances several times, I have seen some familiar faces for several times. I know who drove from the east, and who drove from the west. Some of them are the Purdue locals. I may have interacted and/or danced them in the previous dance trip(s). There are also a few people that would stick to my mind.

First, there are the instructors that I met in the previous dances. Many of them are welcomed to dance with the students. I usually asked them to dance once so that I can see how great dancers dance. My courage to ask previous instructors to dance traced back to my very first traveling workshop experience, which was a WCS workshop in Chicago. My WCS instructors introduced me to the professional instructors, and encouraged me to dance with one of them. At first, I felt uneasy because I was just a newbie, and the professional would be bored. After the dance, however, I think the asking an instructor to dance was just like asking any other people to dance. Instructors are fine with being asked to dance, even if you are a baby dancer! Since then, I would try to ask at least one instructor for a dance in partner dance workshop of any kind.

Then, there are some other dancers that I hope I could dance more with. I would always try to dance with people that I met before (unless they reject dances repeatedly). That is whether they are a baby dancer or a professional. I also tried to ask several people that I have never met before to dance with. I considered this a good training for myself to test if I can tell a person is a beginner or advanced dancer based just on an initial connection, and if I can make the dance fun in either case. The moves that I give to beginner and advanced are different.

However, there is someone that I feel like I really want to be friend with. I am a bit concerned, for I began to think about this person too much.

When I first met her, I was just asking a new person to dance with. After the dance, it was just a regular "thank you for the dance" interaction. I did not even know her name. Some weeks later, I was learned from my fellow dancer that she raised the issue of creepiness on some dance floors (or, what happened  about the dance. I learned her name and where I met her before during this conversation. (As a side note, I wondered how come I heard the creepiness of guys so often in the US? I seldom heard this when I was in Hong Kong. Are Hong Kong people: 1) more conservative in terms of sex, or 2) are less likely to report sexual abuse, so we heard about sexual abuse in Hong Kong much less often?) I added her as a FB friend because I would like to read some of her comments. My feeling for this is: while I mostly agree on making the dance floor safe, it may raise another issue that I would not like to see. So, I become a lurker for dance related topics...

However, the more I read, the more I agree with her wholeheartedly. Her FB is a blog itself. In the summer, I met her again in another lindy exchange. I sheepishly asked her to dance because: 1) she must be a good dancer, but I do not know if she is too good to accept me for the dance; 2) I lurk for information on FB. On the other hand, I felt that she was alone most of the time, and I hoped that she could be more involved on the dance floor.

So I danced with her. My partner connection report about her was amazing. It reminded me long time ago that some people in ballroom complimented that the instructor was "so easy to be led", and "flow so elegantly". Except, this is lindy, and it has a pulse that I usually do not resemble it as a "smooth" dance. The conclusion was that "her follow ability is beyond my level to be able to harness her potential". I am also happy to ask her to dance again, if time permits, since she is actually a nice person.

Moreover, I felt she seemed to look through me at times. I hoped that she was just watching other people dancing, but her line of sight seemed to be kept at me for a long time across the floor. I had to look away. I had a bad feeling about falling into this sinkhole of thought.

(Blogger's note: I think the original of next two previous paragraphs need some editing. These two paragraphs say something that I feel in the past about any dance scene in general, not just swing. However, the way it was written does seem that I write about the specific person. This person, however, is a counter-example of what I have written. In fact, she makes me feel the hope of the growth of the swing dance scene. Thus, I rearrange the text, and add new and important paragraph below that I should have said. Texts that have modified or added are underlined.)

Why do I think about this person too much? Perhaps it is because I care a lot about the health of a dance scene. She is certainly an advanced dancer, and she has great opinions. More importantly, I see hopes that she can be a great person to make a dance scene grow. 

In my previous experiences, I am a bit concerned that some advanced follows sometimes scare away the baby leads, since such leads do not know how much force (tiny) and what part of body (at least not just legs) should be used to lead, and the follows automatically perceive this as dangerous leads. Creepy and/or forceful leads do exist, but the forceful baby leads may not know what they are doing. Such can be nuisances to advanced follows, and may deter them to dance with baby dancers.  However, if the great dancers only care about peers at similar dance level and forget about the baby dancers, the baby dancers will leave, and the dance scene will not grow. For most of the people, dance is a recreational activity. If they do not find the fun of it, they will leave. Great dancers do not necessarily lead to great scene.

However, I think I will no doubt introduce her to my baby dancer friends to dance with her. She seems friendly. When I recall my first dance workshop experience, when my instructor introduced me to dance with a professional, I feel like I should do the same, i.e. to introduce the baby dancers to dance with the experienced dancers. Based on my few experiences on her friendliness, she is no doubt safe to the baby dancers. If she is shy to ask, I will try to do the job as a middle person, since I doubt that baby dancers dare to ask, too.

I got two chances to dance with her in this workshop, and I still felt happy to dance with her. My time in the US is short, and probably I will less likely see her again. However, if I have a chance to meet her again, and some ISS newbies go with me, I will certainly tell them to try to dance with her. But first, when will our baby dancers travel?

The Tricky Audition

On Saturday morning before the workshop classes, there was an audition to place dancers at different classes. There were 3 levels. This time, everyone danced for many songs, and partnered were switched many times. From my self-reflection, I could aim for the middle level. However, I kept dancing for long, but I still did not get a band.

I knew that some dancers were good, and she got a wrist band early (the color of a wrist band tells what level a person is in). Then, I kept dancing for 5-6 partners, needed to take off my clothes, came back to dance, went to drink water, and came back. However, I did not get a band.

It was strange that at some point, I could tell that some follows need refinement in swingouts. However, they were the ones who got the wrist bands. What is wrong with my swingouts?

After a long 30-minute dance, the audition was finally over. I once again became the remains. The remains are usually in the lowest level.

However, this assumption did not make sense. I knew several people who were placed in the novice Jack & Jill competitions stayed in the same class as me. When dancing with most of the people in this class, their follow skills were solid. The new hypothesis, therefore, is that those who got the first set of wrist bands are the more advanced dancer. Those who got the second set of wrist bands are the ones who need refinement of the dance. The remains are in the middle.

To test this hypothesis, I used the break time to watch the dances in the other two rooms. My observations support the hypothesis.

I bet the audition was done this way to discourage people from arguing that they are placed at the wrong level, since they thought they should be at, presumably, the lowest level. However, they were not. However, as some of my friends pointed out, asking everyone (>100) for audition tired people out.

Rebuilding a Scene

One of the highlights of this workshop was a class about building a dance scene. The class was taught by a club building expert. Zack and I were very excited for this, since we would like to listen to some more new ideas. When I came back to swing 1.5 years ago, most of the great dancers were gone, leaving a club with only ~ 20 people left. Now, the ISS is recovering, with ~ 50 people staying.

It turned out that most of the stuff that we heard were what we are doing now.

Once again, great dancers do not necessarily lead to great dance scene. Baby dancers join and stay because they find friends to stay with and find fun in learning new moves. This year, we have a great PR chair and a great pair of beginner instructors. I believe they kept many people staying after the dance classes. Having fun first, being technical second.

Most of the presentation was about how to recruit new members and retain them. However, I had at least two questions that I would like to get answers from. One of them was asked on that day. The other one was not.

The one that I asked was related to experienced dancers forming their own group, making the baby dancers feel isolated and leave. That happened at the time before I came back to the Illini Swing Society. Experienced dancers were so focused to their techniques that forgot about the beginner dancers that would like to get fun out of the dance. It seemed that some other club scene also experienced such problem, but Purdue appeared not. What had they done? Many of their dancers were still pretty good! That is also the time that I wondered the importance of a permanent figure in a dance scene. Unlike college students who mostly have 4-year lifespan, permanent figures have experience in managing the direction of a club.

The other question that I felt not asking at a good time relates specifically to the nature of swing. Do any swing club experienced competitions with the other forms of swing? The swing that we are doing relates to the swing jazz music, which has an uneven triple step feeling. However, how can you deal with another club who teaches ballroom, with a part called swing, that dances to the current music with an even triple step feel? How about people who do WCS or country swing that also dance to current music? How about those who find pretzel fun and feel that swing can be danced to any music? The U of I has another club that does east coast swing only. They dance to any music (no swing syncopation), especially fast songs. They teach moves that the vintage swing people will laugh at. Nevertheless, they attract a good number of people because the music is closer to their culture. Besides, I do not think their ideas of swing are not necessarily wrong, since they are not doing vintage swing. How should we explain our swing culture to those who are in another swing culture, without being too defensive on our view?

I feel that the last 2 questions are unresolved, and the speaker may not know the struggles between the advanced and the beginners, and among the other groups that call themselves "swing", but not vintage swing.

Office Hour and Classes

Another highlight of the workshop was the instructor office hour. People waited in line to get a chip that corresponds to an instructor of their choice. Each person with the chip could meet with the instructor for 5 minutes, and asked questions that he/she wanted. In other words, it was 5-minute private lessons.

Some instructors were popular. If I got the chip late, I might have to wait for an hour before my turn. Fortunately, I went there early, and got a chance to meet with one of the popular instructor (Evita Arce), and another one (Peter Strom).

My question was the same to both: what part of swingout I should improve on? Then, I got two different answers that I found very useful.

I know that Evita was quality assured. I met Peter for the first time, and I liked him talking about replacing basic steps with various solo jazz steps. I did not actually got into his solo jazz class, but I felt that if I met him again in another workshop, I would like his teaching.

Michael and Evita, as teaching partner, are still great and fun to watch, as usual. I found that another pair, Jenny and Dan, are also excellent instructors. In their class, they talked about variations of basic lindy movements, and my favorite part, replacing triple steps with ball drop or kick step. The latter is one kind of replacing basics with jazz steps. I wish I could see them teach again.

For Bobby and Katie's class, they talked about a dancing topic that could be contemplated for a bit. How could I keep the beginner happy if they do not proper lead/ follow something? Can I try to dance well if my partner is not helping? This is important in the social dance floor because advanced dancers also want to have fun, but it is easy to perceive having less fun with a beginner dancer. It is possible to have ways for an advanced dancer to challenge him/herself while dancing with a beginner. If the advanced dancer find such way, he/she would be more willing to dance with beginners. Having more advanced dancers to dance with the beginners will help the dance scene to grow.

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