Saturday, January 14, 2017

Four Swing Trips Stories on Beginner Development

Here are four short stories on my last four swing dance trips in the US, all related to baby dancer development.

St Louis (Friendliness Is Not For Granted)

Usually, the Illini Swing Society (ISS) has a formal dance at the end of the semester. This year, however, A Chicago swing band called the Fat Babies came to St Louis. Our club had a trip there instead. Thus, we had more than 10 people going. Finally, new swing dancers traveled for their first time! Our club got a table and stayed together.

For me, there were so many familiar faces. Some were instructors. Others were alumni of the Illini Swing Society. Still more were met in other swing trips. I tried to introduce them to dance with the beginners. Most of the time, however, the beginners asked the experienced dancers anyways. That is a good sign for our club dancers.

After the trip, I asked the beginners about their first experience. The responses were mostly positive. There were a few comments about the friendliness of the other dance scenes, but I hope that they did not feel the unfriendliness to be the majority.

One of the reasons that I hope our ISS can be friendlier is that I hope there is a safety net for them if they fall down. While I believe most of the dancers are friendly, there are always some exceptions. For the first time swing dance travelers, they may take multiple rejections of dance personally. However, our own ISS members will at least welcome each other. Moreover, my protection to the beginners is limited, in the sense that I cannot police friendliness. At some point, these baby dancers still need to grow up, and realize that friendliness of a dance scene does not happen for free. Once they realize this and decide to stay, they may have more motivation to contribute to the swing scene.

ISU area (Cultural Shock)

The week after, the band Miss Jubilee came to the ISU scene. I remembered how treacherous the road was to get there. ISS had ~8 people going, which was still many. The new travel chair did a good job!

This story needs to trace back from the beginner of the semester, when I spent more time on another swing dance club in UIUC called the Newman Dance Society. I wonder if other universities have such potentially competing swing experiences.

When I came to their event, I knew that I needed to be more open-minded. They do not necessarily do vintage swing. Every week, the club has a one-hour lesson, followed by a 30-minute dance. The one-hour lesson mostly covers east coast swing topic, and later a lesson of Night Club Two Step, Waltz, and Polka, respectively. Their teaching seems exclusively on the fanciness of moves. They will show you how cool a pretzel and a flying Dutchman are. From an experienced dancer's eyes, however, one can see the instructors are yanking arms. The instructors also just show the move, without much descriptions. The students just monkey see monkey do. Seeing that swing dance is not about a memorization of moves, and instead about lead-and-follow mechanics, I wondered how the students can apply these fancy moves on a social floor. In the 30-minute social dance, the music is usually not swing at all, and the songs are fast. I guess the club has a mindset that one can swing dance to any music, which I have heard of sometimes.

Yet, this club seems successful in retaining people. I guess it is because the club is beginner friendly, in the sense that newcomers can join in at any week, and joining these classes and dances is free. They even once danced at a traffic intersection at every green light, and gain publicity through a TV reporter. One does not have enough time to swing on an intersection, and the music is barely audible, but the event could attract a crowd anyways.

I was in the Newman Dance Society because I want to mention to them that there is also the ISS that they can come to do swing dancing. When I talked to them individually, some of them had no interest to go there because they did not feel connected in the ISS. Still, there were a few people coming to the ISS scene often. One of them was even fully converted into the ISS, since she felt that she learned more about swing dancing in ISS (you got it).

The main part of the story is on one of the other converts.

I think this another person is very interested in swing, but she did not come to any classes in ISS. Instead, she attended both the lesson and dance in Newman, and the dance in ISS. I tried to dance with her at least once every week, just to show her one does not need to dance fancy moves to make swing fun. When I talked to her about dance trips, she would say no because of the cost.

Except, she came to this ISS dance! (Actually, this dance is free. Wow! ISU can compensate Miss Jubilee fully. Excellent!)

Later in the dance, however, I found that she sat away from the dance floor alone, for many many songs. I asked her if she would like to dance. She said she was tired and just wanted to watch. I would like to come back later, but I also wanted to give people that I have met a dance, since I would leave the US permanently very soon.

I did not know the true reason for her long sitting out, since I think she loves swing a lot. I may offer a speculation from what I have observed at the beginning of the dance event.

At some point, I overheard from her asking the partner if he knows to do a pretzel. I wondered if she thinks that she saw so many good dancers in this trip, and thinks that great dancers know how to do fancy moves. However, pretzel is a taboo move in a serious vintage swing scene, since the move is difficult to fit with the basic vintage swing techniques. I wondered if she found difficult to find someone else to dance later.

When she sat down for several songs in a row, it connected to me because it happened to me also. Four years ago, when the ISS reached the golden age, and the swing scene was purified to be a vintage swing, I felt the lack of will to dance in  a workshop because I felt that I was not doing the swing they wanted. They thought I might be one of the people in Newman, even though I did not know that club by that time. I was just trained in ballroom swing and felt that without a frame, I cannot lead the partner properly. I was blamed that my movement was like salsa, even though I did not know what the true salsa technique was. I need a break of swing. I do not know what I can do to improve.

I wonder if she feels a cultural shock of a swing scene.

In the US, even swing dancing communities can be sub-classified because their techniques are different. I keep saying "vintage swing" and not just "swing" for this reason. I guess she does not know the expectations in a vintage swing scene, even though she thinks it is appropriate for her to dance her idea of swing.

It was sad that I did not spend more time with her for the rest of the evening. However, I talked to Zack about this the week after. He thought I may be overthinking. Perhaps I am. I told him that if she comes back to swing next semester, encourage her to learn and do not force feed her the correct form of swing. Let her decide if she wants to dig into (vintage) swing dancing further. In my opinion, cultural shock either makes a person leave, or make a person grow up the think about dancing in a new level.

I still think that the swing world in the US is complicated.

Indy (Beg/Adv Exchange)

Another week after, when all the final exams were done, Zack, David, Andres from Spain, Professor Paul, and I went for another live band dance at Fountain Square in Indianapolis. Now I found Andres, joining the swing class for his first semester, has traveled to many swing dances already. That is great!

I would like to attend this dance to bid more farewell. I was happy to see Mandy the instructor again, and I hope she will continue to have a great dance life in St Louis. I also met Ryan from the Purdue scene, who organized the whole Whistle Stop workshop. During that evening, I tried the routine of dancing with 2 beginners before dancing 1 dancer that is more advanced than me. My mind was in the mode of outreaching, even though I do not like to speak much.

That evening, I hope that I could introduce Andres to dance with Mandy, just like how I was introduced to dance with a professional in my very first West Coast Swing workshop. I did it, even though I felt a bit awkward. I tried the method by Tom G. to break two follows in conversation to dance by having two leads to ask each of them to dance. However, Andres got one, and I did not. Never mind. Mission was still accomplished.

After the dance, we stuck on an Interstate in Indy till 5 am because of the freezing rain in Indy, causing >200 accidents around the Indy Interstates. We talked, we played a card game called "Love Letter", and we tried to nap.

Chicago (College Scene Expectation)

Two days before I left the US permanently, I went to Chicago for a Friday Big City Swing dance and a Saturday U of Chicago swing dance. I was happy to meet Joseph once more. Surprisingly, I also met Bradley, who was a great ISS instructor in the past. He reminded me to keep dancing. I hope I will, if my job allows me to.

On Saturday, I went to the U of Chicago swing dance scene that I have not been for 4 years. May and Abbie, whom I met in Whistle Stop, invited me there. I know how good their dancing was, seeing that both were placed in the Jack-and-Jill competitions. Perhaps I should check out their scene and inform the ISS officers, so that we can exchange events. I also met Olivia and Max there, although they left early before I can even introduce them to the officers in the U of Chicago (Olivia is the travel chair of the ISS). Another surprise was that I met someone that I met in Dayton Swing Smackdown last year on February. What a good trip to bid more farewells.

I met Noel that night, who stayed at my place once for our dance, and inspired Clarissa for learning balboa. I talked to him that if ISS could give a balboa workshop, I would ask him (I actually have a balboa follow instructor candidate, but I will not mention here). We talked more about the ISS scene. I told him that I was happy to see so many ISS beginners to travel to dance. He asked me, "do you know how many people in the U of Chicago travel to dance?"

"At least I know that May and Abbie travel," I said.

"That's it," he said.

This makes me wonder at what dance level we should expect for a university swing scene. Perhaps making new dancers to travel is inherently difficult because of cost and time. I also cannot expect everyone in the university dance scene to be at the advanced level, which is unrealistic. I have another caliber: in the ISU scene, I have only seen Josie traveling to many swing workshops. For external dance events, there are a few more. ISS probably does not need to be too elite to maintain the quality of the dance. I do not want ISS devolving into Newman Dance quality. If so, why do we need two of the same clubs?

The dance went on. The music was nice to dance to, and there were cookies. After the dance, I drove all the way back to Champaign, making a short stop on 95th St for a bit of gas, which I feel a bit scared because that is still considered as Chicago south side.

Hopefully, I will see May again when she visits Hong Kong.

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