Last year I went to an event and danced with a lead who I’ve known for years. He commented “Wow! How have you improved so much in the last 6 months?”. I was both proud and concerned: was I not very good 6 months ago? I’d like to say I am asked this question often but I’m really not. Perhaps people don’t rate my dancing enough to be interested in how I got to where I am. Or perhaps people already know the answer because they see me working on it. Or perhaps people just aren’t interested enough in improving to ask about it.
This last possibility concerns me. And so, dear Lindy Hoppers, I want to tell you a story about me and my dance journey.
I started Swing dancing for the first time in 2008 when a boyfriend said that they’d done some swing before. I was the worst kind of follow. I thought I was fantastic and proceeded to tell my partner how he was leading everything wrong. The fights that ensued meant that after a couple of months, my flirtation with swing was over for a little while.
In 2011 I tried again. I was a busy, poor uni student so didn’t even make it to classes every week, I never went to socials because I didn’t want to go alone. I mean, I was great, right, so I didn’t think I had to try.
In October 2011 a magical thing happened. An old school friend that I hadn’t seen in 8 or so years started putting up pictures of her swing dancing on Facebook. So I contacted her, and suggested if/when we ever catch up we should go dancing together. She suggested I go to Sydney for SLX (I had to google it - The Sydney Lindy Exchange). So, quite randomly, I did. That was a magical weekend. I didn’t realise what it was to be in a room packed full of people social dancing Lindy Hop, and in the face of this big event I knew I was a complete noob, I had never really even been social dancing before! My dancing improved 10 fold over the course of 3 days of classes and socials. This is the weekend that I credit for when I decided that I would become good at this thing, and maybe a year later I remember saying it out loud: “I am going to be a great Lindy Hopper, just watch”.
A lot of things stick with me about that weekend, but the thing that, in hindsight, is most striking was meeting a dancer almost as new as me: one Charith Nandasena. Charith asked me how often I went to classes. My response was “Oh, every week!”, thinking that going to my weekly class every week was as often as one could possibly go! Charith’s response was “yeah, I used to only go once a week. Then I thought, ‘it’s going to take me forever to get good at this if i’m only going once a week’, now I go, maybe 3 times a week.” Needless to say, for someone who had been dancing as long as me he was a lot better than me. Less than a year later he rightly whipped my ass in the Marnie Oliver Up and Comers, a competition for lindy hoppers who’ve been dancing for 18 months or less (well, he had just come back from the biggest swing event in the world in Sweden…).
And here is where I get to the crux of my point: like life, you only get out of Lindy Hop what you put into it.
I have been teaching Lindy Hop in Brisbane for more than 3 years now. It’s not that long in the scheme of things but in that time I’ve been lucky enough to watch others on their dance journeys as they move from beginner, to intermediate, and into the advanced class. Those people, the ones who become Good Lindy Hoppers are not (necessarily) the ones that showed the most promise in their beginner classes. They are simply the ones that kept coming back. Sure, it’s going to be easier for the people who already have co-ordination, the people that can feel the groove in music, they have the potential to be great. But often, the people who have to work hard are the people who go further and become better simply because they have got into the habit of working hard.
Now, maybe it’s just that I haven’t noticed it so much before, but I’m increasingly seeing people wanting to be great dancers, or perhaps thinking that they already are, without wanting to put in any effort. At Swing Camp Oz this year one international teacher commented “Everyone is too busy arguing about what level they are in instead of actually working on their dancing, I don’t see any of the people who have complained about their level practising between classes”.
Just last week I had a friend confide in me that they had been having fights about dancing with their less experienced partner. That their partner complained that they weren’t very good but rarely went to classes, and didn’t listen to feedback from their teacher. My friend told me “when I was at that level I was going dancing every night of the week”. They said (and I paraphrase): You don’t get better at dancing just by hanging out with other dancers.
I freely admit that I was once one of those people that thought I didn’t need to work at dancing. But to finish off my story, after my wake-up call from Mister Fancy-dancy-pants Nandasena, I started going to classes multiple times a week and all the socials and workshops in Brisbane as a given. In 2012 I went to workshops at Hullabaloo, and did socials at the first BLX and MLX. In 2013 I moved in 3 other dancers, I went to Hulllabaloo AND Swing Camp Oz, I took a private with Pontus and Isabella, as well as going to social exchanges. In 2014 I went to Herrang and Jazz Bang and Sea of Rhythm for classes, I started taking a dance journal to write down and solidify my knowledge at these events.
Taking notes at Herrang, because I’m that much fun
In 2015 I went to still more interstate workshops and exchanges, I took privates with Michael and Evita and Steve and Chanzy - and you know what, I feel like I let my weekly average slip a little last year despite putting a lot of energy into helping start a new dance school. This year, by mid July I will have done no less than 3 week long dance camps, 2 of them international, and I have already done a one-on-one with Ramona Staffield.
I’m not trying to show off. I know that other people have far more impressive lists of event attendance than mine. Nick Grant STARTED Lindy Hop at Herrang for goodness sake! What I’m trying to say is that I worked really hard, I did as many classes, and extra practise, and as much travel as I could afford. I became an active learner, I took notes, I asked for feedback, I took ownership of my dancing and my development and where I didn't have inspiration, I went out of my way to find it. And I’m pretty proud of how far I’ve come in that time. And this year, I want to do even more because I want to be a better dancer than I currently am. I am still and forever working on my dancing.
I hear a lot of dancers talk about the importance of social dancing with an emphasis on just having fun. I agree, social dancing is super important. The unparalleled joy of social dancing is the whole reason to go to classes and get better at dancing! Also, actively social dancing, dancing with people from different backgrounds and skill levels WILL help you be a better social dancer. And yes, you should enjoy these dances with reckless abandon (or controlled abandon maybe) and not feel pressured to be a better dancer all the time. I am, however, concerned that this emphasis on fun is to the detriment of growth and development. I worry that these dancers are missing out on some of the best things about the dance: the intrinsic value you find when you improve at something; the physical benefits of having good body control; the pleasure of being so closely connected with your partner and the music. I believe that dancing is better, more connected, more musical, more fun, when you are better at it. I believe that the only way to get better at it is by putting in the work, by acknowledging your limits and your downfalls and pushing past them. And just personally, I want my community to be one where learning and growth is valued and where people strive to be better.
Now, I know not everyone wants to be a Great Lindy Hopper. They might have other priorities or be happy to simply be a good Lindy Hopper. That’s totally cool, I don’t want to rain on your parade or make you feel bad about that choice. (As a side note, what you are “putting in” and “getting out” might be focused around supporting the community and that is super valuable to the scene too). I also know that people need to learn at their own pace and sometimes you need to step away if you are getting frustrated by too much information, or by putting too much pressure on yourself. That’s totally cool too, you should never feel bad for taking things at your own pace, you can only go as fast as you can go and these things take time (story of the hare and the tortoise, anyone?).
I just want to put out a disclaimer that if you want to be a better dancer, or you want to be in a higher level, take a long hard look at what you are doing to get there. Can you go to more classes or more socials? Can you go to workshops, and are you valuing your learning? It might be as simple as asking your teachers for feedback in class or meeting up with a partner to practise for an extra hour a week. Take ownership of it because only you can make you a better dancer. And please, PLEASE, travel interstate and overseas and get inspired to work on your dancing from the amazing people you meet there.
If you want to be a Great Lindy Hopper (or Bal dancer, or Blues dancer, or whatever your choice of dance may be) you need to work at it, because you only get out of it what you put in.