Letter To A Young Blues Dancer
Dear reader and young(or old) blues dancer,
Welcome and thank you for allowing me to share some thoughts and insights as I approach a year of dancing blues in Denver. I want to welcome and congratulate you, and hope sincerely you stick with this scene and culture and it enriches your life like it has mine. Like any attempt to distill lessons from experience, this is going to be part diary and therefore some of this will be useful, and some will be so specific to my own unique experience that I can only hope it’s at least interesting to read.
(As a caveat to my strangeness, let me lay out possible biases: I’m a guy who primarily leads, who hated dancing and had zero background in any dance before I started blues, and approached it with obsessive zeal and the resources to acquire a lot of incredibly high level instruction. When I say anything in this post, assume it’s a shot seeking a target, not a universal statement of truth. If it resonates with you, great, if not, scrap it and move on.)
When considering what I would want to include if I was reading this myself, when I first started, what I wish I had at my disposal, I will start with things that are immediately useful and advice you may actually listen to, and later go into things I know I was told to do but didn’t do them until much later in my experience.
What Is A Dancer
The first idea I was to get across to you, young dancer, is that you are an artist and you practice a craft, with all the seriousness and playfulness that entails. As you struggle to grasp the social politics and your own emotions related to dance, and trust me, they are going to be a doozy, always approach it from the point of view that what you are doing is an artistic expression of yourself made into the physical.
What do I mean by this? Well, my first bit of practical advice, if you are like me, a straight man who started learning to dance only to learn to lead, is this: you will consciously or unconsciously think that your job in a dance is to show a woman a good time, that you are responsible for entertaining your follow, especially if they are a female and especially if you happen to find them physically attractive.
This mindset is harmful on many levels, and firstly it will make you a bad dancer, it creates anxiety and nervousness, which destroys your ability to be confident, spontaneous, and artistic. This toxic model of male-female interaction is handed to us by larger American culture but it needs to be rejected, because just like our normal romantic relationships(should be), the partnership of dance can be framed in a much healthier way: neither of you has a “job”, what you do in a dance is move to the music to express yourself, and when you do it together you create something, like two musicians practicing putting together a new piece of music, or friends having a conversation or any artists who collaborate on a project.
Blues is a dance of partnership where lead and follow roles are almost equal in how they shape the look and feel of the dance(for more on this, read Cierra’s earlier post). Your prior stereotypes about dancing might look a lot like a man moving someone across the floor and the woman only being moved where she is directed. This is not blues dancing, and on some level probably not good dancing for any dance style.
Which leads me to one of the other most important lessons I learned early, and wish I had learned earlier. Because you should not see yourself as someone in charge of the follow having a good time, and conversely, follows, your job is not to just do what you are told as smoothly as possible, how do we re-frame what a dance should look like? Here I will steal whole a concept taught to me by the amazing Justin Riley, and forgive me if I do a bad job of paraphrasing it. Essentially, when you dance, you need to connect to the music before anything else. The music should move you, you should not be moving someone else, or yourself, but rather it all starts with the song hitting your soul and causing the movement, and once you’ve connected to the song, then you connect how you want to express it through your body, and THEN you begin actually dancing with your follow.
It goes Music>You>Your Body>Then moving other bodies, to simplify it way down.
If you’ve been dancing a little while I’m sure you’ve had amazing, magical dances and dances where you were just bored and it felt flat, regardless of how technically proficient they were. This is the simplest explanation for why that happens, when you aren’t inspired, you are just moving across the floor, you are bored, you bore yourself, and thus your partner as well. If the music doesn’t make you feel or want to move, don’t dance to it. If you are having a bad dance, check in with yourself and ask if you are even excited to be there. This framework changed everything for me and forever got rid of my anxiety that my partner was expecting me to impress them and that I owed something to anyone. Once again, it starts with the music, the music moves you, you then move yourself, and then you begin moving with your partner.
How To Practice
If you are anything like me, you also may have gotten into dance because of a painful struggle in your life, and the blues was a way to work those emotional issues. You may also be someone who is obsessed now, or has an obsessive personality, like me, and is willing to devote lots of time and energy and money to dance. If so, I will give you some advice to how you can learn a lot very fast, and within a year fool people into thinking you’ve been dancing for 3-5.
The first thing I did when I started was google blues dancing and two-fold start to study the music and dance, and also find every single possible event within driving distance. I would go dancing 5-7 times a week, and if I could make it, take all the lessons that were available. I can’t stress this enough: take classes, they will always have something to teach you. If you can afford it, take private lessons, as often as you can, and if you can only afford them sporadically, it’s still good if only every few weeks or months.
If an instructor comes through your town for a workshop, take it, if there’s an exchange, find someone you admire who is visiting to teach and ask them for a private lesson. If you’re going to an exchange, try to plan your day so you can get some classes in and still manage to dance and sleep enough.
How To Be Charming And Make Friends
But I’m getting ahead of myself; you may be wondering how you tackle your first month, week, or even night of dancing? Here’s where I won’t lie: for me it was terrifying. Before I started dancing I hated it more than anything in the world, and my fear of it was only matched by my fear of falling out of an airplane or drowning to death. If you are anything like me, and have social anxiety, it will be hard. You will feel like you are fucking up and everyone is watching (they aren’t: no one, no one cares or notices unless you are one of the best or you’re being incredibly dangerous, by the way). It will be emotionally taxing, but like anything in life, the pain period is worth the greater rewards that come with it.
Some small tips to get you through it is start with having or making friends fast, have safe harbors for when you feel dejected, rejected or just overwhelmed (and no, alcohol doesn’t count). Going to class before the dance is great for this; all the other people in class have an innate camaraderie with each other. Also, practice good etiquette. I’ve talked to many dancers from first year to 20 year international instructor, and trust me, they love new dancers, they want and need them for the scene, and no one cares if you are new and bad as long as you smell nice, act polite, and do not do anything dangerous like try tricks or dips you haven’t learned or wrench peoples arms. Be light and kind to people.
As an aside, the best way to gain empathy is whatever your chosen role, do the opposite and start practicing at it as soon as possible. Your understanding of what it feels like to be a follow when you’re a primary lead and vice versa will shoot through the roof, and it will make you a much better dancer if you actually know how what you do actually feels to someone else.
I had a relatively simple time making friends in the dance scene because I’m an over the top extrovert, but you don’t need to be just to gain favor on the front end. Remember when I mentioned being polite? Here’s how: walk up to people, to their face or at a side angle, never from behind. Ask them to dance with your words, don’t ever touch or pull strangers out of nowhere. When you ask them, ask them if they are comfortable with you leading (or following), and if they are ok with things like close embrace or dips. These are not only things that are good to know ahead of time, but they let people know immediately that you are a considerate person, and no matter your skill, you care about the other person and their safety.
Another quick and easy tip to get everyone to like you right off the bat: offer carpools and housing. Dancers like to travel, but they hate to drive, it’s a cheap trick but it’s a quick way of getting into conversations, making friends, and showing the community that you are cool.
Ask everyone to dance, everyone. Don’t be intimidated, ask your classmates, ask your teachers, ask people you may have only seen on YouTube. I’ve met a lot of them, trust me, they’re nice and usually goofy dorks who only look scary from afar. Some people will be mean to you, some will turn you down, those will be the minority though, and don’t ever take it personally. Sometimes people are tired or hate the song being played or whatever, it doesn’t matter. In the year I’ve been dancing I can count rejection probably on one or two hands, and I’ve had thousands of dances already.
When you dance with people, remember again, this is a human being, you two are in close physical connection, and if you are a lead, they trust you with their safety, not to injure their shoulder or give them a concussion (it can and has happened). Treat them nice, cherish that they are also doing something weird and scary with a total stranger, and pay attention to the partnership, riff of their ideas, and compliment them. Talk to them after the dance, don’t make things transactional.
Ego and Learning
As you move through the scene, remember to moderate where your ego is at. On the one end, remember to be kind to yourself, you aren’t great yet, greatness takes a lot of time and pain, and how you dance is not a reflection of your self-worth. Conversely, as you get better, remember to be humble, we’re never as bad or as good as we think we are, and neither matters because it’s all a journey, you are on your way at all times, so where you are isn’t important, because you’re becoming something constantly.
Assuming you have followed me this far and are saying to yourself that yes, you are obsessed, and are willing to do everything you can and have access to, I encourage you further to understand blues and blues dancing as more than just steps and movements, because it is. I said early you are an artist, and this is an art form. It has an immense history and culture behind it, there’s a WHY to all this HOW.
While I could run down a list of where to start and where to go, I’m not going to, because I’m not qualified and I don’t think that’s the point so much as the curiosity should be there within you. The blues scene, depending on where you are, may or may not help you with this. Some teachers and scenes will teach you steps and play mostly blues music, but end your education there. I think if you’re going to step into something new and strange, you should let this thing, this culture, change you and influence you. If you want to come and take nothing away, I think you will severely blunt your growth not only as a person but also as a dancer.
So start reading about the blues, watching documentaries, and actually listen and study the music. Start DJ-ing as early as you can, or at least make mock sets, ask for advice, and get into the culture of the modern scene as well. The more you can absorb the better. Essentially you have a choice between making this just something you “do”, vs making this something you “are”, and I can’t tell you what you SHOULD do, I think people do whatever they want regardless of advice. What I can tell you is if you want to do it in a way that teaches you new ways of being, new values, and shows you sides to yourself you never knew, you have to allow yourself to be changed by the culture, not simply see yourself as a tourist shopping for a knickknack, and bringing it back to your home without any real change to who you are and what you know.
How To Practice (Again)
As you move through this dance, things that are hard will change. You will become better, you will get people who regularly consider you a favorite, and enjoy seeing and dancing with you. You will become more comfortable, confident, and hopefully have a ton of new friends. You will also pick up new anxieties, like am I good enough? Will I ever be better or be great? This is all normal, and I can only tell you that sometimes you will go through a slump and feel like you’ve hit the absolute peak and you’ll never get better. It’s not true, keep dancing, take lessons, and you will break through that and have the best night of your life dancing. I find this happens to me once every 2-6 weeks now.
I would also advise you on something you will probably hear a lot and ignore because it’s terrifying and hard: dance solo. Practice solo. As much as you can, even if all you can do it practice chest isolations in your car, start there. It takes some months and some years and some never, to be comfortable dancing all by themselves in a social floor, but it’s essential to your growth as a person and as a dancer. If you are blessed to have hardwood floors, practice in your house, maybe in front of a mirror, invite friends over to practica with you, small group or house parties, just do as much as possible.
If you’re anything like me you will scoff at this advice at least for 6 months, but you can make it less scary for yourself. Find other people who want to practice solo and jam with them in a circle: you can solo dance with other people, that’s a thing. Whatever it takes, finds ways to make the uncomfortable more comfortable, like solo, switching primary roles, learning styles that are intimidating, like fast blues, strut, micro, etc etc.
As you get farther along, around month 4-6 depending on your progress, some quick reminders. No, you are not too good for anyone, not now, not ever. Keep asking everyone to dance, dance especially with newbies(weird how you’re no longer a newbie, huh?). You may think you’re getting good, but only dancing with people who are good and who know you is a trap, good dancers cover up your mistakes and you get a false view of your own talent.
Also, and this is a personal one for me: if you want to compete, start early, and often. It will tear up your insides and make you doubt your self-worth the first time, and maybe even subsequent times. You shouldn’t, but you will, come to judge yourself based on how others judge you in this very narrow parameter. Be prepared and ask if that’s what you really want, and if it is, get the experience under your belt, learn to deal with failure and outcomes you didn’t want or expect. Competition can be a lovely thing or a hideous beast. Think about it.
As you move through your first year, you will also have to start more critically evaluating everything you are taught. As with everything, you have a balancing act of respecting those who know more than you but always applying a critical lenses, a teacher is not a god, and two teachers can contradict each other and it doesn’t mean either one is wrong. Seek out all the information, and understand you will develop your own unique style. Some instructors may be teaching a way of doing things that fits into a style they like that you don’t, and that’s ok, take what you can but don’t follow blindly. I firmly believe your goal, if there is one, is to be unique in this dance, because you are expressing yourself and you are a unique being, and you should not express yourself for the sole purpose of repeating what someone else says(or how they dance)
I don’t know how this letter will find you, useful or useless, at a time when you need or after the fact, wishing, like me, you’d known this earlier. I know you may have wanted more practical advice on what kinds of shoes to wear or clothing options, but that wasn’t going to be interesting to read or write for me. For me, and this isn’t an opinion shared by everyone, dancing is an expression of the spirit and the soul, it’s poetry, not mathematics, not logic, and I approach it more as a poet than an engineer. These are meditations after an interesting and strange journey, I hope you find some clarity or meaning in them, or at least were mildly amused.
Sincerely, Vartan: Year One
Side note to experienced dancers and organizers reading this who want to help new dancers: if you came here looking to get into the psychology of a new dancer and how to help them in your scene, I would say it’s relatively simple. Asking new people to dance consistently is an amazing thing, even now I still love being asked to dance vs having to do the asking, it’s validating, it reduces the anxiety of asking others to dance, and it makes the person feel like they have friends in the scene. Also, complimenting newbies when they do things right, on their progress, or just acknowledging that you’ve seen them out, and practicing, and trying. Even now that I’m an organizer, compete, and dance at every single dance, hearing people say they see the work I put in feels fucking fantastic. Also, not correcting dancers in the middle of the dance is a huge one. The few times someone stopped a dance to essentially ask me if I even knew what I was doing were heartbreaking, even to someone like me who is pretty callous and was committed to getting my skill up at all costs. If people aren’t dangerous, always offer if they even want criticism in the first place. One bad experience is enough to make people leave the scene forever. And snacks, everyone loves snacks. Essentially remember we are all scared shitless and worried everyone hates us, and you have my psychology as a newbie for my first 6 months at least.