East Coast Swing For the Fences!

Americans are hard workers. We build railroads and lay highways. We have a 40-hour workweek, two weeks of vacation if we’re lucky and everybody moonlights. We force poor Aisha Tyler to work 14 jobs and smile through it. Americans do everything to the absolute maximum. In some ways, this is a great thing (e.g. The Moon Landing). In others, not so great (e.g. morbid obesity).

When it comes to the American Style, our work ethic still shines through. In fact… maybe a little too much. There is an unfortunate habit among American Style students and teachers to go a little too far. It’s never a bad thing to use and editing eye — take out the unnecessary and be clear about what we’re trying to communicate, what skill we’re trying to show. If the difficulty-level is raised and our bodies or minds are unable to rise to the occasion, we might end up looking sloppy or rushed. There’s a reason we use the word “Open” at the highest levels. It’s not “Advanced”. Do whatever you can do well, show your understanding and you will be rewarded.

In the ballroom dance world, the style I see this happening to most often is East Coast Swing. If you’ve never danced a day in your life, let me make this easy for you: “Yes”, “Kinda”, “NO”.  These are the answers to the questions I’m usually asked when first discussing east coast swing. “Is there a west coast swing? *hold for laughs*”, “Kinda like Lindy Hop?” “Don’t they also call that jive?” All important questions that the more jaded dancer will find so obvious to think and speak but not to dance. You see, a lot of people know a lot about east coast swing (‘swing’ from now on) but there is an unfortunate habit by many to walk out there and dance like they’re putting out a fire in their shoes. I always marvel at the difference between couples walking off the floor from a jive and the couples finishing swing and preparing for their bolero. They’ve both done a lot of the same things but the swing couples often seem so much more wiped out and they danced at about half the speed of the jivers. Why is that? Because American Style dancers are hard workers. And when they head towards the East Coast, they tend to work just too damn hard. So grab a towel, wipe off that sweat and let’s talk a little bit about how to streamline our swing so as to not burn out halfway through our program.

I feel I should firstly make something clear. Swing is hard, you guys. Like, really. Even great professionals can lose it on their swings because it requires so much of one thing: control. Control is the name of the game in swing. You’ve got speed, you’ve got syncopations, body action and bounce. Put that all together and you’ve got a recipe for disaster without a clear understanding of managing that myriad of factors. So let’s work our way up:

Starting at our feet we’ve already got troubles a brewin’. The feet make a huge difference in how your swing will be danced and as luck would have it, this is one of those places where a lot of things are “acceptable”. Heel up or down? Doesn’t matter! Ball or ball flat? It all works! Lots of teachers have differing opinions on this and even teachers’ manuals make allowances for different ways of doing the two basic swing actions: rocks and triples. They’ve got little charts and parentheses of all the allowable way of doing these two theoretically simple things. The sad part is: they’re right, all of those ways work. Personally, I’m okay with keeping all those concepts bouncing around in my head and then picking and choosing in the moment based on my music, partner and routine. But that’s not an efficient way of moving or practicing. So let’s figure out what’s concrete and reliable.

The most important thing for me in swing is to stay very forward on a turned out foot so as to stay very agile. I can do a lot more for my speed and balance by staying much, much more forward than if I’m rolling through to a flat foot. Heels are personae non grata in swing. Therefore, on rocks I prefer to keep my heel up. This is not done in the same way as Hustle or other dances where I’m trying to create a hip lift action — that just doesn’t really fit all that well to me. I am merely trying to propel myself forward on to my standing leg so I can track through and continue. Because I won’t be using quite the same settling action with my legs, I want to keep my rock as simple and continuous as possible in order to also contribute to a continuous and even bounce action through my body.

This is also a large matter of contention between swing and jive in that jive uses a strong heel-lowering action on the rocks in order to create a strong twist throughout the body. In swing, we don’t use as strong of a rotation because we’ve already created a great deal of body action with our triples and we don’t need as much compression and leverage to contend with the speed. Lastly, because we have so much extra time compared to jive, we can’t physically rotate any further around our spines and so the energy will plainly die if we lower our heels and over-twist our rocks. Additionally, the lack of a flick/snap/rebounding leg action means we don’t have to set up camp on one leg while the other leaves the floor. Repeat after me: Swing is not jive. If you want to dance latin, dance latin.

Aside: we’re literally only two steps in. See what I mean when I said it was difficult?

I’m less particular about triple steps. I find they are somewhat more up to one’s preference, ability and choreography. Even with the timing, it’s hard to find a consensus. Because there is always the quandary of the breakdown. Swing timing of 2/3 – 1/3 – 1 or straight timing of 3/4 – 1/4 – 1? The answer depends on the song, more or less. A swingier song requires swingier timing. My response is to streamline it and sing. “Triiii – ple – stepppppp” is really all you need to know. Like any lyrics, you can adjust them to the music backing them. So long as it’s broken down length-wise as “medium – short – lonnnnng”, your triples will work fine. Then once that’s mastered, you’ll gain the freedom to syncopate.

The thing I can say about good triple step footwork is that it includes a ball-change (ball, ball flat sequence) of some kind. So long as they are not the shuffle-shuffle-shuffle triples most of us started off with, a triple step with a ball change will foot nearly any bill. The two main styles of “ball flat, ball, ball flat” and “ball, ball flat, ball flat” both have their particular pros and cons. The former helps contend with speed a little better. The latter creates a greater swing of the hips and is more grounded. Personally, I use them pretty much interchangeably depending on what it is I’m doing. I find the ball flat method works well when I’m tripling around the floor and trying to create space and the ball method works best on compact triples in place.

Given the modularity of triple steps, our goal then becomes to keep our body actions consistent across every basic variation we do. There are two constant actions at play in swing that we try to manage: bounce and swing.

Bounce is an on-going an internal tic that should be present independent of foot actions. If you just stand there, compression through your lower body in timing with the music produces an even bounce. This isn’t the song explosive bounce of samba but an ever-present internal action syncing your body with the music. The bounce to me is a matter of connecting your internal metronomes (e.g. your heartbeat) with the external metronome that is the music. There is an enormous disparity when a person never finds a way to connect themselves to the music more so than what their ears will allow. Musical dancing comes from inside and is not a matter of chasing the beat but of becoming in sync with it. Bounce is the body’s mechanism to connect with the rhythms at hand so the feet and center can cope with the syncopations.

The swing is a little different. For a long time, I didn’t really understand the swing of the hips in swing dancing. Was it like Cuban motion? Was it like sway? I could never grasp how swing action worked in swing nor could anyone give me an answer I really understood. Then it just sort of happened. I was dancing in another teacher’s swing class to fill out the ranks and every time another teacher rotated to partner me, she and I would dance all out. We were still doing as we were asked and weren’t showing off but just dancing the combination as if there was no tomorrow. And as we ran through the sequence over and over again I began to feel that hip swing I’d heard so much about and began to realize how it worked.

Swing action is in some ways the opposite of Cuban motion. Cuban motion is a lot of contraction and squeezing through the body to create rotation, lift and compression — most of which we want to avoid in swing. Swing action comes primarily to me from relaxing and allowing my lower body to swing laterally. Much of the energy is generated over the first two steps of the triple step. As we dance our 1a aka our “trip-le”, we begin to allow our ribcage to prepare and precede our feet, moving in the ultimate direction of the triple step and in turn creating a stretch between the bottom of the ribcage and the top of the pelvis. Meanwhile, I do everything in my power to keep my hips from slipping out from underneath me. After putting our body into suspension over our feet with either ball-change action we then release all of that energy onto the landing leg of the triple step, finally allowing our until-then compressed hips to swing and catch up with the ribcage that went ahead. Once arriving on 2 or “step”, we don’t want our hips rotating or twisting in a figure-eight manner, but merely all of our body and all of our energy to head in the same direction seeing as previously mentioned we don’t have the time to separate the parts of our body and still recover before the next action.

And what dictates all of this work and creates the need that it be do clear and deliberate is the music. The music for swing dances is pretty unmistakable. I’ve seen people mistake boleros for rumbas, rumbas for cha chas, cha chas for mambos. It’s not great but it’s by and large permissible due to the interrelation of all of those styles and their Cuban roots. Swing is distinctive. Swing is its own little island in the middle of your rhythm program where the tone shifts so abruptly that your ears can’t help but demand your eyes see something very different. Mainly, they want to see a correlation to the twos.

Those even swing beats are so heavily accented that it becomes almost a burden to the dancer to hit them with full force. In most Latin styles there are so many layers of sound that we are licensed to syncopate and alter the timing as needed in order to best express the particular rhythms. As swing choreography advances, we oftentimes lose sight of those definitive accents and the need to be reminded where our musical priorities exist. For any action we must be sure to give those even beats our attention lest the musicality of the style be forfeited. As one dances basic six-count actions, the conclusions of the triple-steps should be emphasized actionally in order to create a musical effect. It doesn’t hurt matters that the final step if the triple and that full beat gives us the most time to dance our actions to the fullest.

A good place to observe this is in any type of basic figure including turn for the followers — be it inside, outside or tuck — where the placement of the turn can determine the emphasized beat. If the turn is broken up over the course of the triple, there will be no direct correlation between the music and the action. However, if the entirety if the turn is taken on the final step of the triple and the preceding steps are merely a setup, the movement and music will be in sync. For choreography less particular to swing — such as walks, kicks or swivels — the musical need still exists. One would need to utilize that internal bounce to a greater degree to demonstrate a conscious acknowledgment that the music still requires their interpretation.

With a greater understand of the style and where to focus our energies, hopefully swing will maintain its reputation as the wild child of rhythm but the kind of wild child who’s responsible enough to have a paper route or babysit your kids. Because swing is a great style… It’s just a little misunderstood. If you take the time to get to know it you’ll come to realize that not only is swing a very simple dance to understand but also one of the styles that makes American style great.

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Like Joseph and Michelle Used to Do: American Foxtrot

In my senior year of high school, I was placed in Video class. I’m not sure how that happened — I don’t recall signing up or showing any interest in video as an art form other than my not being able to draw. But I’m not one to rock the boat, so I just went with it and took Video like a man. Over the course of a year, we had a number of very fun projects. We used found footage, made music videos (mine was to “Bone Chaos in the Castle” by Kaki King) and did stop-motion. I even learned to sew to make a puppet that looked like the then-pope Benedict XVI for a puppets-on-a-green-screen project. For the final assignment, we could create whatever we wanted.

As previously mentioned, high school is also where I fell in love with ballroom. And by “fell in love” I mean “developed an all-consuming obsession”. I watched ballroom, I read about ballroom and I talked about ballroom… a lot. That is… until the eventual question of “how long have you been dancing?” Me? Oh, I’ve never danced a day in my life. I just like watching it. I thought this was on par with guys who watch football on Sundays. The ones who know everyone’s names and the plays but haven’t touched a football since prior to puberty. Nobody asks those guys why they don’t play. Our answers would be the same though — we’re lazy and scared of being awful. Happy now, inquisitive stranger?

So as high school was coming to a close and I had just this one Video assignment left to finish, I decided to finally give ballroom a try in my own special way. I didn’t know how to dance dance any of it, but I knew I wanted to dance and kind of knew how the shapes should basically look. The hard part of movement as an art is the moving… so I just took that out. That is how a stop-motion foxtrot came to be.

And so on a Friday afternoon with a video camera, a tripod, and two classmates (my tiny chum Michelle to partner me and appropriately-sized camerawoman Nicole) in an empty gym, magic happened. Upon reading that sentence back, I know — I hear it too.  But get your mind out of the gutter. At the time, most of my ballroom aspirations came from So You Think You Can Dance? routines — which I know now in hindsight are just lift-vehicles with a couple seconds of closed position thrown in for effect. For ninety minutes I picked Michelle up and threw her around, holding each maneuver for a few seconds while Nicole clicked the shutter.

God works in mysterious ways. An excellent example of that is his making sure I didn’t get a copy of that video to look back at and cringe. I had no idea what I was doing then and looking back I admire my willingness to set fear aside and pretend. What I’m sure I wouldn’t admire is my likely abhorrent posture, strained faces and dumb choreography in addition to the high school grossness we all experienced. The Monday following, I uploaded it to the school computers and set it all to “Tout Doucement” by Feist. The entire project, foxtrot included, was completed and rendered in the last class on the last day of my time in high school. I think I got a good grade on it…. I never actually found out.

Why do I write all this nonsense? Because before I even could dance I had foxtrot on my mind. It’s an American classic! One of the few things we as Americans can call our own in the dance world. Yet when I look back out into that same world of dance, I can’t help but be disappointed in a lot of the foxtrotting I see these days.

And that’s because foxtrot is difficult. Difficult to do and difficult to understand. It doesn’t have the same clear-cut distinctions as the eternally-rotary waltzes, the definitive dramatic tango or it’s long and linear slow international counterpart. How do we describe it even? “It’s cool! Jazzy! Fun! Elegant! Romantic! Exciting!” A lot of those are kind of true but also somewhat contradictory. What the hell is smooth foxtrot? It doesn’t really have figures of its own and it’s mid tempo music doesn’t provide it an ease or an urgency to give it distinction. People don’t understand American foxtrot all that well as a style and that’s a damn shame because without foxtrot, there’d be no smooth at all.

Starting in bronze, I believe we’re already doing American foxtrot a disservice. Don’t get me wrong, I love bronze foxtrot with all my heart but it is also a very hard dance to do well. Even very good teachers sometimes do bronze foxtrot in very sloppy and boring ways. I know I’ve been guilty of this in the past. If you take the time to really get a mastery of bronze foxtrot, it will really set you up for an easy time in silver and beyond. But the shame is that foxtrot often gets glanced over as just a walking dance or secondary to the waltzes when really bronze foxtrot teaches how to connect actions like walks and chasses with basic techniques of compression and the creation and dissolution of sway. Don’t just get caught up doing twinkle variations. Do literally everything in your power to distance your foxtrot from your waltz. Personally, I found learning Peabody really beneficial to my foxtrot even though I learned it long after I was certified in bronze. In a perfect world, I’d say Peabody should be mandatory in bronze smooth. (Just for bronze, though. Conversely, I think open levels should have 8-dance American Style competitions instead of 9-dances, but that’s another story.)

When we arrive in silver smooth, it’s arduous to locate a syllabus figure that can really encapsulate foxtrot as a style. Perhaps it’s because I personally learned them in waltz first, but the open left and open right turns just feel waltzier to me. In fact, when I’m dancing foxtrot it’s more of a matter of editing out figures that seem inappropriate to foxtrot than connecting figures that epitomize the style. A large part of this issue is the fact that nearly all syllabus foxtrot figures are closed and variations on left and right turns. There isn’t a ton of material to teach us how to create the open look of smooth foxtrot. Between the commonly used USISTD and DVIDA silver smooth syllabi, there is exactly one open figure — #8 Promenade and Counter Promenade Runs from the USISTD*. A figure that is essentially rotary in the fact that one partner is always rotating as the unit progresses down the line, which kind of undercuts its foxtrot appeal. Besides that, I feel like the vast majority of open foxtrot I see is just grapevines of some kind. Grapevines may be a classic but they might also be verging on cliche. When you add it all up, we don’t really know how to be creative with our foxtrot because what we have either doesn’t fit or is done to death.

The issue at hand isn’t really the syllabi itself but the way we’ve been dancing it. If one takes on a piece of general smooth choreography, they must be calibrate and recalibrate it to the style it must fit. When I see flip flops or open right turns in shadow in foxtrot, I think “no, that’s too waltzy.” When the truth of the matter is we can — and should! — be able to fit anything and everything into foxtrot and dance it like foxtrot. But when we’re not learning the leg action and the technique for foxtrot, things will end up looking rather high and rotary like waltz and the transplant will be rejected.

Have we forgotten what foxtrot should be about? I have a hard time thinking of foxtrots that have knocked my socks off from any platform — competitions, showcases, TV, or any others. Slawek Sochacki and Marzena Stachura’s foxtrot was top notch, as is Peter and Alexandra Perzhu’s. Alise Halbert does a mean foxtrot. There’s a pro-am silver foxtrot with Shalene Archer-Ermis and one of her students that I’ve always found charming. What sets these dances and dancers apart? They’ve all got character. They’ve all got a little personality/soul/funk that makes them more than just a walking dance and especially more American in the way Smooth foxtrot should be. Because it really is a no holds barred dance that should have all the fun and flavor American Style can muster — more than just a tried and true grapevine. American foxtrot needs to be not only graceful and controlled but complimented with a heavy dose of the inner sparkle we should try to bring to all of our dances.

So the next time you head out to the floor to dance to dance foxtrot socially or hunker down to build some smooth choreography (always start with foxtrot; you need every possible action available so give foxtrot first dibs) remember that foxtrot is not just a SQQ waltz — it’s the cornerstone of all American Style dancing! Take the time to develop long, slow leg actions and steady, gradual rotations. Build your choreography with the whimsy and spontaneity of a broadway musical that takes us on a feel-good journey! Now is the time for us to take foxtrot back to where it started. A bold, elegant dance that should convey the greatest American principle: freedom.

 

*I reminded myself after writing that that in Toni Redpath and Michael Mead’s newly revised syllabus for DVIDA, they’ve opened foxtrot up a lot. Mazel tov. If the folks who are largely responsible for what modern smooth became can’t fix foxtrot, then lord help us all.

So You Think You Can Dance? Season 11 Finale

Tonight we learn who has been chosen as America’s Favorite Dancer! And also if Adam Shankman can irritate me more than Jesse-Tyler Ferguson! And yay! Debbie Allen is here! Spoilers ahead!

Top 20 Group: Broadway I think this season’s real breakout star has been Warren Carlyle. So fresh but still classic and authentic. Makes the other broadway choreographers (except maybe Sean Cheeseman) look like amateurs. What ever happened to Joey Dowling?

Mary’s Choice- Jessica & Casey: Contemporary Definitely more joyful than the first time. I think Jessica had a little more zest for life now that she’s at the and than after getting knocked down for a couple weeks. Even with a bobbled lift, still a great piece.

Debbie’s Choice- Valerie & Ricky: Hip Hop Remember what I said about Warren Carlyle? Yeah, that for Pharside and Phoenix times a million. My one criticism is I remembered Ricky’s hat as being larger. Wishful thinking, I guess.

Zack’s Choice- Zack & Amy: Contemporary Not my favorite for Zack. A good routine for eternally understated Amy but I never really bought it. Maybe it was different in person and it definitely showed a different side if Zack but I think there were better choices of his talent. I’m gonna have to assume those are coming up later tonight or why else would he pick this?

Nigel’s Choice- Rudy & Allison: Jazz Ray Leeper loves a ballroom trick, doesn’t he? The floor slash, the death sweep. I didn’t really notice how good Rudy was in this. It was an excellent routine and was one of the best of the night originally but that middle section really grabs you if you’re not staring at Allison.

That Australian dude was insane! Really amazing. So controlled and alive but elegant and regal at the same time. Also, Pavlo Barsuk and Anna Trebunskaya paso doble’d to that song on America’s Ballroom Challenge (IT’S COMING BACK!) in 2008. He kinda put them to shame.

Valerie’s Choice- Valerie & Zack: Tap How great are those two together? They should just get married and have the most homespun children ever. But seeing it again made me nervous because it went so well the first time and what are the chances of lightning striking twice. But we’re talking about Valerie and Zack here. Lightning strikes when they say it strikes.

Les Twins I would trade every contemporary dance I’ve seen this season for more of that.

Ricky’s Choice- Jessica & Ricky: Contemporary I remember being fond of this the first week and now 10 weeks later, I’m feel like both of them can do so much more and we’ve seem them do it. This routine just sort if fades away into history. It’s ether now.

America’s Choice- Carly & Serge: Hip Hop America chose wrong. Great routine, lovely dancers and updated production but Emilio & Jasmine shoulda had this in the bag. That said, I liked this the first time and it was nice seeing it again.

Jenna’s Choice- Tanisha & Rudy: Jazz I completely forgot this routine existed and honestly felt like I was seeing something completely new. Tanisha and Rudy really killed it this season. If I had voted, they’re who I would’ve voted for. They remind more of many seasons ago when you had perfect pairings like Courtney and Gev. A bygone era… But good choice Jenna, whoever you are.

Can someone tell Enrique Iglesias it’s not 2003 anymore? It tickles me how sedate the audience is. Flat out polite. For a song titled “Dancing” they couldn’t pull one person out from backstage to dance a little and distract us from the hasbeens?

Adam’s Choice- Zack & Ricky: Hip Hop Is someone about to get results?! I’ve seen this trick before. Butter us up with excellent dancing and then slam us down.

NOOOOOO! Not Zack! I mean… Yeah. I get it but still. Kid has heart. If we’re strictly playing favorites, he’s probably the most relatable and accessible contestant and I’ve really enjoyed him. Good luck, Zack!

Tara’s Choice- Emilio & Jasmine: Hip Hop OK, good picking up the pieces, Tara. Loved that routine the first time and really liked it again. I’m kind of realizing how Emilio doesn’t make much of an impression. I hope he works a lot after this. Make your own opportunities, Emilio!

Jesse-Tyler Ferguson is here. Sorry, Adam Shankman, you’re never gonna beat that.

Top 10 & All-Stars: Pop Can’t really call that jazz or hip hop so I’m going with pop like Wade Robson or Brian Friedman used to do. But better. So much better! So exciting and full and beautiful. Really made you want to get up and dance. Also really showed who the stars of this season were. Watch it again and recognize the fact that there were a number of Top 10 finalists you didn’t notice at all. But as a unit they all blended so beautifully. Glad they let Rudy and Tanisha work together again.

That Wanted Crew or whatever really showed the world that you can’t keep the sequined vest industry down.

Jessica’s Choice- Jessica & Robert: Contemporary Jessica made a smart choice and probably picked her best routine. Was she really that challenged this season? I don’t really think so. And then she got the boot.

Cat’s Choice- Valerie & Ricky Contemporary Soooo… No ballroom tonight? Ok, I’ll get my things and go. But first, that was lovely. They really grew into one another as partners. Didn’t love it the first time but now I dig what they bring to the table together and apart. They are a quintessential SYTYCD top 2. And the winner is…

RICKY! That poor boy is so overwhelmed. But good for him. It’s nice when the sort of powerhouse who starts the season ends up taking it home. The only drawback is the idea that an 18-year-old just got a ridiculous amount of money. Don’t spend it on pixie sticks!

Merengue: Marching to The Beat of Your Own Tambora

Oh, the simple things in life! Jeans and t-shirts. A deck of cards. Toast.

Sometimes we forget to appreciate the simple things in this go-go-go world of ours. As such, when you take the time to simplify, it’s very refreshing. I know this is absolutely true when it comes to dancing. Your basics are the only things that will be able to set you above other dancers. Many very strong competitive couples fail on the basis that while they may have a lot of flash and skills to demonstrate, they lack the clarity of strong, well-practiced basics. This is true of all styles. Couples like Arunas Bizokas and Katusha Demidova, Tony Dovolani and Elena Grinenko and Tomas Mielnicki and JT Thomas built careers and became champions on the basis of their basics. I love complexity to death but if it’s not supporting your basics in some way, it’s not worth your time. Look at any top-tier professional’s choreography: Believe it or not, it’s usually a manipulated basic sequence punctuated by lines/highlights and padded with elements that embody the style they’re dancing. Ta da!

“But basics are boring!” “Basics are hard!” “I’m beyond basics!” Wrong. Right. Wrong! Students by and large have complicated relationships with their basics for a myriad of reasons. I think this stems in large part from most students not knowing how to practice on their own. Many people only practice choreography and the priority shifts to being able to execute someone’s larger idea and interpretation of a style than the actual style itself. Choreography probably takes more brain power to memorize but you’re doing a body a disservice by not allowing it to absorb and practice the core principles. I always tell my students to begin by practicing elements — start with simple, singular movements like walks, rocking or initiation. Once your elements are refined, apply them to the basic figures they inhabit. Upon refreshing your basics, your choreography will really start to sing. Now repeat. Every day. Until you die.

The dance that epitomizes this idea of the neglected basic is unfortunately merengue.

I am of two minds when it comes to merengue. The first is from my first experience with it while in the BDTC. The Rhythm II quarter had just begun and I was feeling stronger and more competent after a rough Rhythm I quarter. The thing about rhythm and most Latin dancing is that it takes time to sink into your body and for your body to respond by creating actions through your hips and ribcage. I know now how dumb it was of me to expect to be excellent but I did and I wasn’t so my rhythm relationship was strained. So along comes merengue — the most paired-down, simple dance of the bunch. I did that same shimmying tip toe everyone does when they first dance merengue. It wasn’t pretty, but it was kinda fun (’cause Melissa Saphir can make anything fun). Learning the syllabus was tricky because what’s actually a great thing about merengue — you can do anything! But without a set guideline of a repeatable pattern, the merengue figures just got more and more jumbled. Chassés, side rocks, fifth-positions… It was all marching to me.

Cut to: not a long while later, I was working at my first studio in Oakland. Three times a week we would have parties and would dance all different styles with our students. The beauty of merengue is quickly found when one must grab a stranger with unknown dance experience and lead them smoothly and impressively for the next two-ish minutes. Then the simple marching dance is revealed for what it is: a playground of plentiful actions and is actually a ton of fun. Everything I liked about other styles I incorporated along with tricks and exciting things because it was so simple. A stripped down style shows one how dances are made interesting, whether socially or choreographically. Variety in timings, positions and actions make dancing fun — though this is only done when you understand how to dance the style itself.

When you combine these two ideas — the structure and technique of a dance teacher and the raucous-yet-pragmatic partygoer — you find the beauty of merengue. Simple and straight-forward while still spontaneous, merengue really beats the band.

It doesn’t take much to enhance merengue. The trick is mainly not to waste energy and (you guessed it!) simplify.

Due to the speed and incremental direction changes, merengue action is different from normal Cuban motion. Using a stronger-than-normal ribcage action as well as a very direct up and down piston-like action through the hips to decrease lateral pull from side to side. The body shouldn’t break up  like in other dances — it must move with a precise conveyance of energy from the ball of the foot connecting with the floor to the shoulder’s response to a contracting lat muscle.

Additionally, probably the most upsetting part of merengue as it’s danced socially is that Dramamine-requiring metronomic rocking. Our goal in all styles should be to stay as tall and vertical as we can manage unless deliberately shaping one way or an other. This is the not only to create an attractive body shape, allowing our hips to move freely and clearly but it also allows us to interpret timing changes. If I want to change the timing either faster or slower, I’ll need to either rise or lower to communicate that. Dancing with a long, clear spine will transform any figure into a malleable piece of choreography.

Lastly, the most important factor in dancing merengue to me is making it flow. You have two choices: connect or contrast. I’m always conscious as a leader of what I’m doing and more importantly, what I’m doing next. I want to make sure that what I do makes sense on the whole from an aesthetic and balance standpoint. I’d need to link my actions together in coherent, deliberate ways. The easiest way to do this is to take my time. Taking a couple extra beats to figure out what’s next benefits everyone. Meanwhile, my partner would not like it if I made her turn left a dozen times in a row. It would not look good to the outside if I just did similar wrapping actions over and over — it would be boring. This is why I also must do contrasting actions. Left turns followed by right turns, wraps followed by hammerlocks, tunnels followed by ducks. The more creative you get with your dancing the more interesting it will be for both partners and the more mileage you’ll get out of your punctuating basics.

The simple dances may seem fun and easy but they necessitate clean and precise movements. So take your jitterbugs, your merengues, your four-step hustles and ask yourself, “am I doing too much? Or not enough?” The answers may surprise you.

So You Think You Can Dance? Season 11 Top 4

Working Wednesday night and now I’m watching this episode a day late with high expectations. No idea who might be the winner and last week really reset the preferences I started the season with.

Top 4 Group: Contemporary I think this routine was danced well but suffered from some sizable flaws. Neat concept but the pairings definitely showed an imbalance in a lot of ways and I think the choreography didn’t work to blend the dancers as partners/a group. Very stilted in ways so nobody ended looking that great when all was said and done. The good thing was that you could see real differences and size dancers up against one another. Valerie being more human and Jessica being more ethereal; Ricky being more extroverted and Zack being more introverted. I didn’t care for the musical break in the middle because they all danced it like a separate routine rather than just changing emotional keys. A rocky start.

Valerie & Ricky: African Jazz I may not be the authority on this style but I think it was very good as far as energy and attack. They had different reactions over the course of the routine. Ricky started very tight and wasn’t really finishing his lines. Valerie started with a natural looseness and extension that really gels with African jazz. Over time, Ricky really found a groove and exploded while Valerie lost a lot of steam — which I don’t really mind because it’s narratively appropriate.

Jessica & Zack: Broadway A signature tango song! “Hernando’s Hideaway” is such a classic and I’m in love. Apart from the song I… Didn’t love this. Neither of them really lived up to their characters in my opinion. Jessica didn’t have the maturity for a vixen and I could see the effort but Zack wasn’t bringing all the swagger the role required. They definitely tried very hard and coped with the tricks and choreography well but it lacked the smoothness, the ease, the embodiment that is as much acting as dancing. Faster actions suited them both better because what really failed the routine were the quiet, transitional moments.

Valerie & Zack: Contemporary Why couldn’t they just say she was blind? ‘Cause they sure laid it on real thick with the cane. The dancing was good overall — really fluid and smooth. I think Valerie for once didn’t have an enormous range emotionally which made some things a touch comical to be completely honest. Zack had an easier job that he did beautifully when there was something to do. Some guys on this show do great as forklifts just moving and supporting and orchestrating which is a real valuable skill. I don’t think Zack is one of those guys — he’s more of someone who demonstrates content well. He’s either center stage or completely absent.

Jessica & Ricky: Jazz This show has a rough relationship was jazz routines that don’t have storylines. Jazz doesn’t really translate without an idea behind it. They danced really beautifully with a lot of energy but the moments where the lost sync really stood out like sore thumbs. Ray Leeper kinda just shot Jessica in the foot for the second week in a row. Needed a more deliberate masculine/feminine vibe to really sell it. Edit: I completely forgot about this routine and was only reminded it existed while proofreading. That says something.

What? Jason Mraz? Huh? I mean… Sure, I guess.

Valerie & Jessica: Bollywood For once Jessica wasn’t the plainest girl to walk the earth. She actually really sparkled in an unexpected way. I think Valerie definitely showed a strong musicality and embodiment of the style. When dancing through a lens of joy, Valerie can really pop. That said, I think she slid back a little bit character acting. Be a little selfish, Valerie! You don’t have to let someone else be the star! Especially in a routine about “Bollywood divas”. The catfight would be called for.

Zack & Ricky: Hip Hop Big night for these two as far as partnering. And Ricky keeps getting lifted by everybody! Something tells me he likes it. It’s funny to me to imagine this is the same couple from the opening group routine… just on the weekends. But this was really excellently danced by both of them. Really, hard-hitting. Astoundingly in sync. My eyes kept bouncing back and forth. Ricky probably had more interesting material but Zack made his parts more sharp and powerful.

Valerie & Aaron Tap Absolutely amazing. Could not take my eyes off if this. Wish there was an entire show of these two. Some of the best dancing Valerie has ever done in this stage. So musical and precise and expressive. She has definitely shown an enormous range tonight as well as throughout the whole season. I think she’s got a special kind of charisma — she makes you zoom in and focus on her rather than expanding out and filling up a space. She’s a star.

Ricky’s solo wasn’t as great as last week but still excellent. Ricky needs more calibration — less black/white, fast/slow, big/small. More variety will give him so much more nuance. Luckily, this isn’t a big nuance show.

Ricky & Katherine: Contemporary There was a lot to like about this routine but in the feeling of finales this routine made me wonder if we’ve ever seen Ricky have to be overtly sexy? Because this routine was platonic and a little cold to me. Sometimes Ricky was somewhat frantic to me which I think pulled me out of it but is actually an appropriate for the feeling and the moment when you think about it.

Valerie’s solo had a clever song behind it but took a while to get started. Seemed a little generic, honestly. Femininity sits really well on Valerie and I wish she’d play that up a little more instead of slumping down into tomboy territory.

Zack & Aaron: Tap My first thought seeing this is: that looked so hard! Which is a good and bad thing. They had so much to do and were so challenged but you could see the work they put it in. It was so interesting but a little more light and shade wouldn’t have killed them. The routine itself showed ability and work ethic that you couldn’t find in many (any?) others.

Jessica’s solo was eh. Not her best. If that was a ‘dance for your life’ solo, she’d probably be dead. Jessica needs to either lean into her ethereal, quiet strengths or push herself in entirely the different direction and go really weird ’cause otherwise she’s just the plainest of the plain.

Jessica & Robert: Contemporary Contemporary? I thought she was a jazz dancer. Oh, she already had jazz tonight. But this was excellent. Jessica got to play to her strengths and brought a real depth that made this routine pop. Really mesmerizing and cohesive from moment to moment. She really overtook Robert and stole that show. Christina Applegate might be proven right.

Zack’s solo was an excellent demonstration of tap and Zack’s ability as an entertainer. There’s something special about what he does.

Sooooo… No ballroom tonight? Ouch. Why’d I even bother recapping? Because this show is rad and deserves the attention of all dancers everywhere. Let’s hope someone appreciates the two Emmys they won and renews them for season 12 so I can recap a whole season and not just the last two. Can’t wait for the results! Go everybody!

Hustle (n Flow)

Thanks to my affiliation with the Richmond Village Beacon and the Richmond District Neighborhood Center, I’ve had the privilege of teaching a wonderful class of a large group of enthusiastic students across a diverse array of styles. In the beginning, we would switch styles each week and have a little crash course from beginning to intermediate in the space of two hours. Oftentimes I would be asked why we would change styles so frequently and the answer was this: if you go to a ballroom party, there are many styles to dance. Most ballrooms include at least 10 styles at their parties — usually more. Smooth, Rhythm and Social/Nightclub are all fair game and you’re expected to get out there and dance each and every one. I always suggest leaders know a handful of basics and at least one fancier, more intricate “power move” to keep things interesting. Followers have a much more difficult time as they don’t know what leaders might throw at them. The best course of action for a follower is to try and experience as many different techniques and elements as she can in order to follow even the most advanced leader — provided he was leading correctly. It’s a luxury to only have to work on and practice one or two styles — and that luxury really puts enormous limitations on social dancers who are too precious about the few styles they do. My classes are intended to train that versatility into dancers; to change direction on a dime and fall in love with whatever style you’re asked to dance. With all that in mind, I’ve decided to dedicate a little time each week to briefly* explain what’s great and worth remembering about these styles to help organize your mind around the tasks at hand with the second-hand knowledge I’ve accrued and my own experiences.

*As if I’ve ever been brief in my life…


Hustle

When I first think of hustle, I think of sitting outside of MacArthur BART station in Emeryville, on my way to the Allegro Ballroom. I was a BDTC student enrolled in the Nightclub quarter and today we were starting to learn hustle. It occurred to me that of the years I’d spent researching and studying ballroom dances, of the 17 BDTC styles I couldn’t quite paint a picture in my mind of what hustle looked like. Was it fast? Slow? Smooth? Sharp? I’d maybe seen hustle once or twice on television but it hadn’t made much or any of an impression on me. It was a strange feeling to walk into class as a blank slate for once — terrified that I’d be spending the next two hours line dancing.

Julie Lowe began taking us through some exercises and the syllabus figures. My first thought had nothing to do with hustle itself. A month into dancing and things were getting a lot easier! I was picking this up so much faster and more comfortably. My mind could interpret Julie’s direction and relay it to my body. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start! By the end of the night, there was a definite breakthrough. Dancing the alternating underarm turns with a friendly Southern gal named Allie who was a much better dancer than me, Julie stopped the class to point us out. We had gotten it! &1: we broke back! 23: we slickly changed places, tracing our hands across our partner’s back to regain the connection quickly and efficiently. Never before had Julie allowed me to demonstrate anything! My goal until then had truly been to go completely unnoticed and now to have people watching our success felt so intoxicating! It was here that I began my love affair with hustle that continues to this day.

Since then, I’ve come to know hustle in numerous forms and more advanced levels. Most commonly, hustle is seen with three timing options (all NDCA approved!). I started learning hustle as syncopated hustle: &123 timing with a syncopated break on &1. Later on, I learned four step hustle with the even timing of 1234, removing the syncopation and typically starting with a forward break to build the compression needed for slower breaks. The last and probably least common in this area is 12&3 timing. It sort of bridges the gap between syncopated and four step, starting with a forward four step break and leading into a syncopated back break. It’s a useful timing to know for social dancing but I honestly get more use from the other two. It’s main purpose in my hustle is to bridge the gap from syncopated to four step as needed.

The technique of hustle is fairly simple — as with most social dances, the tricky part is calibrating your hustle to your song and variant. What’s most often forgotten is that hustle comes out of latin social dances (mambo, specifically). A big pet peeve of mine is seeing hustle danced more like a swing dance than a latin dance which leads to a more clunky, disjointed style. In order to dance hustle to its fullest potential, we must include the latin separation at the waist that we’d use in any more traditionally latin dance. This is to let the moving leg swing freely out from underneath the body rather than moving as one entire piece, incorrectly pulling the upper body with the moving foot. The pelvis must move freely to not disturb the connection while also being quite attractive and rhythmical.

Additionally, the other major factor in the creation of hustle was ballet. The last remaining partner dancers in New York it seemed were the latin salsa/mambo community. Also alive and kicking in NYC were ballet and modern dance communities such as the American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham companies. As disco music began to gain a foothold in the social dance scene, the dancers of New York were unsure of what to do to this new sound. The result combined latin breaks and the forward poise and turning capacity of ballet dancers in an entirely new partner dance. After years of solo dancing, this new ‘touch’ dance where partners regained contact caught fire and became hustle. Although things may have changed over the following 40-odd years with the influences of contemporary ballroom dancing, international latin, DiscoFox, west coast swing and other styles, it’s very helpful to keep these two core factors in mind.

While salsa has remained a staple, many of us don’t have any concept of how ballet might affect this style. The points worth remembering are the turnout in your feet, extreme forward poise onto the balls of the feet and the long, vertical style of turns. Unlike other styles, your weight pretty much never shifts anywhere near your heels and it is a cardinal sin to drop your heel on back rocks. As for turns, you will find that they are almost always pivots rather than walk-turn or spiraling actions that are commonly seen in other dances. As far as hip action, we try to avoid breaking our body laterally in a figure-eight type action as we would in more common Cuban dances. Instead, the straightened knee and risen heel creates a strong hip lift action that will result in a longer body line and strong compression in the lat muscles. Additionally, although it may seem a little strange, there isn’t another dance that has the same combination of freedom and elegance as hustle. You must move so fluidly and gracefully across the slot while constantly changing positions and rocking that you really need a balletic stretch to your body and core. Forget about speed and just try to make yourself look long and graceful and your hustle will improve tenfold.

Hopefully, some of these tips will help you love hustle like I know I do. Practice and enjoy!

So You Think You Can Dance? Season 11 Top 6

Before I even started dancing, I watched SYTYCD. I was in such awe of the dancers, the stage, the production and Cat Deeley. It was where I first connected to ballroom as a style more than that, wanting to be a ballroom dancer. My first season was season 3 with such awesome ballroom representation in Lacey, Anya, Pasha and Faina who collectively demonstrated that ballroom is a difficult style but it makes you into one hell of a dancer. Chelsie Hightower knocked it out of the park in season 4 and I was committed to ballroom. Since then, the more I’ve danced and choreographed the more I see the cracks in SYTYCD ballroom but I’m still in love with the SYTYCD spirit. I’ve never wanted to be on it (cause I’d do horribly) but I always wanted to be a guest judge. And seeing as the ratings aren’t doing great, I’ve decided to do some blogging my thoughts like the mightygodking blogs I used to love and get that judging experience I always wanted.

Top 6 Group: Hip Hop Fun, cool way to start the show. Maybe not the most high energy way to start so I was a little underwhelmed. Also seemed a little bit of a ripoff from last week’s crew performance. (And a repeat of the black light costumes on a blue background making it impossible to see.) Everyone was very much in sync and musical but… It made me miss some of the stronger hip hop folks. Rudy? Emilio? Teddy? Tanisha? Probably would’ve raised the bar. Really a routine created to be filmed, I can’t imagine this was all that great in person.

Valerie & Ricky: Broadway I liked this routine. This might be the best I’ve seem them together. That said, I hate these two as a partnership. Valerie with other folks can have a real leading lady quality. Ricky is always Ricky. And that’s not a bad thing but when dancing a duet, you’ve got to sort of melt into one another and he just doesn’t. The consummate team player that is Ms Rockey dims her light to character actor-status for the presence that is RICKY. But the time apart has lifted her up and simmered him to a much more placid pair. This was lovely.

Jessica & Casey: Disco This warmed my heart. Possibly the best disco in a long, long time. I appreciate Doriana’s restraint—no, I’m serious. She’s done much more, much worse. The hustle elements were well done, the lifts were smartly done. Jessica really shined here as a strong, feminine dancer and Casey did a beautiful job as a man in a partner dance routine in that he supported, complimented and basically disappeared. That’s our lot in life, guys—we’re not the pretty half of the partnership. And that’s ok.

Ricky’s solo totally lived up to that music and became part of it. I’m not a huge Ricky fan but he got me with this.

Jacque & Zack: Foxtrot Ouch. This was a rough one. They tried. Oh god, did they try. This was basically a ballroom-influenced broadway routine that was an odd mish-mash. Not a great representation of American Smooth foxtrot in the creation of different positions and the transitions between. Zack 100% outdanced Jacque and I honestly think she limited him in his efforts. The shapes and lines were alright but the actual ballroom content was too reliant on inaccurate techniques. Sit down into your hipbones and let that absorb the shock of moving across your feet.

Jessica’s solo had feeling but it wasn’t smart or clever. I feel like musically and choreographically she missed some opportunities to make it really sparkle and so it never really became anything more than Jessica on a stage with music. But even that is really astounding, just not incredible.

Valerie and t*Witch: Hip Hop Not the kind of wedding dance I do (I can recommend someone though) but this was great. It was danced excellently and there’s that leading lady quality in Valerie again. I think the actual routine never really exploded like I wanted. Could’ve been a lot more production-wise but the actual dancing tore the roof off the place. Valerie benefits from having a very universal appeal and not taking herself to seriously while clearly committing to what she does 100%. That’s the kind of dancer we should aspire to be.

Casey’s solo was alright. It started really strong but lost my interest. Casey has a real star quality when he’s being choreographed but I don’t think he’s got that same instinct when he’s got a stage to himself and he’s demonstrating his abilities. Which is understandable—he’s got a lot to offer and it’s very hard to edit all that down into something concise. Essentially, he needs to mature.

Valerie’s solo really showed what good tapping is about. Musical. Personality. All-American sweetness…. Why’s she done so early? An hour of more show with no Valerie? Conspiracy?

Jacque and Will: Contemporary Truly excellent. Sean Cheeseman is a genius. This might be Jacque’s Courtney Galiano The Garden moment if she doesn’t go home later tonight. So smooth and sweet and clear. Mature but at ease and approachable and not overwhelmed by the props and production. Definitely a routine that translates live and on screen. Perfection. Jacque at her best reminds us why she’s gotten so far.

Zack’s solo blew me away. Such showmanship, such star quality. Zack has what a lot of winners of this show have: they are empowered when they dance. Zack just standing there is fine but when he dances, he’s electrified. All of a sudden he’s all charm and personality and appeal. He’s what you wanna see when people dance; he’s a superhero.

Jessica and Ade: Jazz Jessica’s only 18? Who knew? I didn’t really care for this. Reminds me of Mark Kanemura’s routines last year but not as… soulful? Maybe this was just soulless. It definitely showed a different side of Jessica but not really Jessica’s strong suits—she’s got elegance and grace and this went in a different direction. I think she brought her A-game to it and it deserves commendations but the choreography kind of cut her off at the knees.

Jacque’s solo really delighted me. I wish she had more than 30 seconds cause I’d like to see where that would’ve gone. More than anything, that was a smart solo; she made ballet really approachable and warm. A little sexy, a little nostalgic, a lot of personality and class. Jacque has done a solid job of branding herself.

Ricky and Anya: Cha Cha This was a lot of production and a lot of Anya and a little Ricky. He did pretty good considering. They tried to butch him up a little and he had some solid sex appeal but he wasn’t grounded all the way through like I would’ve liked. The crossover and grapevine section showed some real weakness as far as separation and isolation. But all and all the show came together to really sell this number to me. And to those of you who know my theory about ballroom girls on this show: See?!

Casey and MacKenzie: Contemporary I always forget who Mackenzie is so I’ve been really surprised when she gets announced as an All-Star. The middle section of this was a knockout but on the whole I was a little let down. It seemed like an exercise in beautiful contemporary dancing but I didn’t connect with it emotionally. The dancing itself was phenomenal but it didn’t necessarily have the heart it should have. I think the issue was more the music and lighting not the dancers and choreography. Someone on YouTube will remix this to get the right feeling and I’ll be destroyed but damn, they tried and that effort should be applauded.

Zack and Fik-shun: Hip Hop Really cool concept, beautifully attempted. I think some of the details could’ve been a little stronger but I don’t think anyone could’ve embodied this like Zack. This did show, I feel, that Zack may not be the best chameleon but that may just be because Fik-shun is so great at that. But Zack brings such quality and personality to all styles, he really is infinitely versatile in a very professional way.

ANNNNNNND….

Jacque and Casey are going home. Poor kids. For Jacque in particular because that contemporary dance could’ve took her to the finish line in other seasons and a different format. But it also seemed kind of right given their presence in the bottom thus far. They did great and really lifted the quality of this season. I mean this as a compliment: they deserved to be there and fought hard and unlike some other seasons, weren’t just the last two to be eliminated. They moved themselves up by doing their best.

Finale’s gonna be a battle royale. See you there, y’all!

Origin Story

I get asked a lot how I started ballroom dancing. I don’t have the easy story of my parents forcing me when I was young or being one of those competitive children with the clip-in teeth. My love of dance isn’t one that I grew into; it was one of those deep, true, fall-flat-on-your-face loves that hit me like a ton of bricks. More often than not, I’ll answer “I don’t even know” or “it’s a long story.” To wit:

A San Francisco-native, I fell in love with ballroom dancing from afar while in high school. I was fond of Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance (mostly Chelsie Hightower, come to think of it) but the real turning point came when my school had it’s annual Project Week — where teachers would take a group of students to focus on a certain topic — and there was a Project that included salsa dancing. I was too scared to actually dance so I chose another Project and was miserable the whole time. But my curiosity was piqued and by night I would take to wikipedia and youtube to study up on what is the art and sport that is ballroom dancing.

Luckily, I graduated from the wiki school of dance and after about two years of being fascinated, I resolved to actually try to learn to dance. Just as lucky, it seemed like the universe was pushing me in that direction. It was 2009 and US economy was as shaky as Katherine Hepburn near the end. I had graduated high school and enrolled at SF State University at the insistence of everyone around me — but I knew it wasn’t my time. And then I got lucky. Cutbacks caused my SFSU classes to get cancelled and AP tests taken before I graduated received passing grades and college credit. I was ahead of the college game that I didn’t want to play. A refund was issued and I had to figure out what to do with my time for at least the next year.

The answer was The Ballroom Dance Teacher’s College. The BDTC is a local institution and the brainchild of ballroom luminary Diane Jarmolow. It has produced a number of highly respected and knowledgable teachers. At 17, I have it on good authority that I was the youngest participant ever. For someone who had never danced before, this was very much jumping into the deep end. Over eight months with superlative master teachers Melissa Saphir and Julie Lowe I learned 17 dances to the full bronze level. It was so difficult for me in the beginning because I had loved ballroom dancing so much — learned so many facts and techniques from books and videos but I was not a dancer yet. It came with time (and plenty of patience from Julie and Melissa) that I started to understand and adapt. Things began to come more easily as my brain and my body adjusted to the rigors of ballroom dancing. Looking back, it has been so helpful to me to have had such a hard time in the beginning because I remember how it feels to take your first class and just be a mess. If you’re strong enough to push through that, you’re already a great dancer.

Since the BDTC, I’ve been working steadily as a teacher throughout the Bay Area. I’ve been a staff teacher at studios in San Francisco and Oakland, teaching all four competitive styles up to open gold level and classes of over one hundred participants. I have prepared students for competitions; choreographed for showcases and teams. I’ve had a lot of successes and my share of stumbles along the way but even as a teacher, my primary job is to never stop learning.  I am proud to say that I’m still the kid who studied ballroom for hours on end because I found it so beautiful and fascinating. My goal is to share that love with other people.