Wednesday, January 30, 2013

There Is Different And There Is Shit

Recently I was in the train and a fellow lindy hopper joined me and we started talking about ways of teaching and the implications each method has. What I noticed was that the implementation is often overseen, no matter what method is used. The topic is important to me, because I think there are many misconceptions especially about teaching beginners, and there are many things that, once taught, are hard to reverse.

Disclaimer: While this article is sparked by a discussion about teaching beginners, its application reaches to teaching in general. 

There are many people that add "that's just different" in discussions. But no, not everything is just different! It's impossible. If it were, there would be no need for levels in classes, since they are all doing the same and there is not better and worse. But some are better and some are worse and so we differentiate. When it comes to teaching methods we have to think at least two dimensional (just "different" would be one dimensional). There is different and then there is the quality of the implementation.

Bottom Up

I used to teach by dissecting everything down to a T and then building up from there. This is the way I learned it. Crash courses would start by having students rock step over and over again, of course with addition of how much weight is actually shifted back and forth. Then we would add triples, triple for a while, then add those together, etc. Teaching a basic side by side Charleston would take forever, usually by the end people had forgotten how to walk and were completely up in their heads, while the movement still wouldn't be any good.
What happened inside of the students? We had taken something that they new very well (walking) and had broken it down into so many parts, that they couldn't handle it anymore. We created problems for them, that they didn't have before.
Also we had taken complete control over them and placed mistrust in them, by arrogantly showing them again what they had been doing properly for 20-40 years already. Two perfect ways to demotivate students.

Top Down versus Bottom Up

Opposed to this way of step by step instructing or also known as bottom up, is the so called top down approach. We start with the complete picture (doing the movement) and when problems arise we address those. The question is not which approach is better but rather what material suits which approach and how the approach is implemented. Top down works great with simple movements in the beginning and they can become increasingly difficult with increasing level of the dancers. Bottom up works perfectly to structure a class, a workshop or a class series.

 Technique As Solo Body Movement

What I've seen a lot as and also what I guess most people that have had bad experiences with top down is "Just do it" and "Move your body" with no explanation or support. That people will struggle in those classes and have "feet to be sorted" is obvious. The problem is the implementation though and not the approach. Something I've picked up recently is something I've seen Dax Hock do and what I call "Technique as Solo Body Movement". This approach trains dancers to first get the solo body movement to follow and lead the movement and then apply it by just connecting physically to the partner. This is genius. This way technique isn't a construct for mental masturbation anymore but rather something that helps the dancers. It decreases talk time, increases dance time, decreases mind-focused dancing, and increases the amount of details transferred.
That's why I roll with solo body movement not only in trains. Always remember - it's what you do and it's the way that you do it.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How Goals Can Kill Your Fun

Something I see quite often at parties and classes is that beginners have a lot of fun and intermediates and advanced ones less. When talking to them, it matches the impression - beginners tell me how great everything is and how much fun they have while intermediates and andvances ones tell me what they are working on and what they are doing wrong and what they need to improve. Think about it for a second - How was it when you started, and how is it now? How come there is this shift? I think this is due to a shift from process to goals and faulty comparisons. 

Process vs. goal orientation

What is so much fun in the beginning is the dancing. It's the process of dancing. When people dance longer, the wish for improvement becomes very strong. Remember, - you also advanced as beginner without to strong of thinking about the getting better part. Dancing becomes goal focussed. There are two problems with this:
  1. The process isn't important anymore, despite it not being the goal but the process what we actually spend time on.
  2. "Good" is not even close to clearly defined and usually the "good" shifts always higher and hence is never attainable

Is it bad to have goals? No, not at all! I think they can greatly enhance the process of everything, e.g. when preparing classes, but there are two things to watch out for:
Goals have to be reachable so that they stay motivating and even more important, goals should be used to define steps of a process!

Faulty Comparisons

The other observation I have made are faulty comparisons. People compare themselves with others. "Karlheinz learns faster than I", "The W Project rocks so much harder than we do". What happens here is that when you compare yourself with others you are likely to oversee that Karlheinz goes out dancing three times a week and dances all night long, while you might go only to your weekly classes. We tend to oversee the process. This can be quite demotivating and very inhibiting to your own learning process and maybe even the whole dancing. The W Project rocks indeed very hard, but they also train a lot!  Also something I find quite note worthy about the W Project is the comment from Anais Sékine that most of all they had a blast during all their trainings. That is process orientation right there.

While the work has in the end to be done by each individual themselves, there is at least one thing we can do as teachers to encourage desired thoughts in our students. Both faulty comparison and goal orientation are part of the description of what Dr. Ellen Langer calls mindlessness. So what we can do is support mindfullness. Mindfullness can be encouraged by not using absolute facts, but conditional facts. Instead of what you are telling the students is the truth, it is the truth for a certain context. 

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Monday, January 14, 2013

The Power Of Two

It is a truism that two can do more than one. Two pair of eyes see more than one, two brains can search for better solutions than one. If you are two teachers in class, you can split even split the existing tasks - taking care of music, counting in, explaining, rotating partners, etc and have a lot easier life. But there is more to having two teachers than it just being easier and more fun for us.

I often got and sometimes still get asked to teach alone some place. Some organizers tell me to "just take a good follow" to demonstrate the material. This often seems to happen due to financial reasons. 
To me lindy hop is a couple dance with two equal roles. While we like to talk about leaders and followers, first of all a dancing couple exists out of two dancers. Having only one role present implies that one role is less important than the other role. I have seen many leaders teach alone, but only very rarely followers. Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many people that dance the follow part stop earlier with classes than leaders. If you want both sides to learn and get better, you will need to teach both sides equally.

The funny thing is that having two people teach actually has learning implications. For one, there is a role model for each role. Both sides have someone to look at and be inspired by, it is a motivator.
The other less known fact about two teachers is about attention. Attention is necessary, else the information you try to get across will be lost. Studies have shown that attention is time limited. But if there is occasionally a change, the attention can stay longer. Switching who is talking back and forth in class makes listening easier and will keep your students attention longer.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How To Make Your Warm-Up Smoking!

Excited about your material, that you are teaching because you love it, you'll probably want to go straight to teaching, but there are a few things to watch out for. Lindy Hop is a pretty intense dance and demands a lot from the body. Ignoring that fact will easily end up in injuries like hurt knees, one side-trained bodies etc. There are many angles to attack this problem. One part of the equation to keep your body healthy is warming up your muscles before you use them. Warming up can be completely separate from class like ballistic stretching or slow lindy hopping without instructions, or can be used already for your class. This way, the warm up will not be purely used for injury-prevention but serves as powerful tool to implement prepare your students physically and mentally for what's coming.


One of the most overseen factors is that people coming to your classes, no matter if private, weekly, workshop or camp, is that they come with a certain mindset. If this mindset is not yet ready for your instructions, because it's occupied with the thoughts about the dick boss, the shopping list for tomorrow etc, lots of it will get lost. So when you start your warm-up respectively your class, welcome your students e.g. on a weekly class with something like "Hello everybody! I hope you had a nice day, let's do some lindy hopping!". This way, you'll get them where they were, and moved them to where you want them - to dancing.

Learning Environment

The sooner a learning environment is implemented in class the better, thus what better place is there than to utilize the warm-up to create the desired learning environment? Spike your warm up with as much of what you want the class to be like. Assuming the goals from the the above linked article: have fun, do simple stuff and get the focus set. If your class is going to be very mind focused (which I don't advertise), the energy in the warm up should match and hence be low. If you are teaching an explosive class the energy should be high, e.g. by doing solo Charleston warm up.

I like it when I have an actual group and not just a bunch of randomly put together people in my workshops. This will help the all-over comfort level, hence the learning amount and also facilitates the exchange between students. To create a group feeling I use warming up in a circle as one part. Since it's a group that now creates the energy, the energy of the warm-up will grow. Everybody being able to see everybody also helps the feeling of being together.
Another advantage of warming up in a circle is when you teach beginners. The vast majority of western civilized people feel uncomfortable with their bodies. Having to watch their own body and their, probably to them still awkward, movements in the mirror is counterproductive to feeling comfortable.


Last but not least, the warm up can easily be used to train either already specific material of your class or generally solo body movement. This is something you've probably already seen. I like doing solo body movements I find useful and most commonly used in lindy hop as well as jazz movements, that are part of the history of swing dancing. Having already done some of the movements that I might need later, will then have been danced already and since solo body movement, and even if it was just a way to put rhythm into movement, is a big part for dancing together, in my understanding of the dance, it will be good in any case. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Hello Central Give Me Dr. Jazz

I'm just back from DJ-ing at The Snowball. Besides this being a super great event for new years, it is also an event where you can apply your DJ skills. Many people still think that DJ-ing is just appending a couple of good songs. But there are so many things to watch out for, like speed or style. Both can be used and sometimes have to be used to move things or respond things going on. This article will be talking about some moments during sets or complete sets, where the style was not a choice but an instrument to playing the dancefloor.

The first set I played Wednesday night from 1 to 2 am. The floor wasn't exactly crowded and the level of the dancers was a good intermediate-advanced in average. You could feel that the energy was low, which made sense - many people spent the day traveling to get to Stockholm. So an obvious choice was the tempo range, that would have to stay under 44 bars per minute. What was less obvious was the choice of music style-wise. Every song has it's own energy and low energy songs would've despite good tempo killed the dancefloor immediately and people would've gone sleeping. So the only real possibility was to play a set with music with a strong walking bass, mainly big band swing. Suffice to say - the dancefloor was equally full when I left my set.

Another fun set was on Friday from 4 to 5 am. The big difference to Wednesday was that the energy had found it's high during a fantabulous band battle between Gordon Webster's Band and Gentlemen & Gansters from Göteborg. This left people with lots of inspiration and and the wish to dance, but little energy. There was no need of external energy infusion, which would have probably been more exhausting than helping. Easy going music in a more New Orleans-style and also 20s-sound kept them swinging till the end.

The biggest challenge that I faced was after the second band battle at this years Snowball. Gordon played against the Stockholm Swing Allstars and the energy in the main ballroom was boiling when they finished. I was on directly after and playing no-matter-what-but-still-good song would've made a huge crowd leave the ballroom, despite most people actually wanting to dance since the end of the band battle was more watching and standing than actual dancing. So required was a song that wasn't too fast so many people could dance to it, it would have to be high energy to not have a too big of a contrast. I decided to play Jump Through The Window by Roy Eldridge. Additionally to fulfilling the just stated requirements, the most important part was that it is a widely known song, thanks to the ILHC 2009 Routine by Skye and Frida, which would make people have a really easy time to dance to it, and still being able to ride the flow of energy received from band battle. It worked perfectly :)

If you enjoyed my music at snowball and want me to be there again next year, mention me in the snowball feedback survey!

Swingly yours,

Dr. Jazz