Hardly a day passes that I'm not grateful for the giant plate of awesome (with extra awesome sauce) that is my job. Sure, I've talked (sometimes at length) about the downsides, but man- my job is sweet. Why? First, my boss is generally me. And I suck less than many of the people my friends work for. True, I never leave myself alone, but typically, I'm pretty understanding. Second, and more relevant to this post, I work (for all practical purposes) in the world of non-profit. I work in a community-driven, big-picture-oriented, camaraderie-over-competition setting. My co-workers want me to do well, and I support them in return. This is not always the case, and has not always been the trend, but I think generally, The Scene has gotten wise to the value of cooperation. Allow me to illustrate.
Myopic example: Back in The Day, us old-timey Knoxville dancers used to go down to new-fangled Atlanta for just about anything. Big workshop? Great! Small workshop? Cool! Bigger-than-usual monthly dance? We're there! We thought of hotlanta as our sister scene in a way- the cooler older sister we'd never had. We were fortunate enough to have an exchange (not that common in the early 2000's), and it was our pride and joy. Yet not just once, but twice (as my addled brain recalls), Atlanta, a mere 4 hours away, hosted workshops on top of our exchange... knowingly. What makes the story so sad is not just that they thought it was ok (which is lame), but that we continued supporting these organizers (hey, events were scarce in The Dark Times). Have a conversation, past-self! Tell them that's not cool! Le sigh.
Super-Awesome example: This year, when preparing for Enter the Blues, Meghan and I discovered that unwittingly, we were for the same weekend as an event just a few hours from Atlanta, in Columbia, SC. We didn't have them on our calendars, and they hadn't announced their event, so we thought our weekend was safe, and confirmed some very important details. When we got an email from the Swing Into Spring team, we were a little heartbroken to know. But, being the awesome peeps that they are, they said, "well, since you're stuck, we can move our weekend." Now, back in The Day, the excuse would be made that lindy and blues are different dances, so there's no real competition. But if you haven't been to the dark side lately (whichever dance you do less, that is), you're likely to see some pretty familiar faces. The swing world is not a big one, and whether you dig on Bal, Charleston, Lindy, or Blues, you have a good chance of seeing familiar faces at any other swing-umbrella event. We're all just lovers of vintage american partnered folk dances, here. So they moved, and we've offered to help cross-promote (when they're ready) and maybe even offer some good-old-fashioned incentives for people who want to get down with their lindy AND blues selves. Bam- everyone spreads the love of dance, and the Southeast gets more than its share of cool events to attend.
But this post isn't about how cool the Columbia people are (although, of course, they are), or how glad I am that we've moved forward from an age of "may the biggest event win" to an age of "let's make the best dance scene possible." This post is about some ways that we can continue to move forward towards an even friendlier, healthier scene with fewer chances for conflict, and better dancers all around. So, with much ado, I present to you:
Tools for the Scene
1. A regional, non-public calendar. In the past, I've used a google calendar, and given access to anyone who is an organizer. This is important because it lets organizers put "maybes" on a calendar, so that they can give each other a heads-up before going public with an event. This way, organizers can talk before deposits are made or tickets are booked. Let's not repeat the nastiness of the Dark Ages.
2. The recognition that Lindy and Blues or Balboa and Blues events will, in fact, be in direct competition. Honestly, I even dislike Bal-Blues competition, but there are fewer of us who do both, so I'll settle for this: if it's a lindy event, it competes with any other swing-umbrella event (excluding Westie). Regardless of dance style, I'd like to see 2 months between events in the same city, and ideally several weeks between events in the same region.
3. This one doesn't exist, but I like the idea- a staff/volunteer database. I have people who have worked for me who are worth their weight in gold. Likewise, I have some positions at my events that need someone super reliable. Beyond personal knowledge, how I do I find super-awesome people to work for me? What about someone who fails to show up for 3 of their shifts with no explanation? I'd like for them to explain why they put Bob's Exchange in such a bad position before I hire them for mine. (If anyone makes this, let me know!)
4. Google Docs. No, really. Do you have any idea how powerful google docs are? No, really. Check it- this is how registration for Enter the Blues
works this year:
1. You pay on our website.
2. Paypal emails us.
3. (Glitchy right now, but in hypothetical land, this happens) a gmail filter reads the email, and sends you the form to fill out.
4. You fill out the form, which populates a spreadsheet.
5. The spreadsheet sees that you're done, and emails confirmation.
6. The spreadsheet autopopulates other spreadsheets with only the relevant data- so Karen, our lovely housing person, doesn't have to see what track you're taking, and our financial sheet doesn't tell us if you're allergic to cats.
For real- Google does registration for us! It takes a fair amount of work on the front end, but still- it's cool. Of course, if you want to really go pro, and have a great team of support, I also recommend Open Dance
. Very smart, very professional, and good peeps to top it off. Want other uses of Docs? How about storing bios for your local instructor pool so they can update them at any time, and you never have to pester them to resend again? Or, having your instructors for a weekend create cohesive curriculum using a doc that includes internal notes like pre-requisite moves or nice material to follow up with?
5. Public dancing. Quite the opposite of public shaming, dancing in public gets you in the public eye. We as a dance scene owe our existence to a Gap commercial, neo-swing bands, and a couple of movies. The more people know that lindy/blues/balboa exist, the more likely they are to give it a shot. So have outdoor dances at exchanges, dance in the park on Sunday, dance at music festivals. And if you have a media connection, use it! Get the word out- dance is a way cooler way to meet folks than this is:
I'm a believer that more events mean better dancers, and that's a good thing- but we need to place them with wisdom. So, I'm curious- what else can we do? How else can we grow the pool of dancers (and maintain our sanity), so that events can flourish?
With much love and lots of organizing on the brain,
A few times a year, I hire my fiance to restrain my hands so I don't rip out my eyeballs. Before you ask whether that happens every 28 days or so, let me tell you: it's not. It's generally 2x per year. And if more organizers were good about sharing feedback on workshops, it'd be more often (hint, hint, organizers).
Boy, that's a weird start to a blog. Is it just me, or am I getting weirder?
Back to the topic at hand. I think you (yes, you- person who has a love of dancing, or of me) need to know something. When I get feedback, I read every single word written by every single person. Every. Single. Word. I don't send the results to some identity-less person working for a corporation they hate, to compile meaningless data and pass it back. I read every glowing compliment, every outraged indignity, every "nice job." And it's a painful, awful, crucial
process. And for every dance-event survey you fill out, someone (probably several someones) goes through that same process- probably a few times.
I need every one of you to know this: the people who read the surveys are the people who have poured blood, sweat, and many tears into running these events. They may or may not make a dime. They might make $1.60/hr when all is calculated. But none of that matters- they do it out of love for dance, and love for the scene, so I have a very serious request: fill out surveys with love.
I don't mean you have to be all "everything was perfect" if it was a seriously flawed event. But when you fill out surveys, I need you to remember who you're writing to. For EtB and Blues Muse, you're writing to every organizer and every instructor: they will know what you said about their classes- and that's a great thing! That's how we make better events! But tell me
what worked or didn't, and how I
can improve. Here are some more and less effective examples (all made up by me, right now):
"The award ceremony was ridiculously terrible! I was supposed to be dancing, and spending so much time watching other people win awards ruined my weekend!" Less helpful- I have to fight the urge not to react emotionally. Here's a better way: "I was troubled by the length of the awards ceremony. Perhaps simple announcements could be used next year to allow more time for dancing." Helpful, clear, and seperating between the feelings of the writer and the issue at hand.
"I learned nothing in the classes." That will pretty much just ruin my day, and doesn't help me improve anything. Don't be evil like that. How about this: "Classes were so crowded that I was unable to focus on learning, so I only took 2 classes- that was disappointing." Your emotional reaction is conveyed, along with information about what we could do to improve (more class space!).
"Your awesome!" Mixed feelings here. 1. Your grammar is wrong. 2. In with all the rage, I love me some happiness- yay! 3. What did we do right? Try this: "What a great event! You created a great vibe, and totally allowed us to manage our needs, while still providing a full schedule! Plus, you're very charming!" Much better!
Also, there are a few things you should know:
1. Organizers are probably aware of glaring errors. For instance, if classes ran late all day, chances are good that the organizers are (painfully) aware. Mention things like this if they matter, but keep it brief. They get it.
2. Positive feedback is every bit as informative as negative feedback, and keeps us from stabbing out our eyeballs.
3. Believe it or not, professional dance instructors are generally good at knowing how you dance, how much control you have over your body, and YES
, how your connection FEELS
by watching. I have an entire blog on Auditions
from a few years ago, and you should truly read it if you haven't. We do make mistakes, but that's what an appeals process is for- and those mistakes are pretty few. We see what's wrong in class, we see what's happening in privates, we recognize tone levels in prelims, and we have a pretty darned good idea what your connection feels like in auditions. I promise.
4. DJs need feedback, too! Pay attention to who is DJing when you're having fun, and when you're not. Even just information like "I had great dances all weekend" tells us that the DJs did their job well, so let us know!
5. Painfully low ratings on a class make me desperate to know what I did wrong. Pretty please, if you give an extreme high or low rating to something, give a comment if you can. That's helping!
So remember- every time you write a survey response, make it calm, rational, specific, helpful, and most important, write it so that a human who loves the dance scene can do an even better job next time.
For EtB this year, I'm going to do something which will keep my fiance employed for days or weeks. I'm going to respond to anyone who wants it. You can either fill out the survey anonymously, or you can include your email address. If I see something that I would like to explain, or thank you for, or if you have any questions, I will answer you. That will take time, because we're expecting about 150 people, which means about 60 surveys (plus frequent eyeball-protection breaks), but I will answer anyone who wants an answer, for the dual purposes of better customer service, and better survey filler-outers in the future. Also, all of my teachers will get their feedback, and all of my DJs will get their feedback. So write meaningful stuff, y'all!
XKCD said it better than I could.
After every audition, there are people who feel disappointed in their level placement. There are always questions, always appeals, and occasionally even tears. So to try and reduce the amount of sadness that follows auditions, I wanted to write a little about the reality of auditions/tracks, both from the perspective of a post-aha student and from the perspective of a teacher/judge.
First things first: the advanced level of a workshop is not Advanced. It's "the top x leads and follows who auditioned." Not making the top x students doesn't mean you're not advanced. Conversely, making the top x students doesn't mean that you are advanced. Next time I have resources allowing, I'm auditioning all student except total beginner, and calling them shoe, toolbox, windex, and candle. The different tracks, rather than serving as a global indicator of your dancing, give you an idea of where you are relative to the other students at that workshop. That is all.
Also, consider this: once your dancing gets past a certain point, people become delighted to discover you. You regularly get comments like, "that was awesome!" "you follow everything/everything you lead works" "you're so much fun!" That point is not the advanced student threshhold. It feels that way, I realize. Dancing suddenly works, people give you nothing but positive feedback... rainbows sing and puppies fly. I know. That's a really beautiful place. But it doesn't equal advanced. When (or if) it happens depends on the dancer, but please don't think it means anything about your level. And even if it did, remember my first point.
The judges are not amateurs. Before you decide that a judge simply can't tell how good your dancing is, consider this: dance instructors make their livings by learning to see dance. We have learned to diagnose connection issues visually. We can also see move choice, rhythm, posture, musicality, control, balance, and quality of movement. For follows, don't be fooled by the idea that if you only get average leads, we can't see you shine. A beautiful dancer will make simple movements shine- they have control, quality and richness of movement. A lesser dancer will lack the same control, even on nicely led fancy moves. Quality of movement matters, y'all- it's more than a style thing. For fun (by which I mean education), go watch the SYTYCD auditions on youtube. Not only can you pick out stronger dancers during the choreography, where everyone gets the same movements, but you can see on movements as simple as a step, or a hand gesture, during their solos. Go look! And then give your judges a little more credit.
On that note, leaders, what judges want to see at an audition are your.... basics. We want to see your fundamentals. We're not looking for which leaders have the fanciest moves. We're looking for solid leaders. And, might I mention, it would be nice to see the follows do their fundamentals, but that's reliant on you, boys.
When I was at Herrang in 07, I was sorely disappointed to be left out of Advanced I. But after a few days, it dawned on me. Yes, I had followed just fine. But the difference was that while Advanced II follows could follow everything, Advanced I follows made it look like art. And there, children, lies the rub- dancing is about more than just connection. At some point, very late in the learning process, the visuals matter. No, I don't care about your styling (yes, judges can see past styling to fundamentals). What I care about is that after you reach a certain point in connection, the sorting variable becomes about aesthetics, and taking you art past something purely social, and turning it into art. Don't lose the social- connection is always important- but on top of that, make it yours. Have control over every bit of your body (and control involves relaxation as well as engagement).
If at this point, you say to me, "But I don't care how my dancing looks- I only care about connection" then be satisfied with what level you get placed in. Don't place stock in a placement (such as between the top two levels) that involves a variable you don't care about. By your metric, your level should be as good as the next, so be happy- and that's not me being snarky. I truly wish people would enjoy their levels, and make the most of them. Every moment you think about being in the wrong level is a moment you're not open to learning. It suddenly becomes about preconceptions and ego. Some of the best classes I've ever had were in tracks that were too low, or that I thought were too low (which looking back, were right on).
One last point: it's not only unkind to your possible classmates to put you in the wrong level. It's unfair to you. We as instructors want to give you the best chance to learn the most possible. The instructors are just as good in a lower track, but they're fine-tuning the material to the needs of that group.
Yes, misplacements occasionally happen. But they're very, very rare. And if you're open and working hard, you'll get more out of being placed too low than too high.
With love and good will,
This year, come July, you won't find me at Folketshouse. You won't find me in the Laundry Pit, or even at the Kugen. In '05 and '07, that's where I'd be, and since this is an odd year (aren't they all, though?), I'd originally planned to try and make Herrang happen. But this year, something has come up. Something wonderful.
This year, from July 12-17, I'll be teaching blues dance at the Augusta Heritage Center. Located in Elkins, WV, Augusta Heritage is home to a 5-week long music camp, each week offering a different theme. You can probably guess which week is blues. So what makes this so exciting? Partly, there's still the thrill of going to camp, in a way. Partly, there's the fact that everyone at that camp is there because they love blues music in the same way that I love dancing. And partly, there's a chance to be surrounded by some of the most talented blues musicians on the planet.
Not to brag, but here's a sample:
Fiona Boyes: About Fiona Boyes
She's the first Australian to win the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge. She's also the first woman to win it.
Phil Wiggins: Wiggins's music
W.C. Handy Ward for Blues Entertainers of the Year and Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year
Saffire- the Uppity Blues Women: Saffire's Songs
Louisiana Red: Louisiana Red's Songs
He's played with some ok guys... like John Lee Hooker.
Courses offered during blues week include: Fiddle/Mandolin and Vocal Repertoire, Guitar, Harmonica, History of the Blues, Mandolin, Piano, Songwriting, Teen Band, and Vocals. Since my class is a mini-course at night, it doesn't conflict with any of these courses... guess where I'll be spending my day.
Aside from the obvious, there's something else here. There's opportunity. If we could get together this many blues musicians, and a bunch of blues dancers, in an environment where everyone's working and learning and generally hanging out... I feel like good things, great things, are bound to happen.
So, if you're interested in learning blues music and/or dance, and want to be part of something, but don't have the cash to fly to Sweden, think about dropping by West Virginia. Fiona and Iverson are doing it....
For more information: Augusta Heritage Blues Festival
See you on the dance floor,