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.
Being a teacher first, and organizer second, I will freely admit that my event-running is utterly biased. I just returned from the most successful Buenos Aires Blues we've had yet, and I'm proud to say that despite my own flaws and "learning experiences," the event went off beautifully. I chose, for a number of reason, to withhold class titles and descriptions from the site, and rather than leaving folks to think it was an oversight (although I had a few of those, of course), I wanted to explicate my reasoning.
There are occasions when I think that class titles/descriptions are not only justified, but required. The most obvious example, of course, is any workshop where a student has to choose between classes at the same time. Instead of only the dance form and instructor name, the class description allows students to create a curriculum that suits their weaknesses and strengths. Then, there are times when the class titles are not truly useful, but provide a feeling of security- for instance, at a beginners' workshop, or an intermediate workshop, with only one track. A basic, very vague topic is easy to stick to, while still providing the instructor with enough room to alter the class plan to fit the students' needs. (One class on technique, one class on musicality, one class on moves[aka technique 2], one class on solo dancing. Sound familiar?)
However, there are some situations where class titles are simply impractical, such as BAB. Before Friday night, there's no way to know just what the levels will be. The instructors are from all over the country, as are the students, and with tango and blues dancers in one track, it's hard to predict what skills students will bring. Likewise, once instructors have talked, face to face, about what material they're teaching, the classes influence each other. All of our instructors at BAB made changes to their class descriptions (which I didn't publish); some changes were minor, but others completely scratched their original topics. The classes they taught were perfect for the levels, and flowed together way better than I could have hoped for. However, if students had received class titles that promised other classes, we either would have had to stick to the original classes, or have lied to the students by publishing classes that didn't get taught.
In a sense, my decision not to publish class titles was a decision made by a dedicated teacher, who acknowledges being a terrible saleswoman. I knew ahead of time that class titles were a plan, from which we were free to deviate. I'm not insensitive to the fact that students want class titles- I like knowing what's coming, too. But I refuse to give my students a plan that doesn't mean anything, purely to make students feel like they knew what was coming. Essentially, I refuse to pationize you. This was my way of saying, "this workshop will be a collection of classes that make sense together, and flow from one to the next, by teachers I believe in. Trust in your teachers, show up, and we'll teach you what we think is best." Because that's what the student-teacher relationship comes down to. We ask our instructors to give us overall topics for a workshop or series, but after that, we ask them to do their best, and teach us what we need to know.
So thank you, to the instructors who put together a top-rate set of workshops, and especially to all the students who put their trust in the instructors this weekend. I may or may not publish class descriptions at various events in the future, but know that at the end of the day, my job is to make good dancers, and make people love dance, and I'll do everything I can to succeed at that, in the most honest way I can.
I'd starve as a politician. And that's from someone who eats Ramen now.
I have two super-exciting projects which are are currently getting a lot of creative energy, and as much for my own sake as anyone else's, want to do a little writing on what's going on- forgive my lack of writing style- you get good writing when I get a break.
Buenos Aires Blues.
August 7-9, Knoxville, TN.
Most of our teachers are booked, our venue is booked. Promotions (the most time-consuming and my least favorite part of the process) are underway. We have some really great talent booked this year- Reuel just did a spankin' good job of competing at BluesShout; Marc is a brilliant dancer and a warm, encouraging teacher; Daniel has a magical, dreamy connection. We also have a live band for the first time this year. I'm starting to give thought to the part of the weekend that really gets me excited- the curriculum planning. Since this weekend faces a really unique set of issues, I try to devote a lot of brain power to putting together sets of teachers and classes that will make sense for the students, and be fun for the teachers. Early bird registration ends May 31st, so I'm in the nail-biting stage of counting nickels and dimes, and hoping that folks sign up soon, so I can start sleeping at night.
The Performance Troupe
This was the separate product of 3 minds. I'll be starting up a Philly Performance Troupe this summer, doing some pre-choreographed routines, and some original choreography. We'll do a little of everything- partnered and solo blues, lindy, solo jazz, and anything else that seems like a good fun. So, before we jump into commitment land, I'm offering a 4-week series in June on choreography and performance. We'll do a choreography, practice performance skills, and maybe talk a little about competitions. This is a chance for people to get their feet wet and test out the idea of a troupe without committing, and for me to get an idea of folks' strengths and ability levels. The idea, of course, is that this isn't a super-advanced troupe- I'm looking for really dedicated intermediates who'll be fun to work with.
How, exactly, do I sum up such a busy, rich, exhausting, challenging weekend?
Awesome, that's how.
This past weekend, I was in the Windy City, for one of the best blues events anywhere in the world- BluesShout. 8 instructors, 2 days of classes, 6 competitions, 4 bands, and 350 fired-up blues dancers. This was a weekend with a lot of goals for me, and I wasn't sure how they'd fit together, but somehow, competing, judging, taking classes, and seeking inspiration came together with total success.
Reuel and I competed in the Strictly Ballroom and the Strictly Jook Joint. While I've done the Jack and Jill thing plenty of times, this was the first time I'd done a strictly with any preparation. (If you're confused by the different terms, check out the bottom of the page. )
Reuel and I both got in to Chicago Thursday morning- he by plane, and I by train. The problem with the overnight train to Chicago, of course, is that they allow children. So when the one pack of children stayed up until 4, and the other pack of children woke up at 6, I was left... how do I put this... <self-censored> cranky. So we slept during the day, then started working together during the evening. Now how, you may ask, do you prepare for a competition, when you can't do choreography? A few ways. For one thing, each of us have strengths and weaknesses in blues. For me, I tend (as you've already read), toward being a pure follow, which isn't enough in a competition. So one of my big challenges was turning up the volume, so to speak. I have to make my movement sharper, bigger, and sassier. In addition, I needed to get comfortable adding to the dance on a much bigger scale. Reuel's a much more experienced competitor than I am, and he has a fantastic sense of phrasing- my strength is a sense of the blues aesthetic, which means I needed to work on being able to influence our movement, without interfering with his composition. Then there's the "us" part of the partnership- working on a few back-pocket things, developing our interplay... most of which, I think, did the most good simply by getting us into each other's heads again. Reuel and I have never lived in the same city, and have been on opposite ends of the East Coast this spring. Truth be told, while it was a little stressful to be working on dance on the eve of a competition, working with Reuel is always fun, and I'm really grateful that he decided to come to BluesShout and compete with me.
For those of you who weren't there, we definitely reached our goal of making finals in something: we made finals in both ballroomin and jookin, took first place in the ballroomin, and got to enter the Champion's Jack and Jill, where Reuel took first, and I took third. I am so totally proud of how hard he worked, and how well he performed. Actually, just how well we did came as more of a surprise than you might think; when they announced the finalists, right after the prelims on Saturday afternoon, they said we'd made the finals in the Jookin comp only. So you can imagine how confused we were when they called us up for the ballroomin finals. Turns out there was an error when the announcement was made. Pleasant surprise indeed!
-Rewriting Michael Jackson lyrics (you had to be there, I'm afraid)
- Joe and Nelle's Routine (awesome!)
-Calvin's Public House
-Fried Potato Salad from Fizz (I'm not a potato salad fan- this stuff is different, and delicious)
-Cid, cheerleader extraordinaire
-Singing with Dexter- I'm sure the other housemates weren't
-Damon dedicated the weekend to Frankie, and nothing could have been a better tribute to a man who lived his life according to joy, dance, exhibitionism, and one-upmanship than the Cuttin Contest finals Sunday night (also in the comp notes at the bottom).
Strictly Ballroom Finals Video
Cuttin Contest Finals, Song 1
Cuttin Contest Finals, Song 2
-a Jack and Jill is a competition where individuals enter without a partner, and are paired at random. Usually, you get multiple partners for the preliminary rounds, and then get paired with someone and judged as a couple for the finals.
-A Strictly comp is one where you enter with a partner, but you don't prepare choreography, because there's no telling what the music will be.
-Ballroom Blues comes from music that would have been played in the Roseland Ballroom, for instance, where the folks were dressed up. The music and movement are more sustained, smoother, more elegant, but still grounded and Africanized, rather than being the European ballroom dances.
-Jook joints were roadside blues bars, gritty, hole-in-the-wall kind of places, and the dancing reflects it. It's grittier and chunkier, and the fancy clothes from the ballroom have been replaced by whatever you've got hanging around.
-And finally, a Cuttin' comp is a solo blues competition, but a specialized one. Here, in addition to judging you on your dancing ability, we want to see how well you one-up the guy before you. Beyond just doing more, we want you to take his move, and make it better. The keys here are watching your opponent, and looking for a way to comment on his movement, instead of doing something totally different. It should be a dance between two people, but on a whole new level. Call and response, matching, mocking, and outdoing are all tools of the trade here. But, of course, in a good-spirited and playful way. And the most underrrated tool of the trade (for those of you who didn't make finals, take note): teamwork. If everyone's always trying to cut, it's a big cluster. You hve to let yourself get cut- it's like wrestling. In pro-wrestling, they behave as partners, even more than opponents. In cutting, it's the same- you have to compliment your partner, have give and take.
Alright kids, my belly is empty and the page is full, so all I'll say now is a GIANT thank you to the organizers for a weekend that has me exhausted and recharged. See you next year, in Austin!
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,