Ok, ok, the title of this blog is a little over the top… dancing, by itself, probably won’t cure all the world’s woes, but it can bring lots of people a lot of happiness.  I want to talk about creating community, reaching people who might be looking for a place to belong, making our community more diverse, and fixing ways we’ve failed in being inclusive. I look at my dance community, and then I look at my city — the demographics of the two do not match — and I suspect that’s true for many cities. I endeavor to make our little corner of the world a place where all are welcome, and the feelings and life-lessons that dance and the dance scene has given me can be had by everyone. Really a better title would be “how to make the world a better place through dancing”, or “how to bring people into your scene from all walks of life”.. but I wanted to grab your attention, because this topic is so near and dear to my heart. This blog is a multimedia exploration of the emotional journey behind dancing for people who need inspiration, as well as some brainstorms for those who promote dancing.

And speaking of hearts, mine has been heavy lately. There is lots of sadness and injustice in the world, and the truth is that it’s always been there in some form. But through social media, viral videos, and the interconnectedness of the modern world we’re all becoming more aware of it. And that awareness is a very good thing, in my opinion, but there’s a lot of work to do. For many people I think that there is often a temptation to make a quick Facebook post, or to quickly and defensively assert (publicly or privately)  “Oh, I’m a good person – I’m not one of _them_”, but *action* is another thing. I want to concentrate on actions that draw more people into the story of jazz and the supportive community around it. Dancing should be a respite from the bad things in the world, and I think we can make it that way.  As teachers, team leaders, organizers and even just community members-at-large, we are in the unique position of both participating in, and _creating_ the culture of swing dance. And at the heart of jazz and blues, there are so many stories (both in the people that made the music, and the tales told by the music itself) about breaking through social barriers, redemption, triumph over hard times and of our shared experience in this short life. That is why, I bring you a few ways that I think you can make the world a better place through dancing.

A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.
-I Never Had It Made : An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson


Figuring out your own inspiration

This might come as a surprise, but early on it was never my dream to be a dance teacher. I had a fantastically talented partner at one time, and it was their dream to be great at dancing. I always enjoyed learning, dancing, even performing, but at that time I never wanted it to be my living. At that time, my motivation was her. But life goes on and in different phases and partnerships my motivations changed. When I was in touch with them, my dancing flourished, and when I wasn’t it was just a place where I had friends and fun (which isn’t a bad thing)

I think the first step as a promoter or a teacher that you need to do is to really get in touch with your own inspiration. And you may have to revisit from time to time. There are a lot of ways that dancing can touch people. It can give them community, inspiration, exercise, social skills or just be fun. It can challenge them, help them meet new people, or overcome shyness or social anxiety. It can be a hobby, a lifestyle, a personal challenge, a sport, or escapism. There’s no right or wrong answer.  A simple exercise is to watch some dance videos and ask yourself what you like and don’t like in them.

This is my current favorite inspirational video.  I keep a list.  One of the best things about dancing in the current era is that between Evernote, Youtube, Dropbox, Spotify and Google Drive — almost every single tool you could ever need is free.

Another one in my current inspiration bank

Another one, this time a solo jazz showcase

But, at least for me, it’s not always about the dance itself. Check out this really cool video describing two people’s experience with dancing and the emotional journey that I think most people who dance can relate to

SWING from Leandro Santini on Vimeo.

Related:


Clarify your purpose

Once you know what inspires you, clarify what you want to add to the world through dancing. Check out this interview with Keoni and Mari about their Urban Dance Camp they run.

More inspiration for those that seek to find purpose

I recently did this pretty far in depth.  After a lot of soul searching I figured out what I wanted to reflect in the programs and venues that I run, how I wanted to approach people in life. I encourage you to write this down and revisit.  Here are a few that I came up with — some I’ve kept to myself (it’s a very personal exercise)

The values I wanted to work on / be reflected in my dancing and in a broader sense, my life:

  • I always want to dance with my students, I don’t want there to be a divide.
  • I want to continue raising money through non-profits and I want to continue creating opportunities for others to be a part of the dance world.
  • Live in moderation.  (It’s easy to bite off too much with a choreography or a project and not finish)
  • Do what makes you feel pure at heart (e.g. no terrible gigs, it’s ok to say no)
  • I want to provide as many free events / classes to people as possible.
  • Arrive on-time and work overtime.(e.g. get yourself to rehearsal!)
  • The prickliest people on the outside are the softest inside, so before you go smugly moralizing about something, realize that it’s probably a lot more complicated than you think. (e.g. scene politics, the internet as a whole)
  • The most successful people on earth are excited about other people’s ideas, so be excited, and allow others to contribute more. And don’t read the comments.
  • Try to be the partner I would want to have if I were a follow.
  • Leave everything better than you found it. Campsites, houses, friendships, communities, kitchens, venues at the end of the evening, etc.
  • All people on earth have equal value. Constantly ask if you are enacting this philosophy in your actions. (e.g. be aware of other people’s experience as a human, or your own tunnel vision in your views) Subconscious bias is real and difficult to confront.
  • Instead of asking why is “this” happening to me, ask what you can learn from it. (e.g. losing contests)
  • You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there so make sure your influences are good. (this one is from Maya Angelou, love it! What great motivation to avoid bad influences, and also take in lots of influences, be they dance or art or ideas). I write this down to remind myself to carefully consider things that might deviate me from my path, even if they sound “fun.”

Introverts

Introverts are near and dear to my heart.  For one thing, they’re almost always thinking funny, sarcastic things and I adore sarcasm.  Another reason is that I sometimes feel like the only introvert in all of dancing.  As if I was the sole person who didn’t do high school theatre in ALL of Lindy Hop.  Which of course isn’t true, but it sometimes feels that way. Enjoy this neat little video from ZeFrank.

Let’s face it, extroverts have a serious advantage in dancing.  Ignoring the fact that we’re all introverts and extroverts depending on the context, but let’s talk about people who aren’t as forthright in asking people to dance, or involving themselves.

We’ve also heard over the years so many jokes about how many tech workers are in the Lindy Hop Community, and the increasing trend of remote work for knowledge workers leads to a lot of isolation.   I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to see that the effects of disenfranchisement,  fear-mongering in the news media and the separation between our actual selves and our social media persona has led to some people feeling unsupported, isolated, or angry.  I like to imagine that I’m “average” when it comes to dealing with my life issues, for the simple reason that it makes me remember that at least half the people I meet are dealing with more difficult issues, and/or having a less easy time coping.  However you do it though, I think it’s important that we all develop some kind of interpretive ambiguity that allows us to see the world as less clear cut.  Empathy is a great asset to community.

Dealing with introversion part 1: “Ask me to dance” areas

If you run a venue, you should have one of these.  See, the brain has a funny way of filling in missing information.  Think for a moment about the last time your significant other (or someone) didn’t arrive home on time.  They were not there, and you probably thought to yourself “maybe they got into an accident” or “maybe they stopped by the store”.  Your mind built probably a dozen scenarios.  Maybe one was right, maybe it was something else entirely.  Well, the same thing happens to people at  a dance.  When they don’t get asked to dance, their mind spirals into “maybe no one likes me”, or “maybe I’m a lousy dancer”, and a million other untrue and negative thoughts.  Really it was probably because they were sitting in the corner or had their arms crossed, or just weren’t asking people.  On the flip side, “ask me to dance” areas also allow other people to have uninterrupted conversation, which is just as essential to the scene.

Dealing with introversion part 2: Ask people if they will help

Everyone (almost) loves to be needed.  We all like to fulfill a purpose.  As a promoter, just simply ask people to be involved. For help with advertising, working the front desk, DJing, assisting with teaching, etc. Scenes where only a single couple or group does all the teaching don’t, in my experience, thrive.

Dealing with introversion part 3: Do the double

In many parts of the world, dancing two songs in a row is standard. When I’m feeling energetic and social I like to ask people for two dances in a row. Once I get started dancing then the rest of the night seems to go well.  Help others get their night off to a better start by asking for two dances.

Dealing with introversion part 4: Learning names

One of the best social skills you can learn in life is being good at remembering names.  Same rule as learning a move: Repeat several times.

Vulnerable from Sarah Warny Berg on Vimeo.


The Disenfranchised

awkwardconversation11Every scene has different versions of this.  The loners, the recently come-upon-hard-times, the often excluded person, the Bitter-bug (ex Jitterbug, now decidedly critical of the scene).  I think it’s really important to reach out to people in their bad times.  Sure, it’s uncomfortable, but if you lean into the discomfort I think you and they will be better for it.

A really easy way to do this is to set a reminder on your calendar once a month to reach out to a person and say hello.  Even if it was just “hey, it was nice seeing you out the other night”, or something like that.

The point isn’t to try to fix other people or anything like that, it’s just to remind people that they have a community around them. Remember that we all feel closed off and isolated from time to time, but some people have better coping skills than others.  If you can help, help.

Realize that this is a community as much as it is an art form. So many social events are organized for just a sub-set of friends within the scene. You can look at organizing scene-wide social activities that are *not* dancing (Lindy Hop St Louis does a monthly open-invite social event) that’s great for people with kids, or people that can’t make evening dances.

I also include a couple of articles below that I think are interesting.  I know the problems in our world are a lot more complicated that these articles portend, but I think there are some interesting points from them.

There’s a Way to Stop Mass Shootings – and You Won’t Like It.

Further resources


Kids

The Junior Jitterbugs

If you’ve ever attended ILHC, you know that during the Junior’s divisions, there’s an awful lot of teary-eyed people.  Seeing the next generation fall in love with Lindy Hop is downright amazing.  I think one of the most positive things we can do is to find engaging ways to get young people involved. Valerie Salstrom’s program Junior Jitterbugs is one of the models I think that leads the way in this space.

Here in Seattle, the Savoy Swing Club heads up a program called “Rhythm Seattle”

Rhythm Seattle

The Itsy Bitsy Jitterbugs of Omaha

Lindsay is developing a curriculum that focuses on a different jazz musician each session. The class includes exploring jazz movement using flash cards with photos and names of various jazz steps, jazz music through audio and sometimes guest musicians, jazz history through picture books and video, exploring rhythms with percussion instruments and our bodies, and musicality games with free movement, stop & go, repetition. We also create performance opportunities for groups of parents or community members.

Swing for Kids in Chicago is another really awesome program.

Swing for Kids is a Chicago nonprofit that builds happy kids, successful schools, and stronger communities through Swing Dance. Children who participate in Swing for Kids learn to cooperate with their classmates and become more engaged during the school day. They also gain valuable skills in body awareness, social appropriateness, goal setting, collaboration, and leadership while learning about the history and social fabric that gave birth to this great American tradition.
The founder and director, Kim Kays, is an experienced urban educator and active member of the Chicago Swing Dance community who introduced Swing Dance to her elementary students during the school day and in collaboration with local Swing Instructors. After seeing the positive impact the program had on students, she became a champion for expanding youth access to Swing Dance Instruction, and Swing for Kids was born! Swing for Kids has been highly supported by the members of the Chicago Swing Scene who have donated money, time, and even baked goods to help keep the organization running. Nearly all members board of directors are avid Swing Dancers and work on a volunteer basis.
Since 2014, Swing for Kids has worked with 5 schools, reaching over 500 kids. In the 2016-2017 school year, they will be adding at least two new schools and an additional full year residency! You can learn more about Swing for Kids at www.swingforkids.org and well as follow them on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter!

See also:


Making your scene less hetero-centric/male-centric/lead-centric/white-centric

We’ve re-enforced the idea that male/female and lead/follow are ideas that are tied together.  We’ve subtly re-enforced the idea that the lead’s job is more important.  Here are a couple of ideas I have:

  • 90% of the time, I see amazing dancers teaching beginner classes, which is great, but let’s face it:  You don’t need to be a champion dancer to teach most classes.  You just need someone passionate, approachable and articulate.  Consider having a same sex couple teach from time to time.
  • Commit to equal pay between lead and follow.  The Awesome Lead(tm) + volunteer follow is not a good place to start from.
  • When teaching, think about doing more role-reversal exercises.
  • Fight the mindset that following is “passive”, “easier”, or less important. I often cede that there are differences in the rates in which these roles are picked-up initially, but the journey to mastery is equally arduous.
  • Show examples of people dancing non-traditional roles.
  • When hiring out-of-town instructors, refrain from hiring just a leader. Followers having access to expert follows for instruction is vital to the health of your scene. If you can only afford to fly out one person at a time, make sure you switch off hiring leaders and followers.
  • Try to hire bands that have members from different walks of life, and of different racial backgrounds.  When people come to your dance, if they see people like themselves, they are more likely to stay.

Further reading:

 

 

 


More Free Events

This is, right now, for me, the single most important step in diversifying and growing the community.  The longer I dance, the more I find myself enjoying the process of putting on free events. It takes a barrier away from introducing new people to Jazz music and dancing to it.  It’s also an excuse to dance in a new space or venue, which I think can be really positive.  You basically have three routes:

  1. DIY.  For years we had Lindy in the Park when I was promoting in Denver.  For the cost of a speaker I was suddenly promoting a weekly dane and practice.
  2. Corporate sponsorship. Companies (especially small ones) are always looking for new ways to promote their business.
  3. Government grants.  A simple web search of ({Your city} arts grants) will yield some good results.  They often fall into two categories:  Grants for Individuals and Grants for NPO’s. (non-profit organizations).  This is one of the best reasons to have your NPO status set up.

Whatever your motivation is, whether is be bringing in more _x_ type of people, or making the dance more accessible to a certain demographic, this is the number one friction point to removing the barriers.

Once you’ve set up your event, take the time to make paper flyers.  Don’t assume that everyone has the same access to smart phones, internet, etc.

We just started a new dance in Seattle “by donation” on Monday nights.  More info here


Scene politics

Oy.  I wouldn’t wish scene politics on anyone.  But they happen as scenes sort things out. First off, realize that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got (emotionally, professionally, financially, physically) at that moment. If they knew better, they’d do better.  Also realize that over your life, lots of people are going to hate you, and some of them will have pretty good reasons.  And one of the great ironies of life is that the more people you try to help or influence, there will be more people in the end that will hate you. But for every “hater” you have, there are 10 silent people who love you.

I also have grown in my life to see conflict as sometimes being productive.  Jim Jefferies “Hate doesn’t beat hate” is a really nice little piece of philosophy.

 


“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
– Fred Rogers


Closing thought

Ultimately it’s up to you, every single person who reads this, to make your scene what you want.   For me, getting in touch with my inspirations and my community is motivating and positive. Here are some other ways I think you can make your dance scene a better place.

  • Volunteer. There is _always_ something useful to do.
  • Spread the word.  New dancers are important.
  • Learn how to give a compliment. One rule I go by is “Don’t hold good inside”… if I have a warm feeling or am impressed by someone, I’ll take the time and break through my own shyness to say so.
  • Put a note in your calendar to reach out to someone once a month who you know is having a hard time
  • Welcome new dancers, especially the recently relocated.  As much as is comfortable for you, scene growth is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Pretend that every person you meet has a sign around their neck saying “make me feel important”.  Like this
  • Post a thank you note to an event’s page.  Event organizers are often unpaid, and even if they aren’t, they work really really hard.  It’s like a thank you note – it takes just a few minutes but it can mean a lot.

My point is this: You don’t have to be famous, or rich, or influential to change the world.  You just need to be a regular person, making an effort.