So you want to run a swing dance team? Speaking from almost 10 years of running dance teams, I’m going to try to offer a little advice and guidance for those of you who are new to the team concept. My years as a dance team leader have involved doing gigs of all kinds, competing at national contests and performing locally to inspire and develop the local dance community.

From my experience, I can honestly say that it can be simultaneously one of the most rewarding and one of the most frustrating experiences you’ll ever have. You build great friendships. You work on movements and techniques until they become perfect. You deal constantly with changing personnel, incompatible or difficult team members, and you struggle to keep up with the pace of learning and choreography that your scene’s most advanced dancers can handle. You balance developing your scene with the perceived elitism of an exclusive group. You train aerials but fight injuries. You constantly look for practice space with mirrors, mats, space for a large group, and a price that’s sustainable. You learn a piece and get it 95% show ready, but putting that last 5% bit of polish on it that will really let your work shine takes as long as the first 95% took. A team is only as good as its weakest link, so you work extra to bring everyone up to the same level, while trying to keep the attention of your top dancers. It’s no small task for sure. But it can be one of the most effective ways to develop your own coaching, develop friendships among the top scene contributors, and show off the magic and artistry of jazz dance in a whole new light.

Getting started can be the toughest part. In other blogs, I’ll cover my thoughts on tryouts, rules, organization, coaching, etc… but here I’d like to assume that you have a group of people ready to start working together.

Generally my first 3-month plan is that as a group we need to have a few things accomplished

  • Learn and agree upon the same names for movements (by learning Big Apple, etc). This allows for faster work and changes on the fly as time crunches approach. Some moves that I’ve heard different names for: Rocks, Shouts, Fall-off-the-logs, Tango-jump, pop-turn etc. Not to mention the aerial of many names… e.g. the Frankie-lamppost-overtheshoulder-supergirl-aroundtheback-lindyflip debacle. With steps a name confusion can translate to a time/energy suck and mistakes… With aerials a name confusion can be disastrous. Plus it will give you some time to iron out some of the more common mistakes and fill in any gaps in knowledge on your team.
  • A common commitment to improve personal movement and dance ability (also accomplished by working on solo jazz routines)
  • The ability to do basic Lindy Hop moves with anyone on the team (accomplished through learning California Routine and Lindy Chorus). This allows you to smoothly work around injuries, busy schedules, and breakups.
  • Good and most importantly SAFE aerial practice techniques (proper spotting, proper vocabulary, proper attitude and boundaries).
  • A few chorus length routines we can put together for “Jam style” routines, where we do a group choreography, some solos, and then close with a group choreography (a good, quick alternative for low-pay and or low prep-time gigs)
  • A solid commitment to being part of the solution and end goal, not part of an internally-competitive or internally-political environment.

In the first three months, a good goal can be to verse everyone on the team in some or all of the following routines. In my experience, teams where there is a commitment to work together outside of practice as well as in practice are the most successful. Push people to get together on their own!

  • First Stops and Second Stops
  • Lindy Chorus
  • California Routine
  • Mama’s Stew
  • Big Apple
  • Tranky Doo
  • Dean Collins Shim-Sham and/or
  • Al and Leon’s Shim Sham
  • Something like the Boy Scout Chorus if you plan on doing tap numbers with the team

In this installment, I’d like to discuss a great routine called First Stops.  This was originally done by Frankie Manning to a song called Posin’. Previously, when performing as a group, teams would come out and do three short numbers, with one couple at a time. Often a warm up couple, a comedic couple, and then an aerials couple.  Frankie had the idea to do a routine where multiple couples were synchronized… And thus First Stops was born.

This is the video I learned from.  The great Sugar Sullivan and Peter Loggins at Herrang dance camp.  So much energy! I immediately wanted to learn it.

I later saw another version (fast forward to about 1:18 in this video).  The beginning is another routine called Mama’s Stew.  The crowd was going wild. These dancers were so inspiring to me when I saw this clip.  The energy is a perfect model for any dance team. The song is “Hand Clappin'” by Red Prysock.

A small difference between these two is the omission (in the first) and inclusion (in the second one) of a six count break just before going into tandem.   I’ve chosen to keep it in for my own purposes… mostly because it puts the tandem on 5, which I find to be a lot easier to deal with in whatever choreography I add to it later.

Here is a breakdown of the counts by Lainey and me.  It should take about 45 minutes to an hour to teach this routine to a team, depending on the level of your team, and how well the person teaching it knows the routine.

Here are some notes and common pitfalls

  • Use big, forward “grabbing” hands to give the routine some punch
  • Take careful note of the directions that we turn.  This is often an issue when learning, to get everyone doing the same thing.
  • Note that follows do mirrored footwork at first, but switch to opposite feet later
  • Note syncopation in the “kick-and-down”
  • Feel free to add your own style to make it your teams “own” version
  • Practice performing it for one another to work on “looking up” and exuding energy
  • Use this routine as a warm-up, weekly for a while. It will be encouraging to the team to see how routines develop over time as our brains absorb the material more completely.
  • Try a variety of songs to get used to listening instead of relying on musical cues, especially if you are lucky enough to be able to perform with live bands.
  • Work with a front line and a back line, and getting the back line “lined up” in the spaces (I call them “windows”). Teams are nothing without good formations, so be a stickler.
  • Once the choreography is learned, do a film with an iPhone and upload to YouTube.  YouTube has a great feature that lets you annotate the video and make notes for everyone, and email it out (make the video private to the group). This is an excellent midweek follow up that keeps the team productive and accountable
  • Trade off counting in, and leading with other team members.  It’s imporant to develop the leadership capacities of everyone on the team, even if one or two people are ultimately in charge.

Finally, a sample done with a team of people. This is Rainier Rhythm, my team project in Seattle doing “Stops”

Alright everyone! Hopefully this will get you ready for your first team session. Look for more blog posts in the coming weeks outlining some ideas to get you started with your swing dance team.

Feel free to send questions and inquiries in to danieljnewsome@gmail.com

Good luck future team leaders!
Next, check out The Big Apple