In this post, I’d like to take a break from talking about the routines and move toward talking about how I approach organizing a team. While there is no right or wrong way, I’ll share a few anecdotes and approaches that I’ve learned from in the past. Much like teaching, this can be a sort of “learn as you go” endeavor.
If your city or college currently doesn’t have a team, it’s possible that even the notion of starting one can bring up some uneasy feelings and some questions about how it will affect a scene. Perhaps an attitude of exclusivity can affect a community which is otherwise operating under the normal homeostasis that most scenes have. On the flip side, there is always a few lingering people in the background, eager to push on to the next level and a team is the perfect lauch-pad for such an environment. If that person (or persons) looking to start a team is you (and your partner, or a few friends) then perhaps starting a team is the right thing… perhaps it is not. At least you’ll want to answer a few questions first.
The Point (Your Mission Statement)
It’s very important early on to be clear with yourself, your potential team members, your current team members, and your community about your goals as a team. Some goals might include some or all of the following
- Competing in national level competitions
- Doing exhibitions at local dance venues
- Doing exhibitions at festivals, dance conventions, and events
- Doing corporate gigs
- Getting together to practice and improve
- Growing / inspiring the community
In addition you need to be very clear with your team if air-steps will be required, what your practice attendance policy is, and what costs they can expect to incur as a member of your team. You don’t have to make everyone happy, and in fact trying to make everyone happy can make an environment where no one is happy.
Good plans will save you a lot of time in the long run. You should have the following in place before you announce tryouts, a team etc.
- A team mission statement
- A date, plan, and announcement for tryouts
- A day of the week for practice time and a low cost practice facility lined up
- A team name (maybe)
- A pricing / cost structure that lets you operate the team without worrying about paying for space.
The light at the end of the tunnel
I highly recommend that you define early on the time span of the team in it’s current inception. I have done teams where the idea is that the team program is ongoing – and this leads to a lot of attrition. Instead of going year round, go part of the year. Even if you end up practicing and hanging out in the off-season, it somehow seems more palatable to make the “on season” a bit easier to wrap ones mind around. Some time frames that have worked for me in the past:
- March – October, with the rest of the year off.
- September-May, with summer off
- The x number of weeks leading up to a competition
Not only is it easier on your team, but it’s more manageable from your perspective as a coach, and it gives you an opportunity to rework the program for the next season during the off time.
Finding like-minded individuals
Finding potential teammates is usually pretty straightforward. Once upon a time, I was asked “When are tryouts for 23 Skidoo?” and my answer was “Every single night on the dance floor”, and I think that’s really the second half of the answer, even if you do have a formal tryout at the beginning. You will identify a core group, and in my experience, you’ll have to add people from time to time.
I think a team is strengthened by pulling from the people who are out and dancing often. When you open it up to people outside the community, you are likely to take on members that see what you’re doing as a fitness craze or a social club. There are always talented people out there who can do the work, but if you bring on people that aren’t active in the social community of Lindy Hop, chances are you’ll lose them, likely just after you’ve brought them up to a level at which they are useful to the team.
Tryouts, or not to tryout
Tryouts can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, if your team is open to everyone then there is nothing to be attained, no status to be gained by working hard enough to be on the team. The lowest level dancers will be ecstatic, the high level dancers will be angry that they are once again working with people who cannot challenge them. If you do run tryouts, then inevitably some people are going to make it, and some aren’t. When all is said and done, I think having tryouts is much better than not having them.
Tryouts can be tough. Hurt feelings are inevitable. I’ve cut good dancers because of bad attitudes, and I’ve taken bad dancers because of good work ethic. You’re the coach. It’s up to you who to work with. Provide a feedback loop, stand by your decisions and don’t rub it in for those who may be hurt by your choice.
Ultimately the environment in which you and your chosen dancers are going to flourish as a dancer is going to differ from the environment in which you will flourish as friends. Never hurt or alienate people on purpose, but be clear from the beginning if you are a social club (focused on fun) or a dance company (focused on developing and working). Choose those who will work hard, are dedicated, and have at least some of the skills you’ll need to create the kind of work you want to put out there.
Running a tryout
When running a tryout it’s easy for things to become an un-organized jumble. People show up late, nerves are wracked and ability levels are going to vary widely.
I like to divide into four parts.
1) The Youtube test
When you announce the tryouts, announce that they should learn a particular piece of choreography. Mama’s Stew is nice, as is the first few bars of the Trankey Doo, etc. You’ll need to decide what’s appropriate for your potentials. First off, this will tell you who can follow instructions, and who is self motivated…. Also, who will be able to pick up choreography when they miss practice.
2) Solo dance
Solo is important. Almost all routines have some. Individual movement is going to make your team shine. Show some slight variations, or ask people to come up with their own.
3) Partner dance
You can do an open social dance, or teach some short choreography. You’ll want to see who knows how to partner and who does not.
I like to test people’s learning skills. This can be with the aforementioned solo, or partnered dance, or with something else entirely. If people can acquire information quickly, it doesn’t mater too much where they are right now in their dancing.
Make sheets for tryouts, and have more than just one or two people judge the tryout. I also have in the past made short application sheets. It has told me a lot about the kind of people I would be working with. Ask questions like “what do you hope to get out of a team”, or “what special skills can you contribute to the team”.
How to structure practice time
I am a big fan of using all of practice time to dance. Whenever “practice time” becomes “sitting on the floor and talking time”, my eyes start to roll and I start looking toward the door. You can choose to structure your practice time any way you like, but I strongly suggest almost never having a meeting during your practice time. I typically implement policy that “15 minutes early is early, 5 minutes early is on-time, on-time is late” with practice. If practice is 7PM, at 7:02 PM, we are definitely moving to music, even if just social dance. Taking quick votes, sharing the counting or teaching duties is great, but for me the “Kum-bay-ya” time is never going to make anyone a better dancer.
I suggest (except for the first practice of all time), or very specific occasions, that at very least people are social dancing right away, and even better running routines. Take all the “business” stuff offline, or save it for the very end / after practice. That’s what private Facebook groups are for.
To partner or not to partner
There are a lot of theories going around about partnering. One that makes a lot of sense is to put your weakest and strongest team members together, so that everyone’s ability will level off. In practice however, this doesn’t work all that well. You should try to partner people who are already getting together to practice on their own. Don’t break up existing partnerships. These people who excel can help you cover rehearsals when you can’t be there, and they will bring a strength to the choreographies that otherwise would not happen. For standard routines like California, or Stops, everyone should be compatible. When working on technique, rotating is preferable to me.
Many teams create a sort of anomaly in the scene that I don’t like… It’s the dancers who get all the routines perfectly, but can only dance with each other and cannot (or do not) social dance. You aren’t doing your scene any favors to create these types of team members. You will also find that this breeds a sort of robotic approach to choreography. You want each of your dancers to take ultimate responsibility for their own dancing, which is so much more than executing moves. I recommend making social dance a strong part of your team program. Social dancers are the lifeblood of a community, and further, social dance skills will make your performers better.
You should have a private Facebook group where everyone can push each other to dance more and practice more, or refine routines outside of practice.
When people quit
Inevitably people will quit your team at some point… This may be after three weeks or three years. It will likely be when they don’t feel they are getting anything from the experience anymore, or they feel compelled to move on to something else in their life like a job, new relationship, etc.
There is often some mixed feelings on both parts. Your team member will undoubtedly have good memories of the team. You, as the team leader will feel that you have given a lot of (possibly free) training to this individual, and that you need them to fulfill future performances. You are probably friends.
My advice is to part as amicably as possible. Wish one another the best. Celebrate them with post-practice drinks, or dedicate the end of a practice to saying goodbye. Inevitably their future teaching will include some part of what you’ve taught them and both of you will have benefited from the experience. If you aren’t comfortable with helping shape their future as a dancer and teacher, you probably should reconsider wanting to run a team. You are giving people information, but as a team leader you are gaining something as well.
Try to see these things ahead of time and start ramping up new members as soon as possible.
I have in the past wanted to help the careers of young dancers with a ton of potential. I think the title of understudy is great. These dancers aren’t ready to be a full team member, but you can tell that they are a “Lifetime Lindy Hopper” in the making.
Sometimes the reward is a smile. But, my landlord doesn’t take smiles, neither do most practice spaces or costume makers. We all need to make a living, and dancers are no exception.
I figure out what costs need to be covered, then pad by 25% for attrition, team members who don’t/can’t pay, unexpected expenses, etc. I have implemented a policy that dues must be in by the second week of the month, and had good success with that.
For money coming in (for instance a gig), I always say that 10-25% of the fee should come back to the team, and the rest should go to the dancer. The only extension to this is that when on a gig, any business inquiries must be directed back to the team leader. This has worked to be a mostly amenable solution for all.
T-shirts, bags, shoe bags, hoodies hats, etc are great advertisements for the team, and a great way to feel like you are part of something. I highly recommend making them.
Collaborations / guest artists
If you are in the position of being a team leader, chances are good that you may have to travel to teach sometimes. You may also want / need to conserve your energy at times. I’ve hired acting coaches, hip hop teachers, tango teachers, acro-yoga artists and others to run special practices, to take a break from the endless running of routines. I think it makes the team stronger, and it’s a fun memory. Remember that the goal is to become a better dancer, not just a better routine-runner.
Divide the work
I’ve been on a number of teams over the years, and one thing I see over and over is team leaders that start with energy to spare, big plans and tons of organization. Four months later the team leaders are burned out, tired, overwhelmed and running practices with half energy.
A great way to avoid this is to distribute the jobs on the team across everyone. In fact I think that it makes your team members feel more involved with the team than they would otherwise. Some team jobs include:
- Warm up
- Activities coordinator
- Logo maker / schwag designer
- Conditioning leader
- Organizer of recap videos
- Facebook group admin
If you spread these things out, it’ll be a lot less work for the team leaders, and each person will have more reason to come to practice.
Operating as a business
I’ve operated teams under a number of structures. Note that the following is not intended as any kind of legal advice… just some thoughts on my own personal experiences. Laws vary from state to state and country to country, and also change over time, so please consult an accountant and/or a lawyer to figure out what is in your own personal best interests.
1) Running out of the “shoebox”
Sometimes I’ve run a team “out of a shoebox”, meaning there is no bank account, no corporate entity, etc. I’ve used this when there is only petty cash going around, and the projects are relatively small. This is simple, easy to set up or dismantle, and saves you some formalities. Big disadvantages meant that any bigger sums of income had to be handled personally, and that many gigs were not in our reach based on insurance status, etc. I think of this as a bootstrapping phase, while you sort the rest out.
2) Running as a non-profit
I set up 23 Skidoo as a 501(c)(3) for some time. I think that so many people have some really uneducated notions of what this means. It doesn’t mean that you can’t pay people. It doesn’t mean that you can’t accept money for gigs, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t keep reasonable operating funds in the bank. You can do all those things (at least we could at the time, and under that specific structure that we used). On the plus side it means you can collect donations, that you have some tax advantages, and setting up your team as an official entity gives you a little bit of protection as the individual running it. One the negative side, it required a great deal of paperwork. We were also required to follow a lot of rules and regulations that we wouldn’t have had to otherwise. For instance, when I was President of Savoy Swing club, also a 501(c)(3), we had to do a lot of work to have liquor licenses at our events. One thing you can look into is that every lawyer, in order to maintain status must do a certain number of free hours for non-profits every year. I’ve worked with organizations like “Colorado Lawyers for the Arts”, or “CoLA” to find lawyers like that. What might be several thousand dollars in legal fees can often be given to you for free.
3) Corporate entity
I’ve set up teams as regular businesses. This is relatively easily with sites like Legal Zoom. Ive even done a few setups myself, and it’s not terribly hard. Most of the state/local business offices I’ve worked with are polite, eager to help new business owners and even though it seemed daunting at first, it was typically not that bad once I got set up.
As I said, only a licensed professional like a CPA or lawyer can help you decide what’s best, it’s good to get this out of the way from the offset. As I’ve discussed, there are implications, like what kind of fundraising you can do, how you will pay taxes, and what kinds of events you can throw.
There is lots of money out there for arts organizations. As a non-profit you can apply for different grants. You can also run various types of fundraisers to bring in money for practice space, costumes, and the like. You can bring in dancers that you admire to train you, or other fun team building activities. Having that freedom of some extra money in your bank account will help a lot in the long run, and it should be something you incorporate into your week to week team activities – in other words it’s an ongoing effort. Don’t wait until you’re out of cash to bring in more. Remember that swing dance is healthy, positive, historical preservation and lots of people out there support jazz and dance related activities. Network, and put the word out.
Know how to choreograph for a group
Until you’ve done it, you might not know what I’m talking about. You need to have an idea in mind about all the moves, ie exact counts for each part, lead and follow (or choreograph with another lead or follow). You’ll want to have diagrams of each formation and how each one is transitioned. You’ll want to have your song ready and emailed to every team member. You’ll need the fortitude to encourage the group to try things that may not work right away enough times to truly determine if they are possible or not. You’ll want to be able to talk the talk:
Blocking: How your dancers are placed on stage. I’ve used Legos, drawings, and about a million other things to make this absolutely clear to my dancers.
Windows: The spaces between couples that you see other couples behind them. If everyone understands what that is, then everyone can work on maintaing them.
Cascades: Choreography that creates a wave effect through the group
Choruses: Sets of (usually) 16 eight-counts
Phrases: Sets of (usually) 4 eight-counts
Pick-ups: Places where instruments come in before the phrase. Figure out when these exist so you can stay more synchronized.
Cut-time: The effect when a song feels 1-2-ish, or marchy, common in Charleston era music.
Cadenza: The amorphous, countless section at the end of some songs where all or many of the instruments come in and finish the song with a flourish.
Vamp: A repeating figure or movement, often for background.
Waltz time: Doing something in sets of 3s, over a 4 count rhythm. Like a box step or a camel walk.
The more you can set up these terms for all to understand and use them consistently, the quicker you’ll be able to communicate.
Know how to do a gig as a team
As a team leader, there are perhaps a lot of things that are obvious to you, but you’ll have to account for them when you gig as a team. At a minimum, you need to tell everyone how to dress for the gig. You should send out an email with the call time (the time everyone should show up) several days before the gig. You should tell your people exactly when the performances “should” be, knowing they are almost always delayed. You should rehearse your bows and exits. You may need to coach your team about professionalism at a gig if they are newer to gigging.
A pep talk is always nice beforehand, and you should always thank everyone at the end. I think every team should have something they say before going out to perform. Err on the side of over-informing. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind. Ask your team members if they need anything.. You have to step it up
Who owns choreography?
A common question that comes up when teaching routines, is “who ultimately owns the choreography?” As one dancer once said: “The best kept secret in choreography is that we’re all a bunch of thieves”. It’s true, we’re always a reflection of our influences, but there is such a thing as intellectual property when it comes to choreography. Common courtesy is to credit movements, but never rip off entire sequences, at least until they become part of a common canon of moves (ie the California Routine).
In the context of a dance team, you are essentially operating as a dance company, not unlike Alvin Ailey or the Joffrey Ballet. The choreographies you do for your team (even if you started the team) remain the property of that team. So, say that I start a team, do a piece for the team, and then I leave the team, the team still owns the choreography. Consult your lawyer for clarity, but this is how I understand it from a fairly in-depth body of research. Similarly, if I’m a member of a team and I learn something from the team, it isn’t mine to teach anywhere else.
I think that it’s important to make that distinction with your members, right away. It will save a lot of hurt feelings in the end. As the team leader, you might not ever have any plans to leave the team, but you will come to a point when your members will contribute choreography, and it needs to be clear that that work becomes property of the team.
Making rules and consequences
Though it may not seem obvious, I believe that most people thrive in a semi-structured environment. As long as they aren’t being treated like children, most people enjoy it when there to be a standard to which they are held.
Every team needs its own sets of rules, custom tailored to the people that are on it. The rules need to be subject to change, and they need to be clear.
Your rules can (and should) vary. Some rules I’ve had to make in the past: (These are all real examples)
1) Costumes can only leave the gig in an ambulance. This rule had to be made because members were taking costumes home and never returning them. I felt harsh for making this rule but then on another team where I didn’t have the rule, I actually had costumes out for over 2 years in one case.
2) No jeans in practice. At one point in the last few years, jeans were a very popular style. It was actually so common that certain moves or aerials could not be rehearsed in practice that I had to institute this rule. It wasn’t popular, but it had to be done.
3) If you miss practice, you have to notify your partner 6 hours ahead of time. People were leaving their partners high and dry for practice time!
4) No social dancing with team members during the first 30 minutes you are at a dance. I had team members being very insular at one time. Once you put a label on yourselves, you are suddenly representative of a group. Your actions color how people will (rightly or wrongly) feel about a number of people. Suddenly, you have an image to manage.
You’ll have to adjust for your own team, but don’t be afraid to nip problems in the bud before they become a problem.
Make an extra practice by just… um… practicing more
The way I look at it, the quality of a routine will be better with more run-thoughs (as long as each run through is eliminating some errors. To get a show quality routine, you need to shoot for about 100-150 reps. If an average practice has 10 run throughs, you’ll have 40 run throughs a month. But lets just say as a team captain you ask them to do 2-3 more runs per practice. Then all the sudden you are at 50 run throughs a month. You got a whole extra practice every month just by working for what amounts to 6-9 minutes more each practice.
At times I’ve given certain dancers promotion to co-captain. This let them help decide how practice was going to go, and let them make critiques of dancers on the team. It helped me to retain dancers that would have otherwise perhaps moved on, and it strengthened the team overall. The better your team, the flatter the hierarchy will be.
Philosophy of Helping
As a team member, (and leader) it’s important to think of your team as your family. Always strive to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. If a team mate is feeling sick at a gig, take care of them. If the team needs safety pins, bobby pins, or tights at a gig, be the one who volunteers to get those things. Take care of each other at gigs, at practices, etc. It’s one of the best parts of being on a team.
I’ve always had a rule that after a performance, we all meet for “good jobs ” and hugs. However the routine actually went, you can deal with that at the next practice… but at a gig, there is no beating yourself up, berating your partner, or blaming other team members. Meet up, have drinks together, social dance, taxi dance, etc. Always at a gig, there is a sense of positive attitude and support. Training is totally separate. Gigs are just paid rehearsals. Never let your client see or absorb any negative interactions if you can help it.
Being the organizer
Before you start a team, perhaps one of the most important questions to ask, is: Are you ready to give tirelessly, possibly for no thanks whatsoever to help develop Lindy Hop in your city? Are you ready to teach people for perhaps years, only to have them move on to positions of prestige within your town? Are you ready to balance the needs of people to learn and grow with your artistic vision to create, experiment, and inspire, and can you convince them that it’s going to be mutually beneficial even when it may go through periods of lopsidedness?
Are you ready to share your love and passion, dream up routines for others, be a good diplomat, an assertive leader, teach things multiple times, have patience, flexibility, optimism, vision, to be able to command respect at the moment when you are not popular, to not let other people’s insecurities, laziness or projected anger pull you off your game.. to put work out there and be judged for it, and finally to leave that all behind when the clock says practice time is over?
Hopefully this all gives you a little insight or at least a little commiseration into the life of a team leader. I’ve had lots of ups and downs, but I’ve never regretted all the good memories that come from having a team.
I would love to hear your experiences, opinions, tips, tricks etc. Leave us a comment!