Style. Expression. Lines. Some of Lindy Hop’s signature qualities. All beautiful concepts, but in the world of partner dancing they have to live alongside connection, lead-follow, and technique. To serve both these purposes, however, creates a sort of difficult duality in the mind.

Styling means different things to different people. It can be changes in footwork, additions, subtractions, or replacements. It can be rhythms, lines, or pulses that are unique to the partner and the moment. If can be any personal modification of a “standard” move. They are such an important part of the dance, that it could be argued that they are the dance. So often I look out on a dance floor and I see great ideas on the part of a lead or a follow, and then a moment where that idea is either 1) shared — which is very inspiring to watch, 2) allowed to be fully expressed by one part of a partnership (also beautiful but different), or 3) lost in the ethereal nature of a dance (inevitable sometimes, but not a good habit if it always happens).

Not every idea is going to be filled with “magical moments”, with every one shared by both partners, but if they are never shared, then you have the dance equivalent to two people at a table, talking at each other but never having a conversation. When it doesn’t work out, I see conflicting hierarchies of value. One part of a partnership thinks the lead-follow is the most important, the other part of the partnership thinks that the music being played dominates all. If these values are hard and fast then you have two people that can never really dance together in a way that satisfies either one of them, nor do you honor the idea of jazz, which is improvisation on top of structures.

Let’s back up. There was a time, perhaps 10 years ago that most people who danced had a similar philosophy, or so it seemed. The music, the dance, the list of traits behind what makes a good dancer was fairly homogeneous among *most* dancers. It was easy to know how to win a competition, the values were clear. In some sense most all of us were still learning to lead and follow, and the dominant music of the time, which some refer to as “groove” or “soul jazz” gave us space to concentrate on leading and following, and the tempos were fairly forgiving and regular. The emphasis on lead follow was strong. Even if you bring the old “Groove” vs “Hollywood” style wars into the picture, the music overall in either style was less challenging tempo-wise, and a great deal more predictable.

But, to focus in on “Groove”, the problem was that this was a dance based on Lindy Hop, but it wasn’t and still isn’t Lindy Hop. Lindy Hop does not, in my opinion, default to coming straight in on 1-2 *as a default*. I know that I’ve lost many of you with this point. It CAN come in 1-2, but I think the *default* should NOT be to do so. (actually, in an ideal world, is there any default in truly led/follow scenario?) There is one reason why I prefer that Lindy Hop basics do not come in on 1-2: I think that it is essential that most of the time, 7, 8 and 1-2 are our own to improvise upon, and the momentum is initiated, not assumed. Of course that’s an option we can override as leaders, or an option we can opt not to take as followers.

The other thing that points me strongly to a pull-in between the 2 and 3 count is that the most important, critical vocabulary taught to all of us by people who were there, or by people who learned from people who were there include a lot of movements where it is required to stay apart for one and two. Things like scissors, heel-pop swing outs, kicks away, and sugar-step twists. Even a glance at Groovie Movie shows a pretty clear bias toward staying out 1-2 even on things like sugar pushes. Further, I think that any movement where you start by going in a semi-opposing direction than the one you intend to go in eventually is much more comfortable than a direct pull. As in a rock step (or equivalent) before pulling. In other words, I think cause/effect is a much more comfortable dynamic than effect alone. Beyond that, it makes a lot of sense for me for the amount of lateral movement done by the lead and follow to be equal… as opposed to a stationary lead with a follow moving around them. But, I digress on this point. Only as it’s relevant to styling, I think that in order for our dance to be sustainable as a vehicle for personal expression for both leads and follows, we need to have both micro and macro opportunities for both partners to create pictures of the music, to use rhythms in their feet, and to create slow/fast dynamics within the body as a whole. Staying out as much as possible opens up more changes for individual style.

Good style, to me, comes from really good lead-follow technique. I believe that the basis of lead follow is three-fold: 1) pressure at contact point which the pressure is not binary, but rather “equal-and-opposite” and 2) Stretch, which is dynamic pressure created through proximity and weight distribution. 3) Visual. I may have lost some of you with this too. But, I think this factors in on a heathy lead follow dynamic. We need to take visual cues not just in movement, but in attitude, posture and non-verbal communication. I think for a long time most people denied that visual lead and follow took place, but I think it is a factor and it’s a tool we can and should use. Most people who lived through the groove era, or taught after it have some handle on these principles and pass them on as a means of communicating in dance, and overall I think the level of social dancing in the world is at an all-time high. It’s a wonderful time to be a new dancer.

Now, back to the time before YouTube – it’s interesting to me to watch how much the internet has changed style. Before we could trade videos across the world in near real time, it was complicated. Home-grown, empirically discovered regional variations ruled. Influences came from all around. West Coast Swing, Rockabilly, old movies, the Rhythm Hot Shots, our mid-timers like Steven and Sylvia, and our own innovation, among a myriad of other influences. We once lived in a Lindy Hop community where everyone danced differently, or rather more differently than they do now. Preferences developed all around, as did people’s defense of their preference as the “right one”. As footage became more and more available to us, our styles started to merge into a couple of major variants. Then after a time, arguing about which Lindy Hop was better became tiresome. After some time though, both “Groove” and in most parts of the world “Hollywood style” became a thing we knew about, but just didn’t want to argue about anymore. So we started over just calling it Lindy Hop, and door opened wide for personal style, as opposed to a labeled one. (git rebase lindyhop *ahem*…).

Though this redefinition was really positive socially, it really limits how we express ourselves. A lot of things happened. I could write a whole blog. More or less, the current crop of teachers amazed us all with a Lindy Hop that made sense and didn’t require funny pants… the dynamic we were dancing to had run it’s course. It’s not important really… but what is important is that at some point a large number of dancers had to re-do their basics and still try to keep the lead-follow principles they learned. And our sense of lead follow, how we execute it and how we prioritize it really affects our styling. I’m certainly not qualified to define what is Lindy Hop, but I do think that the path that dancers are on now is closer to what was done back in the day. For me it seems visually closer, philosophically closer, and as a culture we are appreciating the same music they danced to in the 1920s/30s/40s more. This is a big point for me. I think that our bodies change to match the music, and this will happen no matter how much we are consciously aware of it or not. Style is both a choice and a sort of inevitable directive of what influences that we enact on it.

Ok. So this is getting mega complicated. You CAN style on 7,8,1,2. You CAN over ride that. You can pay attention to the music. You can pay attention to your partner. You can temporarily reverse the lead follow roles (aka the Hijack). You can try to put ideas out there as a lead or a follow, and you can choose to let those ideas override whatever is going on in the lead-follow dynamic OR you can put the ideas out, but let the lead-follow dynamic win out. You can be rhythmic. You can “be an instrument in the band”, you can be micro-musical, or macro-musical. Whew! How is a person supposed to navigate this infinitely complex algorithm?

It seems like there is no right answer or wrong answer. And spoiler alert, I’m not sure there is one. There is no formula that can lead you to this:

A= Moves
B= Tension
X= Leading / Following
Y= Styling
Z= Awesome points

(13A+2.5B)(5X+2Y)=1,000,000Z

This magic doesn’t exist.

However, with a little understanding, we can develop what I can “strategies” for leading and following. Strategies are different than rules, because you can change them up as needed to match the partner you are dancing with. And let’s all take a moment to remember something my good friend Shesha once said; “dancing is art, and art is moody”… Sometimes we make magic. Sometimes we make tragic. Sometimes the DJ just isn’t playing any of the good stuff.

But when the magic is there, my friends are all out dancing, the music is chunking along (but not too chunky!) and I’ve had exactly 1.25 cocktail-type beverages, and I watched my favorite current YouTube clip, these are the things that go in in my mind when I dance:

First, I think it’s important to let go of a sense of being right when you social dance. This can be hard to do if you’re working on something. You should always look to make the dance you are having right then and there the most fun dance of the evening for that person you are dancing with right then and there. Adjusting to them is key in this. Find a middle-ground of tone together. Try to start pulsing together. See if you can find the same sense of what you’ll be emphasizing in the music together. The equivalent of small talk. Don’t move to the heavy stuff right away. I will say that many of the less-than-satisfying dances I’ve had have been from assumptions on one person’s part as to what “should” be done. I try to say that we’re not doing “a” dance… we’re doing “our” dance… which only exists in that moment, to that song. It can be informed by all the things we’ve learned along the way, but it can also be totally different. In the rare moments I’ve been party to, or observed two people who come to a dance with this mindset, it’s always been a lovely sight to see.

Personal challenge I’ve issued to myself: In every dance, do at least one thing I’ve never done before, no matter how small it might seem.

Now, just as in life, taking care of our own selves needs to be first priority. Styling never takes place if we hide in the partnership. Mastering styling within your own body is the first place we need to look. There is no limit to what can be done – which I think is daunting – but ultimately, no limits can keep us learning for our whole dance career.

Styling Lindy Hop is rhythmic. We can take tap classes and learn more about how you can play with rhythms. Styling Lindy Hop is full body, and it is low and wide. We can learn African to express these values more accurately. Styling Lindy Hop is about lines. We can learn ballet to make these lines extend and bend them the right way. Learn all the classic stylings you can, because they show you what the standard is for movements that work at all tempos. Learn every jazz line dance you can, because the ideas therein can be pulled into your own vocabulary.

But more importantly than all that, train your eye. You must be able to look at something and say if it is Lindy Hop to you. I have a little rubric I go through in my head. I ask myself a series of questions. Could I imagine this in the Spirit moves? What would I name as influences of this move or that move? Is this simple enough in structure to be easily understood by an audience and a partner? Is it surprising? Rhythmic? Full body? Do I FEEL like I’m dancing to swing when I perform the movement? Not every styling or movement needs hit all of these, but (at least in the system wherein I analyze movement to see if it does in fact fit the profile of what I call “Lindy Hop”), it must hit some. You need to be able to look at things and say whether or not they fit your idea of the dance. It takes time, it evolves, and it’s not an exact science. It’s relative to your local community, your inspirations, and the national trends.

With more control, a better eye, more ideas, and more vocabulary to draw on, you at least have a bit of momentum moving forward and you can take styling to the second level. The second level is mastering your own voice. What looks good on you. What do you like. What do you do with your body that goes with jazz music in a way that makes you feel like you’ve both mastered technique AND feeling, to be creative within your own self.

Creativity and mindful editing are at two different ends of our brain. On one hand, you must have the capacity to think limitlessly about what you do. You must be able to dream up ideas that are as out of the box as anything that has ever been conjured. On the other hand, you need to have a goalie on the other end of your brain that’s able to take these ideas and knock them out of the way if they don’t fit the aesthetic you’re going for, but still let the good ones through. It’s important to decide which state you’re currently in — you can’t be creative and edit at the same moment. It’s important to try things without letting the judgmental voice in sometimes, and other times it’s important to discard your old ideas in favor of better ones

For me there are three kinds of styling I do:

1) Styling by Formula. I (or someone else) comes up with a particular combination that works within the 8 or 6ct pattern. Execute pattern. Adjust ever so slightly for the melody being played.

2) Styling by Vocabulary. I hear the music and something in my mind clicks and says “applejacks” or whatever would go perfectly here. Maybe it pops in because I saw it in a video that day. Maybe it pops in because it’s perfect. Maybe it’s random.

3) Styling by Impulse. The kind that can’t be predicted. Pure magic created from impulse and joy.

The third is particularly interesting to me. They are the moments I live for in social dance. How do they happen? I’ve delved into this question pretty thoroughly. I’ve come up with a couple of ideas on how to find these moments more often.

a) Flow State. According to Wikipedia, flow state is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.

In other words, sometimes you get good at something AND you get really into it, and then good things happen. Makes sense to me. For more info, check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

b) There are only so many jazz rhythms
In studying jazz music, I’ve come across some assertions that there are only so many basic jazz rhythms. I’ve seen different numbers, but 128 is one that I’ve seen thrown around. This would make a certain amount of sense if we accept that the basic subdivision on a beat is in 2 parts (1 & 2 & 3…), and a phrase is 8 beats. We’d get about 128 permutations we could make in that series. Of course musicians will argue that beats can be divided in 3s, 4s, and 5s, so really there are a lot more combinations, but we could also call many of those more “swung” versions of a “1 &” variation, or too complex to have a vintage jazz feel. At any rate, we know that there are certain rhythms we can feel coming up. We can get into the soloist’s head as we dance and feel where the voice is going. And it’s an important between a lead/follow pairing that we are both there in that place mentally, in unspoken agreement, or finding styling together will be difficult.

This is precisely why I love dancing to musicians who love the same music we do. They listen to Bechet, Armstrong, Teagarden, etc, and the things that they solo make good sense for Lindy Hop.

c) We Predict the Future.
Let me explain. I came across some different research that says that we humans have evolved to see a few seconds (exactly 2 seconds, which is one 8 count at 240BPM, interestingly) into the future. It’s the reason we can hit a baseball, avoid danger, etc. This is a pretty instinctive quality, and I think that it’s one of the reasons that most of us have more magic moments social dancing than we have in competition. We’re more in touch with the primordial parts of our mind when we’re relaxed. I also think this is one part of our consciousness that is easier to access when our life is in order, or we’re particularly happy.

For more information on the predictive nature of the brain, check out these links. I promise you won’t be disappointed

Multiple threads of thought

An interesting thought came to me from the world of West Coast Swing. One instructor said that follows “drive the car that is the dance” while leaders are just “direction-giving passengers.” I pondered this one for a while, and I think it’s an interesting strategy to employ. I think it’s a stronger analogy that the one that I’ve often heard, which is that the follower “is” the car, and the leader drives them — which seems just wrong from the perspective of gender politics, but also very uni-directional in terms of communication.

One of my big pet peeves is people who say “I can follow anything as long as the leader is leading”, or the corollary thought “I just zone out when I follow”. We all accept that leading is an active state of thought, but so is following, in my opinion. Both people have to come to the dance with a pretty active thought process. In fact, I think that the best thought process I’ve come up with is dual for leaders and followers.

The lead must always think these thoughts at the same time, with no order of preference.

  1.  What movement can I do next that will match the music and my sense of Lindy Hop aesthetic
  2.  Does my follow seek a more open movement/connection next, or more defined movement next?

Bottom line, good leading is ALSO good listening. Not just giving out directions.

The follow should have these thought processes going, in no particular order of preference. (granted, I am not a follow, so I don’t feel my sense of this is as refined, but I do know what I feel from truly great social dancers.)

  1. What do I want to do right here in the music
  2. What if the lead overrides that, how will I follow in such a way that is true to what they led?

In my opinion, the follows I enjoy dancing with exercise their own agency over the music just as much as they have reaction to what I’m trying to telegraph to them.

Open vs. Closed leading

Many of you have heard of open vs closed leading, but for the sake of completeness I want to touch on it. I certainly did not invent this concept, but I love it so much. The way that we lead and follow can have a “dial” wherein we chose to move in complete unison, valuing the lead/follow relationship (closed), or we can move on our own, connecting loosely and feeling free to prioritize our own interpretations, while loosely following what is going on as far as figures (open). This is a range, not a binary state. And both partners can have a say in where the dial is.

What really makes this interesting is that we can traverse through many gradients of this idea in a single song. We can also ask our partners to move the dial as we dance. For instance, a follow can ask me for more space, or can ask me for more lead within a song. I can show different levels of desiring connection as a lead. This idea can be taken out into some pretty amazing extensions, and I think it’s worth exploring pretty heavily. When I dance with people that use this strategy, I find that we have a much more bilateral communication, and many more magic moments.

Using your phrases to help style

Like Louis Armstrong said, there’s a big difference between free form and no form at all. There are some structures we can look to in the music. We all know that whole grouping of four 8-counts that’s so common in swing music. I think that using very open leading on the 4th is sort of a magic formula for styling. It’s also quite in line with how a lot of trad / chunky music feels, and it’s a nice way to honor both the improvisational personal style elements and the partnering elements of the dance. As a starting point: three 8-count moves, and then make the jazz happen. Try dancing a whole song where every fourth 8-count is very “open”. Obviously it’s too simplistic to do ALL the time, but its a great way to start developing communication around styling.

The Confluence

The one thing that styling and lead and follow have in common is that they both require being in the moment. They require practice, and there is no wrong or right, just a “norm” that we create socially. It’s also something we develop with the people we dance with most. I see a trend in many competitions of judges rewarding long-standing partnerships. I think this is the result of how much two people can really get into sync, and very relevant to the current discussion around trying to see more social dance in Strictlys.

Dancing is an art form, one which we much work at, study, and learn to enjoy with people who practice the art differently than us, even if the most magic will come from those who see things the way that we do. It requires training our eye, setting standards for ourself, relentless practice, and the willingness to try things that don’t work so that you can discover what does work. When I see someone who has mastered these, the line between audience, dancer, and music is blurred. Like some kind of crazy window into the soul. It’s inspiring to watch and even more magical to feel on one’s own.

Inspired by: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, and a couple of decades of ups and downs on the dance floor.

I’m honestly quite interested in what other people have found on this topic. If you have thoughts on styling in the context of lead and follow, leave them below!