This blog installment isn’t for everyone. This is for the people who now, or sometimes feel like the swing scene isn’t great to them, or for them, at least for some period of time. People who love dancing but get burned out on the politics, the hypocrisy, the groupthink or just the pettiness of some people.
When a person leaves the swing scene for a period of time, or forever, often only their close friends know why. There is no data for scene organizers to look at. There is no exit interview. There is no single reason why people leave, and that makes it hard to fix things. I suspect the reasons are far more numerous than anyone can guess, and that they are more nuanced than one blog can handle, they are not always negative, but often are. I suspect the reasons are unique and complicated, but I want to let you know you aren’t alone in those feelings. This is a blog for people who love dancing and people who love jazz music, but don’t find, or are having trouble with, finding a home in their scene. Maybe a small percentage of my readers can relate.
I love dancing, and it’s taken a lot for me to hang onto that love at times. Other times I’ve felt blessed to feel things that I think only a few people get to feel. For me, going to a dance or an event is usually the most joyous thing in the world. Your friends are there, and they feel like your swing dance family, not just acquaintances. You’re met with hugs and handshakes and warm feelings, and you leave thinking it all ended too quickly. Other times, you might start to well up with anxiety, you might even feel like going out dancing is work. If you’ve ever felt that, this blog is for you. In an effort to figure out what causes these feelings, I started making a list of things that spurred negative vibes for me. These are a few:
- I am working more than others to make dancing happen in my city, and not getting enough appreciation for it. AKA burnout.
- I feel that my scene favors younger people, single people, beautiful people, superficial people, or competitively successful people over other humans. I feel like I’m on the outside of that social group.
- I have a recently ended relationship where there are bad feelings on one or both sides.
- I’ve recently done poorly at a competition, or feel that I was not given a fair result in a competition.
- There has been recent news of someone in the scene mistreating someone else in the scene.
- There are one or more competing organizations in town that are vying for the business of an already small number of people, and they’re not doing a great job of working together.
- I disagree with something about the way the scene is organized (more experienced teachers are passed over for opportunities regularly, the music panders to one crowd too much, or something of that sort).
- Someone well liked in my scene is not the wonderful human being that everyone seems to think they are, and I seem to be the only one that realizes it. (Alternate version, a high-status person has done something shitty to me).
I’ve experienced each of these. For some of these items, I have some answers. Other things I live with and have no solutions for, and that’s ok too. Other things sort themselves out with time. Not everything has an answer, and that can be frustrating. I often wonder how many others deal with the same feelings and difficulties.
Most common among local teachers. When your well is dry, life is tough. You might find yourself having to summon the will to go out dancing, or psych yourself up for a while before you get the motivation to go out. You might find yourself turning to your indulgences as a way to try to recover and build yourself back up. To much internet, stress eating, binge sleeping or the like.
You might find yourself spending more time out talking and socializing than dancing (which is not always a bad thing, though it often fills me with guilt or anxiety that I’m not dancing more). I’ve gone out to dances where I had to be there until the end because I was working (DJing, etc), with my phone set on a countdown time to when I could be at home. A definite sign to step back.
This can be the result of doing a lot of work for your scene, particularly things that most people don’t see like marketing or class planning. If you are spending more energy than you get back, this is unsustainable. The worst part is that once you’ve taken on too much, your own sense of duty and obligation will keep you going for a long long time. You might perceive drops in scene attendance if you aren’t burning the candles at both ends and picking up all the slack for everyone, so you’re constantly pushing yourself past the point at which you are able to recover, but in reality things are generally still ok even when you allow yourself to step back a bit.
I’ve been there. It sucks. You can probably even keep up your current pace for months or even years, with your wherewithal and love for dancing being chipped away at on the tiniest rate so that it’s only perceptible over long periods of time.
Often I’ve found that the only way this gets better is if _you_ take care of _you_. It sounds obvious, but you must delegate, and step back, because you have to be appreciated for your work in order for it to be rewarding. Sadly, I’ve seen that it is often only when you step back that people really appreciate you.
If dancing is your main source of income, you might also try to find time that you can purchase back. For instance getting a cleaning service for your home, or using a flyering service for your class instead of doing it yourself.
You might also have to do the difficult exercise of analyzing what things your are doing that take a lot of effort for very little reward. It’s the 80/20 rule: 80% of your effort is resulting on 20% of your returns. Teams can be this way, working for a non-profit org, or starting up a fledgling venue. As hard as it may be, sometimes it is necessary to let go of that dance night, class, or team in order to preserve your own well being and to allow you the time to do the dance activities that make you happy and keep you nurtured.
Takeaway? Stop doing things you don’t get appreciated for, as hard as that is. Don’t be a hero.
Your creative well has run dry
When you find that you’ve outgrown your local community, yourself feeling like an outsider in your local community you can step back and take advantage of this time to develop your own creative faculty until you are ready to come back. For me, my outlet is Tango and Jazz Manouche. I’ve also dabbled in drawing, writing, piano, and woodworking. Sometimes, trying to continue dancing through these times is like dating someone who doesn’t like you all that much.
Creativity and inspiration feeds on itself in that way – if you are inspired in one area of your life, it’ll bring perspective and ideas to another part. No hobby should ever feel like a drag. If it does, you can step back until your own sense of purpose returns. I know this can be hard if you are committed to teaching during a time of low inspiration, but it’s also advisable to occasionally stray off the syllabus and talk about something that makes you passionate, or excited. And, it will humanize you in front of your students. If class feels like a drag to you, your students will feel it as well.
Takeaway? Secure your oxygen mask before assisting others. Take in extra influences, feed your creative soul.
The superficial scene problem
Dancing can be a very superficial place, it’s true. The fact that our view into everyone else’s life on social media is their edited version — filtered, photoshopped and curated — doesn’t help.
I read a recent online discussion where one dancer suggested that “anyone over 35 is automatically creepy, and has no business attending dances”. Ouch.
Recently in a stable relationship? You might find that suddenly less people want to dance with you. Similarly, I’ve had high level instructors literally trip over me to flirt with my partner, ignoring me.
Big contest winner? It changes how people look at you, and it’s both intoxicating and fleeting.
Lindy Hop has enjoyed a particularly superficial era as of late, especially since competitions have become the main draw of events.
Takeaway? Ideals are just that… Ideal. But people are complicated. Step away as needed.
Ra-ma-ro-ma-ma indeed. Love is great until it isn’t. People break up. There are thousands of blogs about about love and romance and break ups, but most of those people live in a world where, after a breakup, they will never run into their significant other. With dancing, unless you live in a huge scene, you’re going to see them again. Maybe even multiple times a week. This can be really tough.
Love is complicated and I don’t have a lot of answers, but I do want to take a moment to advocate for mental health professionals. I know that for some people, there is still some stigma around therapy. Going to therapy doesn’t mean you are a bad or faulty human being, it doesn’t make you mentally ill, the same way taking a private lesson doesn’t make you a bad dancer. In fact, it will give you functional ways of looking at the world, and coping mechanisms for the feelings you are feeling. Seeking help for emotional pain is the opposite of unhealthy, it’s the most healthy thing you can do. And it’s the best way to deal with a world where you’re going to run into your ex a few times a month at least, and watch their life move on without you. The tricks, really, are to accelerate the healing process instead of speaking or acting out of pain, and to treat something difficult with maturity.
1) Skip the part where you tell everyone all the terrible things about them. They’ve wronged you and you wronged them, in some amount. If you are a bystander, remember that people in pain are prone to hyperbole. Almost anyone can convince themselves that they were treated poorly in a relationship. The more immature, the louder they’ll speak about it. Caveat, do tell other people about genuinely abusive people.
2) Get distance. Whatever that means for you. Stop dancing together for a while if you can help it. Stop following one another on social media if you can.
3) Take time to heal. The rule I’ve often heard, and had success with is 1/4 the length of the relationship. If it’s longer, you might be dealing with a deeper issue.
4) Start being friends again slowly by feeling things out with a dance here and there. Keep it light, and return to step 2 if it feels terrible. Remember that even though your lives are now on different paths, at one time, that person was very important to you. The best way to honor a past relationship is to wish them all the happiness in their new life that you can.
As a bystander to breakups in the scene, try to remain neutral. There are two sides to every story. I’ve observed all levels of hyperbole, and often the truth of the matter is much less dramatic than the tender-hearted exes would have you believe. When the anger subsides, you’ll be glad that you didn’t make an enemy for nothing. The thing is, it’s easy for anyone to convince themselves they were the wronged one in a relationship, and people like to tell those stories, but it doesn’t make the other person evil, or even wrong.
Takeaway? I don’t have one. Love hurts, life goes on.
The importance of unconditional acceptance.
Not everyone is going to like you. Sometimes, people will treat you poorly, mostly as a reflection of how they feel about themselves, but often they just do what they do, and there’s no point in trying to figure out why. Most of us learned this lesson in grade school, and sometimes the swing scene does feel a bit like high school. But, we all need a place where we feel loved, accepted, and supported. Let me repeat that: You NEED a place to feel loved and accepted. Some people call this “finding your tribe”.
I discovered an interesting facet of this when talking to a friend who always seemed to be happy when they came out dancing. Scene politics never touched them. There was always a smile on their face. I spoke to them over the years, and they talked a lot about their personal spirituality. They felt unconditionally loved and accepted by their god, their church and their church friends. It clicked for me, they always had a place where they felt loved. Why worry about the swing scene when you have that family, community and safety net somewhere else?
You need to find this for yourself if you don’t have it within the swing scene. A place where people can be honest but kind, a place where you aren’t judged by your worst, but instead encouraged to be your best. It could be a friend group, it could be a church group, it could be a good relationship or a support group. Without this, you’ll be worn down by people who say negative things, and you’ll fall prey to negative self image. Most people that I know have one or two people that are “against” them, and hundreds that love them, but they feel like the world is equally for and against them. One person against you can feels as powerful as 100 people who are for you.
In my experience, African dance classes are great for finding a tribe. Music jams, spiritual groups, and support groups offer alternatives as well. Therapy is good for putting yourself in the right place to meet new people. One final yet important thought is: Find your tribe in person, the internet is fraught with terse, misunderstood communication.
Takeaway? Having 5 good friends is better than 700 acquaintances. Everyone has friction at times, and it usually feels more severe than it is. Accentuate the positive.
How to lose with grace
Competitions are a big deal these days. While they will always exist, I don’t think they will always carry the weight they do now. When you put yourself out there, the numbers aren’t in your favor, only one couple/person can walk away with a first place. Losing with grace is a skill. The only times I’ve seen a person blow off a loss easily is if they were severely outclassed, i.e. they had no chance whatsoever of winning, or they were competing in a dance they barely knew. In other words, we all take it hard when we lose, no matter how we present to the outside world.
We take it pretty hard when we fail in front of our friends, or we feel that nerves and anxiety kept people from seeing our best. The more meaning we place on a contest or placement, the harder it is on us when we fail.
Some things to remember if you’ve lost a competition
- Not that many people remember who won what, and when. If they do, and they use that knowledge to decide who to be friends with, you may not want their friendship.
- It’s not going to make or break your “career”. There are many ways to provide value to your community and to the art form that do not involve winning competitions.
- Losing will push you to work harder, and that’s always a good thing. You can always do more to be better at dancing.
- Judges often place people higher that they interact with more often. You can look at any placement sheet and see that judges tend to place people from their hometown or home country somewhat higher than others. In fact, in many competitive pursuits, it is against the rules to take a private lesson with a judge at an event weekend, for just that reason.
- People who’ve won things recently tend to get higher placements. It makes it kind of a closed loop. At a national level, you can see that people affluent enough to travel often are rewarded competitively.
- Audience judged contests are 100% popularity contests. Human judged applause are also errant. I’ve sat with an iPhone decibel meter in the audience, and watched the “judges” give the title to the wrong person on more than one occasion. Audience judged contests are usually biased. e,g this.
- If you are giving to your community in terms of organizing, teaching or venue promoting 360 days a year, you might not be in the winner’s circle. At least not the one at that competition. Realize that you won by giving to others. Being good at dancing is essentially a selfish process. It requires taking the time from other things to practice, reducing how much you dance with people below your skill level, and dancing more with people above your skill level. I’d rather dance with people of all levels, and be a valuable community member, than a rock star. I only have the energy to pursue one at a time.
Takeaway? Competitions are for fun. Don’t do them if you can’t blow off how subjective they really are.
Scene politics and competitive upstarts
We live in a rat race for social capital. Sometimes I think that 50% of people who dance would like to turn it into a career. I certainly have spent a fair chunk of my life teaching, performing and organizing as a part or majority of my living. It’s equal parts the worst, and the best job I’ve ever had. Until you’ve dealt with week after week of being on airplanes, flight delays, crying babies, little sleep, jet lag and people who expect you to be “on” every second of the day, it’s hard to understand what being a travelling teacher is like. I really have high respect for people who travel and teach for a living. Local teaching is also difficult. There’s no end to the things local teachers deal with. In the last month alone I’ve dealt with:
- That one student that won’t dance with people of the same sex in class.
- The student who teaches other students in class no matter how many times you mention that they shouldn’t.
- Confrontational questions.
- Bluetooth-headset-taking-during-class person.
- Late comers (like 45 mins into an hour lesson) students who want you to catch them up on “what they missed”.
- Non-rotating couple.
- The complainer about lead-follow balance.
Really, being a local teacher is a lot of unpaid emotional labor. It’s a lot of marketing, a lot of cat-wrangling, and a lot of customer service. It is not rare for an individual or group of people put in months, even years, of arduous work to build a scene or a school and only once their efforts start to bear fruit, others try to piggyback on all that hard work.
If you run a team, a dance, or a set of classes, know that someone much less experienced will eventually come along and start something up. This can make you feel pushed out, disrespected, outdated or unappreciated.
The thing you want to do is to trust that people will eventually recognize that your experience and dedication makes you a superior value. In my experience, people see good, passionate teachers that care about their students, and they come back to them. If they don’t then well, that’s how things are. There’s no guarantees in the dance business. In other industries they call this the “barrier to entry”, and it is low in dance teaching. All you need is a flyer and a floor space and pretty much anyone with a triple step and $50 can start into the business.
Takeaway? If you want to start a dance venture, market to new people if you don’t want to anger others. If you have a dance business, you can’t own the whole city, or protect your clientele. You’re never done marketing or building your business. You must continue to provide value in the face of competition.
Living with the shitty people in the scene / I’ve been wronged
This is a big topic, One I tried to take on here, a bit. I don’t want to go over all the ways that people can do terrible things, or what to do about it here. I just want you to know you aren’t ever alone, nor do you have to just shut up and take it.
A lot of bad people have been outed for being bad people in the scene over the last few years. But still, lots of people get a pass.
I’ve seen one rapist get thrown out of the scene forever because they were kind of a jerk to a lot of people, and another rapist get a pass because they are mostly amenable and people like them. I’ve seen one venue refuse to ban a multi-time accused rapist because “the police weren’t involved”, and a whole community turn a blind eye because the venue is popular. People don’t always do what’s right, they *sometimes* do what’s right, and that’s hard to stomach if you are the one absorbing the mistreatment. People should be held accountable for their actions regardless of popularity.
I’ve seen one pushy coercive individual get banned because they are a jerk, but another gets a pass because they are successful, throw lots of money at things, and are well liked by many.
I know of several very liked people who don’t know when flirting is just flirting, and they press on. I’ve watched it happen, and it sucks to see, especially if the person they flirted with a little too hard doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it.
I’ve see one abusive individual talked about over social media constantly, and another get a pass excuse their friends are “Linderati” and they are charming and passionate. Some of the biggest misogynists in practice that I know are some of the loudest proponents of feminism on the internet.
These are not theoretical people. These are actual individuals in my life, at events I attend and in my social newsfeeds. We call out some and not others, and it mostly has to do with popularity. We find it easier to take action when people are kind of jerks all the time, and we find ourselves torn when people are complicated or popular, or have touched our lives in some other unrelated way.
But take heart, someone besides you knows. Often popular people in the Lindy Hop scene pretend to like everyone, but if you look around for others who appear to be a little less in the center of all the social activity, chances are that they see who the real jerks are too.
Takeaway? Bad people exist in every walk of life. Each of us needs to be vocal and direct and ask each other to look deeply at how we treat others. We are not a perfect scene, but we are an introspective one, and chances are more people know about the bad people than you think.
Feeling like your scene sucks right now
We all go through periods where the music is too fast, too slow, too Charlestony, too pandering to the beginners. We’ve all lived through phases of scenes where things are strange, change is happening, or where lack of available talent in the scene forces some fairly inexperienced people to take the helm, and learn from experience.
If you’re feeling stuck and uninspired, take time to visit other types of music venues. Sometimes chance and fate can be very kind. Once, when I first moved to a new city I decided to go dancing at all the other venues (besides the main one) for a few months. It ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me.
Leaving old things behind can be both good and bad. Out of discomfort with my local scene, one night I opted to go to a small live music venue instead of the main dance venue, and there was a band playing. It was a swing inspired band but they played other music too. Among the other people that came that night was a tango couple, a famous sax player, and a tap dancer. We danced a swing song, the tango couple tangoed a song, the sax player sat in with the band a song, the tap dancer improvised along for the following song, then we did it all over again several times. We ended up putting on an impromptu show for each other. Sometimes life pushes you into new situations, and that can be a great thing. Embracing change makes space for new things, which can be very uncomfortable, but also a beautiful thing too.
Takeaway? Dance in other places. Support live music. Explore the larger world of jazz, because it exists.
I feel that I haven’t even touched on 1/2 the reasons why people fail to find a home in the swing scene, or get pushed out, or don’t find others they can relate to. Just know that I too feel like an outsider much of the time. I see other outsiders, and if we all recognize each other, then we won’t be outsiders any longer. Remember to always hang on to your love of dancing above all, because everything else changes. I’ve come back because of some genuinely good friends and magical moments. I think that sometimes things feel a lot worse than they actually are. We’re all constantly growing and changing, and others are too. Find forgiveness for others, and for yourself as well. Don’t hold back when if comes to telling others when you like them, respect them or appreciate them. Many thanks to Natalia Rueda for thoughtful edits.
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