Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Music and Lyrics - Dancing with the Fourth Partner

Often in a workshop you will hear the instructors talking about the 3rd partner - the music. It's all about learning to take the nuances of the music and learning how to express what you hear in your dance. Perhaps the music goes up a few notes - so you may show that as a slight rise in your step. Or there is a series of staccato (rapid) beats - so you may take a few quick steps to match that beat. If the general tone of the music is flowy, you make your dance float and keep everything smooth.

Many people "hear" the vocals as just another part of the music. It can be interesting to watch 2 people dance to the same piece - one is hitting all the musical points while the other is following the patterns set out by the vocals. Both are completely legitimate, and can be fun to watch. Yet when you watch the Pros in competition, there is something more (beyond their great technique, shaping, personal style, etc) that draws the crowds to their feet - and that is when they dance to the the lyrics.

When I talk to other dancers about this, I often get the reply "I don't hear the lyrics - I just dance to the music". WOW!!!!!! To me, that is like having Hot Apple Pie without the Ice Cream, a Baked Potato without Butter and Sour Cream, or London Battered Fish without the Tartar Sauce! Yes - you can eat all the above without their companion foods, but together you get a much yummier meal!

I am one of those dancers that hears EVERYTHING - at least as long as it is clear and not overshadowed by the music (which sadly often happens nowadays). Anyone who dances with me knows I lip synch like crazy and I often do things that make my leader look at me as if I have two heads....I know then that I am dancing with someone who doesn't hear the lyrics! I am fortunate - hearing what is being said comes easily to me and I memorize songs pretty quickly after first hearing them.

So - how DOES one start to hear the lyrics if it does not come naturally to you? There are several things you can do to train your ear, or at least to give you more to work with.

  1. Download and listen to 5-10 of the most popular songs that you are currently dancing to and play them at every opportunity that you can. Your car is a perfect place for this. Start to try to sing along with it....you will probably notice the chorus first. That is the part that repeats several times during the song. Get to know that part first....it's a safe place to start to play. Start with music that is slow and has a gentler groove like California Dreamin and Layla (Links to my top 10 favorites for learning are found in this blog). These two are part of the staple diet of most DJ's and are a safe bet for the beginner.
  2. Still can't understand what they are saying??? Download the lyrics from the internet. www.lyricsbox.comwww.metrolyrics.com, and www.lyrics.com are just a few of the many sites where you can find all the words to any reasonably popular song.Then, read the lyrics as you play the song a few times. Even though I hear the lyrics, there are many songs where parts are less clear to me - and I will search the lyrics to fill the gaps in the song for me. And beware - you may be surprised and/or shocked at some of the lyrics! Try singing the lyrics with the words in front of you so you really get a feel for where it all fits in.
  3. This is where it gets fun. Anytime you are listening to the music, start to imagine what you can do to hit different parts of the lyrics. I do this all the time in my car. And yes, I DO get some odd looks sometimes! If you are at home, try "hitting" a certain phrase or pick out some part of the theme of the song and play with that. At first you may feel odd and awkward, but that is the only way to get to become comfortable with anything new. If you are there, then GREAT! You are well on your way to learning something new...'cause you certainly won't learn it by wishful thinking!!!
  4. If you have a practice partner, get them to do all this too, then meet up and just play with what you each hear. Even with both of you knowing the lyrics, you will likely be drawn to express different parts of the song, or you will interpret the song differently. This is another great tool to your creativity - mimicking what your partner....I don't know how many new moves I have got this way!
  5. Go to Youtube and watch the Pros dance to a piece of music. If you really like their interpretation, download that song AND the lyrics, then go back and watch it again with the lyrics in front of you. Practice picking out when they are interpreting the lyrics, and when they are following the music.
Watch this version with Kyle Redd and Patty Vo to Secret. Yes - it's taken to quite the extreme, and you may not feel comfortable with going quite this far, but I think it is a great example of just how many places that this couple brought the LYRICS  in to their dance. (link to lyrics here)

So many places where they took a piece of the lyrics and had FUN with them! "Watch the Sunrise" ..."Jump outta my seat" , "I'm driving fast now" , and "but I want you so bad". This is one of the main reasons that so many of us are drawn to WCS - because we see the better dancers taking the musical interpretations to places we could never do in any other partnered dance. 

When you DO start to hear the lyrics -  invite them in to your dance. Play with them. Take risks with them. Have fun with them! After all, isn't that what dancing is all about????

Edit: A few weeks after I wrote this Robert Royston and Jill Demarco showed exactly how it is done at Swing Diego to the song "Stroken by Clarence Carter. Take a look at this, google the lyrics if you need to so that you really get just how well they are playing to the fourth partner, and enjoy!

Thanks to CJ Henry and everyone else who contributed to the content of this blog! And apologies for the randomness of the placement of the song links - I can't seem to get them to just line up :^(

    Saturday, April 9, 2011

    Life Lessons I've learned from WCS

    West Coast Swing, and partnered dancing in general, brings out many challenges and issues for each individual dancer. This can be in the form of dealing with our self-image and confidence, boundaries and social skills, and much, much more.

    I firmly believe that this wonderful dance of ours, West Coast Swing, has the capacity to teach each and every one of us so much about who we are and how powerful we can be. The lessons we learn on the dance floor can be taken back to our homes, our workplaces, and all other areas of our lives. What do I mean by that??

    We have a safe place to practice taking risks and to learn to be ok with looking goofy.
    • I can’t remember how many Pros I have heard say “You gotta go through goofy and ugly to get to cool and sexy”. Given that we are all trying to get to the latter, we are all in good company while we work through those moves that just don’t come naturally to us. I can’t remember how many people I have heard in a beginner lesson who are convinced that they have “two left feet” who have gone on to be wonderful dancers. Thank goodness they took that risk of looking goofy and making mistakes!!! Learning to be ok with not always looking “good” and being ok with making mistakes is a powerful lesson that we can all take out in to our lives.

    We get to practice letting go of our perceptions – both of ourselves AND our partners!
    • I remember a friend telling me how she ate humble pie once when she went to her first weekend and saw a guy who she thought “didn’t look like a dancer” and decided to “be kind” and ask him to dance…only to be totally swept of her feet and brought back down to earth in one of her best dances of the weekend. How many people do you meet every day who you create an opinion of before you have really gotten to know them?

    We form partnerships with friends and strangers alike for three and a half minutes where we take a piece of music and create something that we could never have imagined before the first note was played.
    • There are not many places where people can get together to play, to flirt, and to generally be vulnerable with a stranger of the opposite sex (or not!) with no worries that their actions will be taken as an invite for something – er – more…. Many dancers are people who got tired of the “bar scene” and all the drama that goes with that territory, yet they still wanted an outlet for their passion to move to music. (I am one of those people!) Aren’t we so lucky to have this place to express this part of who we are?? Where else can you practice bringing playfulness and joy to a situation?

    We learn how to be sensitive to the smallest signals from another.
    • Robert Royston’s mantra of the 3 types of lead (Physical, Visual, and Body Language) can be applied to the dance of life. The best dancers learn to share in the conversation, rather than to dominate it. Great leaders learn to adjust their dance to the abilities and confidence of the follower, choosing moves that compliment her rather than moves that make them (the leader) “look good”. Great followers learn how to relinquish control while adding what they hear to the conversation, sorta like adding the seasoning and embellishments that makes a well prepared meal to gourmet status. Hmmm…where else can we practice these skills in our lives??

    We are so fortunate to have this wonderful dance. For anyone who is considering West Coast Swing (and partnered dance in general), all I can say is, JUST DO IT. Let go of what you feel “should be” and be patient and kind to yourself. For those who have been dancing for some time, consider where you can take the lessons of the dance floor out into to your life.

    See YOU on the dance floor!!!

    Friday, April 8, 2011

    Roomshares and Rideshares: Communication is Key!

    Given the rising costs of gas and accommodations, dancers are looking more and more to share rides and/or rooms to dances and events. In our area, I am fortunate to have my wingman, Jun Ogata, to help me with organizing these things for our dancers. Between us we have a large number of contacts both inside and outside our group which makes it possible for us to help to hook people up who are looking to save money and our natural resources.

    This last (Boston Tea Party) weekend I heard from a number of people who had roommates drop out within 48 hrs of the dance (one had TWO of her 4 roomies ditch at the last minute), change minds, and/or mis-communicate causing last minute scrambles to the person holding the room. This causes bad feelings all around and puts hardship in dancers who are often going to events on a shoestring.

    Whether you are working directly with a group of people that you know, or you are going through an intermediary like Jun, there are some things that need to be kept in mind.

    1) If someone turns you down as a roommate at a weekend, don't take it personally. We each have our preferences and needs when it comes to rooming: room temperature, bedshares (some people like to sleep alone in the bed, others are ok with sharing their bed), same sex vs mixed sex roommates, social issues (party room vs quiet room), scent allergies (if the person can't tolerate hairspray/perfumes/etc), etc etc etc. Given that we are often in that space for 3-4 days, the better "fit" that you can find, the better... over the course of that time, little things can become less tolerable as we get more sleep deprived! It doesn't mean that the person doesn't like you, it just means that they know their own limits and needs. It's better to find a place where everyone will come out of the weekend happy with their rooming arrangements, believe me!

    2) In either case, make sure you are VERY CLEAR in your communication about where you stand. If you are on the fence about someone rooming with you, be clear about that. Perhaps you have someone that you already promised to hold a space for, who has not got back to you, so you cannot commit that bed to anyone else. Or (as in my case) you are holding out until closer to the date to keep a space open for last-minute people who have not booked a room at all. I often keep my room open as long as possible for those who suddenly find they can come, so if a person already has a room, I try to hook them up with other people first, and if we don't fill either room, we can drop a room a few days before and join up. When I do that, I make it very clear that my space is a *maybe* to anyone who I feel I can help find a space elsewhere. Once you say YES, please don't change your mind, or if you must, offer to promise to help them find another place.

    3) Pay your fair share please! With rooms, it is common to split the room equally amongst the occupants, but don't forget to leave your fair share of the tip for the maid, (Especially if you have kept them busy with requests for extra towels, toilet paper, etc!!). I often find that people totally forget this part. Also, if you are doing a rideshare, don't forget that the person is incurring not only gas expenses, but tolls and wear and tear on their car. If they won't let you pay what you think is fair, then buy them a coffee or something at the rest stop (esp if they won't let you drive!) Karma baby, Karma!!!!

    4) If someone outside the room/car that you are in helps you find a room/ride, THANK THEM!!!!! I know for a fact that Jun puts in countless hours organizing our local group trips. I often post on Facebook that we need help finding a place for someone in our group - I have the contacts, they don't. I really don't mind, but it IS nice to have someone recognize that I made the effort for them.

    Communication is KEY in any situation, and mis-communication causes angst and upset that is unwanted and totally avoidable. Sometimes it isn't 100% comfortable to say NO to someone but it sure beats the stress that comes with the mess caused by a vague agreement. We dance because it brings us JOY - lets do what we can to create JOY in every other place in our lives!

    Dealing with the DJ: We are trying our best to keep EVERYONE happy, honest!!!

    I want to address something that came up from several people, and that is the subject of the dance music. DJing music is not an easy task. You need to find a mixture of music genres and speeds to try to keep everyone (or almost everyone) happy. I had 3 people say that they didn't like the music - one wanted more "up beat" music, one wanted more Blues, one wanted more slow, "flowy" music. I had gone to great pains to split the music almost 50/50 blues and contemporary, as well as slow/fast (with a lean towards medium-slow as the evening was so warm). I guess it was a night that I just wasn't going to win - it happens :^/

    If there is a Pro then I also have to take into account if he/she has a very full "dance card". If the Pro has people lining up for dances, I try to play shorter pieces. Robert Royston and Terry Roseborough danced with well over 30 people at their workshops AFTER a full day of teaching. For you Blues lovers, sorry, but most blues music is longer (4-5 minutes) as opposed to contemporary (3-4 minutes).

    I can almost promise you that there will be music each night that you won't like. Some nights it may be more than others. If you are having one of those nights where you are just not feeling the music, you can ALWAYS come and make a request....if I have it, I will usually play it (although I still retain the right to say no if I really think it won't go down well, in which case we will find something you like, promise!)

    I am happy to take feedback, and will try to incorporate it in to my future dances. To anyone who feels they can do better, I say volunteer at something like the HVCD dances and see for yourself how difficult it can be!

    Images and Perceptions: Partnering Skills

    Last week I DJ'd once again for Bob And Dave's Tuesday Night Dance in Albany. Afterwards we all went out to a local diner to hang and chat and grab a bite to eat. During the conversation, the topic of dance floor etiquette came up, most specifically with how we perceive the intent of our partner. Having sat in on many-a-conversation about this, there are often one or two people in each community who just continue to come up in conversations (sometimes around this subject, other times around teaching on the dance floor...the two biggest subjects that come up around dance floor etiquette). And having known most of those people, I am sure that 99% of the time how they are being perceived is NOT how they think they are acting!!!!

    WCS tends to be a fun, flirty, and often sensual dance. However, we need to keep in mind that HOW we flirt and HOW MUCH we flirt with depends very much on the person we are dancing with. Learning to read body language when you are dancing with someone will carry you a loooong way!

    LEADERS: If you try to bring a follower in to a "close closed" position and she firmly puts her hand on your arm to create space between you, LET HER HAVE THAT SPACE!!!! AND continue to give her space for the rest of that dance (and any in the future, at least until you are both more comfortable with each other). Trying to force her to stay in close-closed will only end up with her avoiding dancing with you in the future. And you may become the topic of a late-night diner chat. And you DON'T want to be that guy!!! Many people (most especially women) have differing comfort levels around their personal space with a person who is not their "partner". Give them that space and you will have a dance partner for life.

    ALL DANCERS: Again, watch how your partner is dancing with you. If you do some kind of a flirty move, and they look at you and smile, then GREAT! Maybe do it again at a future dance. However, if they look away, frown, or start that "space-creating frame", back off and save it for another day. Beginner dancers can be especially sensitive to this as they don't always realize that we are really just having fun and playing with the music (especially if it is a flirty song!). Give them time to get used to the nature of our dance!

    Finally, most of us have gone through the phase where we THINK we are doing a move the way the pros do it (especially with body isolations) and what we look like is NOT what we THINK we look like. Some of these moves can be perceived as "gyrations" if not done right, which may be mis-read by your partner. The best advice I can give you here is two-fold.

    1) Get a video of yourself dancing. Yeah - it can be downright scary and depressing (I STILL hate watching myself on camera) but you will quickly learn what move - many that you may think are your COOLEST moves - that you either want to omit from your dancing or that you need help from a professional on to get it to look like what you *think* you are doing right now. That leads me to

    2) Get professional help. Even if you are only a social dancer, it doesn't hurt to take a private once in awhile to work on your dance. After all, the better dancer you are, the more people will want to dance with you! And don't we all want to be that person who can't get off the dance floor without being asked for another dance (rather than chasing partners all over the floor or sitting on the side!)? Often I hear dancers saying that they really like "X" but they don't like dancing with them because they do "Y"... and that thing is often a simple fix that you are not aware of. If finances are an issue, ask one or two people to share the private with you. This works for everyone as you now have someone to tell you when you fall back to your old habits.

    Olofactory facts: When a little bit o' "Smell Good" is too much!

    Whilst I know that we all want to "smell good" for our dance partners, it has been brought to my attention (and been my personal experience) that some people wear a LOT of cologne/perfume. Now, I am sure that to these people, it is not much, but for some, even a small amount will smell overpowering, and can even cause strong reactions including asthmatic attacks, and at the very least is can be just as unpleasant as "BO".

    Please keep this in mind when you are spritzing yourself before a dance....if you are not sure, ask a few friends if your cologne seems strong. If even one finds it overpowering, you may want to cut back or switch to another brand. Your partners will thank you for it!

    Happy Dancing Everybody!

    Teaching on the Dance Floor: Helpful or Hurtful?

    So another issue was brought to my attention after this last dance - and that is around not teaching on the dance floor and practicing kindness and patience with more novice/beginner dancers.

    I think that part of the issue is that we have to remember each of us comes to the dance with different "issues" - things that can trigger us to feel insecure, incompetent, frustrated, or whatever. The newer the dancer, the more likely that these things might get triggered. And teaching on the dance floor often unwittingly sets those triggers off.

    I had one of our up-and-coming dancers came to me during our dance upset and frustrated because they had been dancing with someone who said "You could be a much more desirable dancer if you did "x"". Now I am sure that the person who said that *thought* they were being kind and helpful, but it had the quite opposite effect. Fortunately I have built a good relationship with the affected dancer and I was able to talk to them about it and helped them to calm down.

    I know what it is like to be on both sides

    I remember when I first started and many-a-leader tried to tell me what I was doing "wrong" (and I hate to tell you guys - but I still dance with many of you and to be honest, looking back with what I know now, it wasn't just me who needed to "fix" something!). Fortunately I have a somewhat tough skin and I would just avoid dancing with anyone who was unkind or who constantly tried to teach me. I didn't mind a pointer here or there, and actually appreciated it if a leader re-did a move that I missed so I could "get" it. But there are many, especially followers, who will not speak up or who have not learned to deflect this kind of "help". Whether it is well-meaning or ego driven doesn't matter - in the end, if the person feels degraded or upset after, you have done a huge disservice to the community.

    I also know what it is to be in the situation where I know something that could help a dancer to "fix" something. Note to our Newbies: It is a tough spot for us more experienced dancers to be in....we all want to see our fellow dancers get better - both to make the dance easier for us to partner with them AND to make the dance more effortless and enjoyable for them. However, there is a time and place and even a way to help.
    First, you have to remember that not everybody WANTS to fix things (I know, I know, to those of us junkies, we just can't imagine why anyone would not want to keep getting better). Many are just happy where they are at. If you are dancing with that person, just remember it is 4 minutes of your time - and I find those people are great partners for me to work on some aspect of MY dance.

    Second, you might be able to approach it by saying "That "x" move feels off to me and I'm not sure if I am leading/following it right. Do you mind if we ask {x instructor} to watch and see what *I* am doing wrong?" Note: If you try this approach, be fully ready to learn that it actually is YOU that needs to fix something!!!!

    The last point here is if you are dancing with someone who needs so much correction that you feel that you might get hurt, the best thing you can do is to gracefully find a way to stop that dance - perhaps you tweaked something in your shoulder and need to let it rest. Or ride that dance out but let go at any point that you feel endangered. There will ALWAYS be those dancers who just don't want to learn the techniques that could make their dance better - THEY are having fun just exactly where they are. It is your responsibility to look out for yourself, and no more.

    Finally - just remember that we are all here to have FUN! Again, it is only 4 minutes of your time - give it graciously (as someone did for you when YOU were a beginner!) and find some aspect of that dance that you can make into a positive experience for you both - perhaps they laugh and smile a lot....or that piece of music is your favorite right now.

    And if you are that new person who got your feelings hurt by someone's "helpful" comment, remember 2 things: 1) Most of us really, REALLY just want to help, and 2) Those who "help" because of their inflated egos are not worth getting upset over.

    Instructor Ethics: Don't Put Your Instructor on the Spot!

    One dilemma that most dancers don't think about surrounds the subject of asking for help from an instructor/event organizer who is at another instructor's event. Often times we are approached by the dancers in our local group with questions about something that they are working on.

    While we are excited to see our dancers wanting to improve their dance, it puts us into an awkward position - that is, when we are at another instructor/organizer's venue, it is considered a professional courtesy that we not teach on their floor. So, what do you do if you are struggling with a move or a concept at a dance? You have a few options.

    First, you can go to the host Instructor and ask for help. This is especially important to go to them if the move you want help on is the one you just learned in their workshop! They will usually be happy to help clarify things for you.

    Second, if you have a preference for, or have been working with another Instructor who is in the room, you can wait until their next lesson to ask for help. This keeps them from getting into the awkward position of wanting to help vs wanting to respect the space and or teaching methods host Instructor.

    Note: This is just a guide: different instructors have different relationships and agreements. If you have a small thing to ask, take your instructor to the side and ask if they are available to help you then and there. If they are comfortable with helping you, great! If not, ask them to remind you that you had a question at your next visit to their studio.

    We all want to support you in your journey and growth as a dancer. Keeping this in mind when you are at a dance will help us to help you while extending a professional courtesy our colleagues. :^)

    Clique Critique: What Both Beginners and Seasoned Dancers Need to Know

    It has come to my attention that some people (mostly our newer dancers) feel that the dance can get a bit "cliquish". I want to put a few points out here:

    1) To the "seasoned" dancers - please do make an effort to dance with the new and less experienced dancers. I totally know that you want to dance with your favorite partners and friends, but without a kind soul who danced with you at some point in the past,  you wouldn't be where you are.

    2) To the "newbies" among us - there are a few things to remember here. Ladies: we are an equal opportunity community...you can ask a guy to dance here too! Don't be shy!  

    Also, in general, most of us are very happy to dance with you, but we often get caught up with being excited to see folks that we only see once a month or whatever. Again, please please please feel free to ask us. MOST of us are very happy to oblige!  When I run my dances I am often distracted by many things and I realize I missed many of you at the end of the night...again, come find me! I'm usually in the DJ corner if I'm not putting out fires! 

    And finally, don't judge how someone is dancing with you as to whether they are enjoying dancing with you. Many dancers have different ways of concentrating - some look away and others may look really mad or upset (I have been accused of both and have had to train myself to look and smile at my partner!). I promise you, most of the time it's just a habit that they are probably not aware of. Don't take it personally!  


    Hooray! I finally got my blog on!

    Recently, I have been adding thoughts to my newsletters where I have addressed things I have observed & learned over the last 8 years in the WCS world. Several people requested that I put them in a format that can be easily accessed when they come across someone who has had a question or experience that might be helped with what I have written.

    So, here we have it - my blog - my place where I will put my thoughts and musings about the wonderful world of WCS.

    The first few entries will be exact copies of the "Thought of the Week" from my past newsletters. After that, we will see where my keyboard leads me!

    If you have a thought/experience/concern that you would like addressed, contact me! I will always be glad for ideas for things to cover.

    Pamela Marshall
    Kingston, NY