Wednesday Night Hop, April 24, 2019

My DJ debut in Palo Alto had been in the works since I DJed at The Switch in San Francisco in July last year, where Lori Taniguchi was the emcee who announced me and we immediately became best friends. (If you’ve met Lori, you can understand why this would be the case. If you haven’t met Lori, suffice it to say that you need to meet her ASAP.) 

The first half of my set focused on warming up the floor and offering a variety of tempos for folks to play with.  

This particular Wednesday Night Hop had a good contingent of folks who enjoyed fast Lindy, so I played with some songs in the 170-200 range, including “Neal’s Deal” by the Boilermaker Jazz Band (of course! I love them!), “Basie Boogie” by Count Basie and His Orchestra, “Early Morning Rock” by Johnny Hodges, and “AC-DC Current” by the Benny Goodman Sextet (a piece I don’t hear often enough on the dance floor, considering its amazing Charlie Christian solos). 

Just before the announcements break and jam circle, I played “Snatch and Grab It” by Julia Lee, a tongue-in-cheek piece that is definitely about opportunity (really, trust me, it’s definitely not about butts at all). I was introduced to the song through this routine by the St. Louis Live Wires, which speaks for itself:

I need to tell you about Wednesday Night Hop’s amazing jam circle! During the first part of my set, they left a piece of paper on the DJ table with three columns: Name, Celebration, and Role. People kept walking up and writing things down, and I was so curious what it was all about – what would they do?

Before the jam (what would normally be a birthday jam in other scenes), the announcer went out in the middle of the circle with this magic piece of paper, and started reading off people’s celebrations.

It sounded like this: “Jamie is celebrating that they just sent their first novel to the publisher! Jamie is both leading and following tonight!” or “Kay is celebrating that she got accepted into a masters program! Kay would like to lead tonight!” 

Y’all, I loved it. It was such a good way to build community by getting to know what different people in the scene were up to, and it helped to clearly state and respect people’s role preferences. They were even nice enough to stick me in the jam since I was there for the first time! (Thanks to everyone who danced with me!)

After the jam, I continued my set with some more favorites from Johnny Hodges, including a light but peppy version of “I’m Beginning to See the Light” that features Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano, and “Duke’s In Bed,” an energetic song with a driving call-response between Hodges’ saxophone and the rest of the brass section.

I ended my set with a new-to-me version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with Joe Williams and Count Basie. I’m normally not a huge synth fan, but this track has the perfect amount of light, ethereal synth. It perfectly complements Joe Williams’ warm, syncopated vocals. I can’t get enough!

DJing at Wednesday Night Hop was a rad time. Their jam circle was an outstanding example of using an existing dance tradition, the birthday jam, to build a sense of community and inclusivity. Thanks for having me, Palo Alto, and I hope I get to come back soon! 

How to Tell Your Lindy Hop Partner That Something Doesn’t Feel Right

Hypothetically, it shouldn’t be that hard to tell someone you’re in pain.

Operative word: shouldn’t.

In reality, swing dancers (especially women and femme-identified ones) wrestle all the time with questions like…

“Should I tell him that his grip is really hurting my wrist?”

“How do I explain to her that she’s holding onto my shoulder too tightly?”

“My partner goes into closed position a lot, and they are holding me much closer than I want to be held right now. Should I say something?” 

There are many reasons why this is hard. A big one is that power imbalances related to gender, race, dance experience, and other social factors often make it difficult to speak up. If you feel less valuable or experienced than your dance partner, you might be hesitant to say something.

Another reason, specific to followers, is that many classes don’t offer opportunities for followers to give leaders vocal feedback about how the connection feels. Communication takes practice, and without opportunities to practice, followers are at a disadvantage when it comes to saying something about dance floor discomfort.

Yet another reason – the one that most often stops me from speaking up – is that overwhelming thought, powerful and persistent…

“This person won’t want to dance with me anymore if I tell them I’m in pain!” 

But that thought is a lie.

Dancing should not be painful. Any dance partner who cares about the dance and cares about me as a person should be motivated to make sure I’m not in pain. And if I am, they should be willing to hear me when I say so, and willing to try various options to fix it. 

What to say and how to say it

Knowing that it’s okay to say something helps. Knowing just what to say, of course, is another matter entirely.

For me, there are specific characteristics that comfort-based feedback should have: 

  • It must be brief enough to say on the dance floor, in the middle of a dance.
  • It must point to and explain the specific sensation I am feeling in my body. 
  • It must center my experience and make it clear that I am prioritizing my own comfort and safety.
  • It must give a specific suggestion for something my partner could do to alleviate the issue. 
  • It must be clear that I am not giving my partner a critique of their style or technique.
  • It must be assertive enough to overcome any power imbalances in the dance partnership, but mild enough that I will feel comfortable actually saying it on the dance floor.

Here are some comfort-based feedback statements that meet these requirements for me. They cover some of the most common issues I’ve experienced while dancing. 

  • “I’m feeling my hands getting squeezed because of how tightly you’re holding them. Could you try relaxing your grip?” 
  • “I can feel some poking from your fingertips on my lower back. Could you try flattening out your hand?”
  • “I need more space to move. Could you loosen your arm when we’re in closed position?”
  • “I tend to prefer less tension in our arm connection. Could we try lightening it up and see how that feels?”

All of these statements start with my feelings and experiences, rather than those of my partner. This helps to prepare my partner for the suggestion I’m about to offer, and makes it clear that this suggestion is coming out of an experience I’m having. 

For comparison, imagine if I were experiencing something uncomfortable, and I said this: 

“Hey, could you not dig your fingertips into my back? You’re really hurting me!”

While this is a legitimate approach, and warranted in some cases, it focuses heavily on what my partner is doing, rather than what I am feeling. It has the potential to come off as more critical, and could leave my partner with some anxiety that I am really not enjoying the dance with them. 

After I offer someone a suggestion on how to alleviate pain or discomfort for me, I like to follow up and say “Thank you, that feels really comfortable!” or something similar. That way, they know that I am still enjoying the dance, and that the adjustment they made helped fix the issue.

It might not be a one-time thing

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t take just one suggestion. All dancers have bad habits, and if your dance partner has a bad habit that is causing you pain, they might adjust it beautifully…and then slip right back into it three swingouts later! 

When this happens, I often try using nonverbal cues, like gently tapping their hand (or whatever body part) to remind them to make the adjustment again. Often, this is all it takes! 

If that’s not working, speak up again, and this time make it their job to fix the problem. Say, “I’m still feeling a lot of gripping on my shoulder. What else could we adjust to make that feel better?” If it’s a deeply ingrained habit, having to think and talk about it (while dancing!) might help them overcome it.

Why this is different from “Don’t give feedback on the dance floor”

We can get this out of the way right now – yes, I absolutely am recommending that you give your partner feedback on the dance floor. But only if you’re in pain or discomfort or don’t like what’s happening. 

“Don’t give feedback on the dance floor” is a general rule designed to keep people from correcting each other’s style and technique while social dancing. It’s intended to keep the mood of the social dance floor light and fun, rather than intently practicing what everyone learned in class that evening. 

The comfort-based feedback I’m recommending, however, is also intended to keep the mood of the social dance floor light and fun. And it has nothing to do with style or technique – we’re talking about a minimum basic requirement of social dancing, which is that it feel good! Talking to your partner about how to make the dance feel better is always appropriate and warranted. 

How to teach in a way that encourages comfort-based feedback

Dear Lindy Hop instructors,

Please set aside time during class for your students to talk to each other and offer one another feedback based on how things feel. 

To get that started, tell your students to use the sentence, “I am feeling _____ and I think it’s from you doing ______. Could we try _____ to adjust it?” 

Sincerely,

A leader who wants her followers to feel good when she’s leading them!

If you are dealing with something more than discomfort

Here, I’ve been writing mostly about situations where something feels physically uncomfortable. However, and very unfortunately, it is possible that you might experience sexual harassment as a Lindy Hopper. I want to talk about this and offer a clear suggestion for what to do. 

You should know that it is NEVER your responsibility to make someone stop harassing you. You can throw everything I just said about comfort-based feedback out the window. If your dance partner is behaving in a sexual way that makes you uncomfortable (or just makes you feel weird!), you have the right to do the following: 

  1. Stop dancing. Stand on your feet.
  2. Look them directly in the eyes.
  3. Say, “I don’t like this, and I am done with this dance.”
  4. Drop the connection and walk off the dance floor. Preferably towards the nearest group of supportive dance friends. 

You do not have to explain what happened. You are not obligated to talk to that person again. You can talk to your friends, or your scene leaders and safety coordinators, and explain what your dance partner did and how it made you feel. You have the right to be heard and believed. 

People get thrown out of dance scenes for harassment, and rightfully so. If you are able to share your experience, it might help protect others. It’s always up to you, of course, but that’s something you should know. 

Dancing should feel good!

We all love Lindy Hop, and I think we mostly love it for the way it feels. There’s an adrenaline rush to swinging out to a hard-hitting saxophone solo, and a lush feeling about doing down-tempo sugar pushes to a gentle piano melody. There’s something magical about your body in concert with someone else’s – and something profoundly un-magical about feeling pain when you should be feeling connected to your partner and the music.

I hope the ideas here empower you to communicate more clearly with your partners about discomfort on the dance floor. Remember that it’s okay to prioritize yourself! You and your continued presence on the dance floor are definitely worth it. 

Midtown Stomp, February 1, 2019

Happy February! DJing for a swing dance on the first day of African American History Month is a real treat. I DJed band breaks for the fabulous Harley White Jr. Orchestra, and a friend and I couldn’t stop geeking out all night over how good their music was, and how good they were at interspersing fast songs with really lovely slow ones (my friend and I both love slow Lindy). Let’s take a look at some great black artists featured in my band breaks last night!

I’ve been getting more into Johnny Hodges in the new year, and I loved playing his song “Early Morning Rock.” It has a clearly defined melody and a driving beat, and Johnny Hodges on the alto saxophone makes everyone want to dance. 

Image result for johnny hodges

With the exception of a few independent forays in the 1950s, Johnny Hodges played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from May 1928 until he died in May 1970 – a musical collaboration of 32 years. That’s a long time!

When Duke Ellington found out that Hodges had died of a heart attack at the dentist’s office in 1970, he wrote a eulogy for him the same night. As such a great musician in his own right, I think Ellington was in a unique position to comment on Hodges’ legacy in jazz.

Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes – this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.

Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same.

Johnny Hodges and his unique tonal personality have gone to join the ever so few inimitables – those whose sounds stand unimitated, to say the least – Art Tatum, Sydney Bechet, Django Reinhardt, Billy Strayhorn…..

Johnny Hodges sometimes sounded beautiful, sometimes romantic, and sometimes people spoke of his tone as being sensuous. I’ve heard women say his tone was so compelling.

He played numbers like ‘Jeep’s Blues’, ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’, ‘I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart’, ‘All Of Me’, ‘On The Sunny Side Of The Street’, Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Passion Flower’, and ‘Day Dream’ and many more.

With the exception of a year or so, almost his entire career was with us. Many came and left, sometimes to return. So far as our wonderful listening audience was concerned, there was a great feeling of expectancy when they looked up and saw Johnny Hodges sitting in the middle of the saxophone section, in the front row.

I am glad and thankful that I had the privilege of presenting Johnny Hodges for forty years, night after night. I imagine I have been much envied, but thanks to God….

May God bless this beautiful giant in his own identity. God Bless Johnny Hodges.

A song that drew some unexpected attention was “Fiddle-Dee-Dee” by Lionel Hampton and His Sextette, featuring a little-known jazz violinist named Ray Perry. I learned today from a YouTube video description that Ray Perry used to sing while soloing on violin, and inspired Slam Stewart to continue the practice on bass!

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I ended the first band break with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” performed live by Sarah Vaughan at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1963. Kirk Stuart on piano and Charles “Buster” Williams on double bass provide an infectious rhythm, and Sarah Vaughan delivers personality-filled vocals and dope scatting. I love it!

Image result for sarah vaughan tivoli garden

My second band break was short – a birthday jam and the Shim Sham, and then time for just two songs before the band came back. A friend of mine in Milwaukee recently turned me on to the song “Moonglow” by the Benny Goodman Quartet, which has a shimmering, dreamy feel. The Benny Goodman Quartet was one of the first racially integrated jazz groups to arise in the 1930s, so this song felt very appropriate.

I love the below photo of the quartet in their younger days – from left, it’s Lionel Hampton on the vibraphone, Teddy Wilson on piano, Benny Goodman on clarinet, and Gene Krupa on drums. Benny Goodman used to say, “If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice.”

Image result for benny goodman quartet moonglow

I concluded my second band break with “Summit Ridge Drive” by Cootie Williams, which I’ve loved forever for Cootie’s trumpet solos. (Fun fact: one of the trumpet players in the band came over and wanted to know what I was playing, and then soloed along on his own trumpet!)

Image result for cootie williams

I’ll be DJing again at Midtown Stomp in a few weeks, on February 15th. If you’re in the area, I hope I see you there!

The year of 300 songs

I recently invested in an upgraded laptop, and in the process of transferring my DJ library, I trimmed it down to the songs that I really like to play.

Looking through my newly pared-down library, I noticed that I tend to stick with certain artists that I know I like, and I want to expand my musical comfort zone. This year I am setting myself the challenge of adding 300 new songs to my DJ library!

While I often consult jazz-on-line.com for free music, I am privileged to be able to buy music from iTunes when I want a particular version of a song, and to buy modern music from Bandcamp or directly from artists at events to put more proceeds towards supporting their music.

My plan for collecting music this year is to spend more time listening to swing jazz on Spotify while I’m at work – I spent the last three or four months slowly acclimating my colleagues to music in the lab, so I don’t have to wear my DJ headphones all day. They have great sound quality, but the huge ear cushions can hurt my ears after a few hours. I’ll collect songs I like into a Spotify playlist, and then hunt down or purchase 5-7 songs from that playlist every weekend.

The artists I want to explore more this year include Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington, LaVern Baker, Cootie Williams, Mildred Bailey, and Jimmie Lunceford. Watch for them in my sets!

Album review: I Love The Rhythm In A Riff by the Boilermaker Jazz Band

I Love the Rhythm in a Riff

The Boilermaker Jazz Band recently released their newest album, I Love The Rhythm In A Riff, to celebrate 30 years together as a band! Can you believe it? I can’t. Paul Cosentino, the band’s tenor and alto saxophonist, clarinetist, and bandleader, offered to send a copy of the new album to any swing DJ who told him they wanted one, and I couldn’t write my email fast enough!

Paul Cosentino explains the album’s dual theme in the liner notes:

During the wonderful but all too short time known as the Swing Era, band leaders, jazz musicians, and singers were superstars…All of the bands had a book of great tunes for people to dance and listen to. Often filling the book was a collection of catchy riffs – songs with snippets of repeated melody that get stuck in your head and are great vehicles for jazz improvisation. Another requirement was wonderful vocal numbers – usually about love…This recording brings to life those two seminal categories of swing music.

The album overall has a bright, energetic feel, with a number of songs fast enough for balboa and competition-level Lindy Hop. Special guest Gordon Webster joined the usual suspects in the studio, and his piano solos shine on every track. I’ll go through the songs individually and note what I like about each.

920 Special, 4:13, 190 BPM

This cover of the popular jazz standard “9:20 Special” has marvelous solos from several band members, including Tony DePaolis on bass and guest Gordon Webster on piano. It chugs along just like the train it’s named after!

They Say It’s Wonderful, 4:26, 130 BPM

Paul Cosentino leads the way with vocals on this sweet track. Its gentle movement is accessible for beginners, but there’s some expressive piano in there from Gordon Webster for more advanced dancers to play with.

Squatty Roo, 3:59, 204 BPM

I love every version of this Johnny Hodges tune I’ve ever heard, and this one is no exception! The melody is just so bright and engaging – it was hard not to get up and dance when this came through my headphones. Gordon Webster does some mindblowing solo work on this track – especially admirable at this tempo.

I Had The Craziest Dream, 4:09, 108 BPM

This song feels like walking through a garden in the sunshine on a day when you have nothing else to do. It’s very slow, and that only adds to its loveliness – Jennifer McNulty on vocals doesn’t hurt, either.

Esquire Bounce, 3:47, 180 BPM

This happy little riff has a more intimate feel than the cover recently released by the Brooks Prumo Orchestra on their own album, Pass the Bounce, since it opens with just Paul Cosentino and Jeff Bush leading on saxophone and trombone (as opposed to the Brooks Prumo Orchestra’s, well, orchestra).

Sweet and Slow, 4:10, 101 BPM

Normally, I’d rather dance to something faster – but if anyone could change my mind, it would be the Boilermaker Jazz Band. Artful piano notes from Gordon Webster sparkle over a rumbly rhythm, held down by Tony DePaolis on bass and vocals, and Thomas Wendt on drums.

Oh! Look At Me Now, 4:39, 124 BPM

Jennifer McNulty and Paul Cosentino share the mic on this tune, made famous by Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra, according to the album liner. I enjoy Jeff Bush’s trombone solo, as well as the smooth and easy pace.

Main Stem, 4:20, 192 BPM

This Duke Ellington instrumental features a driving beat, helped along by Paul Cosentino nailing his saxophone solos, and develops into a foot-tapping swinger by the end. I’d love to DJ this song for balboa!

Any Old Time, 3:15, 126 BPM

The word “pleasant” may feel a bit bland, but it truly captures the vibe of this song – chill, but kind and sweet. Jeff Bush has a lovely trombone solo, and Gordon Webster’s piano is understated but perfectly fits the mood.

Dickie’s Dream, 3:34, 192 BPM

I love Gordon Webster’s piano opening for this tune – it sounds silky and sneaky, and makes you want to get up and start bouncing along in time. The riff develops with Paul Cosentino’s clarinet whistling along and Jeff Bush doing some dope mute work on the trombone.

You Oughta Be In Pictures, 3:25, 127 BPM

As soon as I heard this song, I knew I would be humming the melody and mumbling the words for weeks – and I was right! It’s catchy as all get out, and the lyrics are beautiful to boot. Jeff Bush’s vocals fit right in with the easy beat from Thomas Wendt on drums and Paul Cosentino on saxophone. Tony DePaolis’ bass solo on this track is not to be missed.

Neal’s Deal, 3:27, 200 BPM

This song opens with a relatively quiet riff that belies its tempo. It takes its time, working first into a light melody with Paul Cosentino on clarinet, and then developing into a full-blown swinger with an energetic trombone solo from Jeff Bush. Gordon Webster plays supportive background piano that helps fill out the sound.

There Are Such Things, 4:10, 120 BPM

Jeff Bush opens on trombone, followed by Jennifer McNulty’s soaring vocals, supported by Paul Cosentino whistling along on saxophone. This song’s length would make it perfect for playing in a lesson context and having dancer switch partners every minute or so.

Tippin’ In, 4:27, 137 BPM

I’ve been a big fan of Erskine Hawkins’ version of “Tippin’ In” for some time, so it was refreshing to hear this new take on it. The main melody happens on Paul Cosentino’s saxophone, and boy does he have fun improvising! Jeff Bush on trombone, Gordon Webster on piano, and Tony DePaolis on bass all contribute engaging solos.

It Could Happen To You, 3:50, 165 BPM

Jennifer McNulty leads with vocals on this track, while Paul Cosentino pipes along on clarinet and Jeff Bush adds in some delightful trombone. This is the only track on the album that falls in the 140-170 BPM range, so I anticipate I’ll end up playing this one a lot!

I Love The Rhythm In A Riff, 2:42, 205 BPM

This track is worth listening to, if only to hear Paul Cosentino and Tony DePaolis scatting together! Jeff Bush and Gordon Webster bring the heat with racing trombone and piano solos, and Thomas Wendt has a dope little drum solo midway through. The energetic instrumentation brings it together as a perfect finale for the album.

I noticed as I was writing this up that one of the strengths of the Boilermaker Jazz Band is that, in spite of having a small group – only five members, plus Gordon Webster – they make excellent use of every musician – they all get frequent solos, even while keeping their songs down to danceable lengths, and they play off each other incredibly well. I hope you check out I Love The Rhythm In A Riff, and enjoy the music as much as I did!

Whistle Stop, November 16-18, 2018

Almost six months after moving across the country, I returned to the Midwest to reconnect with friends at Whistle Stop, the dance event that everyone should go to because it’s ridiculously cheap, thanks to generous subsidizing from Purdue University. My friends at Purdue Night Train generously accepted my offer to DJ, so I picked up band breaks for Naomi and Her Handsome Devils on Saturday night.

whistlestop_181117

Songs 1-7 comprised my first band break. Jimmie Lunceford’s “Honest and Truly” is new to my library and has a perky melody that I really enjoy – chunky trumpet and trombone work interspersed with gentle sailing saxophones. The vocals are a little cheesy, but I think it’s fun to hear what “pop music” of the era sounded like.

Songs 8-13 were my second band break, and I tried to capture a more energetic vibe, using “Windy City Hop” from Slim Gaillard and “When You’re Smiling” by Louis Armstrong back to back. I don’t understand why I don’t hear “When You’re Smiling” more in the dance scene – it has an easily recognizable melody and a strong rhythm, and it’s super danceable – especially with Louis Armstrong blowing that trumpet! I also included a moment of sweetness and a different feel with Sarah Vaughan’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It” – the accompaniment is mostly piano, and midway through it transitions into a dope saxophone solo, but the overall feel is still light and lovely.

Songs 14-18 came after the band finished up and everyone got ready to leave and go to the late night venue across town, so I mostly just played what I really like to hear at the end of the night. Of course that included the muted tones of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” by Peter Liu and the Pollcats, which I think is the best song off their new record Count On Lindy – well, maybe it’s tied for best with “Wham Rebop Boom Bam.”

Now that I’m in California, I may be flying to events more often – aside from all the events in San Francisco (so many), most of the events I want to go aren’t driving distance. Maybe I’ll have to write a post about how to fly to a dance event, once I pick up some tips of the trade!

And before I go, here’s a TV version of a tune I ran across randomly in my library while writing this post and really enjoyed:

Midtown Stomp, October 26, 2018

One of the things I really like about being a swing DJ is that, even though I’ve cultivated a collection of hundreds of songs, I only get 20-30 songs each set to work with, so I’m always trying to combine them in new and creative ways. I had a couple of fun juxtapositions in this Midtown Stomp set to share!

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One great pairing came early on – “This Can’t Be Love” by Joe Williams with Count Basie, which has a smooth and polished sound, followed by the much more free-flowing energy of “Windy City Hop” by Slim Gaillard (and Slam Stewart).

Another fun transition was between “Jersey Bounce” by Peter Liu and the Pollcats, a modern band with a professional sound and soft piping saxophone and clarinet, and “Sing Me A Swing Song” by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, a very peppy, very vintage piece.

Finally, I was so happy to play “Rag Mop” by Ralph Flanagan and His Orchestra. The first time I ever recall hearing the song “Rag Mop” was from a live band – #TrustInTheRuss? – at SwingIN 2017. I danced with Sonia Ortega to that song, and Sonia, who speaks Spanish primarily, sang along with every word! It was a wonderful dance, and I always think of it whenever I hear or play “Rag Mop.”

Midtown Stomp, September 14, 2018

I was so excited to DJ last night at my new home scene, Midtown Stomp of Sacramento! Some of my new friends at Midtown Stomp are members of the Midtown Stompers, Sacramento’s performance team, and as of two weeks ago, they have won the open team competition at Camp Hollywood for three years running. This year’s routine is at the bottom of this post!

Midtown Stomp 09-14-2018

Midtown Stomp has two DJs for each three hour Friday night dance, so we get an hour and a half-ish, which I love, because that lets me build up more of a flow than just an hour set, which often feels like it runs out too quickly!

A few new tunes here – “Look Out” and “Buck Dance Rhythm” by Slim Gaillard are both wonderful numbers that maintain the guitar-strumming perkiness of “Jump Session” at faster tempos. “Buck Dance Rhythm” also has an epic tap dance solo in the middle – I don’t know who it is, but I wish I did! “The Major and the Minor” by Lionel Hampton and “St. Louis Blues” by Alberta Hunter are also new to me, and they went over really well!

The towering climax of this set was definitely “Them There Eyes” by Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, which at 5:09 and 172 BPM, can be an exhausting song to dance to, so I usually fade it out around the 3:30 mark. However, as I watched the floor to assess how tired people looked, a small, informal jam circle crowded around the middle, as a group of maybe eight or ten people took turns stealing the center. They were having so much fun, and were so much fun to watch, I ended up letting “Them There Eyes” run all the way to the end (sorry, everyone else!).

I knew after that blast of energy I would need to reset the floor, so I picked a bold mood to do it with – “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by Jan Marie and the Mean Reds. It starts out with almost 40 seconds of slow intro, and then moves into a funky, synth-heavy rendition of the spiritual that got the whole floor moving! At around 11:30pm, that was cool to see.

Thank you so much for having me, Midtown Stomp! I look forward to DJing for you again soon!

Practical Ways to Make Lindy Hop Welcoming for LGBT+ Dancers

(Note: In this post I will use LGBT+, a shortened acronym, to refer to the LGBTQQIAP+ community. As someone who falls under the G, the Q, and the A, it is important to me to acknowledge that there are more letters in our beloved acronym than are sometimes convenient to spell out.) 

During my tenure as a Lindy Hopper, some of which was spent at an extremely conservative educational institution, I’ve become especially sensitive to and appreciative of scenes and events that go the extra mile to make the LGBT+ Lindy Hoppers feel safe and welcome. Here, I’d like to offer a compendium of tips and ideas I’ve compiled from my experiences, and from conversations with other LGBT+ dancers, to assist you in making your scene or event as queer-friendly as you can!

Making us feel welcome in class

We want to know that we can dance any role. All of your classes should open with a vocal acknowledgment from the instructors that anyone may dance any role. This may seem almost too obvious to say out loud, but I promise, this is really important – it makes us feel seen, and it makes us feel like we have the instructors’ support in case we experience discrimination from other dancers in class.

We want beginner classes to offer a non-gendered way to explore role preference. A great beginner class will include an exercise that involves really basic components of leading and following, like connecting with both hands in open position and practicing leading or following each other around the floor. I wish that the first Lindy Hop class I took had done this!

We want to have an easy way to identify our role preference in class. Please – please – do not ever start class by saying, “Okay, everyone partner up!” This makes it incredibly difficult to tell who’s doing which role, and I have often experienced the isolation of being the “odd one out” after all the women have partnered up with all the men. Instead, consider having everyone hold up an American Sign Language letter L or letter F with one hand to indicate which role they will be dancing for that class, and then let people partner up.

We want to feel acknowledged by the instructors’ language. Instructors, please take note – it is perfectly acceptable to use a gendered pronoun if you are talking about your teaching partner. For instance, you might say of the female follower teaching with you, “And then I put my right hand gently around her waist.” But when referring to your students, you should use gender-neutral pronouns instead. For instance, you could say, “Okay, leads, take your follower’s hand and lead them through the turn.”

Using “them,” which is a gender-neutral pronoun, makes space to acknowledge all the followers in the class – including those who may not identify as female. Here are a few more examples to help you think about which pronoun to use when referring to your teaching partner versus your students:

  • Partner: “I’m listening for him to pull me back into tandem position.”
  • Students: “Followers, make sure you listen for your leader to use their left hand to pull you back into tandem position.”
  • Partner: “She uses those four counts to do something expressive that she chooses.”
  • Students: “Leaders, remember to support your follower as they choose what to do during those four counts.”

But Mary, you sigh. I’ve definitely taught classes in which all the women were following and all the men were leading. Do I really have to do this then? 

That’s a great question! Remember that in the LGBT+ community, it isn’t always obvious from appearances which gender someone may identify with, or which pronouns they may prefer. I have several dance friends who are nonbinary and use they/them pronouns, but are often mistaken for women because of the way they look. Using gender-inclusive language helps to make sure everyone feels welcome, even if it doesn’t always seem necessary.

We want to see ourselves represented. If it is an option for your scene or event, it’s a really dope idea to have same-gender instructor pairs teach together. This lets people who dance a nontraditional role feel represented. Some of my favorite styling variations have come from taking classes from other women who lead!

Making us feel welcome at the dance

We want to be visible. If you really want to go the extra mile towards pronoun visibility, get those nametags that say “My name is:” and “My pronouns are:” on them, and encourage everyone – including cis people – to use them. This helps trans dancers feel included, and gives people an easy way to know what other people’s pronouns are!

We want to feel safe inside the bathroom we use. It may seem so simple as to be almost unnecessary, but it makes a huge difference to hang up a sign outside the restroom indicating that people of all genders are welcome. Here are a couple of creative examples I’ve seen at different venues and events:

  • Pirate Swing 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan hung up signs that said “And non-binary” under the “Men” and “Women” signs outside the bathrooms in their main venue.
  • The inimitable Mobtown Ballroom in Baltimore, Maryland has a sign in the hallway outside the bathrooms: “This bathroom has urinals. [arrow to the right] This one doesn’t. [arrow to the left] Use whichever bathroom suits you.”
  • The Switch 2018 in San Francisco, California hung signs outside each of the single-use bathrooms that said “All genders welcome in this bathroom – just be sure to wash your hands!”

A personal aside: at Pirate Swing 2017, I was at a place in my life where I was dressing very androgynously, and as a six foot tall person with short hair, I was frequently mistaken for a man. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to see a sign on the bathroom that said “Women and non-binary.” It made me feel safe to enter the bathroom and know that no one would be startled or make a disparaging comment towards me. I do not identify as non-binary, but that simple sign still made a difference for me.

We want to be danced with! It truly makes all the difference when an organizer, instructor, or experienced dancer asks an LGBT+ dancer who is new to the scene for a dance. If you are in a position of power, influence, or experience, you have the opportunity to make this a reality!

We want others to ask about our preferences. I’ll admit it – I don’t always ask people their role preference. I know that some people want to only follow or only lead, and that’s fine. But if I’m not sure, or it’s a person I’ve never danced with before, or a friend with whom I will occasionally switch roles, I like to ask, “Is it all right if I lead?” or “Do you want to lead or follow?” If they seem unsure, offering up “Want to switch?” as an alternate option floats some people’s boats.

Because it can be easy for scene regulars to forget about doing this when they’re accustomed to dancing with the same people week after week, I really encourage instructors and organize to say, repeatedly and with a microphone if possible,  “Here in our scene/at our event, if we’re not sure of someone else’s role preference, we like to ask!”

A nonbinary friend of mine told me this:

As a queer person and often femme-presenting person, it’s super exciting when someone notices that I lead and asks me to, or even just asks if I lead or follow instead of assuming I follow.

Which I think is reason enough to encourage scene regulars to be observant of others’ preferences and to ask if they’re unsure!

We want to be jammed in a way that respects our preferences. Okay, but for real, guys – can we make it an all-the-time-everywhere rule that all birthday jams must be preceded by getting the people in the middle to specify which roles they dance? Again, ASL hand signs are useful here. I can’t tell you how many times I haven’t cut in to dance with someone because I haven’t been sure which roles they could dance, and I suspect the same has been true of the times I have been jammed in the past. Especially for dancers who are newer to the scene, being given the opportunity to communicate this information is a must!

We want a safe person to talk to if needed. I really like it when scenes or events explicitly appoint one of the organizers to be a “safety coordinator” or something similar, whose job is basically to be a really understanding and informed person who is the go-to contact point for code of conduct violations.

Making us feel welcome in competitions

We want the competition name to reflect what’s actually going on. As we all know, for random partnered competitions, “Jack and Jill” is out, and a variety of new monikers are in – my favorite is “Mix and Match.” Just be mindful when naming your competition of what the title will say to people who dance a nontraditional role, or identify with a nonbinary gender.

We want to know that everyone else in the competition will welcome us. In some Mix and Match competitions, I have occasionally felt worried that I would be paired with someone who didn’t want to dance with me because I am a female lead. Thankfully, this has never happened, but I would really like to it become standard operating procedure to put language somewhere – maybe in the competition sign-ups, maybe announced by the emcee – that part of a Mix and Match is dancing with whoever you are paired with, regardless of their gender. This is a nascent idea of mine, and I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts on how to put this into practice – toss yours in the comments!

We want to know that alternative fashion choices are acceptable. Many Lindy Hoppers are into vintage fashion, which is awesome…but it’s also from the 1940s, and tends to dictate shirts and trousers for men, and skirts and blouses for women. I would love it if we all took a moment to acknowledge that people tend to get pretty dressed up for competitions, and for queer people, formal wear can be a confusing and awkward endeavor. (As dance photos of me continue to attest.) Just…do your best to love and support and cheer for people in the competition, no matter what they’re wearing.

Incorporating ambidancing into your scene

This is a topic I have been hesitant to address, because my own feelings about ambidancing – which means being able to both lead and follow – are complicated at best. Even though I am technically an ambidancer, because I know how to both lead and follow, I am much more comfortable identifying myself as someone who leads primarily, and I have mixed feelings about the efficacy of ambidancing as a class format. Regardless, ambidancing does have some wonderful benefits of which you should be aware.

Ambidancing encourages open-mindedness and flexibility throughout your scene. People who are accustomed to ambidancing as a concept, regardless of their sexuality or gender, are way more likely to be cool with asking about role preferences, dancing with people of their same gender, and generally fostering an LGBT-friendly community atmosphere.

Ambidancing helps people appreciate each other. I’ve noticed that when people try the role they don’t usually dance, they develop a great appreciation for people who do dance that role! This is a wonderful attitude to have, and I think everyone should try the other role, at the very least to gain a better understanding of it.

Ambidancing can be an avenue towards greater musicality. Based on my own experience, I believe that when you start to dance in both roles, you start to notice some similarities between them – the biggest one being that dancing with the music, and inserting styling, breaks, stops, and footwork that matches the music, is important no matter which role you’re in.

Ambidancing is a queer-friendly class format. If you want to relieve anxiety about gendered roles, making it unnecessary to choose between those roles is a solid option. I may not personally enjoy learning both roles in a single class, but I know that there are many people for whom this learning style is a perfect fit, and it may be a good experiment to add some ambidancing classes to your scene or event to gauge interest.

Switch dancing is incredibly fun! I didn’t hold this opinion quite so adamantly until I moved to California and went to the Switch, where I had some switch dances that absolutely blew my socks off. Switch dancing means that the partners trade leading and following back and forth throughout the dance. Even as someone who isn’t super into following, I find switch dancing to be a spontaneous, creative, and exhilarating experience, and I think it’s something everyone should experience!

My friends Calvin Lu and Sam Nguyen, who help organize the Switch, did this awesome showcase at Midwest Lindy Fest this year, and you should watch it! They are incredibly hardworking dancers and so much fun to watch!

If you’re interested in learning more about ambidancing, this podcast from Michael Jagger and Evita Arce is a good place to start: https://michaelandevita.com/018-ambi-dancing/

Thank you for reading this post! If you have additional tips or suggestions to share, please drop them in the comments! I would love to hear your thoughts.

The Switch, July 27-29, 2018

I had a total blast at The Switch in San Francisco last weekend. It was an opportunity for me to connect with the California ambidancing community, and explore San Francisco for the very first time – a double win!

The Switch is an incredible workshop weekend focused all around ambidancing, and the attendees were so friendly and fun to dance with. They were also very responsive to my music, which I appreciated.

I started out Friday evening playing a few songs after the community panel on ambidancing, giving the band a chance to sound check. I chose the first four tunes in the list below to start out the evening – “Jacquet Bounce” by Illinois Jacquet and His All Stars is new to my library, and I was so glad the expressive tenor saxophone from Jacquet picked up the floor!

Switch 2018-07-27 band breaks

My first band break started out with “Sometimes I’m Happy” by Sarah Vaughan, which I love just because it’s fun to hear the lyrics that accompany the familiar melody. When Lori Taniguchi, the event emcee and resident sparkly unicorn (you probably think I am joking. I am not joking), complimented me on choosing a live recording that kept up the energy in the room, I just laughed and said I wished I had that cool of a reason to play it! Sometimes the tune that “just feels right” to me in the moment ends up suiting someone else’s taste for a completely different reason, which is always funny to me.

I was so pleased when someone came up to ask me about “Loose Wig” – “Of course it’s Lionel Hampton,” they said, “but what is it?” Its happy hand-clapping feel and unique melody catches everyone’s attention!

Switch 2018-07-27 late night

The above list was my “late night” set from 12-1am on Friday night, after the band finished. Lori and I had a good laugh over the song title “Celery Stalks At Midnight,” by Les Brown, and how it gave Lori the mental image of literal celery stalks in a row doing a side-step dance while waving their…leaves? It does have kind of a high stepping feel!

I also had the chance to play “As Long As You Live” by Maxine Sullivan, a delightful live recording that I just can’t stop listening to. Her energy is infectious and it fills the floor every time. And “Charlie Was A Sailor” by Lionel Hampton was a major hit with some balboa dancers and folks who wanted to take their fast Lindy for a spin.

A huge thanks goes to Calvin Lu and Sam Nguyen, who generously let me sleep in their apartment even though they were pulling eighteen hour days running around organizing the Switch. I certainly hope to come back next year!