“Somehow everyone knew how to dance”

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“Anyone does not teach us to dance but somehow everyone knew how to dance” – Ona said. Is it any magic here? How people learned to dance? Does a previous dance experience is useful there?  Does the knowledge in Lithuanian traditional dances make sense in the Swing dance learning?

In order to examine the process of learning, scholars explore various questions; in particular, this essay is going to inquire how the prior dance experience affects perception of a new dance. During the encounter with new dance material, most people face difficulties. The essay will analyse what these difficulties reveal; whether they reflect person’s past experience, or do they echo the person’s presence; how do we know which difficulties are determined by the previous experiences, and which – by the social context and cultural differences?

There is evidence that initial dance learning influences dance evaluation. In an interdisciplinary neuroscience and dance study, Louise P. Kirsch, Kim A. Drommelschmidt and Emily S. Cross (Kirsch et al. 2013) bring broader and deeper understanding by analysing how dance experience affects dance evaluation of 60 dance naïve[1] people. The study showed that dance training makes an impact on dance evaluation. During the one-week training, the ability to perform dance sequences increased as well as the pleasure of observing that dance. ‘This pattern of findings suggests that the experience of learning to embody an action may play a crucial role in how much pleasure one derives from watching that action.’

However, the question remains whether former dance experience affect learning process as well? In order to investigate this issue, I explore ‘old’ and ‘new’ dance experience from a personal perspective. Swing dance in London has been chosen as the ‘new’ dance genre, because I never danced it before and never had a chance to study swing dance history. In contrast to the unfamiliar swing dance, Lithuanian traditional dance is the ‘old’ dance genre, because it is part of my vernacular culture and has been the main research subject of previous university studies. My experience in Lithuanian traditional dances is much wider and it consists of continuous interest and involvement in various activities for more than 11 years. I encountered social dancing during the family feasts with my family members, and dancing with old people in my university and my own fieldworks around the country. Also, I participated as a dancer and musician in several dance clubs and as the organizer and researcher in Lithuanian traditional dance movement. Both swing and Lithuanian traditional dancing are in the group of couple dances (partner dances), and this essay will also try to answer how the partner can affect the learning process.

Swing and Lithuanian dance history

A brief review of dance history is necessary for deeper contextual understanding and exposing the processes and relationships between the two social dance traditions (Nahachewsky 1995). Lithuanian folk dance has similarities with Polish, Latvian and Belorussian folk dance[2]. In the middle of 19th century, improvisation-based social couple dancing (partner dancing) became the most popular choreography in this region. Though, alongside the couple dancing, other forms of choreography also existed: sutartinės (ancient and complicated polyphonic songs which is performed together with dancing), rateliai (circle dances), and žaidimai (singing games).

Folk dances are usually accompanied by instrumental music (various types of accordions, violin and drum) and sometimes singing as well. Couple dancing is loosely choreographically structured in space, whereas group dances follow a more defined plan. Dances consist of consecutively repeated movements, steps and figures. Lithuanian traditional dance is distinguished for vivaciousness: fast spinning, rhythm stepping by foot, amusing singing, vigorous hails and whistles.

Meanwhile, swing dances according Howard Spring (Spring 1997) and Jonathan David Jackson (Jackson 2001), were developed within African-American community and as a new improvisation-based dancing style, it spread and became popular in the US in the late 1920s. Swing has developed simultaneously with jazz music and ‘the dynamic relationship between musicians and dancer, in particular the musicians’ responses to the commercial and aesthetic demands resulting from changes in social dance’ (Spring 1997: 183). The media technology development was the catalyst for swing entering the America pop-culture scene. According to Eric M. Usner (Usner 2001), while swing dance was used in pop-culture to convey the ‘unified (black and white) national consciousness’ during the wartime, the ‘black’ swing history conveys the condition of disenfranchised people who were exploited as ’blackface minstrelsy’ for the audience’s pleasure.

Both Lithuanian social dancing and swing social dancing historically discontinued. Lithuanians stopped dancing because of the intervention of stylized folk dance and song ensembles which was the part of Soviet Union cultural and propaganda agenda in the occupied countries. In the meantime, swing social dancing popularity has passed and overlapped with the popular dance styles that followed.

Contemporary Lithuania folk dances can be summarised into three directions according to dance function: stylized stage (sceninis stilizuotas), authentic stage (sceninis „autentiškas“ ) and authentic social (socialinis „autentiškas“) folk dancing (Jurkute 2011). The last one, authentic social dancing in Lithuania is called ‘traditional dancing’, because this direction seeks to recreate and revitalize 20th century social dancing tradition. Lithuanian stylized stage and authentic stage folk dances have more developed teaching techniques, while traditional dancing is very new (approximately 15 years) and does not have established dance learning patterns and roles. Meanwhile, contemporary neo-swing dancing (Usner 2001) returned in the 1990s firstly as the ‘unique selves (expression) associated with nostalgic and vintage images of a forgotten swing dance era’ (Rershaw 2006: 85). In the late 1990s, neo-swing social dancing spread widely in California, New York and Philadelphia. Nowadays, various swing dances (Lindy-hop, Charleston, Balboa, Blues and others) are widespread around the world and almost all bigger cities have swing clubs.

Dance learning

In order to investigate the learning process, I participated in three different style classes: general swing, lindy hop and blues in different London swing dance clubs. During these three workshops, I have noticed that:

  1. The gender distribution was about thirty percent men and seventy percent women.
  2. About thirty percent of participants attended for more than the first time and knew the steps and their roles.
  3. The teacher rushed and did not repeat the steps and steps’ sets (sequences), even when many participants failed to learn the movements.

Leading role

In the swing dance, the leading role is strongly expressed and one (usually male) person leads the couple through the dance. During the lessons, teachers named these roles[3] as ‘follows’ and ‘leads’. Two times I danced the ‘leads’ part because of the lack of men. The teacher emphasized that ‘follows’ should listen and follow the ‘leads’, though, almost all ‘follows’ were too busy with steps and sequences and did not follow the ‘follows’. When ‘follows’ do not listen and look attentively, ‘leads’ cannot fulfil their main role – to lead. The power distribution between the pair are concentrated on one person and represent the swing era’s traditional values (Usner 2001), where women followed in the dance and in the other social areas (family, educational institutions, religion, leisure activities). Even in neo-swing dancing, according to some teachers, the ‘follows’ should learn general dance steps, but finally they must concentrate on ‘leads’s’ dance interpretation. However, in modern urban society people are used to focus on the individualization and equality, and are not familiar with life and dance ‘follows’ rule. In this case, the learning process of swing becomes difficult long-term task because it requires to modify their physical and psychological independency skills.

Improvisation

However, these strict roles have exceptions and overlap, which confirms that the only one swing rule is the overall improvisation. J. D. Jackson (Jackson 2001) states that improvisation requires good knowledge and he advocates that the improvisation perception as the non-choreography is Euro-centric approach. He quotes Puri and Hart-Johnson[4] who argue that ‘whether a dance is considered to be improvised or composed depends on culturally specific distinction that reflect the values of a given society’. Jackson argues that according to the African-American sociocultural context, the distinction does not exist and the improvisation is realized as ‘creative structuring’.

Lithuanian traditional couple dancing has strong patterns of improvisation (Ragauskienė, 2007: 5); unfortunately, traditional dance in Lithuania is overlooked by most of professional dancers because of the untidy choreography. However, the improvisation in traditional dancing has roles and structure and it can be divided into three levels: step improvisation, couple improvisation (between two dancers) and spatial improvisation (Rubikiene 2015: 81). Meanwhile, swing dance is much more improvised than Lithuanian traditional dance, and Jackson uses classification from jazz music to distinguish the three main parts of dance improvisation: riffing, vamping and break (Jackson 2001: 49). Improvisation is very important part of swing dance learning and various instructors teach it in different ways. All in all, classification of dance improvisation helps to understand main patterns and allow dancer to master the ‘creative structure’. Even the most complex elements of dance improvisation must be simplified in order that people learn and understand it. The simplification helps new students to get a grip on the new dance, however, it hinders the development of dance and limits the variety of dance expression.

Social acceptance

During my Lithuanian traditional dance and neo-swing dance experience, I noticed that both communities easily accept participants of different races, body types and age. Meanwhile, professional dance community is still stuck with the ideal dancing body aspiration and overlooks elderly dancers.

Jill Green in her experimental studio (Green 1999) discussed ideal body construction in dance education. She investigated body perception of 5 undergraduate female dancers through discussions and somatic practices during her two terms course. All these women encountered an ‘authoritarian’ teaching model and shared the feeling of the ’dominance by powerful instructors’ who continuously forced dancers to seek for the ideal dance embodiment and ideal body. Research participants claim that ‘dancers cannot succeed in the dance world if they are perceived as slovenly, lazy, or fat’ (Green 1999: 94). Moreover, the bodily appearance sometimes even impacted the grades during the assessment process. The social and direct pressure to maintain perfect body caused eating disorders, exhaustion and other health problems, while the pressure to perform ideal movements despite the idiosyncratic body construction and abilities caused pain and injuries.

Meanwhile, in neo-swing and Lithuanian traditional social dancing, there is not one ideal body shape, movement, weight or strength. Social dancers’ community is often representative of the society and if different body shapes, movement, weight or strength exist in society, they are likely to emerge in social dance halls, too.

During my fieldwork in Lithuania’s countryside, I met a lot of old singers and dancers who refused to perform folklore pieces because of their old age, even though they were respectable people in the society and incredibly good singers and dancers. Almost everyone said that they are too old to perform and their neighbours will laugh at them. While all people face senility, aging affects dancers most painfully, because they treat their body as an instrument, the leading form of self-expression and creativity. Steven Wainwright and Bryan S. Turner explored ballet dancers’ retirement (Wainwright & Turner 2004) through 11 interviews with the retired professional ballet dancers. The interviews revealed extreme fear of aging and of being retired in the ballet community. The success of Jérôme Bel’s “Véronique Doisneau” also shows that retirement and aging do not get enough attention in the dance community: even though it strongly defines the dancer’s future, it is still a taboo. On the other hand, Jennifer Jackson in her article (Jackson 2014) argued that London has a wide range of institutions and societies which cultivate elderly dancers’ involvement in community dancing. All in all, swing dance is a highly potential area for enjoyment and a great employment opportunity for elderly dancers due to its latitude and improvisational roots. Elderly dancers typically have extensive experience which may make them exceptional improvisers.

Difficulties

In one month, I attended three swing classes (swing, blues and lindy-hop) in different places in London.  Short conversations with other participants and note-taking during the dance sessions were the main methods for exploring neo-swing dance learning. In this section, I am going to analyse three main difficulties which I encountered during the learning process, and identify three possible factors which could determine these difficulties: prior dance experience, social habitus and cultural differences.

Difficulties Factors that determine them
Long step combinations Prior dance experience
Changing of the partners Social habitus
Verbal communication Cultural differences & prior dance experience

Long step sequences

Neo-swing lessons are based on learning step-by-step dance combinations. However, during all the three lessons, I did not manage to repeat all step combinations correctly. This could be due to lack of prior experience: I saw all steps and tried to repeat them, my body was not adapted to it and not used to maintain hand raised at waist level, knees’ swing, and the tense keeping of the partner’s hand. The only dance training which I had had was Lithuanian traditional dance. Overall, this experience taught me to concentrate on the brief footstep combinations and follow the partner and his dance variations. So, the first important factor which made it difficult to learn long dance sequences was the prior dance experience. It was relevant to me and is likely to be relevant to everyone who is learning new dances.

Changing of the partners

The three lessons which I attended did not require to have a single partner, because learning was based on the principle of couple rotation. So, within each 3-minute interval the participants were changing their partners. I felt uncomfortable, because I did not knew these people and I was not sure how to dance with them. In this situation, prior dance experience and  deficient verbal communication in English were relevant – if I knew swing dance steps, some strain would have been released. Nevertheless, in my view, the essential factor was the formal push to dance with an unknown person. I danced Lithuanian traditional dances for more than 11 years with lots of people, however, in our traditional dance culture we can always choose the partner. So, I used to dance with dancers who appreciate me or I appreciate him or her. With regards to swing dance, I found myself in a place where the environment forced me act against the habitus of Lithuanian traditional dance (Bourdieu 1986), which is the engrained social norm that allows dancers to choose partners, or be chosen. That habitus was strongly embodied in me, which I did not realize it until the circumstances have changed. The new social environment with different social norms caused the resistance because the established habitus did not coincide with the different social environment. The strong emotional reaction suggested that this experienced emotional difficulty was brought about by the violation of my social habitus.

Verbal communication

Fluent verbal communication is very important part in the dance learning process. Through the learning process, predominantly British teachers used to make jokes in order to cheer up the learning atmosphere. However, I did not understand the jokes because of the deficient English knowledge and because I am not familiar with the British culture. Sometimes, I could not even understand the tasks because of the sophisticated verbal communication which is part of the British culture. Moreover, my prior dance experience also affected the helpfulness of verbal communication in general: I acquired my dance skill through social dancing and I never attended any formal dance courses and workshops, so I have developed a habit to listen/watch my and other’s bodies and learn through doing. As a result, during swing dance classes I just waited when instructor would stop talking and I could learn from others. In sum, the difficulty of learning via verbal communication was determined by former dance experience and partially by cultural differences which includes frequent humour and sophisticated language.

Conclusion

Lithuanian traditional dance and swing dance developed differently through the history.
However, both dance traditions ceased and were revived at the end of the 20th century. Nowadays, all races, body types, and ages of participants are acceptable in social dancing, and it has significant potential for meaningful employment. Meanwhile, professional dance ought to make further improvements in this field.

Nevertheless, swing dance is much more popular and its dance teaching is more developed than that of Lithuanian traditional dance. Dance improvisation is fundamental segment in swing dance, which developed together with jazz music. The improvisation analysis enables dancers to understand and embody complicated dance forms. However, dance learning as well as the coherent dance classification requires simplification of dance movements and variety.

With regards to the difficulties in the personal experience of dance learning, prior dance experience is the main factor which influences it. Social habitus is also influential and it can be noticed via inner resistance to adopt new social norms of the swing dance community. Difficult verbal communication aggravate learning process, however it depends on how people are used to learn – in my personal case, learning happens by direct observation, and verbal communication played a small role.

In sum, I have long experience with Lithuanian traditional dancing, which makes it more difficult to overcome prior knowledge while learning swing dance. Nevertheless, knowing one helps to learn the other, as both share many qualities: in terms of their history, improvisation style, and openness to diverse kinds of participants. Ultimately, both swing and Lithuanian traditional dance are types of social dances and both teach people couple dancing, which has become a relative rarity in the contemporary society.

 

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[1] Dancers without prior dance experience

[2] The different variations of Krakoviakas, Latisas, Aleksandra, Lelenderis, Valsas, Kadrilis dances are common in Eastern Europe region.

[3] These roles could be named also as ‘women’ and ‘men’, however, instructors usually avoid a sexism and maintained the ‘follows’ and ‘leads’ denominations.

[4] Puri and Hart-Johnson (1995)

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