So after the University of Toronto’s swing dance club’s beer and chicken wings night out, I had a great discussion with Alex M, Kathleen, and Brian G from Ottawa (previously somewhere not Ottawa) about, what else, the dance scene in Toronto. I won’t bore you with the specifics of that conversation but I remembered that I wanted to post up Brian’s awesome note about his experience dancing in Ottawa’s swing dance scene. So here it is. I highly recommend you give it a good read even if you are not from this scene/city/country because it gives a honest perspective from a dancer’s point of view. Enjoy.
Part 1: Something in the Air
Was there was something in the air?
It didn’t make sense. There were only 10 or 15 people in a large hall, DJ’d music, in a new city where I barely knew anybody – yet somehow it was one of the best dance nights I’d had in months.
This wasn’t Montreal with its French flair, or Vancouver with its west coast chill. This was Ottawa, a town whose most prominent figure, Stephen Harper, is stiffer than Bill’s drinks. I knew there wasn’t anything in the air here. Somebody must have deliberately done something right.
The dance was Swing Dynamite’s Saturday Night Swing (SNS) in late May, 2009. I was in Ottawa for the weekend to look at apartments, and Alec had taken me out to the dance. It was obvious that the dance was awesome because everybody was so excited and inspired. Relative to the small number of attendees, lots of people were dancing every song. The music was swinging hard and the best follower in the room ran up to me excitedly and asked me to dance . . . twice! Yes, she even seemed excited the second time, when she knew what she was getting herself into.
The question is, where did all that contagious enthusiasm come from? And why couldn’t I find the same energy and inspiration back home in Toronto?
Disclaimer: Since moving to Ottawa I have become a Swing Dynamite fan and I make no apologies for it. I think the main answer to my question is that the people at the top of that organization have been doing a lot of very simple things very well. You may or may not agree and that is okay. I want to make it clear when I say this that I have a huge amount of respect for all of the other swing dancing organizations in Ottawa and I think they are essential to the health of the scene. OSDS remains the largest social dance night here, and I always have a good time there. Geoff and Andrea taught the first workshop I ever attended back in 2002, and they were instrumental in teaching me how to dance. I met Alana a few times when she lived in Toronto, and she’s a dynamic instructor and all-around fun person. Also, she’s taken on some people I highly respect to teach with her. Finally, both of the university clubs have impressed me and have produced some phenomenal dancers.
That said, this story is about how I personally became inspired as a dancer, and the lessons I learned as a result. And that starts with Swing Dynamite.
When I moved to Ottawa, it had been years since I really cared about improving my dancing. With my ankle injury, I’d been dancing only once a week in Toronto, to pretty slow music at UT-Swing. Even without the injury, I doubt I would have done much different. I was happy to use swing as a place to hang out with my friends; dancing itself wasn’t particularly important. I had been very involved in organizing for awhile, but by the time I left Toronto I was tired of that too.
But every time I went to SNS in Ottawa, I got caught up in its enthusiasm. I didn’t understand where the enthusiasm came from, but it was there and it was striking. A big part of it was the quality of the music. Every time I went to sit down, a song would come on that I would just have to dance to. On top of that, I found a great physiotherapist here and suddenly my ankles started feeling a lot better. All of a sudden I was able to dance more, and that was exciting in itself.
As I started attending more dances, and dancing to more songs at each one, I started feeling self-conscious about my dancing. I was used to being a big fish in a small pond at UT-Swing, but here, I was hit like a ton of bricks with how bad I really was. It’s not because anybody was snobby or mean about it – in fact, it was exactly the opposite. Fantastic followers kept running up eagerly asking me to dance, or acting excited when I asked them, and not only did their enthusiasm wear off on me, but it made me want to give them a fun dance experience in return. So the more I danced and the more I enjoyed doing it, the more I felt it was important to become a better dancer.
In September, I took my first class in Ottawa, Swing II taught by Natalia and Dave Ward. I was afraid it would be below my level, but in fact, while I felt I was one of the better dancers in the class, I learned a heck of a lot. These people aren’t afraid to push their beginners – the three main themes were pop turns, breakaways, and tandem Charleston! Pop turns and tandem were things I’d seen before, but wasn’t very good at, and most of the variants or “moves” they taught were new. Breakaways were completely new to me and they’re still freaking hard to do. And they were teaching this stuff to kids who hadn’t even learned the swingout yet!
Of course, after that, I was hungry for more, and in October Swing Dynamite held auditions for their teams. They do auditions in 2 stages. If you pass the first audition, you go through a “boot camp” which culminates in a final performance. Then they decide whether or not you make the team. I had no illusions that I was actually good enough to be on a team, and I hate performing anyway, but I still tried out. I figured that if I got into boot camp I’d have, in effect, a 5-week intensive high-level dance class for only $80. It would be the most effective way to quickly improve my dancing.
On the first day of boot camp I was absolutely convinced that I wasn’t good enough to do this. Not only was I the only one not to pass the knicker, but I pulled a tendon in my bicep trying. Then we learned a good 45 seconds of a difficult routine in an hour and a half, and there was this 10-count move ending in a ridiculous leader spin that I just couldn’t figure out. I honestly wanted to quit right then.
I didn’t quit because of Jess, who had the misfortune of being my partner since she was one of the only followers small enough for me to lift. She was the most enthusiastic dancer I’d ever known, and I was starting to get to know the Ottawa crowd, so that is saying something. She really wanted to make the team, and I didn’t want to let her down. So not only did I stay in boot camp, but I practiced the routine at home and went to the optional Wednesday practices so that I would be able to do it. I wasn’t doing all that work to try to make the team, which I knew was a lost cause. I did it because I was in way over my head and I felt that I had to work hard if I wanted to get anything out of the classes.
Soon the hard work started to feel like fun. Pushing your dancing is exhilarating. And there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you do figure something out (that 10-count move? It’s actually a 4 followed by a 6! When the leader spin happens on the last 2 counts of a 6-count move, i.e. where leader spins always happen, it’s actually pretty easy). Being part of a cool group of people who are working on the same things together makes you realize how much fun it can be.
We never did get the knicker down by the end of boot camp, and we just did a toss during our final performance. But Natalia either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and Jess and I both made the team.
That’s how, in four months, I went from a casual once-a-week dancer to a passionate member of a performance team. I couldn’t explain it; all I could say was that something about Ottawa was wearing off on me. I was curious, though. I wanted to know how Swing Dynamite does this – how it creates this energy and excitement, inspires people to push their dancing, and allows them to have fun while they’re at it. How it has helped to build one of Canada’s strongest swing dance scenes in one of its most unlikely places.
Now that I was part of the organization, I could look for my answers from the inside, but also from my outsider’s Torontonian (and Kingstonian) perspective. In Part 2 I talk about a few of the things that I’ve noticed.
Part 2: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Continued from part 1, these are my observations of things Swing Dynamite has done that I think have helped create the atmosphere that I talked about in the first part — stressing, again, that I have tons of respect for all of the other swing organizations in Ottawa, but that this note happens not to be about them.
An early observation was that Swing Dynamite does a lot of stuff. They teach 5 levels of lindy/Charleston classes, as well as drop-in classes and specialty 3-week sessions. They run special weekend events from time to time. They run a weekly social dance night, SNS. Oh, and there are also 4 performance teams (there used to be 5, but the other one was a West Coast team, so it doesn’t really count).
But I realized that the scope of the organization wasn’t actually the impressive part. What Swing Dynamite does well is to integrate all of the various stuff that they do into a coherent whole where all of the elements feed off one another. (Well, mostly coherent. Sometimes they do things for no other reason than that men dancing to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” in short shorts is hilarious. But I digress.) What I mean is, SNS feeds dancers into classes, and classes train students to eventually join teams. But it goes the other way too. Senior team members will teach classes, as well as the beginner lessons at SNS. Junior team members or students from the classes can join the SNS set-up/clean-up crew (K-Crew) in exchange for various incentives. This guarantees that a lot of excellent dancers will be at SNS every week. That gives a more inspiring experience to the beginners who drop in, which means more beginners feed into their classes, which means more students feed . . . you get the picture.
This sort of integration is not an earth-shattering, paradigm-changing idea, I admit, but in my opinion that’s the entire point. What I’ve learned since I started dancing in Ottawa is that you can find a lot of success just by doing simple things well.
A corollary of having 4 teams plus K-Crew is that you end up with a lot of people who feel like they have a stake in the organization. Being a team member means more than just the higher-level dance classes that were my reason for joining. It means being part of something. The loyalty that engenders, I am convinced, is part of the reason SNS feels so high-energy and inspiring – there are so many people who feel a sense of pride and ownership, and they have a personal stake in making each night awesome.
Providing a feeling of ownership isn’t an eye-opening concept either. It was a deliberate strategy used by UT-Swing, and it was one of the original motivations for Toronto Lindy Hop’s Dance Ambassador program. Swing Dynamite offers yet another example of how effective it can be when it’s done right.
When I’m in Ottawa on a weekend, I limit myself to one social dance per week in order to preserve my ankles. There was a stretch in October and November when I intended to go to OSDS, but I didn’t get a chance. I was out of town a lot of weekends, and every weekend I was in town, something special was happening at SNS that made me choose that day instead.
Once it was my own end-of-bootcamp performance, but other times it was a friend performing, a Queen’s Swing Club joint event, or an event with Carleton and SwingUO. Each time I had to tell myself, “I just can’t miss it this week.” The key to this is that the special nights never disappoint. They’re always so awesome that you want to come to the next one, too.
Like everything else I’ve talked about, spicing up social dance nights with special events and performances is hardly unique to Ottawa. Every swing dance organization I’ve ever been involved with has tried it. What allows Swing Dynamite’s attempts to be more successful than most, I think, is their integration. They’re able to call on their teams for performances, use their classes to hype it up, and get K-Crew to help implement. By getting all of these people on board, Swing Dynamite guarantees good attendance by strong and inspired dancers, which makes the special nights that much better.
The only special events I don’t personally appreciate are “Double Trouble” nights. They are supposed to showcase both lindy and west coast, but for whatever reason, many lindyhoppers have tended not to show up – not so much fun for a lindy snob like myself.
Supporting University Clubs
I love university clubs because they are fun-loving, welcoming, flexible, and generally willing to make fools of themselves in pursuit of awesomeness. University swing clubs are better placed than almost anybody to attract new dancers, get beginners excited about swing, and inject fresh ideas into a scene. Rarely have I seen anybody actually take advantage of this.
In Ottawa things are different. I understand there is a good amount of support from Alana and OSDS as well, though I don’t know enough about that to comment. From what I have seen myself, though, Swing Dynamite has also realized that university students are one of their most likely sources of students and team members. A few things that I’ve witnessed:
• Before the first Petit Chicago social dance night, which runs once a month on the same night as SwingUO’s weekly dance, Byron approached the SwingUO president (my dance partner, Jess) about making it a joint event.
• When SwingUO and Carleton Swing ran a joint social that would go to SNS, Swing Dynamite hyped the event in all their classes, and offered a special floorials lesson.
• The Rhythm Blasters (my dance team) were not only brought in to perform for Carleton Swing’s end-of-semester dance in December, but were instructed to stick around for the whole night and dance with the beginners.
• SwingUO’s recent end-of-year dance was attended by Byron and Natalia, several team members, at least three members of the OSDS executive, and Alana.
This all really impressed me. Sure, much of it wasn’t altruism; they wanted to improve attendance at Petit Chicago and SNS. Still, it helped the university clubs out, so it was a good arrangement for both sides. The impact? I once heard Bill and Oz calculate that 13 Swing Dynamite team members are current or former members of SwingUO or Carleton Swing (16 if the Queen’s Swing Club is included). If you’re asking how to generate energy and inspiration, you don’t have to look much farther than that solid group of hardcore dancers who emerged from university clubs.
The rumour about the Swing Dynamite Clique has spread far and wide, even reaching my ears in the distant metropolis of Toronto. Cliques practically define Swing Dynamite’s reputation. Is that fair?
My short answer is that when the top dancers in your group are people like Alec, Laura, Bill and Clare, it’s just not going to be cliquey. It’s that simple.
The long answer is that even before Swing Dynamite existed, people were telling me that the Ottawa scene was cliquey. I went to an OSDS dance in 2005 and saw it for myself. There were a lot of people doing east coast swing in the main room, while in the room at the back a few good dancers did lindy hop. When I asked the lindy hoppers to dance, they accepted, but almost all of them made me feel like a terrible dancer who didn’t belong there (this was true, but I still didn’t appreciate the feeling). I had much more fun doing east coast in the other room – and if you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a lindy snob, so that’s saying something.
I suspect, without knowing, that when Swing Dynamite started up it inducted some of the best existing lindy hoppers into its ranks and the clique continued. But at some point, being a new business trying to swell its ranks, it started making a real effort to be friendly and welcoming and inclusive. It eventually achieved what I talked about under Ownership: a huge number of people are now able to feel like “part of the team.” In my own experience, those people are constantly extending the same courtesy to others; as a new arrival in town I felt immediately welcomed. So – and I know this will be controversial – I suspect that Swing Dynamite did more to solve Ottawa’s clique problem than to create it.
I come from a proud Queen’s Swing Club background which left me with a particular philosophy about swing dancing. To me, it has always been about having fun and meeting people. Becoming a better dancer was secondary. Of course, QSC members did take workshops and travel out of town to push their dancing, but it was never about that. It was about fun, and making new friends, and all the other things I talked about in my QSC Tribute note, which you really should read.
I came to Ottawa expecting to hate Swing Dynamite, not only because of the clique reputation, but because they obviously focused on pushing people’s dancing. I have always been highly suspicious of people and organizations that prize good dancing, or improving the quality of dancing, over having fun and being welcoming to newcomers. And that’s a question of philosophy.
While I don’t think anybody would describe Byron as shy or reclusive, it took months in Ottawa before I heard anything from him about his swing philosophy. One day, though, the Rhythm Blasters had practice right after a Swing I class, and we all jumped into their jam circle and danced with the beginners. Byron later thanked us for doing so, and told us that it was extremely important because it made the beginners feel welcome as part of the group.
Then he paused, and with his characteristic eloquence, added, “which is the whole f—ing point!”
That may be when I learned to stop worrying.
I’ve always believed that the culture of an organization can be set at the top. I think that despite their reputation, Byron and Natalia’s philosophy does have a lot to do with having fun and making newcomers feel welcome. “Don’t try to be perfect, try to be awesome” is another catch phrase that I like. And I think that infuses the whole organization and helps them to inspire others.
How does this all play out in practice? It’s hard to say. I still believe there is a philosophical tension between a focus on improvement and pushing your dancing, which is omnipresent in the organization, and a focus on having fun and being welcoming even to people who aren’t improving. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable here during my ankle injury, when I could only dance once a week or less, because improving remains such an important part of the culture that it would have been hard to fit in. But I wasn’t here then, so I really don’t know. I do know that Rhythm Blaster practices are a healthy mix of work and fun (TNTeam and D-boyz practices, I hear, are a mix of work, fun, and discussions about my facebook notes; coincidentally those are the teams Byron coaches). I do know that I’ve always felt welcome in Swing Dynamite, and that SNS is a great dance experience. And I also know that sometimes I like dancing at OSDS instead, because my follower is less likely to be working on some technique, and more likely to be getting into the music, being silly, and emphasizing the fun in the dance.
That said, I do think that Swing Dynamite has the right philosophy. And even if it’s difficult to implement it all the time, I think they do an admirable job of trying. I recently spent a week in Toronto that was so much fun I really didn’t want to come back to Ottawa. I was feeling pretty down until a Wednesday night practice for a routine that involved 30 dancers, for a gig that hadn’t given us a lot of time to prepare. The practice was chaotic, and I’m told that other people found that stressful, but for me, the ridiculousness was just what I needed. The philosophy of fun shone through. They were not demanding perfection, only awesomeness. I went home that night reminded that there are reasons to enjoy living in Ottawa.
One of the questions I asked at the beginning of part 1 of this note was why I couldn’t find the same sort of energy and inspiration in Toronto that I did in Ottawa. That’s not a question I’m going to try to answer. I will only stress that this note was not meant to criticize, only to share my personal experience. I became more inspired to dance in Ottawa than I had been in a long time, and I don’t believe it was a coincidence. I believe that people in Ottawa are doing some very simple things right.
I also believe that Toronto has the potential to be a phenomenal dance scene. When I left, all of the pieces were in place – great social dance venues, world-class teachers, and if I say so myself, the greatest university swing club in Canada today. The only thing I thought was missing was that intangible spark of inspiration.
I am encouraged by the fantastic discussions about the Toronto scene that have been happening at Hamfats recently. They show that the one thing I thought was missing may well have arrived. There are lots of people who seem passionate and motivated to make the scene the best that it can be. Some of them are already using the same strategies that I’ve identified here, which, as I keep saying, are not earth-shattering except in their simplicity. I hope that this note will contribute to the ongoing discussions and that the swing scenes in both cities will ultimately become even more awesome than they already are.