Under the Hood: Toronto Blues Team

Blues team competitions are a bit weird. Actually solo blues dancing in general is weird… and awkward. Often times when you see a clip online on solo blues dancing, it doesn’t look as, shall we just say, “refined”, when compared to other dances with solo elements such as mambo, soul, and ballroom. A part of the issue is that there just isn’t enough consistent solo dance classes in the blues/lindy-hop world. If you are lucky, you’ll end up at a out-of-town workshop weekend where they will have a couple of solo classes. If you are super lucky, you’ll be able to go to Stompology ;-) or Herrang. At the very worst, we are all learning from the same ten or so solo blues dance clips on YouTube and trying to replicate the same “vernacular” moves over and over. The other part of the issue is for the most part, dancers, at least in my part of the world, are still trying to *just* learn how to dance with each other to blues music. There’s not as much inclination to learn the solo aspects when the partnered portion of the dance is a challenge on its own.

Even though blues dancing on your own looks (to me) awkward and a bit weird, I have a confession – I love awkward dancing. It really is my fave.

Sometime in early summer of this year when I decided to bring another team to Minneapolis for North Star Blues, I asked myself if it was worth the organizational headache of trying to coordinate people’s schedules to get together for practices/rehearsals. At the end of the day there were three primary reasons why I got interested and involved in in blues team again:

1) to get my friends involved in an activity that I love.
2) to have an excuse to work on solo blues dancing in an collaborate environment.
3) to have something intermediate blues dancers in my scene to work on.

(Just an FYI for the 3 people who view this blog, the Toronto blues dance scene is still in its infancy stage. It’s only been this year where we have had a regular blues dance night and consistent beginner lessons.)

The Process

A big concern that I had when creating dance choreography for the team cutting competition was representing the dance in a “authentic” way. Now, there really aren’t very many clips of vintage blues dancing, so I can only speculate as to what constitutes “vintage” or “authentic”. There are a set of vernacular steps such as the mooche, low downs, snake-hips and to some extent even rocksteadys that we could imitate, but for the most part, our historical journey really just consisted of scouring the internet/youtube for blues performances and adding in elements of our own personality and dance background. Now before we get into a academic discussion as to what constitutes blues aesthetics, I just want to point out that I’m still in the learning/experimental stage myself.

One major inspiration that I had this summer for solo blues dancing is the Barrel House Blues video.I really took this video to heart because of how simple and elegant the dancing was. There was no splashy dance tricks and flips. The male dancer in the video is very controlled and poise while still having a very distinctive masculine flair. We even just flat out paid homage to this clip by lifting a sequence directly from the clip. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, right?

In terms of adding in our own personal dance flavour, I tried to go for movements that were already familiar to the group – afro-cuban, mambo shines, and of course my favourite – wild arms flailing (aka wackin’+locking+more wild arms flailing). There were three types of choreography movements that I looked into for learning purposes which were really just divided up based on length – one phrase, half a phrase, one eight count. Here are some early practice videos of some of the moves we were playing around with:

For practices, I tried to break it up into three components: body movement/isolation exercises, “learning moves/choreography”, and improvisation. The main challenge for the particular group that I was training this year was getting them used to “learning choreography” together as a group. Learning how to learn. For this, we used video to record all the instructions for particular sequences of moves so we can compare and analyze the movements and make changes as necessary.

My philosophy in dance training is that what you are doing should always be slightly more than you can handle. That way, you know you are constantly pushing your techniques and movement to the limit. What I learned this time around was that not everybody can take or are willing to take that amount of drilling for a for-fun dance competition. I had to take a step back half way through the training “camp” and ease up on my dancers – after all, most of them were extremely new to all of this. It’s good to have people around you who you trust and that trust you enough to be able to make suggestions for improvement not just in dance but also for the process.

What I Really Learned

At the end of the day – something is only really worth doing if you really love doing it. Solo blues dancing is a negative return of investment – you won’t get fame nor would you get fortune doing it. The number of hours dedicated to learning a dance style that does not have readily available resources will never be recouped financially. However, the personal journey of pursuing a dance style that not very many people have ventured is a reward on its on.

5 Comments

  1. I love this post, Randy. Thanks for taking us along on this journey. (wow, that’s cliche…)

    It’s interesting to me that you say ” dancers… are still trying to *just* learn how to dance with each other to blues music”. I tend to think of it the other way around: “You have to know how to dance with yourself before you can dance with someone else.”

    Once we know how to move with the rhythm of the music, whether it’s blues, jazz or whatever, then it’s a lot easier to think of what to do with another person.

  2. I would tend to agree with you Michael but the reality is that majority of partner dancers that I know do not actively train in solo dancing. :-/ It’s slowly changing in my scene though :)

  3. Martha

    hehehe yeah, solo blues dancing is kinda awkward. Also, I must be in the super-duper lucky category of having gone to Stompology AND Herrang for solo too. Boo ya! Also, I couldn’t not laugh at your ‘wackin’ video!! ahaha

  4. Kevin Sue

    Partnered OR solo, your dancing is anything but awkward.

  5. Jody

    This makes me really wish I were still living in the GTA and were involved in this. Perhaps I should visit more. I’d love to offer some suggestions AND I know its is easy to critique and much harder to do. I am willing to help out and visit.

    I would like to offer up one idea now though. When you introduce a new song, let them move to it a bunch first. Then if the song is an instrumental that often has words, read them aloud. I know it sounds quite academic but can help with the emotional journey, bring home the message, remind that blues has such a great emotional range and change the attitude behind the movements of the dance. (Also prevent the fopah sexpot movements to a funeral dirge, but I digress.) No words and/or want to delve a little deeper? Dig a bit to find out about the writer’s inspiration behind the song.

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