5 New Year’s Resolutions for the Aspiring Dancer

Buster Keaton pondering his New Year's Resolutions.
Buster Keaton pondering his New Year’s Resolutions.

As the dawn of 2013 approaches, many of us are thinking about what types of bad habits we will reform or what types of healthy behaviors we will adopt to fulfill more meaningful lifestyles. For many, jotting down New Year’s Resolutions isn’t about thinking of new changes to be made, but an opportunity to refocus and define tasks that we’ve all ready set for ourselves. As dancers we are constantly looking for fresh challenges, new sources of inspiration, and avenues to guide improvement. The New Year is a great chance to recount how best to do this and to create a plan that strikes a balance between having fun and setting goals. Here are five suggestions to better reach that balance.

1. Lessons and Individual Practice

Accepting lindy hop and other dances as simply a social activity is totally legitimate, but not a good approach for those wishing to consistently improve both as individual dancers and dance partners. A healthy balance of lessons and individual practice is essential for aspiring dancers and dancers who practice this combination clearly improve at a much more rapid pace than dancers who social dance only. Lessons, such as those offered by Lindy Hop St. Louis, offer a new source of inspiration in your dancing through a step-by-step process, which is particularly helpful in the beginning and intermediate stages of a dancers’ development. Yet, group lessons alone are least effective without individual practice. Individual practice at home or at a studio, either by yourself or with a friend(s) or is an incredible tool to rapidly improve your dancing. Consider dedicating a specific day or days of the week to practicing dancing. You might have enough free time to dance an hour every day, or maybe you are only limited to one hour per week. Whatever frequency works for you, make sure that you hold it as a consistent commitment. By yourself, this practice could be triple step exercises at varying tempos (see this video), solo jazz, solo charleston, or even dancing with an invisible partner. With a dance partner this could be a focused practice (e.g. “let’s work on improving our 8 count swingouts,” or “let’s try these new footwork variations.”), a brainstorming session (dance and create), building a routine, or simply social dancing with the opportunity to troubleshoot issues that arise. When you get stumped or frustrated consider taking a private lesson with a local or out-of-town instructor.

2. Regularly Social Dance!

Yes, #1 was all about practicing in a contained setting off of the social dance floor, but this should be within the context of improving ON the social dance floor! Individual practice without regular social dancing is an imbalance that can make dancing a grueling, sometimes unenjoyable experience. And the bottom line is that lindy hop, charleston, shag, and other dances are social by nature–it’s best to do them regularly in a “real-world” setting to make individual practice meaningful. So make Tuesday Night Swing Nights in the Grandel Theatre a regular social dance night, and/or any of the regular and irregular dance events around town.

3. Travel to An Out-of-Town Dance Event

Home scenes are sentimental, cozy, and wonderful. But traveling and dancing in other cities offers superb opportunities to experience fresh ideas in your dancing, learn from new perspectives, and bring knowledge back to your home scene to further enhance your local dancing. On any given weekend you can travel to a dance event or festival in the Midwest, greater United States, and beyond. So make a point to travel out of town at least twice in the next year! The rewards might surprise you.

4. Become Well-Versed in Original Dance Footage

Have you heard of youtube? If you know what to look for then it can become one of your greatest resources as a dancer. In the same way that a painter must be familiar with and able to recreate artistic styles that precede him or her, you should take responsibility for being familiar with the pioneers that developed the dance(s) that we do today. Make sure that you can recognize the dancing of Shorty George Snowden, Big Bea, Snake Hips Tucker, Frankie Manning, Willa Mae Ricker, Norma Miller, Dean Collins, Jewel McGowan, Al Minns, Leon James, Hal and Betty Takier, and the contemporaries of these original swing-era dancers. Also become familiar with the major pieces associated with these dancers: scenes in the movies “Hellzapoppin’,” “Day at the Races,” “Buck Privates,” and countless others. Another worthwhile endeavor is to explore old footage of local dancers in your community. In the case of St. Louis this includes Jim and Lorraine Byrnes, Eddie and Dottie Plunkett, John Bedrosian, and Club Imperial dancers. As you know, one thing leads to another on youtube, so searching these names and keywords should be a great start. Many video clips of unknown dancers are equally worthwhile and inspiring. Check them out–there’s really no excuse!

5. Collect and Listen to Jazz, Swing, and Blues Music

I used to think that this was an apparent piece of being a swing dancer, but after years of dancing I have come to realize that in many cases the largest disconnect in dance scenes around the country is the disconnect between dancers and the music that helped produce the dances. Having a foundational collection of jazz, swing, and blues for dancing is a no-brainer because it is largely free. Go to your public library or university music library–your essential swing artists will be there. You can also listen to music on Spotify. Collect as much as you can from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Artie Shaw, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, and on and on. Compilations are also wonderful! Set a goal for yourself–maybe you will try to fully experience two swing albums every week. This, like youtube footage, is widely available and easily acquired. Collect it for dance practice, and to enjoy listening to, and I promise that you will enjoy yourself more, and through appreciation potentially become an improved all-around dancer. In addition to recordings, go out and find your local jazz and swing bands. Get to know the musicians and ask them who their favorite bands are. This will bring the black-and-white pictures and scratchy records to life, and yes, you will become a better consummate purveyor of swing dancing.