Thursday, July 11, 2019

I Love the Feeling

of my arm hanging out the side of my car, discovering Pink’s “God is a DJ” is a far more profound song than I realized.

That’s how all of today has been.

My heart is humming

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Creating Things

Got thinking the other day how grateful I am that my life entails creating things so often . . . and then I got thinking this morning that really anything can be seen that way if we choose to. Take reading for example: it could be seen as both intake and output, the output being the creation of knowledge within oneself. Take serving at a restaurant for example: it could be seen as creating an experience. I think I take time to reflect on this simply as a measure of continuing to cultivate mindset as a tool.

I also got thinking this morning how unsafe it can feel to live in a place where any damn person could be carrying a gun. When on my morning walk, someone pulled over and was screaming at someone, either in the car with them or over the phone, and it really put me on guard. On one hand, I wanted to reroute my walk in hopes reminders of other people around would calm this person down, and on the other hand, I was scared to, and for some reason, this made me think he could have a gun and could use it. Highly unlikely? Yes. Did it pass through my mind? Yes.

This feels of substance on its own, but also in the light of what I'm hoping to get toward writing about today: my experiences in Japan. After the thought of 'gun,' my head immediately went to how unlikely it'd be that I'd think such I thing in Japan. First of all, it's very unlikely someone would scream in the car on the street. In fact, it seems very unlikely that anyone would scream in their own home. Or anywhere, really. Which seems really great. And really terrible. As I write this, it occurs to me that while its VERY unlikely anyone would scream anywhere or have a gun at all (crime rates are SUPER low in Japan and we felt safe everywhere we went), Japan's suicide rates are among the higher of the world's countries, and I wonder about how much that has to do with the societal pressure to 'rank and file' and never really act out.

Bustling Tokyo

This feels likely to be a big part of what causes such outrageous fashion trends there (and signs in my relatively obsessive casual research during and after the trip point to this being true). I found that at first I LOVED the orderly sense about everything in Japan. The queuing system for the subways. The infrastructure created for umbrellas. The quietness in public spaces. That said, after about a week, I started wondering about and observing the down-sides of the orderliness. Strict gender roles. Lack of variance in public personality (at least from the standpoint of a foreign visitor who admittedly didn't know much about the culture/s going into the trip and can't pro port to be any kind of expert now). Fulfilled expectations of life-sucking work at the same company for your entire career. Yowza.

I found myself looking up things like "What kind of careers do Harajuku Girls pursue?" and "Karoshi," which is the Japanese term for 'death from overwork.' Yes, there is a term for that. While I loved learning about the fashion and experiencing the food (and how my expectations of it were met by its realities) and the onsens (oh, the natural hot spring onsens!) and the way temples and shrines are folded into every expected and unexpected corner, I was also taken with their challenges.

Usually when I travel, I am easily swept up by a new culture, and for a week of this trip, I was. I think I'm starting to realize how interesting and important it is to take in all aspects of something new, not just the good ones (even if you are a rosy-glasses kinda gal like me). Further evidence that the idea of gray matter and not just yin and yang is pretty solid? It was pretty refreshing to be both swept away by experiencing a culture new to me, and to also be able to against it, appreciate the one/s in which I belong. By the time we came home, I was feeling pretty grateful to be able to dress really however I wish, to be able to raise my voice or laugh loudly in public, to be able to pursue a work-life balance . . . Of course when I say these things, I do bear in mind 1) that the 'be able to's are not literal, but come from a place regarding societal pressures, and 2) that the outcomes of societal pressure are not distributed equally or in the same ways upon all people in a culture or in related cultures. It was just interesting to reflect on similarities and differences between the cultures I'm a part of and the ones I experienced. To me, there are positives and negatives within all, as I'm really coming to believe is true of nearly all things.

Back to that yin and yang thing. Apt, I think, considering the development of Japan's culture/s was and deeply influenced by Chinese and Korean ideas. Spirituality was so present in Japan, perhaps more so physically than any other way. While a great deal of Japanese citizens do not really consider themselves 'practicing religious,' per say, many of them DO consider themselves spiritual, regularly visiting neighborhood and iconic shrines to take a moment with certain gods regarding certain things. I find it totally fascinating that spirituality can take that shape. As someone who would not balk at being labelled 'spiritual but not religious,' I appreciate the idea that these aged temples and shrines can still hold relevance for people like me.

Me and Kris at the Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

The top of the Fushimi-Inari Shrine

I find such relevance in my time in nature, in which I try to pause my whirring thoughts and instead just listen to and develop appreciation in the moment/s. That doesn't seem so far away from the over-holdings of Shinto, the so-called pagan religion of Japan that informs the life of many Japanese 'spiritual but not religious' folks. In a way, I'm disappointed that nature or life-in-general worship here does not have such ornate and fascinating buildings and monuments to aid it. In another (I think larger) way, I'm sort of glad. For me, it feels the least false and most true to go outside of myself to natural surroundings to go back within myself to appreciate those we've built.

PICKLES.

That's some big stuff. Smaller things I wish to call out include PICKLES AT NEARLY EVERY MEAL. PICKLES OF ALL KINDS! I'm here for it. Places to put your umbrella. Everywhere. The general kindness of so many strangers we came across (well, that seems like a big one). So, back to big stuff!

I noted in my last set of writing my wish to address how clearly the need for self-regulation of using the internet was made on this trip. With unlimited wifi came both comfort in travel and the discomfort of knowing that I could be made more comfortable whenever I felt like it by just looking stuff up, when one of the best by-products of travel is being made UNcomfortable for while. Discomfort in the sense of shake-up from routine. Routines are awesome, they help us be really comfortable and productive, and that's great, but productivity is NOT the only state of being that matters. Comfort can only go so far in the human experience. (the right kinds and amounts of) Discomfort can help us question our norms and to push at them in ways that keep us moving toward better. Back to unlimited access to the internet: being able to just look up whatever I was curious about both aided in my learning and took away some of the discomfort and mystery. About a week into the trip, I found myself starting to feel disillusioned by always being able to get the/ an answer about my curiosities, rather than just letting them float within my head, promoting the beautiful mystery of being a human living on this planet. It's been a big take-away for me, that I hope I will actively hang onto, to routinely recognize when I should just put my damn phone away and be left with some wondrous questions and ongoing inquiry.

#DoingThings at Himeji Castle

Kris swept up in the TeamLab Borderless digital art museum in Tokyo

I'll also call out being able to recognize my own tendency toward cultural reductionism. It seems as humans, we really want to make sense of everything nearly all the time, and a seemingly easy way to do this is to reduce a topic to simplicity in order to chew on and digest it. This seems both helpful and really dangerous. In relation to my trip to Japan, I realized pretty quickly that I had a specific picture of how the whole country is (packed, urban spaces with all people bustling to and from their jobs), and hadn't really considered that it would look and feel different in different areas, just like the US or anywhere else, really. It was interesting to learn that while Japan is the geographic size of one California or two Minnesotas and is 75% uninhabitable due to mountains, it STILL has really varying cultures. Part of this is because it manages to hold an equivalent of a third of the population of the United States (that's a lot of people!) and another part is due to how it sits geographically. The Northwest region of the country (which we didn't get to see) is mountainous and known for their winter culture. Tokyo and Osaka have their big-urban-living thing going for them, and Kyoto is known for it's wealth of history. The island of Okinawa and the Kamakura area just South of Tokyo both embody Japanese surf culture. I have to say I'm kind of embarrassed with myself for not really realizing ahead of the trip that there would be so many distinct cultures WITHIN Japan. It's a good thing I continue to seek opportunities to expand my mind: seems like, much like us all, it can use it!

Me and Kris contemplating life at the Ryoan-Ji Zen Garden

I wish to acknowledge my hope that when I sat down to 'write about Japan,' I'd get it all out in one excellent essay and check that item off my list. That said, I eventually recognized, before I even started writing, that is a ridiculous expectation, and that I will be processing this experience for a long time. It'll come up at expected and unexpected times. And that's how I really think a good trip should hit you: for a good while. I'll be interesting to see how it continues to come up. I'll just have to be cognizant enough to notice :)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Flip (Jet) Flop (Lag)

My little corner of the internet.

Almost feels more meaningful after opening up my vision to new parts of the world. That sounds horribly clique, but as I've said, I think cliques exist for a reason, I suppose.

I'd really like to get back to my notebook habit (choice language - "really like to," not "need to"), though dumping thoughts here seemed to be a good lead-in for my hope to get a post written about my/ our experiences in Japan.

Having been away from my computer for a bit, my typing seems to have gotten rusty. Along with my ability to pull up the words I'd like to use. A bit scary, actually. Been a little worried it's not just culture shock/ being away, but something wrong health-wise . . . it just helps to write that rather than just think it.

As I try to settle in back home here, some ideas came up during my morning walk, despite my attempts to gently push them away in favor of meditative time. For starters, I want to put in writing that I love the way my neighborhood always seems to smell like hash browns in the morning. It's easier to smell in the Spring, Summer and Fall, but I feel confident it smells so in Winter too. I think it felt particularly pleasant to notice this morning because it's been weeks since I've been out for a morning walk here, and the last morning we were in Japan, while using the outdoor public bath at the hotel, I noticed hash brown smell in the air and it made my heart sing. I had actually commented a couple days before that I missed hash browns. An interestingly specific thing, as I actually don't eat them all that often. At first, I thought the comment was in proxy for all potatoes in general (!), but I'm realizing now it's not. I generally save hash browns for special occasions and going out to breakfast or brunch. They feel special in that way. Yet, they also feel like a signifier of comfort and knowing of place.

Another thought along my walk: "What else would I be doing?" I zeroed in to a time (maybe last Fall, was it?) where I maintained a "Well, what else would I be doing?" attitude as a way to say yes to the moment more often. I has continued to pop into my head, I think it hopes that I'll try it out again. It often applies to simple things like going to the Y with Kris. I get in my head sometimes that I need to be home more, and I think at times in the year that's true, benefitting more from fucking around on the internet than joining Kris at the Y at the end of the night. Right now (besides being gone in Japan!), I've got plenty of home time. With this particular example, I think it calls to question how I'd like to see my weeknights generally end, and perhaps I haven't given that as good a thought as I have given my mornings. I think I'd prefer the Y time regularly to the TV time after: perhaps I negotiate on that more . . . not even gonna be a question for another week . . . where did June go? Life in chunks.

Tangent. Back to topic: "What else would I be doing?" I actually think this passages right into where I think I was headed next: Life in Chunks. One of my first thoughts this morning was "Oh god, where did June go?" In a way, this is just something I think we think, like passing thoughts about the weather. In another way, I think this is a reflection of my tendency to think of life in chunks, or to apply expectations to the way something is "supposed to be," becoming surprised when it's not.

I don't think I'm alone in my desire for an idealized 'Minnesota Summer.' In March and April, I always start picturing myself grilling and beaching and hanging out in the sun, even though I never end up doing any of those things as much as I think I'd like to. I then set myself up for a disappointment of sorts when this doesn't come to fruition. I then write about this exact topic every damn summer at about this time.

Part of me thinks that if I'd really want to change something, I would (a-la Kris). Another part of me thinks that habits are powerful, and it's easy to let something go unchanged even if you really desire one.

I did a lot of fore-thought this summer to paring down my expectations to set myself up for delight. Now can I remember exactly what those things were? A bonfire or kite fly or beach per week. Seems doable. Then this: A June that has consisted of a week of a guest artist and two weeks of being out of the country. Writing that in this context makes me want to get my little violin out and play it for myself. But then I step back: didn't these experiences actually INCLUDE aspects of my idealized summer? We did lots of MN summery things when Rohan was here (walk around Bde Maka Ska, Hiawatha Falls), and went to the beach in Japan. The end cap to my June is working four Saints games in a row and then hauling ass up to Battle Lake for an RS collaboration with DanceBARN. In one way, I could see this month as not having fulfilled my expectations. And really, it didn't. My expectations didn't match my reality. I KNEW this month was going to be like this, yet couldn't reorder my brain to get on board and set new expectations. Rather than being disappointed that unrealistic expectations were not fulfilled, I need to either 1) set up my reality 'better' next time, or 2) appreciate what DID happen. I brought in a guest artist from New York. I went to fucking JAPAN. I get to go Up North, stay in a cabin for free, AND GET PAID to hang and dance and teach. How is this not an utterly amazing month?!

More lessons in expectation management. An ongoing area of learning for me.

I will now proceed to make myself feel a little closer to an intention by making a list of ideas of things I'll cover in my travel post about Japan that will certainly be non-revelatory for those who read travel blogs and that's fine, because it's for me, dammit :):

  • Quietness in public spaces
  • Having to self-regulate use of the internet when searching for answers while in new situations (i.e. choosing to leave some things to mystery)
  • Pickles at every meal!
  • Conservatism of clothing and traditionalism in gender roles (bumping up against the relatively public nakedness of public baths!)
  • Examining my own tendencies in reductionism (a thing I think is pretty human, actually) in realizing that I had a limited picture of what Japan could/ would be, and it turns out it's an entire country with all sorts of different geographies, cultures and traditions across it
  • Routine v. Shake-up, an ongoing inquiry
I'm sure there is more, but this is where my head seems to be pausing and I'm gonna go with it, because it's also time to jump back into everything else. BRAIN DUMP.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The International Swing Dance Championships

Sunday, May 26th

Wow.

Where do I begin? I signed up for the International Swing Dance Championships because I was fortunate enough to receive a grant to fulfill a several-years-long desire to attend a social dance conference/ competition event (thank you, Metropolitan Regional Arts Council for the Next Step Grant!). As a primarily concert dancer who grew up and loves to go social dancing, and whose staged art is inspired by the groove, interaction and improvisation found in it, I've long been fascinated by these events. My closest exposure to them until this weekend has been watching videos online, and to a lesser extent, hearing friends and acquaintances who go talk about them. Needless to say, I've been pretty excited about finally getting to attend one myself.

My original plan was to go to the Montreal Swing Riot, as I've loved watching the videos they've posted from past years, and wanted to attend a conference that would offer both what I understood to be swing dance and urban social dance forms like house. That said, after receiving the grant award to go, I learned that they wouldn't be holding the event in 2019. I was disappointed for a bit, but then set out to make a new plan. I reached out to Latasha Barnes, an amazing vernacular dancer I met at American Vernacular Dance Week in Elkins, WV in the summer of 2015 to ask for her thoughts on what other events I should consider attending to wet my swing and urban dance-desiring palate. She teaches prolifically on this circuit, so she seemed like a good person to ask, and she recommended that I check out the International Swing Dance Championships in Houston (ISDC). I realized only in the couple of days ahead of this event that it was going to be different from what I was expecting.

Packing to come here, I started pulling up videos from past year's ISDC competitions, and quickly discovered that the "swing dance" I was thinking of is not the primary focus of this conference, which worried me at first. I already felt like I'd be charging out of my comfort zone, as I'm not a super-practiced, excellent social dancer (just a good follow with lots of heart) in the Lindy style/s on which I was thinking this event would be focused. As the videos showed, the ISDC focuses on what I'd come to learn are sometimes called "Urban Ballroom Dance" styles, originating from Lindy and having grown in African American communities in cities like Detroit, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.

This made me nervous at first, as it can be vulnerable to be in a dance space centered around forms you are not as practiced in. That said, as a concert dance practitioner deeply invested in the African/-American roots of jazz movement and music and as a human in general, I believe it's an important building of empathy, understanding and knowledge to step out of my norm. I left feeling interested in learning about how the forms the conference app listed for workshops and competitions, like Swingout, Chicago Steppin', Houston Two-Step and Detroit Ballroom, would relate to their predecessors Lindy Hop (which originated on the East Coast of the US) and West Coast Swing (the form in which ballroom Swing styles began), and in exploring the musicality of these forms being danced to old-school Motown and contemporary R&B.

I landed in Houston on the afternoon of Thursday, May 23rd to catch the pre-conference events that evening, and will be here until Monday, May 27th. The main event started Friday evening and goes through this evening - Sunday - and into the wee hours of the morning on Monday (we're talking open dance floor until 4am. 4AM). I was torn on whether or not to take a break from workshops to write this post, but landed on the side of writing, as my brain is just so full, and I was worried it'd come our mishier-moshier if I waited. Thursday got off to a rocky start, as my assumption that the pre-conference events would be at the hotel where everything else is was wrong. I was not the only one in that boat, and I made some friends in the lobby :)   With the Thursday night dance being held off-site at a location the front desk said would be a half-hour Uber ride, I was disappointed in having to make the expense and begrudgingly decided not to go.


I'm glad I let curiosity get the best of me, as when I looked up the Uber information, it was only 15 minutes away, and half the cost I expected! I bit the bullet, took myself to dinner at the Mexican restaurant across from my AirBnB and headed over. While I didn't make it until 10:30 and the dance finished at midnight - I got talking for a couple hours with a table of dudes here from DC for work, and that was fun too - the hour and a half I got was worth it! The pre-conference dance was held at the historic Eldorado Ballroom, a once-and-again fixture for African American communities in Houston that had hosted jazz greats such as Dizzie Gillespie! It was amazing to experience this cultural landmark.

I was also able to encounter some new dances and meet new people in a smaller group before the full event of 420 people began. I learned there that a common and popular form of Urban Ballroom Dance is Swingout, a variation on Lindy that base footwork-wise simply removes the "5 6," making the step single single, tri-p-let, tri-p-let or 1 2, 3&4, 5&6. I'm also realizing as I type this that the dance is also generally not syncopated, as is Lindy. Beyond the footwork, there are also spatial pattern differences. For example, "Swingout" refers to the 'swing to the right, swing to the left' motion that happens on the '3&4, 5&6' part of the basic. I was proactive in asking people to dance, sharing that I'm a novice in these forms and social dance in irregular intervals. Folks were generous in their dancing, kindly greeting me, getting a feel for my learning level and imparting tips as we danced.

On Friday, things really didn't get cooking until 7pm, leaving my plenty of time to go get groceries, cook a little and rest up for all the dancing that was to come. Making sure my AirBnB had a pool was totally worth it: I've been in it every day, soaking my tired feet and body!

My first workshop was Friday's 7pm Chicago Steppin' class with Shaun Ballentine. Prior to learning of Urban Ballroom Dance styles, I would have assumed this style would look and feel like Stepping, a form of body percussion dance popularized by historically black fraternities and sororities. Turns out it's a partnered ballroom dance! The rhythmic pattern is very similar to Swingout, though it has it's own unique patterns of where the steps move spatially and turns and such. It was really fun to jump right in, continuing to learn new things and meet new people who were so welcoming.

About an hour after the workshop, the first set of competitions began. Since I'm staying in an AirBnB rather than the conference hotel where all the events are, I opted to save myself the time and trouble of going back to my accommodations and just pack my change of clothing, opting to change and prep in a bathroom! With the time I had left before the competitions began, I took a quick stroll through the Galleria, a mall the hotel is situated within. Much to my surprise, I discovered an ice rink! The Mall of America has a lot of things, but this is not one of them! While I've still got about a day here in Houston, I think that stroll but filled me to capacity on malls for a good while - not my favorite place to hang :)

I'm glad I followed my instinct and light research and brought a dressy and shimmery red number to dance in: these folks get turned up when it comes to dressing up for competitions and social dancing! Each night has had a theme, and Friday night was Wakanda Forever. I opted to get dressy but leave the traditional African-inspired garb to folks whose heritage is in line with it. It was awesome to see so many amazing outfits!

As I discovered Friday evening, the competitions are a huge part of this event. That night, they ran in 15 minute increments:
  • 9:15 - Pro-Am Strictly DFW Swingout
  • 9:45 - Performances
  • 10:15 - Open Swing Showcase
  • 10:30 - Mr. & Mrs. Showcase
  • 11:15 - Just Dance, Detroit Ballroom
  • 11:15 - Just Dance, DFW Swingout Strictly
Check it out (Open Swing Showcase):



I loved how the competition part of the evening also included performances by groups including West African traditional and Samba by folks who were around for the Afro-Latin Fest happening in the same hotel. Part of why I selected this conference was because we also have access to this festival and to the Houston Jazz Dance Festival, organized by the same folks as the ISDC and focusing on Lindy. It has a much smaller schedule and following, but has been awesome to have access to. In fact, LaTasha, who recommended this whole shebang to me in the first place, is teaching for it!

Here's a taste of LaTasha's Solo Jazz performance:



In between each competition the DJ played a couple of songs for folks to come out and dance to, and I decided not to be shy, asking folks to dance rather than waiting to be asked. There is a disproportionate amount of women to men here, which I am not surprised by. That said, it's not widely disproportionate. There are just more folks here who identify as women. That said, things brings me to a topic I always find interesting when it comes to social dance: who leads and who follows. In so much partner dancing, it's traditionally expected that a man will 'lead' the dance and a woman will 'follow' that lead. This expectation seems to remain relatively strong in this community, unlike in the Lindy communities I've experienced in the last several years, many of whom are actively working to subvert this norm, simply calling the two parts 'lead' and 'follow' rather than 'man,' and 'lady,' and encouraging people to learn and practice both parts. That said, as the weekend has gone on, while there have been instructors that suggest the follow or woman "be submissive," there have been other instructors who were actively working to change their language to "lead" and "follow," encouraging everyone to try whichever part they wish. I also appreciated several instructors who took the time to contextualize how what they were teaching required the practice of leading and following from both parts, positioning it as a conversation rather than one person telling the other what to do.

I got several dances in that night, even though I opted to turn in at 1am when the dancing went until 3am. I wanted rest so I could be back at it again, decently rested, the next day. Saturday is when the Afro-Latin Fest and Houston Jazz Dance Festival classes also kicked in! My day looked like this:
  • 10am - West African Guinean with Tracie Jackson
  • 11:35am - Swingout Start off 101 with Derrick "Smooth" Farrow
  • 12:45 - Chicago Steppin' with Carlton Puckett and Lauren La Gone
  • 2pm - Beginning Lindy Hop with Dee Daniels Locke (from Mpls!) and Joshua McLean
  • 2:30pm - Afrikan-Carribean with Danny Diallo Hinds
  • 4:00pm - Solo Jazz with LaTasha Barnes and Dee Daniels Locke
  • 5pm - Guaguanco with Yeni Molinet and Royland Lobato
One of my Saturday class highlights was Solo Jazz, as apart dancing (or apart play) is more in my wheelhouse as a concert dancer, and I was interested to see how they'd break down this practice that I call 'jazz improvisation.' They defined for us their 'ABC's of Solo Jazz,' which were:
  • A: Authenticity - This was defined as finding the 'you in the music,' as opposed to attempting to embody the look and shape of someone or someones outside of yourself, which I really appreciated.
  • B: Bounce - or what I call Groove. This was positioned as finding the authenticity in the song.
  • C: Cannon - or what I'd call shared vocabulary. That said, I really like the use of the word 'cannon.' It implies that these movements have a history and have developed significance in this way.
I love having a handful of go-to concepts to define a practice, so the structure of this workshop was really satisfying! I believe I'm already quite well-versed in A and B as a jazz improvisor, though know I find C to be quite challenging. I've experienced this in House too: for me, having a set of movements to work off is so much harder than simply moving from my gut. That said, limitations can really stoke creativity, and challenge is good!

I gave myself a well-deserved break at the pool from 6:15-8ish, then headed back for the evenings competitions and dancing. It was fun to see how much my Swingout dancing had improved from Thursday night with some additional on-the-floor teaching Friday night and the workshop I took Saturday. I again sought and had dances, having a lot of fun with learning how each new partner approached the form and working on my ability to loosen up my grip and really listen through my hands.

Here's HellaBlack Lindy Hop, one of Saturday night's performance groups:



And . . . Markus Smith and Tren Veal:



These two were FIRE.

In addition to competitions, performances and open dancing, Saturday night also featured a midnight breakfast buffet! I loaded up on hash browns, danced until 2am and called it a night.

Back at it this Sunday morning, I headed to workshop "Connection: The Dance Conversation" with Lauren
Hubbard and Dominique Martin, who competed Saturday night and were totally bad-ass (pictured right: the DJs who kept the floor rocking all weekend). This workshop was pivotal in my ability to understand what my partners meant when they said I was 'rushing' (and there were several that said this!). At first I thought they meant rhythm, which confused me, because I knew I was not. This workshop helped me understand that its common for follows to be eager in the way they shift their body weight, and that these dances rely on the body weight hanging back to respond. In my interest in actively participating and showing my excitement, I tend to anticipate what might be coming (in accordance with the minimum amount I understand about a dance). That said, these dances are super-adaptable in how the footwork is executed in space, meaning I've really gotta loosen my grip, hang back and listen in order for the dance to smooth out a feel delicious. I started getting a taste for what that feels like last night, and this workshop helped solidify my understanding of these ideas. It was awesome to get to really let go of my brain and feel the dance last night (above photo: the resident DJs hard at work during the workshop).

I'm realizing that part of "feeling the dance" is the slower tempo these dances follow (as compared to the Jitterbug and Lindy music I'm more used to dancing to), given their being done to old-school Motown and contemporary R&B music. I'm finding that I really love to move through familiar patterns, though a little more slowly - leaves me more time to feel the groove!

Today, I also attended the Oshun class (Orisha water goddess) with the Afro-Latin Fest from 11am-12pm and sat in on Demond Carter's Detroit Ballroom class. I'm looking forward to a relaxing dip in the pool, a good meal and potentially a nap before I head back for our last night of competitions, performances and open dancing. I'm looking forward to really feeling the dance again tonight!


(Galleria Mall flashmob)



(Open dancing on Saturday night)

And hopefully to come . . . some video of me dancing :)

-------------

Monday, May 27th

AND . . . continuation. I'm sitting here trying to reflect in the Dallas airport during my tiny layover, as I'm very anxious to get my thoughts down about this experience (much like yesterday when I began this post). After I finished writing, I actually high-tailed it back over to the conference to catch Joshua McLean and Dee Daniels Locke's "Trickeration" class, where they were teaching the routine that Norma Miller, the 'Queen of Swing,' as she was known (she just passed a couple weeks ago at 99) always used to audition her dancers. Unfortunately, I'd misread the schedule and the class was an hour before I though it was. That said, it turns out Dee is from Minneapolis, and she offered to mess around this summer together to learn it! That'll probably be better than class anyway! Connecting with Dee was an awesome happenstance, as not long ago, Cindy Gardner of TC Swing recommended I try connecting with her about the production the grant that funded this trip is also funding. I'm glad to have met her and look forward to continued swing with her in the TC.

My feet and legs were quite tired anyway, so I headed back to my AirBnB to use the pool as planned. After getting myself dressed up in my 90s gear for ‘90s night,’ I grabbed dinner at an Argentinian cafĂ© across the street and headed back to the hotel for our final night of competitions, performances and social dancing.

There were just two competitions Saturday night, as time was needed for the awards ceremony that announced the weekend’s winners. Both competitions were ‘Invitational Jack and Jills,’ which means they randomly paired a lead and a follow (a man with a woman, in this case) to improvise together in the named form. The first was Houston Two-Step and the second, DFW (Dallas Fort-Worth) Swingout. As I was not able to take a Houston Two-Step workshop, I’m still not quite sure what differentiates the form from the ‘Texas Two-Step’ I learned as a kid. That said, from my comparative experience of dancing them both, I can say that former included more spins, turns and walking patterns than the later.

It was pretty incredible to see two folks who normally do not dance together improvise so smoothly. It makes me continue thinking about the concept of ‘shared language’ in new ways, one of my core take-aways from this experience. Like jazz music and clogging, all social dance forms I’ve come across in my life (and that’s a lot!) exhibit this incredible concept of simply understanding some base ideas and the practice of using them extemporaneously as being enough to create beauty with strangers and friends alike in the moment.

This display and practice of shared interest and experience creates a comfort zone that reinforces and/or creates community. At the same time, these spaces cultivate simultaneous opportunity to revel in individuality, as the shared language of the rhythmic steps is just a guideline, meant to be manipulated for those dancing the form to enjoy expressing it in their own unique ways in the company of others doing the same.

That said, seeing people who are deeply, deeply versed in a form dance together brings forth some true magic. They are so comfortable in the base steps that it seems there’s no limit to how they can embellish them, from flourishes of the arms to soulful breakaways to dips, leans and tucks you’d never even imagine until you see them. I have to admit that in my research of the forms featured at the conference before heading there, I noticed how “ballroom-y” they looked, which was sort of a shock considering I was expecting Jitterbug and Lindy Hop. I’ve long been uninterested in ballroom dance, as I’ve come to find their competitive iterations quite sterilized (and often, specifically, whitewashed) from their root forms (think the grounded, grittiness of street salsa shifted upright and made to look more like a waltz). That said, I quickly grew quite found of the Urban Ballroom Dance styles I encountered at the ISDC, for a number of reasons:
  • Tempos: As mentioned, I really enjoyed the laid-back, chill pace at which these dances are executed. I felt like I could dance for 45 minutes and not really need a break, and never felt distracted by being out of breath.
  • Discovering new ways to dance to familiar music: Given my cultural background, I’ve never encountered these ways of dancing to old-school Motown and contemporary R&B music. Most of my exposure to social dancing to these music styles has been grinding or apart dancing. As a social dance semi-nerd of sorts, it was very gratifying to learn new ways to dance to these music styles. 
  • Culture: These Urban Ballroom Dance styles have innovated on Jitterbug and Lindy Hop, integrating the smoothness of styles like waltz and tango with the footwork and spatial patterns of the former while making plenty of space for bumpin’ embellishment, from twerks to dips to struts. This aspect feels indicative of the proud embracing and showing off of womanly curves often seen in African American vernacular dance styles. The men are not left out of the action: these embellishments also make a lot of room for them to strut proudly, showing their skills and prowess. 
  • Reclaiming: Watching these amazing practitioners of Urban Ballroom Dance styles felt like witnessing an act of reclamation of cultural space. Over the years since it’s origins, spaces where Jitterbug and Lindy Hop styles are practiced have become increasingly white. While I find it positive that these dance styles have reached and are practiced by people of so many backgrounds now and can serve as a uniting force, I also agree with other scholars in this area that when spaces are predominately white, it can be challenging for dancers of color to find complete comfort in these spaces, which is particularly problematic considering the African American origins of the forms. While I was ‘out of my comfort zone’ persay in being the racial minority this weekend, I see this as a positive experience for me, as I have the privilege of so often being completely comfortable in this regard. In speaking with dancers of color about their experiences in Jitterbug and Lindy Hop communities, being the minority in these situations can be ‘out of the comfort zone’ in a way that is not positive. Herein enters the disruptive force of the International Swing Dance Championships, and perhaps even Urban Ballroom Dance styles in general: they create a space where swing styles are practiced by predominately people of color, danced to music and in ways that are currently relevant to them. It was a privilege I do not take lightly to be so welcomed into this community this weekend. 
  • Body Positivity: I also really appreciated the diversity of shape and size of people who were not only social dancing, but competing this past weekend. The world of ballroom dance I was aware of can feel so focused on appearance, and more specifically, appearing a certain way when it comes to size, particularly for women: shorter than your (male) partner, and super-lean. At the ISDC, these extremely limiting ideas did not appear to hold water, as size and height differences between partners just didn't seem to determine who danced with whom or who got to 'show out.' That said, I found the visibility there was for women of all sizes to celebrate their sensuality (more on that below) to be totally refreshing and so important to work toward dance feel truly open to all.
After the Houston Two-Step and DWF Swingout Jack and Jills (in which the contestants judged themselves!), there were a couple performances that in keeping with the night’s theme, paid homage to the music and dance of the 90s (heelllloooo TLC, NWA and Hammer!). After the award ceremony, we got to our last set of social dancing. I made it until about 2am, which I deem respectable, considering I’m a morning person, my feet were hella-tired and the event went until 3am. I’m so glad to have considered and gotten up the nerve to ask a partner permission (Bryant Clark) and an onlooker assistance in getting some of video of me dancing Swingout.

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Wednesday, May 29th

It's both gratifying and strange SEEING it, as I spent so much time this past weekend FEELING.


Another thing I’d like to write about is a condensing of the many ideas I jotted down that I’d consider applicable research for the production I’m developing for this grant, which will be held at the ICEHOUSE in Minneapolis November 2 and 3 and feature four musicians and four dancers, all of varying groove and improvisation-driven backgrounds, performing one on one, two on two and four on four (musician to dance ratio) freestyles. I’m interested in how doing ‘share-sessions’ with one another prior to engaging in performance improvisation will affect our choices in the moment.

I went in thinking I might gather some actual, physical 'moves' to share with this group, and left with much broader concepts also in tow. The following ideas are more about the ways we move through social dances and what they give to us than what they look like.
  • Going Home: In the 'Swingout Start-off 101' class with Derrick "Big Smooth" Farrow, he referenced 'going home' to the place you started, spatially and weight-shift-wise, at the end of a pattern, just like is referenced in Square Dancing! I love this concept, as it speaks to there always being a comfortable and familiar place to land when things get complicated. After noticing him reference 'going home' in this class, I started to notice it in other classes too. I'd also liken this to returning to a base step, like 'shuffle 123' in Appalachian Clogging or '1&2 3 4' (or 'Chasee Ballchange') in what these communities call 'Solo Jazz.' 
  • Sitting in the Pocket: In the 'Musicality 101' class with Adrian Carson that I dropped in on, he talked often about 'not chasing the beat,' and later referred to this as what Lindy dancers would call 'sitting in the pocket.' I learned this as a termed concept that originated from jazz drummers, referring to the need to hang back on the beat, rather than rushing it or being in the middle of it, to facilitate syncopated swing in the music and that laid back, cool feel. It was awesome for me to connect this concept I love and refer to frequently when teaching and rehearsing to dance styles new to me. 
  • Loosening Your Grip: Now that I know this to be physically and metaphorically helpful, I realize how tight my hand grip was in my first dances on the Thursday night of the weekend. Metaphorically, this translates to gripping tightly to habit, which wasn't serving me, considering my physical pattern habits are rooted in Jitterbug and Lindy, at least when it comes to social Swing dancing. Over the course of the weekend, I learned to loosen the grip not only in my hands with my dancing partners, but also my grip on practiced spatial patterns. 
  • Sitting in the Pocket + Loosening Your Grip: The 'Connection: The Dance Conversation' class I took really paired these two ideas for me. Put together, this equalled more responsive dancing that felt more like a conversation than directions being given to one person from another. A looser grip meant subtler lead that could go in so many more directions, as we didn't loose time to having to let go of a hold that wouldn't facilitate the movement being attempted. It also meant greater feelings of mutual trust, as a tight grip can feel stressful and uncomfortable. Feeling out looser grips felt more casual, cool and trusting. All of these feelings in turn allowed for both me and my dance partners to 'sit in the pocket' better, making more space for us to detect the subtleties of the music and one another's ideas, making for smoother dances. I had one particular dance Saturday night where this all seemed to click in for me and I was able to stop counting the rhythm of the (new to me) step and just sink into the moment through movement, music and social connection. It was really magical. I got lost in the dance, and it was euphoric! 
  • Walk Out: In these styles of Swing Dance, releasing the rhythmic pattern and spatial hold into each partner 'doing their thing' apart (or what I've learned to call 'apart play' in Jitterbug and Lindy) is referred to as a 'walk out.' This concept shows itself in several American social dance forms I've studied from Square and Appalachian Clog dancing to Texas Two-Step. I love this inclusion in partnered dancing, as it highlights the individualities each person brings to the partnership. In apart or solo dancing (social OR concert), this translates to holding space for your own ideas while integrating those of the folks around you. I'm excited to see how this translates within the 'share sessions' I'll hold for the November project that's also a part of this grant, tentatively titled 'Social Animals.' 
  • Tuning in to the Feel: The 'Musicality 101' class and several other classes discussed tuning in to the feel of the music, bringing it's subtleties into movement in ways only you and your partner for that song can do with the individual approaches you bring. This got me thinking about how each type of music we social (and concert, for that matter) dance to has it's own set of qualities. This is something I've considered deeply in the past, I just found myself enjoying feeling out the differences between Jitterbug and Lindy, which feel 'peppy' for me, and these Urban Ballroom styles, which feel cool, collected and sensual to me. I appreciated the openness with which people expressed sensuality in these dances, as there are cultures/ communities in the US that seem to shun such public expression. I choose the word sensual rather than sexual, as these expressions really felt like ones of individual power and prowess being celebrated alongside someone else's, as opposed to a show of sexual interest (which I believe also has it's place in performance, though I'm less interested in it). I think the ideas of 'prowess' and 'celebration' are particularly important here. Given it seems from my research that the majority of practitioners of Urban Ballroom Dance styles are African American, it feels all the more important that these dance styles make space for folks to celebrate their prowess as an act of resistance against centuries of racism in this country based on repugnant ideas of them being 'less than.' 
  • Shared Language: Or what was called 'Cannon' in 'Solo Jazz' class (a term often used in ballet too). I think a lot about this idea of standardized sets of information attached to specific dance and music forms, the building blocks that are the items needed to start having a conversation. This will translate so clearly to preparations for and performance of the November show. I both went into and came out of this weekend thinking that sharing with one another favorite movement motifs (and sound motifs among musicians) from our base styles will be an interesting starting place for stocking up ideas that can connect our improvisations in performance. I'm thinking perhaps we'll each offer everyone else two movements, which I'll ask each practitioner to pick out before the first time we come together. I also enjoyed noting the crossovers in shared languages between forms I was already familiar with, and using them to help me sort out what's what. I think I've finally got a grip on the differences between the many 'Swing' dances I've learned. Lindy is East Coast, and Jitterbug (the first style I learned) actually came after it, developed by teachers as an easier way to welcome people into the dance. West Coast is the smoother, more ballroom-feeling aspect of Swing, and DFW Swingout, Chicago Style Steppin' and Detroit Ballroom all came out of this, coming into their own being danced to Motown and contemporary R&B music. I'm realizing, as I watch videos from this weekend and reflect on moving through these dances, that they share a lot of similarities to what I learned as 'Country Swing' growing up in 4H. While the footwork is different, the spinning and turning patterns are very similar. The footwork of the 'Country Swing' I know is simply stepping in and out on the downbeat of the (country) music, with a swinging motion toward and away from one another to execute it. The spin and turn patterns like under-arm, reverse turn, pretzels and such are very similar to those I moved through and watched in the Urban Ballroom Dance styles I explored this past weekend. 
As I so often think (and even say when teaching and have already hinted at above), these ideas are not just physical, they are metaphors for moving through life in open, respectful, responsive and joyful (among many other positive) ways. This feels like a great summation: my experience at the ISDC was yet another confirmation of dance as a way to understand yourself, the people around you and society/ies at large. I'm amazed by how, after 30+ years of study, dance can keep enthralling my body, mind and spirit. I have yet, in my initial research, to find folks doing Urban Ballroom Dance here in the Twin Cities, but you know I'm gonna find them. Here's to continued swinging out and showing out!

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Concise

Mission: Vitality, purpose and contribution
through kindness, curiosity, rhythm and groove.

Curiosities: The intersections of dance, music, style and food
with health and environment.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Today I Celebrate . . .

Ask not what your birthday can do for YOU, but what YOU can do for your birthday :)



It totally flips the script to think of your birthday not as a day for everyone to celebrate you, but a day for you to celebrate everything in your life.

Today, I celebrate my lungs. They keep up with me beautifully when I ask them to pace me through a strenuous dance.

Today, I celebrate my ears. They let music and white noise and thunder and Kris' goofy thinking sounds pour into my soul, enlivening every day.

Today, I celebrate my relationship with Kris. Man, my capacity to love deepens every day.

Today, I celebrate my capacity to love, built on a foundation of receiving love and care from so many over so many years, and empathy built (building) from being able to read about the lives of others.

I celebrate my ability to read. This is powerful and not to be taken lightly. I'm grateful for my access to literacy and the information it brings to my worldview.

Today, I celebrate my access to and support in dance training and career-building. I'm very fortunate for this to be my reality. I celebrate access to quality physical therapy. I celebrate the capacity of my body, and all the ways I am challenged trying to explore it.

I celebrate the gift of helping others explore this through teaching. When graduated college, I didn't foresee teaching becoming such a big part of my life, and I'm so grateful it is.

Today, I celebrate being able to learn from so many people, from friends to students to parents to partner and beyond. I'm really striving to always retain and explore a learning mindset - i.e. "What can I take away from this experience?"

I'm grateful for and celebrating being financially stable enough to make choices about the kind of work I wish to do and being able to consider the impact it can offer.

Today, I celebrate building conscientiousness around all aspects of how I walk through life. I used to think this idea mostly had to do with being honest. I'm thinking more and more that its scope is far beyond. Whatever you call it: mindfulness, simplicity, minimalism, consciousness . . . I haven't found a word I prefer yet . . . I just appreciate the human ability to train our own minds to process the way we wish them to. It's utterly fascinating to me that I can literally "rewire the synapses in my brain" or its pathways (not sure that's the scientific way to say it) to notice, calm, breath, appreciate, consider, rather than react immediately when there are other options.

Today, I celebrate viewing the idea of "a human" as something that presents beautiful shapes, sizes, backgrounds . . . I find so much beauty and lightness in seeing people this way. Beauty in the fact that each of us takes on our humanity in such unique ways.

Today, I celebrate my family and friends, who revel in my strangeness :)  They build me up on my journey, rolling with me as I wave around, figuring out how I wish to be. I'm also grateful for building toward the wisdom, as I grow, of understanding we're all doing that all the time. I believe, I choose to believe, that we're all doing the best we can. This is not an 'opt out' for always trying to 'be better,' but a gentleness with which to receive the impact of the everyday.

I'm celebrating the space to pursue my interest in the intersections of clothing, food and sustainability. I'm grateful I've been able to build life in a way that there's time, space and enough money for this.

Today, that's the short-list. There are so many more ideas wrapped within this, but that's the nature of the human beast.

Today, I celebrate my lungs.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Concise-ified


Living a life of vitality, purpose and contribution
through kindness, rhythm and groove

Noticing as gratitude
Simplicity-complexity
Expecting undulation

Staying curious:
People
Dance
Music
Food
Environment