Getting into Dance with a Blues Groove

Getting into Dance with a Blues Groove

by Ted Denmark

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Part1. Introduction and reflections on aspects of music and dance in my generation

As many “serious-minded” people often do, I once thought of dance as a bit frivolous and though perhaps also cool or interesting to watch … or at best serviceable while engaging in romance … it was still a bit too fluffy to pursue with any lingering interest. The idea of taking time for classes, much less lessons with a teacher, was a rather remote idea—any dance an older person might know was very likely to seem dated, something peculiar to one’s generation, which you might have learned from your older sister, high school friends or watching TV—if it had ever happened at all. But I was lucky enough to have had a talented and rather imaginative eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Dougal, who understood that the most valuable social skill that he could impart to his soon-to-be grads from our late 19th Century red brick fortress Chicago schoolhouse—apart from learning how to diagram sentences—was a way of learning how to be a little closer with the people in our lives whom we were going to attract and who might be attracted to us. Indeed, he was a delightfully cool guy all the girls adored, a wonderfully good and accessible teacher with five kids of his own, and a really great … old-school swing dancer, still grooving to Fifties Rock and Roll just as he had in his own Jitterbug days a decade earlier.

The year I was in eighth grade, 1957, my class got to have the school’s first experimental dance class once a week on Friday afternoons after our academic week was done, and we would all go to the gym and Mr. Dougal (with me as his sidekick) would crank up the newly purchased hi-fi record player with its accompanying stack of 45’s, also duly purchased with official City of Chicago school funds, finally cleared from the long-standing red tape of fear, uncertainty and doubt on the part of our severe principal who was finally able to be convinced to give it a try—with our special class—who, all of the teachers on the way up, were rumored to think was the best class our little school had ever produced (!). It was the era of Elvis Presley and the rockabilly cats from Memphis, the hard-driving but still modest Texas Rock ‘n Roller Bill Haley and his Comets, and the tragic poetic arc of Buddy Holly. On TV Dick Clark took the role of chief apologist for our generation and played the stax of wax on his daily rock ‘n roll TV show American Bandstand from Philadelphia that many of us watched for pointers on how to behave with cute girls. Even after all that has happened in this great and still war-weary, “Post-War world,” the late Fifties in retrospect seem like one of the truly exciting break-through or breakout, and seemingly safe, times … ever. And we were planning on being ready to take on this brave new world, going away in a Ford V8 convertible with dual glass pack mufflers, if necessary.

This was the cultural excitement of coming of age then, surely one of the most upbeat times to reflect on now more than fifty years later (yikes!)—the amount of time it took for the “picture phone” first imagined then by a bullish AT&T to become a reality as the wireless iPhone FaceTime ap of today—which, even if it still can’t do real-time, high-resolution video conferencing, at least also takes pictures—and makes short, good-enough videos of talents acts … like dancing. We thought everything would continue to happen at a similar pace, and so it was for many things in the amazing and scary Sixties as I migrated to California after a year of college in the Midwest and a whole new psychedelic world of possibilities in the Berkeley sunshine and San Francisco fog. The dance scene then was also very exciting because the music in the ballrooms of the time was just exploding with talent as the folkies got electrified, and Rock ‘n Roll became just “Rock,” or in Baghdad by the Bay (San Francisco), mostly Blues Rock at large venues like the Fillmore and the Carousel Ballrooms. It would be as hard to describe the amazing music and dance scene of those times as it was to record the really big sound of the powerful amplified bands with their rows of Marshall tube amps precariously perched atop the quad of woofers, which was, nonetheless, turned into many best-selling “Long Playing LP” albums (with iconic cover photo art). All the existing filmed footage I’ve ever seen, has really only hinted at the iconoclastic scenes … by showcasing a few classic icons of jingle-jangling Hippies in Golden Gate Park (all make to look sufficiently gawky, just for good manners). The huge Jimi Hendrix power-trio and Sly Stone magical-family outside-venue sound will only have ever been heard by those lucky attendees who happened to be there at the time … like me (and Miles Davis, among, all the music biz pros) … to soak up the monumental high volume stadium experience—like a thunder and lightning storm in the high Sierras, where I would end up some years later.

The well-developed early-modern partner dancing scene had been worked out in the dance halls with the jammin’ bands of the Thirties in New York and Los Angeles, called Lindy or Lindy Hop (with a host of local derivatives), that became more standardized with Forties’ Jitterbug and Fifties’ Rock ‘n Roll, and finally got fully dissolved into individual writhing free-style in the Sixties after upstart experiments with dance styles like the Twist and Hand Jive, etc. in the late Fifties. These now almost quaint and tentative individual dance styles of the Fifties from the “land of a thousand dances” as most often readily exhibited by young black American pop trends from places like Motown, were definitely surpassed by the blues rock guitar rhythm bands of the Sixties, inspired by Chicago upstarts like Muddy Watters, the English blues rock invasion that also grew up on American Rock ‘n Roll with idols like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Roy Orbison. It was a golden age of musical innovation and cross fertilization, an explosion of electrified sounds intended to get anyone moving who wasn’t yet terminally adult, and it created a tsunami that swept around the world and gave America a new cultural identity of rebelliously liberated freedom.

Dance was seen as largely for the amusement, pleasure and hopefully innocent fun of younger people, “kids” perhaps who did not yet have day jobs, to let off some steam from the drudgery of high school or college studies. This carried on somewhat into later life as young adults for many of us when the time came to have our own home-style dinner dance-parties, but not many had dance floors or room enough for dance parties with a whole lot of style. So we did the best we could and pretended to … enjoy our rudimentary dance efforts and talk over the loud music. Each generation has had its style and way of doing these things as the old PBS Doo-Wop, Disco and other musical retrospectives of the various generations still celebrate. This was the American cultural mainstream at its modestly-intended best, enacted regionally across the country in homes and neon-lit watering holes, generally fueled by at least a few rounds of alcoholic sedation for stress relief while off duty. Of course, in San Francisco, the Hippies, of whom I was mostly a curious and sympathetic observer, carried it much further … with a different herbal boost.

But dance is really something of much greater significance than as a mere accompaniment to rushes of musical vertigo or absent-minded recollections of youthful delight, as it can be and should be for nearly everyone—kids and terminal adults of every age alike—who are still able-bodied enough to be fully ambulatory … and to engage in thoughts of “body flight.” In fact it is the thing that is more apt to keep you in that active condition than anything else you might ever find. Most people, who are not actually musicians, if asked what instrument they play, will usually say … none. They don’t have an instrument and they don’t or can’t play (!). But it is such a sadly incomplete answer because a much better answer would be that they can, or like to, get up and dance … and are able to play the greatest instrument that God, Evolution or their mamas and papas ever created … hands down (and limbs akimbo) with all the hundreds of other muscles and bones choreographically connected in between, flowing in time with the repetition of the Beat.

Of course, I am admittedly a reconstructed dance enthusiast, having rediscovered my own love of dance in later stages of life, and as some other interests have waned (I had a lot of them, but love of music stayed ready-steady), dance has only increased in value and satisfaction, particularly after I had a freak accident with a broken leg that really needed some form of exercise therapy to help me learn how to walk again in my mid sixties (!). Walking, now almost a year later,[1] still has a bit more repetitive-motion action than I am fully comfortable with, or even worse, standing for long periods of time, but dancing, surprisingly, is still pure delight … as well as the best exercise possible—if I needed to find this out for sure, then there can now be no doubt.

If there is any bad news about dance, it’s that for most people, getting to a satisfying self-initializing stage takes longer, often much longer, than they thought going in … Developing a practiced and strongly-toned muscle memory to become adept with enough of a vocabulary of dance steps and moves to have the rich dynamic feeling of effortless improvisational motion that is so inherently rewarding, takes … years rather than months. It took me nearly ten years during my fifth and sixth decades to reach this sweet spot (I had never quite gotten to that place in my earlier foray into dance in my youth), and I was a moderately fit, able and motivated dancer. The dance impulse also needs to be combined together with music one relates to strongly to complete the feedback loop and become an integral part of the dance transformation experience. This is something most people have never experienced … even if they can intuitively get a sense of it when they witness it in others. The fabled ten thousand hours it takes to make a pro in any enterprise takes a lot of commitment, but for the rest of us the admission price is somewhat less, though still more than we think … at first.

Recently, one evening when I went out dancing with a new partner whom I liked and was feeling a good dance connection with, after our first attempt together, when suddenly a classic piece of Reggae rhythm music was put on that I knew very well and had loved for many years … and I was suddenly released into a much more emotional performance by the energy of this little masterpiece and found myself exuberantly pushing the envelope of my own performance space. The intersection of all the variables in those powerful five minutes elicited a great feeling that lifted me and flowed into a sense of personal best for the rest of that evening. Later, a working waitress came up to me and said, “That’s how I always wanted to be able to feel while dancing. I wish I could do it …” I was quite touched that she would have been so perceptive while on duty and so forthcoming to tell me with such a sincerely convincing admission. She could obviously see and participate in an ecstatic moment and realize that it was also what she wanted to feel, but had evidently not found a satisfactory way of doing so … yet.

One must anticipate the hurdle of becoming bored or tired too soon with the effort required by dance practice and not be able to spontaneously launch oneself into motion with the inducement of a dance rhythm groove, but with persistence and some luck in the longer run, the process will lead us to a … self-sustaining and greatly satisfying “Dance Lifestyle,” custom-tailored and, ideally lived out for some small or larger part of our lives, or at least often enough to provide the physical release and emotional satisfaction of a good workout. In pursuing a physical activity as complex as learning to dance, one must actually re-pattern multiple complexes of muscle coordination, all the various groups of cerebro-spinal, sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve networks throughout the body, particularly within the brain where the pathways between the balance centers in the inner ear, the sensory-motor mediation centers and the higher frontal lobes. Dancing is probably one of the most complex activities we are capable of performing or programming for ourselves within our physical bodies, particularly when done with higher aesthetic qualities, so it takes a while and is no small accomplishment when the time comes to realize it is (finally) happening.

A charming high school girl who was an exchange student from Bolivia I once met at a local high school dance event where I was teaching elementary Salsa steps with a large group, came up to me during a break, and said, “I don’t understand these American kids—they don’t like to dance very much. At home, we always dance … every day.” And there I had it, so obvious and simple: an activity of shared culture, music, excitement, and authentic personal expression in moving through and acting out an attitude of emotional elation that comes from having the great gift of the human motion machine as one’s home base of operations—every day of one’s life. Of course, the more evocative and joyful the music is felt to be, the more release that can be experienced, and this generally takes at least home stereo sound systems of audiophile quality or entry level DJ equipment to deliver music with all the full-spectrum clarity and power that is needed for high levels of richly-felt participatory appreciation.

Coming out of the wall-flower shadows in dance … and life

At first there will probably be some familiar amount of “fear, uncertainty and doubt,” or even pain if one is “out of shape,” “not very athletic,” “not well-coordinated” or, shall we say it … just feeling “lazy.” This can come from lifestyles characterized by bouts of long-habituated sitting at work or at home watching television, or just generally not getting much physical exercise in adult life to expand muscle tone for whatever reason—there are a lot of reasonably good excuses, but even a little dance workout is probably the single best exercise option available at least cost with the greatest convenience and is surely the least boring, particularly for music lovers, and has the least formal time commitment and cost compared to using gyms, organized outdoor sport-team events, etc. (however good or exciting they may be ).

Of course one has to start somewhere, and usually going out to a place where dance activities are offered, if available at all, would be a fair opener, even though self-help multimedia is also available to everyone in the Internet Age, having particularly great value for self-starters. This would likely be a dance studio or club offering private lessons and classes organized at suitable times to similarly motivated individuals of similar experience levels, and can be every bit as rewarding as any socially valued occasion, from going to say, church, cocktail parties, meetings, family reunions, etc. (lots of seated driving, sitting or standing face time without much movement except possibly … seated travel by car and a little meandering about), going to a bar or lounge (various kinds of seated talk with flavored alcoholic drinks and some impaired … navigation driving home or to the next stop). Many people have become aware of the dangers of this sedentary lifestyle, particularly with aging, and have taken up more readily available solutions such as jogging, yoga, calisthenics, etc., but the perceived difficulties of arranging dance activities can be well worth the trouble (and cost, which has been a problem with some dance enterprises in our luxuriously privatized economy). Except for the longer time base in the feedback loop of “becoming good enough” with dance, this is where we can truly say, “It’s all good.” Good music, fun, feelings, friends, exercise, and health. With all this, even the more sublime expectations of love and happiness, might also be a bit more … accessible.

For others the problem can be the opposite … near exhaustion from overwork. If you have to go full tilt all day to gain your pay, you will usually or often be too tired to get into evening dance activities with much leftover energy. Or so one would think … I often find just the opposite is true. On days when I work hard at some physical labor or difficult task (like working on my house which I have been doing for many years—now finally finishing the dance studio!), I get very hungry and tired, but after I’ve had some time to relax and recover, a bit of a dance fling actually increases my energy level rather than depleting it further—something very different is going on here than the simplistic outcome we would usually imagine from conventional thinking. It is particularly the case later “of an evening,” when a little dance workout can produce a very satisfying change of pace, usually from still more sitting, and then a very sound sleep until a refreshed awaking the next morning. For anyone experiencing difficulties falling asleep, this is easily as good as sleeping pills (if stress or worry is the root cause, as would likely be the case for chronic difficulty getting to sleep, other efforts to detect and address the cause would also be needed).

Then there is the notorious set of problems men can and often do have while contemplating dance expression or actually giving it a try. It was probably Norman Mailer who noted that “tough guys don’t dance” as a way of explaining the character development for one of his hard guys in a novel. But even some old-school cowboys played guitars and danced, even if they had to be seen wearing their hats and boots to maintain the look of seriously tough, but good-natured guys. This brings us to a very important point: the right kind of shoes on the right kind of floor is very important for getting the most desirable dance feeling … Leather soles on gymnasium hard wood strip floors work reasonably well. Various kinds of rubber-soled shoes so common today can work for some kinds of sports-like dance moves and grooves, but generally heavy shoes or shoes that have too much gripping action on a surface tend to dull out the more subtle contact effects with the floor (like slightly slipping) sought in dance. Heavy leather-sole shoes, though the breakaway contact can be satisfactory, are also too much of a burden to drag around on a dance floor. Real cowboy boots, however much they may be needed to protect one from the wiles of weeds and wilderness (I love my boots, too), will never be greatly helpful to elicit the experience of dance movement at its best—the light-footed feel. The people you might see dancing in cowboy (and cowgirl!) boots in shows “kicking some bootie” are usually wearing specially made boots that are feather-light compared to authentic well-made weed waders or barnyard brogues.

Dancing barefoot on a clean, polished hardwood floor is also interesting as a comparative experience of “putting one’s foot down,” but ultra-lightweight shoes or boots, custom-fitted to one’s footprint provide the best sliding contact, with a thin sole under a light leather upper that preferably laces up. I first tried this type of dance shoe as a beginning Scottish country dancer about thirty years ago, and didn’t get it at first but later realized this minimal shoe was best for delineating subtle moves that lead so well in improving dance movement in freestyle, or really, any kind of dance. Part of the charm of the dance experience is a feeling of defying gravity and modulating and integrating the third dimension of motion, the up and down, with the path of movement on a planar surface. Other surfaces, such as concrete or asphalt (especially if it is not flat and level!) offer only a remnant of the feeling of full body flight, though it may still be worth getting through at half throttle for the sake of a particular moment or for someone you’re with when called upon … Of course, some just nice ordinary light weight shoes that fit well and can be positively secured to the foot will do well enough in the meantime, but rubber soles can well be left to navigate the concrete and asphalt … Heels are mostly a girl thing to decide (flats or low heels are best), though Cuban-style boots would be an interesting advent for any wannabe dance guy to explore.

Ballroom partner dancing has already gone through many decades of emergence from traditional homelands onto an international stage, with varying standards of judgment of the fads and fashions, and with differing levels of public interest at different times, but there is still much to recommend it for extending the influence of many kinds of resilient popular music from different eras in spite of the typical attitudes of younger generations who naturally see the older music and dance attitudes as passé. Each dance is usually built around a particular rhythm module that can be easily translated into a particular feeling, motion or step. Ballroom dance clubs, dance teaching centers, universities, service organizations, and many other public and private groups hold dance sport competitions for dancers to hone their skills and move onto higher levels of performance. It can either be very inspiring to see how good dancers can get after many years of dedicated efforts or … how scary or bizarre it can look—or so impossibly difficult—to move so expressively or impressively. But “on balance,” seeing the level achieved by experienced or great dancers is probably helpful rather than a hindrance unless one is feeling … vulnerable at a particular time. But this should not be more than … like a flashback in a movie because the point of dance should be starting out with a simplified dance vocabulary of steps and then discovering one’s own natural wider range of motion and setting that to rhythm—almost like learning to speak or write—rather than merely trying to imitate others, however skilled or impressive they might seem.

Each popular dance typically offers a particular contribution to a more generalized dance vocabulary that can be learned by practice and then incorporated into a more abstracted collection of these ideas, moves and attitudes that can be applied to nearly any kind of music or rhythm track in an improvisational way for a self-styled freestyle dance. The greater the number of characteristic vocabulary motions a person collects in various ways in dance, sport or natural movements, the better the experience of putting one’s body in motion to music for whatever reason: partner dancing, solo performance, exercise workout, etc. Partner dancing (or expansion into choreographed group dance) may be a worthy goal, but solo freestyle dancing is at the heart of anyone’s individual dance experience, and becomes the place to begin.

For the beginning dancer, the psychological prerequisite is some degree of musical processing that naturally allows a synchronization or “synching,” a mapping of bodily motion unto a musical rhythmic pattern, which is usually a repetitive musical phrase with novel elements of impulse or mock surprise thrown in at strategic moments, which, as the term of art, is called syncopation. So, an inner response to a suitable musical offering is at least the staring point, and possibly essential element, for realizing the value of dancing, and there might be a few people who are lacking this elementary brain processing circuit, but most people have the minimum feed-back loop for real-time rhythm processing … “on the fly” to make dance movement possible and eventually an emotionally positive and gratifying response to musical encounter.

Dancing to the Blues

My own current approach for making dance movement to rhythm music more accessible to a wider audience of beginning as well as moderately experienced learners and participants entails using slow to moderate tempo blues music, largely from the American R&B tradition but also encompassing some British influence (as usual in dance), as soundtrack to an eight-beat style of counting in a simplified line dance called “Ted’s Blues Walk.” The theme or ideation is that of “taking a walk,” a somewhat fanciful elaborated walk in syncopation that is repeated back and forth with stops, reversals, turns and spins in between—that are improvisational but within the timed phrase. This is a suitable beginning of freestyle dancing, whatever other kinds of dancing may be or may have been of interest in the past. This simple line dance approach, while providing experience in counting rhythm to a simple patterned motion, nonetheless, will soon expand into various natural ornaments of motion delay and overshoot, variously articulated weight transfers from foot to foot and side to side, gyrated spins and stylized turns, twists and lunges, appropriate accompanying arm movements and facial expressions and all the many motion options made possible by the amazing human biped motion machine when given over to directed articulated movement. This happens with increasing interest, experience and confidence in time as new characteristic moves are added to the step and motion vocabulary, until one no longer has to be merely pedestrian walking machines or previsualize what one is attempting to make happen so procedurally but can allow one’s momentum and general muscle tone to take over some of the assignment of what is going to happen next—on the fly—while bonding with the experience of holding some novel balance point for just the right amount of time, or a little more, in a new and unexpected way. By being so strongly rhythmically accentuated (and with many interesting and authentic folk elements), the best music in the “blues bag” will quickly get you up out of your chair and out for a strut across the floor.

Also as usual with music and dance, the telling or writing is nothing like the feeling of doing the real thing, but can be helpful in getting started, particularly for verbally oriented people, which I understand very well myself. So, even though dance is always going to be more about physical movement where the soles hit a properly textured floor, the mind element is more relevant than many beginners think. Or then, the next most natural mistaken belief is that “it’s all about steps,” patterns of locations where the feet have to land, rather than the feeling of body flight (there’s no German word for it that I know of {;-), a kind of syncopated walking, running and gesticulating together in rhythm that allows the natural balanced motion of the physical endowment of modulated cascading muscle movements to be realized. Curiously, only a few animals besides humans are believed to relate to music spontaneously: a few non-human primates, an occasional elephant and a few very clever birds (cetaceans would be another likely possibility), and as always … a few trained Internet cats and dogs. So it is a mind game with a strong emotional component in addition to being a physical exercise that puts us into motion of a kind that goes far beyond just getting us from place to place in the most practical way.

Getting back to the masculine component of dance experience, this issue may be in some need of reprise because dancing, I believe, really is a more natural “girl thing” than it is for guys, who are more usually disposed to physical expression in more routine motions or all-out, sport-style moves, particularly in a competitive context. It may be that girls/ women/ females are more “naturally” in touch with their feelings and so respond to music in a more immediate and casual way. We know there are many natural gender differences that make a difference in various ways: men generally have a little stronger musculature while women naturally have slightly softer but more elegantly motioned muscle motions; men generally have a stronger attitude of initiation performance anxiety while women are more sensitive to relationship nuances generally; men are often a little more tone-deaf in their approach while women generally have a greater sensitivity to feeling vulnerable, etc. Attitudes about gender and “gender roles,” of course, have grown far more complex than in earlier times … and Cincinnati is probably never going to be San Francisco in the Sixties (not that it needs to be …).

What it may mean is that dance as an activity is more naturally tailored for success for girls/ women/ females rather than men, who famously have any number of excuses why they are not interested, don’t have time, are too tired, etc. to accede to the requests of a female partner who wants to dance (!). So approaches to dance more often than not have a feminine ring, and that’s not a bad thing since they are the first and usually best responders, particularly with female dance teachers. Ideally, dance teaching should be led by a couple who each know the “leader/ follower” gender part best that they usually perform. This is all subtle and complex, but partner dance is usually rationalized with the idea that the male leader is showing off his partner in performance, and the female follower is showing off her relationship with her current leading partner. This is a really beautiful idea and a fundamental one, but only one major mode that has emerged from dance expression at a particular historical time; call it “modern” or whatever you like. Even now in the post-modern rap/ hip-hop era it seems fairly antiquated (I’m not particularly fond of this highly successful trend in pop music and dance because it is often so lyrically and rhythmically derivative, substituting extreme dramatic performance attitudes, percussive and poetry slam effects for natural rhythm motions, but it can also be very creative … as a kind of extreme sport).

What I’m leading up to (dance pun) is that dancers need to start, not by being connected to a partner in step, particularly with practiced synchronized arm motions, but exploring their own natural body dynamics, which require synchronized balanced arm motions for maximum effect. Historically, dance, in rightly favoring the female/ follower as the featured performer on display, particularly the arm motions where the two dancers meet, has tended to favor a more restrained and feminized aesthetic motion and “look.” Men, in particular, coming more from sports/ action moves, are used to exerting a more extended and bold arm motion that is often found to be “exaggerated” by judges used to the more elegant but restrained action of female arm motions. The extreme attitude here is probably seen in traditional Irish folk dancing in which the arms are completely immobilized at one’s side, and everything is carried through jumping/ traveling steps (with perhaps a contrasting and completely unrestrained soloist, as shown by the truly extraordinary presentations of super-star Irish dance-stylist Michael Flatley).

Judges are probably always going to find female styles of motion to be more elegantly impressive, but dance motions are always going to be … unique for the body type of each dancer, which may tend to differ most for male/ lead dancers compared to the prevailing (female) aesthetic look. So men must begin to dance by feeling their own dynamic balance by themselves rather than that with a partner, however awkward it may feel or look in the beginning, and get out of the second-class category as a “partner dancing dummy” from the start. This includes allowing for natural arm motions that may tend to be judged sub-par for partner-dance aesthetics, but are nonetheless essential for developing a series of natural balanced motions that will become the vocabulary of moves and steps with which dance instruction should begin … as individual free style motion set to music, to gain both an individual sense of motion and rhythm response as well as the essential element of improvisation from the beginning.

Perhaps the most common anatomical difference between male and female dancers that affects dance motion is that men have a slightly higher center of gravity than women, not only because they are generally taller, but also because their arms, heads and shoulders are slightly larger and heavier than those of women, who tend to have a little more of their corresponding weight in the lower hip/ pelvic regions. Men, having slightly larger and heavier heads, the heaviest bone in the body, also need stronger musculature to maintain posture whether in motion or just standing. There are also subtle but probably also modestly significant differences in natural arm motion between men and women worth noting. Men’s wider shoulders allow the arms to swing almost vertically from front to back in producing momentum that generates torqued, counterbalanced locomotion between upper body and lower body in walking, running, skating, and especially … dancing. Women’s lighter arms are also hinged just slightly differently, allowing them to swing freely in clearance of a typically slightly wider pelvis from pivoted positions on slightly narrower shoulders. One doesn’t need to know this to be either a good/ great male or female dancer, but the analysis can offer a modest degree of understanding of how one’s motion differs in subtle ways from that of the other gender, with whom one is going to want to connect with arm motions in dance as well as possible … eventually.

My own feeling is that counterbalanced arm motions in dance is what “swing” is all about, so although we have to get the steps right in some fashion of “correctness” with the timing of musical phrases, it is the arm motions that makes dance swing, and hence the term that applies to our own uniquely American style of dance that has predominated for many decades, whatever it may be called in the Land of a Thousand Dances. It is a fact of anatomy and physiology that the height differential, the slightly more energetic or more muscled approach that naturally allows the male to be the “leader” in couples dance experience, an idea that many are somewhat less accepting about explaining or understanding of “gender equality” in the modern era of unisex and gender-role leveling in various cultural areas. In a sense, anatomy and physiology are destiny in dance as in life, not so much in witnessing favor or superiority of either gender—the differences are complementary rather than essentially competitive—but so that individual differences, which are most often related to gender, can be taken into account in the approach for a more satisfying experience without favoring the gender advantages of either men or women, male or female (or however people may choose to characterize themselves, but of course it can get complicated).

So, men/ leaders need not feel they must imitate essentially classic female aesthetic styling in learning dance, and women need not feel they must maintain a restrained attitude or are too “weak” as followers to adopt a vigorous and energetic style and possibly work up a sweat when the muse in the music calls on them. Men in American culture may yet need a bit more exposure or practice to feel confident in establishing their own “gender aesthetic” in social dance that is creative and expressive, which corresponds to the masculine style in various folk dance traditions such as Spanish, Greek, Russian, or even American Indian, and many others. So, what I and we would be trying to create is such a “missing link” of masculine free style dance expression, largely out of the swing dance experience from partner dance, as a way to allow men a more approachable goal in learning dance first for themselves, or at least at the same time, if not earlier, than they are committed together in performance with a dance partner.

Even though I had some experience as an early dancer in the restrained and imitative Fifties era of American cultural public school life in a large city, I was mostly influenced by having done somewhat hard and repetitive physical work growing up on a farm in earlier years, which, though restrictive, also provided a great diet, made me strong and increased my endurance so that when the time came to make my entry into school sports, I was fairly well ahead on the training schedule. I was of moderate height, light-weight with a lanky muscular build, ideally suited for running which I was fairly good at, but also greatly enjoyed playing baseball and basketball. So I went out for track, cross country and ice-skating in high school, and though I was moderately able, was not sufficiently competitive to be a reliable winner and too bored with the demanding training regimen … and interested in too many other things to be able to focus on becoming a successful athlete. I loved the feeling of moving in a skilled way, particularly in speed skating … but it all seemed so relentlessly and unimaginatively repetitive.

In ice-skating you have to get your foot placement right or you fall down on an unforgiving hard cold surface, but it is the use of arms that is most telling in getting the most out of a motion. One leans forward slightly and swings the arms to get moving in a somewhat exaggerated way to push off and shift from side to side in a kind of pumping action—to produce quite an exhilarating feeling of seemingly effortless gliding motion, compared to say, walking or running. When I first got out on a dance floor, again in my mature stage of re-discovering dance, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, this takes so much effort and completely lacks the exhilaration of gliding … I wonder if I will ever be able to compensate for the lack of blades with just a piece of leather around my feet and toes on a wood floor.” But of course I did, and my moving musculature soon got recalibrated to shoes or boots on hardwood. The nicer parts were that you didn’t get cold and didn’t fall on the same sensitive spot on the hip bone. And although it was more like running, it finally had the redeeming quality of not being so boringly simplistic and had … artistic interest that could be spontaneously and impulsively injected—in fact that was what it was mostly about once you got it! So I was ready to make a “comeback” from my early dabbling in dance and fortunately was apprenticed to a quite talented dancer and dance teacher whom I had happened to marry, and had to make a case for myself as a “dancing dummy” in her approach to classes and events with at least moderate effort.

Dancing has been described as running in rhythm at a stylized and perhaps steady pace. In running, and as noted particularly in skating, arm motion is crucial for getting maximum body flight, without regard for particularly svelte appearances. In the often more syncopated rhythm running of dance, arm motion is also critical and often undervalued in favor of feet doing their steps. But it is the arms at the higher-level balance point that have to be effectively placed for motion dynamics to make the step work proceed naturally—this is often not appreciated by dancers and dance teachers who often seemingly try to minimize arm motion because it seems to be confusing to dance students or because they have themselves devalued arm motions in favor of “steps” and standard motions judged to be more aesthetic. Well and good for judged competitions, but not necessarily a good place to start assimilating dance movement for individual effect.

Music, the essential accompaniment to dance, is always crucial, of whatever style it may be from Nineteenth Century waltz to Century 21 acrobatic struts to percussive sing-songy slam-rap poetry, or timeless stomping in the dust in eagle costume with the Hopi. There has been so much great music, particularly after the electrification of instrumental music that got started in the late Thirties, when things really took off with Lindy swing. Latin music, particularly Afro-Cuban rhythms, coming from the Caribbean and South America, has been a powerful influence going around the world and coming back in various retrospectives and revivifications. Nearly everyone settles into some favorite music or other for whatever reason, and mine, particularly for eliciting dance movement, has been … the Blues (though I must admit that I also find Reggae irresistible). The American Blues is also an African derivative, coming on the hard experiences of Black Americans and their ancestors, who were taken out of Africa and brought across the Atlantic, mostly against their will and in dire circumstances, to work in the slave states for a survival pittance. We are all greatly pained today by the ghastly difficulties of these troubled people (both slaves and their exploiters), but also greatly relieved that some progress toward equality has been made and that now numerous people of African-American ancestry have made such striking gains in modern American culture.

The Blues has been a unique musical contribution these people brought with them to the New World and used as an underpinning for their plight that became an original art form—jazz and Blues. The jazz component had a powerful opening in the Old South, particularly around New Orleans, for talented musicians to create a new energetic kind of syncopated music that would be abstracted and developed for generations to come by both black and white players. A similar thing happened with Blues, first coming out of the musical black church with serious religious overtones, but then also morphing into a more rhythmically syncopated form with strong elements of lyrical folk culture, as accompanied soloists or in groups using available folk instruments, particularly harmonica or harp, guitar, keyboards, base and drums. This folk music culture then made its way up the Mississippi to all the northern cities during and after the Civil War, particularly Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago, New York and then, finally London, and even Scandinavia and points further East. The Blues can arguably be seen as the base on which the great American cultural goliath of Rock and Roll was built (with some help from Celtic folk music).

There is now a lot of great contemporary Blues music and its derivatives, which also found a welcome home in California, particularly the San Francisco Bay region of Northern California during the explosive Sixties when it became transformed into the high volume psychedelic ballroom music of and for a new generation of Hippies and their worldwide cultural progeny. It was something I happened to witness and participate in, which has probably had a greater cultural effect on me than anything, except perhaps for movies, the digital revolution and my esoteric studies. Even in just the time of a couple of generations there were many great musical pioneers, inspired players, singers, groups, song writers, clubs and venues, so that a powerful and authentic Blues culture emerged, as probably the most renowned in the post-war period, which has continued on in parallel with the long-running (but now low-spark) rap and hip-hop stage of pop culture … Surely something else a bit more musically identifiable and rhythmically memorable will emerge eventually … but in the meantime we have, and will probably always have, the Blues—real music you can use … to feel the dance groove!


Part 2. Three new dance styles—set to the Blues

1. Ted’s Blues Walk (line dance). Blues music of slow to moderate tempo will begin the free- style dance exploration process because it is so rhythmically strong and immediately engaging, informal and easy to launch into a repeating simplified motion pattern, a line dance, that then becomes the theme, that with increasing familiarity, moves into more complex variations. This is the line dance I call “Ted’s Blues Walk,” consisting of eight counts of syncopated rhythmic walking in which we intuitively become entrained to the beat pattern to arrive at the beginning of the musical phrase to find the downbeat and follow it out in steps continuing in the same direction for the remaining seven beats and then reverse direction and walk back in the opposite direction for the next eight counts. This process of perceiving musical tempo has never been easy to explain verbally, but the brain appears to have a natural computational capacity, a kind of rhythm detector, associated with the ear and sense of balance, that allows for this integration that becomes greatly enhanced with music and dance experience.

The time signature of Blues music is nearly always projected onto this eight beat measure (unlike jazz in which time signatures often become much more complex), though it can be faster or slower, which will have motion consequences for the dancer but the counting usually stays the same (those who are more musical and can hear the more nuanced twelve-measure phrasing common in Blues can probably reach a deeper rapport). In the beginning counting is a more important mind game that goes with dance than has been popularized, and one of the reasons increased skill in dance has remained mysterious for many wannabe dancers and curious onlookers. In an interview I once happened to hear with Mikhail Baryshnikov, he was asked by an enthusiastic interviewer something like, “Well, what are you thinking about when you are out on stage making one of your amazing sweeping passes …?” And his quick dead-pan answer was, “24-25-26-27-28 …”

So presumably, even for great and experienced dancers, the discipline of counting to maintain position within context always remains valuable. Perhaps awareness of numbered positions along a phrase while dancing is something we need to first understand and use for orientation and then later let it drop more into the background as various kinds of kinesthetic and abstracted verbal memories as well as anticipations of spontaneous and innovative time-base solutions for motion on-the-fly, begin to take over as dancing becomes more assimilated into larger integrated patterns of past solutions and future possibilities. Some people who believe they need to be totally committed to spontaneous movement in dance and never be distracted by something as mundane as counting will probably be unhappy with this idea of quantified analysis of dance into counted positions, and that is okay, if they are happy with a result of likely never getting beyond something that might be called “mundancing,” which would be the often repetitive and unimaginative moves we tend to see on dance floors where some level or interest is present but a lack of repertoire is equally noticeable. Of course, there are some naturally talented people who just sparkle with resonance and don’t need to be so concerned about counting … until they get into partner dance—if they ever do.

So, it is clearly valuable to have an awareness of free-style dance as a mode of self-expression to music as well as the actual impulse to dance, if only in an imitative way, but beginning to dance in a more satisfying way requires acquisition of a vocabulary of steps and moves (dance classes?) which we apply to some form or series of forms to generate a multiplicity of uniquely interesting outcomes, just as an accomplished jazz player does on his instrument—never twice doing it in exactly the same way but always with natural feeling. And it all begins with counting, just as it does for musicians and for most of us generally, as in early grades of school when we needed to be become a little more precise than “much and many.”

2. Free-style Swing. After the introductory line dance experience of solo blues-walking in syncopated rhythm, we can move on to a new intermediate level with a hybrid of free-style and partner dance, first in free-style position along two intersecting “tracks” (we had one track in the preliminary Ted’s Blues Walk, now each partner has a track that can stay parallel or intersect at the midpoint with that of the partner) and then in open partner position with “framed” hand and arm positions and finally to a more closed position for tighter spins together and related motions. The music will be a bit more up-tempo and suitable for familiar swing dancing. This will be called “Free-style Swing,” which may vary from a more bouncy East-Coast style swing suitable for Rock-Blues music of suitable timing and attitude to a more subtle, restrained but dashing version of West Coast Swing moves with free-style interludes.

There are two main things that are new about this hybrid style of free-style swing dance. The first is that the one-dimensional “slot” of standard swing dancing which tends to maintain its position along a line (like a starter line dance), then can give way to a crossing pattern of two lines that start out “normal” to each other (i.e. 90 degrees apart), with one dancer on each track (or other variations). The dance typically starts in freestyle position (face to face, open position without arm attachments), and as the couple draw into closer proximity, they begin to relate as more engaged partners with offering of extended arms to connect and begin to execute familiar partnered swing dance steps (inside and outside under-arm turns, butterfly, sweetheart, etc., whatever one may know). Then, depending on the attitude of the dancers and how well they may feel about partner swing dancing together, they will have an understood option to maintain the more traditional style of swing or they may again move back into free-style positions. So, Free-style Swing is a way of mediating dance partners of possibly differing skills and interest in such a way that they can choose how to dance together, either individually in open free-style or in closer positions and not have to fumble so much without practice time together because they may not yet share a wider range of moves. The leader will always have the option to direct the movement one way or another and the follower will always have the option of acceptance or first right of refusal, depending on mood and inclination. Two good swing dancers might want to keep up a high-energy rhythm together with arm attachments in closer proximity while two strangers of dissimilar dance skills might want to mostly dance free-style after an initial foray into partner positions. This dance may also be started in traditional closed swing dance position and then move into free-style open position.

The two crossing tracks rather than a single slot takes up more room than standard style swing dance, and so lends itself more to performance and might have less appeal in crowded spaces so common on public dance floors, in which case it would need to be compressed, but the secondary path of motion adds more options for being able to integrate free-style with partner positions. Dance partners can then exit from face-to-face position together either along the same axis or to the side in new ways, some of which would be novel and improvisational (part of the free-style challenge). Perhaps this would be considered appropriate only for experienced swing dancers, and there is some truth to this, since it is a new style, though if one begins to take the expanded prospect for motion and interaction earlier rather than later, there is more likelihood that it would seem natural rather than “too difficult.” The novelty for more experienced swing dancers would be the cues for hand and arm attachments in the transition from free-style to attached partner positions.

3. Blues Tango. The final new style of dance to be set to the rhythm of the Blues is also an intermediate to advanced level dance—Tango, a serviceable blend of American and Argentine style Tango moves. This dance will also begin in free style position as the dancers adjust to the tempo, increasingly drawing closer into closed dance position, depending on their attitudes, mood and sense of each other and the music tempo. The genre of Blues music to be selected for Tango will be appropriately emotional, intense or “torchy” with slower to more moderate tempos, in place of the similarly intense, martial style of traditional Tango music. Blues Tango will be a new dance, a blend of traditional Tango moves with a kind of music that is not quite so martial or insistent in tense staccato bursts but perhaps … more reflective of the extended range of Blues feelings: moody, mellow, impulsively serious or highly animated, seriously romantic or erotic (when appropriate), possibly distressed, or mock versions of all of the above, but as always, music varies greatly and tends to set a range of moods.

The accumulating collection of moves and steps in the dance vocabulary will first be applied to this style of music in free-style position with the Argentine basic eight-count step as the dance couple meets and greets in motion and begin to find their way to become as close together as they comfortably choose, given all the various factors, towards the end of the piece—this then becomes a part of the way the tension of the Tango is played out in the way the couple realistically relates in the close natural embrace of Tango style dance. If there is a lack of feeling or connection between the partners, the assumption is that they can easily move into a more-distanced closed position or back into free-style positions to finish the dance for the duration of the music instead of leaving the floor in what might otherwise be a breakdown of mutual satisfaction, a safety valve that the close binding of closed position Tango probably needs in a social dance environment where dancers are meeting for the first time. For familiar or established couples, the close embrace of Tango would be a welcome, possibly erotic experience to have together in dance. For others, as evidently occurs in Tango dance clubs (Milagros) in Argentina, the close position with a member of the opposite sex (generally) would also be welcome if not necessarily having romantic or erotic notions or expectations.


Part 3. A few final extended thoughts about dance

If we intend to fulfill our destiny as ever so human an animal for as long and happy a time as possible, we will need to become and stay more “animated,” probably beyond the level of many or most contemporary sedentary people who have reached terminal adulthood and have mostly decided to sit out the remainder of the main event, either at work, the dinner table or with television or Internet screens. We only have to notice that now fully one-third of Americans are obese with many more approaching obesity and its depressing prospects. As we know, there are gyms where various kinds of workouts are available which offer satisfaction to many enthusiasts. There are many other physical exercise activities like walking, hiking, cycling, running, swimming, etc., and all the usual organized sports team activities that also offer pleasant, interesting or challenging exercise and diversion. Dance is also a similar sport-like activity with its own set of lifestyle elements such as footwear and dressing (up or down), that also offers the great benefit of feeling that sure-footed sense of integrated well-being, particularly for music lovers, who therefore happen to be the most natural rhythm dance enthusiasts. If this is your tribe and you think you might like the Blues, such an approach to acquiring animated rhythm motion would probably be at least worth a more extended try beyond “beginner mind.”

As one who has done many of the usual sports activities earlier in life, my own personal feeling is that dance is in a unique class because it satisfies much of the need for exercise but also has highly significant cultural and even spiritual extensions that go beyond participant sport activities (spectator sports usually just offer more seated appreciation). Let us say that sports and dance are on a par, both literally and figuratively offering many significant cultural amenities, but that dance, based on musical awareness and response, has a more qualified aesthetic component and may be slightly tipped in favor of female gender participation while sports offer stronger competitiveness and male bonding that takes advantage of typically slightly-greater male physical strength. So we would expect that women are slightly less successful with setting records in sports and men are slightly less successful in performing dance.

But after relevant gender differences have been addressed, which may not have been done well enough in dance instruction in the past because tradition emphasized partner positions favored by dance culture from certain periods over acquisition of skilled, individual, free-style balanced motion movements, the advantages for either gender of dance movement for physical exercise, social interaction and having something to do with people, usually of the opposite gender one may wish to have an opportunity to interact with beyond merely talking … become obvious. The interactive aspect of participating together in dance offers that mysterious and elusive Je’n sait qua of elation that comes when one or the other—or both together—eventually reach a level of satisfaction with some combination of music and movement that really “clicks,” or as we might have said at the San Francisco Fillmore, gives us a “rush.” Dance, like language, is always in process of becoming obsolete and in need of being reinvented, which is what we do when we add our own “two cents,” should they be ever be offered up in so polished, shiny, and well rounded a way.

For people pursuing spiritual disciplines within various traditions, there is also a lot of sitting (meditation) or kneeling (prayer), bowing, prostrating, etc., which, while felt to be of great value to the practitioners, such practice need not necessarily have to be limited to holding static or motionless positions (or if it does, more active movement may be needed in the off-time to compensate). In fact, I would say that dance leads naturally to a heightened state of mindfulness as achievement becomes more natural and “automatic.” Some of the “high” coming from dance activities (and not only with specifically cultivated “ecstatic” dance) comes from endorphins released in the brain, as with running or other strenuous athletic activities. But the sense of elation that dance often produces when successful, is a kind of experience that leads to “mood elevation,” and perhaps greater spiritual realization and awareness—directed exertion that is both repetitive and innovative, even up to the point of exhaustion, but producing elation. One only need witness the extraordinary success of the ABC TV program Dancing with the Stars to register the momentum of community dance elation. There are also traditions of “moving meditation” in Eastern cultures that well testify to the validity of this approach. My own investigations of subtle energies would indicate that one of the reasons motion by itself tends to produce a kind of “high” is that in moving through space with rapid arm and leg motions, every magnetic red blood cell coursing through the body with its iron-based atoms of hemoglobin, is cutting through the Earth’s weak magnetic field and inducing tiny nano-currents inside the body that flow into the electro-chemical nerve network as enhanced “charge” subtly driving the whole system to a marginally higher, but noticeable, level. In dance this micro-charge of energy is like a feedback loop that increases muscle and nerve tone, particularly when overlain with the musical stimulus that then builds to a higher and finer level than with only the exertion of athletic or sports-like motions, perhaps almost exclusively set on winning a game (perhaps the reason why so many joggers never go out without their pocket music players).

So, part of the mystique of dance, compared with sports activities, has to do with the essential musical element, just as in familiar Christian church meetings, there is some cultural acceptance for music as an inspiring accompaniment. In fact Blues music started out as gospel in the black churches and escaped as the syncopated Blues, to the consternation of more stern traditionalists. But dance is usually seen as more risqué, and the physical aspect of dance is commonly seen as more threatening to probably most conservative religious traditions around the world (sometimes music too, as now so famously with the Taliban in Afghanistan!). This is possibly another example of the “tough guys don’t dance” theme, or in this case, “seriously religious people shouldn’t dance” (or have the temerity to move to music with so many tense or stiff people around).

People will always have their own belief systems and “ways they were raised” that have to be addressed one way or another eventually, but such attitudes, which are often the basis for inhibitions of full expression in dance (particularly sexually suggestive pelvic motions—remember Elvis) have to be sorted out individually in a suitable way. Shades of sexuality, which are always evoked in some way or another in dance, will always be at least slightly controversial, because some will want to limit its expression and others will want to use dance to enhance it. So, there are as well various age differences felt to be appropriate for dance expression, as well as other complexities of national, social, cultural, and (especially) religious issues. Cultural imprinting is often subconscious and bewildering when it suddenly emerges, and dance has probably always been one of its more suspect categories—because of its naturally liberating effect, first in movement expression and then often in other areas of life …

Dance is a variant of ritual motion that can be adapted to capture meaning and metaphor in countless ways beyond the more practical pedestrian goal of getting from one place to another. One is symbolically “going somewhere,” but it is a fanciful place of one’s imagining rather than another physical location. So, it is itself a metaphor of the journey of one’s own undertaking, with the trappings and accompaniment of one’s group or tribal companions who “speak the same language” with their feet as well as their tongues. And so we are able to participate together in a cultural adventure and diversion that captures the spirit of our time as we meet in the middle kingdom of Earth, whether on the brown dirt of the field or the polished yellow maple of the hall, to send forth our emanation into the great unknown.

As the Buddha is reported to have said about truth, there are only two major mistakes one can make: not beginning the journey of commitment … and not continuing on till the culmination—this also applies to dance as a metaphor of life … celebrated in motion.

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  1. Originally written in August, 2010 with final edits in November, 2017. I’m still dancing, but the years … look more numbered than earlier.