Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why Swing Dancers Love and Hate Electro Swing

Electro Swing (also known as Swing House or Boom Swing) is a relatively new form of music that blends aspects of classic jazz music and electronic beats.  Some of the first electro swing songs were one-offs by different artists, one example being "Swing Set" by Jurassic 5 in 2000, but by the end of the decade there were artists completely dedicated to this style of music, such as Caravan Palace and Parov Stelar.

This style of music has become more and more popular, finding fans online and resulting in venues and concerts dedicating entire nights to this genre of music; however, there are many swing dancers that really don't care for this style of music, while others love it.  So why the polarity of love and hate?  In this post I try and explain why and provide justification for why swing dancers can't agree on electro swing.

Love:  It's Different and New
Like everyone else, swing dancers love something new.  Even through we love classic jazz tunes to dance to, there's always something new waiting to be discovered in the catalogs of great music created in the 1930s and 1940s, and there's always modern artists recording covers of classic tunes and some writing new songs with that classic style.  So naturally, when there is a new music style that brings together an element that is already loved by a group (i.e. jazz), then you have a built in audience who want more.  Electro swing has that nice balance between the classic and the new that really gets people excited about the music.

Hate:  Most of It is Actually Kind of Boring
The problem with most electro swing songs is that they fall victim to the same elements of neo-swing.  Lots of people started dancing to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin Daddies, and Brian Setzer in the 1990's, but these artist's songs are now cringe-worthy among dancers.  Why?  Because the music is overly dominated by the rhythm section instead of the melody.  Rhythm is an important part of dance music, and very important for swing dancing (you have to have a strong rhythm to be able to dance to a song), but when this rhythm is louder than the melody, the song stops being about the melody.  Electro swing has this problem.  So many songs keep the same monotonous house beat throughout the entire song, with just some horn or vocal samples thrown in.  (And don't get me started on 60 minute non-stop mixes of electro swing on SoundCloud.  You know it's ok to have a break between songs, right?)

As a dancer, I don't just dance to a beat, I dance to the phrasing of a song too.  I like how a song changes from phrase to phrase, and how some songs have breaks, stops, and hits that I can play with.  I'm not saying that electro swing artists have to cater to dancers, but those breaks, stops, and hits are things that jazz artists were doing to make songs interesting and fun to play.  As dancers, we're just picking up on what they're doing and we're familiar with those elements.  When we hear songs missing those things, then the song gets boring pretty fast.

Love:  It's High Energy
I will admit, that the hard strong rhythm of electro swing is what makes it so addicting.  When a song starts, that pounding beat is what makes people start tapping their toes and want to get up and dance.  When you add in the fact that there's a quick tempo in there, and I'm ready to do some serious swing outs and some Charleston when a song comes on! 

Hate:  It's High Energy All The Time!
After about 3 minutes of that, I'm done.  Like any proud Lindy Hopper, I love dancing to music thats 230 beats per minute or faster . . . but not all night long!  Electro swing tends to be relentless with the upbeat, high tempo tunes.  Is there no room for some mid tempo songs, or even a slow one now and then?  I'd be happy with songs around 175 beats per minute which is much more manageable for an entire night.  Granted a lot of people who enjoy electro swing have no interest in actually dancing to it, but as a dancer, this seems really odd to me.  But speaking of dancing . . .

Love:  The Dancing Could Be Really Amazing
The rhythm of most electro swing songs tends to feel like a Charleston rhythm  more than Lindy Hop.  But people interpret songs differently, and you really can Lindy to anything.  For those of you who weren't at Camp Hollywood this year, Korean dancers Soo Chan Lee and Hyun Jung Choi, performed this great showcase routine to an electro swing song by Caravan Palace:

And this is a great example of how amazing the partner dancing can be to electro swing, but I really think the music lends itself better to Charleston.  The idea of taking Charleston and putting in aspects of poping, locking, shuffling, and whatever else works is a really cool idea.  These elements can make for some great dancing, like what's featured in this music video:

Hate:  Most of the Dancing Isn't Really Amazing
But, the problem is that most people don't know what good Charleston looks like.  This next video isn't bad, but it's not that good either.  The Charleston steps done are overly simplistic, and the style is missing the soul and spirit of the dance:

Then there's the other dancers, who are people with more inspiration coming from dancing to regular electronic house music.  This guys dancing is obviously inspired more by shuffling than traditional jazz steps:

Again, I'm not saying this is bad dancing, but he's dancing primarily to the rhythm of the music, and not the phrasing.  Dancing is an individual's expression to what they hear in the music, but at the end of the day, when I watch a video of just a regular Charelston dance off, I'm way more impressed and engaged with this:

Love:  It Will Inspire More People to Discover Our Dance
Ok, so even if you are one of the people who doesn't care for electro swing, remember that there's no such thing as bad press.  Many of the Lindy Hoppers that are dancing today started because of neo-swing, and eventually discovered artists like Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, and Cats and the Fiddle and learned to appreciate the original big band artists.  Any social group requires a constant influx of new people in order to stay alive, and the swing scene is no different.  Personally, I hope that the popularity of electro swing continues to grow (and I hope that electro swing artists will continue to hone their craft with more inspiration from jazz), but only time will tell whether this style of music will remain with a niche audience or reach pop status.  We shall see!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Top 10 Best & Worst "The Swing" Videos

"The Swing" is a term that is sometimes used to describe a dance taught or performed in a ballroom.  Its understandable that this term would be used, because a lot of people dance "The Waltz," "The Foxtrot" or "The Macarena" for example, but why does "The Swing" leave a bitter taste in the mouth of Lindy Hoppers?  It primarily stems from the fact that there is no original dance called "The Swing".  There was "The Charleston" and "The Lindy Hop," but even adding the "The" to these dances seems overly formal and unnecessary.  Its like saying you're going to check "The Facebook", or listen to "The Hip Hop", while smoking "The Marijuana".  It just feels like an out-dated formality that parents used when warning their children to avoid anything new or different.

The history of swing dancing is foreign to most people outside of our scene, so as a result, what most people know about swing dancing consists of spins, dips and aerials, and that's pretty much it.  Our society treats dancing like its something you "just feel" and that it requires no skill or instruction.  This leads to a lot of dancing that is presented as an authentic or only version of swing dancing, when its not. So, with this in mind, I present a top 10 list of videos of people dancing "The Swing", which is to say, dancing something they call swing, while missing the origin of the original dances created in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

# 10 - The Jive
East Coast Swing was introduced in the UK and Europe during World War II when the dance was called Swing, Jitterbug, or Jive; however it wasn't until the 1960s that this version of "The Swing" was formalized by British Ballroom Instructor Walter Laird.  He published a technique book, which included The Jive, where he attempted to make swing dancing more beautiful and elegant.  The end result is a dance that looks clean, and has sharp movements, but also like something an ostrich would do to attract a mate. 

# 9 - Stage and Broadway Versions of Swing
Similar to the Jive, a lot of stage and Broadway choreographers have added "showy" elements to swing choreography.  The worst treated of all the swing dances would be the Charleston.  Pointed toes and jazz hands have no place in this dance, and unfortunately most audiences don't know better.  The reason this kind of dancing infuriates Lindy Hoppers is that it makes our dance look over the top cheesy, when we know this dance can be anything but.

# 8 - Any Video With "The Pretzel"
Who knows how the pretzel became associated with swing dancing.  I think it was originally a Salsa or New York Hustle move.  No matter what we do, beginners will always come out dancing thinking this is the greatest move in swing dancing history, not knowing that no one ever did this to swing music.  Plus this move lacks any hint of rhythm or dance frame.

# 7 - "Instructional" Videos Showing How to Do "Aerials"
One of the proud elements of Lindy Hop is that we know how and when the first "aerial" was introduced into swing dancing.  I put "aerials" into quotes because the correct term to use is "air step" and not aerial.  YouTube is chalk full of videos giving instruction on how to do various lifts and tricks, many of which miss the point of an air step;  to be able to dance into and out of the air step smoothly, and with the music.  People who are often obsessed with "aerials" often think this is all there is to do with swing dancing, and miss the whole dancing aspect.  I think its ironic that the uploader of this video goes by the handle of "lovetoswingdance" and has multiple instruction videos, none of which actually discussing dancing.

# 6 - Four-Count Swing
The most common form of East Coast Swing consists of two "triple steps" followed by a rock step.  At some point someone decided this was too difficult for beginners to learn and simplified East Coast Swing  to two "slow steps" followed by a rock step.  Each of the slow steps is supposed to take up two beats of music, but over the passage of time, the side, side, rock, step pattern changed from 6-counts to 4-counts.  I'll admit that 6-count swing doesn't really work with swing music (which is written in 8 or 4 beat bars), but this version of the dance just amounts to walking to the tempo.  If you've ever clapped along to a birthday jam, you know that the soul of swing music is in its 2-beat rhythm, not in the tempo.

# 5 - This Flash Mob
Before flash mobs became a thing, Lindy Hoppers had their own version:  the Lindy Bomb!  Flash forward to after flash mobs became popular, and you have this.  From the look of the dancing and the music, you'd think this was from the late 1990s . . . nope, 2010!  The added insult to this performance is that this took place in Los Angeles, which has one of the biggest Lindy Hop scenes in the world.  You'd think the organizers of this event could have done a little bit of homework about that before putting this online?

# 4 - The Ballroom Version of Lindy Hop
Arthur Murray gets the blame for this one.  Lindy Hop does have a lot of kicks in it, especially when we account for all of the Charleston variations that are part of the dance; however, this version is quite simply East Coast Swing with kick-steps in the place of triple steps.  If this dance was called "Kick Swing", or "Charleston Swing" then it wouldn't make this list, but just because it is called Lindy Hop (a very well documented historical dance that looks nothing like this), its definitely worthy of "The Swing" label.

# 3 - Country Swing Dancing . . . All of It
Country music has an interesting musical history.  This genre combines lots of musical elements like blues, rock, boogie woogie, waltzes, and event two step.  All of these elements changing from one song to another provides for a lot of rhythm variety for an experienced dancer . . . yet the only kind of dance people tend to do is "Country Swing."  Just like "The Swing" shown in early videos in this list, you have "spins and tricks" treated as more important than the concepts of tempo and rhythm and footwork.

# 2 - A Version Of "The Swing" That Just Looks Painful
All athletic endeavors have their risks of injury, and this includes Lindy Hop, any and all lifts, and air steps, but this . . . this just scares me. I don't have anything else to say as this video speaks for itself.

# 1 - This Showcase Routine by Andrew Thigpen & Karen Turman
Never has "The Swing" been done with more love than this.  After all, we all have to remember that (most) everyone starts out dancing "The Swing" before we discovered Lindy Hop, Balboa, Charleston, Shag, and all the other swing dances that there are out there.  This video is listed as #1 because it is the best version of "The Swing" you'll probably ever see, and even though its done ironically, its musical, and fun, and everything that we want beginners to love about our dance.  (Note: This still doesn't make The Pretzel an acceptable swing move.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Building A Showcase Routine . . .
Or How I Became Super Mario

For many years I had wanted to put in the time and effort of putting together and performing a showcase routine.  I had previous experience performing on stage in musicals and improv theater, so I felt I could bring that experience into a routine, and make something really entertaining.  Last year (2011), I finally had the opportunity to choreograph and perform my first showcase routine, and this is a summary of my journey and the creative process I took to get there.

When I first started swing dancing, showcase routines were really the most prestigious of all the competitions, because winning this division at an event was an acknowledgement of not only a dancer's technique, but also their ability to be creative and perform on their own (with a partner) out on that big floor for all to see. I think that showcase still has this prestige, but there are a lot of dancers who don't appreciate this division, and hold social dancing up on a higher pedestal.  I think that both of these things are important for the community as a whole, for while social dancing is about dancing with our peers, showcase routines are about inviting an audience into watching a performance, and this can appeal to a wider audience than just swing dancers.

Prior to last year, I had actually cut music and started choreographing about five different routines before I landed on the Super Mario idea.  Those routines never came to fruition, because I didn't think my partner (at the time) and I were ready to put in the time and effort of said routine, and also because I didn't have confidence in myself and my dancing.  That really changed with an impromptu competition with a new partner, Emily. In 2010, literally two weeks before Camp Hollywood (aka The National Jitterbug Championships), we both bumped into each other at a social dance event, realized neither one of us had a partner for the Amateur Lindy Division. So, we made the decision to give it a shot. Video of the competition is below (I'm the one in the yellow shirt):


We had very limited air steps prepared, so we did our own thing, adding in a chest bump and a "fake" aerial, and still won 2nd place in a division we really didn't prepare that much for and just had fun and danced within our ability.  What worked was that our personalities meshed well when dancing.  So, after that, I asked Emily if she wanted to try working toward a showcase routine and she agreed.

I played with a few ideas for different routines, and listened to a lot of songs, trying to envision how the choreography would look with each song.  My main goal for this first showcase routine was not try and create a winning routine.  It was to try and create a routine that people would remember, and to create something that would have an impact.  Recalling previous years at various competitions, I don't remember which routine won which competitions, but I remember certain routines for their theme, idea, music, or even one shining moment that made them stand out from all of the others.  Novelty isn't always an appreciated idea in the swing community, but with showcase routines, its definitely a good concept to utilize in order to make yourself stand out.

The main inspiration for the routine came from this video on YouTube:

After I discovered this great cover to the Super Mario Brothers 2 Theme Song, I set out to find as many different "jazz" and "swing" versions I could find.  The song was great, but this theme is not as well known as the main theme from the first Super Mario Brothers game, so I knew I had to include that in the beginning of the routine.  When the complete song was cut together, these were songs I used:

Song 1 - Super Mario Theme
The Vignola Collective - Super Mario Bros. (Album Version)

Song 2 - Underwater Theme
da Blechhauf'n - Super Mario

Song 3 - Underworld Theme
Marley -- Piano Medley of Mario Tunes -- If Fats or Tatum had a Nintendo...

Song 4 - Super Mario Bros 2 Theme
Estradasphere - Super Buck II

My philosophy, as it is, when it it comes to showcase routines is to let the choreography come from the music.  If the music isn't the driving force in the routine, then what's the point of having music?  This routine, however, couldn't just be straight swing dancing.  The point of this routine would be to tell a story.  To portray a live action reproduction of a level of Super Mario Brothers, so I added in all of the sound effects from the game as well as an intro from the 1980's TV Show "The Super Mario Brothers Super Show".  My favorite video game concept that came out of brainstorming was having the game "pause" in the middle of the routine.  The original idea was that we would simply do a break and freeze, but it wouldn't have the same impact as something "bigger".  When Emily and I were practicing various aerials to incorporate into our routine, we were prepping an air step called "The Knickerbocker" (where the follow basically does a back flip that's assisted by the lead), and I had no problem getting her up at my shoulder level and holding her there for a while.  That's when I had that "Eureka!" moment, and that was it!  That was a big move for the routine.  Everything else just fell into place as we put together the choreography.

Here is the end result:

What you don't see in this video is that we were the second couple to do our routine during the showcase division, and just before we went on, the sound system stopped working and it took them around 10 minutes to get it working again.  The entire time my stomach was in knots, as I always get nervous before competing, and it was even worse as this was my first showcase. Then, once they finally got the music going again, during the routine, the DJ mistook our "pause" as the end of the routine and stopped the song.  We probably should have left the floor at that point, but I really wanted to finish the routine we'd worked so hard on.  Once he got it back up and running, we ended up doing an instant replay of the aerial, finished the routine and brought the house down.  They even called us back for a second bow.

On Sunday, when they gave out the awards, two amazing things happened.  First, we won 4th place in the Showcase Division, which I was ecstatic about being my first showcase, but wen we came up to receive our trophy, the audience started chanting "First Place...First Place..."  I was felt very honored to receive that support from my peers, and I tried to express my thanks, but also let them know I was ok with our placement.  Even though our routine was entertaining and popular with the audience, it was not a technically difficult routine, which is why I was happy with our placement, and I wanted to respect the other dancers who placed above us.  The second event that occurred, was at the end of the awards ceremony, when Emily and I were awarded the "Golden Budgie Trophy", which, if you've never been to Camp Hollywood, is an award given for a single event that occurs over the weekend that basically brings the house down and that everyone ends up talking about. This was definitely the best award I've ever received at a dance competition.

And that was the end of it . . . at least that's what I thought.  I uploaded a version of the routine to YouTube so I could show my family and friends that had not seen it, and they passed it on to their friends and family, and so on . . .

Within a few weeks, the video spread like wildfire, ending up on Yahoo! News, the Yahoo! Front Page G4TV's Website, Attack of the Show (August 1, 2011), CBS News, and niche websites like Kotaku, Geekologie and Geeks Are Sexy.  It was also the #1 sports video on Yahoo! Japan for a couple of weeks, and was featured on Nintendo's Official YouTube Channel.  Between the multiple versions uploaded to YouTube, and the version on Yahoo, my routine had gotten over a million views in a few weeks!

Obviously, I never expected any of that.  I just wanted to make an entertaining routine, but I think that if more people could do routines like this, that have a little bit of a pop culture reference in them, we might get more people interested in Lindy Hop, and that's always a good thing.

I'm currently working on a new showcase routine with a new partner for this year at Camp Hollywood.  I'm not going to try and top the idea I had from last year, so it will be a more "standard" showcase routine concept than Super Mario, but we'll see how it plays out.  The benefit of my previous success is that I have much more confidence in my choreography and ideas, and I don't really have anything to prove.  I'm just going to try and put out something that's entertaining and see how people react to it.  Hopefully, it will go over well.

For those of you who'd like to see a version of the routine without the stop in it (or me losing my hat), here's an encore performance, performed at Lindygroove:

Friday, March 9, 2012

Top 10 Swing Songs
Every Beginner Should Learn to Dance To

Here are 10 Songs that every new swing dancer should strive to learn how to dance to . . . or at least this is the list that I wish I had had when I started dancing. (List and reasons are provided below.)

Top 10 Swing Songs Every Beginner Should Learn to Dance To by ickeroo on Grooveshark

#10 - Shiny Stockings - Count Basie (120 bpm)

When I first started swing dancing, I, like most people, had the impression that "good" swing music had to be upbeat or uptempo.  Shiny Stockings is a perfect contrast to this idea.  It's the antithesis to this mind set, showing that swing can be cool and smooth, and that one's dancing can also be cool and smooth.  Aside from the fact that the song has an easy tempo for practicing triple steps, the phrasing is so fun to dance to that even a well traveled and experienced lindy hopper will find things in the song to play with.  There's a reason this song was one of Frankie Manning's favorites.

#9 - For Dancers Only - Jimmie Lunceford (150 bpm)

With this song, it's right in the name . . . For Dancers Only!  This song is unapologetic with hits and breaks that really makes a dancer realize they can't just do swing outs to this song and not do something more (and its not easy either).  Learning how to dance to this song well requires repeated listening outside of social dancing in order to ingrain the changes into your consciousness. The reward is so great when you finally get it and can hit everything like you're dancing your own choreography.

#8 - Lavender Coffin - Lionel Hampton (140 bpm)

I think this was the first song that I knew the first time I competed in a Jack and Jill Contest.  Dancing to the song gave me a lot of confidence in my dancing because I understood the energy of the song and it has a reasonable tempo.  Not to mention that any song with clapping in the recording has good energy that dancers of any level can pick up on.  What's great about this tune is it's simplicity.  There's not a lot of musical elements to play with, but this song is great for learning restraint (or "dancing before you start dancing"), since the song doesn't really kick in until 47 seconds into the recording.

#7 - Jump Session - Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart (160 bpm)

This is a great example of how you can have a song that swings, and its not a big band, jump blues, or neo-swing song.  The song's simple feeling and sound strips away all of the bells and whistles of swing music and reveals the core of what we dance to . . . that solid four beat rhythm.  Understanding this and finding the pulse in swing music is essential for progressing as a dancer.   It's also another example of how swing music can be uptempo, yet relaxed and laid back at the same time.

#6 - Watch The Birdie - Roy Eldridge and Anita O'Day (165 bpm)

Ok, yes, this song is annoying to some people, and as my music tastes have refined over the years, I would agree with that opinion, but when I was first learning how to lindy hop, this song was perfect to dancing.  One of the first choreographed lindy routines I ever saw was to this song, and that choreography has always stuck with me.  The breaks in the song are easy to understand and to hit, plus the song has a nice high energy feeling without being too fast.  Plus, how can you knock a song that was in Hellzapoppin' and that Dean Collins danced to?  Every time I dance to this song, I have to do the "Dean Cuddle", a rhythm circle, and switches.  Hooray for nostalgia!

#5 - Love Me or Leave Me - Sammy Davis Jr. (145 bpm)

Not everyone likes scatting in their dance music.  I know I get tired of it in a lot of songs when I'm dancing, but I think this song has just the right amount to make the song fun without being too annoying.  There's also an added nostalgia factor with this song, due to the routine by Kevin and Carla followed by the parody/tribute by Max and Thomas.  I put this song on the list, because this song has an interesting contrast.  It's smooth and laid back, but the brass hits in the song are like punches to the ear drums.  Similar to For Dancers Only, this song doesn't let you just to swing outs, you have to do something more.

#4 - Savoy - Lucky Millinder (165 bpm)

I added this song to this list for personal reasons.  During the first Pro-Am competition I ever competed in, I got this song for a spotlight, and it was the ONLY song in that contest that I didn't know by heart!  This is just one of those songs that you have to know.  It's got a weird fanfare intro that doesn't have an obvious tempo and there's a section with talking before the chorus comes in, and both of these things makes the down beat very difficult to find.  Additionally, this song doesn't follow the normal musical phrasing of most swing songs, and actually has phrases consisting of 6 and 12 "eights" instead of the usual 4, 8, and 16 "eights".  (If you didn't get any of that, don't worry, I'm going to do a blog post on swing music structure soon.)

#3 - Gangbusters - The Cats and The Fiddle (190 bpm)

A lot of people complain that all of the Cats and The Fiddle songs sound exactly the same.  Like that's a bad thing?  Just like Slim and Slam, this group has a really simple sound, with that solid four beat rhythm chunking along to every beat.  Do their songs sound similar?  In terms of rhythm they do, but the melodies are different.  There's actually several other Cats and the Fiddle songs like more than Gangbusters, but this particular song is what allowed me to discover this group, who tend to play a little faster than Slim and Slam.  The faster tempo definitely makes swing outs more of a challenge for a beginner, but really help improve form because of the relaxed feel of the song, and if you want to learn how to dance fast, you have to learn to relax.

#2 - Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho - Sidney Bechet (180 bpm)

This is another song that tends to have a polar reaction in the swing community.  Some people love this song, and some people hate it because they think its repetitive.  I'm the one of the former, rather than the later.  The song is repetitive in the sense that its verse, chorus, repeat throughout the song, but if all you can hear is the repeating melody, then you're missing the subtlety of how each verse and chorus is slightly tweaked from the one before.  Yes, the song has clapping in it, which gives it a high energy feel, but the subtle changes are what makes the song great and important to listen to when dancing to it.

#1 - Jumpin' At The Woodside - Count Basie (240 bpm)

What else could it be?  The song has the potential to be overplayed in the Lindy Hop community, but it hasn't worn out it's welcome.  Its the song's intro that grabs you and makes you want to swing out.  Everyone wants to learn how to "dance fast" and even though there are faster songs out there, I think this one is a pretty reasonable goal.  The phrasing is what makes this song great, which is why its often used for phrase battles in contests and jam circles.  Plus there's the added bonus that the song was the original inspiration for the infamous Whitey's Lindy Hopper's Routine in the movie Hellzapoppin'.  I think this song is definitely one that separates the experienced dancer from the inexperienced dancer, so if you want to work on dancing to one song, this one would be it.