Dancing: The Crack I Took 32 Years To Get Addicted To

I’ve been meaning to write about dancing, and the role it’s come to play in my life, for a long time. And although what’s triggered me to finally sit down and write the damn post is something as trivial (and potentially self-serving, as you will see when you read on) as a coupon deal for the dance studio where I spend a lot of my time, I promise you that my main motivation for this post goes way beyond referral credits.

* * *

I spent the first twenty years of my life immersed in music and words, but the intensity of my involvement in those artistic pursuits was oddly balanced out by an almost complete lack of involvement in the worlds of dancing and the visual arts. I never went for ballet or art classes, and never thought of myself as someone who could dance or who had any visual creativity at all. My identity (insofar as I might have defined it in terms of what I was good at) was firmly founded on thinking of myself as a pianist, violinist, writer and debater. Also a total champ at Tumblepop and a virtuoso on the monkeybars, but that’s not really relevant to the topic of this post.

20-year-old me would have been extremely surprised to discover 32-year-old me listing dancing and photography as the two hobbies she overwhelmingly spends her free time on.

“Are you actually good at either of these things?” Michelle v20 would wonder.

“Nowhere near how good you are at the things you spent the first twenty years of your life doing!” Michelle v32 would reply merrily. “But somehow that’s what makes dancing and photography even more fun!”

* * *

So, dancing. (I’ll save photography for another time.) You can skim my “dance”-tagged posts if you want, but the tl;dr summary is: I discovered the funfest that is lindy hop at 20, danced it sporadically for the next 7 years or so, got lazy after marriage and didn’t do any dancing for nearly 4 years, took up West Coast Swing (that’s just 3 examples of how versatile the dance is in terms of what music you can dance to – and no, none of those dances were choreographed, they’re just people having fun improvising) in 2011 and that ended up being the gateway drug to spending more time, money and effort on dancing in 1 year than I ever had before. Besides West Coast Swing, which I’ve focused most of my energy on, I’ve also dipped my toe into hip hop, dancehall, exotic dancing, general body movement, Brazilian zouk and very recently tango, and have hugely enjoyed my limited experiences with those too.

Like I said, I’m not particularly good at any of this. I would describe myself as having utterly average levels of physical coordination, although my musical background does at least mean that discernment of counts, bars and phrasing is more or less hardwired into my brain. (This does NOT necessarily translate into me always moving my body on time, or having the dance vocabulary to express the phrasing my brain understands, but I still hold on to little blessings like that when the going gets tough.) And I’ve often wondered why the hell I’m slaving at something I have no strong natural aptitude in, rather than something which might come more easily to me, like practising my turntablism or picking up jazz piano.

But here’s the weird thing – the less natural aptitude you have for something, the more satisfying it is when you actually see yourself improve at it! Let’s take spinning, my ongoing dance nemesis. Do you know how awesome it feels to realize you have gone from “worst freaking spinner in the class, such that the guys either have to not spin you much or just keep compensating for your graceless veering off-course” to “able to keep up with average spinning demands, such that the guys now frequently spin you multiple times and it doesn’t end in epic failure”? IT FEELS PRETTY DAMN AWESOME. *does little spin*

The other big source of awesome which dancing has added to my life is the particular physical pleasure of partner dancing, which I strongly believe you can’t even begin to understand unless you’ve given it a try yourself. I really struggle with describing this to someone who’s never experienced it, but it’s completely different from what it feels like to just go crazy by yourself on a club dancefloor. It’s about experiencing the physical sensation of momentum with someone else – like how kids hold hands and spin each other round and round, except with far more different ways to get that feeling of “WHEEEEEE!”

* * *

Where am I going with all this? It’s basically my explanation for why I’m about to recommend a currently available coupon deal to anyone in Singapore who – like me – has never really thought of themselves as being able to dance, to whom dancing may just seem like something “other people” do. There are, of course, plenty of dance coupon deals out there, and plenty more places to learn dancing if you don’t limit yourself to somewhere offering a deal. But this deal is for classes at Mosaic Dance Studio, where I spend lots of my time, and that’s why I know it’s a deal worth recommending.

For $20, you get to try out 2 weeks of unlimited dance and fitness classes. The instructors are great, and the community is very friendly (which, to me, is actually quite important in sustaining my interest in a dance – I drifted away from lindy hop partly because I didn’t have much fun within its community, although I still adore the dance). If, at the end of 2 weeks, you’re not really feeling this whole dance thing, you’ve lost $20 and some time. But there’s a very real possibility, I think, that you’ll be surprised by how much you’ve enjoyed it.

If you go through my referral link to sign up at the deal site before you purchase the deal, you get $5 credit at the deal site and I get $10 credit.

Alternatively, if for whatever reason you don’t want to try that deal, but you do decide to try classes at Mosaic Dance Studio at some point as a result of this post, I think I also get some sort of referral reward (if you tell them about this post when you first register with them) though I can’t quite remember what. If you do this, you should of course let me know so that I can say hi and let you laugh at my spins in real life.

I realize my mentioning any of this referral credit stuff may come across as a bit tacky, and if you think it is, then feel totally free to ignore it. But please don’t ignore the main suggestion I’m making – if there is ever space in your life to fall unexpectedly in love with a new hobby, give dancing a try, somewhere, somehow, sometime.

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Video Killed The Lazy-Ass Lindy-Hopper

Although I rarely do any lindy hop these days because I want to concentrate on getting my West Coast Swing fundamentals right, I certainly don’t love lindy hop any less than I ever did. The robustness of the lindy hop connection (for non-dancers, I mean the feeling of physical connection between you and your partner) still feels like home to me, and there’s a raw explosive joy to lindy hop that I miss in the slickness and poise of WCS.

(That being said, learning WCS was certainly one of the best decisions I made in 2011. It took me right back to the high I felt when I first learned lindy hop and would leave each lesson with a big band beat in my heart, barely able to restrain myself from triple-stepping all the way home. I tell people that if you’ve never partner danced you can’t understand what you’re missing out on until you do it. But oddly enough, even though I had partner danced for several years before working life made me lazy, I still managed to forget just how much awesomeness it puts into your life until I started again.)

I am still far better at watching lindy hop videos on Youtube than actually getting off my ass and sweating through the dance, but here is where I come to the main reason for this post, which is to appropriate some of my favourite videos from Wandering and Pondering’s excellent roundup of 2011 lindy hop videos and share one particularly fantastic passage from his writeup. It is written in relation to this Skye and Frida performance, which is so deceptively simple that I could do all the moves in the routine (okay, probably only at one third of their speed). But my God, it’s how they do it that makes the routine soar.

 

You should read the whole section about this routine on Wandering and Pondering, but here’s the bit I liked best:

Here’s the thing, Skye & Frida know that you’re watching. They know that you expect them to do something amazing every other eight counts, but they’re over that. They’re going to swingout and Charleston and perfectly match the phrasing and feeling of the music with moves and their movements, and they’re going to do it not to impress you or to win first place. The reason why they look so relaxed and are having fun is because they are. They’re not hamming it up for the judges or even each other. They just enjoy each others’ company and express that best through dance.

Most people may not realize it, but this is what you’re looking for when you take all those lessons and try to figure out how to become a “good” dancer. Face it, not all of us are ever going to win a competition. No matter how many or how few people are in a given contest, there’s only going to be one winner. But you put all the time into it, so you can you can to turn to your partner and say, “Right here, in this moment, we are going to have the time of our lives.” And then be able say that with every damn dance you have with a straight face.

From this other Wandering and Pondering post in the same 2011 video roundup series, I also discovered the amazing Jamin Jackson, who apparently hasn’t been lindy-hopping for very long but is an absolute delight to watch. When he rules the lindy world in a few years time, I’m totally gonna claim cred for having begun stalking him on Youtube NOW.

I think his performance quality completely outshone Annie Trudeau’s here!

 

He is just as lovely in this Jack & Jill (for non-dancers, this means a routine improvised on the spot with a randomly assigned partner).

 

And from a third post in the same series, if this video of a father dancing with his tiny daughter in the Savoy Swing Jam 2011 Intergenerational Competition doesn’t put a sappy smile on your face, you are…apparently even less fond of children than I am, which is honestly rather shocking. 0_0

 

I’m not sure how funny this last video will be to you if you haven’t taken dance classes in the last few years and aren’t familiar with the whole practice of taking “recap videos” after each class. All I can say is that I’ve probably watched it about 20 times in 24 hours, and I crack up every damn time.

Swing Saturation

At dancing tonight, two separate teachers told me (unasked) I’d really improved a lot recently. I was thrilled, of course, but I reckon the secret behind my improvement is that I’ve been obsessed with this video for weeks, so I might as well share it with you.

 

Much like the last video I shared here this is a crossover improv where they’ve paired one West Coast Swinger (Tessa Cunningham) with one lindy hopper (Max Pitruzzella). I could and do of course watch “pure” videos where both dancers are equally in their element, but I suppose my fascination with the crossover ones stems from the same thing I like about So You Think You Can Dance. I like seeing how someone so proficient in one style of dance handles crossing over to another, and I suppose I hold out hope that in time, I too will be able to do both these styles well and cross between them successfully. At the moment I’m mediocre and unfit in lindy hop, mediocre and inexperienced in West Coast Swing, and the main aspects of crossover between them are my bad habits and awkward styling. So I’ve got quite a bit of improvement to look forward to!

But back to the video. I love the WCS portion because I basically started learning WCS in order to be able to have a partner dance I could do to hip-hop, and I love Max’s vibe and musicality here. I think he does a great job for someone who usually dances like this, and I somehow found him sexier here than I ever do when he’s doing lindy hop. Tessa is obviously smoking hot in the WCS portion, and I think she keeps up admirably with Max in the lindy portion. So yeah, I think by dint of sheer saturation viewing, some of the coolness in this video has finally seeped into my own dancing. Who knows, maybe with the same method I’ll manage krumping some day too…

Swing Outta Compton

A little over ten years ago I learned how to lindy hop in a little Tanjong Pagar shophouse. About three years ago I learned how to DJ in a little Tanjong Pagar shophouse. And tonight, I had my first West Coast Swing lesson in a little Tanjong Pagar shophouse. Little Tanjong Pagar shophouses rock.

Anyway, because I’ve had a few friends ask what West Coast Swing is, what lindy hop is, and whether dancing either of these invariably involves being thrown in the air, I thought I’d share a video which I think is a nice demonstration of how both these dances work in an improvisational, non-airborne setting – which is how I, and most normal non-dance-champ people, would enjoy doing them. The first dance they do is West Coast Swing, the second is lindy hop.

 

West Coast Swing is a little too slick to be as immediately endearing as lindy hop has always been for me, but I’m still keen to learn it for its versatility. Unlike lindy hop, which is most typically danced to big band music, West Coast Swing can be danced to almost any pop music, and as much as I love Duke Ellington, the thought of swinging to trashy pop is rather intriguing.

Lindy-Hop You Don’t Stop

My So You Think You Can Dance obsession in December guilt-tripped me into returning to lindy-hopping when I realized I was shaping up to be a future world champion of So You Think You Can Sit On Your Ass For Hours On End, plus we’re toying with the idea of doing a lindy-hop first dance at our wedding, so I resurfaced at Jitterbugs and signed up for SEA Jam 2007.

Now judging from the pattern of the last three years, my personal lindy-hop revivals never last more than a few months before the intensely cliquish Jitterbugs crowd puts me off and I disappear. But while I’m still on a high from last weekend, I thought I might as well share a couple of Youtube finds. Whenever it comes up in conversation that I lindy-hop/swing dance, the next question people always ask is whether I get thrown around a lot and it’s always tough to explain without a demonstration that there’s so much more to the dance than that.

But first, while we’re on the subject I do still have to show you some of the finest throwing around ever captured on film, Hellzapoppin’. (The dancing only starts at 2.45 minutes but the bit before that is pretty cute if you like old movies.)

Hellzapoppin’ also sets the stage for you to imagine how cool it is to be able to take classes from the choreographer of that dance scene, Frankie Manning. He was 26 when Hellzapoppin’ came out in 1941. He’s 93 this year, doesn’t look much older than 75, and is still swingin’ every time he comes to teach at SEA Jam. Here’s Frankie dancing on the eve of his 92nd birthday.

And here are last year’s US Open Showcase Swing champions Ben Morris and Carla Heiney doing their championship routine. They came to teach too and we got to see them do this again at the closing party.

As I mentioned in my Benji Schwimmer fangirl post, I love the improvisation of Jack and Jill competitions but it’s surprisingly hard to find examples on Youtube of the musicality and playfulness I love watching every week in Jitterbugs over here. The best example I could find is this choreographed Jack and Jack which might sound strange to someone who doesn’t do lindy but yeah, lindy-hop leads generally seem to love them a little homoeroticism and they’re often at their hilarious best when they dance with another guy. I long for the day Alec takes his first, uh, slash at it.

Lastly, for any of you who just don’t dig lindy-hop or swing dancing despite what you’ve seen through this post and the I Heart Benji one, I bet you didn’t know Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage are swing dancers too. Recognize.

Dork Love

Okay, so I really do have to come completely clean at some point about why I neglected this blog for several weeks. I was consumed with lust for a reality TV show contestant. To be exact, this man.


Yes, srsly.

I didn’t actually start off liking him much. I’m not keen on the Showcase swing dancing he specializes in – basically, lots of choreographed lifts and tricks – so I wasn’t particularly impressed when I saw him dance one of his championship routines during his audition for the show. Plus, how do you take someone seriously whose actual, official name is “Benjiman”?

So when he started off the competitive rounds by being paired with gorgeous curvy hip-hop/jazz diva Donyelle for a booty-pumping Shane Sparks hip-hop routine, I was all ready for him to suck, but he totally didn’t. This routine set the stage for what would be one of the most awesomely enjoyable seasons of reality TV I’ve ever watched (and I’ve watched a lot, y’all), and Benji and Donyelle went on from strength to strength with a rather delightful cha-cha, a pretty fierce (in the Tyra Banks sense) pop-jazz and a dreamy Viennese waltz. Benji also did some great dances with other people, like this joyful jazz routine with Natalie and two crazy slick Latin dances with his cousin Heidi, but my favourites are unquestionably the ones he did with Donyelle because I went crazy for their partnership in a way I haven’t since Mulder and Scully. Yes, I’m fully aware this is a bizarre thing for a twenty-six year old to get sucked into, but talk to the hand.


Hot moves.

Hot ass.

Hot chemistry.

Hot couple.

I also started coming across Youtube videos which showcase what I really admire about Benji’s dancing. Jack and Jill routines are almost always my favourite part of a swing dance event because I love being blown away by what good dancers can improvise on the spot, with a randomly assigned partner and music they haven’t heard till they’re standing on the dancefloor and it starts playing. This one’s my favourite because halfway through it becomes obvious that he loves the same superstar dancer who ruled my teenage years. This one’s got lots of nice slinky moves. It’s frankly hard to believe this one isn’t choreographed because they’re so amazingly in sync, but I guess that’s what you get when two swing champions get paired.

So perhaps you’re thinking, this is all very well but I still don’t get why this skinny dorky Mormon swing dancer constitutes her biggest celebrity crush of the past few years?


Perhaps this will help?

Um, yee-hah?

Other stuff that works for him is his endearingly goofy personality, and I admire the fact that he walked away at the peak of his dance career to serve a two-year Mormon mission in Mexico, then came back, set up a charity to continue helping their community, and reclaimed his US Open Showcase swing title the same year. Boy has heart, gumption and is ripped.


What’s not to love?

Swingin’ Out For The Weekend

I wish I’d found the time this week to tell you about watching Womb Raider at the olde curiosity shoppe that is the Yangtze Cinema, or muse about the tumbleweed silence that follows whenever I tell people that I enjoyed the sex scene in Brokeback Mountain and wish there had been more, but unfortunately I didn’t, and this weekend it’s SEAjam time again.

I will regrettably be much more inept at this one than I was at last year’s. I’m totally out of practice and unfit these days, which means that last year’s goal of dancing with Frankie Manning is pretty much off the cards this time. Being wholly outdanced by a 92-year-old man is fine, but I’d rather not have him carry me fainting off the dancefloor.

But anyway, I just wanted to say that I know this blog’s been rather meh lately, and I do intend to pick things up again once my work/life balance improves. Or rather, once I TAKE POSITIVE STEPS TO IMPROVE my work/life balance. I read my first ever self-help book recently, can you guess?

Lindy-Hop Ya Don’t Stop

The bad news is that I didn’t get to dance with Frankie Manning as I’d hoped to. He didn’t do the social dancing at night, which is fair enough given that during the day he continually amazed me with the dexterity and exertions he was still capable of. So if the man wanted to take it easy at night, I was happy to let him. Perhaps I still have a tiny chance at the Esplanade library tonight, where he’s giving a talk (is there anyone else who can give a talk entitled “91 Years of Lindy-Hop” except this man?), but only if there’ll actually be any dancing at the end of it. Anyway, I’m just grateful I got the opportunity to attend his classes – that alone was worth the price of admission.

The good news is that after lindy-hopping on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (with Saturday and Sunday involving 6 hours of classes during the day, then social dancing on punishing concrete for several hours more), today my body is still mostly none the worse for wear. This is a nice change from post-wakeboarding Mondays when my body is a symphony of pain. Also, in the course of the camp I had the best slow dance and the most exhilarating fast dance I’ve ever had. Thank God the fast “dance” was only 45 seconds or so (during a class, with our hot Swedish teacher), or I don’t think I could have survived the entire thing.

So here’s to another fabulous weekend, and hopefully a lifetime more of lindy-hopping to go.

Frankie Goes To Sentosa!

There will be themes for the night parties at SEAjam this weekend. It is worrying that for Saturday night’s theme of “LOUD!” I immediately know what I will wear, and for Sunday’s theme of “Cooool” I’m clueless.

But sartorial choices are really unimportant in the context of my main goal for this weekend, which is to dance with this 90-year-old man. (To non-swingers: it’s the equivalent of taking writing classes from Nabokov.)

I’m so psyched!

Lindy Time Again

In halcyon days when I updated regularly, I once explained why I love lindy-hopping madly and therefore why one of my biggest regrets about how I’ve chosen to spend my time in London was that I’d let that lapse.

Until NOW! In a recent surge of dynamism I marched down to the London Swing Dance Society’s Tuesday night class, and have since rediscovered the meaning of addiction. Everything is coming back, the sudden sinking feeling in the chest when I realize the hour is over, the little private skip of joy when I realize there’s still the next class to go (I attend both Beginner and Intermediate), the dopey grin I try to suppress in front of the stranger that is my partner as we both move to the music and wait to start the dance in earnest, the somewhat challenging exercise of trying to mentally rehearse my newly-learnt steps on the way home while trying not to give any outward signs of the “triple step, step step, ba di ba da” inner monologue that accompanies my walking.

I’m going to see Amon Tobin DJ at Electrowerkz tomorrow, and am confronted with the strange reality that despite my long-standing admiration, nay, adulation of his work, the night may still pale in comparison to my future Tuesdays in a musky studio dancing to the Chattanooga Choo Choo.