A new future for the Blues Dance Scene

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work for the Lindy Hop community. I’ve dove deep into the history of the dance, and the scene and considering what could be improved moving forward. Now I’m turning to look at the blues community. I know the blues scene has taken a long time to return to dance and whether you think this is a good thing or not, Isn’t what I want to talk about. Fact is, we haven’t come back in full force and so the question is “what do we want things to look like moving forward for the future of the blues dance scene?” One issue that is happening in other scenes is in their rush to return, they have also returned to the status quo. 

I, personally don’t want that for the blues community. As we come back, as we realise how important dance is in so many of our lives we have the opportunity to really be intentional. Both as individuals and as a community we can follow through on the energy so many were fired up with during the BLM protests, the desire for connection, and a hunger for more dancing. If we return and everything is exactly the same…. What a missed chance to orient our communities to actually serve us, and to serve our communities. So I want to talk about a vision I have of what could be if we choose to dream bigger than what was.

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Community and Organization For Blues Dance

One thing I appreciate about how the pandemic affected the scene is around how people got creative around events, connection, and education. The scene had over time narrowed it’s view down to one type of event. One set of values. A “right” way of doing things, who to hire and what was believed to work. Even if digital events weren’t for you, what they brought was a lot of fresh energy, a lot of trial and error and a better feeling of a digital community. Was it perfect? No. 

But what would it look like to allow (and support) our community in trying these new ideas?

What would it look like to have a small scene to have access to the education they would ordinarily need to travel to receive? I see a world where we have small groups hire virtual instruction for small scenes/groups. If you got 10 folks together you could easily hire an instructor for 2 hours of lessons for about $20 each. If the virtual lesson format doesn’t work for your scene you could get your teachers to take these privates and then help teach the rest of the scene. It could become more common to have small practice groups where you bring over snacks and either practice an idea or even just dance.

As summer continues on maybe the thing is to find a park and dance there on Sunday afternoons. Invite the whole scene to bring their families and friends to hang out. You get to mingle for a bit, dance a bit and go back to hanging out. I can see afternoons filled with Dj nerds talking about music and swapping songs. Strangers coming over to see what is happening and getting involved. Board games and sports off to the sides. As the summer goes on responsibilities just get traded off because everyone wants to connect. To bring a little bit of themselves to each event to really make it special. No need to go “bomb” a space when you could make your own. 

What would it be like to support your local musicians? And not just the ones you know. It’s great to support the fan favourites. But wouldn’t it be amazing to a year or two down the line to see a unique line up for all the bigger events. That it was the group struggling in their local open mic that the scene falls in love with. How cool would it be to buy their CDs and add local music to what you play at your events? What about getting together with a nearish by scene to see their local bands of choice?

Venues and Events

Many venues closed. As scene restarts up I can’t help but envision a world where there are again different sized events. I miss tiny events in someone’s living room. Where I felt like I could actually get to know someone. I left feeling like I had at least one new friend. Many scenes don’t consider the power of a house party or a hang out at some live music or before a small group makes dinner. 

I miss small events where I knew everyone and we could check in on each other. Where you went to classes to help, and because even if you didn’t “need it” you got off work early and might as well. Or going to the local bar/restaurant before or after the dance for hang out time? Or, finding a small area for the advanced dancers of the scene to get to gather to work on performances, competitions or just to share things they are working on? 

I miss regional events. Those events in the local community centre or gym that were a lot less polished but a lot more lo key. The events that took place in small businesses that were happy to just have a little extra business or to stay open a little later for a group. People not only being willing to travel the hour or two but to carpool and get to know their fellow dancers along the way. The events that weren’t so big, it was a lot of trouble to host the dancers than DID make the trek. 

Then we have the big events. Where is the diversity? What makes your event and scene different? Not every event needs to try to be Shout or ABP, besides that gets old after a while. What does your community do that is amazing? What are you all passionate about that no one else seems to care as much for?

Got AMAZING community spirit? Focus on opportunities to connect and show off! Got more live music than you know what to do with? Hire the musicians you love and let them go OFF. Do we need to have the biggest and fanciest venues still? Most of our dances were formed for tight corners. Is it hot? Yeah. Does it feel different when you are tightly packed than spread out? Hell yeah. Better even in some ways. I’m not saying to break fire code but I’d rather be a little packed than in huge hall. 

Blues Dance Classes

As a community, everyone has been so caught up in trying to make the highest track of classes, but the right instructors will challenge everyone in an all-levels class. What if sometimes the event was just a facilitated learning space. Or just office hours mixed with open dancing. Not interested in learning?sign up to give feedback, or be a dance dummy for people to try out new or harder concepts with. What if it was a group office hours and 1 person gets 15 minutes of attention for something they are struggling with in small groups. 

Or if we are going to be keeping auditions, is there a way to make them more fun? Or at least easier. Have “auditions” take place at the dance with “open hours” rotate the teachers on call and it’s on students to take time to dance with them. Make it all audition by video? Why does it need to be this stressful thing first thing in the morning? Could it be all level morning and midday auditions. 

There is a time and place for four tracks of classes but I wonder if we would feel like we needed that so much if locally there were opportunities to get some of that education. What happened to having mostly Djd events? Themed nights? (And not just “vintage”). 

Comps and performances can be great to have but should we look at why we have them and feel a need to have multiple options at every event. Can we find ways to add audience participation in these competitions? How about we look at comps as not being a chore but rather a way to cheer on our friends? As an option of innovation and pushing ourselves and what we think we know. 

Don’t got a good idea? Don’t have comps. Have a Dj battle instead. A battle of the bands. Have a pro-Am but the pro is judged for being a good social dancer. A Simon says comp. Pick hard and entertaining songs for the pros with weird curveballs. Have judged paired with a younger dancer and each pair have to negotiate their score card? Then have a class about the differences later. 

This year there were virtual comps and performances. If we can go from on a whole not knowing how to stream we can be more creative in when and how we make competitions. Comps are a show and should be treated as such. Get some hype and excitement rather than a dull affair. Play songs of faster tempos until people drop out or drop aesthetic? Or go the opposite direction. Although skill level based comps are good, they only are any fun if there is actual tension. Give me a reason so compelling to stay in the room despite my intense anxiety, rather than seeing the list over dinner and going, “ah I know who will do well”. Have blues competitions gotten as ritualistic as the Lindy Hop jam? 

On Race and Culture

…. Am I the only one who dreams of a day it’s interwoven in an organic way? What if we used transitions for mini-lectures/discussions. Got people to tell famous stories? Shared awesome videos and examples of the newest innovation and research from the scene? Why is these aspects always tinged with guilt/shame and obligation? No one enjoys learning out of obligation or will choose to skip their chill time or most exciting course to attend a lecture. Of course there are some who are really not interested but that can’t be everyone. My experience as a teacher and bit of a research nerd outside of classes says otherwise. People want context and how it relates to them. They want to see things as more than an anecdote. 

Support teachers using other modes of teaching. Consider changing and challenging the biases and assumptions around how a BLANK is supposed to be and see if there are other ways to tackle things. Change up your staff and who you hire, not just for teachers but what business you support. I dream of a day that our culture isn’t studied like a specimen in a lab, but viewed curiously in others’ everyday life. 

What kind of community do you want?

Let go of the people who are stuck in their ways and let’s replace them with people who care. Right before the pandemic, there was a rising group of dancers of about 2 years who only knew the scene as a community that actively acknowledged its history and cultural roots. If we stay stuck looking at the past or at those stuck in the past we will not only miss the shift that has been made but also, let them stop our growth. 

What once was common, people sexy dancing to songs like strange fruit is foreign to these new dancers. It’s a troupe that doesn’t accurately reflect what the scene is today. I think in many ways we’ve been looking back as organizers at what has worked and what we don’t want to be like we’ve backed ourselves into a creative corner. Do we even know what will work these days? No, no idea. So why not try and play around with what you want your community to look like and how to get there.

Don’t get the support you need? Drop it. Or keep it lo stakes and the only option. Either people will step up, or realise they need to contribute. No more of this destroying organizers by limiting options so much the weight of the community falls onto their shoulders and a single (or few) events success. 

We have the opportunity to really take an honest look at ourselves, our scenes and our values. To change what we think is standard. We can reinvigorate our scenes by getting back to basics and being willing to make mistakes. To try new things, to expand what we think will work. Most importantly to continue to grow rather than to return to the old scene which was serving fewer and fewer people in a healthy and sustainable way. 

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