My Endless Frustration:
Are you like me? Can you relate to me right now?
Because there are some things that have just driven me crazy over the last few years. Ever since the Revolution started, I have scratched my head - no, scratch that - banged my head - against so many walls wondering what was up with these so-called "swing-heroes" of ours.
I bet you thought I was going to say I've been driven nuts by Abstract Improvisation all these years. Well, yes, but not as much as you might think. It drove me nuts before I started writing, but the more I wrote, the more I stopped being frustrated with Abstract and started being frustrated with our "swing legends."
Or more to the point, watching our swing legends and heroes do... nothing. Nuuuuuuuthing!!!
Next week I will share with you some examples of what these legends say to me, other deep water people and their closest friends. Then I will tell you what they say in public. What they DO in public. How they actually score and/or act to the contrary of what they see and/or believe while at our events... thereby preserving the very culture and society of Abstract, insobriety and criminal behavior that they clam to detest. Preserving all that our competitive and honorary WCS establishments had previously adopted.
But to fully understand next week's evidence, you will need to read what all of them read the week before Memorial Day in 2011. I still have the hand-picked list of people I sent my .pdf of The Time Has Come to. And I still remember everyone's responses... six whole months before Sarah Vann Drake ever got her hands on it, and three years before most in the ten had ever even read it.
Six whole months before. Three whole years before! How much could have changed in just that small amount of time. How much could have changed in the course of that year, never mind three years!
No... to understand my source of deepest frustration - to pinpoint the VERY REASON no one took action - you will have to read what they read first. You have to understand what they understood... You have to walk down their road.
And then next week, read and understand what I mean when I tell you WHY they choose Abstract instead of Swing, despite all their gripes, complaints, laments and more... despite knowing all the consequences their actions would have.
Let's walk this road together... Let's read certain important portions again with different eyes. Grab a coffee, tea or chai. Here we go...
THE TIME HAS COME
(Abridged. Released May 2011)
[For the purposes of this subject, I have removed the Introduction section, as well as the definitions of Pure WCS and the Renaissance Era. Click here
to read the article in its entirety.]
Abstract Improvisation is the other dance form we are seeing on the floor today. Because I have not written an article on it before, I will spend some more time outlining it here.
Abstract Improvisation's roots extend back 10 years ago. The roots grew very slowly in the beginning, but now, especially in the last three years, they've come into full bloom. In some so called "West Coast Swing" communities and clubs, it's the only dance they know. If asked to do an actual WCS pattern with triples and wraps, they would not be able to do so without great difficulty or without removing all of its footwork and timing.
I derived Abstract Improvisation's name from a combination of two terms: Abstract Art and Contact Improvisation. If you have not studied Abstract art or danced Contact Improvisation (two studies I would highly recommend), then here are some definitions of the two for you.
Abstract / Abstract Art
-difficult to understand
-a form of art with no rules, definition or boundaries
-a removal from reality
-form and line
-a period of art which followed the Renaissance
-a form of modern dance improvisation
-points of physical contact provide the starting point for exploration through movement improvisation
-does not have rhythms, a step pattern, or music requirements
Touchdown Dance magazine once wrote the following about Contact Improvisation: "Contact Improvisation is a means to explore the physical forces imposed on the body by gravity, by the physics of momentum, falling and lifting. It is a complex but very open form with infinite possibilities and is a dance form that is made by the dancer in the moment of dancing." Keep this in mind, as it most definitely relates to Abstract Improvisation.
Abstract Improvisation has only four elements. It relies heavily on Teamwork but not Timing or Technique. It can be learned within a week to a month and does not require classes. It can be learned on the floor or on YouTube. It is highly improvised, "made by the dancer in the moment of dancing," instead of being pattern based.
Dancers who do 'Abstract' look very much alike. It is almost impossible to tell the difference between a novice or advanced Abstract dancer beyond their differences in attitude, confidence and attire. Abstract leaders' feet are almost always wide and flat footed. In pictures their legs look like they are straddling a pony.
"Lines, shape and form" are created by straight, stretched arm leads and follows. Turns are led with rainbow arcs, high above the head, rather than halo turns, which leads to off balance following, which leads to arching backs and sways by the followers. The shoulders ride very high and the elbows are turned outside of the body, rather than tucked in towards the floor. The leads are less about leading her body, but more like "suggestions for direction." These "leads" are all in the arms leads, not body or center leads.
The footwork is not the focus in Abstract. The upper body (waist, head, arms) is where the action occurs. Your eyes are drawn towards the upper body area where spins are arching, hair is flying and arms look like they are holding giant beach balls. If you count to the music, and then look at the feet, you will find no relation. The feet are shuffling to catch the body, not drive the center. You will also notice how often single footed spins fall or gyrate off balance and the move is exited in an archway as a cover up.
Abstract isn't danced over the heel, but over the ball or flat foot. The feet are rarely turned out. Feet are used for catching falls, for straddling, for hitting lyrics and melodies, for sliding... not for holding a rhythm pattern, moving the body or leading. As a result, Abstract Improv can be danced over any kind of music- a waltz, a samba, a nightclub two step or a hustle. This is part of the reason that when a hustle or nightclub two step is played, dancers are still dancing what they call 'swing' on the floor, but only Abstract Improvisation works over any song.
Abstract Improv requires four elements: strong knees, a flexible spine, quick reflexes and total confidence. This is why young and untrained dancers excel at Abstract Improv. Their muscles don't injure as easily and they don't have years of training telling them to keep rhythms, posture, to lead correctly or to connect fully. Abstract Improv instruction often uses the following terms: momentum, shape, channeling, improvisational, new school, flow, 3-D, free-styling, contemporary, etc. Common Abstract phrases include "the anchor is obsolete," "stretch out as far as you can go," "no leading, only suggesting," "there are no rules," "disconnect," "eliminate your triples," "split your weight across both feet," "dance behind the beat," etc.
When danced on beat, Abstract Improv is almost all single and double rhythm based and often the leader or follower can be seen standing in straddle position for well over four beats, while their upper half gyrates, sways or 'mimes' the lyrics.
The man does not post. The slot is often circular and free formed. The leader can move up and down the slot (or lack thereof), "flip-flop" positions with the follower and sometimes the follower is left in the middle while the leader dances around her. Pure WCS couples dancing next to an Abstract Improvisation couple will feel like they are being constantly run over or invaded by the Abstract couple's slot.
In Abstract Improvisation, major phrases are hit by tricks, swoops and falls that are dramatic but most often messy, as are they are done split weight, with loose high shoulders and extended lats.
Abstract Improvisation is not about controlled movement, but large, "sexy," or "on-the-floor" movements. Abstract dancers often replace the push break with a four beat 'push and pull,' and their Underarm Turn most often becomes a two beat "snap" by both partners to opposite ends of the slot.
Because of such quick movements, Abstract Improves seems much more big, bold and energetic than Pure WCS, and so Abstract dancers are put into finals instead of Pure WCScompetitors, despite having a complete lack of timing, connection, technique or swing.
Yes, I said swing. Abstract Improvisation looks, feels and reflects many of the attributes of Contact Improvisation, which is a postmodern contemporary dance form, rather than any partner or rhythm based dance with steps, rules, leading and following. Therefore I classify Abstract Improvisation as a rudimentary contemporary dance (not to be confused with contemporary music), or modern dance. It's very similar to improvisational club dancing at young city nightclubs, but it is not a swing dance.
I've heard many times that Abstract Improvisation is really WCS "evolved." However, the world "evolved" connotes a movement towards a higher level of skill or movement. The fact that Abstract Improvisational dancers cannot do a series of WCS basics with critical timing, posture, centering, skilled leading or following, or any of the other incredibly difficult levels or patterns that Pure WCS demands, debates the idea of any "evolvement."
An elimination of excellent leading ("we don't do 'prep prep' anymore"), following ("don't wait for me, you should do your own thing now"), of centering, of foot positions, of syncopations, of timing... all of this only indicates a "devolvement" in my opinion, not an "evolvement." We would be wise to see these claims for what they really are: an excuse to keep students from going to any other instructor, to protect their own "revolutionary" brand, to gloss over training they don't have and to protect a dance that only they understand and therefore only they earn money off of.
Abstract Improvisation is such a far cry from Pure WCS, that the students of this new dance often find any other teacher's methods a threat. If they are at a convention and attend a PureWCS instructors workshop, they will sometimes declare that they "only want to learn (fill in the blank: "contemporary," "new school," etc, etc.) swing" and will sit the class out. And since Abstract Improvisation doesn't have any rules, students have walked away from conventions learning eight different ways to "anchor" or "replace their anchor," six different ways to hear the music, "feel it," "dance the emotion of it," "dance the lyrics," "dance the melodies," but never dance on beat, which is now, unfortunately, the rarest of finds at most conventions and many dance scenes across the country.
Let me clarify. To "dance on beat" refers to the dancer's feet dancing to the beat of the music. I often hear students and judges say that Abstract Improvisational dancers "hit every beat" in the music, when in reality, their upper bodies hit all of the breaks. This is actually pretty easy to do. What's difficult to do is lead and follow with your feet on beat AND hit the breaks. If you look at these "flashy" improvisational dancers' feet, you will suddenly see how very little skill is actually being executed.
The Time Has Come.
As you've probably figured out by now, I've discovered that we as a community now have two completely separate dances on our hands. I understand that this has been hard to see, especially since a handful of our top pros are able to do both depending on what music they are given, the audience they have, the judges they have, etc. But they comprise less than 1% of our community. And they've been dancing and teaching this new dance for a few years now, and we have been unaware of this shift. We've just seen the dancing change, but we didn't know how or why.
It is time to face reality. There are two dances.
It is time to admit the truth. There are two dances.
It is dangerous to deny it and stay on the path we are on.
And I mean dangerous.
First, it's dangerous physically, emotionally and mentally to our dancers. When a Pure WCStrained follower draws an Abstract Improvisation leader, she gets physically hurt by the clash. She feels totally lost and thinks she's in over her head. She is yanked off her anchor with no warning because Abstract Improvisation never moves on the same beat or even on a beat. She is put into precarious positions where she's not quite sure what's expected of her and gets hit in the head when trying to go down the slot.
When a Pure WCS trained leader draws an Abstract Improvisation follower, he can't figure out how to lead her, to connect with her, how to even get a push break out of her. She will be extremely light, to the point of complete disconnection or she will be extremely heavy and pull him off his anchor or timing. He will never ever get her on the foot he's trying to get her on, because she is not expecting him to lead her feet into positions.
It's the same the other way around. I'm hearing stories nearly every week about how an Abstract Improvisation leader draws a Pure WCS follower and accuses her of deliberately fighting him or getting in his way, when she is simply assuming he's doing the same dance. My inbox is jammed with horror stories of the meeting of these two dances on the floor. They are stories ranging from physical harm, to emotional harm to mental harm... and dancers are falling out of love with the dance. They just don't understand that there are two completely different dances on the floor today. Which brings me to my second point.
If we don't acknowledge that there are two dances,
the future of the West Coast Swing industry is in jeopardy.
It's already suffering. Highly trained WCS professionals feel pressured to teach poor technique. Novice and intermediate dancers are suddenly instructors. Event directors are hiring unskilled teachers and dancers because they are cheaper and seem to be the "hot ticket" instead of hiring highly trained real WCS instructors. Classes are shrinking across America. Because Abstract Improvisation is just that, improvisational, and requires almost none of the skills and training that Pure WCS does, it doesn't have to be learned in a studio.
That doesn't mean there aren't people teaching Abstract Improvisation. There are. But people hear them say, in their so called "WCS" classes that, "we don't do that anymore, we do this now," and the students feel like they have to start all over in the dance. But the reality is that Abstract Improvisation really doesn't take any training. I'm meeting more and more dancers at conventions who have never taken a single WCS lesson and are having a blast.
In fact, Abstract Improv dancers, for reasons I've briefly touched on, make finals over PureWCS dancers, which only promotes the idea to onlookers that classes, privates and lessons in general are not needed to be successful in the dance. Why spend money on Pure WCS, which absolutely has to be learned in a lesson setting and takes a long time to master, when you can learn Abstract Improvisation on YouTube for free? If we insist on calling Abstract Improvisation "Swing," then we are contradicting every single real WCS teacher out there and setting up all of their students for confusion, bitterness and failure. We will, ultimately, lose them. And then we will lose our instructors.
And then we will lose the dance.
We need to face facts. We need to remember what 'normal' is in the partner dancing communities. In healthier communities, like ballroom, the fact of the matter is that when someone has been learning a ballroom dance for three months and then dances with a ballroom pro, they feel like they are on top of the world and can do no wrong. It's like dancing with a dream. They are then are inspired to keep going, keep learning, keep expanding their knowledge and enjoyment of the dance.
But if a WCS dancer has been taking lessons for three months at a studio or a club and then asks a supposedly higher level dancer (because points tell them they are so, not other dancers) to dance, it will not be a pleasant experience. Those who have racked up points in the past five years are almost all Abstract Improvisational dancers, and they will completely run over this new beginner to our dance. The newcomer will be completely lost and feel defeated, not inspired. They will feel confused and torn. They will stick with lessons for about six months to a year and then they will give up, because they feel like they aren't getting any better.
In reality, they are learning one dance and yet asking someone who does a completely different dance to help them measure their progress. What a catastrophe for these dancers! It's heartbreaking, hearing their stories. Because we haven't admitted this other dance, our newcomers don't realize it's another dance that they're clashing with, never mind a lesser art form. And we should take a stand for them.
It is time, everybody.
People are done. People feel left behind. People feel ugly, misunderstood, confused, angry and they feel scared. We are hemorrhaging veteran dancers at an astronomical rate. We are allowing our most talented individuals to feel "old" and we are attracting a demographic of dancers who would rather not work at their dancing because it's not "fun," and allowing instructors into our community who have absolutely no problem giving watered down shortcuts to technique, slandering our most knowledgeable and respected legends and calling an extremely difficult and praiseworthy dance "out of touch."
Non-dancers have a better eye than we do now. Lunchrooms don't watch our videos after 2002. But they can't get enough of our Renaissance Era. They'll watch those tapes for hours.
It's time to put an end to the madness. It's time to equip our students, our fellow judges, our newcomers and our fellow dancers with the knowledge to walk into a studio, into a convention, into a workshop and say, "Okay, that's Abstract and that's Pure West Coast." And then they can make informed decisions. Then they can dance with freedom. Then they can understand what they're watching. Then they can understand what's going on...
And then we can heal.
From the bestselling book Telling the Truth:
The Groundbreaking Articles that Saved West Coast Swing
See You Next Week, Everybody! Read up and be ready. xoxo, Katherine Eastvold