SwingIN 2014: A Review

September 29, 2014
Photo by Doug Sutton

Since I started dancing in January 2013 I have attended all or part of 9 swing dance events. For my 10th event (and the first one to which I had a free pass, hey-yo!) I figured it was time to start evaluating each event. SwingIN 2014, hosted by Naptown Stomp, was held in Indianapolis over Labor Day Weekend. This timing was particularly good because it meant that most attendees were on holiday the Monday after the last planned social dance, and therefore more people could attend all of Sunday’s events. Kasey, Michelle, and I drove up on Friday evening. This meant that we missed all of Friday’s dancing, but we heard nothing but accolades for the Spicy Pickles band and the solo jazz competition. We also missed the picnic and jam session on Monday afternoon due to driving. Stopping for a slice of pie at A Slice of Pie in Rolla, MO totally made up for it.

Ten hours in the car together gave Kasey, Michelle, and I plenty of time to rehash the weekend. We, Team Peanut Butter Crackers, came up with 7 major criteria for swing events

Location & Timing: B

The timing on this event couldn’t have been better. With an extra day to drive home there was little rush for dancers to leave, and for us Tulsans it meant that we weren’t missing half the social dances by arriving at 3 a.m. on Saturday morning. Indianapolis seemed like a nice enough city. Everyone drove about 15 miles over the speed limit and every other street was 1-way only. (Why? Why are there so many 1-way streets?) Since Team Peanut Butter Crackers had brought the makings for sandwiches we never explored the local restaurants. Michelle did try The Thirsty Scholar for their flavored sodas, which she said was a great stop for a decently priced drink. All this being said, we did have to drive ten hours to reach Indianapolis proper. And we lost Kasey’s muffler in Springfield. Hence the grade.

Housing: B-

I’m reluctant to give anything less than an A on housing, ever. Firstly because our hostess was lovely. She made coffee, provided bottles of water, gave us access to her kitchen, and was a delightful human being. She also had wood floors and six cats. We hadn’t been warned about either of these, which meant that sleeping bags didn’t really cut it until Michelle and I borrowed a twin-size air mattress from another dancer. The cats, while appropriately friendly, were incredibly active at night. I’m sure the hostess wouldn’t have heard them from where she stayed on the second or third floor; nobody wanted to ask her to lock the cats away at night (remember how delightful she was? That’s why). Being allergic to cats, I simply did my best to wash my hands after petting one and suffered sporadic sneezes through the day. Sunday night, however…it must have been 4:00 in the morning when I awoke to a faceful of fur. I moved the kitten off the bed, went back to sleep, and then found it curled up in my hair not an hour later. Monday I started feeling like I had a sinus infection. By Tuesday my face was throbbing, Wednesday brought the coughing, and on Thursday I was still trying not to breathe too deeply for fear of hacking up a lung. In the future I will be very clear: NO CATS. No matter how much I like them.

Event Staff & Atmosphere: A+

I should have guessed how great these people were from their rapid responses to my emails. The group of volunteers who manned SwingIN clearly had the dancers as their top priority. There was a masseuse working only for tips, rules for engagement—How Not To Alienate Other Dancers Or Piss Off Teachers 101—in the guidebook, and cold water and cups in every dance space. Even more unusually, the staff asked every dancer to write his or her name on a piece of construction paper. These cards were set out at the Saturday and Sunday dances with markers and permanent pens, the idea being that if one had a particularly entertaining dance with someone, one could write something nice on that someone’s card. “Warm Fuzzies,” we used to call these at camp. These were supposed to be anonymous, which sometimes made for a stalker-ish overtone, but were neat enough that I might steal that idea for the next Greenwood Swingout.

The other part of this grade, the atmosphere, was a definite high point. There are always a few dancers who refuse to dance/interact with anyone “below their level,” or those who spend the entire evening dancing solo. Since my first exposure to swing dance was the opposite of that kind of elitism, seeing it always bums me out. How will anyone improve if they never get the chance to dance with someone better than they? Also, keep the dancing alone to a minimum when you’re at a social dance. Nobody drove 10 hours to watch you practice the camel walk. As a newbie to the Indianapolis scene and an unknown (until I made finals in the Jack & Jill), I was pleased to not be rejected by any of the advanced dancers. Had I been as unwilling to make myself vulnerable and do the asking (as I was this time last year) I might have had a much different experience. Sure, there was a dance or two after which I said, “That was fun!” and the lead just replied, “Thank you,” before walking off. You can’t click with everybody. I also admit to avoiding the low and intermediate level leads who I saw instructing their peers on the social floor. Ain’t nobody got time for that. But the leads at or below my level with whom I danced were a ton of fun. No regrets in that area.

Class Structure: C

Pretty typical leveled classes. Extra-long lunch breaks made classes a little early.

Teachers: B

I should preface by admitting that I’m pretty hard on teachers in general. Once a teacher…There’s no pedagogy class for lindy hoppers who find themselves in a teaching position. At least there wasn’t until Jamin Jackson made one at last year’s Greenwood Swingout. Dancers who are skilled enough to be asked to teach often have forgotten what it was like to be new to dance. Swing dancing, after all, is a street dance. It’s for the casual and social dancers, so one shouldn’t have to walk into one’s first class knowing what it means to “be behind the beat.” Swing dancers who teach tend to fill their classes with the same jargon that they learned, and then the only students who can “get it” are those who can puzzle together what it should look like to “drive [their] hips toward the mirror”. Also, lots of people, lots of teachers, love to hear themselves talk. I’m one of them. However, when the goal of a class is movement and rhythm, then only way to make any progress is to have the students dance. Dance, dance again, and dance some more.

That being said…

I can only speak to two sets of teachers:  Jon & Jenna, Thomas & Alice. Thomas Blacharz and Alice Mei started off with a class on solo jazz. Alice taught a short portion of choreography to show what musicality can feel like. Thomas followed by having us repeat the same 8-count basic structure (fall off the log, travel for 6 counts, fall of the log the other way) and improvising the middle section. Then came level-testing, which is always an utter crap shoot. It’s hard not to take it personally when I get put in the same level as people who can’t do the basics. However, there’s always something to be learned or reinforced. Right? It would have been, and almost was, except the next class was a disaster. The teachers lost control when they started answering every question posed to them (just have us rotate and dance!), they kept talking at us rather than having us dance, they asked vague leading questions of the group to which only they, the instructors, had the “right” answer …I left that second class nearly livid at the poor teaching practices. When the students aren’t even attempting to use what they’ve learned on the social floor that evening, something went wrong in class.

The Sunday classes went much better. I missed the first class to due sleeping (oh, that tricky devil), so the first one I had was with Jon and Jenna. This time around they were teaching a move that I’d learned from the first few months of dancing. Determined to have a better attitude, I focused on the fundamentals of following, tried to hold my tongue when some idiot would try to instruct me on what I was doing that prevented them from doing the move wrong, and soaked up any good tidbits from the teachers. It was indeed a much better class. The final course was with Thomas and Alice, who were teaching six-count rhythms. In a fantastic example of adapting for remediation on the fly, they changed focus (without telling everyone) from the rhythm itself to this: Allowing your partner to do variations without losing your basics. We practiced switching off rhythm variations at the end of a six-count pass—first the follows, then the leads, then both together— to get used to maintaining rhythm even if your partner goes crazy with the footwork. That came in handy later when I got pulled into a jam circle by a lead who had happy feet. Since I couldn’t match him, I just bounced and was ready for whatever came next. I didn’t look great, but neither did I screw up.

Venues: B-

Things were pretty close to the classes or easy to find. Good job! The floors, however, were quite sticky. As a follow I’m expected to be able to spin on a dime, and a mild worry for my knees and ankles was always at the back of my mind. The late night venue on Saturday, however, was a fantastic dance studio. It probably was too small for the earlier dances due to large support columns in the middle of the floor, but the floor was springy and perfect. Take us back to the dance studio!

Music: B

“Spicy Pickles always yay.” That’s the first thing I wrote when I started this post. Those Spicy Pickles just get better with time. I’ve hear them play at four different events now, and SwingIN was the first time I heard them actively engage their listeners. They inserted recognizable themes from other songs into their sets—musicians would call it “quoting”— and asked the dancers to make noise when they heard one of these riffs or melodies. I would have appreciated it if the players hadn’t put their quotes in the middle of their Jack & Jill contest jams. That distracted the audience and the competitors. At any other time it was a cute way to engage the dancers.

The DJs…we needed more Peter Shilliday on the 1s and 2s. I only got to hear Peter DJ once, but he played songs that we hadn’t heard yet, revitalized a tired group of late night dancers, and kept the tempo in the right range. The other DJs seemed to be working from one playlist between the three of them. How many times do we need to hear “C Jam Blues?” Or “Easy Does It?” Even if it is another version of the song, it’s still the same tune. This goes for teachers, too. Switch up your music every now and then. For the love.

Competitions: No Grade

This wasn’t one of the criteria that Team Peanut Butter Crackers factored into the overall grade, and since we were only privy to one of the competitions I will withhold judgement. But kudos to all of us for entering, and especially to Michelle for winning 1st place. It was nice to make finals again, if for no other reason than to prove to myself that making it in Kansas City wasn’t a total fluke. Rather than blurt out all the critiques I’d like to make of my performance, here’s the video from my portion of the finals. I’m 2nd to last in the rotation, and Michelle is the very last. No matter what I look like to you, rest assured that I was having a crap ton of fun. That and the potential for free passes to other events are the only reasons to compete.