One of the great privileges I have as a dance instructor is getting to visit countries around the world spreading the joyful tradition of Blues dancing. There is a pride I feel, as well as a responsibility, in cultivating and encouraging the growth of international dance scenes. On my third year of teaching internationally, it continues to be my honor to share the history and culture of this uniquely American art form. Do you know what’s even better? Witnessing how Blues music and dance transcend different cultures and how it has found resonance and expression with an international audience. In the last quarter of 2014, I had the opportunity to teach to international audiences in Barcelona, Edmonton, and Seoul. Each of these cities and their respective dance scenes were such a joy to teach for, all of them dedicated in learning and understanding what Blues dance is. Here are some of my personal thoughts on my experiences with each scene.
DRAG THE BLUES | Barcelona, Spain | October 24-26, 2014
Drag The Blues is Barcelona’s top annual Blues dance workshop weekend and is one of a handful of events which draws the best Blues dancers in Europe. For this event, I taught with the lovely and talented Whitton Frank, (former L.A. teacher now based in London) who is quite a joy and inspiration to teach with. One particular moment where I’ve personally witnessed a strong understanding of Blues movement as well as artistic interpretation and improvisation was in the Solo Blues contest finals. I’ve had the pleasure of having some of these talented finalists in my classes that weekend and it’s safe to say that most, if not all the finalists, are well-versed in Jazz and Swing dances (at the very least). Their understanding of solo Jazz movement compliments their Blues movement and it shows in their ability to adapt and give their dancing a “Blues feeling.” In the video for this contest you’ll see them dance to both a New Orleans-style Jazz song with a strong melody and a gritty Blues song with strong rhythms. I’m quite impressed with the overall quality of dancing by some of these dancers and it’s one of the better contests I’ve judged. See the video for yourself.
Even with Fusion dancing having a growing interest in the Barcelona scene, Blues dancing seems to be growing healthily alongside it as evidenced by the success of this event and the number of dancers in attendance. The organizers did an excellent job showcasing their local musical talent hiring Blues bands such as Chino & The Big Bet and Tota Blues Band, whose music I grooved and danced my heart out to! Speaking of which, during my stay after the event, I got to see some of these musicians perform at a Blues jam at the Harlem Jazz Club in Barri Gotic. I wasn’t prepared to see the club packed almost wall-to-wall with an appreciative audience excited to listen to Blues music. While I understand that this may partly be due to Blues’ novelty to Spanish audiences, it made me happy to see this. A small group of us dancers gathered at the club and eventually managed to have space for dancing later in the evening, drawing in curious and amused onlookers. This gave me another opportunity to dance with the local follows, some of whom I didn’t get the chance to dance with during the dance weekend. Even without engaging my teacher mindset, it’s easy to see how well they’ve adapted Blues feeling into their movement. I enjoyed my connection with each of them and their dancing is inspired only the way live Blues music can. While Barcelona’s scene is still relatively a new one in the Blues dance world, it’s encouraging and promising to see where they are headed.
SASSY AND CLASSY BLUES WORKSHOP | Edmonton, Alberta, Canada | November 15-16, 2014
After basking in warm Mediterranean climes, I traveled to the snowy landscapes of Edmonton to teach with the lovely Heidi Fite for our Sassy and Classy Blues weekend workshop. With only a handful of dancers in Edmonton traveling for Blues dance events, our goal for this workshop was to reinforce the scene’s understanding of Blues dance fundamentals. This was also in light of the strong appeal and presence of Fusion dancing in their scene. One of the things that really impressed me about the Edmonton dance scene is its strong cohesion of its Lindy Hop and Blues dance scenes. There appeared to be no bias between dancers with a good number of them able to dance to both. We also noted how it was a great show of support to the community and to the event with Lindy Hop teachers in attendance of our workshop. Knowing how some dance communities in different cities can be divisive, this was refreshing to see.
As Heidi and I travel teaching in different scenes in different cities, one of the negative notions about Blues that we come across is of the dance being a “grindy” dance, which dancers use to “hook up” with each other. While this notion wasn’t necessarily indicative of Edmonton’s scene, this was an opportunity for Heidi and I to shed some light on by, not only teaching the proper fundamentals, but also providing the historical context of Blues, giving dancers a better understanding of the dance. It needed to be understood that when African-American communities migrated from a rural to an urban setting, so did the dancing from the typical jook joint to dance halls and ballrooms, giving way to other dances such as the Lindy Hop. While most social dances occurred in larger and more formal spaces, the “jook joint” culture still remained in smaller and, sometimes, private events such as rent parties, a dance party/social gathering designed to raise funds for someone’s rent. Along with the style of music being played and the type of space people danced in, the context for each dance differed. Lindy Hop, an energetic social dance done to Swing music (the popular music of the time) in ballrooms had a “showy,” presentational quality with dancers competing with each other or performing for audiences. Blues dancing (which was known simply as “slow dancing” then) was more intimate in nature often danced in small spaces such as in cramped apartments or homes. People went to these intimate gatherings to socialize, relax, and have a good time by dancing to slow music that included Blues. In this relaxed atmosphere, activities were not limited to just dancing as it included drinking, eating, gambling, socializing, and even “hooking up.” While it’s not a fair assessment to equate Blues dancing solely and definitively to its bawdy aspect, it wouldn’t be right to ignore or deny that aspect in the dance’s history. In teaching this dance, providing the historical context and culture is essential. It’s also important to emphasize how the dance primarily relates to the music; the aesthetics of the dance (movement quality and expression) relating to the musical quality (call and response, polyrhythms, back beat) and, not to mention, the wide range of self-expression that can come from the varied emotions and styles in Blues music.
The 2-day workshop focused on the styles of Jookin’ (on Saturday) and Ballroomin’ (on Sunday) with classes on vocabulary, building a dance, movement expression, creativity within a partnership, and an introduction to the Slow Drag, the oldest known Blues dance. The weekend also included social dancing and contests which brought everyone together for a great time. As a teacher, it was pleasing to see some of the students apply what they learned in classes on the social dance floor as well as in the contests. Despite the cold weather conditions, the scene showered us with their warmth, enthusiasm, and friendliness and the weekend workshop was a success. Once we were dancing and moving we almost forgot how cold it was outside. Heidi and I look forward to coming back to Edmonton again…but perhaps in the summer. 🙂
KOREA BLUES CAMP | Gyeonggi-do, South Korea | November 28-30, 2014
I was excited to be invited to teach in South Korea again as I had a great time the year before. This time, Damon Stone, Heidi Fite, and I were joined by Julie Brown, Jenny Sowden, and Dan Repsch. Korea Blues Camp (with the event name change in 2014 where it was previously Bluesweet) is billed as the only traditional blues camp in Asia. In it’s 5th year, it has gained popularity and garnered attendance of dancers from China, Taiwan, Japan, as well as Americans, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Europeans visiting/working/living in Asia. In general, Koreans embrace Western influences when it comes to fashion, food, music, and dancing. The more authentic or vintage, the better. So, it’s not a surprise (and even more of a commendation) to know of their interest in authentic Blues dancing and music, as well as learning its culture and history. As teachers we are more than eager to share this with them as represented by the “old school” (Damon, Heidi, and I) and the “new school” (Julie, Jenny, and Dan) generation of teachers from the US.
The event was held in a somewhat remote international youth center 45 minutes outside of Seoul in Gyeonggi-do that offered camp-style facilities. A sense of excitement for the weekend began as we were transported to the location via a charter bus. Classes were held in various classrooms with danceable floors while the dances were held in an auditorium with a specially installed dance floor. Lodging accommodations in dorm-style rooms were provided for teachers and dancers and meals were provided in a cafeteria where we sampled traditional “mess hall-style” Korean food. One of the unique experiences I have teaching at this event (and in general) is being assigned an interpreter. Though a good number of the dancers could understand and speak basic English, the event needed interpreters to pass on and announce information expeditiously to the attendees in classes, competitions, and other aspects of the event. Each class/instructor pairing was assigned an interpreter, so we have to take into account how much we talk at a given time to have them translate the information in Korean properly. If we talk too much, information might get lost in translation or omitted entirely, sometimes to humorous results! Despite that, it seemed like everyone in class eventually received the information as a lot of came from visual examples. Much like gesturing with your hands to someone who doesn’t speak your language, we were “gesturing” with our bodies to visually express what we were teaching.
You might assume that an Asian culture (or in this particular case, a dance scene in Seoul) would be timid in their movements and expression when it comes to Blues dancing, but you would be delightfully surprised. Dancers here are not afraid to “get down” and you will most likely find yourself in a solo showdown. However, like any new scene that seeks to discover itself in its Blues expression, it has to grow out of its “sexy” phase and find a more artistic expression, a deeper connection to the music and its varied emotions. And that’s where proper education, guidance, and leadership in a scene makes a difference. I’ve only visited Seoul twice, but I can say that the dancing has improved based on the contests, performances, and social dances I’ve participated in. In a strong effort of representing their scene, a contingent of Korean dancers attended bluesSHOUT 2014 in Chicago, some of them even making it into the finals of the contests. So, I’m pleased to say that their understanding of Blues movement has improved and their scene is better for it. There’s still much work to be done, especially with new dancers being introduced to the dance and other groups having their own take on what Blues dancing is. But with events like Korea Blues Camp and its strong pool of dancers paving the way and exposing dancers to authentic Blues music and dance, this scene will blossom into one of the strongest and biggest Blues dance scenes in Asia. Watch the Solo Blues Cuttin’ Finals between the last two contestants at Korea Blues Camp and see the level of dancing they have now!
Once you start teaching internationally, your perspective on what you do changes as you begin to immerse yourself in new dance scenes that are enthusiastic and excited to learn about the music and dance. The change in perspective happens as you become more aware of the impact your role has as a teacher – where once you were simply teaching friends and peers in your own community, now you have become a global ambassador for your art and passion for dance, educating, and helping shape dance scenes around the world. However, my work as a teacher is only supported by hardworking individuals who are equally dedicated to develop their own dance scenes. All of my travels would not be possible if it weren’t for the vision, dedication, and leadership of the outstanding people of these different dances scenes. My utmost and gracious thanks to Ferran Puig Azagra and Noemi Castell Colome (Barcelona), Sandie Simpson (Edmonton), and Youngdon Kwon and Dawa Jung (Seoul), as well as their dedicated staff and volunteers who support them, for helping keep this wonderful tradition alive and for being such wonderful people. Moltes gràcies, Thank you, Kamsa-hamnida! What a great end to 2014!