I might be alone in this regard, but when I talk to new and ambitious dancers, I don’t like to focus on competitions, or technique, or privates, or any of that stuff that makes you a “better” dancer. I’ve seen far too many dancers fixate on these things as their golden ticket to the top: “I’ve been dancing for XX years, so I deserve to be in this track at a major workshop”, “Privates are the only way to go; group classes are not effective at all”, “Such and such teacher shows you the right way to dance; I’ll only take classes with them and no one else”. I get it: I’m the product of an education system that says you advance from Grade 5 to Grade 6 and if do all the right extracurriculars and get all the right test scores, then you’re going to college. There is merit in merit-based advancement. But there’s also the illusion of some kind of linear, progressive, consistent growth. Dance, for better or for worse, is NOT that.
In my experience, dancers can drop out of a scene for a multitude of reasons, but the one I personally think I can do something about is this: the illusion of a one-track, one-size-fits-all path to becoming Frida Segerdahl. I try to combat this with two ideas: (1) it takes a village to raise a swing scene, and (2) you can quit anything whenever you want.
It Takes a Village. It took me longer than I like to admit to notice that there were real people spinning these old tunes for my entertainment. Like many an enthusiastic dancer, I was full of excitement for the dance and the community and the fun, but I could probably dance to a metronome and be happy. When others started pointing out they liked such-and-such DJ more than so-and-so, I began to notice the differences in their set-lists: how DJ’s could build the energy in a room then let it loose in a jam, and how they could coax different populations to peel themselves off the wall and start dancing despite themselves. Then I started noticing everyone else! Performers, musicians, teachers, organizers, social dancers, and community activists all play an integral, life-blood-important role in the swing scene. And they typically weren’t the same people. Some were total music/sound geeks who bought the nicest headphones and talked fidelity and old/new testament Basie (I still don’t know what this). Some loved to take the strangest, quirkiest swing songs and choreograph cheeky routines you would never do on a social dance floor (yes, I’m looking at you, Double or Nothing). Some just liked to be around people and spent their time chatting up new friends by the food table or encouraging dancers to make a home there. When you first start dancing, it’s kind of amazing to join a cohort of learners and a community of like-minded insta-friends who seem to be just like you in every way. But then the longer you dance, the more you start to find your niche: what excites you about the scene? what can you contribute? what could you talk about for hours on end? (Do we really need to talk about tuck-turn rotation right now, guys? Oh my gosh, you’ve been talking about this for HOURS. I’m going back to the dance floor.)
When I talk to a new and ambitious dancer, I don’t tell them how to be Frida. I tell them to keep an open mind to everything the scene has to offer. And I encourage them to build their own hut, whatever it may be, within it.
But guess what?
You can still quit anything whenever you want. This is a big part of dancing as a process instead of a goal. You’re not going to know what you like right away, so why not try a bunch of different things and see what you do? Try collecting music and DJ’ing. Or taking a teaching workshop like at Inspiration Weekend or The Process? Why not audition for a performance group or try competing? Or maybe, on a day when you’re really not feeling the go-go-go spirit of “working on your dance”, just hang out at the DJ booth or the front desk and ask people about their lives and how they’re doing. See if you can help or get involved.
And then stop doing the things you don’t jive with.
I am continually amazed how dance is a supporting force that is there primarily for YOU. It’s there for when you need to make sense of the universe. It’s there for when you need to learn something about taking care of your body. It’s there for when you need to find a community. Or celebrate joy. Or learn to take charge. Or learn to let things go. And although we might feel we’re letting people down when we quit dancing/performing/DJing/competing, I don’t know anyone in the world who would look at you as a failure. Dance is something you choose, and you experience, and you learn, and you might put away. And sometimes you come back! And grow. And make little lindy babies. Who knows?
So when I talk to a new dancer who asks me what they can do to “rise up in the scene”, I want them to know that dance is less of a straight freeway, and more of a wide-open desert of dunes. It’s not an easy, neat answer. It’s not particularly…comforting? But I guess it’s the truth.