There are no stupid questions

Someone had the temerity to ask if there were internal characteristics to a swing song that make it preferable for dancing balboa instead of lindy hop.  He conducted a small sample study entitled “Can I dance balboa to this song?” and published it on his blog.  Parts of the internet went up in indignant flames.  Why?

First of all, I want to dismiss the semantic argument.  A lot of objections were along the lines of “Balboa is a swing dance, so if you have swing music, you can dance balboa to it.  End of discussion.”  That’s like if I asked if I could have one of your fries and you retorted with, “I dunno…CAN you?”

scumbag fries

The poster is trying to poll and evaluate subjective opinions (not physical capabilities) and if he didn’t know it before:

…there must be some characteristics of the music that could predict which dance is more appropriate for a given song…

He knows it by the end:

In conclusion, it looks like there are definite trends in preferences for music between the two dances, but it’s not clear cut. Not only was there no killer characteristic that definitely divided the two dance styles, but agreement between participants in the survey was not the strongest.

Also, this:

Note: I am not a statistician. Sample size of the survey was pretty limited, so results may be biased.

No kidding.

Initial studies are done all the time to show the need for further study.  Causation cannot be determined in an initial study, but sometimes correlations will reveal whether further study is necessary/desired/can be funded.  Why are we getting all hyphy about someone’s layman inquisitive process and its ambiguous conclusion?

Usually, people get emotional when they think they already know the answer.

I mean, I definitely thought I did; I’ve been trying to define Balboa music for a few months now.  Seeing someone run this idea past more ears than mine makes me more interested in figuring out exactly what it is I value in swing music when I dance balboa (or lindy), and what will resonate for balboa dancers I play for.  This is what we do as deejays, as dancers, and as artists.  We weigh what movements and dances we think best match or counterpoint or evoke the music and we try to let it inspire us to dance our best.  So if we can agree that, yes, there is no such thing as “balboa music”, but that there is music that at least some people feel are best for dancing balboa, then where’s the beef?

french beef
Le voici.

I can only speak for my own experience, in my own scene, but perhaps there is a larger tension simmering amongst dancers whom I fictionally call Separatists and Integrationists.  I think saying “lindy hoppers” vs. “balboa dancers” is too inaccurate of a split due to the presence of both in both camps, but I do find more balboa dancers as Separatists and more lindy hoppers as Integrationists.  And I’d like to take this moment to emphasize that these are NOT REAL PEOPLE.  They are mental constructs I use to help me understand different arguments that I have heard.  Everyone I talk to is kind, reasonable, compassionate, and engages freely in conversation with other people who have different opinions.

So, this fictional group, the Separatists, are looking for three things: the perfect floor, the perfect music, and the perfect partner.  It’s no good telling a Separatist that there is music for them on a mixed dance floor. Deejays play for the crowd, and the majority of dancers on the floor are probably lindy hoppers because balboa-only scenes are incredibly rare.  The prevailing music culture that brings the lindy hoppers to the yard frequently doesn’t have overlap with what balboa dancers are predominantly looking for in a DJ set.  And what balboa dancers are looking for in a DJ set probably coincides with what they hear at balboa dance weekends.  This leads to a balboa dancer feeling like the music they have grown accustomed to for shuffling is not being played, that their skill set or preferences do not allow them to dance to the music which is being played, and that even if they hear a song that falls in their preferred music list, they are unlikely to find someone quickly to dance it with.

Have you ever tried to run around a crowded floor before the song ends, looking for someone who knows balboa?  I’ve resorted to waving my hands in the air and yelling “BAAAALBOAAAAA!” at the top of my lungs.  It might get even weirder when I start yelling, “CAN ANYONE FOLLOW BALBOOOOAAA?!”. #femalescanbecreepytoo

There is some amount of (dare I say it?) Lindy Hop Privilege happening here. I could flip the situation above, but a dancer who primarily dances lindy hop does not often find themselves on a dance floor playing setlists for balboa dancers.  In that situation, they will gamely dance balboa without frustration because their needs for lindy are being satisfied in other, more copious opportunities.  And it is much easier to turn to the person next to you and expect that they might know lindy hop as well as balboa than the other way around.

An Integrationist (completely fictional, not really a group, group) is quick to point out that swing music and different types of swing dance have occupied the same music culture and dance floor forever and would like to know what goddamn stick went up the Separatist’s arse.  After all, can’t we dance charleston and lindy hop in the same breath?  Even solo vernacular jazz and solo charleston frequently mix and mingle.  Our social scene combines different historical dances (what we might now consider dance “moves”) and aesthetics so much, we could be an Arthur Murray ballroom.  If we want our scene (our small, niche, crazy scene) to adopt balboa into our pantheon of dances-to-know, then we need to teach them the skills to dance it to a wider range of music, on a mixed floor, with other people who might be doing charleston, or shag, or “savoy swing”, or lindy hop.  And differences in dance styles will be managed on a one-on-one basis much in the way that we negotiate dancing with someone of a very different skill level or who doesn’t know a particular dance move: try it out, observe the reaction, then abort or continue forward with compassion.

An Integrationist is flexible in their music selection and dances, but is also steeped in Lindy Hop privilege.  They are in the enviable position of being accommodated with the music they like best, with a majority of dancers they know they can dance with, in a weekly event primarily geared towards their dance and their community, broadly defined.  It’s not easy to see what others are being frustrated by when it doesn’t affect you or even affect the majority of people you know.

A main concern of Integrationists is a perceived split of dancers from other dancers that can have real-life consequences.  Let’s not repeat the mistakes of our Hollywood vs. Savoy past.  In other words, let’s not create arbitrary fences that feed on (misguided) opinions that can only lead to snobbery, ideological rifts based on shaky evidence, and a weaker community overall.

Divided we fall…short of sustainability goals.

These aren’t silly concerns.  Some people have very strong feelings one way or another, but most people fall somewhere on the curve.  People have a right to wonder about it, think about it, question it, and yes, run small sample surveys on it.  If this is really something that the swing community has on its mind, then it’s not a stupid question.  It’s just a question.

And I, for one, don’t think I have the answer.

Addendum: I was just having a conversation a few days ago with a dancer who told me that “Jenny From the Block” swings.  I cued it up just to see if he was right.  I concede the presence of  swing in there, enough for a WCS dance, but I’m not going to play it for lindy hoppers.  Sorry, Jenny-hopefuls.

Edits Feb 23, 4:30pm:

  1. More emphasis that people are not groups and that no one agrees with 100% of what I wrote under those descriptions.  There can be inherent danger in placing any kind of human response in a group, and doing so creates more polarization than clarification.  Might just delete that section entirely.
  2. Deleted sentence on Blues/Fusion.  I’ve always wondered why Blues, as a vintage dance, isn’t played more on our lindy hop floors, but I don’t know enough about the origins of that scene or its evolution to really include it in my examples here.  Deleted!

3 thoughts on “There are no stupid questions

  1. Most excellent post.
    I’ve been wondering about DJing for balboa v lindy hoppers (I mostly DJ for lindy hop these days, and have only done a little bit of balboa DJing), and I’ve asked the balboa DJs I know (who are from lots of different scenes) what the difference is. Most of them say ‘if it feels good to swing out to, it’s good for balboa’, including all the bigger name DJs and teachers.
    But when I go to events that have a designated balboa room all weekend, and are in a country or scene that has a huge, vibrant balboa community (or access to one), the DJing is not like DJing for lindy hop. Mind you, we’re talking about hardcore balboa DJs and dancers here, with a lot of historical and technical knowledge of the dance. This isn’t like a local balboa event in a smaller scene that might be just developing a bal culture, or have locally specific tastes. We’re talking big, multinational events where dancers have access to a lot of very good teachers and music.

    So if the songs are technically the same for bal and lindy hop (classic big band swing), why does the DJing sound different?
    As a lindy hopper, I’ve found the music in the hardcore balboa rooms lacking in guts. It feels a bit more cerebral. Fantastic for solo dance and balboa. …in fact, I have to say, it is PERFECT for the way I like to approach solo dance, which seems to have more in common with balboa than lindy hop these days. But it’s boring for a whole night of lindy hop. It reminds me a bit of my response to a lot of blues DJing – the mood gets deeper and deeper, in one direction. While a lindy hop room aims for crazy fun and a mix of emotions.
    So I reckon the songs might be the same, but the way they’re combined is different. So I might use that live version of Ella with Webb’s band playing St Louis Blues as a high energy, climactic party song for lindy hop, but when I’ve played it for a balboa crowd, it’s worked more as a mid-tempo warm up song. Because of the way balboa works, and because of the way balboa DJs combine songs.
    I think that balboa dancers behave in different ways when they’re social dancing. They don’t hit those crazy adrenaline highs the way lindy hoppers do (though they probably _do_, just not in the same way), they have more stamina on average, because the dance is more efficient (in the way it’s taught and social danced, not because of innate qualities of bal or lindy hop), and they use the floor in different ways.

    So, my opinion: the songs are the same, but DJs combine them in different ways, and dancers respond to them in different ways.


  2. Skippy Blair defined ‘The Rolling Count’ for WCS Rythm which is still definitive for WCS. Now days younger dancers like to dance WCS to popular music such as hip hop; I prefer swing music with a slower tempo for WCS.


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