Recently, I took a private lesson from Catrine Ljunggren, who was visiting from Sweden. Well, technically I took two lessons. The first was an hour-long conversation, which could have been more, about how she and other Swedish dancers began dancing the Lindy Hop, how they found Al Minns in New York, how they met Frankie Manning, how they performed for years as the legendary Rhythm Hot Shots, and how Herrang was founded. We talked about her injuries, teaching side-by-side with the best dancers in the world, and the Rhythm Hot Shots’ mono-maniacal focus on recreating Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers routines down to the exact turn of each foot. We talked about the dissolution of the Rhythm Hot Shots, her residences all around the world, her enterprises in San Francisco, and finally how she ended up living now in Sweden, still traveling and dancing, though less frequently and less frantically. It was a look into the life of a true Lindy Hopper and dancer. And it afforded me a rare perspective on that incredible time in swing history when it jumped back into the cultural zeitgeist, when Herrang was a crazy bacchanal, and Frankie’s dear laugh and expert advice was only an (albeit, long distance) phone call away. Historical work doesn’t end when original dancers pass. If we don’t know how we got here, how do we know the best way to move forward?
My second private the following week was a dance lesson. But it was unlike any other lesson I’ve had before. “You look really good,” Catrine told me, “You dance really well, but I’ll just show you how I do my swingout.” And she showed me and my mind was well and fully blown.
At a certain point, you give up on the idea of there being a “right” way to dance. Especially as trends come and go, as people come into the scene and out of the scene, the idea of what it means to be a “good” dancer becomes ever more fluid. The only constant becomes constant education. I’m not going to hold up Catrine’s dance as the ultimate last word on Lindy Hop. But when she says “Frankie taught us to do it this way,” I listen. I try my best to dance it. Because the reasons she moves the way she moves: the places which are more efficient than my movement, the places where there is less flexibility for my usual improvisations, the bits where I need to be more over my feet than I’m used to; it all coalesces into a whole philosophy of movement. I enjoy trying it on and living in that world for a time. Maybe I can take some of it back into my everyday dance and shore up some of my weaknesses, but more importantly I receive a wider and more informed perspective on Lindy Hop. I think this is important, especially as a teacher. Knowing there are different ways to skin a cat keeps me humble and introspective, and forces me to think clearly about how I dance, why I dance that way, and why someone might choose a different approach.
I’ve started telling my students that every dance is a negotiation. It’s a meeting of my dance with your dance and trying to find something that feels fun and comfortable between us. No two meetings will be the same. And that’s what makes it all very, very special. Maybe this week, I’ll try throwing in Catrine’s swivels (which feel nicer to my hip condition), or the way she turns on 3-and-4 (which will reduce drag on my rotation). Maybe I’ll just work on doing all of the swingouts and circles and tuck turns exactly how she taught me so that I can better dance with people I couldn’t enjoy before. It feels great to be learning something new with someone so experienced. It feels refreshing to shake up my dance a bit, pick up some new pieces, and put it back together in a new way. If anyone is at a plateau, I highly recommend this approach. And if anyone has a chance to learn from Catrine, I highly recommend her lessons through history, authenticity, and unique technique.
Here she is dancing with swing dance legend, Chazz Young. (They’re the couple both wearing grey.)