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A History Of Contemporary Blues Dancing

This article represents the fairly limited view of it's author's experience. Any updates or corrections should be sent to the author.

Julie Brown wrote a paper on the history of Blues dancing and asked members of the scene for their take on how contemporary Blues dancing evolved. (Sadly I do not have a copy of this paper - I believe she lost it in a hard drive death). Here is my response to her.

Julia Hayden Brown <jhbrown at andrew cmu edu> asks:

> Please describe the first time you saw lindy hoppers blues
> dance (or what came to be called blues dance)? When and where
> was it?  Describe the setting/circumstances, as well as the
> dancing you saw, in as much detail as possible.
> Also please describe the setting(s) in which you learned
> to blues dance. When and where was it? Who taught you?
> Describe the setting/circumstances, the dancing, and the
> manner in which you were taught, in as much detail as possible.

David Ljung Madison replies:

My take on the contemporary blues scene goes like this:

Sometime around 2000 or 2001, many of the Lindy events with late nights (such as Exchanges) started to slow the music down at late night, arguably delving into the realm of "blues" music.

Some events started to have a second room for this "slow" or "blues" music. At first there was lots of very slow Lindy Hop, but it moved more towards a closed position and eventually a dance evolved based on the music mixed with the partner connection from Lindy Hop.

For me personally this was inner conflict - because there was a frantic energy at events back then that is somewhat lacking today, and any time spent in the "blues" room was time lost in the "Lindy" room.

Maybe now I'm just too old to dance Lindy Hop until 5am, but I'm quite happy switching to blues at late night these days. :-)

Back then, however, I was still very hardcore Lindy, and even, I must confess, a little annoyed at this other dance that was encroaching on our Lindy scene, and probably a bit afraid of this new dance I didn't know.

That changed on October 14th of 2001, at the Sunday late night of the Austin Lindy Exchange, when my good friend (and one of my favorite follows) Melissa Varriano (from San Diego) convinced me to try blues dancing to the Alicia Keyes song "Fallin'". Thinking back, Austin was one of the first events (if not the first) to have a separate Blues room at an exchange. I'd be curious if anyone else remembers any earlier Blues rooms.

It's clear that the interpretation of "Blues Music" was fairly loose back then.

Anyways, that changed everything for me, though I do remember it being very awkward to do this dance that had no known foundations or form that was being taught. Everyone had somewhat of their own take on it, though there was definitely a commonality in the style of dance that can still be seen in today's dancing.

I remember I spent most of my time trying to figure out what I was supposed to do besides weight changes in closed, and also how to do a triple-step smoothly to the music, many of us were still firmly rooted in the Lindy Hop world.

I don't know how much I can remember of other people's dancing from back then, though it seems that the basic was the closed position weight change, with some rotational components, but not much else. From there, people would use the enormous freedom in this loose structure to do whatever movement the music gave them.

So in the early days it was kind of like putting club dancing on top of the very rudimentary Blues foundation. People would suddenly break away from each other and start dancing in open position, I seem to remember that happening much more back then, and then return to closed position. We were still figuring out what made sense to do to the music.

As far as classes are concerned, I didn't know of any at the time. In fact, I must confess, I don't know if many of us would've thought of this as ever turning into a formal dance all it's own, it was just something that you did as the hours got late. So there was no formal instruction that I know of going on anywhere.

I had taken a "Blues" class from Steven Mitchell, back at Catalina in 1998, I think, but I don't feel it was that similar to the social Blues we do now. And, much as I love Steven's teachings, it didn't transfer to the social dance floor (which was still Lindy till 6am at Catalina'98). I've heard that some teachers have been teaching partnered Blues for at least as long as that, but I can't speak to that since I never took their classes or heard of them at the time.

There's also the infamous "Blues night" that happens once a week for each of the four weeks at Herrang Dance Camp (a massive Swing dancing camp in Sweden each year). As anyone from the Blues scene who has gone to Herrang has discovered, much to their dismay, this is not the Blues dancing that makes up our scene. I have heard (secondhand) that the organizer Lennart setup the Blues night as a night for people to close dance from the social perspective. There are a few of us (mostly Americans) who are working hard to bring "real" Blues (meaning, dancing as it is done in the contemporary social Blues scene) to Herrang. But Herrang, while it has had "Blues" for two decades or so, was not where our scene came from.

So where did we learn? It was pretty much on the dance floor. It became much more personal for me with LindyBooty back in 2002.

A friend of mine, Dima Kumets was thinking about starting a monthly house party style venue. I was having Lindy house parties at my oddly oversized SF apartment for the last couple years. At first he approached me because he wanted to use the name "LindyBooty" but discovered to his surprise that I already owned the domain name, because of a project I wanted to start. Eventually he had problems with the venue before it opened, and we decided to move the party to my house. LindyBooty became a much bigger event than I had expected with people travelling in for the party, and it inspired similar house parties in Portland, Seattle and even New York. I'm told that Jeff Benoit was also holding such house parties in Canada ("Alcoholidays" I think they were called), I wish I had known about them at the time. Regardless, it shows that we had all just inadvertently tapped into what was becoming a natural development of the scene.

Dima eventually moved on, and LindyBooty was continued at my house with the help of some of the local scene, culminating in a 3-day long house party known as BootyCall. More on that in a bit.

For a while the house parties became an event in themselves, mostly happening along the West Coast, at least for what showed up on my radar. Information on a house party in Seattle would travel down the coast, and dancers would group together, often piling into cars and drive up to Seattle. Then a month or so later we'd return the favor, and the Seattle dancers would come down for a party in San Francisco.

At this point, a "dance scene" of sorts had been created, but somehow this had happened before any of us had formalized the dance. So far it was limited to a bunch of Lindy Hoppers who had met through travelling to Lindy events, and there was no teaching going on. The only gateway into this scene was through being a somewhat accomplished Lindy Hopper. This exclusivity was not intentional, it was just a consequence of the lack of instruction. In fact, I had many large arguments with my co-organizers about how public the LindyBooty invitation should be, with my belief that we should publish it on the exchange calendar.

Shortly after (and entirely unrelated to) the first LindyBooty, Heidi and Charlie in St. Louis were starting to research and teach "Blues." This grew outside the bounds of St. Louis when the organizers of the St. Louis Lindy Exchange (which I believe Heidi was one of) decided to include Blues in the Exchange, and hence STLBX was born in 2002, followed by the "Cheap Thrills" Blues workshop, in April of 2003. (I personally did not attend until 2005).

Because of a different philosophy on how to approach discovery of the dance, these two social scenes were soon at a clash. The "Formal Blues" dancers (mostly consisting of the teachers at the events) didn't think that the "House Party" dancers were doing proper Blues and there was much discussion of one's right to use the term "Blues" to describe one's dancing.

To each of our group's discredit, I believe:

  1. The "House Party" contingency (of which I suppose I belong) had completely failed to realize the value in:
    • Teaching the dance
    • Bringing in beginning dancers
    • Having open weekends (although we were moving towards this)
  2. The "Formal Blues" contingency was ignoring the fact that we were actually doing the same dance.

I went to Cheap Thrills in 2005 to find out exactly what this dance was that was being claimed as "correct" Blues that we were supposed to be doing. I found out that it was the same dance - it is my belief that two disparate and disconnected groups had converged on the only place that the music would allow, and we had come up with the same dance that had existed decades before. In my opinion this shouldn't come as much surprise.

For many years, though, there was argument between the two groups, with the "Formal Blues" dancers claiming that "House Party" dancers were not dancing true blues. The body roll was an oft-quoted example of how our dance was incorrect. As someone who doesn't do body rolls and fits in just fine at house parties, I find this a bit hard to understand. I did see body rolls happen, and probably more so earlier in the evolution of the dance (just as I saw triple steps happening even before that), it's not clear to me that this was a foundation of, or even a major component of the dance.

I'm of the personal opinion that this entire clash was invented in an attempt of the few (the "Formal Blues" dancers) to maintain power over the many (the "House Party" crowd) and it worked, for a bit.

But perhaps I've delved too far into politics here.

I'm happy to say that there really isn't much clash between the two groups, and in fact I think you'd be hard pressed to draw a line between them these days, as people take classes *and* go to house parties just fine, although house parties don't have the same energy that they used to, having been somewhat replaced by the abundance of Blues weekends that focus on dancing over classes.

But now I've gone off track a bit. Rewind a couple years, and you'll remember my mention of BootyCall, the three day long house party. That was back in 2004, and it brought in about 300 people. It was quite an event. We were trying to figure out how to fly in some DJs to improve the music at the event (Steven Watkins has told me - perhaps apocryphally - that BootyCall was the reason he eventually moved to the Bay Area). In the end we took advantage of the fact that some of the best DJs were also great teachers. It was either Kermit Goodman's idea or Mihai Banulescu, I cannot claim it as my own. In the end, Mihai brought out a number of the DJs and ran classes during the daytime while LindyBooty was happening. In the end, he made a profit (whereas LindyBooty historically loses money :), and thus inspired he created Friday Night Practica, which became Friday Night Blues, which is the reason why, in my opinion, that San Francisco is currently the world center of Blues dancing.

Incidentally, Kermit would be an interesting guy to talk to for anyone who wants to do further research. He's very much a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. If I'm not mistaken, it was actually his idea originally that the St. Louis Lindy Exchange include Blues due to the association of St. Louis with Blues.

After a slow start as the Practica, Friday Night Blues (FNB) became a huge success and, I believe, the world's first weekly Blues venue (speaking within our contemporary partnered dance scene). Mihai modelled much of FNB after a local (and very friendly and popular) tango night (Cellspace in San Francisco). Because of this, Mihai had many people rotate through as teachers, and in the early days even paid for master workshops which were given for free to the regular teaching staff at FNB. My opinion is that this is a huge reason why FNB became so successful.

Since then, blues venues, workshops and dance events have been popping up around the country and even the world.

David Ljung Madison


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