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It scares me because you’re alone. And you’re deciding what to do. And people are staring at you.

It also scares me because of how good people can get at this thing that’s bloody difficult.

Ack!

I’ve been looking at some of the solo videos on hamfats.ca, one of my favourite dance blogs run by one of my first blues teachers. Man, are those guys good! I love the way they move, but also how creative they are, and how you can see them using all of their other styles to inform their blues dancing. So good.

Solo dancing is something I really, really want to get good at. And while for the past few years I haven’t wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole (much like learning to lead), I think I’ve gotten to the point where I have to learn it in order to become a better dancer. And, let’s face it, as much as it scares me, it is amazingly fun – or so I’ve learned from clandestine kitchen dance sessions (blues dancing gets a lot more exciting when it involves ducking out of your housemate’s sightline). So it’s getting added to my already mile-long list of New Years’ resolutions. This year, I’ll learn how to solo dance.

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After two intense, almost back-to-back days of blues dancing, I took a musicality workshop yesterday at Swing Tonic in Norwich. My mind and muscles were still in blues mode. And it was awesome.

Turns out that, despite using a seemingly entirely different set of muscles, blues and swing really complement each other. Blues teaches you to have balance and core strength, to be able to turn and stop on a dime, to be smooth and deliberate in your dancing, and to use the air (that moving-through-molasses feeling) and the floor as you move – all skills that make your swing dancing more musical.

Most of all though, I think blues just forces you to pay attention to the music, and to negotiate with it. To hold on to the stretches as long as possible, to lag just a little. For me, swing has always been a little regimented – you must do a triple step, so that must take the same amount of beats no matter what the music does, right? Apparently not quite. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a swing song before; I’ve always paid attention to the beat and to my partner’s rhythm, and nothing else.

Most of all I think blues teaches you to be a dancer first, and a swing, blues, Ceroc, whatever dancer second.

I’ve now danced on both sides of the ocean, and it makes for an interesting comparison. Some not very coherent thoughts:

  • It’s interesting how much stays the same. Swing is a tiny world, and you eventually get the same famous instructors, the same jazz routines, etc. etc.
  • The dance group here is apparently magic: every lead they touch turns to gold. I don’t know how they do it, but their leads get really good, really fast. Repertoire and musicality take as long as anywhere else to build up, but confidence is the key to a good dance, and their leads have just the perfect amount. Magic.
  • There’s a house style in every studio, and definitely in every city. I’ve noticed this most of all when dancing here with someone from Toronto: he dances like a Canadian. I couldn’t possibly tell you exactly what it is, but his repertoire screams Toronto Lindy. That’s not a value judgement in any way – I adore both styles. It’s just interesting to see that the difference exists.
  • On the same theme as the last point, people here don’t do dips half as often as in Canada. I wonder why that is.
  • They also treat blues very differently – there isn’t much of it, which definitely contributes to the reticence, but there is also definitely a level of discomfort with the closeness that you don’t see as much of in Toronto. In TO, there is very much the attitude that blues is just another style, another dance form. Here I think its sensuality takes the forefront in a way that it doesn’t in Toronto, and it makes people uncomfortable.
  • I love how interconnected both scenes are. Because everything is so close by in the UK, I think travelling to exchanges and other events is much easier, and it certainly seems like there are more of them here. I can’t wait until I’m done my masters and can actually make it to some of them. I’m also a little sad that I never got to go to Followlogie while I was in Canada.

All my friends are posting about the great time they had at Toronto’s monthly blues night yesterday, and it’s making me miss blues like crazy.

There’s no feeling like a great blues dance. It puts your body into the tipping point of momentum, until your lead can move you like a rag doll, make your body bend to its own movement, tip at impossible angles. It’s balance and gravity and stretch and pull and momentum. Its what birds must feel like when they catch a thermal.

I’ve been looking at the list of blues and lindy events in the UK this year and it looks like there’s one I can actually make. I am so excited I can’t even.

Here’s some AMAZING blues danced by Campbell & Chris:

I got to dance with Chris once, right after he and Campbell taught a blues fusion session, and taught us leg flairs brought over from tango. It involves the follow wrapping her outside leg around the lead’s inside leg in such a way that with a little flick he can make her leg flair around until it crosses behind her inside leg. We all practiced it a lot. Getting our legs to warp around properly was tricky, and it was hard to figure out what the flair was supposed to be – it ended up being me waiting for the flick an then propelling my leg around, which is not at all what it’s meant to be.

And then I danced with Chris. Before I knew it, he had positioned me perfectly, and got my body to do exactly what it needed to for a perfect, graceful tango flair. One of the best dances I’ve ever had.

There was a song I heard at a blues dance. I loved it.

…and then I promptly forgot what it was called. I heard it again at another blues dance. I thought, surely, I would remember it. But no such luck. It slipped through my proverbial fingers, again. I could remember a snippet of the chorus: “like a millionaire doooo…” I tried google search after google search, but those aren’t the kind of words that bring up many useful hits (unless, of course, you’re looking for a get rich quick scheme).

The other day I heard it yet again, and, knowing what would happen, I seized the opportunity and quickly asked my partner what the song was called. Luckily, I happened to be dancing with one of the organizers of the dances, and one of the guys responsible for this song being played over and over again. He told me it’s called “Weed Smoker’s Dream”.

I googled it when I got home. I got two renditions, one a grainy, unrestored recording from the 30s or 40s by the Harlem Hamfats:

The rest were really odd versions by people who clearly liked the weed more than the blues. None were the gorgeous version I’d danced to. I tried wikipedia next, and found out that the song was written by the Harlem Hamfats and as I heard put eloquently the other night, “It was not about drugs. And it was not about prostitution. It was about drugs and prostitution.”

The song became popular again a few decades later, in a sanitized version called “Why Don’t You Do Right?” by Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee:

I love her voice, but that’s not the way the song is supposed to sound, at least not to me; her version is much too spunky. It’s next spike of popularity was in the 80s, when the song was used in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” sung by Jessica Rabbit:

In between, there were plenty of covers, by famous performers like Ella Fitzgerald,

Or Sinead O’Connor,

and equally amazing versions by less famous acts like the Carolina Chocolate Drops

(I still can’t find the version I heard. I guess I’ll have to ask.)

It’s incredible to see the differences between the original “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” with its its “why don’t you do now/like some millionaires do,” and the completely different “Why Don’t You Do Right,” asking “why don’t you do right/like some other men do.” So close, yet so, so far away.

It’s also amazing to hear the different versions. I like Ella, Sinead O’Connor, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ versions best, probably because they’re closest to the original version I heard. I can’t help but think that Peggy Lee and, of course, Ms. Rabbit, completely miss the point.

Ella’s version is bugging me. It’s plaintive and bluesy, but there’s something that doesn’t quite fit, something closer to Peggy Lee’s than the Harlem Hamfats: something too controlled, too exalting. I have this issue with her versions of most of the songs I like. It sounds like she’s enjoying playing with the sounds of the song more than actually teasing out the song itself. She plays with the sounds incredibly – but I’m not sure she’s actually singing the song.

It’s amazing to see the song change like that, to see the way a pause here or a lift there can completely change the feel of the song.

Later on the same night that I finally found out the song’s title, the clarinet player finished off another song with a a few trilling notes. The moment when he finished playing, everyone in the room laughed. The song was supposed to end in an unsatisfying way, and he ended in the middle of phrase, catching all the dancers literally off balance. I, for one, had never heard the song before (and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this), but we all knew, instinctively, that the phrase was incomplete.

What I’m trying to say with these loosely related anecdotes is that there’s something to really listening to music, rather than just hearing it. That’s the great thing about jazz – it’s so fluid and complex that it forces you to pay attention. And it’s the great thing about dance, especially blues dance. To convert sound into movement you have to, on some level, try to understand it.

[Update: One of the DJ’s pointed me to the verison I was looking for: White Gost Shivers, Weed Smoker’s Dream:

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