Let’s have a Shag

Early in my dancing, every form of partnered swing dancing was a wonderful and exciting new mystery. I was lucky to learn in the Southern California scene where dancers not only did Lindy Hop, but also Balboa and Collegiate Shag. In fact, some of the best Bal and Shag dancers lived and danced in So Cal at that time. I was lucky to dance with and learn from them both in classes and on the social floor.
Like many newer dancers, I thought hard-hitting, high-energy shag was the only way to dance Collegiate Shag. I would leave the floor winded and sweaty, and my knees and ankles were always sore the next day. I’m so thankful for the dancers who showed me another way of dancing Shag, a smooth way, and more comfortable way.
When talking with the original dancers, who we affectionately call “the Old Timers,” they all described Shag as they danced it in the 1930s and 40s as “smooth” and “elegant.” Yet, that’s rarely what I see on the dance floor.
Collegiate Shag is one of my favorite styles to teach, not only because it’s a lovely dance style, but also because it’s still somewhat unknown and misunderstood. I love sharing that Shag can be smooth, comfortable, and danced all night long without pain or lethargy. One of the best compliments I’m paid is when female students come up to me after a Shag class exclaiming that this class was the first time they’ve danced Shag and their boobs didn’t hurt! Haha!
Fifteen years ago, Balboa had its renaissance, when the global dance scene decided to find out how Balboa was danced and what it looked like originally. That time has come for Shag. Working on my Shag dancing has been such a great project in recent years. Long time dancers often stop exploring new styles and ways of moving. It’s difficult to feel like a beginner again. For me, it’s been a fantastic exercise in efficiency, rhythms and timing, subtle following, and working on continuing my momentum and flow. I’ve loved having to work on new ideas and ways of moving, and exploring new dance moves and history.
Love dancing Shag? Come ask me to dance!

— Lauren Smith (2017)

Loud does not equal good

“Loud does not equal good, folks. And consistency is not a virtue if it is consistently bad.”
This is so true for both music and dance! The same applies to excessive styling and embellishments. It’s no longer musical if every beat and note is stylized or loud. Intentional, dynamic changes and stylings allow the music to speak for itself and be an equal partner in the performance.
If no note is ever left to sound on its own or a dance basic left as simply the basic footwork, you have to wonder, what’s wrong with your basics? Is there something wrong in your basic technique that you’re trying to hide by adding so many stylings?
Just some food for thought.

— Lauren Smith (2017)

“So far as Louis Armstrong playing in his later years…he’s come under a lot of false criticism (from) those that really don’t understand what he was playing… They want him to play with the same type of *velocity*. See, a lot of times we confuse velocity with technique. Velocity is just the ability to play fast, or jump octaves or something. The highest level of technique is Nuance.

You really are a master of technique…when you don’t have to play a pile of stuff; all of that stuff is implied in what you play.” — Wynton Marsalis

I feel that this is applicable, with the obvious adjustments for form, to swing dancing as well…

— Peter Flahiff (2017)


I would do this for free.

I would do this for free.

This thing that I do for a living? Yeah. I can’t fathom NOT doing it.

In fact, for quite awhile (a few whole years, actually) , I couldn’t make ends meet doing it full time, and I did it anyway (on the side), and had a regular day job to stay financially solvent.

I think that’s a pretty good test to ask yourself, if you are thinking of becoming a full-time swing dance teacher, or even a part-time swing dance teacher (or fill in the name of whatever passion-driven career you can name)…

Would you do it anyway? Even if nobody paid you? Even if nobody EVER knew your name? Even if you never “made it” in your scene? If you never won any contests?

If so: carry on.

If not: be careful.

Otherwise, this world of teaching may not be for you. You need to be ready to never be “famous” or “successful” by common standards. You need to be thrilled and fulfilled by the successes of your students. And THEIR students. You need to know that you may never win anything. You may never get any awards. You may never take home a medal.


Despite all of that…

You might still have succeeded. Gloriously.


— Peter Flahiff (2015)

Thoughts About Social Dancing

Caveat — This isn’t a post about what I think is wrong with the dance scene.  It won’t contain any iron-clad instructions on what I think you or anyone else “MUST” do to be a better dancer, or anything like that.  It’ll contain my thoughts about a few things, based on my experiences. I’m not here to impose my will on anybody, or lay out Commandments.  This is simply a handful of musings about something that has preoccupied me for over half of my life.

These are some of my Thoughts About Social Dancing.

It’s what keeps bringing me back to the dance floor after well over twenty years.

It’s joy that is still fresh and exciting, night after night.  Dance after dance.

It’s what I love to teach more than anything else, anytime, anywhere, to anyone who will let me.

Social dancing is where my heart is.  There are so many ways to connect with, and enjoy, this wonderful thing called swing dancing.  Some people get a thrill from competitions.  Some love to perform.  Others would rather DJ than anything else.

I just happen to ADORE social dancing.  There is something amazing to me about having the ability to step out onto the floor with a partner and have an entire conversation without necessarily saying a word.  And that conversation can happen in so many ways!  It can be energetic or relaxed.  It can be fast and furious or smooth and elegant.  It can have a zillion moves or just six (or less!) and be endlessly interesting the entire time.

I’ve devoted basically my entire time as a swing dance enthusiast to becoming the best partner I can be, for anyone I’m lucky enough to dance with. It’s the filter through which I run everything I learn…every move, technique, idea or philosophy has to pass a simple test — “Will this help me dance better with more people or not?”  If so: Keep.  If not: Defenestrate.

Ultimately, most of the lessons I’ve learned over the years boil down to pretty simple truths, most of which apply to life in general and how to live it well with others if you extend the metaphors a bit…

Pay more attention to the person you’re dancing with.

Try to dance with them, not at them.

If you appreciate something they do, indicate that delight.

Try to dance with awareness of the others on the floor.  Don’t hog space as though you’re entitled to it.  We are all here to enjoy the night.  If the floor is crowded because there are SO MANY PEOPLE swing dancing tonight, I try to remember what that means… THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE SWING DANCING TONIGHT. I’m grateful for that.

Come to think of it, be grateful that you can swing dance at all.  Whether you are an enthusiastic newbie or a seasoned veteran, you can do this thing.  And that’s pretty amazing, and highly unusual in this day and age.

Applaud the band.  They are working hard to give you danceable music.  That’s wonderful.  And not easy.

Don’t worry so much about how much stuff you know (moves, styling, technique), but do concern yourself with improving your skills.  Not because “improving” shifts you up some mythical Ladder of Awesomeness, but because “improving” means you can give your partners a better dance.  And that’s what it’s ALL ABOUT. For me.

I’ve managed to dance all these years without ever “burning out”.  I’ve certainly had plateaus in my dance trajectory, but ultimately, that’s not the same as burning out, in the sense that most people think of it, i.e. “there’s no joy so I’d rather do something else.”  There’s nothing else I’d rather do than social dance, because to me, it’s INCREDIBLE that this dancing still exists and there is a community that I can go to and do it with.  And since my enjoyment of the dance never relied on Practicing/Improving/Working On It, but rather on the pleasant act of being able to take a partner on the floor and move about with them for three minutes to excellent music, I’ve always been able to wait out any plateau.

I try to make my partner’s enjoyment my enjoyment.  The more comfortable and fun the dance is for them, the better I have “succeeded” and I’m happy about that.  I think this makes for a better time, all around.

If something “goes wrong” while dancing (whatever that means), I just laugh it off and keep dancing.  As long as nobody got hurt or upset, dance on.

I lead and I follow.  Because they’re both fun, and it means I can dance more, with more people.  And it’s good to know what both role deals with. Plus: HUMBLING.  Which is always a good thing.

I say “yes” to almost anyone who asks me to dance.  Not because of any “Code of Dance Floor Etiquette”, but because I am genuinely thrilled that someone has honored me by asking me to dance.  It’s a privilege. I’m always happy when it happens.  And also: I ask others to dance as often as possible because I like to dance.  (And if someone says “No” to me, that’s cool.  There are lots of people in the room.)

Sometimes, I have a lousy night of dancing.  It happens.  I’m off my game, or I’m preoccupied with something, or I wore bad shoes, or I don’t connect with the music, or whatever.  Sometimes I have a lousy WEEK, or MONTH of dancing.  But it’s cool.  There’s always another night of dancing to come.  And at some point, it’ll get better.  It always, always does.

I’ve been extremely pleased to be able to teach social swing dancing full-time, more or less non-stop, for many years now.  I’m thrilled to be able to share my joy and enjoyment with an awful lot of people.  I’m looking forward to much more of it.

— Peter Flahiff (2015)