Inspired by a recent Facebook thread, I decided to post an article on this topic that deserves more focus. Defining a dance is not a new concept. It’s a long and distinguished subject that people spend years in school studying.

Defining is “any process serving to describe the shape of something”. What better way to define a shape than with dancing?

Lindy Hop and Balboa/Bal-Swing are what are known as street dances. Dance forms born from the culture, music and minds of everyday people. Street dances are also a form of individual expression and style. They are called street dances because there were no formalized schools or workshops teaching the dance. Most people learned from their friends and siblings, or by simply watching and copying. Many of the dancers lived and breathed the life and the dance. You could dance every night of the week. These dances were a part of the culture and society at the time. Formal classes were unnecessary.

There is a great fear and resistance among the dancers of today in putting the dances they do into words. They see how the Ballroom and Latin dances have become codified and are no longer recognizable from the original dances. (Some even say that is where West Coast Swing is, or is headed). They have lost the spirit and character that gave birth to each dance. People fear that by defining the dance they do, that individual expression and style will cease to exist.

The assumption of defining a dance is that it involves telling the dancers where they have to be on every count and how they have to execute the movement. This builds into the argument that the best dancer is merely the one who is able to master the technique laid out before them. What this has brought about in the Lindy Hop community is a celebration of style over technique. “Feeling it” is higher on the food chain than beautiful movement.

Dance, like any other art form, is a skill-set. Mastering an art form takes mental and physical effort as well as time. There is a process most people follow in learning. The first step is to learn the trade and techniques that encompass the art form. Next is copying great works of those before you. Followed by the phase where one picks and chooses styles and techniques from different sources to construct your own style. The last phase is to include your own self expression, creativity and ingenuity to the art. There are exceptions, of course, but the majority of people follow this course.

There are those that like to skip these steps. Some bypass mastering the techniques and go straight to self expression. I can often ignore this in other art forms, except this is a partner dance. I’m affected by the follows I dance with, and the follows I dance with are affected by the leads they dance with. If bad technique or bad habits start to become at all prominent in the scene, it affects everyone.

There is an advantage for some to avoid defining, or loosely defining, a dance. It gives them the freedom to do whatever they want with no consequences in the name of self expression. The mentality “you can’t tell me what I’m doing is bad because I’m feeling it”. That in a street dance there are no rules.

This fear of putting the dance into words has become so prevalent, that often bad dancing will be praised over great dancing. People take for granted the art, skill and beauty that goes into great dancing. I’ve seen it time and time again. Some even go so far as to loathe great dancing. There are other philosophical and psychological reasons for this, but fear is one of the contributing factors.

Even though this is a larger subject that should have it’s own article, I’d like to address the idea of “feeling it.” This is usually the excuse and reason people give to fight against standards and criticism. Every dance has a character, attitude and emotion. This includes everything from the street dances (salsa, hip hop, etc.) to the ballroom and latin dances and to the trained solo dances (ballet, jazz, modern). The goal of every dance is to combine great technique with the emotional aspect. People can identify with emotion when they know nothing of the technique. Great technique allows the audience to get carried away with the emotional aspect. Bad technique is distracting and difficult to watch. The ideal dance and the ideal dancer can combine superb technique with emotion. A great example of this is everyone’s favorite routine from So You Think You Can Dance?, “Bleeding Love”:

For some reason in Lindy Hop, people will forsake technique over someone who is feeling it. Would that fly in any other dance form? Take this guy for example. He’s definitely feeling it…

Don’t get me wrong, I love it when I see someone in the moment, full of expression. It can be inspiring. But I don’t want to watch bad dancing. Just like I don’t want to see great technique with absolutely no emotion. I want to see a balance between emotion and technique. The key…is balance.

It’s true that there should be different ideas, different techniques and different styles. It’s what makes street dancing so dynamic. But we must recognize that even with these differences, some ideas, techniques and styles will be better than others. There is good and bad. It’s a fact of life that we must accept.

Words are used to identify objects and ideas. They are symbols to what our five senses tell us exist in reality. You can look at Lindy Hop and identify it as such. The words “Lindy Hop” together have meaning. Essentially, if you can identify it, you can define it. By no means is this an easy task. The process of defining something is to identify the fundamental elements that make up the subject and also distinguish it from every other form.

This does not hinder creativity or ingenuity. It merely gives a base for everything else to flow from. If you stray too far from this base, chances are you will have created something new. At that point you must identify this new form by a different name. West Coast Swing did it with Lindy Hop. It’s not a negative concept to create something new as long as one can accept and identify it as a new form. Sometimes this process takes awhile, but eventually the dance either develops into something unrecognizable from it’s origin, or the new form breaks away and creates it’s own identity.

So what would a definition look like? Take the classic example of the definition for table: “A man-made object consisting of a flat, level surface and support(s), intended to support other, smaller objects.” In no way does it specify what kind of table, color, how many legs, size, or shape. A person can make a table that has it’s own personality and it’s own distinct qualities. This can be true for dance. When you look across a dance floor, you can see each dancer is unique, yet you can identify each of them as dancing “Lindy Hop”.

This article isn’t meant to define the dances, but to first tackle the fear behind it. Once this fear is addressed, then we can rationally deal with what these dances are and what they encompass.