I first saw Blues dancing in its modern form in 2005 at the Windy City Lindy Exchance in Chicago. Lindy Hop, a form of Swing dancing, started to reemerge in the late 1990s, partially due to the GAP advertisements featuring Swing Era dances that aired in 19981. Modern Swing was in the process of rediscovering itself as dance instructors were watching classic movies to rediscover and teach Lindy Hop.
Many DJs found that much of the danceable music from that era was intermixed in their collections with Blues. In the late nights between social dancing and classes, swing dancers were rediscovering Blues music. Unlike Lindy Hop which rediscovered an existing dance that had faded but had not truly died, modern Blues dancing is an amalgamation of both original, non-structured movement with many borrowed steps and stylings from Swing and other Jazz dances.
When talking about Blues Dancing to those unfamiliar with it, the question I hear most often is “How do you dance to the Blues?” The historical answer has really been that you dance to Blues like you do to any other form of music. Dancing to Reggae or Rock and Roll is essentially the same as dancing to Blues: you move to the music. At many Blues concerts, this organic form of dancing can still be see as fans with no organised dance experience take to the floor.
With the re-emergence of Blues growing out of Swing, a number of new styles have arisen, created by dancers from around the world. Even within these styles, Blues doesn’t conform to the ridged structure found in other dancers. Most instructors don’t teach a basic step, but rather to find patterns based upon the music.
There are a number of Blues dance groups that work with local Blues music groups. The Dirt Cheap Blues Exchange is an example of a dance festival where local dancers latch onto a free music festival in Virginia Beach. Two distinctly different types of dancers can be seen: at the front of the stage, those who are music enthusiasts freely dancing to the music with their partners, and to the side of the stage, people from the dancing community with a noticeably more polished style.
Tango and modern Blues shares a common, although less than linear, melding in their communities. Modern Argentinean Tango emphasises balance, connection and form. It’s a dance that does allow for creativity, but also contains a tremendous amount of complex structure. Blues and Tango connect somewhere in the middle, between balance, ochos, and proximity, both physically and in connection. There are several dance events that combine a weekend of half Blues/half Tango workshops and bring together dancers from both communities. Two examples of these Blues-Tango Fusion workshops in the United States include Buenos Aries Blues in Knoxville, Tennessee and Blango in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Tango and Blues are on totally opposite extremes when it comes to complexity. Tango being one of the most difficult dances I’ve attempted to learn and Blues being a simple dance of the peasants. Yet the potential intensity for both of these forms have led to a exchange of ideas from both communities. It is not unusual for Tango dancers to feel just as challenged with Blues, breaking the ridged structures they are familiar with, as are Blues dancers attempting to learn the intricacies of movement and balance in Tango.
Frankie Manning, one of the pioneers in modern Lindy Hop, in a question and answer session following one of his workshops, was asked how he felt about Blues dancing. He told the audience what we called Blues dancing had a term back when he was younger: “Butt jiggling.” He may have got the crowd laughing, but his statement showed how dancing to Blues use to be a purely organic experience.
Today, Lindy Exchanges around the world often have dedicated Blues rooms, with their own DJs, for late night dances. In the United States, one dancer told me, “The further South you go, the darker the Blues rooms get.” When at a particular dance festival, I remember one dancer asking why another Lindy Hopper from their community didn’t come out Blues dancing. His friend mentioned that there is a sexual element to Blues, and although there were many dancers who were not apprehensive to dancing with a homosexual, the lack of attraction does affect the overall connection and feel of the dance. However, even with the deeper emotional relationship in Blues music, on the social dance floor, it’s still regarded as a mostly platonic dance. Even in the thralls of an intimate connection, anything beyond a mild “Thank you,” in following may be construed as creepy.
Modern Blues dancing isn’t necessarily the same as simply dancing to the Blues. A simile can be made with processed cheese slices. They’re not really cheese and cannot even be labeled as such according to food packaging regulations. Yet what started out as fake cheese, mimicked long enough, became its own, unique, real thing2. In the same way Blues dancing is given new life that stands apart in both form and style.
But even in modern Blues, those who are the best leads, are the ones who can dance with anyone, anywhere. They make their follow feel like they’re dancing on a cloud between happiness and sadness. You see Blues sprung fourth from sorrow. It came from a culture that had been taken from their homes, their loves, their families and their gods. It was a form of expression for Africans in a postbellum America, emancipated, yet still slaves to segregation and a society determined to view them as inferior. The Blues was their escape into realm of music which meandered through deep baselines, pentatonic scales and whaling brass. When someone dances the Blues, really and truly dances the Blues, they create a form; a beacon of hope, from those musicians who cried out singing, “Surely it can’t go on like this.”
1 Gap Khakis In Swing Dance Duncan. The Inspiration Room. 24 September 2005.
2 Reality Comes Calling Cat and Girl. 5 February 2010