Since 2001 I’ve come to love this thing called blues dance.
It’s possible, though, that this thing isn’t really even called blues dance. Can you give something a name and yet not know exactly what that thing is?
Here’s what I thought it was back in 2001: adapting what I knew from lindy hop to be slow enough and fitting enough to dance to blues music, to fit the music, to have a more moment by moment connection, and, oh yeah – feeling the thrill of really close contact with someone while dancing in a semi-darkened room, and being so tired that I actually felt wonderful and could finally let go. That was blues. It was awesome.
Seven years later, I’ve danced to countless blues songs. I’ve attended blues house parties and blues dances that lasted until dawn. I’ve taught blues classes and blues workshops. I’ve watched blues, read about blues, learned to play a bit of blues. And at some point in all this time I developed the blues dance blues. It’s quite possibly a more urgently mournful blues than any actual blues song itself. If my blues could express itself in a conversation, it would go like this:
“I’m digging this slow, sensual dancin’, man, and this song just eats my soul!”
“Yeah, but you ain’t doin’ actual blues, man!”
“I’m feeling the shuffle beat and the bass and the low growlin’ horns, and I’m moving! What else is there?”
“The shake ‘n bake! That’s what else!”
“It’s a vintage step, man, straight outta the ole juke joints, man. You dig?”
“To dance blues, you gotta dance the dance they danced back in the day! You gotta do the mooch! You gotta do the fishtail. You gotta do the slow drag. They’re all historic!”
“I’ve never even heard of those names! And I thought I was dancing in the only day that really matters anyway – right now!”
“Maybe so, but then you ain’t dancing blues.”
And on it goes. Is blues the pure and simple act of dancing to blues music? Is it using the different layers of the music to inspire different kinds of movement? Or is it the mooch? You have your historians on one side, your presentorians on the other. You have your purists teaming up with the historians, the inventors enjoying the present moment. You have your…. blues dance blues. One big unnecessary argument.
When asked if he could teach some certain move, I think it was the “leap frog,” one of the biggest names in swing dancing history, Frankie Manning, said they didn’t have names back when they danced in the 30′s. They just danced! I find the non-name thing a little hard to believe simply because it’s our nature to name things. And yet the point here is that the idea of not naming is one that allows for discovery, expression, and invention. Naming brings in the added argument of correct-ness or not-correct-ness, and that’s where my blues is coming from. If I’m worrying about the historical validity of my footwork while trying to dance blues, then that’s all I’m ever going to feel: blues. If someone watching me is only looking for vintage steps, they’ll miss the excitement of what’s happening – what’s being created – in the moment.
So let’s try this. Let the historians compile their lists. While I dance what I feel is blues, they can check off any of the old moves that I do properly. I’ll be happy if I get even one step correct. The slow drag? Check! Then I’ll pocket the list. A keepsake.
Then I’ll forget about that list, turn the lights down low, and spend the rest of the night dancing my heart out in the best possible way I know how – by feeling it, by connecting with my partner, by being open to possibility. I’ll get the blues, then, I’m sure of it, but it will be the kind of blues we all want to feel: deep, raucous, sensual, passionate, wild, playful, uninhibited, wonderful.