[Me in my early years of lindy hopping way back in 2002. Yes, my partner and I had the same blonde streak in our hair.]
I've been dancing lindy hop for over ten years. And in that time, I've seen my share of what can only be called swing dance douchery. I like to think that I've learned a few things about the peculiar etiquette of the social dancefloor. (I've also dabbled in salsa, ballroom, and other social dances, where similar rules of conduct apply.) So if you are new to this rarified artform we call lindy hop, there are a few things you should know when you are just starting out. With that I give you…
Rik's Top Ten Mistakes Made by Newbie* Lindy Hoppers
10. Apologize (Too Much)
You are a new dancer. You are nervous about your lack of awesomeness on the dancefloor. The best strategy is to not apologize to your dance partner. I know it seems like the nice thing to do, but really there is no point. First off, you don't have to explain that you aren't an expert lindy hopper — that is apparent from the very first step, probably before then. (Hint: experienced lindy hoppers check out new dancer's shoes to see if they are newbie or not.) And it's really not a big deal: everyone has to start somewhere, and everyone is a beginner at something.
If you absolutely must give some kind of proviso, keep it short, like "Hey, just so you know, I'm just a beginner." Repeated apologies for each flubbed move are not necessary.
9. Do Too Many Moves
This is mostly for the leaders out there, but followers can be just as guilty. Don't feel like in every dance you have to squeeze in every single trick and move you ever learned into every second of the dance. That's a good way to confuse your partner, which is not cool. And it doesn't make you look better, it actually makes you look worse. A perfectly acceptable social dance phrase might be :
What I tend to see is leaders attempting something along the lines of:
Don't do this! Remember: less is more. Watch two of my favorite dancers Dawn Hampton and Matt Bedell dance in this video. Their movements are all small, simple, and musical.
As a corollary to this, please don't lead any variation on "the pretzel", except ironically. Nuff said.
8. Monopolize the "Good" Dancers
Yes, it is true that if you "dance up" — i.e. dance with the more experienced dancers — you will get better faster. You will also piss off all of the "lesser" dancers that you are shunning. There's nothing wrong with asking someone who you think is really awesome to dance. But don't then continue to stalk him or her around the dancefloor, or exclusively dance with only the best dancers in the room. It's not cool, and a good way to get labeled a dance snob.
7. Shut Up and Dance
I'm sure you are a fascinating individual with a rich life story. But I don't want to hear it on the dancefloor. Talking, particularly with a stranger, should be confined to, "Hi, I'm Rik, would you like to dance?" If you simply must have a conversation, save it for after the dance.
Which leads me to the next very important no-no…
6. Offer Advice
Never, ever, ever offer advice, suggestions or critiques on the social dancefloor. Few things drive a follower more batshit than having a leader give her advice while dancing with her. So leaders, remember this: if she didn't "get" the move that you led, 9 times out of 10 it's your fault. The only time when advice is even moderately acceptable is if the person you are dancing with is (1) someone you know, and (2) asks for help. Otherwise, it's just the epitome of dancefloor douchery.
5. Hit on People
Before I started lindy hopping, my friend Jenny told me that the lindy hop scene was full of lovely, single women… but that none of them were interested in dating me. She exaggerated just a little bit. But it is true that most lindy hoppers are not going out to a swing dance to hook up, get digits, or use the dance as a pretense for anything more than, well, to dance.
Don't get me wrong, you can date in the scene. Most of us do, since we spend so much of our non-work hours lindy hopping anyway. But be warned, if you go around hitting on every cute guy or girl that walks in the door, you will quickly get a reputation as a creep.
I think this is a male thing more than a female thing. I know it's hard dancing this ridiculous dance. You have to concentrate on so many things at once: your own movements, the movements of your partner, the music, the people dancing around you, etc. It's a lot to hold in your head at once.
But like the Jedi, you need to learn to let go, Luke. If you think too hard, your face screws up into an expression that could be interpreted as being annoyed, angry, worried or constipated. Not a good look, trust me. Practice smiling while you dance, even if — or especially if — that particular partnership is not going so well.
Of course, one way to get rid of your swing stress is to liquor up, which leads me to the next mistake…
3. Drink to "Loosen Up"
Lindy hop requires an enormous amount of physical coordination, stamina, creativity, and attention — all attributes that are not improved by alcohol. Have a beer, have a glass of wine if you like (and tip your bartender). But don't imbibe to the degree that your movements are not all within your control. You might feel better, but you won't dance better. Which often leads to the next mistake…
2. Slam into Other Dancers
Social dancing, particularly lindy hop, quite naturally results in people bumping into each other on occasion. We move in all sorts of unpredictable patterns. We don't dance in a slot like in West Coast Swing, we don't travel in the same direction like a waltz. Legs flail, arms extend, bodies free spin — collisions will occur. That said, you can tell the newbie dancers from the more experienced dancers by how much space they take up, and how much they slam into each other and those unfortunate enough to be around them.
If and when you or your partner bump into someone else, please apologize to the person. If you hit them again, say sorry again and dance smaller. If you hit them a third time, it's time to take a break.
At least 90% of the time, collisions are the leader's fault. The follower routinely is traveling backwards, often at the mercy of whatever movement the leader is leading. She is trusting that the leader, at the bare minimum, will keep her out of harm's way.
Which leads me to the number one lindy hop no-no…
1. Lead an Aerial
Again, this is the leader's fault. Boys, I know you saw "Swing Kids" or "Swingers" or that YouTube video of someone doing this amazing "Flip-her-in-the-air-grab-her-waist-swing-her-around-big-finish-with-her-legs-spreadeagled." Perhaps you practiced it with your little sister or your very understanding girlfriend at home. This does not mean that you can then try this on some unsuspecting follower who had the misfortune of dancing with you. It's dumb, and more importantly, it's dangerous to your partner and to those around you. If I see you do it at a dance that I run, I'll give you one warning, and then I'll ask you to leave.
I hope this brief list does not discourage any new lindy hoppers out there. It's a wonderful dance form and we need all the new dancers that we can get. That said, a few simple considerations can make the social dancing experience so much more enjoyable for everyone out there. Have fun, be kind to each other.
Let me close with one of my favorite social dancing videos of all time that epitomizes so much of what I have written above. Really perhaps I just should have posted this video and said "Don't do this." Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Myke and Debbie, the Milwaukee Dancing Sensations!
* Postscript: Upon receiving numerous complaints, I've changed the language of this post to refer to newer dancers as "newbies" rather than "noobs," since many people felt that "noob" was pejorative. I've never thought of or used the term that way. But I'm happy to go with the majority opinion on this one.