It may seem paradoxical that blues music could be a path to finding happiness. But for a longtime devoted lindy hop and blues dancer like myself, the blues can be a source of joy.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of dancing to both live and DJed blues music at Albany Blues and Soul. This event, organized by some dedicated local dancers, brought a dear friend of mine to town, who happens to be an internationally renowned blues dance instructor.
Damon Stone grew up learning about blues dancing and music from his grandparents, and now travels the world teaching the art of blues dancing. In November, he will head to South Korea to teach there, returning for a gig he’s done for several years now.
Damon is one of the most beautiful dancers I’ve ever seen – so fluid in his liquid movements, so full of groove and soul. I admired Damon’s moves long before we ever became friends, and in fact was intimidated by him when I first watched him dance, about 15 years ago.
He was a dance “rock star” and I was a “newbie” to Lindy Hop, the original swing dance from the ballrooms of Harlem, back in 1999. I was so nervous the first time we danced, but Damon is such a sweetheart, and he made me feel at ease.
Over the years, we became close. Damon became a dear friend.
And us lucky lindy hop and blues dancers also have had the distinct pleasure of getting to dance with him.
Shake Your Groove Thing
Partnered blues dancing allows dancers to share the experience of interpreting a song, and also gives room to insert your own personality into the mix. Most blues dancing is performed in what is called “closed position,” with dancers in a close embrace, but it can also be in open position, with dancers connected by just one hand or even just doing their own thing but maybe playing or riffing off the other person’s groove or style.
As you can imagine, there is plenty of hip-shaking (as we like to call it, “shake your money maker!”). There is room for body rolls and shimmies and shoulder lifts.
Blues dancing can be smolderingly sexy. Sometimes, after a blues dance, one almost needs a cigarette.
Basically, there is room for any stylistic impulse that fits the music. Dancers can find the room to express their unique personalities within the confines of the dance, although in a more subtle way than one might in modern, hip hop, or another expressive form of performance dance.
The purpose of the dance is to connect to your partner, while interpreting the music. So it’s a conversation on multiple levels: with your partner, with the musicians playing the music, and with yourself, as you feel into the soul of the song and let it play through you, letting the body be the instrument.
Workshops and A Soul Food Dinner
The Albany Lindy and Blues event included multiple dance workshops as well as a soul food dinner and live dance and spoken word performances, sponsored by the African American Cultural Center of the Capital District. I took a workshop on Blues Vocabulary, showcasing different styles of blues dancing, and one on connecting with your partner.
For a few hours, we were steeped in the basics of blues dancing. Then, it was time to enjoy some delicious homemade soul food.
I am a pescatarian and I skipped the fried and barbecue chicken, but got to enjoy collard greens, green beans and potato salad. And we were treated to powerful spoken work performances, including essays, poetry and powerful dramatic monologues.
All were a reminder of the importance of the fight for civil liberties and of how far the world still has to go to truly treat all people as equal.
I was moved to tears by the powerful performances. The overall message was that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet, and that we need to stand for each other.
Dance As A Cultural Passport
I have always felt that dance and music are powerful ways to connect cultures to each other. When I traveled to the Middle East in 2006 for a grad school friend’s wedding in Amman, Jordan, my ability to belly dance was my “cultural passport.”
People loved it that a redheaded American girl could belly dance, and they frequently asked me to perform, tying scarves around my hips, clapping for me, even the grandmothers cheering me on and yelling, “Hot! Hot! Hot!”
Having women in hijab cheer me on this way was one of the most fun and surreal moments of my life.
Dance and music transcend language. Art crosses all cultural boundaries, uniting people in the common love of beauty and expression.
We all experience love and joy as well as sorrow in these complex, beautiful lives, and art in all forms allows us to connect to each other. I have always loved art in all forms, from the visual arts to literature to music to dance.
Dance is a personal favorite, however, as I began teaching dance professionally 15 years ago and have studied various dance forms, especially lindy hop, blues and belly dancing, over the years.
Sharing the Dance with Others
I have always felt fortunate to be able to share lindy hop with the world, since it is a form of American vernacular jazz dance that originated in the ballrooms of Harlem, and is an important part of our country’s history. Becoming a lindy hop teacher was a welcome surprise in my life, something that naturally arose out of my love for the dance, and my partnership with my former husband and dance teacher, Adrian.
I taught and performed lindy hop for five years, and have made and continue to make so many beautiful memories through the experiences created by this dance. This is a global subculture and community for lindy hop and blues dancing, and I am fortunate enough to be a part of it.
It brings me great joy to use my body as an instrument to interpret music, and to share this incredible experience with a partner. Every single time you dance, it’s a new experience.
Just like the Heraclitus expression, “You can’t step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing in,” you can’t repeat a dance, because every time you dance even the same song with a different partner it’s a totally new interpretation of the music.
Dance over the years has been one of my primary ways to generate high levels of joy, and to share my joy. Before I ever learned how to meditate, it was also the first way I was able to move beyond the thinking mind, and to not be trapped in my head.
I’ve always been very cerebral, so practices that allow me to drop into my body and not stay centered in the thinking mind have always been a gift. Meditation and dancing have literally been lifesavers for me in this way.
Thankful For the Blues!
I’m thankful for every single musician and dancer who has ever shared this form of dance, because I now get to have the pleasure of experiencing it. I am thankful for every single dance. I am thankful for finding happiness.
Lisa Powell Graham