Posted on November 5, 2010.
I’ve been dancing quite a bit lately, both going to exchanges and teaching blues dancing with Lady Luck Blues. I haven’t written anything about dancing in quite a while, so I figured it was time for another blog post.
This post will be about a particular idea (or if you prefer: “pet peeve”) of mine about blues dancing today. I’m going to take a while to get to the point, but I think it’s worth the reading.
Saint James Infirmary
For this post I’m going to use a very popular song as an example: “Saint James Infirmary”. I’m sure almost every blues dancer has heard this song at some point (probably many times).
There are many versions of this song around. Here’s one if you’d like to listen to it to refresh your memory: “Saint James Infirmary” by Snooks Eaglin on YouTube.
What is this Song About?
Saint James Infirmary is a very old song. There’s a great overview of its history on the Wikipedia page.
Let’s take a look at the lyrics and try to figure out what the song is trying to say. The first verse goes (roughly) like this:
I went down to Saint James infirmary,
saw my baby there.
She was stretched out on a long white table,
so sweet, so cold, so fair.
The first thing we learn about the song is that the singer’s lover has died. He goes to the morgue to view her body. We can already tell that this is not going to be a happy song.
Let’s look at the next verse:
Let her go, let her go, god bless her
wherever she may be.
She can look this whole world all over
and never find another man like me.
In the first part of this verse the singer is accepting the fact that his lover is dead, and wishing her well in any afterlife she may be in. The second part is a bit less clear, but he seems to be telling us that there’s no man on Earth that loves (or, rather, “loved”) her like he does.
The last verse gets even darker (note: this verse’s lyrics often vary quite a bit between versions, but the idea is the same):
When I die you can bury me in straight laced shoes,
a box-back coat and a Stetson hat.
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
so all the boys will know I died standing pat.
All of a sudden the singer is talking about his own death. What happened?
The singer’s lover died, he accepted her death, and now he gives instructions on what to do when he dies. I’m sure some people will disagree, but to me it definitely seems like he’s contemplating suicide.
Now that we’ve got a pretty clear idea of the “mood” of this song, I want to talk about what bothers me about how many blues dancers seem to dance to it.
Blues dancing is commonly seen as a “sexy” dance. There’s good reason for this: many blues songs are lewd and suggestive, so being sexy as you dance fits the music.
The problem I see often is that dancers get comfortable in one “mood” of dancing (usually “sexy”) and don’t bother to explore other ones.
Almost without fail I see people dancing to Saint James Infirmary and trying (often succeeding) to be sexy. They use lots of hip and body movement like they do with other blues songs.
I want to say something to them.
You’re doing it wrong.
You there, doing the body roll: stop, god damn it!
Saint James Infirmary is not a “sexy” song. It’s about death and suicide, not hooking up!
Would you ask someone for a date at their friend’s funeral? No? Then why would you dance like that to this song? It doesn’t make sense and it’s completely inappropriate.
We often talk about “musicality” in dance classes, but often it’s just about “hitting the breaks right.” There’s more to it than that. Reflecting the music in your dancing isn’t just about hitting the notes, it’s about matching the mood of the song too!
Now is the time when I’m supposed to tell you how to fix things. I’m not the best dancer out there, and it’s hard to describe dancing in text, but I’ll do my best.
If you don’t agree with the specific things I mention that’s completely cool – my goal is to at least get people thinking about these ideas, not to tell them one specific way to implement them.
The one major thing I’d like to tell followers is: “stop being sexy.” There are songs where that is completely appropriate, but this is not one of them.
If you’re only used to trying to be sexy, what can you do instead?
The simple answer is: “just follow.” Don’t worry about adding styling if you’re not comfortable with it — a solid follower is much more fun to dance with than one that’s trying to force a style she has no experience with.
The more complicated answer is: “use styling that reflects the mood of the song.” Unfortunately I don’t have much experience with following so I can’t really describe this. Take a private lesson with someone like Mike Legett or Carsie Blanton if you want to get a more informed opinion.
As a leader, when I dance to this song I think about taking on one of two personas:
- The singer — someone who has just lost a lover.
- A friend of the singer that is comforting him (or her, if my follower is female).
In both cases I try to eliminate any “swagger” or “bravado” from my styling (not that I personally use much of that anyway). Funerals are not the place to be an alpha male.
If I’m taking on the singer’s persona (someone that has lost a lover) I’ll usually dance in a “ballroomy” style. I’ll use short movements (like muffled sobs) punctuated by larger, sweeping movements (cries or wails). I’ll (gasp) slightly collapse my posture just a tiny bit to express the depression.
If I choose the other case (comforting someone) I won’t collapse my posture at all. I’ll try to represent the shoulder that someone would cry on when their lover dies. I’ll try to be strong, confident and solid, but not really “manly.”
In both cases I’ll almost always stay in close embrace for the whole song. Whether you’re comforting someone or being comforted, a hug is usually helpful in dark times, so it feels appropriate to use close embrace.
There are many other things you could do as a leader that would fit the song. As long as you’re conciously thinking of them and not just defaulting to a style you’re comfortable with, I’m happy.
The Real Problem
Having said all that, I actually think the problem I’ve described is more of a symptom, and there’s a more fundamental problem with our community (and culture in general) today:
People don’t simply listen to music any more.
They hear music while dancing, or put on headphones while doing homework, or turn on the radios in their cars, but they never just sit down to listen to a song without doing anything else.
Many years ago, families would sit around the radio during the evenings and just listen to the music. Today the radio has been replaced by television, so we no longer even have those hours.
Dancers may be dancing provocatively to Saint James Infirmary because they don’t even realize it’s a sad song! Even though they’ve heard it many times it never really registers, because they’re always focusing on something else when they hear it.
The Real Solution
This root problem has a much more clear solution: listen to music, damn it!
Here’s the basic idea:
- Find a good album. Ask around, there are plenty out there.
- Find a good pair of headphones. Your iPod earbuds do not count. Borrow a pair if necessary.
- Turn off the television, put away books, turn off your phone and your laptop (or at least quit everything on your laptop if you’re using it to play the music).
- Start the album.
Now that you’re finally listening, what should you be trying to hear? Here are a few suggestions:
- Try just listening to a couple of songs. Take in the lyrics (if they have them) and the overall “mood” of the instruments.
- Listen to the energy of the songs. Jazz and blues musicians will usually make the energy rise and fall throughout the song.
- Pick a single instrument and listen to it for an entire song. Try not to let your mind wander — really focus on just one instrument. This is where a decent pair of headphones will really help.
- Pick a different instrument and listen to it for an entire song. Try to notice differences in how the two instruments play. For example, a bassist will often be playing for the entire song, while a horn player will frequently stop playing while others are soloing.
Once you’ve listened to the entire album, without stopping, get a notebook and write down some of the things you noticed. You don’t have to have any amazing revelations — the point is to make yourself put into words what you’re hearing.
Do this at least once or twice a week for a few months.
Putting down these thoughts on paper will help you wrap your head around music when you hear it during a dance. After a while you’ll start hearing structure and themes in the music and can adjust your dancing to match them.
Music is the foundation of dancing, so the more we listen the better our dancing will be.
We’ll all become better dancers if we just stop and listen.