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Samantha and I just got back from Herräng, and one thing (of many) that we’ve been thinking about a lot since our trip is rhythm. To say that rhythm is important to swing dancing is to make a point so obvious that it borders on nonsense. Breathing is important to being alive. Realizing there’s a problem is the first step to resolving it. Even a long journey begins with a single step. These clichés are, at first glance, so self-evident that it’s a wonder people say them at all. The weird thing is they do. They say them all the time, and often as a revelation. So what gives? What is so hard to understand about these basic concepts that people waste valuable breath – which as we all know is important to being alive – repeating them. What is so compelling about hearing them that people spend loads of money traveling to exotic locales to hear some unwashed holy person tell them things they learned in their first few years of life? Or, to hit closer to home, what is so hard to understand about rhythm in the context of dance that I hoarded dollar bills and coins for over a year in order to fund a trip to Herräng (no easy feat as a lowly valet), where my girlfriend and I could learn about it?

Apparently a lot.

I had so many revelations and ah-ha moments that I considered putting on a saffron robe, shaving my head, investing in a lifetime’s supply of patchouli, and perching at the top of a distant mountain to await supplicants. Hopefully supplicants with offerings of food, since I apparently didn’t think this through very well.

Swing Saddhu

You’re feeling the music? That’s very moving. You should still work on your rock step. *

In any case, it is becoming more and more clear to me that these seemingly simple concepts are difficult precisely because they are so basic. Their expressions are woven into every aspect of what we do. When we learn something important about, say, rhythm, we experience a moment of euphoric clarity and integrate it in the specific context in which we learned it. I think this is how we make a basic concept even more difficult: we stop there. Rather than think really hard about the new information, and how it might change everything we do, we work on just that one moment, moving on when we are satisfied. The moment passes, the curtain falls, and we’re left only slightly better than we were. I’m constantly surprised that the rockstar teachers we all look up to don’t lash out in frustration – except, ahem, when they do – when they give us information that they know could be completely transformative, and we use it to become tepidly proficient at a specific move, spectacularly and stubbornly missing the larger point.

I have long believed, and now feel an even firmer conviction, that this phenomenon is the main thing that keeps intermediate dancers from becoming advanced, advanced dancers from becoming more advanced, etc. The more I learn and the more I teach, the more I am convinced that the main difference is one of mindset. Not just a willingness to hear what you’re doing wrong during a specific moment and fix it, but a habit of hearing what you’re doing wrong in a specific moment and then taking the leap to investigating how you’re doing that same thing wrong every single moment of your dance. This is certainly something I’ve neglected many times during my time as a dancer. I’ll probably do it many more times. But I’m thinking about it a lot, and working at trying to see each moment as representative of the whole. Hopefully it’ll become another habit, another thing that I just do without thinking about it, like breathing to stay alive or starting a journey with a step.

Do you have any thoughts on basic concepts, why they’re so tricky, or the difference between dance levels? Leave a comment and we’ll discuss it! It’ll be great!

*I do know the difference between a buddhist monk and a saddhu. I just liked the picture.