Q & A with Skye Humphries

The following is a questionnaire that Skye Humphries filled out for an article entitled “The Party’s Just Begun” that appeared in August 31, 2008.  It only used a few sentences out of the 12 page response that Skye sent back.   It’s a print magazine, so it’s not available online.   This was taken from: https://jsalmonte.wordpress.com/category/skye-humphries/

Skye Humphries:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeYyDLlxCP8

How were you introduced to dancing in general? Were you a trained dancer before going into swing?  If swing was your first exposure to dance, what drew you to it/ made you want to become a dancer.

I always had an interest in movement- though not necessarily dancing.

I used to want to be a clown.  I loved the old movies of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  My brothers and I would recreate slapstick scenes, walks, and a million other little motions we watched in those old movies.  I loved the way those guys moved, I loved the way their specific movements felt when I watched them and later when I tried them myself.

Chaplin can make you laugh, and then cry, and then cheer all without saying a word.  He is devastating.  I loved the way he can bring out the essence of some small action.  His work is dancing- pure dancing- practical and elegant and beautiful.

My mother danced Lindy Hop.  She always thought I would like it.  She used to show me old dance clips from films like “Hellzapoppin” and “Day at the Races.”

I was blown away by the films and was interested in the dance, but I was young and never really thought that guys danced.  It certainly wasn’t something that was considered cool.

Finally she convinced me to try it.  Bill Borgida was giving a class for teens (I was 11 or 12) and I went with some friends from my school whose parents also danced.

We went to a school called ACS (the Alternative Community School) [where] we were encouraged to pursue our own interests and develop our own ways of learning.  We started teaching a class at our school almost immediately and brought our friends into the dance.  Our school gave us space and time to practice, and allowed us to shape our curriculum to reflect our interest in the dance.

History, sociology, politics, media- our teachers were very encouraging and allowed us to find the connection between dancing and the rest of our studies.

There was an amazing community of dancers in Ithaca who created a great atmosphere and ran great dances.  We started going out and dancing socially all the time.  ISDN (Ithaca Swing Dance Network) also put on great workshops with the top international dancers and teachers, and they were always supportive of us kids.

My friends and I went out together dancing, and then Bill started a little performance group and we started doing gigs around town.

Soon we started running and directing our own group, and started performing, competing, and eventually teaching on our own.

Personally, I felt very uncomfortable in classes at first.  I was a slow learner and had trouble understanding what the dance was about; Lindy Hop is so open-ended and personal that it can be quite difficult to learn in a traditional class setting.  I had a hard time learning the counts and remembering all the steps.

But I remember the frustration of classes just melting away when I started to go out dancing.  I grasped very quickly the freedom of the dance once I was on a dance floor.  I saw how I could turn my weakness at recreating or remembering the movements of the teacher in class into strengths on the dance floor.  Where I couldn’t do some part of a step, I learned to find my own way through things.  I learned quickly how to make things my own.

For me it was my mother, my friends, my school, and the strong community of dancers in Ithaca that got me to dance; and once I started it was the incredible freedom of the dance that kept me dancing.  It was the way I was able to find my own way of dancing that encouraged me so much.  Lindy Hop encourages individuality and self-expression through embracing community rather than rejecting it.

Of course I found the dance intoxicating as well.  Lindy Hop brings people together to music and that is a classic combination.  Humans have been doing that forever.  There has never been anything more potent than that.

 

What are some of the “core moves” of the Lindy Hop?

The basic of the Lindy Hop is the Swing Out: a circular step done in eight beats in which the partners come together and then move apart.  I have never seen anything so perfectly put together, there is no more versatile or meaningful basic in any dance I’ve seen.

Charleston is another important step- the famous dance step from the twenties is crucial to Lindy.

There are other classic steps and classic combinations of steps, but for me those are the most important.

Lindy Hop is a cumulative dance, it bears little imprints of all the things that have come before it.  And today it continues to accumulate bits and pieces.  It is an expansive dance that has space to encompass many things.

 

Are Lindy Hop moves improvised?  Planned?  Both?

Lindy Hop is both planned and improvised.  There is any number of ways to dance the Lindy Hop, but there is always room for both improvisation and planning in the Lindy Hop.

I would say, and most dancers would probably agree, [that] there is more of an emphasis on improvisation, and certainly traditionally, the dance is more of an improvisational than a planned dance; but there can be planning as well.

A great many moves have been passed down, or taken from old clips and formalized, but many moves are improvised as well, or – like the Swing Out in which the partners come together and then break away – there is space for both.

The Swing Out has a basic shape that brings the partners together and then takes them apart.  When they break away there is room for improvisation.  The Swing Out embodies and reconciles this tension in the dance:  the connection between the partners when they come together and their freedom as individuals when they break away.  Many people point to that “break-away” as the central innovation of Lindy Hop.  Certainly it-and the freedom it allows-is integral to the basic step, and from there, informs the rest of the dance.

Lindy Hop, like the music to which it is danced, is based on a simple structure; a structure that should be limiting, but in fact is quite the opposite.  The simplicity of structure allows for great complexity.  Lindy Hop is so refreshing because it has certain structures (partners, a basic step, a consistent and simple rhythm) that allow for great communication.

 

Is there such a thing as a “mistake” in the Lindy Hop

It is very difficult to make a “mistake” in Lindy Hop.  However, I would differ from other people in this:  I think the great appeal of Lindy Hop is not it’s lack of right and wrong, but instead is this simplicity of structure.  By having [a] clear structure the dance allows [for] great improvisation and communication.

Improvisation isn’t about doing away without all rules or all structures or all forms.  It is about subverting those rules, reworking the structures from the inside, allowing one’s self to fill the form of the dance and then refashioning it.  Improvisation comes from mastery of structure not its dissolution, and this is one of the real beauties of Lindy Hop.  Its form is an incredible achievement.  Its basic step is a complex negotiation between the couple and the individual.  It leaves so much space.

To me the only mistake is to approach Lindy Hop as formless or structure-less [by] ignoring the rhythm, ignoring ones partner, ignoring the music, [or] ignoring how the dance has been done in the past.

 

In the last decade, swing dancing in general has seen a surge in popularity – what accounts for that?  Can you explain the time line?

Well certainly Neo-swing in the 90’s gave a certain form of the dance and music a new kind of visibility.  Clubs put on Swing nights, young people flocked to bars and clubs and dance classes.

While the scenes co-existed, (with more or less overlap in different regions) they were never identical.   When Neo-Swing faded, Lindy Hop had gained new enthusiasts but didn’t disappear.   [Lindy Hop] had been around before and continued after.  Many young people were exposed to it though college started Swing clubs and the demographic began to shift towards a younger crowd.

I think the Internet also had a large impact.   Message boards like Yehoodi started to create social networks that served to draw people deeper into the dance and the increasingly international community of dancers.

Recently, I think Youtube has had a very large impact as videos become widely distributed and the video watching habits of people change.  There wasn’t a venue or a style of watching short videos that showcased dance until Youtube came along.

Some of the most famous Lindy Hop clips were made for viewing in nickelodeons back in the day.  Youtube has recreated an environment in which people watch clips like they used to in the earlier days of cinema.  I think it makes them receptive to watching something like Lindy Hop, which is so good for viewing in that context and then pursuing [as] an interest.

Of course partner dancing seems to be gaining in popularity these days, and that certainly seems to be fueling some of the renewed interest in Lindy Hop.

 

Why is the Lindy Hop an important art form?

Jazz is one of the most (if not the most) important art-forms to come out of American culture in the last 100 years.  Jazz music stands as a crucial cultural achievement of the 20th century.  In America and in the world there is little that can challenge its stature.i

I would argue Lindy Hop is crucial to understanding Jazz.  It is intimately connected to Jazz music–to its development, to its appeal, and to its popularity.  The way that people made sense of Jazz music for at least 30 of its most crucial years is by dancing.  The dancing co-evolved with the music and I would argue the pinnacle of that evolution was reached in the Lindy Hop.

It is a modern American Art-form- an urban folk-dance that allows the individual an incredible degree of self-expression while linking that expression to the expression other people.  The individual finds expression but must grapple with their community-must take into account their partner and the music and the dancers that have come before them and the dancers that are around them.  It fosters an incredible sense of community without sacrificing the unique identity of the individual.

Lindy Hop is an important art form because it is a form that has manage to persist and grow for the last 80 years; because it is as applicable today in Russia and Korea and Australia and Sweden as it was in Harlem in 1930.

Lindy Hop is an important art-form because it is the working class equivalent of the cultural flowering of the 1930’s and the Harlem Renaissance.

Coming out of the African American community in Harlem, Lindy hop has spread around the world and continues to thrive.

It is art-form that is open to everyone and makes sense of the life of an individual in a modern urban context.  As such it is still as meaningful and useful as when it was created.

It is an antidote to modern urban technological isolation and ennui.  It is an art-form for the people and by the people.

 

Many historical accounts of the Lindy Hop allude to its African roots.  Can we consider the Lindy Hop to be a way to record history?  If so, how?

Lindy Hop carries its history with it.  And it pulls together what came before it as well.

Lindy Hop has no rules.  Its identity is based on continuity rather than a strict set of rules or techniques.  Lindy Hop is in some ways just an innovation on earlier dances like the Turkey Trot and the Texas Tommy.  Lindy Hop changes organically, but to still be Lindy Hop it needs to maintain some connection to the past.

Rather than conserved from above, Lindy Hop changes from the ground up and is constantly looking back to move forward.  Lindy Hop is the perfection of the notion of a usable past; it provides a pragmatic link to history.   Lindy Hop doesn’t just record history, it puts it to work in the service of the present.

Charleston is a perfect example.  [It was] a popular solo and partnered dance before Lindy Hop came on the scene.  [Then] it became an integral part of Lindy Hop- though dramatically altered and tailored to fit the music of the day and the feeling of the dance- it is still Charleston.

Lindy Hop comes from Harlem, and it comes out of the Harlem Renaissance.  It is an important petal in the greater cultural flowering that was occurring at that time.  It was the art and recreation of everyday people- working class African Americans- at an incredibly important juncture in their history and the history of America as a whole.

The fact that the dance has spread all over the world and continues to thrive and grow 80 years on is testament to the power of that cultural achievement.

 

Let’s talk about the places where you can Lindy Hop – If I wanted to start, how could I do that?

Most major cities have a Lindy Hop scene.  The best place to start is the internet- finding the local dance and going out.  Of course lessons are a helpful way to get a handle on the basics, but the most important thing is to go out and start moving to the music.

People have been teaching themselves to Lindy Hop for years and years.  All it takes is a little practice, and with Lindy Hop, practicing and doing are the same thing.

There are some great camps, and most organizations put on a few workshops every year.  These can also be a great way to start to work on one’s dancing.

The dance can be a little intimidating and a little overwhelming at first but the important thing is not to be frustrated.  It is a very friendly scene, and people are usually more than happy to dance with someone new.

 

International competitions:  Could you tell me why the competitions are important?  What is going to one of those like?  Which competitions are the most important on the circuit?

ULHS, Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown, is the most important competition right now. it happens in Minneapolis in October.  [ed. note:  ULHS has since moved to New Orleans, LA]  Showdown is mostly a big party for dancing with periodic contests during the course of the dance.

Showdown is the most successful because it has made the biggest effort to move away from a model of competition based on Ballroom Dance rules and conventions, and [tries] to develop formats that reflect the unique nature of the Lindy Hop.

The spirit of the event reflects what many people feel are some of the core attributes of Lindy Hop:

  • Innovation not conservation
  • An emphasis on personal expression over perfection of patterns.
  • Improvisation
  • Musicality
  • Partnership

Competition helps push the dance and the dancers to new places.  I’ve always liked the forum it allows for dancers to really watch each other and push themselves to do new stuff.  Because Lindy Hop is a social dance, there is actually very few forums in which we can show each other what we are doing and get new ideas.

Of course Lindy Hop is also a very exciting dance and it is always great to see great dancers dancing their hardest.

Under pressure something new almost always comes out.

 

We’re a teaching magazine, so I wanted to speak about your work as a teacher of dance for a bit.  First, what goes in to being a good teach[er]

For me the feeling comes first, so I think a good teacher is someone who inspires people to dance, helps people find the joy of dancing, [and] lets the technique be a means to an end; not the end in itself.

From my experiences as a student and a dancer I have always appreciated the individuality of Lindy Hop, so a good teacher for me is someone who helps people find their own ways of moving- helps people find ways of expressing themselves rather than giving them static patterns to adapt to.

When people start dancing for the first time they have a tendency to throw away all the knowledge about movement they have accumulated from walking around.  I think a good teacher helps people use the knowledge they already have to dance- encourages people to find their own ways of dancing based on the shape of their bodies and their natural movement patterns.

 

Who have you taught and who have you learned from?

My most important teacher was Steven Mitchell, his classes also inspired me as a student, as a social dancer, and later as a teacher myself.

 

As a dancer, do you have heroes?  If so, who?

 

What are you thinking about while you’re dancing?  Are you counting?  Are you thinking about what you’re going to do next, etc. etc.?

What I love about Lindy Hop is that it doesn’t need to try to be anything else.  In Lindy Hop, styling is practical.  Nothing stands for anything else.  The movement fills out the music. Form and content are one and the same.

It’s a very practical, pragmatic dance, and it is that simplicity and directness that I find so meaningful and complex.

At the end of the day it is about two people holding each other to music, and that is very beautiful.

The partners and the music are there in the moment with movements that have been done for 80 years, and they are simply trying to make them true in that moment- do them in some way that allows them to make sense then and there.

I am always trying to reach that place where thinking stops- or I should say [where] thoughts are simply replaced by motion.

“The way I like to write is for it to come out the way I walk or talk. Not that I even walk or talk yet like I’d like to. I don’t carry myself yet the way Woody, Big Joe Williams, and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves.”

– Robert Zimmerman, A.K.A. Bob Dylan (interview with Nat Hentoff- The New Yorker, October 24, 1964)

To me this quote says it all.  The connection between history, dancing, and self-expression.  I am just trying to dance the way I walk.  The challenge is walking as great dancers before me have- not copying their motions but instead carrying myself as they have.