The title is a bit of a paradox. Creative processes are typically those that fare and progress best when left to their own devices and are free of the encumbrances that attempting to manage them can impose. However, as with everything in life, I believe that certain guidelines help, rather than hinder these types of processes. A significant portion of my spare time living in Vancouver so far has been dedicated to improving my own abilities in the styles of dance that interest me most. I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on this process, and have received some excellent advice from some newly made friends about this ongoing process of improvement. This post represents the culmination of these thoughts and tidbits of advice after the first month of the Summer.
Let’s get it out of the way, because if I don’t, someone will mention it. ”You shouldn’t spend time thinking about dancing, you should just do it”. This is a blanket statement that I have heard more times that I care to think about. There’s certainly some truth in it, because at the end of the day, the most fundamental thing you need to do when you’re dancing is listen to the music, shut off your brain, and do what your body tells you to do. If you aren’t doing this, and your goal is to dance, you have failed at your goal. Beyond that though, this super-general statement will lead you astray.
You do need to put some time and thought into your creative processes if you want to progress in them. Simply doing whatever you feel like doing, without ever providing yourself with guidelines, goals, and benchmarks, will hinder, rather than aid, your own progress. It’s important to pursue a direction. If you want to be a great photographer (as some of my friends are), you take classes to learn how to do that. If you want to be a great painter, you take classes to learn how to properly paint. Dancing is no different, nor are other creative processes. If nothing else, education and thought devoted to your pursuit will vest you with new ideas, inspirations, and an understanding of what has been done, and how you can either build on that, or avoid making the same mistakes.
Okay, it’s out of the way. I feel like I should just create a boilerplate disclaimer that states that so that I can dump it at the bottom of every post tagged “dance” and save us all a bunch of time. I’m not going to though because I’m waiting for the ferry and typing that out helps make the time go by a little faster. Let’s get to the meat of this post.
At the core of almost any creative process are two facets: theory and application. These are just abstract terms that I’m using, and may not bear any actual relevance to the way they’re described in any particular pursuit. Further, these concepts exist outside of merely creative processes, and apply in a lot of other settings. In Math, you begin by learning the theory of numbers. How operations work on constants and variables, how a derivative is performed (ugh), etc. Once you know that, you need to actually apply these concepts to proper problems. You can’t apply anything if you haven’t learned the theory beforehand, but if all you’ve done is learn the theory, you’ll be unable to apply it to anything other than the most contrived circumstances that generally exist in laboratory or classroom settings.
This is a common critique that is levelled from both sides of the fence in the ivory tower/real-world debate. People working in the industry, in various professions, lob criticism at pure academics, claiming that they exist only in the world of theory, and never have their theories and ideas tempered with the versatility and complications of application to real-world problems. The academics riposte that industry professionals are hopelessly mired in the here-and-now and the application of existing principles to the problems in the real world, and are never able to advance their ideas at any significant rate (thinking outside of the box, so to speak).
They’re actually both right. It’s important to take time to step back from the real world and analyze and assess our knowledge as it currently stands, and reflect on how we are currently achieving our aims (and whether or not those aims are even still reasonable). This can be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if you are constantly confronted with the next emergency. Equally important, if all you ever do is consider theory and never apply it, you’ll never really ground yourself in reality, nor learn the ability to apply your theory with the fluidity and flexibility that is important to any successful endeavour.
The point of this long-winded metaphor is to state the realization that I’ve reached regarding myself and dance: I’ve been sitting in the ivory tower.
This realization has dawned slowly on me over the last couple of weeks. Every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, many of the street dancers (so that includes poppers, lockers, house dancers, whackers, and b-boys) head out to Robson Square and get down. On each of these nights, you can usually find at least 10-20 dancers practicing and getting down (which is super awesome). This was a pretty intimidating scene for me to plug in to. A week ago this past Wednesday was the first time I’d gone out purely to practice. Before that, I had been to the square to take some classes that were being taught there (also awesome), but nothing else. I arrived early and practiced technique for about an hour before someone I’d met recently, named Boris, showed up, and then we started practicing in front of the many windows that surround the now ice-free skating rink that is downstairs.
I asked Boris for some advice, mentioning the frustration I feel every time I try to dance outside of purely doing drills. Boris’s advice was simple, but profound:
“I’ve been there. You need to practice freestyling and cyphering* more. Freestyling is a skill, just like any particular technique is. If you don’t practice that skill, you won’t be able to improve in it”.
We spent the next thirty minutes taking turns locking in front of each other. It felt supremely awkward. The truth is that I’ve never really danced in front of someone else, while they stood their watching. Sure, I’ve danced at the bar plenty of times, but that’s a different thing altogether. People at the bar blend into an anonymous crowd. There’s individual faces, but it’s easy to ignore them. Plus, at the bar, there’s other people on the dance floor. I’m sure that being a person that has devoted time to the pursuit of dancing, people notice me when I’m dancing next to people that have not, but it’s easy enough to ignore.
When you’re in a situation like this, you start to fall back on the same things pretty quickly. I’d come out with a sequence that I had thought up, and then fall right back to the fundamentals and have trouble moving beyond them. But that’s okay, because this was the first time I’d ever actually tried to move beyond the realm of pure theory into the realm of application. David and Michael, two twins that I’ve seen dancing at Get Down last year, and at some of the classes I’ve been taking this Summer, showed up later, but I needed some time to reflect, eat dinner, and stretch. The next night, I repeated this process for popping, forcing myself to get into the cypher and do something – anything. Dancing first – once that was happening, the technique could flow from it.
I’ve often drawn parallels between squash and dancing. If you look hard enough, you can find meaningful parallels between almost any two pursuits. After the second cypher I danced in, I wondered to myself why I hadn’t felt like this was as big of an issue with squash as it was with dancing. I believe that this is because squash is already set up to impose these two types of learning on your process. You don’t have to pursue both the laboratory work (drills and working on movement) and the application in the real world (games and tournaments), and many people are content to simply play games. In fact, squash is probably more likely to lead to people that have the opposite kind of problem to that which I’ve experienced with dancing. Rather than spending all of their time in the lab working on theory, they spend all of their time playing games, applying what they know (again, this isn’t a criticism – if you’re content doing that, then by all means, continue to do so).
As a late dancer, pursuing a style of dance that requires a good deal of technique, it’s been easy to neglect the importance of real world application, and to simply work on theory, theory, theory. The more I thought about these changes to my own pursuit, the more I realized that I may very well be passing along the same habits to my students. Not once have we cyphered in one of my classes. Why not? Probably because I’d never done it myself. Maybe because I was a little bit afraid to dance in front of people when the focus was exclusively on me.
But if I really care about dancing, how is this a sustainable approach? It isn’t, unless I’m willing to forever remain a laboratory dancer (I’m not). This point was actually driven home during the first class I took in Vancouver – a locking class with an incredible dancer named Kim Sato. At the start and end of the class, everyone got together in a circle, and rather than facing the front and the mirrors, where we could focus exclusively on ourselves, we faced in towards each other and danced that way. At the end of the class, Kim announced that we would be following the leader, and each took turns doing something that everyone else had to repeat for a number of beats before moving on to the next person. It was intimidating, and I loved it.
Truthfully, the hardest cypher you ever enter will be your first one, and, parallel to that, the hardest time to get into any particular cypher will be the first time. Each time after that, it gets easier and easier. I found myself walking to Robson square this past Thursday excited about the opportunity to get down with other dancers, and to work on my freestyle skills. I knew that I would be intimidated all over again, and that I would find it hard to keep coming up with new things, but I didn’t let that bother me. I just wanted to get better at the application of my technique.
So what does this mean to you, the non-dancer that has stumbled across my blog because I keep publishing my notes to Facebook, or because you’re bored at work and I was the first thing that popped up on your RSS-reader?
It means that if your aim is continual, optimized improvement in a given pursuit, you too must be spend time reflecting on whether or not you’re spending enough time in the lab, and enough time in the real-world. If you find yourself plateau’d and unable to break out and experience a new bout of improvement, assess whether or not you’ve been spending too much time, or too little time, working in the lab, honing your skills.
Okay. The theory for today is out of the way. The other thing that I promised last time I posted was an update on what I’ve been learning. That list is perpetually growing, and never-ending, and I feel like everytime I spend an hour in a class, it dovetails into me learning about seven other new things related (and sometimes unrelated) to what we were working on. Maybe I learned a single boogaloo technique, but also picked up new ways to approach teaching, learned about a weakness that I need to work on, and learned that I don’t like dancing on a certain side. Notwithstanding that, I will try to summarize some of the more salient points, because otherwise this blog amounts to nothing more than verbal masturbation, and that’s not really my steeze.
Up to this point, I’ve been taking three classes each week: One hiphop class, one locking class, and one popping class. I started taking a hiphop class because it’s taught by someone that I have a great deal of respect for: Liz Vaesen (Please someone correct me if I spelled her name wrong). Brooke and I first heard of Liz when we took a popping workshop that she was bringing over to Victoria (she brings about four classes over each year), and were both immediately inspired and identified with her approach and view on hiphop, and dancing in general. An excellent teacher is a better predictor of my growth than anything else about a given class (which may sound trite, but that includes subject matter and many other factors; I feel like I would learn taking a ballet class with a great teacher than I would a popping class with a bad teacher, all other things being considered equal).
Liz’s class is everything I love about hiphop. It focuses purely on social grooves, is done in Robson Square (urban!), and it’s not about flashy moves or fancy choreography. I never really grew up “plugged in” to hiphop. I knew that I wanted to dance from a fairly young age (though was never able to find teachers for it when I was a kid, and was probably also too intimidated), but never really identified with rap music when I heard it on Much (it turns out I’m just a snob and, like all forms of music that is broadcast, like only a few of the songs that are put out at any given time). It wasn’t until I met Brooke and started to talk with her about dancing and hiphop that I realized that many of the elements and feelings that exist in HipHop are elements that I identify strongly with. Individualism, creativity, honest self-expression, and self-awareness (both individual and cultural) are all key aspects of my identity.
Although I struggle to reflect these virtues at times (as do we all), they are all aims that I pursue throughout my day.
Bay’s cousin, Michael (who I like and enjoy chatting with), said something to me the last time that I saw him that really put me off. He was playing me some music from a group called Bass Nectar (who are pretty good, though not really my top choice), and as we were listening, he commented that “If not for these guys and this kind of music, rap would be dead”. I smiled and let him know that I couldn’t disagree with him more. To the outsider, rap, and by association, hiphop, is nothing more than the superficial parts of it that we see co-opted and projected to us through a TV screen, endorsement deals, and product placement. To most of the public, hiphop is artists like Puff Daddy wearing flashy suits, or Soulja Boy making a catchy hook and posting videos of himself displaying his vast ignorance and the unfortunate arrogance that comes with youth (nothing wrong with that arrogance, as we all have to move through it – it’s just too bad that he’s chosen to have a camera focused on him as he completes that journey).
But hiphop is so much more than these superficial elements. In truth, these elements are probably so distorted as to have become the antithesis of hiphop. Michael’s statement that rap would be dead if not for artists like Bass Nectar displays the ignorance that most people have of what hiphop is. Hiphop is a cultural movement. A way of feeling, thinking, obeserving, reflecting, and creating. Hiphop wouldn’t die simply because the mainstream lost interest in the superficial and overly-refined products that the music and fashion industry have distilled from the movement. By the same token, a movement that is about culture wouldn’t simply be rejuvenated because a new set of artists have adopted a new interpretation of that culture. Cultural movements don’t die, or get reborn. Cultural movements like hiphop are reflections of our society, and they morph and evolve, just like our societies do.
Sorry about that, I didn’t even notice that soapbox I was standing on. Anyhow, let’s get back on track. The things we learn in Liz’s class are social dances. Grooves and dances that have evolved as new music has come out and people have interpreted that into simple movements. The Humpty dance, the Roger Rabbit, the Bart Simpson, the Steve Martin, the Cabbage Patch, and yes, even the Running Man, are all social dances that have evolved and become a part of hiphop. These grooves and the music provide a simple pallette for the dancer to paint with. Their interpretation and creativity in how they use those grooves, and add their own flare, are what leads to a creative process.
I’ve already mentioned the locking class that I take with Kim, and that’s also an excellent class. Kim’s one of those ridiculously talented dancers, accomplished in ballet, tap, hiphop, locking, and several billion other styles (from what I’ve been told). I always finish her class exhausted, drenched in sweat, humbled, and with a greater awareness of what it means to dance, rather than simply to lock.
Lastly, I take a popping class with Jamieson, one of the member’s of the Groovy G’s – a very talented popping crew in Vancouver. Jamieson, like the other two teachers I’ve mentioned, does an excellent job of focusing on the dancing aspect of popping, and is excellent at teaching you without you realizing that you’re being taught. We usually start out with very basic dance movements, and by the end of the class that has evolved into several popping techniques. The only thing that I find frustrating about the class is that I am having trouble figuring out how to take his manner of teaching and adapt it into something that I could share with my own students.
Before I left, Brooke and I had discussed teaching two popping classes – one beginner, and one advanced. However, in Vancouver, there’s only one open class for popping, and one for locking. Furthermore, Jamieson isn’t teaching “advanced” techniques. He’s just teaching movement, and layering that with technique. Likewise, Kim isn’t teaching complicated choreography – she’s teaching dancing, and layering that with locking techniques. I’ve had students come up to me and ask if I was going to teach a more advanced popping class, but I was never able to really understand what that class would look like, nor what I would be teaching them. I’m more convinced than ever that this isn’t the right approach – I think that what would be better is to have a class once a week, and a cypher once a week. If the advanced dancers aren’t happy reviewing fundamentals, focusing on dancing, and spending some of that time learning new techniques, they can come to the cyphers and practice applying the techniques they’ve learned.
I’m happy with the length of this post, so I’ll cut it off here. I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to audiobooks and podcasts on my commute to work, so I’ll aim to focus on reviewing some of the ones that I think are most worthwhile next blog post. Until then…
* Cyphers are a little bit like a battle. You have a bunch of dancers in a circle, and take turns going into the centre of the circle and getting down, one after another. The aim isn’t to out-do one another (though playful one-ups-manship is fun), but simply to come together and create something, with the music, as a group. The feeling is one of encouragement and creativity, rather than aggression and competition.