July 09, 2012

Contemporary Music?

I'm constantly being asked about my take on music. Or should I say, my take on "swing" music.

Look, I'm not a music major. And I'm not an engineer. If I thought I could explain the mathematics or the notes or the equations to determine what is swing and what isn't, I would. But I can't. It makes my mind go fuzzy.

But I do know music. Not the titles, not the artists. But I'm amazingly good at knowing it. If you play the first seconds of a track, I know what song it is. I know how it goes from there. Instantly. My body is designed to memorize music. I'm just that kind of dancer.

And I know West Coast Swing. And all the other dances. My studio was a huge success, and that happened because of my teaching, and my understanding of music. When a minor phrase starts. When a major phrase starts. What song lends to what dance. I can identify it faster than anyone I know. So I do know music, but not what a professor would teach in a music theory class.

So. What can I tell you about Contemporary and Swing music? 

I can give you the things I've learned that work when choosing music for swing (West Coast Swing in particular).

First, understand that nearly every Classic and Showcase champion started when we all danced to very, VERY different music. In the years of our training and our foundations, the "contemporary" music didn't come on until much later in the night at conventions, if at all, so almost all of the dancers who ever mastered champion level skill spent most of their time dancing to real, pure WCS songs. Most of the clubs never switched over to "contemporary" music... and those were some of the most famous and most popular spots in all of Southern California, where most of us originated.

I feel very lucky to have started dancing when I did, because my body memorized WCS rhythms to that music, and therefore I dance WCS to almost anything, if I have to. But if you don't dance to real swing music for hours, your body could easily let go of any WCS or WCS technique you just learned.

And if you immerse yourself in non-WCS music only for years on end, even the best can lose their rhythms altogether. (I'm sure you've noticed this in a number of our dancers out there.)

So, if you want a short cut to this "foundational" music, I suggest you look up Jack Carey's Retirement Party (comes in four parts) on GlobalDance.tv and listen to the music played for the social dancing (these videos are FREE!). I believe much of it was from Kenny Wetzel's collection, and he is still known as one of the best, if not THE best West Coast Swing DJ's of all time. So go to these videos and SongID everything with your phone and bam... you'll have real swing music. (Not their demo, of course... no one thought that was cool...)

As for Contemporary Music? Well, the name alone drive me nuts. What does "Contemporary" mean anyway? Because what we called Contemporary Music ten years ago is NOTHING like the Contemporary Music that is being played today for our floor. And I mean nothing.

Ten years ago the Contemporary Music usually emphasized the upbeat, the 2, 4, 6's and 8's. There would be some kind of higher hit, bass or boom (see? not technical music terms! but you get my drift) on those beats of the song... ONLY.

Listen, for example, to these "Contemporary" songs we used to dance to:

Riders on the Storm (Doors/Snoop Dogg)
Don't Stop Movin' (S Club 7)

Do you hear the hits on the upbeats that don't occur on the downbeats?

This REALLY helped keep dancers doing swing because the music literally made them want to dance in 2-beat increments, and it literally made you want to pulse the upbeats.

But now? Now our "Contemporary Music" is, well, anything they use for routines on So You Think You Can Dance. And I mean anything. Lyrical. Modern. Hip Hop. Anything goes. No wonder Abstract Improvisation developed.

And when Contemporary is offered as a choice for dancers today... where is the emphasis? ON EVERY SINGLE BEAT. No wonder our dancers are walking or standing and are becoming bored so quickly, often moving on to other dances. They are extremely uncomplicated, with very few layers, unlike real swing music, which has a ton of layers, all of which provide for endless exploration.

Listen to what the current DJ's call "Contemporary" songs for today's floors:

Ain't Nobody (Mary J. Blidge II Album)

Notice how they drum constantly on every beat, or push the vocals on top of the music to hide the beat?

All of these songs are considered "contemporary" by our DJ's today, but in my book, only the first two could possibly keep a dancer wanting to dance on time and dance a "club" style of swing. WCS that's danced in a sleek style, with a lot of sexy and no rock-steps and more posing, long lines than fast syncopations, is, in my own words, "club" style WCS (see Weekly Note #26: Triple Threat for more info on that term).

Anyhow, back to Contemporary Music. I encourage you to listen to all four songs, and see which ones are easier to do a push break or an underarm turn or a whip to... (yes, and I do mean on time!)

But real swing music, music you can't do anything but swing to (see Jack Carey's party above), is much more layered, complicated and dense. I prefer it, simply because the more layers I have to work with, the more options I have to use all of the tools and skills I've learned.

Contemporary makes you use the same 2 or 3 "brushes" in my box, whereas real swing music, makes me use more like 20 brushes.

So play "contemporary" if you have to... but at least pick the ones that emphasize the upbeat, instead of the ones that make you want to... run. Or sleep, check-out and bounce. Because Club Music is designed for clubs, where people let go, drink and rock to the beat. And no one goes to Clubs forever. For a reason.

But swing? That's a lifetime worth living.


July 05, 2012

WCS's Convention Mention ©

A West Coast Swing Convention
Why do you go to conventions?

I'm not kidding. When is the last time you asked yourself this question:

"Why am I going to this convention?"

Because our conventions aren't exactly, say, "conventional," are they? When my husband worked in the Hard Drive industry he went to conventions and, well, learned about the Hard Drive industry.

He met the leading companies, he saw the newest products and he grew in his knowledge of Hard Drives.

But WCS conventions? No. They used to be a place you could meet the leading WCS dancers, learn the newest syncopations and cool new patterns and you most definitely grew in your knowledge of WCS... but not anymore.

It's taken me a long long time to come to this conclusion, but I've come to it:

99% of conventions today are not worth spending a dime on, 
never mind $500-$4,000.

And I'll tell you why. Get ready.

When It Was Worth It

When I first started dancing WCS, I went to conventions to grow. I wanted to dance with new leads, better leads and challenging leads. I wanted to watch better dancers and learn from them. I wanted to get all the information I could, and then practice, practice, practice... and walk away Sunday night having reached a new level in my dancing. Both my heart and head would be full and I couldn't wait until my next local dance to apply all that I'd learned and been inspired by. It was fun, exciting and always memorable.

During the day, I'd catch a few workshops to learn some new syncopations, the latest pattern or some helpful technique. Social dancing started around 6:30 or 7:00 and went until midnight or 2am. Then we'd all head to bed or out for a late night snack to catch up and talk. On Saturday night we'd get dressed up to the nines and enjoy a dinner show that would be all wrapped up by 8pm at the latest, and then dance the night away.

Quite often the evenings would start with Pure WCS music, and then switch around 10 or 10:30 pm to a wider range of music, but all would be swingable. The entire night was never Swing only. There was always a Cha Cha here, a Hustle there, a Nightclub Two Step or a Country Two-Step there. And almost everyone in the room could do at least one of those other dances.

The music was fast and we would dance hard and men would change their shirts as the night went on from their sweat. We all had a towel with us, and the pros would join in on the dancing and we would watch, watch, watch to learn, especially during a Jam session.

As I look back, I think about how much I grew through all of those workshops and social dancing. It really solidified the WCS rhythms within me. My job, as I saw it, was to see if I could follow every guy in the room (totally blind to age) and then secondly, to see if I could make them smile. And for those of you who have noticed that there are some in "The Ten" that are able to switch between Abstract and Swing, you might guess that they were at these events to.

The "Kids" Who Were There Then

Yes, we danced with a range of ages. Yes, we danced to real swing music and liked it. Yes, we were the youngest ones there, but we mingled with everyone just the same (except for some pool parties- back then, underage drinking was not allowed.) And we knew good dancing when we saw it, and we each had our favorite instructors, etc.

If there was a Jack & Jill contest, it was held during the day, not at night. And the dinner show wasn't always Swing Routines- it could be a Cha Cha or a Hustle routine too, or even flame throwers.

But that was a long time ago. Before points and before NASDE. When those two came along, a few events made the Jack and Jills and the Routine divisions the "show," but there weren't many and they were spread out over the weekend, and then we'd dance our pants off to amazing music until we were on crutches.

The Change

In my Past, Present and Future SwingIN!, explaining how we got here, I call the years between 1998 and 2002 "The Perfect Storm." If you attended one of these SwingIN!s, you'll remember that there were nearly 12 separate factors that came together in this short period.

Two big factors? In 1995 we introduced Points and the NASDE circuit. It took some time for all the events to keep track of all the points, and for the pros to realize just how much money they could make on the NASDE circuit. But conventions did get on board with Points. And the NASDE circuit did take off.

And we attracted a whole new kind of dancer.

As a result of these changes, along with the others I talk about in the SwingIN!, Abstract was born by 2002. And, as you would expect, conventions began to change.

While looking back, researching and digging into old photos, I came to realize just how many people started leaving the dance in 2000-2002. Some left the dance altogether, but most just quit going to conventions. I've read articles from the magazines back then, and it's all over the pages- the politics, the bad music, the hiring of untrained dancers and "Nissy" instructors... it's crazy seeing it all from a distance now.

Of course there is always turnover in every world. But I'm talking about 20 year veterans... people who weren't just checking WCS out, but who were in it for life... until things changed.

And, wouldn't you know it, I too left, in a way. I opened my studio in 2002. I gave up all my front row tickets and jobs and comps because, quite frankly, my body knew it was time get out, even if I didn't know it consciously. And through the studio, I had the joy of WCS, as well as all the other dances, surrounding me daily. I was happy.

But when Nick's job moved us to the Bay Area, I returned to the circuit again, unaware and unsuspecting. It took me a long long time to put all the pieces together of what was different, what was being danced, what was being taught and what conventions were really about now.

I had invested in this community for so long, that I never questioned whether I should even attend events anymore. I attended out of habit and out of love for my students, and the people I'd known for so long and for the dance.

Then, I made three big important discoveries.

Discovery #1: 
I was talking more than dancing.

A dancer at a local club mentioned to me that it was their goal to get in at least 10 dances a night. "What an odd goal," I thought. "Shouldn't 10 dances be easy?" So I started counting my own dances. Holy moly!

I spent the majority of my night talking with people! I was socializing, but I wasn't dancing. The music never made me get out of my seat, and though I always said yes to those who asked me, they were all dancing at a very novice level, and the music made it incredibly boring. I found that I had to work really hard at getting in 10 dances. When a good song finally came on, it took me by surprise and I'd have to run and grab someone at the last minute, but I wasn't warmed up, and it didn't happen very often every night.

Back in the day, we ladies had to hold our own "Ladies Luncheon" every few months just to talk to one another, because we never had a chance at the clubs or events. We'd be on the floor all night long, and only sat out for two or three dances tops. As a result, we knew all the men pretty well, because we spent all of our time with them. But the women? We had to meet outside just to get a chance to get to know one another.

We certainly don't have a hard time getting to know each other in today's WCS scene, do we? We have plenty of time to sit. And sit. And sit. And then sit some more.

I'm glad this man told me about his "minimum" number of dances before going home, because, as a teacher, I don't think I ever would have noticed. I had my years of building and strengthening the dance in me. I can enjoy seeing old friends and networking at an event... but what about you?

How much do you get to dance at a "dance" convention? And when I say dance, I mean WEST COAST SWING! How many actual WCS dances do you get in an entire weekend? How many are back to back? How often do you dance because the music makes you want to be anywhere but in a seat?

I never had conversations with people when the music was good. I couldn't pay attention with good music making my feet move. I couldn't hear what they said- I was too distracted. I apologized all the time, back then, and said I had to go dance and then ran and grabbed somebody. How often does this happen to you? And just how good is the dance? Is it worth hundreds and thousands of dollars?

Discovery #2: 
I had more fun at the restaurant across the street.
Or blues bar around the corner...

Look, Nick and I both noticed a huge change in the music when we took the first leg of our huge USA road trip. I don't mean the music at the dance venues. I mean the music at the local restaurants, gas stations, malls, etc. Since we've both lived in California for the majority of our lives, we somehow believed that the music playing at the gas station in San Diego was the same playing at the gas station in Charleston, etc, etc.

Um. No.

I still remember crossing the border for Texas, walking into a Subway for lunch and immediately thinking... "Dang! This is great WCS music!" We had to work a little hard to stay still in line. And then we hit Bricktown in Oklahoma City and thought the same thing as we walked around... "Sweet! Let's start dancing here!" (and we did!)  The story was the same the further East we traveled.

Frankly, it wasn't long after we left California that I became embarrassed for my dance. I mean, there's nothing more humiliating than washing my hands in the bathroom of some random gas station in the middle of the US and thinking, "Huh. THIS is what it takes to hear a swing song..." Ugh. What a wake up call. Better music at the BP than a supposed "sanctioned" WCS event? What up?

Needless to say, as a result, Nick and I have become permanently attuned to the music playing wherever we go, dance event or not. It's a force of habit.

So last fall there was a WCS Convention held here in Southern California. We called a former Champion friend of ours who lived close by, and we all went out to dinner near the event.

And as we caught up, and talked and laughed, I noticed that all three of us were dancing in our seats to the music that was being played at the restaurant. We talked about how we wished THIS was the music they were playing at the event, because we knew it wasn't... not even close. I remember thinking, "Huh. I can socialize with my dance friends and colleagues without going to an event - and I get better music, too!"

As dinner wrapped up, none of us could decide if we wanted to head to the event or not. So we looked up the schedule on our phones. Do you know what the schedule said? And I quote:

Oh, I'm sorry. Does this schedule make you dizzy? Let me help you.
  1. This event has under 800 people attending.
  2. In a 12 hour period they have shoved in FOURTEEN rounds of competition. (I know, you'll count 16, but they never hold "semi's"- it's just there to get competitor's hopes up and offer the judges a dinner break. Yes, I've worked this event. I don't make this stuff up!)
  3. It is, as I'm sure you are aware, impossible to hold all FOURTEEN rounds, full of 80 competitors, four heats, etc, and stay on time. Yes, the dinner break helps, but you, the attendee, doesn't know that, do you?
So... that's SEVEN divisions, FOURTEEN heats, plus Awards from 12 noon to 2 am on one single day of a three day weekend...

... for an event of under 800 people.

Do you get my drift?


If you come to a WCS Convention expecting to dance, well, you'll just have to compete, won't you? Because there is no social dancing, practice time or socializing at WCS events anymore. Not unless you have no job, enjoy spending the entire day sitting, and love dancing only between the hours of 2am and 6am to extremely poor "boom boom" and "check out" music because, hey! It's 2 am in the morning! It's time for "Late Night" music, of course. But the night just started! When's the "normal" music played???

So. What are the event directors thinking? MONEY. SEVEN divisions in one single night? For an event that small?

Yes. Event directors don't just want you to pay $115-$165 a ticket. They want you to pay $20-$30 for a Jack and Jill and $40-$80 for a Strictly Swing. And you have to pay up. Or you won't get to dance.

So you compete. And in the middle of all the announcements that Semi's are on!... oh wait... they aren't on?... oh wait... we're going straight to finals...

...you are too worn out to get upset that they cut a prelims full of 60-80 dancers straight to 10. The event director announces, "The judges scores just fell that way." Bull. The event director made that Chief Judge print judging sheets with only 15 "in's" in prelims so that he wouldn't have to hold a Semi's. Because no Semi's means more time to shove more divisions and get more entry fees.... Cha-Ching!

When I competed they actually held Semi's. I have no idea why anyone competes anymore. The results don't make sense and the judges are either untrained or blatantly politically and/or sexually biased. Have you ever noticed how certain dancers who weren't placing for years... suddenly start to succeed once they begin their own event? Once they have the power to hire them and pay them money? Or what about those photographers... the ones that manage to snap pictures and/or print massive advertisements of The Ten posing as "event coverage"? Notice how they suddenly make finals? Always?

The judges don't even try to hide it anymore. The "Pay me, promote me, hire me, place me - and eliminate, ignore, remove or knock down all others - so I'll make sure you're an All-Star in no time..." plays out in such an incredibly obvious and almost proud-peacock sort of way that... well. Blows my mind. And fills their pockets. And makes you attend more events.

And if you want to come for a day, and only take workshops and social dance, well, the event directors get you to book a room, don't they? It's better than sitting in a ballroom for 12 hours between the workshops and social dancing, and then finally driving home at 6 am.

And so there we all sat, staring at the schedule. I thought, "wow, they are really getting every dollar they can aren't they?" And then we received a text at 10:30pm...  "They just started Masters." Great. Nearly two hours behind. Let's go home.

And do you know what I realized? When I'm not working an event, I'm really only attending to see my friends and colleagues. We don't get to dance with each other, because the music doesn't make us want to. And then there's the pain of watching people destroy our dance, be Nissy'ish everywhere and think that Abstract is God's gift to our world.

No thanks.

I can go to the restaurant across the street, catch up with my colleagues just fine, AND get great music too. That's a much better night than a marathon of stressful competition mayhem, bad music, and unfriendly dancers. Mind you, we are in California, where it is near to impossible to find a dancer who still dances WCS, but when we do, we have to deal with the Abstract dancers who desire to be seen above all else, and who try to run us off the floor.

I keep hearing about people who use Saturday Night competitions as their chance to catch up on sleep before dancing that night. As one new reader said at Grand Nationals! "I'm so sorry I missed your new routine! I figured there wouldn't be any Swing out there so I went to bed instead."

Dang. So much money for so little inspiration. I've made it a practice to meet with my fellow pros outside of events now, to catch up and talk and if we're lucky... dance. But it'll be at the blues bar around the corner (or even the hotel lobby!)

Bottom line. I'm so much happier at the restaurant across the street. Or exploring the city. Or hitting the hottest nightclub with a live band. And when I'm home, I can dance at local dances (the few left here in Cali are pretty rockin', after all) So. I wonder... what about you?

Discovery #3: 

I realized the community I fell in love with 
was replaced by a high school gym.

This realization came earlier this year. I had actually heard this from a number of WCS Legends I am good friends with. They'd be at a convention, judging or competing, and they'd look at what was going on the floor and they told me they thought to themselves, "What am I even doing here?"

I, however, did not have my, "Why am I here?" moment until earlier this year.

It came in two parts. The first was watching Classic. Now, you have to understand that when I compete in Classic, I am spending the entire time before we go on praying with Josh and Nick and keeping warm. I don't watch anyone dance. It's not that I don't wish them well, I do, but I don't need other kinds of dancing in my head. I'm focused on my purpose. And when I get off the floor, the division is usually over (we draw last position all the time) and when it hasn't been, I've felt like praying again.

Long story short, I never get to watch Classic. So when I wasn't able to dance earlier this year, I had my chance to watch a full Classic Division live and in person for the first time in years.

I was shocked. What a huge gap between those routines by anyone in The Ten and those who aren't! The Ten have done a great job ensuring that no one reaches their level, that's for sure.

It made me think to a conversation years ago... I'll never forget it. One of the two founders of "The Ten" told me during a long phone conversation "Katherine, I love power. I love it. And I'll tell you like I tell everyone else; I'll do anything to get it."

She then listed her stories of blackmailing, blackballing and blacklisting. It was shocking. It was impressive. It was disgusting. None of it would have worked had one event director said "no." But the story sadly went another way. If I was half the person then that I am now, I would've taken that as my cue. Ah well. I wasn't.

Anyhow, as I watched this Classic division and watched the umpteenth poor amateur couple putting some unpracticed, unclean and unrehearsed routine out there... I heard it for the first time...

"What the heck am I doing here?"

Please understand. When I first started, the people who danced routines back then ended up on Broadway. They ended up on Television. They were champions in other dances. They really were astounding dancers. When I'd watch an Olympic Ice Skating routine, I'd think, "Wow, they should really take a lesson with us."

That's not to say I don't want to see Amateurs dance. I remember telling one of the US Open owners to completely nix the idea of having elimination rounds before the Open. I remember very clearly stating, "The reason the Open is so amazing is because it is exactly that- it is OPEN! Anyone from anywhere can come and dance!"

But back then the pros were giving out "do-able" choreography. It was on beat, it made sense and every couple was scared to death of getting it wrong, and so they trained and trained and trained before ever putting a foot on the floor.

Nowadays we have All-Stars that choreograph and cut their music the morning of! At floor trials! And we're supposed to be impressed? And the amateurs who really are paying a lot for coaching and choreography, think it must be their own fault when they can't attack the choreography, when in reality, the choreography is not "attackable." You can't nail bad choreography. You can't look amazing with awkward steps. You just can't.

Think Kick-Boxing. With one instructor you can work up a sweat and never skip a step... but with another you keep tripping or getting off routine. Yeah. That's called bad choreography. And it happens in WCS all the time now, except they don't teach you footwork so you never notice it... but it's true.

And the result is a huge gap in talent and training. But that's not to say everyone in The Ten is equal. Haven't you noticed how many of The Ten haven't made it through to Broadway, to SYTYCD, to Dancing with the Stars, etc? Trust me, it's not because they haven't tried! We have untrained dancers in power, and so we get untrained dancers on our floors. And those who have the training have lost their way, believing they must keep up with the crazy new "techniques" being created by the untrained ones.

When I opened my studio, I hired a business coach. I was upset because I was less than six months into my first year, and my landlord rented out the space next door to another dance studio. Not only that, but the owners were underhanded, unethical and determined to shut us down. I was stunned, shocked, worried and scared.

And do you know what my coach told me? She said,

"Katherine, in business you attract people who are like you. 
You are nothing like those new owners next door. 
They will attract their own kind. 
You? You will attract people like you."

She was right. We had completely different clientele. And I loved every single student that came through my door. It was one of the most powerful lessons she ever taught me, and it's one I've taught to my students and contractors ever since.

And as I sat there, at that convention earlier this year, I realized that the highly trained dancers, the Broadway stars, the Legends and Champions of my day... they haven't been running things for a long long time. As such, the people they drew to the events have walked away, and the people they would have attracted never come.

The community I joined is gone. I was only attending out of habit, thinking remnants of it still remained. But even those remnants are gone now.

No, another group of people have been running things for the last ten years, including the power hungry ones. And most of them act like they are still in high school. And so we've slowly gathered those who think, act, compete and play like they are in high school to our dance instead.

I remember the video they played at Jack Carey's Retirement Party. Every pro and legend that was on top during the 60's to the 90's... they were all dressed like adults and they all talked about how amazing Jack Carey was- how impressive his dedication to the sport was. No one talked about themselves.

And then... switch to those who have been in power for the last ten years. They wore pajamas and pigtails. They giggled. They hid under the covers and then popped up! These people are hovering around the age of 30. Seriously. And then they talked about how great Jack made their own lives and how he helped them win.

Wow. My business coach's words hit me like a brick. Instantly. My mouth gaped. I turned to Nick and said... "Oh my gosh! No wonder we're only attracting immature Nissies!" It was as if a veil was lifted from my eyes, and I saw the sea of newcomers in the last five years clearly for the first time.

I am all for youth. But I am also for leadership, honor and adulthood. Jack Carey deserved better, especially after all he's done for them. But then again, we've never asked for adulthood from any of them, have we?

And so, as I sat watching Classic, and saw another messy Abstract trick, the world suddenly came into focus for me. "Oh no. This is actually a high school talent show. What the heck am I doing here?"

It turned my world upside down. I realized that just because the event has the same name, doesn't mean it's the same event at all. I immediately knew that by attending these events, I've been stuck in high school for the last ten years. And my life and my experiences and my knowledge are soooooo beyond the high school level. I realized I was a grown up in a world that wanted me to act like a child. It answered a lot of questions, actually.

And then I wondered, with the deepest sadness, "What have I missed out on all these years, coming to all these events?"

My world changed forever in that moment.
And then came the second part.
The knife sunk in even deeper.

I saw the girl who founded The Ten, who told me she loved power more than anything all those years ago, and who still did anything to get it, who wore pajamas for lifelong tributes... I saw her take the floor. Champion finals had begun, and once again, there she was.

Twelve years, 240 conventions and 500 finals later, and she's still there. Along with all the ones she had hand picked to be with her. And for the first time, I truly saw the toll it had taken on her. It had aged her.

She was a tired Prom Queen.

You see, I've come to realize what WCS conventions really are. They are just another celebration of "The Ten." They are another opportunity for a Prom Court to be celebrated and for a Prom King and Queen to be crowned. It's a chance for us all to dress up and do our best to at least "look" like we're in, while paying, prying and kissing as much a** as possible to actually "get in." And we've had the same Prom Court for a decade. Some do get in, some get thrown out, but it's always been the same people are pulling the strings.

There are the cool kids and there are the nerds (the pure WCS dancers) who no one likes and there's the pouting when chaperones are called in, and there's the bad dancing and there's the "in crowd" that everyone wants to be like, dance like and dress like. It's why we have groupies everywhere. Yes, I was there when Robert Cordoba wore the first Kippy belt, and I saw everyone scramble to get their own. But I also remember when we upcoming pros were chided for "trying to look like" another pro. I can't tell you how many times we were told, "you won't be a champion until you've become your own dancer."

There are fads. And then there is unquestioning worship.

The community I fell in love with pushed individuality. It's why I chose it over ballroom. I didn't want to be cookie-cutter. I wanted to be unique.

But the community on our hands now demands uniformity no matter what the cost, and attracts those who love being sheep. They adore it. And they are threatened, very much threatened, by those who don't get in line.

I remember buying shoes at a store in San Diego recently. A man walked in, about 60 years old, and said he wanted to buy shoes to dance WCS in. And do you know what the clerk said? "Oh, you want WCS shoes? Well these are the ones Jordan just bought." It took everything I had to keep a straight face as this 60 year Italian man who looked like he was a hit man for the mob... put on "Jordan's" shoes. It looked sooooo wrong. I can't even tell you. The shoes made his feet look like they were wearing ballet slippers. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I tried so hard not to tackle the man and say, "Run! RUN!" But I was good. I stayed put.

And the man strutted around the store in them like he had just won the Open himself. And then he purchased two pairs, at $250 a pop, and walked out of the store like a proud peacock.

I shot Nick a look. "No!" he said, and started laughing. "I would never even try those on honey." Whew. (Can you imagine Nick in ballet slippers? Yeah. Neither can I. He bought those white ones you all seem to love so much instead. Yum.)

My, oh my, how dearly the "convention" WCS community wants to be "in" with the "in crowd," no matter what it costs you or them. Every convention is another Prom Night. Celebrate, worship, play, rebel and revel. And in true Prom Night fashion, there's even the drinking and the "extracurricular" drugs. And when one of The Ten (The Prom Court) actually owns the event? Well then, you just wouldn't be surprised if a cop car showed up, then, would you?

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of being in high school. I graduated years ago, for heaven's sake. And I'm tired of watching the same Prom Queen dance her dance on the Jack and Jill floor at every convention's Prom for over 12 years. She loves power. And she has it. Good for her. But wow. Isn't it bad... so bad... for you? For your pocketbook, your self worth and your own personal growth?

I'm done. I'm not buying a ticket for a tired old prom queen and her court anymore. The kids can play in their sandbox all they want.

But I'm an adult. And I'm a professional. And I like to be inspired with excellence. And for some reason, it took me too long to realize that WCS events were the last place I was going to find that inspiration anymore. They haven't been for a long long time.

I think it's time I go straight to Broadway and get my inspiration there, because no one, and I do mean no one, is going to get there through West Coast Swing conventions.

So that's the story of how I came to realize that conventions just aren't worth my while. At all. It will speak to many of you who have been around awhile. Clubs are where it's at. I can go to the LA Swing Dance Club and dance non-stop for 4 hours, then go out to eat with everyone, and then dance for another three hours. To great music. With great dancers. Hopefully you have a club like that in your neck of the woods.

But what about you? Why don't I believe conventions are worth your time and money?

Why Should You Go?

A recent club newsletter asked that same question: "Why should you attend a local convention?" I found their reasons interesting. Here are the reasons they listed, in order:

1. You get to take workshops from "World Class" pros from all over the country.
2. You get to watch or participate in competitions for all levels and ages.
3. You get to meet people and make new friends from all over the world.
4. You get to literally dance all night long.

Let's forget that they're promoting a dance event and the last thing mentioned was dancing, even after "meeting new friends," shall we? And let me break it down for you.

Reason #1:
Workshops with World Class Pros

Pros? Of what? Abstract? Zouk? or Swing?

I stopped telling students to go to conventions when I realized that I was booking more privates AFTER the conventions than before. Why?

Because EVERYONE was utterly confused when they returned. As one couple so eloquently put it, "We heard seven different ways to do an anchor from five different instructors!" My students were learning tricks that not only felt awful but looked awful, moves that were designed to hurt, hand holds that completely conflicted with other hand holds and, best of all, they heard teachers who taught one thing at the last convention, tell them to do the complete opposite at this convention.

What a mess. You know what I'm talking about.

A reader wrote in a few weeks ago:
"Are the top ten just looking to cash-in (i.e. fill rooms and conventions) with easy to do neo-west coast swing? It's crazy. I remember at (name of event), three workshops with three different "pro's" correcting each other, 1st workshop- you do this, 2nd workshop- no you never do that, 3rd workshop- you don't do either at all. We left that weekend like 'What the #!@* just happened...'
If I pay $150 bucks for a Hard Drive convention, I would be incredibly ticked to find a bunch of seminars on how to "Break Your Hard Drive." I can see the seminar titles in my head now... "We Don't Use Wires Anymore," "How To Scratch Your Disc and Look Good Doing It," and "Tricks to Dropping Your Hard Drive on the Floor." Better yet, "Why You Shouldn't Use Hard Drives Anymore."

Oh man. My point is, if even one pro teaches you one good thing, you will never get to practice it because everyone will be doing the other 20 "bad" things they learned in class from everyone else.

Until an event director decides they want to hold a WCS convention instead of a Prom Dance, you won't get jack going to any workshops. Okay, you might, but wouldn't you rather just save your money and your airline tickets and take a single private instead? It makes no sense to travel to a convention where no one, from beginners to teachers to judges, is on the same page.

I am going to take this opportunity, by the way, to squash some questions I've gotten. Just because I say that The Ten are teaching some weird things, doesn't mean that the All Stars aren't. Frankly, the All Stars are worse. Most of them don't have ANY WCS training. At least some in The Ten can actually do WCS when it's asked of them... but All Stars? They don't have the training and they don't want it. I don't blame them. They got to "the top" without any real training... why should they start now?

If you want a teacher in your area that teaches real WCS, then you just email me. I'll help you out. But the competitive circuit is just not the place to look anymore.

Reason #2:
You get to watch or participate 
in competitions for all levels and ages.

How wonderful! Wonderful, that is, if you want to compete. But remember, don't expect the judging to be fair now. It's not a dance contest, remember? You have to dance Abstract, or take a lot of privates with each of the judges or be a photographer or own your own event. Or travel to every event. Or travel from overseas. All the event directors ask us judges to put in at least one European couple, so yes, do that. That helps too.

But being a good dancer? Not a requirement. I have watched every amazing dancer be eliminated in the last three Novice competitions I've watched. I have watched every Pure WCS leader be eliminated from Advanced. I have literally watched for two years as the worst, most pigeon toed, sexually promiscuous Nissies have been rewarded again and again and again... and I don't know what for. But I know it hasn't been for any kind of dance ability.

So go ahead. Compete. Pay your money. Cross your fingers. And if not, prepare to sit... for 12 hours. And remember... you might think what you're watching is boring and confusing, but no, no, no! Remember! It can't be! "It's what we're doing now." (Sarcasm totally intended.)

At the last convention a friend of mine from ballroom attended. After watching Champions Strictly, an All Star asked her what she thought. My ballroom friend thought the person wanted an honest answer, and replied, "Well, I guess it was entertaining and all, that dragging and rolling on the floor, but personally, I didn't see a lot of technique. Some people had it and it looked tight and smooth, and for me, I just enjoyed that a lot more."

I dropped my head before my ballroom friend even finished her story. I already knew how it ended. The All Star went off on my poor ballroom friend, saying it took a lot of technique to, I guess, roll on the ground? And that my ballroom friend had no idea what they were talking about. Sigh. My silly friend. Thinking the All Star wanted an honest opinion.

Why attend a convention when you enjoy studying and technique and good dancing, when the other side is so threatened by it? So angered by it? And therefore almost every dancer with any good technique has left the sport. You won't learn excellent WCS by watching comps at an event. You'll spend too much time just trying to figure out why in the world they made finals.

Dance competitions that don't judge on the dancing. You can get that on TV for free. I just don't see the point.

Reason #3:
You Get to Meet New People

Not just new people. "New people who love this dance just as much as you do."

What??? Heck. To the. NO. Did you just read my last story???

I'm so sorry that our "authorities" don't want to do anything about it, but it doesn't change the fact that there IS a Great Divide and that there IS a war going on. And it's an ugly one.

My ballroom friend was asked if she liked Abstract. When she said no, she was attacked. Hard. Oh yeah, I bet she just LOVES the new friend she made that night.

Seriously? My list is well over 5,500 strong now, but do any of you feel safe to admit in public that you're on it? Heck no. You don't.

It's a sign of unfriendly times. You can go to a convention, and you might just meet someone that loves swing, but they'll be in the minority and they'll be terrified to admit it. Go to a real swing dance, or your Word group, and you'll be fine, but not conventions.

If you love Abstract and if you are a Nissy, then by all means, go to conventions. They are made by people like you, for people like you and in honor of people like you. You will have a freakin' blast.

But for the rest of you? It'll be a fight. Shoot, it's a fight for us teachers. It's a fight for us judges. If you love lead and follow, if you love swing music, if you love hard work, then you are in for some serious struggles at every "WCS" event you attend.

We are a people at war. And we, the Pure WCS dancers, we sure as heck aren't the ones that started it. We've always loved WCS and we will never stop loving it. The only people who have a problem with us loving it happen to hate it. And that's their problem. Anyone else would just go and make their own culture elsewhere. But we have the Points System. So they stay in ours. And they sure do make it hard on us, don't they?

"Meet friends who love this dance as much as you do"? Which dance? Good luck with that. I'm seriously tired of amazing, hard working students who are happy and healthy going to conventions and coming home upset and in tears because some jerk told them that everything they were doing was wrong in the middle of a social dance.

You might meet some great people. You might make some new drinking friends. Fine. I just don't think it's worth $500-$4,000, do you?

Reason #4:
You Get to Dance All Night Long

Um. Define "all night." Whatev.

So that's why I think 99% of all WCS Conventions are not worth a dime of your money. Unless you are an Abstract Nissy. Then have at it.

A Glimmer in the Distance

If it hasn't become clear by now, a WCS event that's worth going to will have to be one that doesn't worship The Ten and is invested in making better dancers.

That means they have to be willing to hire DJ's with real swing music, instructors that teach Pure Swing only and judges that are committed to placing Pure WCS only and dropping Abstract dancers to the bottom.

Yeah. I'm saying we need new events. Badly. My trick of emailing event directors beforehand isn't working. In the last three months I have heard how badly the Event Directors lie. "Will you hold Semi's?" "Yes!" And then they don't. "Who will you have as a DJ?" "So and so." And then they show up and there's an Abstract DJ instead. Attendees are enraged. At my last event people who aren't even readers of mine walked up and said, "What did I ever do to get in jail? The event director told me this, and this and this. And then didn't do any of it! I flew two thousand miles- what a waste of my money!"

This is happening a lot lately, and I think people who haven't read anything I've written at least know I'm listening. And I get to hear more than I ever expected. Save yourself the heartache and the major dent in your wallet, and grow your swing in a real swing community.

Yes, some event directors are waking up. Most are trying really hard to walk the fence. But it will take time for them to realize what's really happening at their events and what their instructors are really teaching. Give them some time. I know a few event directors that really want their best for their attendees, but they still think that both communities can live peacefully under one roof, when in reality, they want nothing to do with one another.

Give it some time.

A New Hope

Remember how I said 99% aren't worth it? That's because there is still that 1% out there that's making the effort and taking the risk and the WCS dancers are reaping the rewards.

Understandably, it's looking like the smaller events are where it's at. Not all, mind you. Many smaller events are hiring a slew of Abstract and AllStar instructors. Boy, are they in for a treat.

But there are four events, that I know of, that I would highly recommend to a real WCS dancer:
-The Hudson Swing Affair (John Festa, NYC)
-SwingXcetra (Mike Rosa, UK)
-Swingin' Into Spring (Ken Mercik, Conn.)
-Chi-Town Swings (Illinois)
I have either been too, have received reports from, seen video and pictures from and results from these events, and though every single one of them has that one "token" Abstract instructor, or "token" Abstract DJ, the rest of the staff is pretty dead on swing. And so, the majority rules. Sweet. If there are others in the world, please let me know right away. We swing lovers need to stick together.

When event directors email me, I tell them - set aside a new weekend and start an Old School Jam weekend, or a Rockin' WCS weekend, etc. Make it all about the Pure WCS instructors, you'll only need a few, keep it simple, keep it small, make the highlight of the day be the social dancing at night and give them a few workshops to work on during the day.

Keep it simple. Market it as a real swing event, with real swing music. NO ONE is doing that! It's a totally untapped market. Go for it. I personally think competitions aren't worth it in these new formative and rebuilding years, but you can have just a couple. But no comps keeps the Nissies and Abstract dancers away. Real social dancers are sick of competitions. Give them a place to get their swing fix for once!

And for those of you on the East Coast- you might want to try an S.O.S. or two. Or just hit your nearest shag club. You'll get the best music you've heard in years. Shag hasn't lost its swing, or its swing music. There's a reason for that, but it's for another day. Just hit North Myrtle Beach for me one day, will you? Because they love swing, no matter what form it comes in. You'll be welcomed with open arms. We learned from them and they learned from us and it was like swing Nirvana. Try it. Just a thought.

Like I said, this wasn't easy to write. But if it's a WSDC event and it awards points then you're pretty much guaranteed an event chock full of Nissies and Abstract. It's the worst here on the West Coast, but where we go, so do other events. As one overseas reader wrote me last week:

"We met at [SoCal Event]. It was my first USA WCS event ever. I thought I had come to the wrong dance event or something. It was like I was living in an alternative dimension where everything is similar but not the same. I was certain this was supposed to be a lead-follow dance, the leader leads, the follower follows, and that competitions were about judging the best dancers based on Technique and Swing Content. It was a sad event for me... but then I met you and you have been like a beacon of sanity, saying, no ... shouting the things that many of us feel and think."
It broke my heart. But filled me with joy. And reminded me of why I was writing this Note this week.

Maybe your event on the East Coast or Midwest is only 60% Abstract and 90% non-swing music, but most of those events are only a year or two away from being 100% Abstract. The more educated The Ten and the Event Directors come, the harder they will fight to wipe out swing all together.

Get out of the competition scene while you can.

I think Abstract Improvisation is literally a result of the Points System, after all. We attracted a different kind of dancer when we started that system, and we've just gone downhill from there.

When I came back to conventions in 2007, I remember my coach warning me, "Katherine, it's not about getting a good dance anymore. It's only about winning."

And she was right. West Coast Swing is all about getting a good dance. It's all about having that amazing connection, that amazing moment on the floor, whether you're in a spotlight competition or not. All my best dances have happened late night, and I'd never ever trade them for another medal on my wall.

But Abstract dancers would. Abstract Improvisation is about being seen.

I'll let you in on a secret. There's an All Star woman that keeps placing. I hear so many complaints from the men, "She doesn't follow," "She's out for herself," and "I hate drawing her."

Well no kidding. If she didn't do any of that, she wouldn't be in finals now would she?

And it's the same the other way around. Abstract isn't about being there for one another, it's about being seen in spite of each other. Until the focus on competitions is gone, Abstract never will be and Pure WCS will die out completely.

Let's support those four events, I listed above everybody: Hudson, SwingXcetra, Chi-Town and Swingin' Into Spring, and ones like them in your area. Let's get back to being the best partner with the best connection before worrying about bringing WCS back to the competition floors.

My friends, we are NOT the people we were a year ago. 
Think back.
We are no longer friendless. 
We are not without hope.
We have found each other.
And we understand each other.
And we understand those who are against us.
And we have friends in higher places than you can imagine.

Let's rebuild. 
Let's not be afraid to take up flags on our own.
Let's not be afraid to lead our people.

To Swing, and Beyond,

"Convention Mention" is from the book Setting Dancers Free, the complete collection of Weekly WCS Notes.