Weekenders are an opportunity to try something new

One of the features of all Weekenders is the provision of workshops and lessons.  Nicola had put on a comprehensive programme of classes offering everyone an opportunity to try something new.  In amongst the programme was a series of four classes labelled as Blues Room Toolkits to be run by Jo Hart.

Now, regular readers of my blog will know that I struggle with the idea of Blues dancing, which is a pity because I love the music.  In fact I really love the music, and would love the opportunity to dance to it, but because it is so slow paced I just haven’t got the techniques and moves to do it justice.

It’s surprising I’ve never learned to Blues dance

Considering I’ve been dancing a minimum of two times a week for the past eight years, you would have thought I would have picked up the odd Blues move by now, but no.  The best I can do is slow down my regular modern jive moves to match the slow pace of the music, but it just doesn’t work – well certainly not enough to go in to a Blues Room and ask a stranger to dance.

From where I’m standing there is a basic technique that is fundamental to recognisable Blues dancing, and I just haven’t mastered it.  In fact I’d just about given up on it.  You see I’ve struggled to find a class I was comfortable with.

I struggle with the close-hold thing

Where I live in Nottingham there have been plenty of opportunities to learn the basic Blues techniques, but every time I’ve been invited to attend, I’ve shied away.  You see, if I’m really honest I’ve struggled with the close-hold thing.

But having said that I thought I should give it one last try – if only because I could record any progress on my blog.  I know I’m not the only one who struggles with the idea of close-hold dancing, so my journey to overcome my Blues allergy might actually find an audience.

Jo’s Blues Room Toolkit lessons seemed a good opportunity to re-start my Blues dancing journey, so I took a deep breathe and got up early on the Saturday morning and joined a surprisingly large throng outside the second room in The Salutation Hotel.

Let’s hear some wonderful Blues music

Before I go any further, let me remind you of why I was prepared to take myself out of my comfort zone on that particular Saturday morning.  It’s the music, so it might be timely to listen to some of it.

Here’s a Blues track, that Jo played, when she took her turn behind the decks on Sunday afternoon for the chill-out Tea Dance session.  It features vocalist Beth Hart backed by Joe Bonamassa’s delicious blues guitar playing.  Hopefully it will act as a soundtrack for my review of the first two of Jo’s classes that I attended.

This was an extremely popular class

Early morning classes at weekenders can be poorly attended.  People have been dancing until late and the need for a lie in is understandable, but it wasn’t the case on this particular Saturday morning.  So much so that the room provided just wasn’t big enough.

Nicola later told me that because there is very little Blues dancing in Scotland, she had assumed that Jo’s classes wouldn’t have a broad appeal, and so had allocated the smaller of the two rooms.  Nicola quickly made the decision to switch rooms, and Jo conducted all four of her lessons in the main ballroom.

The Main Ballroom was packed for all 4 of Jo’s classes

Great to see so many people challenging themselves

Doing something for the first time is a challenge for most people, and the fact that so many people turned up for the lesson certainly made an impression on Jo herself.

I just loved the enthusiasm of the people in my lesson.  Because there is little Blues dancing in Scotland, many of the people in the lesson were new to it.

I was so impressed by the willingness of people to embrace the challenge of learning something new.

That so many people hadn’t done that much Blues before was a help to me too.  In the past I’ve felt a little intimidated by being in a class with a lot of more experienced dancers.

This lesson had the friendly Fresh vibe

But there was another reason that I felt comfortable, something that was important if I was to get the most out of the lessons, and that was what I’ll call the friendly Fresh vibe.  As I described in my article 20 things we love about Ceroc Perth’s Fresh Weekender (see link below) this event had a very friendly vibe.  It was a vibe that I had felt as soon as the dancing had started on the Friday night.

Now being in a lesson with many of the people I had enjoyed dancing with the night before, gave the lesson a more relaxed feel, than if I had turned up to a lesson back home, where I knew few of the people.  That’s one of the benefits of attending lessons at a weekender.  There’s a sense that we are all in it together.

There was one other reason.  I’ll call it the Jo and Melvin double act.

Jo and Melvin take away the tension with comedy

Dancing in a close hold to slow music can test your inhibitions.  I once went to a Blues class where, in an attempt to remove any inhibitions, we were asked to hug all the members of the opposite sex.  This was no ‘quick hug and move on down the line’.  I can only describe it as a hug-a-thon that gave me more inhibitions than I knew I had.

I’m sure that Jo knew that many of us might be a little anxious about what the lesson might entail, but she chose to defuse any anxiety with comedy.  I understand that Jo and her demo Melvin had not worked together before, but they put on a comedy double act that suggested otherwise.

This is not Blues, but this is . . .

Very early on, Jo suddenly pulled Melvin in to a close hold, reminiscent of the last dance at the school disco.  ‘This’, Jo declared, ‘Is not Blues,’ and every one burst into laughter.  You could feel any anxiety dissipate immediately.

Jo then demonstrated a Blues hold with connection yet with a comfortable gap between you and your partner.  This I was comfortable with and so I suspect was everyone else.

Let’s open the tool box

Jo had entitled her four classes as a Blues Room Toolkit.  Here’s how she described the aim of the four classes:

I would describe them as four progressive, technique-based classes designed to get you Blues-room ready.

The first technique was the aforementioned not-too-close Blues hold.  The second was the technique I’ve had described as ‘pulsing’, though Jo didn’t described it as such.  This is where you transfer your weight from one foot to the other to the beat of the music.

This is a Marmite thing

This transfer of weight from side to side is one of the key elements of Blues Dancing.  It’s designed for you to relax in to a simple rhythm, so you can fully connect to the Bluesy feel of the music.  You will often see people doing this with their eyes closed.

I struggle a bit with this concept, especially when I see people doing it for long period of times.  I know I have a long way to go with Blues dancing, but it seems a bit boring to me.  But I respect that some people will see it differently – it’s a Marmite thing – some people love it.

I’ve been frustrated by the lack of Blues moves

I love moves.  They add a variety to my dancing, and I use a different set of moves to match the different styles and tempo of the music.  I also take in to consideration the level of my partner.  With a less experienced dancer I will use more of the beginners moves – the more advanced moves I’ll reserve for those people I dance with regularly.

What has frustrated me about the Blues lessons I’ve been to in the past, is that there has been a great emphasis on the technique of ‘pulsing’ (transferring your weight to the rhythm) and not so much on the moves.

Jo explains the importance of technique over moves

I discussed this general lack of Blues moves in lessons with Jo.  Here’s what she had to say:

I get why you (and most leaders!) love moves, but my workshops are fundamentally technique based.  I think I only taught one sequence of moves over the whole weekend – the thrust of the teaching was to teach people techniques they could use to make those moves more interesting and more musical.

In the past I would have quickly forgotten my Blues lessons (thus the lack of progress), but because I was determined to make Jo’s lesson a starting point, and because I also wanted to write this article, I gave quite a lot of thought to what she said.  In time something clicked.

Just take one thing away from the lessons

I’ve always thought that its very difficult to take in everything you are taught in a workshop.  It’s worth your time and effort if you can just take a couple of things away with you.  After listening to Jo and thinking more about the classes I remembered one technique that I think I can work with.

Jo made a big thing about listening to the music, and understanding its structure.  One thing she emphasised was to try to anticipate the breaks.  These would give you opportunities to add pauses in to your transfer of weight from side to side, so giving you more connection with the music, and hopefully more enjoyment than just rocking or pulsing from side to side in a regimental manner.

This Blues track will help

Jo kindly gave me the details of a track she used in her lesson, which will illustrates just how easy it is to learn the structure of a song and so anticipate the breaks and make your movement so much more interesting.  The track is I can’t fight the blues by Karen Carroll.

Even before Karen starts singing you get a feel for the structure of the track, and I certainly found myself anticipating correctly when the breaks would come.  I could even imagine myself adding a little drama to my movement.  Please listen to it before I go any further.

A move to play with this technique

As Jo says, there were a few moves in the lesson, and here’s one that allowed the ladies to play around with the techniques.  It’s always hard to describe any moves, but hopefully you’ll get the gist of what I’m trying to say.

Basically from the close-hold the man turned his lady partner out so she was at arms length.  Now the man simply guided the woman slowly forward with the beat, but giving the lady enough space and time to play with the music.  It’s a move that can be done in normal Ceroc dancing, and it works really well when you are dancing in a slotted style too.

Ladies – go own the floor

Jo then encouraged the ladies to take the opportunity to respond, in their individual way, to the feel of the music.  Go back to the Karen Carroll track above.  Think about the structure of the song – the breaks and the pauses.  Jo gave the ladies a simple instruction:

Now ladies, own the floor – it’s your chance to play with the music.

The ladies seemed to enjoy the freedom to express their musicality, even though for some it may have been a little out of their comfort zone.  I know when I’m dancing straight forward Ceroc I will use a similar move to give the ladies a little time to express themselves.  Some love their moment in the limelight, but others are more reserved and will sometimes tell you so.

Jo’s comedy helped relax everybody

Jo would be the first to acknowledge that the Blues Room can be a scary place, but her lessons were the opposite.  As I mentioned above the Fresh Weekender vibe really helped, as did Jo’s comedy double act with Melvin.

Jo explained a little more about her use of humour.

There’s no doubt that having a laugh helps relax everyone , but the humour has another purpose.  It’s a way of helping the concepts to stick in people’s minds.

Having talked to many women about their experiences in The Blues Room, they will sometimes complain about the men who hold them a little too closely.  It was important to stress to the men that they must show consideration to the ladies when they are in close-hold and Jo’s humour was the perfect way to do this.

Two lessons were enough for me

I find any lesson a challenge.  For all my experience, I sit out many of the Intermediate classes back home, when the sequence of moves looks a little too complicated.

Jo’s lessons were a challenge to me and I felt pleased that I found the mental energy to complete two and have a go at all the techniques that Jo included.  I’m also pleased that I can take something away.  The idea of listening to the music and getting a feel for the structure of it, is something for me to work on.

Jo watches as people make significant progress

Impressively most of the people did all four lessons, and so got to try out all the techniques that Jo thought necessary to be fully prepared for an enjoyable Blues Room Experience.  Here’s Jo reflecting on the success of the classes.

Having a go at all the Blues Room techniques I’d lined up was the key to why the progress of the people in the classes was so fantastic, and not forgetting people’s willingness to take on a challenge.

While I didn’t take any part in the two Sunday classes, I did spend some time watching the final session and I could see the progress that people made.  I’m sure that not everybody will remember every technique that Jo and Melvin introduced them to, but I have no doubt that they will all take some thing away with them, that will make the Blues Room a little less scary next time.

Hopefully now the Blues Room will be a lot less scary

Does there need to be some kind of follow up?

Of course practice makes perfect, and it would be a shame if the people who attended any of Jo’s classes didn’t get an opportunity to practice their techniques in the near future.

Both Nicola and Jo had commented that there is little Blues dancing in Scotland – it’s one of the reasons that they were both so surprised by the number of people who  turned up for the first class.  I would like to think that there would be some kind of follow up, and I can’t stop myself making a suggestion.

Are regular Tea Dances a solution

Some Ceroc venues offer Blues dancing in a second room.  The most successful of these incorporate chill-out music suitable to SILC, West Coast Swing and Smooth Jive as well as Blues.  There are a few pure Blues second rooms, though I have only ever come across them at weekenders like Southport and Warmwell.

I have however been researching Sunday afternoon Tea Dances lately for two articles I’ve written on the subject (see link below).  Tea Dances come in all shapes and sizes, but I’ve noted a pattern developing.  Firstly they are often proceeded by a class, usually teaching SILC, Smooth Jive or indeed Blues.  Secondly the music is a mixture suited to these three genres of dancing.

Some Tea Dances start off with main room music then transition to chill-out music and then finish with a final hour of Blues.  What I’ve learnt is that a Tea Dance needs to have a broad appeal, but they are a perfect venue to include some blues music.

Tea Dances might be a way to integrate some Blues dancing in to a freestyle setting

Great to see Jo and Melvin take to the floor

As I’ve just said above, it’s important to get an opportunity to try out some of the techniques taught in a class like Jo’s Blues Room Toolkit lessons.

On Saturday night Jo played a Blues set in the second room, that gave people an opportunity to try out some of the techniques they’d learnt during the day.  Jo also tells me that she threw in a few Blues tracks during her set in the Sunday afternoon chill-out session.

But what really impressed me was that both Jo and Melvin took to the floor, on both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, to dance with anybody who asked them.  I hope Jo won’t mind if I give a special mention to her demo Melvin here.

The I danced with Melvin badge

Melvin is a beautiful dancer, and when looking around Facebook for feedback about the weekend, I came across quite a few ladies who were very complimentary about their dances with him.  I also noted the odd amusing comment where people expressed their disappointment that they’d missed out on a dance, while acknowledging that the poor guy was very busy.

I’m reminded of a game that was played at Southport one year by the ladies from Ceroc Heaven who did everything they could to earn a I danced with Tim Sant badge.  So next year how about making a few I danced with Melvin badges.

Here’s Sarah again.  It seems that she wants one of those badges.

I need to have one of those badges as I danced a Tango with Melvin ….. Wonderful, sigh ?

Susan wants an I dance with Melvin Badge too.  She even posted a photo on Facebook with the proof of her wonderful dance with him.

Good news ladies.

Nicola tells me that she’ll be making some for next year!

Related Articles

20 Things we love about Ceroc Perth’s Fresh Weekender

Nicola and Sheena’s Fresh Main Room DJ sets

My article about Sunday afternoon Tea Dances