What’s the difference between Blues and Fusion? A historical narrative of our partner dance subcultures…

cropped-10801947_664685253358_2438155636664960155_n.jpgFirst let me begin by saying that I am presenting a historical narrative of what I remember and perceived of our partner dance subculture. Sometimes I will make generalizations to what I think was happening around the country, but obviously, I was not living everywhere in the world all at once. So if you have some historical context that you want to share about your scene (or something I made a mistake about), please share in the comments! My main purpose here is to stimulate dialogue and to give new dancers some references and guide posts to understand the scenes that they are part of, where they come from, and their dance heritage.

Short Answers to the Frequently Asked Questions:

I mostly pose these questions, because I hear them from newer dancers all the time, and because I think they give us a good starting point to understand WHY understanding our partner dance scenes’ heritage is so important. Hopefully, they will help stir your curiosity enough to read into some of the historical narrative I present below!

1. What is the difference between the Blues dance scene and Fusion dance scene?

Most Blues dance scenes are dance scenes which partner dance to Blues music. They are generally beginner-friendly spaces which encourage the appreciation and expression of Blues music through solo and partner dances, often emphasizing Blues idiom dance (what is a blues idiom dance?).

Fusion dance scenes vary greatly depending on the values, ethic, and culture of the scene. The only common threads in these scenes is that they are often outgrowths of partner dance communities that primarily danced Lindy Hop, Blues, and Argentine Tango.

The primary Blues dance in Denver is Tuesday Blues. There are lots of Fusion dance events in the area including the Dancing Root, Hot Night, Fantastic Fusion, and Fusion Underground.

2. How long have people been Blues dancing? How long have people been Fusion dancing?

This is a misleading question: people have been Blues dancing as long as Blues music has been around. If you mean, how long have the Blues dance scenes that most of you reading this blog have participated in been around, I would say between 2 and 15 years. More on this topic below!

3. What is the connection between Blues and Fusion dancing? I see the same people dancing in both scenes all the time…

The connection between the contemporary Blues and Fusion dance scenes is a historical one. The reason you see people dancing in both scenes (often doing the same movements) is because these communities are outgrowths of the same community. I personally love Blues music and Blues idiom dances. I also love dancing to EDM, dubstep, hip-hop, pop music, and all sorts of other random stuff. So you will see me dancing in both scenes too! Because many people in our communities feel the same way, we have a lot of crossover at these very different dances.

This last question is the reason I feel it is so important to share some of the historical narrative of our partner dance scenes. Because I can imagine just how confusing it is as a new dancer to have two at once very dissimilar dance events share a similar community base and yet have such contrasting cultures and values.

Well, I hope to alleviate such confusion by telling the general history of our partner dance scenes as I see it. It is a fairly long story, so I think I will only get through part one this evening. So here it is!

Part 1: The Lindy Hop Revival (1980s)

This story began before I was born. Lindy Hop is black vernacular dance style which is done to swing music. The dance form mostly died out after World War II, but then in the 80s, some old clips of Lindy Hoppers from the early 20th century were rediscovered and thus began the Lindy Hop revival.

There are plenty of resources online and in books about Lindy Hop and the jazz era thanks to Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, and all the other cats from the 30s and 40s who were excited and willing to share their knowledge and experiences with and about the dance, so I won’t go into much detail here. The important pieces for our story is that swing and lindy hop communities began popping up around the country in the 90s, partially stirred on by media portrayals such as in this gap commercial from 1998.

Also relevant: the communities that formed around Lindy Hop in the 90s were primarily communities of dancers who came from white culture (by which I mean, people who grew up in or adopted values and norms of the dominant culture in the U.S.). This is an important part of the story. I hold no judgement against the swing revivalists–on the contrary, I am quite grateful for the door that their excitement for the dance has given to me–however, it is important to understand that the community of people who were engaging in this revived dance form were tourists to the art first before they became hobbyists later. Recognizing this part of Lindy Hop’s history helps to explain why, even though Lindy Hop is a black vernacular dance, many of the swing dance/lindy hop scenes across the country tend to be less racially diverse then one might expect.

In any case, remember this point because we will come back to it soon…

From Swing to “Blues”… (00s)

When people ask me, “Tian Yu, how long have you been Blues dancing?” I struggle with what to tell them. The short answer is 3 years. The long answer is that I’ve been dancing in the “Blues” scene for around 8 years, but I have only been studying Blues dance for about 3 years.

In my last post, I mentioned that my first dance classes were in Lindy Hop. That was in 2005. I began dancing at “Blues” dances in 2008. When I first started Lindy Hopping, I had really negative stereotypes about “Blues” dancing. I thought that Blues dancing was all sexy, bumping and grinding, like one step up from high school dirty dancing. Upon reflection, I have no idea where I picked up this stereotype. It certainly wasn’t from my dance teachers…

Stereotypes of Blues and Lindy Hoppers, from amandarin–orange

In any case, one day I went to a “Blues” dance and I discovered that I loved it! When I first was dancing in the scene, here are the things that I loved:

  • I loved the music!
  • I loved the opportunity to improvise, the freedom to experiment!
  • I loved the friendly community atmosphere (specifically, less socially stratified)!
  • I loved challenging myself to dance to different music (at that time, we played music that wasn’t always Blues music, hence why I have been using quotes in the last few paragraphs)!

My story is, I feel like, a common story–I will let you experimentally verify its frequency yourself. Many people who come from Lindy Hop backgrounds found, discovered, or heard about “Blues” dancing and then fell in love with it for the aforementioned reasons.

But where did the “Blues” scenes come from?

In Portland and Seattle (though I imagine it was similar elsewhere across the country), our Blues scenes started from Lindy Hoppers throwing house parties. In retrospect, this is probably partially where the bad reputation of “Blues” dancing in Lindy Hop circles comes from. You know, it gets late, and houses are small, and we’ve all been drinking a little bit… At some point in the night, 125 bpm is just not the groove you’re feeling. So what did we do? We started playing other stuff. Jazz ballads, influenced by the blues. Blues. Things that were not really Blues but conveyed something that we wanted to dance to.

At some point, a couple of years before I started dancing in the Blues scene in 2008, there was a transition from house parties to bigger venues with wood floors and more space for more people. Around this time, people were also trying to legitimize Blues as a valid partner dance. Remember, this incarnation of Blues dance scenes had ties to the Lindy Hop scenes, which viewed Blues dancing as something to be relegated to just messing around or trying to do some sexy dancing. It was not “worthy” of learning, practicing or having technique.

This is where it gets confusing. As this transition from house parties to venues was happening, leaders and up and coming dancers (including myself) in the Blues scenes began to codify and teach “Blues” dancing. We started experimenting and making up systems of connecting to your partner, frameworks for improvisation, musicality, and dance moves which we could then teach to people for two reasons: so that the quality of dancing in our community would increase and so that we could solidify our scene as a “legitimate” partner dance scene just like the Argentine Tango scene, or the Lindy Hop scene, or the Salsa dance scene.

However, many of us were just making s*** up, based on our past experiences with partner dance. We were the first “fusion” dancers because we were taking our past experiences with dance and creating a codified system of dance from them. For instance, I had Lindy Hop, Argentine Tango, and some Contact Improv under my belt, so when I taught or danced, little bits of all of those things came out.

Leah and Tian Yu Blues Improv from Leah Vendl on Vimeo.
This is an example from 2010 of how I was dancing to “Blues” music (i.e., not actually Blues dancing). It would be another year before I stopped self-identifying as a Blues dancer and instead just said that I, “Danced to Blues music.” Since then, Leah and I have both devoted time studying Blues idiom dances, music, and culture. Now Leah is a badass Blues dancer, to say the least.

On the other hand, some of the leaders and instructors across the country around that time were not making s*** up. Instead, they were seeking out the roots of Blues dance, like the Lindy Hoppers had done when they found Al Minns, Chester Whitmore, and all the old school dancers. These instructors took the time to actually study Blues dance as a historical dance form that existed long before our late-night lindy-hop house parties.

Because, remember, we were all tourists of the culture first, hobbyists second. The culture of our dance scenes originated predominantly from that of white dominant culture in the U.S.: we were disconnected from Blues music, Blues culture, black culture, the people who had been doing this dance for generations and generations before us. Thus, when we danced “Blues” we were just doing what we knew, what we made up, or what we were taught. It takes time and determination to truly understand something, and since we didn’t necessarily have background to begin with, many of us had to take that time.

In summary, the contemporary Blues partner dance scene was originally (at least in the places I have danced) an offshoot of the Lindy Hop scenes. As the scene was going through its growing up phase, some people chose to learn about Blues idiom dances by exploring its roots and seeking out the people who knew where and how the historic dance came about. Other people used their talent and experience as dancers to help create and codify a system of dance that felt good to them. At first, both of these things were called Blues and were done at Blues dances.

Eventually, as social justice movements started to grow in our communities, our dance scenes began to consider the question of whether we should continue to call what we were doing “Blues” or something else…

The tree grows: Alt-Blues and Fusion…

Stay tuned for my next post, where I will continue the story and discuss the evolution of alt-blues and fusion and the two fundamental fusion perspectives.

Also! Please don’t forget to share your thoughts and reflections about your dance scene! I would love to hear more about where your scene came from, as I am mostly writing from my memories and my experience! Comment below!

3 Comments

  1. Brenda Russell

    March 3, 2016

    Wow thank you Tian Yu for the thoughtful post. I know how much time it takes to compose such things.

    I resonate with all that you have said, and it’s quite convoluted for me because I did grow up in a biracial home with black culture music, media, dance, parties, and so on.

    I went through the swing revolution with the rest of the country, but also grew up swing dancing with my sisters, watching American Bandstand, and so forth. I would say that the swing revolution became a Lindy Hop revival and produced the Lindy Hop hobbyists. Swing Dancing never really died in America, but Lindy Hop took a hiatus. I dated a man from So-Cal who had been a prodigy of Dean Collins and was on Dance Fever competing with a Dean Collins Lindy Hop routine, in white sneakers and a gold track suit, he looked like Michael Jackson, it’s a great clip. Dean Collins died at that time, and this man decided the world wasn’t ready for Lindy Hop and he became a Ballroom Dancer, then a West Coast Swing Dancer. Well west coast swing evolved directly from Dean Collins Lindy Hop, as did many regional smooth dances during the post big band R&B/Blues/Rock and Roll era. So this made good sense as a dance form for him, and he still looks more Lindy than your average west coast swing dancer to this day.

    There have been people East Coast and West Coast swing dancing, Bop, Push, Slow Whip, Carolina Shag, DC Hand Dance, Lamanu, Balboa Swing, St. Louis Shag, and many other regional swing dance forms that were active all the way through though certainly taking the largest dip from main stream culture in the 70’s and 80’s, though twist, hustle, and other dances are considered swing dances and were main stream popular in their time. There was also a huge country western revival in the 90’s that greatly affected dance sub-cultures to this day.

    Through all the above mentioned history I have been in an awkward position as a white person learning and growing as a dancer and being influenced by all of the sub-culture goings ons. And yet still having a back ground in the african-american music and dance culture, and knowing what was authentic and what was not, then going on to study and further my understanding of these historic dances, as well as live and breath and create and document in the current evolving dance trends and music trends.

    I find the differentiations to allow for quality and integrity within each dance form, and overall improve my articulation and expression as a dancer. I can always ‘just dance’, however the clarity of that comes from these definitions. All great art is a combination of skill and freedom of expression, but one without the other is either ranting, or s*** on the wall.

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