5 Lies You’ve Been Told About Blues

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What do you know about blues dancing – or what do you think you know? Long-time readers of Social Dance Community will recognize this format from my articles on kizomba and zouk. Get ready to move past common misconceptions and get a slightly better understanding of another social dance: blues dancing!

1. Lie of omission: There is no such thing as blues dancing

Blues music is an incredibly widespread and well-known genre. I have met fans of blues music literally all over the world, from Tunis to Melbourne to Ecuador to Amsterdam. Yet when I tell people that I dance blues, it usually goes much like this:
“Sorry, what kind of dancing did you say?”
“Blues dancing.”
“What’s that?”
“Do you know blues music?”
“Oh, blues! Yes, sure. I like blues music.”
“Well, blues dancing is the kinds of dancing that go with blues music.”
“Hunh. I’d never heard about that.”

I have stopped being surprised by this reaction, although it still feels ironic that blues music is so well loved but hasn’t generated a matching interest in blues dancing. Maybe it’s because music is much easier to transmit than dancing. Blues has been broadcast over the radio since the first half of the 20th century, and passive listening requires far less investment than learning to dance.

Damon Stone, one of the leading authorities on blues dancing in the international scene today, agrees that it could also be down to blues dancing not being “marketed or co-opted by white people.” Black people were happy to dance their regional blues forms without organizing classes. What’s more, he adds, blues dances were done “in almost exclusively Black spaces, unlike swing dances which were frequently done in desegregated places.”

The modern scene does offer classes and organize weekend events with workshops and/or competitions, but blues dancing still isn’t a commercial form with heavy investment in marketing (the way ballroom or salsa have become).

closed position blues dancing

Photo by Alexis Mayer

2. Blues dancing is part of swing dancing

If you’ve never heard of blues dancing, you probably haven’t encountered this myth, but here are the two most popular variants:

A. Lindy Hop

Swing dancing had a big popular revival in the ‘90s, and more and more people were attending weekend dance events focused on dances like lindy hop. But in the early 2000s, as dancers were dancing less to Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and more to ‘vintage’ swing music at high tempos, they got tired in the wee hours of the morning. So they’d switch to playing some slower music (which may or may not have included some blues music) and dance some slower swing and general partner dance moves. That became known as blues dancing. Most lindy hop events started featuring a “blues room” that opened around midnight and offered dancers the opportunity to keep dancing without continuing to exhaust themselves with high energy swingouts. Here’s a fairly representative video from a more recent year:

B. West Coast Swing

West Coast Swing developed out of a style of lindy hop being danced in California. Today it is danced to all kinds of 4/4 music, but in the ‘90s it was mostly done to swing, neo-swing, and blues. This led to the occasional West Coast Swing teacher offering specific workshops in “Blues Dancing,” actually on how to dance West Coast Swing to blues music.

So what’s the truth? Well, blues dancing is a family of African-American vernacular dances. Blues dancing has been done for more than a century in bars and clubs and back lots across America. Black people danced to the different kinds of blues music that were being played in their locale – sometimes similarly and sometimes very differently from town to town. People learned by emulating their elders and those in their community whose dancing they admired, and gradually developed their own voices and ways of moving to the music.

Blues dancing is still going on in Black spaces, but eventually many people who got interested in blues dancing through lindy hop made connections to these different blues idioms. You can read accounts of the history of the modern blues dancing scene and its connection to other scenes in this article by Damon Stone and this blog post from Tian Yu. Find out more about Black culture and blues dancing from Grey Armstrong’s project ObsidianTea.

3. Blues dancing is slow dancing

Well, yes, but only sometimes. Blues dancing can be slow – as long as that’s appropriate for the music. Many people enjoy blues music that is relaxed, grooving, jazzy, or even mournful – which are all definitely suitable for slow blues dancing. This 2018 competition shows many ways to enjoy slow blues dancing.

However, blues music is incredibly varied! There are many tempos, many styles, and many kinds of instrumentation. That also means that the types of dancing done to it varies widely. Check out how differently the dancers in this 2019 demo interpret a more upbeat song.

I like to tell people that saying “blues dancing” is like saying “Latin dancing” – it is an umbrella term. (Although, side note: we also sometimes dance to the Latin rhythms in certain blues songs, as you can see in the 2016 demo below.)

Generally we divide partnered blues dancing into two main categories:

A. Ballroomin’ Blues

This includes the dances that were typically done in ballrooms. They have a frame similar to standard ballroom dances and usually have much more traveling steps, although they don’t always follow line of dance. Here’s a 2019 competition showcasing ballroomin’ blues:

B. Juke Joint Blues

Also called jukin’ or jookin’, this encompasses dances that were done in small music venues. They often feature a lot of isolations and rhythmic footwork and they can be done in a much smaller space. Of course, performances like this showcase from 2012 tend to bring out larger movements as well!

4. Blues dancing is sexy

Sure, but only if you want it to be. Intention is what makes blues dancing sexy – or any dancing, for that matter. When a dancer makes their movement about being attractive to their partner or audience, the dance becomes sexy. It’s all about what you bring to the dance.

It’s extremely problematic to paint all blues dancing as sexy. Characterizing Black dances as sexual has a long and racist history. There has also been too many instances this century of White dancers performing or teaching some burlesque movements and calling it blues – straight up appropriation and misinformation. Blues dances do tend to start in close embrace, but that closeness and even intimacy doesn’t have to be sexy.

5. Blues dancing is just doing whatever you feel to blues music

Well, it’s true that there is a LOT of freedom in blues dancing. We can dance solo or with a partner, with a lot of distance or in close embrace, staccato or smooth, big or small, for ourselves or for an audience, and across many different tempos and rhythms depending on the music. A key value in blues dancing is that every person dances with their own style and voice – we don’t all strive to match one ideal form, and individual expression is valued from both leaders and followers.

So, the huge range of possibilities that exists in blues dancing can give an outward impression than anything goes. But that’s simply not the case.

Remember that blues dancing is a family of dances with different characteristics, and yet there are shared points that give a specific aesthetic.

Damon Stone describes five technical characteristics and two artistic characteristics that make up the blues dancing aesthetic:

Technical Aesthetic

A. An athletic, grounded posture with the dancer’s weight forward over the balls of the feet, hips back, and knees and shoulders stacked over the balls of the feet.
B. Asymmetry creating a polyphonic look and feel, in which no limb or body part is most important; rather they work together.
C. Polyrhythmic movement with multiple meters or rhythms expressed in different parts of the body.
D. Improvisation not only in the partnership but as individuals: each dancer has their own voice and expresses the music in their own way with their body
E. Dancing between beats, or an unhurried interaction with the tempo of the music, which creates a visual effect of moving through resistance.

Artistic Aesthetic

F. Ephebism (youthful vigor), as seen in the articulation of the spine, impression of rubbery limbs (rather than creaky joints), the ability to create strange angles and shapes as well as feats of athleticism.
G. Coolness, or the ability to execute something incredibly difficult as if it were no effort at all. Thus while emotion and prowess are clearly expressed, the technique and its difficulty are hidden.

Furthermore there are various blues idiom dances done to specific genres of blues music, and these idiom dances have special characteristics in addition to those described above. When dancing ballroomin’ idioms such as Savoy Walk or Stride, there are differing norms and techniques to employ. The various juke joint idioms (like Texas Shuffle, Funky Butt, and Struttin’) each involve quite different rhythms and connection styles. Learn more about blues idiom dances in this article by Laura Chieko and check out a few examples in the video below.

Now what?

Want to learn more about blues dancing? Ideally, go visit your local blues dancing club! In the meantime, here are a few useful resources:

Brief History of Blues Music
Damon Stone’s writing
Blues Idiom Dance Playlists
Blues Moves
Sitting at the Foot of the Blues

Did this article bust a myth for you? Do you have other blues dance resources to suggest? Leave us a comment!