An Interview with Anne: the Ambidancetrous Scene in Yale

We’re taking a break from your standard blog posts to speak to Anne, who has recently become involved in an Ambidancetrous Community while attending Yale. Read on for some really great insights on what teaching both leading and following to all dancers can do for a community!

The Lindy Affair:  Hello Anne! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Can you tell me a little about your dance background for our readers?

Anne: I just finished my first year as a graduate student at Yale for physical chemistry.  I have been swing dancing for over 4 years.  I started as a sophomore at Emory University, and learned through the Emory Swing Club and the larger Atlanta community.  Now I dance and teach in the student run club Yale Swing and Blues.

TLA: Tell me about the Yale Dance Community. What makes it unique from other dance communities?

Anne: The makeup of Yale Swing and Blues is probably similar to any other scene driven by a university.  Mostly undergrads, graduate students, and post-docs from Yale with a fair number of people from the New Haven community.  There are two things that make this community special in my opinion.  One is the dedication to instruction.  Most of us are volunteer instructors, but we can pull off some amazing things.  I have seen 80 near beginners learn the basics of a swing out in under an hour and a half. (This is one class in the crazy weekend called bootcamp.)

The other is that from the beginning everyone is taught how to both lead and follow.  We call it Ambidancetrous, or Ambi for short.  On the social floor this means that after asking someone to dance there is generally the follow up question “do you want to lead or follow?”  It also means that everybody dances with everybody.  Of course, there are people who prefer to lead or prefer to follow, but the expectation that boys lead girls is not there.  The fact that from the beginning everyone is given the tools and opportunity to discover which role they prefer (if they prefer one) is one of the things that makes our Ambi community so cool.

TLA: Who started the Ambi movement in Yale?

Anne: Mary Christensen and several other dedicated dancers started Yale Swing and Blues in the spring of 2007.  She started doing ambi blues classes that fall, and had the first monthly dance introducing ambi in October 2008.

TLA: I know many scenes are often limited by how many guys show up, since they are usually pegged as leads, and follows can get frustrated with hunting down dances. I feel like an Ambi scene would have a higher ratio of ladies to guys – is this true?

Anne: Actually, I think we have a higher retention of guys.  Being a beginner follow is generally less intimidating than being a beginner lead.  Since everyone is given the skills, and opportunity, to follow everyone can start enjoying dancing early on and grow into leading as they learn and dance more.  I also think there is far less shame following a more advanced dancer than trying to lead one.

TLA: As a lady, you already knew a bit of leading when you moved to Yale. Do you think there’s a pressure for new leads and follows to learn both roles which might be intimidating?

Anne: I think that the people who are the most intimidated by Ambi teaching are those who have learned one roll already.  These people come to our classes knowing which role they prefer, and then are told to work on something they may not care about.  For complete beginners, however, an Ambi class isn’t much different from a non-ambi class.  They come, follow directions, rotate, and practice a lot.  As one of our long standing instructors says, there are far more intimidating things in a dance class than being asked to switch roles or dance with someone of the same gender.

TLA: Speaking of beginner’s lessons – how are Ambi beginner classes structured? Specifically, how is the switching of roles as leads and follows handled?

Anne: After the warm-up, where we try to get people comfortable with being ridiculous, we generally count off to get into and inner and outer circle.  As we teach each part of the move, we ask all the couples to switch roles.  The person who was leading is now following, and we essentially teach the move again.  This does mean that we get through less material than another class would, but I don’t think teaching things twice is a bad thing.

All the switching can be confusing (particularly for those who have difficulty with right vs. left), but I cannot think of a better way to teach everybody the skills for both roles.  Since all the students are learning both sides, they really get the mechanics of the move as a whole rather than the pattern for their particular role.  This can lead to better comprehension, and more empathetic partnering.  On a practical side, there can never be more follows than leads.  At most our classes will have one person out of rotation (usually the instructor).

TLA: I’m aware that for a while, you chose not to dance blues for personal reasons, yet you’ve said this changed since you started dancing Ambi. How would you say that the Ambi community (or maybe just the Yale community) contributed to this change of heart?

Anne: When I started leading blues, I was able to recognize that blues is about two people moving together in a way I could not see when I was just following.  Blues can be sexy, but it is not sexual.   Being in an environment where I can lead, setting my own boundaries on space and movement, makes me feel safe.  And the safety I gained from leading has opened up my tolerance for following as well.

TLA: So far, we’ve learned a lot of the benefits of being Ambidancetrous, ranging between more people to dance with and a better understanding of the foundation of leading and following. Would you say there are negative aspects to this community?

Anne: I don’t think that strictly Ambi instruction would be the way to become a really competitive swing dancer.  You could start with Ambi, but I think you would have to specialize to one role or the other to get to that level.  However, for social dancing, I think Ambi has the potential to support a more inclusive community than the gendered alternative.

TLA: I think Ambidancetrous dancing is great – but I’m not sure it’s for every scene, at least not immediately. What are your thoughts? 

Anne: From my experience, the swing dance community as a whole is a welcoming community.  I don’t think there would be a scene that could not be Ambidancetrous, but it certainly is not something that can, or should, be introduced overnight.  The first step is to get people asking and thinking about it.  I love what we do, and am so glad you have given me the opportunity to introduce Ambi to others.

TLA: Thanks so much for sharing today, Anne – I look forward to the next time we dance! Any final thoughts you would like to share?

Anne: If you, or anyone, has more questions about how Ambi works, check out Ambidancetrous: the Blog, written by one of the founders of the Ambi movement in Yale, Mary. It primarily addresses aspects of teaching Ambi, but it is very insightful.

***

Take a moment to read this Urban Dictionary definition of Ambidancetrous. I’d bet my last nickel that definition was added by our community, which makes me giggle. [Edit: the definition on Urban Dictionary has since been removed. Now I wish I’d written it down somewhere. 6/21/2014]

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