In studying the Al & Leon Shim Sham, I realized something interesting about the power of youtube (and the internet in general). When creating the Al & Leon Shim Sham instructional video with Stuart (thanks again, Stu!), I had to decide which variations I wanted to go with; in the end, I decided to use the most basic moves as I learned from multiple different videos:
Bear with me – I know I’ve posted all these videos before, but it’s easier to insert them here than ask you to keep going back and forth between my other blog posts!
As such, the Al & Leon Shim Sham I’ve been dancing is super basic, and I’ve been learning to add my own flair when and where I want. A couple weeks ago, I had my first opportunity to do the Al & Leon Shim Sham at a dance with others, and I noticed the whole community doing the same variations – specifically, the variations from the Charleston Chasers video. I asked one girl where she had learned it, and she said it had been taught a little while back by a teacher in the area.
It’s obvious why the teacher chose this version in particular:* the Charleston Chasers video is easy to learn from and has exciting variations, though it also the most divergent from specific classic moments of the Shim Sham (for example, replacing the Crossovers with Suzie Qs). However, in referencing a single video, this teacher has now standardized the Al & Leon Shim Sham in this community to a very specific and stylized version.
In fact, when I danced this with everyone else, the other dancers were so uniformly together that I felt a little awkward doing my own variations, and I felt pressured to follow along with the specific moves they were dancing.
When I started learning the Al & Leon Shim Sham, I chose to avoid learning from the Charleston Chasers Video due to the context – the video is a review for performers (look in the “About” section – , and it deviates from the classic choreography. However, I did watch it and make sure I understood their variations, because they had some great ideas on how to spice up basic moves. As such, I was able to join in with these Bay Area dancers…but I still felt like I was fitting myself into their mold, rather than being myself.
I think part of the challenge of youtube is that immortalizes a specific choreography.** The ability to make all these videos means we have the ability to teach and learn choreography more easily, but it also means we run the risk of losing part of the capricious nature of dance. Case in point, my favorite video of the Al and Leon Shim Sham has significant variation amongst the performers.
While standardizing the choreography isn’t necessarily bad (the Charleston Chasers version is really fun!), it runs the risk of discouraging the improvisational nature of the Al & Leon Shim Sham. I think one of the best parts about performing a known choreography in a community is how mutable the dance is.
The message here? There is no “right” way (that we know of) to dance these classic choreographies, and part of the fun is adding your own personal flair. When you learn something – whether in person or through a video – take everything with a grain of salt.*** Every chance you have to dance as an individual should be an opportunity to express who you are. When everyone adds their own flair, a simple group dance can transform into an expression of the community, and that’s something worth encouraging!
So as you learn from the internet, try looking at multiple videos, getting a bunch of ideas, and spending some time in front of a mirror to figure out what you like on your body. I think we’ll all be better dancers when we stop taking youtube so seriously, and instead we make every dance and every variation our own.
*This assumes the teacher was not part of the Charleston Chasers, which I have no idea about, as I don’t really know who “brought” this choreography to the Bay Area.
**This is a whole different blog post for a whole different day – but it’s worth mentioning in passing: it’s a good idea to pay attention to what you put on youtube, and to also pay attention to what you learn from youtube. Like I said, there’s a lot of power in youtube – and that’s something we should all be aware of as learning from the internet becomes the norm.
***The obvious exception: when you’re performing as a group, there’s often a specific emphasis on hitting the same lines and doing the same variations. In that case, being too far off the norm is often detrimental to the aesthetic of the performance.
Final note: I had a lot of realizations from this blog post and various conversations, and it doesn’t all fit nicely or succinctly into one post. It’s more like a 3 part essay ranging from “how to be a better dancer” to “youtube ethics” to “the stages of learning, as it relates to dance.” This is (obviously) part 1; be on the look out for more parts!