Smile Politely

Come dance the blues this summer

The air in town is turning sultry; around late May every year in CU I realize there’s no use resisting. But you can find yourself a different kind of Cool and Hot on Monday nights at Guido’s. They’ve got a moody airconditioned basement with oozin’ Blues to make that ease into summer a sensual slide.

Want to give it a try? Get yourself a soundtrack—yes, right now. The music is where it always starts. Try this or this. The Blues cry out to make you move. There’s a circuit of Blues Dance around the country and beyond. It’s been around as long as the music. Early days it found a place in juke joints and honky tonk hangouts — tiny spaces that could fit just a horn and some rhythm, and some tight dance forms. The big time came notably at the Savoy Ballroom, “the heartbeat of Harlem” according to Langston Hughes. The joy has been expanding outward ever since, beyond its origins in American Black culture.

Our own C/U Blues Dance group came together in 2011— BluesCENTRAL. Their home is Guido’s at Two East Main in Champaign. Head downstairs any Monday night and join a mellow group for free instruction from 6 to 7, then open dancing from 7 to 9. The kitchen is open, the food is fine, and the group is welcoming. You don’t need to bring a partner, and it’s all free. Just wear shoes that slide on a wooden floor —and make a good stomp —or dance in your socks.

Dig out your slinkiest clothes and get ready to feel that pulse. Try the Chicago Triple, Funky Butt, Savoy Walk, Slow Grind, Struttin’ . . . sounds just about right for summertime, wouldn’t you say? The history is beautiful – check out last night’s video of Snakehips Tucker from the 1920s at the Savoy.

You need to know from the start that no matter how loose this dance may look, it has a particular aesthetic and roots to honor. It’s easy to move bluesy to bluesy music – but that doesn’t make it Blues Dance. You’ll start out right with Damon Stone, one of the core dancers and historians. He prefers the name Blues Idiom Dance, to put the roots front and center. Stone opens the door for non- African-Americans with this: “Appreciation is becoming one with a thing and finding your own voice to express yourself from within it. Appropriation is when you take the ‘words’ and change them or their meaning to fit what you want to say. One is letting the thing change you— and the other is changing the thing to suit you.”

Stone profiles the three traditions of Blues Idiom Dance: Solo, Juke Joint, and Ballroom. They’re what they sound like, and the moves match. Solo steps are separate from a partner, either dancing alone or when a couple takes a break from pairing their energies.

Juke Joint grew out of the casual gathering spots hosting small combos with a crowd and limited floor space— road houses and rent parties. The movements are staccato, as often as not staying in one spot. The body is low-to-the-ground, knees loose, allowing wide hip and pelvic sway. What travel there is has frequent changes of direction and sharp angles to fit the space. Partners often move independently.

Ballroom makes good use of more space. This is where big bands set the tone, with the lead instrument usually piano, brass or reed. Vocals are growling and teasing, just like the music. Moves are expansive, posture more upright. The two soundtracks I pointed out above are from ballroom competitions, with fabulous performances to inspire.

The beat and rhythm of Blues sets the tone. Dancers “lag” around the beat, with a push and a pull that carry tension inside loose and relaxed. Almost lazy but always ready for action and improv, either separately or as a couple. The subtleties are beautiful, with asymmetry and layered moves in different parts of the body— hips, pelvis, shoulders, torso, butt can move to a different beat. No one part of the body dominates this dance. Stance is  “get-down”, with weight centered on the balls of the feet. Always be aware of the shapes your body makes with legs, hips, arms, head. Blues Dance carves an artistry like no other.

You can learn the real thing starting June 3rd. BluesCENTRAL has planned a 12-week intro to the essential Idiom Dances. Each week stands on its own, so drop in when it fits. You’ll find the teachers warm, welcoming, and skilled — Jennifer, Mark, Dave, Sierra.

Some of the steps are solo, many are paired. You don’t need to bring a partner; leads find followers and swap out often, so everyone gets to dance with beginners and the savviest. The class is always about welcoming the newest person in the room.

The lights are low, the music compelling, and quickly you’ll find there’s no need to hide. The regulars are involved in other kinds of dance across town, from tango and swing to belly dancing. Their comments: it’s fun from the first session. There’s the joy of tango without the killer stilettos. The relaxed intensity is perfect therapy. It’s safe to dance with a stranger; slow and sensual is the style, but as much or as little as you like. The age range goes well into the 80s; there’s no better way to find the connection, mobility, and cognition needed to stay sharp as you get older. It’s a family.

It’s simply a terrific way to loosen up on a Monday night. When you’re living the blues, there’s nothing better than to dance it.

Here’s the summer lineup; sign up for the newsletter and keep track of any schedule changes with BluesCENTRAL.

June 3rd: Chicago Triple
June 10th: Funky Butt
June 17th: Savoy Walk
June 24th: Slow Drag
July 1st: Piedmont Triple
July 8th: The Grind
July 15th: Struttin’
July 22nd: Step N Go, Fishtail, 4 Corners
July 29th: Texas Shuffle
August 5th: The Strut
August 12th:The Mooch
August 19th: The Stride

Already on the calendar for Saturday October 5th is a full day, Fallin into Blues. Next March brings SnowMELT blues, a full weekend of workshops for beginners and intermediate dancers, social dances, and live bands. Chicago has a monthly Blues Dance on the last Saturday at 4437 N Ravenswood, 8 pm to 2 am. Check it out at Bluetopia.

Give yourself full immersion June 7th through 9th at the Chicago Blues Festival, Cube 2019. An all-night dance will get you in the groove.

Get ready to Fishtail, Strut, Mooch and Stride – you may never look back.

Summer Sampler: Introduction to Blues Idiom Dances with Jennifer White
Guido’s Bar & Grill
2 E Main St,
June 3rd through August 19th, starts at 6 p.m. 

Photos: Juke Joint: FSA photograph by Marion Post Wolcott; Snake Hips Tucker from 1930 film Crazy House; other photos by Cope Cumpston

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