Blues Idiom Dances

There has been a lot of talk about blues idiom dances within the modern blues dance community. Many different dances have surfaced in recent community discussions, event workshops, and competitions. There are lots of names to remember, so let’s start with how they all connect.

What are blues idiom dances?

Blues dance is the family of Black American vernacular dances danced to blues music. This family of dances is united by a common blues aesthetic and is generally separated into two stylistic subcategories: ballroomin’ and jukin’ blues. First coined by Albert Murray in Stomping the Blues,

Blues idiom dances refers to specific blues dances. Each specific blues idiom dance may have particular rhythms, pulses, or movements that characterize the dance, and a specific type of blues music that it is danced to.

Whereas blues dance refers to a large umbrella of movement united by a common aesthetic, the blues idiom dances are the specific dances and movements found within this large family. Most blues idiom dances fall within the ballroomin’ or jukin’ category, though there are a few blues idiom dances, such as slow drag, which have both ballroomin’ and jukin’ variations.

I made this. I am not a graphic artist. If the formatting is killing you make a prettier version!

As blues is so varied, there are numerous blues idiom dances. As blues dancing was rarely documented, I would not be surprised if our current community is only aware of a tiny sliver of the blues idiom dances that actually existed. Blues idiom dances include, but are not limited to,

  • Boogie
  • Chicago triple
  • Fishtail
  • Four corners
  • Funky butt
  • Grind
  • Knee rocks
  • Mooche
  • Piedmont triple
  • Savoy walk
  • Shake and bake
  • Slow drag
  • Stride
  • Strut
  • Struttin
  • Texas shuffle

Splitting hairs

Many people in our community first learned the fishtail, grind, mooche, and shimmy as blues movements instead of blues idiom dances. What are the differences between blues idiom dances and blues movements? Is a fishtail just a blues move or a blues idiom dance? The original dancers focused on the movement rather than specific categorizations. We can consider movement that was consistently used by dancers to a specific type of song as a dance, even if the step is simple, as is the case for slow drag. In reality, there is no meaningful distinction between blues movements and blues idiom dances though some people may find it useful to classify movements in different ways.

Blues dance is a family of related movement that was created organically over a long time to a highly varied musical genre and by many different people. As such, you will find many different opinions, definitions, and categorizations within our community. Differing opinions and frameworks are inherent in the nature of a vernacular social dance.

No single person, dance, or movement embodies the entirety of blues. While it may be confusing, we should celebrate and recognize differing perspectives and opinions. I encourage you to find the definitions that make sense to you as long as they pay homage to the original creators of this art form.

Why blues idiom dances?

Dancing to blues music is all about finding the right basic for the right song. While an understanding of general blues aesthetic will lead to good, if generic, blues dancing, it is only part of the picture. Part of learning the blues idiom dances is respecting and understanding the history of blues dance. Blues music spread across the country and grew into many different genres; blues dances evolved in concert with the music, creating just as much, if not more, diversity in styles.

Learning blues idiom dances can also transform your understanding of technique and musicality as a dancer. For myself, learning several blues idiom dances has been a journey of discovery and expanding my dance repertoire. I now have more variety in my rhythmic patterns, pulse, and movement which allow me to connect with a wider variety of music than I could previously. While it would be dangerous to overly prescribe which movements or dances you can use to a particular type of music, blues idiom dances are a great starting place for how to connect with and embody many different types of music. Learning one dance can expand your skills; learning many helps you understand fundamental principles of musicality so you can create your own basics to new songs.

The sheer number of blues idiom dances may seem overwhelming; there are several dances that are relatively new to the modern blues dance community. However, our community already possesses a lot of knowledge about blues idiom dances; common movements such as the fishtail, grind, mooche, shimmy, knee rocks, and truckin’ are all blues idiom dances. Now it is a matter of learning how to reorganize the information we already have and apply it through the framework of blues idiom dances.

Personally, I find the focus on blues idiom dances as permission to simplify my dancing and focus on consistent rhythms and movement to a single song. Learning the “rules” for different blues idiom dances has helped me gain a finer understanding of what movements go with what types of music so I can be more actively conscious of how I am embodying the music and differentiating my dance between different songs.

Where can I learn blues idiom dances?

If this has piqued your interest, there are several recent national blues events that highlighted blues idiom dances in their workshops. These include Mean Old Blues 2017 in San Francisco, Bambloozled 2017in Washington, D.C., Blues Muse 2017 in Philadelphia, and Rose City Blues 2017 in Portland.

Several events have highlighted blues idiom dances in their competitions. The Challenge Strictly at Nocturne Blues 2015 and 2016 featured slow drag, struttin’, and Latin blues. North Star Blues 2017 hosted an Open Blues Idiom Mix and Match competition: prelims featured Savoy walk, slow drag, and struttin’; finals featured Piedmont triple, Savoy walk, and slow drag.

If you missed those, the interest in idiom dances does not appear to be waning! Many future national blues events are sure to feature blues idiom dances. Check out Snowbound Blues 2017 in Rochester, BluesGeek 2018 in Nashville, Austin Blues Party 2018, bluesSHOUT! 2018 in Chicago, and Blues Bump 2018 in Montreal for more workshops featuring blues idiom dances.

Don’t forget to check the classes in your local community! Depending on where you live, there may already be local classes available for several blues idiom dances. Both Blues Union of Boston and Blues Dance New York are incorporating blues idiom dances into their fundamental blues curricula and frequently host intermediate level classes on a variety of blues idiom dances.

If you do not have classes readily available, remote private lessons are another great way to learn blues idiom dances. While you certainly cannot work on connection, remote private lessons are great ways to answer targeted questions. Here are a few strategies I have used for successful remote private lessons:

  1. Share demo videos. I took videos of myself attempting to dance a specific idiom dance and asked for feedback on those videos.
  2. Ask written questions. I asked specific questions in writing about specific blues idiom dances and got answers in writing.
  3. Video chat. I had a live conversation over video chat which allowed me to ask new questions in the moment and for me to add movement visuals when asking or receiving an answer to a question.

Online resources

There are a few online resources already available to help you learn about blues idiom dances.

  1. Videos.
    1. Check out my YouTube channel where I am curating playlists featuring different blues idiom dances. The playlist below is a collection of videos where each video features multiple blues idiom dances. Go to my channel for additional playlists that highlight one blues idiom dance at a time.
    2. Blues Moves curates lists of clear videos showcasing classic blues movements.
  2. Music. Check out these Spotify playlists with music appropriate for several blues idiom dances. These were curated by Damon Stone, Julie Brown, and Susan Olson, I hope these enrich your personal practice!
  3. Descriptions. Check out this awesome table featuring several blues idiom dances put together by Joy Arico and her team at Snowbound Blues. This categorizes blues idiom dances as jookin’ and/or ballroomin’, provides a brief description, and includes video links where available.

I hope this helps you understand what blues idiom dances are and why we care about them. As mentioned by Tim O’Neill on the October 2017 Blues Dance World Podcast, understanding blues idiom dances is part of our community’s search for authenticity and intimacy in this beautiful family of dances and music.

Best,

Laura

Many thanks to Damon Stone, Julie Brown, and Susan Olson. They endured my pestering, answered many of my questions, and contributed to the Spotify playlists embedded above. Lastly, many thanks to Shira Hoffman. Our many conversations helped me understand the framework of blues dance and inspired me to pursue a better understanding of blues idiom dances.

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