Another Spell On Us

First off, congratulations to Curtis & Elizabeth on winning the Sweet Molasses Blues showcase competition last year!  I’ve been holding onto this one so I could publish it now that registration is open for the next Sweet Mo’, to remind everybody of the great performances you can see there!

Art is fascinating, and artistic communities even more so.  Performers can draw on related bodies of source material with different perspectives, the same piece can be received differently in varying contexts, and related performances can become part of an ongoing conversation in a community.

Elizabeth and Curtis deal with a lot of those issues while talking about their piece, both the previous dance to the same song by Amanda and Paul, and the ongoing discussion about trigger warnings among Blues dancers.

For the record, I do have an opinion on trigger warnings, and it is that they are appropriate whenever they are referencing material that people wouldn’t naturally expect in the current context.  Since the very nature of the Blues is that it deals with a variety of heavy subjects people deal with when life isn’t particularly happy, it would take a very graphic dance to get to the point where I think a trigger warning would be appropriate in front of a Blues dance performance.

[This is narrated from Elizabeth’s voice, with Curtis’ input]


  1. Perform at BluesSHOUT
  2. Perform at Red Hot
  3. Compete at Sweet Mo
  4. Create the most badass, expressive blues piece possible
  5. Win Sweet Mo
  6. Continue a discussion of sensitive topics in the dance choreography community
  7. Perform AGAIN, as winners, to increase exposure

We knew we wanted to choreograph a piece to submit for BluesSHOUT! 2015, so we made a list of choreography ideas, because we didn’t have a song in mind in particular. (The last two pieces of ours that went to BluesSHOUT!, the inspiration began with a particular song.)

In that list of choreography ideas, we had something about puppets. At one point, someone said, “Wouldn’t it be great if the puppet overcame the puppetmaster at the end?” And so Curtis decided that one idea he wanted to definitely try for a next piece would involve that switch of roles.

Our next step was to scroll nearly at random through the songs in Curtis’ library, and “I Put A Spell On You” became a possibility – it wasn’t final yet. But when we heard Tab Benoit’s version, we had found what we were looking for. “I Put A Spell On You” was perfect. Especially because of the language of abusive ownership, it would be even more amazingly freeing when we would dance the role reversal and my character was able to overcome the challenges placed on her by her relationship. That’s when the piece started taking on a meaning more profound than just puppetry.

Another thing we try to do in our choreographed pieces is push ourselves to become characters that we do not typically embody in our daily lives. For the way that the piece ended up, Curtis got to play a controlling character with low self-esteem, which, if you have ever interacted with him in the dance world, you will know that is his absolute opposite. I began the piece as a trapped and struggling woman, which is also fairly out-of-character for me, as I tend to express power and boldness in my movement.

As far as other dances that influenced this piece, there is no getting away from the theatrical and performance background that both Curtis and I have, in multiple styles. Though, since the goal was to present the piece for consideration at BluesSHOUT!, we made sure to check each other at every new idea to ask, “Is this blues?” And if the answer was “no” or “not really,” we investigated ways of “bluesifying” the movement, which is something Curtis is also passionate about teaching. There was quite a lot of floorwork in this piece, but we tried to keep a fair distance from modern and contemporary styles – mostly because they’re usually not very bluesy.

Once we had decided on our song, plus the theme of role reversal, the goal of expression fleshed out quite significantly. It turned into the expression of a journey: beginning from any manipulative relationship, to an acknowledgement that something needs to change, to finally actually changing it and leaving behind that which doesn’t serve you. It became the ultimate empowering journey, which was so perfect for me personally as we were choreographing.

The process of choreographing was extremely piecemeal, but was always directly inspired by the music (which we edited for length and content; the organ solo was particularly uninspiring to us). One or the other of us would find something inspiring about a particular guitar lick, a lyric, or rhythm that would make us want to do something, and then we would toss ideas back and forth about options that would serve both the way we are initially inspired to move and also furthering our story.

Paul & Amanda’s Routine

Disclaimer: Contrary to popular belief, we DID NOT have ANY awareness of Paul & Amanda’s 2010 piece until after we submitted our proposal to BluesSHOUT! – where it was soundly rejected, with the aforementioned piece as part of the rationale. We were told (and we absolutely believe this) that Paul & Amanda’s piece created such palpable discomfort in the blues dance community that those waves would still be reverberating, and our piece would cause some of that discomfort to resurface. This is a concern that is totally understandable for an organizer of an event – why make audiences needlessly uncomfortable? We watched Paul & Amanda’s piece at that time and agreed that it was expressive to the point of almost graphic. But we also agreed that our piece was saying something different and important enough that it still deserved to be assembled and displayed, even if it wouldn’t be performed at the event for which it was initially intended. So we decided to continue choreographing and working, targeting the release for a performance at Red Hot Blues & BBQ in the months ahead.

At Red Hot, we were entirely unsure of what was going to happen. We were nervous, Curtis was injured and on whiskey, and we really wanted to do a great job. Hearing the crowd cheer and being thanked by audience members afterward really made us aware that we had created something special that not only communicated what we wanted to get across, but also resonated with the audience emotionally. That gave us the courage to throw our hat in the ring at Sweet Molasses in the first place.

In the wake of having performed our piece so publicly at Red Hot and at Sweet Molasses, many dancers approached us and commented about the difference between our routine and Paul & Amanda’s. They mostly were expressing a hearty approval for the shift in roles and the hope that implies, and for the way that that very shift seems to more accurately reflect the culture of our dance community at the moment.

Community Response

Sensitive Topics in Art

At Red Hot, organizers were very deliberate in delivering a trigger warning about the two pieces that were to be performed, in advance. At Sweet Molasses, there was no trigger warning announced prior to the Finals competition. To be honest, I was a little surprised by the warning issued at Red Hot. The organizers didn’t tell US (the performers) ahead of time that they would be giving a small speech about triggers, and it changed the focus of my pre-performance anxiety a bit. But it seemed to be such a beautiful, well-intentioned gesture in keeping with their Safe Space policy that it was all well and good. At Sweet Mo, by contrast, the competition in finals went pretty much according to how I expected it – just a brief introduction of the group and the piece, and then we were on. The difference really happened afterwards, when a concerned and affected community member publicly expressed a wish that there had been a trigger warning issued. This caused maybe as much of a stir at the event as had Paul & Amanda’s original piece. People had a lot of thoughts, feelings, and opinions about the approach of that individual, the response of the organizers, trigger warnings in general, and art as as expressive mode – and, happily, they seemed to feel very free about expressing those thoughts, feelings, and opinions to us directly. We don’t have an official opinion one way or the other about whether including trigger warnings as a preface to art is good or bad, necessary or superfluous. We do stand by our piece as an empowering journey that has to come from a character in a disempowered place, at the very least. But primarily, I cannot overemphasize the importance that I felt we had as artists to bring a piece to the community that sparked this conversation about art reflecting life, which is uncomfortable, and various ways of approaching people’s trauma when reflecting that discomfort in art. I have never felt more like my artistic contribution really mattered and made a difference (other than maybe inspiring individuals to dance more awesomely).


Because of how proud we are of this piece, we reached out to another organizer inquiring whether we would be able to perform it at their event – which is finalized to be Winter Blues in January 2016. This is special and exciting for us because this will be the first time in our history of choreographing together that we will have let a piece lie dormant for awhile and then resurrected it for another event. It will be fabulous, and so good for us!


In keeping with the empowering spirit of the dance, we want you to know that if you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence or trauma, you don’t have to escape alone. Please reach out. 1-800-656-HOPE

Masculine versus Sharp: Say What You Mean

Here’s a great article by Joey Science on understanding how the words we use map to motions in dance, particularly from a gendered standpoint.  The thoughts they put down here would definitely be useful for choreographers who want to have precision in what they communicate with their pieces!!Masculine-versus-Sharp-Say-What-You-Mean/ryj0f/56c15ad40cf263687f7824f2

2015 in review

Wow, people have read this blog about 2700 times from 55 different countries this year; that certainly does seem to make the effort I put into it worthwhile!

It’s also been great watching the quality of performances coming out of the blues community improve from year to year … I can’t wait to find out what you all have in store for 2016!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,700 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 45 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Noir Blues

Here’s another great example of where the quality of the performance really makes the piece.  I’ve seen a lot of performances which try to use a blank or neutral look to seem mysterious or thought provoking, but really not have the depth to pull it off.  Here Shawn, Julie and Natalya take that attitude and use it consistently and creatively in a way that really draws me in!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

Natalya: We wanted this piece to have a “Film Noir” feel and experiment with lots of interesting, tangley 3-person shapes and partnering.  We started with the idea of us playing the roles of typical film noir characters – the detective, the secretary and the femme fatale – and we thought of the song as being narrated by the detective, expressing his heartbreak at having found a letter left behind by a lover who has gone.  

We did most of the choreographing with just these inspirations, and then later worked out the specifics of the story.  The plot line we had in mind was that the secretary (Julie), was the detective’s ex lover who he was not over when he started being involved with the femme fatale (Natalya).  So the detective is being pulled away from the femme fatale by memories of the secretary.  In the end, the femme fatale leaves him too, leaving behind the letter saying “there’s no use you lookin’, or ever hoping to get me back”, and the detective is left alllll alone😦.  

We thought of the piece as him remembering back to what happened like a day dream – that’s the mental image that probably resulted in the neutral affect we ended up having.  We didn’t want to spell this plot out for the audience though – we wanted the audience to be able to get the feel of the piece and leave the specifics of the plot up for interpretation.  I think this was achieved given the feedback we got!  

Julie: Also, when choosing the roles of the secretary and femme fatale in our “plot,” we purposefully chose the secretary to be the one drawing the detective away from the femme fatale. We wanted to be careful with that choice a) to not be too predictable or fall into tropes, and b) to avoid reinforcing any messages about your man/person being “drawn away” by someone more attractive/sexy.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

Natalya: Julie picked the song, and again, it all stemmed from the Film Noir theme.  The song itself has the right dark, dramatic feel and the lyrics describe a typical film noir plot.

Julie: The 3 of us wanted to do a piece together, so I offered up a few songs + concepts, and this was the one we decided to do. For me, it had a good dramatic feel, and as Natalya said, felt like a Film Noir. I think it’s those horns in the beginning and the cymbal tap…Seems Noir-y.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

Julie: We didn’t draw too much on other dances/dancers for this. I looked at a bunch of Chicago-style Steppin trio dancing videos for inspiration for the parts where all 3 of us partnered together, but I don’t know if we ended up using anything from that.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?

Natalya: We choreographed the first half of the piece remotely, when Shawn and I were in New York and Julie was in Boston.  Julie would send Shawn and I a few written ideas, Shawn and I would work out the details and fill in the blanks and send a video to Julie for feedback.  Our early videos even featured guest artists such as Josh Fialkoff in the role of Julie Brown.  

Then we met all together for a couple of long sessions when we were all together in the same room to set the tangley bits that finish the piece.  Our process there was to throw out a series of rather ridiculous ideas (e.g. “what if we both just jump on Shawn now?  hahaha”), try them out and see what worked.  There was a lot of playful “what if…” and “yes and…”, which made the choreographic process super fun.

Shawn: Yeah!  It was an incredibly fun process.  Natalya and Julie are both a fountain of good ideas.

Julie: Yeah, the whole process was really fun! It was cool to do the remote-choreographing thing–I give an outline/some ideas, and Natalya & Shawn bring it to life! And choreographing the 3-person parts was particularly fun! Lots of silly ideas, trying things…I still can’t believe that 3-person lift worked out, but it’s awesome!

Triple Heart Breakers

Here’s another choreography that was performed at North Star Blues this year!   What really strikes me about it is how good Megan, Feonix, and Erin are at always being present in the piece, even when they’re not in the spotlight.  It’s not just a matter of the moves they’re doing, they’re always actively engaging the audience and each other, which keeps me engaged in the piece overall.  Aspiring choreographers take note: this is one of the most frequent notes that comes up during Sweet Molasses that separates good performances from great ones!

They’ve also been working together to teach a class in DC to make a dance to another Ray Charles song … and have even considered doing a whole Ray Charles Cycle.  I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see that!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

In this choreography we expressed three different versions of a heartbreaker–hence the coordination in color. One was the sweet girl-next-door (you’ll hear that Ray talks about a bobby soxer in the song), another was the classic femme fatale, and the third was the intelligent powerful woman (although we were thinking more about the badass, sexy PhD candidate rather than the sexy librarian stereotype). As the piece progresses we move into staggered unison movement to indicate the lines between each character blurring – they each become a different facet of the same person. Overall we were hoping to reclaim the negative voice Ray uses to describe a woman as heartbreaker by dancing as happy, sassy, empowered women having fun and owning it.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

We chose the story about the three versions of a heartbreaker after we chose the song. We listened to a lot of music and went with the song that had plenty of instrumental variation to play with, fun lyrics, and clearly defined sections that inspired each of us. This piece was a true collaboration between the three of us, so often it involved bringing back ideas we’d come up with, running them by the other women, massaging each section until we were satisfied, and then working through transitions. We loved this piece because it had each of us go outside our normal way of dancing–it required each of us learn the others’ styles. I’d never thought about how many variations there are on a camel walks or a tabby the cat, but each of us did our moves very differently.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

I always loved the choreography to New Orleans Bump at Lindy Focus. I’d also done some work with my own girl’s group in New York called the Sugar Foot Follies. Sharon Davis had a solo class and we took a lot of thoughts about variations of movement (especially pimp walks) and blues aesthetic from her.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to
create the finished choreography?

The songs we initially considered were all very different, so the theme and story line came after our decision to go with Heartbreaker. Similar to the New Orleans Bump piece, we created a lot of shapes together–in particular in what we call the “tableau section” that starts at 1:40. The heart of the piece is the feeling of collaboration itself and the playful moments we had while putting it together. The concept is important but secondary to the energy of the music and our friendship. We were really focused on finding different ways to break apart and come back together, both with staging and timing.

Recommendations for other choreographers: We had some amazing rehearsals where all we did was watch one person do her solos, or two people perform the piece. These were our first “performances” of Heartbreaker and we all saw drastic improvement in quality of movement and facial expressions, as well as more creativity with styling. Feonix, Erin, and I trust each other and are all open to constructive criticism. That’s part of what makes us a powerful team. We had a great working relationship in terms of boundaries; it was easy to let the person with the most enthusiasm and powerful vision take lead from moment to moment. We were also very clear about expectations from one practice to the next and supported each other in accomplishing these intermediary goals.

My favorite secret about this piece: A lot of Heartbreaker was choreographed at Erin’s work gym where national security employees go to work out. One of my favorite moments was rehearsing as a guy sprinted on the treadmill behind us with a gas mask on. I don’t know who was more entertained–him or us!

Pleasure & Pop

Today we get something really special!  Carsie Blanton is a super talented musician and dancer; maybe you’ve even met her, especially if you’re from Philly or New Orleans.  Some of her music is good for swing dancers, some of it is good for blues dancers, and some of it is just plain great to listen to!

Right now, she’s going to tell us about a song she wrote, My Baby Can Dance, which is one of the biggest Lindy Hop hits I’ve seen come out of a modern musician.  My laptop may know how many times I’ve DJed it, but I’ve certainly lost count!  If you already know the song, I hope you appreciate the insight into how it was made, and if you don’t, go listen to it already!

Carsie’s last project was an album of jazz covers, many of which are great dance songs.  Here’s another good one.  Right now she could use your help to fund her latest project “The Radical Magic of Pleasure and Pop” which is shaping up to be a really fun album … I’ve already gone to Kickstarter and backed it, so I’d certainly recommend that you do too!

What thoughts or feelings do you want to get across to your audience when they hear this song? What is there in the song that communicates that?
To me, this song is about the joy and physicality of dance (and, less directly, sex), and how that joy can short-circuit the rational part of one’s brain. I want the listener to be so full of joy that they are totally convinced that this is a good thing. I want the reaction to be “oh well, who needs rationality?!”
The lyric communicates these ideas fairly directly, but I’ve also used the age-old tools of rhythm and melody to get people moving and feeling (and not just thinking).

What music from the past did you draw from to create this song?
Well, the song itself is music from the past at this point (I wrote it ten years ago, and recorded it in 2008), so unfortunately I’m having a hard time remembering! But I know we used Slim & Slam’s “Tutti Frutti” as a reference track in the studio, because it was one of my favorite songs to dance to at the time. We tried to imitate that extremely tight rhythm guitar paired with a slightly looser snare drum shuffle (and then added even looser claps). So it swings with this tight little cute pocket – that makes me really want to dance.
We also referenced Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say Part II” for the vocal call-and-response part. That’s one of my top-5 favorite recordings of all time, in any genre, and it seemed like the time to try and rip it off (just a little).
What was the technical process like to make this song happen – writing, arranging, rehearsing, live vs. studio recorded etc? Any fun stories?
I wrote it on my friend Danielle’s bathroom floor, in about 2006, the morning after a dance in San Francisco. I had just got off the phone with my mom, and was lamenting this terrible dance crush I had, on this guy who I found totally unappealing – except for when I was dancing with him, at which point I found him incredibly appealing. (I was just learning how to dance, so it was one of my first experiences of the “dance crush” phenomenon.) My mom actually gave me the refrain; she said she’d always thought someone should write a song about a guy who’s a total geek and maybe even a fuckup, but then the song would go “my baby can dance!” and it was all OK.
And I thought, I know at least twelve guys like that.
We’re dancers. We love your music. If you were playing this song for a room full of people, how would you like to see them move to it?
Well, my favorite thing about Lindy has always been the levity and connection of it. I love to see people really making each other laugh, and doing sweet simple things in a connected way. I don’t particularly care about style or technique, except as it allows people to communicate better within the dance. I love to see people who are full of joy, and sharing that with their partner.

A Dance About Us!

I love this dance, but it’s not just about the dancing.  So often in our community I feel like we are dancing other people’s stories … the stories of musicians and a people from a far different time and place than the average attendee of a blues dance exchange.  We really mature as artists when we start creating pieces about our own lives instead of mirroring others’.

This piece really hits that on the head.  Joey took a really powerful experience of their own and has turned it into a performance that all the dancers I’ve talked to relate to because it portrays the kind of friendships, hopes, and loss that we’ve all had.  Sharing who we are with each other; it’s what art’s about.

What did you want to express with this choreography?
Joey: A few years ago, my best friend died unexpectedly due to complications with the flu. For the first long while, I would see her everywhere. Any one with even a slightly similar body or hair style would trigger all of the bits of my brain that were associated with her. I’d think about everything I had to tell her about what had happened since we’d last met. Of course, it was never her, and I knew that. So the stories would hang in my mind, and the realization that she wasn’t really there would sink in and hit me like a brick in the chest.

I wanted to honor that pain and in honoring that pain, the impact of her life on mine. I also wanted to highlight the importance of non-romantic relationships, and how they can be as uplifting and essential to our lives.

Laney: Joey really provided the concept for the piece, but while we were working on it we talked a lot about what kinds of movement gave the impression of a friend-type relationship vs. a romantic relationship. We also talked about expressing not just the “everything is wonderful!” part of being friends, but also the “life is really hard right now and I need support” part of those kinds of relationships.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?
Laney: Joey picked the song, so I’ll defer to their answer on this one.

Joey: I spent three years thinking about this piece before a song was ever picked. I never had any more details in mind, and at first it was too fresh. I was introduced to Albanie and Her Fellas by Mike Roberts in a class at Swing Out New Hampshire in 2014, and was all too stoked to throw the band my money. I had listened to the album maybe a dozen times (it’s reeeeeally good, guys. Like so good) before I was hit with December Song hard one day. I don’t know what made that listen different, but it threw me under the bus that day.

The lyrics are about just bumping into an old friend, and catching up, but there’s something wistful underneath it. The last lines of the song drive that home, “But now, once again it’s December. You know that time, really does move too fast”.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?
Joey: I feel really weird saying this, but none specifically. I’m sure others’ staging choices and framings did subconsciously influenced Laney and I while we were working on this, because we’ve definitely both watched our fair share of dance choreographies. But while we were working, we just jammed in our own bodies, and then experimented together, and went from there.

Laney: Agreed. It was pretty organic, we didn’t really draw inspiration from any specific piece or pieces. Workshopping it at Sweet Molasses was really helpful – it got us thinking about our blocking in a new way, and gave us lots of ideas for development going forward and how to make the story more clear.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?
Joey: I guess I started to answer that a bit before. I asked Laney if she might want to work with me in…late April? I had been sitting on the idea for so long that I knew I would just not get anywhere without someone to be accountable to. So Laney and I both listened to the song independently in our separate cities, and worked on it and thought about it. Then we got together during LindyCON and spent a few hours jamming on stuff together. Living in different cities has presented some odd challenges to finishing and polishing the piece. We got some great feedback at Sweet Molasses, and had a little bit of time to work before North Star to make one more change that we thought would benefit the quality of the dance. We went back and forth about how much hint to give that there was something off, but in the end, I still feel like the shock value of Laney’s dismissal is more powerful and more like what I felt than something that had more foreshadowing.

Laney: Yeah, it was interesting doing long-distance choreography. I do think that made us use the time we had together efficiently though. For me, especially initially, there was a lot of just listening to the piece over and over and over again and messing around solo. After we met the first time and had a better idea of the arc of the piece, we split things up a little – Joey would work on this section, I would work on that section. Then we came back together and put those together and finessed transitions/beginnings/endings. Toward the end we talked *a lot* about how to make the ending less abrupt, or…ease the audience into it somehow? We still might change some things and perform it again, but I do like the punch-in-the-gut feeling it currently has.