Reflections on Austin Blues Party, Impostor Syndrome, and Growth

This year was year 10 for Austin Blues Party. I’ve been to nearly half of them. Austin Blues Party has a special place in my heart because it was my first blues event, but it also has retained that place in my heart and grown as the people that run the event and participate at the event have proved to me, time and time again, that blues can both strive to teach proper aesthetic and at the same time be a big damn party. Since this was such a great occasion to do so, I decided I would think back to my first ABP and discuss what I learned from looking back and what I learned here at ABP10, five years later.

ABP6 was my first blues dance event I ever went to, and I was probably only three months into learning about partner dancing. So naturally, I felt I needed to rely on others to give me a feel for both how I should go about participating in the event and what constituted blues in a national scene. I quickly found out how little I knew about blues and was excited to learn more, but I also found out that it’s important that I run my own damn self.

My friends I went to the event with dictated to me that I must only take fundamentals classes; they would go to the higher track classes and we would all get videos and share them with the community when we got back. But since they weren’t going to take the fundamentals track, someone had to, and since I was the newest to the community, that meant me. I could learn about the classes that were all levels that I was interested in from them when I got back to Utah.

While I definitely was interested in some of the fundamentals track classes, there were classes that I really wanted to take at were designated “all levels.” But the first day I did as my friends mandated and took all fundamentals classes no matter what my interest level in the topics. I did learn a lot, and I’m sure that I needed to learn it, but it was difficult for me to swallow that I was in there because I was told I had no other place or options. So after that night of dancing and being frustrated with my friends’ exclusion of me during social dancing, I determined that I wouldn’t let my friends tell me where I had to be for classes.

Once I made that decision, I’ll never forget what happened. I took an all levels musicality class with Dexter Santos and Heidi Fite. They were focusing on lines and how we utilize different parts of our body to create them in dance, and how we could utilize this in our blues. They encouraged us to explore our body movement and not worry so much about how good it looked at that moment in time, but rather focus on what we could do, later looking to how to make it look how we needed or wanted it to look.

As I was dancing, one of my friends came up to me and said, “You know, the instructors are pointing at you. They’re watching you. You should probably stop moving like that. You don’t want to be noticed for what you’re doing.”

I couldn’t believe he’d say that. Didn’t I want instructors to pay attention to me and help me? Wasn’t I encouraged to explore? Even though I respected my friend, I made what was probably the most important decision about my dancing that would affect the way I dance blues forever: I decided I wasn’t going to listen to people telling me that I wasn’t worth noticing and that I shouldn’t explore movement and new ideas. I’d spent several years of my life in an abusive relationship being told I didn’t matter and wasn’t worth noticing, that I had no talent and couldn’t learn, and I wasn’t going to let it continue into dance, the very format I’d chosen to try and break free of such oppression.

I felt like I learned a lot about blues that Sunday, but it wasn’t as much about dancing the dance itself as it was about why I dance.

Jump forward five years. I’ve worked incredibly hard and consistently to be able to gain the skill level I currently have in blues, especially considering the few resources for blues dance and music information in my area. Funny thing is, I’ve come to learn that really, the fundamentals are nearly always what I’m focusing on to get better. Private lessons, fundamentals classes, and intensive track classes have taught me that. I have friends from all over the nation, even some international friends, that I met dancing and I love to dance with and talk with when I see them. Because this is Austin Blues Party’s 10th year, I am going to get to see a great number of these people.

But I also know this means that I’m really going to have to step up my game if I want to make the intensive track. So many of my friends and others I don’t yet know are fantastic dancers, and I’m certain most of them who are auditioning for the intensive lessons will make the track. I’ve got some stacked competition to be in. How could I possibly make it into intensives this year?

This isn’t jealousy at others’ talent, as some may start to think here. Honestly, my brain still goes back to what I’ve been told in the past: I’m not worth noticing; I’ll never match up to those who do the same things as me because I can never learn enough to be good; I should just fade into the background and let people who actually know what they’re doing represent.

I start to let my value as a human being hinge on my abilities in comparison to where others are at. It’s so tied with my fear of never being good enough to achieve anything worthwhile or worth noticing that it can be hard for me to kick myself into gear and just try to accomplish something small, like stepping forward and saying hi to an instructor I haven’t formally met yet or hugging an instructor I’ve taken lessons from for years before I audition.

But you’ve been dancing for five years and worked your ass off to get where you’re at! What’s the issue? I know. Impostor Syndrome is a real thing, that’s all.

I was genuinely surprised, and relieved, that I made intensives. When I got in classes, I was challenged in every one I took in some way. And it was great, because everyone in the room was also working on something in their dance, and we were helping each other along. I always seem to forget how friendly these classrooms are, and that if I’m struggling with a concept, people are there to help and to struggle with me while we work it out together.

By the end of the first day of classes, I felt renewed. I’d hugged a lot of people I hadn’t seen in months, some over a year, and I had a blast dancing to a live band that evening.

Then Sunday came.

I knew I had to fly out before the Sunday dance, and I’d never had to do that before, but work and PhD studies required it of me this year. I was missing the end of the big damn party, and here I was, Sunday morning, and already sad about it, but trying to keep a good attitude and enjoy the day I had left.

Dan Repsch taught me a lot in a private lesson, and I was reminded how much fun I have learning in a one-on-one setting. About halfway through the lesson, he said in passing, “You’re a good dancer, so you’ll get this.” And I didn’t say anything for a variety of reasons, among them that I’m certain he engages with far better dancers than me. And he looked at me and said, with his hands on my shoulders, “You are a good dancer, even if you don’t know it yet.” Not long after that, I decided to accidentally choke on my own air intake, which I’m not sure who laughed harder at.

And then I hit a wall in classes. Mike Grosser and Ruth Evelyn’s class on footwork was amazing, but I was really struggling with getting certain movements in my feet. Understand that it took me nearly a year to be able to do tick tocks, and fancy footwork that requires more thought than tick tocks—well, it will continue to take me a long time, on my own, to be able to execute it. Still, I was insistent to myself that I not give up, that I keep trying. I went into internalization mode, where I don’t so much interact with people in the class because I’m trying to make sure that my brain will fully focus on the concepts even after I’m out of class. Sometimes I worry that this makes me seem frustrated (although that’s sometimes already true) and unapproachable as a dancer, but it is my method for consuming difficult (for me) information.

At the same time, another part of my brain was telling me that this class was proof I didn’t belong in with this group, that I should just leave and quit trying. Other people weren’t struggling as badly as I was. The “you’re not worth it” vibe ran strongly through my brain and body for about the second half of class, and I just couldn’t beat it.

And then Ruth noticed me. She’d been watching, and after class was over, she had individualized feedback for me to help me keep my body healthy as I dance. It’s been years since an instructor has done that for me in a non-private lesson format. Years. And it made me want to cry, because I remembered back to the first time an instructor noticed me at ABP and helped my dancing. I remembered when I told myself that it was okay to experiment and explore and not look great or be great at something, because that was what classroom time was for—growth.

Allergies, as fate would have it, determined that my eyes would already be watery and ready for waterworks as I took notes. I laughed inside at the irony that as I had managed to hold tears back from gratefulness and sadness, allergies would so kindly tell me where to stick that and they would manage the waterworks for me.

I was going to leave to go get food after I finished taking notes. I had yet to have any local Austin fare outside of Amy’s Ice Cream (nutmeg flavored ice cream is great, by the way!), and that bothered me. But as I was finishing up notes, Tim O’Neill, even though he was teaching class, came up to me and asked, “Hey, are you going to jump in?”

Noticed again. Invited in. Reminded that I am welcome.

I couldn’t decline, because I knew that if I didn’t stay, my brain would continue to beat itself up for human struggling. And Tim and Julie’s class was about a topic I was familiar with and had a lot of fun with despite being so tired after a full day of classes, learning, and mental strugglings. It was a fantastic ending, minus the lack of food.

Y’all, the people who make Austin Blues Party what it is, for me, are the people who understand that diversity in people, skill levels, and interests is what makes events fantastic. And the organizers understand that and foster that social, low key environment, even with so many amazingly skilled people in the room. As long as Austin Blues Party keeps this focus and feel, I will continue to support this event.

And as far as happy endings go, after classes, Jimmie Carter topped that off as he brought me Rudy’s BBQ to eat because he wanted to make sure I got at least one good dinner in Austin before I left. I can’t think of a better ending than that.

Bringing the Professional Blues Dance Scene to Utah: Or Organizer Frustration

In the midst of planning Utah’s only professional, local blues dance event of the year, Sweet Solstice Blues, I came across this post on Facebook from Nyree MacPherson:

this is just a general PSA for all things in the world:

IF YOU ARE GOING TO DO A THING, FREAKING JUST REGISTER IN ADVANCE. BUY YOUR DAMN TICKET LIKE NOW.

If you are not an event organizer it may not seem like it makes a difference as long as people show up, but it REALLY does.

Let’s say there’s a class or event that has room for 100 people.

It needs 65 people to attend to break even.

If 75 people register in advance, suddenly there’s MONEY IN THE BUDGET AGAIN!!! the organizers don’t have to scrape by producing the cheapest event they can! The talent might get to be paid properly! maybe we can afford to buy snacks for all 100 people we hope will show up! We can plan for these things!

And what if 100 people sell that thing out in advance?? well WAAHHOOOO your organizers can suddenly ADD things to the event!! they can spend the week leading up to the even actually getting ready for it instead of trying desperately to get people to come. and maybe, just maybe, the event will have enough money to throw some appreciation at the people who have given their time to making the thing happen. Hell, there might even be enough to secure the venue to do the whole thing again in the future!

But what if only 10 people register in advance? There may well be 90 other people who want to come, but how the hell do we plan for it? do we buy snacks for 100 people? do we change the venue to a smaller, cheaper place? or do we just cancel the whole thing all together?

The money for these things doesn’t come from magic. It come’s from an organizers credit card. Someone has to pay for a venue, music, food, and everything before anything happens. Usually it’s out of pocket.

It seems like every week i’m talking with people who are making the decision to cancel an event or risk losing money they don’t have.

SO FOR THE SWEET LOVE OF CRAP, REGISTER IN ADVANCE, PEOPLE. YOU WILL GET BETTER EVENTS BECAUSE OF IT.

stop making me and my friends cancel fun things, lose money, and work for free for nothing at the end of it. You can fix this. Just go buy your ticket to that thing you know you’re going to attend. Do it for love. Let love win.

I was stunned when I read this post, largely because I would never find myself having the guts to publicly post something that emotional. Since I’ve spent a lot of time trying to groom a professional image for blues, I find it hard to be that forward about the frustrations I deal with. And yet, this post hit home with me, because I understand the frustration this person is expressing. This year, I understood even more clearly because of the complaints from people who went to just the dances, not the classes at Sweet Solstice Blues. I would love to be able to properly address these complaints. Being able to modify events is a large part of what makes them successful, and yet, the requests people are making are impossible to implement without one important element: community support.

For Sweet Solstice Blues 2016, I found it difficult to get any traction for the event locally to even begin to cover the expenses of the event. And expenses are quite large, even for something like we have set up right now for Sweet Solstice Blues, so I would like for my community (local, national, encompassing anyone who wants to know, really) to let me explain how this works. That way, we are all on the same page about what our community needs to make the changes it wants to local events. For Utah, it’s similar to what MacPherson says above.

First, understand just how much it takes to get instructors out here to teach. I must pay airfare for the pros—both ways. I must make sure I have a budget to feed the pros, house the pros, and transport them from venue to venue. I must be able to pay the pros their full rate for the number of classes they require to run an event in our hometown; and if you’ve never taken group classes from professionals you may think this is affordable because group rates, but just think, if a private lesson with one of these pros is $70, $75, or $90+ an hour, what do you think their regular group rate is (hint: it’s more expensive)? If we want them to DJ, which we should as a community because of the quality of the DJ and the music, that’s more $$ (from $35 to $50+ an hour). Can you see things starting to add up? Because if your local organizer brings out two professional blues instructors to teach your community, that’s easily over $1000 just to get the pair out, and it comes out of an organizer’s pocket.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m complaining about instructor cost here. I believe that it is worth every penny to have them out to our community. It helps the dance community grow and builds enthusiasm for the dance and music. It gives people an opportunity to experience professional instruction without having to travel out of State to do it. And with how much time and effort they put into learning and teaching the dances they dance, these instructors deserve to be paid every penny of their full rate. HOWEVER, I can’t pay them their full rate if there isn’t enough community support—and at least in Utah, there has never been enough community support to pay an instructor their full rate, at least as long as I’ve been around in the community.

“But overall, that’s an easy cost to make up given that you charge $75 for an all access pass!” you say? Well, wait, there’s more.

I must pay all of the venues I book by the hour. This includes the time people stand around after lessons. An average studio charges $30 an hour a room, at least in Utah. Want snacks at the dances? It costs somewhere around $100 a night for a small refreshment table with fruits, veggies, and sweets. Add those to the budget. Want local DJs to participate? Add $$. Want good front door staff to check you into events in a timely manner? Add $$. This is not including insurance or other costs we may incur, as sometimes damage occurs at venues that must be paid for by the organizer. By the time you add all these things in, for a local event with just TWO instructors, we can easily reach over $2000 in cost. ALL of this generally comes out of the organizer’s pocket.

In order to break even at this point, the event then needs at least 27 people to pre-pay for the full event at a $75. We organizer types constantly worry about getting the traction we need for event success, both in customer satisfaction and in finances, meaning that we spend a lot of time promoting our events and stressing over getting that minimum. Why? Because we can’t please everyone, especially not if we don’t have the budget to do so.

After that $2000 is shelled out, we have NO more money to work with unless the community engages in the event by purchasing a pass. Want the event to go well, with all the extras you think the event should have? Then sell the event out! Fill our studios to capacity for lessons and dances! Then, then, when the Utah blues community (or insert community name) shows up en masse to support the event, we can make changes to the event. We can add cool things that you’re asking for!

For instance, we know that not everyone likes the variety dance we host on Saturday night for Sweet Solstice Blues. Unfortunately, right now, without blues community support, we must involve the entire swing community to pay for our studio rent expenses. If we get community support, then we won’t have to involve the entire swing community to try and break even on the event, so you don’t have to share your dance floor time with dances that aren’t the blues you’re looking for.

“Well, I have the answer to your problem with the Saturday night dance! This community support problem would easily be fixed by having live music,” you say! “Live music would make the dances better,” you say! “More people would show up to the event if you did that,” you say! Let me talk to you about that.

Live bands are expensive. Rightly so. Just like our instructors, they deserve their going rate. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the organizer has already shelled out more money than she (he/they) can easily afford to lose, meaning they’ve stretched their living expenses thin to do this event for your community. You want a live band each night? Well, the average price of a good band can be over $3000 for FOUR hours. So, where’s the other $3000 coming from for that? The organizer’s pocket. I feel safe that everyone’s done the math; if she (he, they) doesn’t easily have the $2000, they won’t have the $5000.

And Utah has this funny perception about cost (I can’t speak for other States). Utah people regularly tell me, “I just can’t pay that much to dance,” or “I just don’t think I should have to pay that much to come enjoy a few hours with friends,” or my particular favorite, “You’re just being greedy. Why can’t you be more community oriented?” The funny thing is, if we had enough community members willing to pay for the event, especially in advance (where we give you a deal!), then we could do what you want to see, give you more bang for your buck, as it were. If the dancers would come out and take advantage of the opportunity to have such an event in their community, we might be able to do a band one night for a couple of hours. If dancers would be willing to pay more money for live music and national DJs for the weekend (add $30-$50 or so onto all access and dance only pass price as it stands), and they would pay for that pass in advance, we could manage to have a band play both nights during the main dance.

For some this may pose a particular problem: they want the live music, but also feel that there should be more instructors and more course offerings that come with that increase in price. “Get more instructors out, and we’ll come take a few classes,” you say! Well, let’s talk about that, because now we’re talking about a regional/national event organization.

First off, at least DOUBLE the cost. Why? Because we now have to add up all the instructor expenses yet again, AND have to book bigger venues with more rooms, which costs more money per hour. That means that more people need to show up to the event. It also means that the price of the ticket will easily have to go up over $100 for the weekend. Can YOU, as a community member, pledge to pay for that ticket in advance?

Secondly, yes, I can hear you saying that if there are more instructors, then it has regional, and even national, pull, so we should be okay to get registration and the locals should get a special price. What you possibly haven’t considered is the promoter-power needed to orchestrate the advertising on a national level. Do you have a budget for flyers? Can you invite all the people you know around the nation that blues dance to the event? Can you find someone to house the people that come from out of State?

Each of those questions I asked above, at a national event, have at least one person over them, sometimes more. It takes a committee to run such an event, regional or national, and I don’t have a committee. I have me and occasionally a venue organizer who will help out with a few things. So, asking me to make Sweet Solstice Blues, or any other local event, have national pull is really, with no community support, asking me to pull of a Herculean feat. If you want to see a national or regional event here, please offer to help and back up what you say with action. Because I have run several events over the years here nearly on my own, and guess what? I physically cannot do any more than what I have done: I don’t have enough time, money, or resources.

“Well, you just need to go travel and see how the professional organizers do this for national events,” you say! “Travel around the nation for blues and find out what a ‘real’ blues event is,” you say! Let me tell you something that many of the locals here might not know since they don’t see me as often as other blues dancers, and therefore haven’t had as much interaction with me.

I travel to about five national blues events a year. Five. This is more than anyone in the Utah community. I don’t say this to brag. I am lucky that I have been able to save up money over the years to go to events like this, and that I have friends that travel with me to mitigate travel costs on occasion, and that we have national organizers who find a way to house out of town dancers time and time again.

In my travels, I’ve gotten to know national organizers, and I’ve talked to them quite a bit about how to organize a successful event. And guess what? They’re saying the things I’m saying. Pay your talent what they’re worth. Find many venues in case one falls through or you need a bigger one, etc. Be prepared to lose money on occasion. Hope you don’t lose money. Have a team behind you to run the event. Get volunteers. Have a good housing coordinator. Get someone who knows internet and advertising stuff. Get someone who knows legal stuff. And oh, so much more. I have even spent money to take classes on teaching, DJing, and organizing in order to more fully understand how to run successful events that please the most people.

Do I have a model from the national community I’d like to emulate? Why yes! Have you heard of the Blues Association of Austin? I’d love to tell you a bit about them. They are nonprofit organization with a board of 7 Austin blues community members who are committed to keeping the Austin blues dance scene thriving. They host one of the best events of the year, Austin Blues Party (year 10 is coming up!), and they host plenty of other events for their community, including a regular local dance and several workshops a year with the pros. These board members get together for meetings regularly, and plan the big events out more than a year in advance.

These people also have a lot of community support, and get a good team together to cover music, housing, legal stuff, finances, and more for their big events. They have someone over teachers, DJs, and other staff for their local events. In essence, a committee runs their scene, not one or two people. It is, to me, the only real proven way to create longevity in a community and make great events run regularly. You can check out their website here to learn more about them: http://www.austinbluesdance.com.

So, essentially, I’m saying this: you have control over how much I can do for an event. You can volunteer your time. You can help your existing organizers set up a system that allows for your community to host large and regular events in your home scene. Don’t have time to volunteer but want to show your support for the community’s large events like Sweet Solstice Blues? There’s an easy way to get what you want out of an event without being a heavily involved community member or volunteer:

Want better venues? PAY IN ADVANCE.

Want more national DJs? PAY IN ADVANCE.

Want more national instructors at one event? PAY IN ADVANCE.

Want more late night food? PAY IN ADVANCE.

Want live music? PAY IN ADVANCE.

Want national pull? PAY IN ADVANCE, PROMOTE THE EVENT, and VOLUNTEER TO HELP. ALSO BE RELIABLE. DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU WILL.

This may sound ridiculous, unwarranted, mean, or selfish, but guys, I promise, this is a labor of love from me, your head organizer for Bonafide Blues and Sweet Solstice Blues. I don’t make money doing this. I put my financial stability on the line for you every time I do the Sweet Solstice Blues event. What I do generally goes unappreciated, or that appreciation is almost always unspoken. What I get to hear time and time again are your complaints about how the event wasn’t just how you wanted it. That you had fun, but that this isn’t a “real” event because [insert reason here].

I do want your feedback. I need it to better the event.

However, I cannot do another event for this community if the community cannot prove to me that there will be enough support for the event. And up to this point, they’ve proven me that the support for this grand, national-pull event the Utah blues community keeps telling me they’re looking for just isn’t here. And with no real support base, no organizer in their right mind is going to try to pull of what the Utah community is asking for.

Bonafide: Power Moves

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Bonafide Blues has started back up again for the year after somewhat of a hiatus: graduate school got somewhat in the way of teaching dance lessons for me. But now that my graduate studies are coming to an end, I can spend more time on teaching, and I’m excited about that!

Our first class for 2016 is a 2 hour special class focusing on power in blues. It’s titled Bonafide: Power Moves—a class to help you create a more powerful blues posture, learn new, strong blues moves, and practice the technique you’ll need to keep an energized blues no matter what time of night (or morning!) you’re dancing.

This class can offer you the tools to:

-have a stronger posture in your dance that will allow you to maximize movement with the least amount of energy

– execute new, powerful moves in open, closed, and close embrace

-connect with your partner in all blues dance positions

-improve your balance

-improve your ability to add more variation in your partner dancing

Check out a sneak peek below.

In Utah and interested in taking the class? It’s happening March 11 at Dance La Vie Academy (see link in Bonafide Blues on FB) from 7:45 to 9:45 PM.

It’s $18 to register before the class, and because this is a one night event, we will be allowing payment at the door for $25 if you RSVP or message Chelsea Adams. You save $7 by committing early. To pay for the class, follow this link: www.paypal.me/ChelseaBluesDance/18

Sweet Solstice Blues

It is with great pleasure that I get to announce that Utah is having a workshop weekend with the accomplished Jenny Sowden and Dan Repsch. They will be coming to Utah for the weekend of June 19–20, and they will be teaching four workshops that Saturday. There are also limited private lesson slots available, so be sure to schedule earlier rather than later if you know you want a private lesson slot!

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Interested in Dan and Jenny’s style? Check out their strictly competition performance at BluesSHOUT! 2015. They’re the first couple to dance in the video.

Interested in learning more or signing up for the weekend? Get all the details at www.DanceUtah.info/SweetSolsticeBlues.

Indubitable Blues

Our first Bonafide Blues series was a success, so we’re moving on to our second series, Indubitable Blues. It will feature 15 of the 30 most taught blues moves nationally, and the goal is to give our students a blues vocabulary base that will allow them to dance blues anywhere around the nation and feel confident about their skill set. I’m excited to be part of this new lesson series to help build the blues skill level here in Utah. Here’s a demo of what we will teach in this next series: