Jo Hoffberg is probably one of the first dancers that caught my attention when I started to dance years ago. Luckily, I have got to meet a lot of the people that I watch on YouTube, but I’d never had the chance to take classes or share an event with her. This year, it finally happened at Swingtiago Lindy Weekend and, despite the fact that I always say that it isn’t good to idolize people, I was SUCH a groupie that I asked her to bless my Objetos Lindy necklace, #ShameOnMe.
Each answer of this interview deserves its own post but as the questions are connected to each other, I deem the length of this post is worth your time. Not only has Jo a lot to say, she is also very clear about what she wants to communicate. Here you’re going to find out about her ideas on the learning process, changes in the scene, teaching online, fashion, training and more. Hope you enjoy it! [Versión en español disponible]
You’ve been dancing and teaching for a long time, where do you look for new inspiration?
At this point I’m attending Hip Hop classes, Ballet, Break dancing, Tap, House. I’m trying to attend as many dance classes as I’m able to so that I get to work with other professionals and be a beginner again. I feel it’s a luxury to be a student when you have other people creating a learning experience for you.
Do you feel that your time studying psychology and social behaviour helped you to become a teacher?
I think from my time at the university that it encouraged me to be curious about other people and their experience. I think that going through the learning process of understanding how somebody else is having a very real experience, which is completely different from mine, hopefully has helped me become a better instructor. Recognizing that even though something is easy for me to understand, the challenges for other people are having the general understanding of what is being said and then connecting it to their body, so how is it that they translate an idea to movement.
So I say this is what I really see or just understanding that human are challenging and there is a lot more to dancing than just what you see. There is a lot of emotion and mental activity that sometimes as an instructor I have to understand how to get passed so that I can get them to connect to their body.
Did you feel challenged creating strategies to teach online?
Yeah. When my dance partner, Kevin St. Laurent, and I started at the beginning we made DVDs, back when people actually bought physical discs, and the process was very new because I had not really learnt in that way, so it just felt like an adventure to try to create a product that would last for a number of years. And then years later, we made another round of DVDs and I think those went much better and actually had a longer staying power. The foundation of those videos is a lot of the foundation that we are currently using.
In our current school «iLindy.com«, which has been a labour of love, we are still kind of in beta. So we have not finished getting a feedback to know what’s not working, and the technology changes so quickly that certain services that we signed up for are not really relevant by the time that the course actually hits the market, there are a lot of technological challenges like the speed of certain things in different countries and ad blockers.
Also understanding how language is so fluid and sometimes feeling «Oh! I can say ‘followers’ and ‘she’ when I’m thinking about myself» however knowing that I could translate that I’m saying that followers need to be a female versus just the role of a follower could be any gender.
You talked about two things that I was going to ask to you: gender talk, and technology. Do you feel that now the scene is completely different from the one in which you started? Do we adapt quickly to those changes?
The scene has changed a lot since I started but I also started in a very liberal scene: San Francisco, California, which had a lot of openness and it felt like it was trying to progress the dance. In Los Angeles, at the time, the scene was more preservationist – from my perspective; I cannot speak to the reality of it, but it seemed very preservationist at the time. They were learning a lot from the clips and a lot of the dancers from Los Angeles from the 1940’s still, assuming they were alive, lived there, so they had access to the history in a different way than we did in northern California. And a lot of the top dancers at the time, when I was starting in the 2000s, had Hip-Hop also so there was a lot of modern influence. Or people were going to the West Coast Swing.
So the scene where I came from was very open and did not have a lot of technique, and wanted to be very inclusive. It felt like when I traveled down to Los Angeles, there was a very clear way of how you did Lindy Hop – and not that there was a right or wrong, it just seemed that that was the style. We called them the «style wars» of San Francisco; it was very poorly dressed but I would say that it had a deep connection to the music, the movement and partnership -even if we were just holding hands. So, really great skills that both scenes offered, but did not complement each other at the time.
It shouldn’t matter what you look like or what your gender is but how you treat the other people in the community and how you connect with the passion of the dance.
If you fast-forward now, years later, I think as we have more professional instructors than before. Just to make up a number, let’s say there were ten full-time instructors that were traveling around the world and now let’s say there are a hundred full time lindy hop instructors that travel to some capacity. There are significantly more events, maybe before there were between five and seven events a year and, in some ways, it took longer to spread ideas but everybody also shared similar ideas, because there weren’t that many places to go. And technology existed on VHS – an actual tape so you could only watch a video so many times before it wouldn’t work.
Once YouTube was invented there was the challenge of people wanting to see new things all the time, but in order to get good at something you need a lot of practice. So I remember that’s how we changed how people consume Lindy Hop. But the positive side of that is that people in countries that didn’t have a scene had access to the information so they didn’t have to hope a VHS would show up or a DVD, it was just available on the internet. So as long as you had internet connection you could learn. As we continue to move forward from when YouTube started, we have things now like Instagram were people can post instantly what they saw that day and there could be discussions about what is being taught, what is being danced, how are people dressing, what are the roles.
Based on some of the dynamics of the scene over the last couple of years I think the gender policies are getting better, but I think we still have a way to go. People are more conscious of their language and I would say in English, this might be easier. But as a native English speaker, it’s a biased answer because English is not inherently gendered as a language, it’s easy to use ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ – the assumption might be that one is a man and one is a woman – but inherently in the language it’s not actually there. So I am hoping that maybe as other cultures that have gendered language continue to push the dance, they are including that in their vocabulary as instructors. And that as instructors, they not just show up and teach; not just party and perform, but create an environment that is inclusive and that is supportive of any gender that wants to dance in any role knowing that if we are truly here to support the dance and to progress the dance, it doesn’t matter who is doing what. We are just looking for excellent body control and connection to the music and a passion for the dance to keep it alive so it shouldn’t matter what you look like or what your gender is but how you treat the other people in the community and how you connect with the passion of the dance.
When I started to dance the style was more “show off” and I feel it’s more relaxed now… I consider you as one of the fashion icons of the Lindy Hop scene, what do you think about the LindyHop Look nowadays?
The scene has definitely gone through a number of progressions, just as in the general fashion world there are cycles. So, when I started in San Francisco we wore baggy pants and orange t-shirts and we were terribly dressed, by every standard we were poorly dressed. And Los Angeles, for example, had vintage clothes in shiny fabric with skirts that would flare and if we, in San Francisco, wore skirts, we wore pants underneath them and we called them skants (pants+skirts= skants). And at the time I would say it was very Swedish. For a little while, the scene kind of got better dressed when the Swing craze happened, so let’s say that was late 90’s or early 2000 in the United States.
With the fashion world picking up the 1940’s, there were what i’m gonna call ‘early hipsters’ – even though they more “scenesters”. So they dressed the way the scene would have dressed and so you could go to bars and see people dressed from the 40’s and women would have their hair in pin curls, men in fedoras and in really nice suits. But they couldn’t dance. So at some point the scene divided: if you were well dressed it probably meant that you were not a good dancer because if you were a good dancer you didn’t need good clothes.
So for a little while people were showing up at competitions in jeans and t-shirts to make a statement of anticulture: saying “I don’t need to be well dressed, my dancing speaks for itself”. Then I think that at some point it felt it was enough for the scene; something like “ok but we could make it look a little bit nicer”.
Then it was acid-washed blue jeans, white t-shirt and a blazer for a lot of the gentlemen, and some kind of dress for the girls, so for the follows it was a little more open. And then slowly, top dancers started to dress a little bit better, which went down to the rest of the scene. So maybe they wore nicer trousers and then followers started getting nicer skirts, and at some point, people at the community started creating clothing or started creating shoes, accessories and so on. When that started to happen, people were like “oh, I can support my other fellow dancers by buying these things”. So I think the community kind of got together as it seemed there was an interest in clothes, but there wasn’t a place to buy them because it was out of fashion.
Because there are so many hours of Lindy Hop taught every week, it’s important to get outside information.
When people were no longer trying to prove that they were good dancers in spite of clothing, I think it felt like “wow, we should take this more seriously”, or “we could dress up”. There was also a little bit of the status of “I have the time to put an outfit together“ or “I have an eye for this” or “I know what I can dance in” -‘cause there sure are things you can’t dance well in. For example, as followers we know there is a certain heel-height that might work for Balboa, but not so much for Lindy Hop.
I think that recently, with the dynamics of the Lindy Hop scene, there is a follower empowerment like lady power, or however you want to describe it. In some ways, and I’m not saying that pants are in a position of power, just knowing that you don’t need to wear a dress to show up and prove that you’re feminine, makes a statement. Like “I can wear anything for the fact that I am as powerful and I have so much presence – and that’s what I’m bringing to the dance”.
In many ways, I feel that there is a freedom that comes from wearing pants that you don’t have to worry about wearing the right underwear on, like what if you kick in a certain way? What happens if there is an awkward photo? Awkward photos in pants are different than awkward photos in very little shorts. I think the dynamic is changing. And it translates to even footwear, and now we are getting to see more dance boots or Oxfords (or whatever they call it in every country).
I think fashion often gives you a glimpse of what’s happening, what is the dynamic like, how are our people wearing their hair, how are they wearing accessories. Now there are bigger earrings in fashion and I feel that’s in the general world, but also in the Lindy Hop world. However, I notice that typically they are light earrings, not necessarily in colour but in weight. If you are wearing heavy earrings, that’s something you can go out for dinner with or you can just exist as a human. But as dancers, we have very specific needs so that you don’t get hit in the teeth. We do not wear big necklaces that might be beautiful but could injure somebody. In many ways, fashion is supporting how we are viewing our role and our scene. And it’s been interesting to see.
You made many questions to many people, for example for the “competing, training, judging series” I would like to know what Jo would ask Jo.
Oh that’s a great question… maybe… the question would be «what would you say about training?» I think is incredibly important to take dance classes outside of Lindy Hop. I think Lindy Hop is a very big dance, but is there more to it? Because there are so many hours of Lindy Hop taught every week, it’s important to get outside information. So if I could encourage people to train consistently and to learn how their bodies move, even if they feel that their passion is Lindy Hop, they’d want to accelerate their learning opportunities by taking tap classes. There, you can work on your rhythm. Or ballet, so you work on your turning, or your lines or your eye, and your strength. I would encourage to take Hip Hop, to understand how a bounce works. I would say go to House classes to understand how bounce works and how speed can work. Go to Popping so you understand how to accentuate moments. All these dance forms can add something to your dancing, but you need to learn a larger skill set even if you just need it for two seconds. In some ways, it would take a lifetime. But that’s what allows dancing to always be interesting.
240 bpm questions:
- Shoes or sneakers: sneakers
- Favourite Authentic Jazz Step: squat charleston
- Compete or perform: perform
- Another dance style that’s not Lindy hop: Popping, at the moment.
Well Jo, thank you so much!
I want to say thank you to Cecilia and Lucía that helped me translating this article.
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