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HOW TO DANCE ZYDECO
Zydeco Dance Lesson - Basic Beginning
© 1999-2010 by Gary Hayman (Maryland)
all rights reserved
The following has been extracted from a 4 page two column newsletter style handout that I provide to dancers who are just starting Zydeco dancing; after they have taken my one-hour basic session. It is intended to help them at home with what they have learned in class.
All to often after a new student attends a class prior to a dance event, by the time the next day rolls around, what the instructor has said is not still clear in the mind and they may start practicing what they "think" is correct, but what MAY NOT BE CORRECT -- unfortunately establishing an incorrect learned dancing response that might take them months to break.
Now most of you reading this here are probably already beyond this writing (unless you just happen to be wondering why you don't dance and look the same as the other excellent dancers), but it may interest you in a successful approach to learning the basic step in case, at one time, you might be teaching a friend how to Zydeco dance.
Remember not all people learn dancing by strictly visual means. Some learn more by explanation (auditory) while other learn more by a body movement effect (kinesthetics). You have probably run into individuals who can watch and watch and not pick the steps up (I'm one of them - so are a lot of scientists, accountants, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals who are strongly trained in critical analysis), but with a little explanation and movement they learn better. In teaching Zydeco on the dance floor, I attempt to apply ALL three learning reference senses (see/hear/feel) into the instruction to reach the greatest amount of students. It works!
Copyright 1999 by Gary Hayman - All Rights Reserved
Reproduction and distribution not to be made without prior approval
Basic Zydeco Dancing For Novices & Beginners
by Gary Hayman
Zydeco is the name of the music. Zydeco is the name of the dance. Zydeco is the name of a country party.
As you might imagine there is a strong amalgamation of the three. The music is rarely played alone; for sure someone will be dancing in a short time after hearing the Zydeco beat - a prime ingredient for a fun Louisiana party (or anywhere else.)
The music and dance originated in Southwest Louisiana in the area known as Acadiana. It wasn't always know as Zydeco, for early is was called 'jure', then 'la la', followed by various forms of the presently used word -- Zydeco. The name, it is said, came from a stretched pronunciation of the French Creole patois word 'les haricots' (snap beans/string beans) which is found in an early popular song "L'Haricots Sont Pas Sales" (The Snap Beans Aren't Salty) which implies that the people are poor as they didnít have any "fat back" to salt their pot of snap beans for the dinner guests.
Although Zydeco music is highly popular in the Acadiana area, where I would guess it is danced daily -- at least somewhere, its infectious nature is spreading throughout the world, brought there by not only the traveling Louisiana Zydeco bands but by excellent local bands that keep the spirit moving. Major cities outside of Louisiana, such as Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Providence, Boston, Raleigh-Durham, Atlanta, Birmingham, Huntsville, Memphis, Ft. Lauderdale, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Houston, Austin, San Diego, Los Angles, San Francisco, Eugene/Portland, Seattle, London, Toronto, etc. are centers for the music and the dancers.
The basic step for this hi-energy dance is easy to learn and an introductory one-hour lesson before a dance will get you started so that you can enjoy the evening. Improvement requires enjoyable practice, and perhaps more advanced lessons which are available in the major cities and at some of the numerous festivals and dance camps.
Although Zydeco is a partner dance, it is almost unique in that at certain points, the partners can be doing completely different steps -- and it works. Followers (usually women) love this because it allows them to express themselves. So dancers can mirror each other or strike out on their own for a few steps, always joining again on the 7th and 8th beat of the music. The dance allows you to play around a little since both dancers aren't always doing the same thing. You can play an "I-Go, You-Go" or a progressive "Can You Top This" game which gives the dance added dimension and fun. And it is always fun to demonstrate that new step you learned during your latest trip to Louisiana or Texas -- or at your local dance hall.
Zydeco music is a back-beat music, meaning that the music is played in 4/4 time with the 2nd and 4th beat being accented. This is an underlying beat of much of the rock & roll. The music combines elements of Cajun, Rock, Caribbean, Rhythm, Blues, Funk, Hip-Hop, etc., and is constantly changing form, depending upon the band. Most of the music isn't written (or at least published) so the sound of the same song, played by two different bands will be different. It is important to listen to the music while you dance to not only pick up the beat -- you want not only to match the beat with your dancing, but to hear the phrase shifts. Since your dancing is married to the music, your steps and styles change accordingly, as the music changes.
In your first lesson you were probably taught (or will learn) the basic step. Even though it is easy, it is important that you learn it correctly, for if you pick up a bad habit at this point, it make take you months to rid yourself of it. So pay close attention to the instructor. WATCH him/her, watch yourself (It's OK to look at your feet when learning), watch other dancers. LISTEN to the instructor, repeat to yourself what is being said, count the beats, give yourself verbal instructions while you dance SAYING the words in your head, and even discuss what you are doing with your partners -- it helps. In addition FEEL the movement of your body, the subtle weight shifts, the push and pull of your partner -- any slight movement you are making. This way you are putting ALL your learning systems to work to help you learn faster -- and better.
Zydeco is NOT a hip-swinging hula, or a jump-and-jive lindy, or a side-to-side Cajun two-step, it is a dance that uses very subtle side to side WEIGHT SHIFTS. It is a minimalistic dance where most movement takes place below the navel while the upper body remains relatively static. It might not look that way to you when excellent Zydeco dancers strut their stuff, but they will be applying the basic dance rules -- just like you. With some of the starting moves you might think of it as dancing while balancing a glass of water on your head without spilling it -- Good Luck! Your body is staying erect and your shoulders are parallel to the floor; knees slightly bent.
You were (or will be) taught the basic step which will probably be based on the "SPSS SPSS" technique. (Some instructor's start differently but eventually you end up with this technique.) Think of SPSS SPSS meaning Step Pause Step Step - Step Pause Step Step; 8 events to 8 beats of the music. For every beat there is a Step or a "Something" -- it doesnít have to be a Pause.
You are NOT going to learn to really dance well from a piece of paper. This article is to be used as a reminder of the steps. The instruction part requires slow and careful reading as you translate the words into movements. But as you read it again and again it will make sense and soon you won't need it any more as you progress in your Zydeco dancing.
EXERCISE 1 - PRACTICE WEIGHT-SHIFTING
(For this, men and women can do the same thing)
Start by yourself, body erect, feet about 12 inches apart, knees slightly bent (like when cruising during skiing), weight slightly on the balls of your feet, heels barely touching the floor, with slightly more weight on your right foot. (This is a good starting position the only difference is, that when dancing the followers would have their weight on their left foot -- but for now, do it this way). Now shift your body about three or four inches to the left so that the weight is on the left foot. Hint - here is how you do it; learn this and you have almost mastered the dance. If you will think about shifting the belly-button at the same time keeping your head directly over it when you make the weight shift this will prevent your hips from kicking out to the side (that's hula) and keep your body erect - shoulders staying parallel to the floor. Keeping your weight on the balls of your feet you simply lift your heels about 1/4 inch as you make the weight transfer to the other leg. You don't twist your body as you do this (that's swing) but keep your body facing forward. You will end up as you started, only with your weight on the opposite foot. Your body really didn't move very much. You just weight-shifted while your belly- button traced an imaginary small up-side-down "U". Now go back in the same manner to the other foot.
Keep this up. Get the feel. Watch yourself in the mirror at home. You may feel robotic in the beginning but after a while you will loosen up. Make sure your knees are bent. Now put on some slow Zydeco music (or other 4/4 music of a slow tempo -- 110-125/bpm or so) and practice your side to side weight-shifting in rhythm with the music. Spend time with this because once learned the more advanced steps will be much easier. Make sure you listen to the music and end each weight-shift at the VERY moment the beat in the music sounds.
THE BASIC STEP
Using your weight-shifting that you did above we are going to change the step slightly.
LEADER: start in the above position with your weight slightly on your RIGHT foot, shift to your left arriving with the beat of the music (that will be your 1st step or first "S"), now PAUSE there for the next beat. This is your "P" (in the beginning it is hard to do nothing (pause), but talk yourself into it anyway.) Now for the third beat shift your weight, just like you practiced, to the right foot (your next "S") and for the forth beat shift back to the left (another "S"). OK, half-way there.
So far you have accomplished the SPSS or Step Pause Step Step. Your weight now is on your left foot. For the fifth beat shift your weight to your right foot ("S") and PAUSE there for the next beat (6th). On the seventh beat shift to the left foot ("S") and on the eighth beat shift your weight to the right foot ("S").
FOLLOWER: start in the above position with your weight slightly on your LEFT foot, shift to your right arriving with the beat of the music (that will be your 1st step or first "S"), now PAUSE there for the next beat. This is your "P" (in the beginning it is hard to do nothing (pause), but talk yourself into it anyway.) Now for the third beat shift your weight, just like you practiced, to the left foot (your next "S") and for the forth beat shift back to the right (another "S"). OK, half-way there.
So far you have accomplished the SPSS or Step Pause Step Step. Your weight now is on your right foot. For the fifth beat shift your weight to your left foot ("S") and PAUSE there for the next beat (6th). On the seventh beat shift to the right foot ("S") and on the eighth beat shift your weight to the left foot ("S").
What you have done is similar to the first exercise but have paused in position for the 2nd and 6th beat of the music producing the SPSS SPSS - 8 steps. Be warned it is tough to pause so you have to keep talking to yourself, saying, under your breath, Step Pause Step Step - Step Pause Step Step over and over again until it becomes so natural that you can forget the script. You laugh to yourself now saying that that is so easy, how could I forget? But you might be surprised. Remember, keep in time with the music, so at first, slower is better!
With all this shifting you still keep your shoulders parallel to the floor, and move your body in a minimalistic way keeping your head over your belly-button.
CONGRATULATIONS! You are dancing Zydeco -- but by yourself.
When you partner-up assume the normal ballroom dance position that you learned in Junior High School. You are now ready to begin. Keep your bodies erect, knees bent, feet about 12 inches apart - the leaders right foot pointing between the followers legs and the followers right foot pointing between the leaders legs. The leader has his/her weight on his right foot slightly and on the balls of his feet at the same time. The follower has her/his weight on her left foot slightly and on the balls of her feet at the same time.
For the first step, to the beat of the music (listen for the beats from the drums) the leader and follower step together arriving on the beat at the same time the leader moving left and the follower moving right. Both pause for the next beat. Then to the rest of the beats Step, Step, Step, Pause, Step, Step just as you did in the above section -- only this time together.
You should practice this with a partner, in fact many partners, if you can, so you can get the feeling of the shifts/steps and the pauses. Help each other out. Keep talking to yourself: (Step, Pause, Step, Step, - Step, Pause, Step, Step) Keep it going for a whole song. You are doing the basic step. Usually, this is the way the dance is started either with someone you know or with someone with whom you have never danced. The first couple of repetitions tells your partner a lot about your ability and body movements and lays the ground work for future advanced steps during the dance.
Earlier, I used the term "something". Although you could do the above all night, it might become boring after a while. The dance allows you some special freedoms, even in the basic step. For example, during the Pause you could do something with your un-weighted leg. For example during a pause while you are "eating the beat" (pausing) you could tap with the toe of your un-weighted foot. You don't put any weight on it since the weight is to remain on the other foot during the pause. You just tap your toe. During the next pause you can do the same thing with the other free foot. Now the dance becomes a: Step, Tap, Step, Step - Step, Tap, Step, Step. Remember there is no weight on the foot that is tapped.
Instead of taping, one could Brush the foot slightly to the ground. This is like dislodging a pebble from the ground keeping your weight on the other foot. So now the eight steps become: Step, Brush, Step, Step - Step, Brush, Step, Step.
As you become more advanced you will discover a lot of different things you can do (lifting, twisting, sliding, pointing, etc.) Mix the steps up as you dance. You will find it is not important that both leader and follower are doing the same step at the same time. You will find that even though you are both doing slightly different things with your feet, you body, trunk up, will be doing the same thing.
SLIGHTLY OPEN POSITION
Here you will back away from your partner, a little, facing each other but with the leaderís left hand holding the follower's right hand. Don't go too far -- you DON'T want to have the arms fully extended you still need a bend in the arm of the leader and the follower. You still can do everything above -- SPauseSS SPauseSS, STapSS STapSS, SBrushSS SBrushSS. Try it.
How do you get there? Easy. Just (leader) drops right arm and (follower) drops left arm and slowly backs-up as you are dancing. You don't have to do it in one step -- take your time until you reach the appropriate distance apart and continue to dance.
GETTING BACK TOGETHER
No problem, just slowly, while dancing, inch forward, going back to the partner position.
The leader by applying a little pressure with the left arm and slightly pulling with the right hand, while in the partner position, can cause to couple to turn in place slowly - clockwise. This is good for letting the follower get a chance to view the band that the leader was looking at while you were dancing. As you begin to communicate in dancing a little better, the turns can, and do, become quite rapid, but no matter what happens, THE BEAT AND STEPS ARE ALWAYS KEPT (Beginners). The music always drives the dance. You can also turn counter-clockwise.
There is lots more to the dance. Above are the very basics. As you become better and progress to beginner, intermediate and advanced, you will learn back-steps, complete open position, crossovers, butterflies, turns, stomps, hesitations, lunges, and a lot of good looking tricky stuff -- including how to break the rules. But for now, this will get you started.
It is common to dance with all who ask (within reason). This type of dancing promotes a friendly dance community so we really don't often refuse dances. Hey, they are only about three minutes long anyway. It is just as common for women to ask men to dance as it is for men to ask women. This may differ, depending upon your area. It is not uncommon that after a dance number, one might just turn around and greet the nearest available partner and join together for the next dance, constantly changing during the evening.
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