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The Enthusiast: On shuffling and swing dancing and learning to hear music with my body

I didn’t know about shuffle dancing until my daughter started posting short videos on Instagram last year of herself dancing on her balcony. She quickly gained a large following (as @maveywavey); some of her videos have been viewed more than three million times.

What I liked immediately about shuffling was its energy and its origins, as a dance form that arose spontaneously around a particular kind of music. Shuffle dancing, which is sometimes called cutting shapes, is a collective creation. It was born in clubs and at festivals devoted to what is now known as electronic dance music (EDM), which includes house and its many variants. Shuffling is a vernacular form in that no professional choreographers are involved in its evolution.

The first form of the dance, which originated in Australia in the 1980s, was simpler, faster and more aggressive. Shuffling today is more intricate and even lyrical, but still has a punchy energy, in keeping with the music’s driving uniform beat.

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The natural social-media home for shuffling is Instagram, where anyone can upload an excerpt of a favourite track – usually about 30 seconds – and show off their flow, recombine known steps or invent new ones, and reveal something about the music and their feeling for it.

I like the way shuffling echos other kinds of dance. A couple of the basic steps look a bit like moonwalking, but with the floor-bound heaviness of modern dance. All the precision and most of the focus is in the footwork, as in some kinds of folk dance; the arms are active, but free-form. A lot of shuffle dancers do the same sequence to the left and the right, which reminds me of the symmetry of classical ballet.

Sometimes I see a flash of what looks like swing dancing, my other favourite vernacular dance of this year. This one I do myself, at clubs and studios in Montreal’s robust swing scene.

As with shuffling, swing dancing came about spontaneously, at big urban dance clubs such as New York’s Savoy Ballroom. Some of its basic traits can be seen in a 1914 film of an African-American couple dancing, but much of the movement vocabulary was formed to the jazz of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Swing is a small galaxy of related dances, which began to be revived in the 1980s and are now done all over the world. There are steps to learn, but you can also add your own, so long as they fit with the flow and overall style.

One fascinating thing for me about dancing swing is that it changed my way of hearing the music. I can imagine the specific steps or sequences that could be done with a particular number, and in that way I hear the music with my whole body. That’s deeper and more personal than just moving in time.

Unlike shuffling, which is done solo or in tandem, swing is a partnered dance, with a traditional split between a “lead” and a “follow,” although anyone of any gender can take those roles. Swing, as practised these days, has an egalitarian social culture, in which it’s assumed you’ll dance with many partners at a given event. It’s actually considered bad form to stick with the same person all night, or to come on to someone on the floor. It’s the antithesis of singles’ bar culture, and although the music is old, the dancers are usually young. Most of the dancers I see in Montreal are in their twenties and thirties. Some of the more accomplished make videos that end up on YouTube. But as with shuffling, what really counts is how you express the fun and feeling of the music you’re hearing.

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