Conversation with Eng Kai Er and Loo Zihan

Conversation with Eng Kai Er and Loo Zihan

Eng Kai Er, TheatreWorks’ associate artist for Indulgence attended our current main season programme, 50/50 last Friday. After attending the first session of 50/50 by Loo Zihan and Joanna Dong, she shared with us some of her observations and thoughts on the programme. As an amateur in social dancing, Kai Er reflected on different roles the lead and follower have to take, and her take-away after the programme. Read on more for the conversation we had with Kai Er and Zihan, yesterday.


TheatreWorks: What’s your thoughts on the format of 50/50 and how is it different from the usual performance or class we attend?

Kai Er: 50/50 is both a Lindy Hop class and a performance. We alternated between these two modes of engagement. When Zihan and Joanna did some demonstrations as part of the performance (and not part of “class”), I had to choose between watching the demonstration as performance and watching them as a way to learn the dance. They are very different modes of watching. It’s different ways of paying attention.

I found myself settling down into each mode of receiving information, so I was alternating between different states, different roles – I was switching between being an audience and being a dance student – except for the moments when I was observing myself trying to choose a role, of course. In those moments of in-between, I think I went for the student role. Maybe all performances should/can be watched like one is a student, as if one is going to be tested on it or going to have to re-produce it in some form. It forces a different kind of attention.

TheatreWorks: During the first session of 50/50, Zihan and Joanna explored the ideas behind the role of Lead and Follower in Lindy Hop. As a performer, how was your experience taking on a specific role in a partner dance?

Kai Er: During “class”, I (took on the role as) lead and realise I had two partners: the steps, and the follower. I chose to manhandle the follower because I thought the steps had to be respected. I sensed the follower(s) were not ready but I pulled them in anyway, quite forcefully – maybe too forcefully! When the follower(s) said I was manhandling, I felt guilty but I also thought “what can I do, I have to keep time in the dance.”

In the open dance floor that followed the class/performance, I danced as a follower with a very experienced lead, who didn’t care that I didn’t follow on time, and made allowances and adjusted his dance moves so that we could still dance together.

This made me regret the way I dance (as a) lead in class. In a glitchy dance, my lead’s adjustment was to just let time pass so we could continue in the next phase of music, but in class, my adjustment was to exert more physical force in an attempt to force the follower into things. Both are ways of coping/adjusting but I think the more patient way is probably more pleasant for everyone.

TheatreWorks: Do you have any questions for Zihan in regards to Lindy Hop or the programme itself?

Kai Er: Do followers really need to learn “steps” / “footwork”?

On the open dance floor, several experienced people taught me the 6-steps and its variations. In class we had covered only the 8-steps. My immediate question as a follower was, how do I know when the leader is suddenly switching from 8-steps to 6-steps, or suddenly switching back? Several people said, “oh, it’s hard in the beginning but slowly you’ll be able to sense it”. Then, an experienced dancer taught me some Charleston steps and I worked hard to memorise the steps. Contradictorily, he asked me to forget all the steps and just let him lead my body through. All these put together – is it true (that) I should really forget the steps and just have the upper body / arms tell me where to go? And the lower body just copes by organising itself to serve/ follow the upper body, while the feet always step in time to music? If I use this strategy, is it enough? Can I dance Lindy, like this? What is the point of teaching footwork to followers, if (in fact) the only rules are 1. follow the leader and 2. step in time to music.? Just asking. 🙂 (It feels like leaders might benefit more from the footwork lessons, than followers).

Zihan: The footwork is the basic grammar for the dance and is what defines and differentiates the Lindy Hop from other dance forms. You are right in stating that the followers can dance by purely following along to the lead, but it is akin to learning an unfamiliar language without understanding the structure and rules of the language and only through conversation. It is possible, but it takes a sensitive follower who is aware of how his/her body moves, and it is a steeper learning curve for them.

Kai Er: Zihan, you showed us a video of a choreographed Lindy Hop dance. Why do people dance choreography, with this social dance?

What do you prefer (Zihan or anyone else that dances lead) – dancing choreography or having a following partner who has no idea what you’re going to do? Do people split into camps in the Lindy world – maybe a performing camp and an anti-performing camp?

Zihan: Personally, social dancing is preferred to (be) a choreographed routine and the pleasure of dancing the Lindy Hop comes from the improvisation to music with a partner.

A choreographed routine is used to showcase the more acrobatic aspects of the Lindy Hop – the aerials and airsteps – and is typically more efficient as a tool to attract people to take up the Lindy Hop. Film and documentation of Lindy Hop routines are also what survived from the 1930s and allow us to reconstruct Lindy Hop when it was first revived in the 1990s. It is somewhat ironic that we are reconstructing a social dance from choreographed routines. We will be touching on the history of the dance and showing some of these film clips in the second class of ‘50/50’ on 11 December.

It is important to note that it is irresponsible and unsafe to lead the follower into aerials on a social dance floor unless he/she is a partner you have danced and performed consistently with.

It is a valid observation that there are individuals who are great social dancers and never had the desire to perform – Joanna is a fantastic example. Performing a choreographed routine and working (on) perfecting the steps inspires social dancing in a different way, making me aware of how I present myself on the social dance floor. In short, social dancing and performing choreography complements each other in oblique ways, but yes, they can exist independently of each other.


50/50 will continue to run for two Fridays, on 11 and 18 Dec, 8pm and 9pm. If you’re interested in joining the class, do register here now!

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