This past year, Valerie Salstrom decided to add a fun edition to the All Balboa Weekend in Cleveland: a late night Slow Bal competition.
As probably the biggest proponent of Slow Balboa these days, I was pretty enthusiastic about what it would look like but much more curious to see how it would be received and judged.
I’d heard many things over the few months leading up to the event that made me raise my eyebrows at how little people and even instructors knew about the different styles, the history, or the great men that have kept these dances alive by traveling and teaching themselves. To try to battle this Kelly and I taught a number of Slow Balboa tasters at ABW, which covered very quickly the differences between Dean’s Slow Bal, Ray’s Laminu, and in the higher levels our own experimentations with the dance.
For better or worse it seems ‘Slow Balboa’ has become a blanket term for a few different dances and styles. My hope here is to demystify peoples' conceptions as to what these dances were, what they are today, and where we can take them.
Ironing out the details
In the ABW teachers' lounge as we all got our judging sheets and the Slow Bal competition was about to start, I asked ‘So what are we saying Slow Balboa is?’. The reason I asked is because even at the pro level you could argue a number of different things as Slow Bal. Is it just what was done in the Rendezvous Ballroom? Because then we’d be talking about Laminu and out goes Dean’s Slow Bal. Is it a Bobby McGees dance because then out goes the Laminu and in comes Dean’s Slow Bal? Is it just dancing balboa... slowly?
Now if thats happening in the teachers' lounge you can imagine some of the confusion going on with people looking to compete. With so many questions I suppose we should start with some answers.
First I will explain Dean Raftery’s Slow Balboa and Laminu. After this, I can show how his dancing influenced my (and many other teachers’) movement today. Last but not least I will cover Ray’s Laminu and why it is curious that the dance done by more dancers historically seems to be the one many people don't know. I will also reference a few other styles I’ve seen out on the dance floor.
The only reason for leaving Laminu at the end is simply because the material has already been covered in Kelly's and my M&K Bal Swing Pro channel on Facebook; and for those following us there we don’t want them to have to see the material twice. To find an in-depth history of Laminu and Ray Cunningham you can visit: https://www.facebook.com/MKBalSwingPro?fref=ts&ref=br_tf
Dean Raftery’s Slow Balboa
I will start with our original slow balboa teacher Dean Raftery, who Kelly and I were lucky enough to take classes from multiple times over the years. Dean is still around and teaches what he can when he can and is one of our favorite old timers. He is a truly great man with a strong soul. His love of this dance and watching him do it is one hundred percent of the reason we push it today.
Now, Dean’s Slow Bal is a favorite amongst teachers in the classroom and this is why we will tackle this dance first. We call it Dean’s slow bal because it is specific to the way Dean and his wife Nancy would dance to slow music, NOT in the 30’s or 40’s but far later in the late 80’s early 90's. The step and the way it moved was specific to this couple. It is important to note that you can say this about the way they did their balboa as well (most old-timers had their own flavor). Dean also danced and taught Laminu and made the distinction between the dances by teaching two separate classes at the Balboa Rendezvous Weekend in 2006: one in Laminu and one in Dean’s Slow Bal.
Here is a short clip of some of the steps taught at the Balboa Rendezvous in 2006. You will notice some stay more in place with a swimming basic and some traveled. Dean’s Slow Bal is referred to as Dean’s Slow Bal Tango in this clip. My guess is because he would put a lot of longer swimming motions into his Slow Bal back then and if you watch he and his wife dance Balboa at Bobby McGees, she does adopt a tango arm connection. I never heard Dean refer to it that way though.
The dance itself is incredibly rhythmic yet smooth and beautiful, and I remember seeing a few dances Dean had with Kelly in 2005 and 2006 and being hooked. I NEEDED to know how to do this. The way he moved looked like he was swimming, without the big counter-body leads I see overdone today; he actually rotated his whole body. He would also incorporate some minor flash steps like drags, slides, sways and drops which you can see examples of in a few of these videos. Again, I kick myself in the ass that iPhones weren't around back then because so much of what I do and love is based on watching these dances and not having a camera around to see it again kills me. Balboa Rendezvous was always one of Kelly's and my favorite events for this reason. For three nights you could go out and find the old timers to dance with and Sunday night all the old masters would get together at the Balboa Pavillion, which for someone who lives in New York, is a truly fantastic experience. I was sad to see it close its doors and it hurt me to hear old timers ask why Joel had stopped throwing the event.
Here is an example of one of the drops Dean taught at this past years California Balboa Classic with Randy and Kara, two of my favorite instructors. Kara is my slow bal confidant, haha. She and Randy are two of very few instructors I know who took the time to learn this beautiful dance. I would urge anyone to learn from them if you get a chance. Thankfully it’s nice to know Dean remembers those dances with Kelly as well. Dean gives Kelly a little shout out in this clip as being someone with whom he remembers enjoying dancing slow bal.
The difference between Dean’s Slow Bal and Laminu is pretty subtle and I often remember seeing him mix the two, although I didn't realize it for a long time. When Dean taught Slow Bal as he did it with his wife Nancy in the late 80’s, he would do his basic more in place and it swam a bit more. The greater the distance traveled the more you’ll see him sometimes do a traveling side step, similar to a box step. This is when it morphs into Laminu.
Though recreations aren’t something I feel are incredibly important to do as a dancer, I do feel that if you want to respect something and eventually add to it and make it your own, you first need to understand it in its original form. Respect the past, dance in the present, but never forget to move forward.
Kelly and I had very little time between our practicing, teaching, and choreographing this past month but we put together a small recreation of a dance Dean and Kara did years ago in Seattle. Far from perfect as getting the facings correct for a dance that swims can be a nightmare haha. But here is an example for you.
There is also this fantastic example of his dancing: just the basic with Kara a bit more in place given the small dance floor. Kelly and I haven't seen each other since its arrival on youtube but we will dork out about it thoroughly.
M&K Slow Balboa
I’ll be honest - when we started teaching Slow Bal ages ago we actually never knew it would become as popular as it has recently and we are incredibly happy about its success.
Very soon after Kelly and I began teaching we were invited to teach at Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden. For those of you who have been before you know that Tuesday night is Slow Drag night. It’s a night of dancing devoted to Slow Swing of many varieties. Teaching the balboa track we wanted to make sure our students had something to do whether it was to Goodman’s Moonglow or even Sidney Bechet’s Egyptian Fantasy (Bechet was HUGE back then and this is NOT an all balboa camp;)). So, naturally this was our chance to bust out our Dean’s Slow Bal.
Dean’s slow bal is this incredible gift to us. He left us these basics and a triple variety pack filled with interesting technique. Essentially it was a base for what we could expand on. As happens after you’ve taught the same class over and over, eventually our students started requesting new material and more slow bal. Innovation is the key to growing any new craft, and Kelly and I thrive on the creative process. We always say there are dancers and there are historians. It is important to us to be both as we believe when one of our favorite old timers Hal Takier said ‘Show me something’ on the dance floor, he wasn’t telling you to show him his own steps, or Maxie’s steps… he’s telling you to show him YOU. I find it amazing how uptight dancers today can be about a concept so rationally important to the original balboa community. They all had very different things going on. ALWAYS raise an eyebrow at those telling you what isn’t balboa. Ask them to tell you WHAT it is and why they feel that way. Ask them which old timers made them come to that conclusion or is it just their opinion or modern convention. SPOILER, it is always just their opinion. If there was a ‘one’ way to dance balboa or slow balboa it has long been lost and if found would likely shake most of what we do back to square one. The old timers did not have youtube like we do today. They did not have balboa workshops to attend, and they did not have computers to play any song they wanted at any given moment… what they did have was NO ONE telling them what they could or couldn't do. What was or wasn't balboa. Artistic freedom is the root of what made the old timers great. It is in my opinion, the soul of all street dancing.
I was also excited because I love dancing to slow music and so often hear people talk about how they enjoy slow dancing and blues; but the lack of a specific basic somehow made them shy away from taking it seriously… and here we have one. Ready to take and make our own.
So we began taking other balboa steps: transitions, throw outs, swivels and the like and creating Slow Balboa versions of these steps. We incorporated other slow movements of old-timers we love like Willie Desatoff’s drags.
We also told our students to find their own ways. What we came up with was incredibly fun for us and very much our own. Because of this we always teach this style only to our more advanced classes after we’ve covered Dean’s Slow Bal and the basics movements he would incorporate.
Now when Kelly and I slow dance, we are generally fusing all these things together. If anyone asked us to do a pure Laminu demo or Dean’s Slow balboa demo we would of course do it. But in the end its like Oscar Wilde said, ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’
This is a clip taken from a social dance Kelly and I had at the Berlin Balboa Weekend years ago but I still feel it is the best example of us fusing many swing elements together to support the music, our partnership and the crowd watching us. We start off more traditionally with some Dean’s Slow bal, open up our basic into a drag with rises and falls and incorporate Willie’s side release before really cutting loose and doing some other slow swing. I will also state that it was only a matter of time before Dean and Ray would rock a swing out or right side pass;). So any swing goes as far as I'm concerned. I love that you can hear Jeremy Otth shouting 'show me something' in the beginning, haha.
A quick word on some other styles of Slow Bal seen on the dance floor
I have seen a lot of things over the years but I know a lot of people like to just dance their regular balboa… slowly. I will be first to say that I think you should dance however you want to dance. A lot of the old-timers like Willie Destoff would do lindy hop to the slower stuff as well as a dance called Slicker, a dance John Mills also apparently did very well.
I know a few teachers who teach a slow variation of Willie’s triple step which is, according to Randy and Kara, simply an exercise to practice muscle control. Randy and Kara are my go-to Willie folks as they spent 8 hours at a time with the man every other weekend for about 6-8 months. Dancing your triples slowly to Moonglow was a practice methodology, not a dance in itself. That being said if you like it then you should do it. Kelly and I use a lot of Willie’s movements within our slow bal-swing.
I would love to see this on tape but apparently there is none out there currently. Although things pop up from time to time, so I will keep my eyes open. I will state now that if anyone has comments regarding this I would ask that you back up these comments with facts and video as I have. Please check your own sources as I have.
Ray Cunningham's Laminu
Again, this section is going to be kept brief because I just finished a three post series on an interview I had with Ray Cunningham earlier this year. I will add those details to a seperate blog post later, but, if you want more detail please visit: https://www.facebook.com/MKBalSwingPro?fref=ts&ref=br_tf
Laminu is important for a number of reasons but let me state first that while Kelly and I have grown to love this dance the more we've learned it, we only started studying it extensively the past few years. One of the reasons this dance is so important is that while Dean's Slow Bal is something specific to he and his wife Nancy (and now many bal dancers all around the world :)), Laminu is a step that was done by many. Taught in ballroom studios like Arthur Murray studios and danced by a few famous names like Barbara Sinatra.
Laminu became more important in the late 40's and 50's in the beach communities in California. While interviewing Ray we covered many topics but he mentioned Laminu was 'strictly Long beach'. When I asked him what he meant he said that while it was danced in other places, transit to Long Beach was limited when heading into LA so it was easier to attend dances at closer venues like the Majestic Ballroom and the Rendezvous on the Balboa Peninsula.
Ray Cunningham is the second oldtimer speaking in the Rendezvous Masters discussion video posted above. Ray is a fantastic and sweet person who also served as assistant to the chairman of the board at Arthur Murray studios.
Whereas Dean Raftery preferred music like Benny's Moonglow, Ray confirmed again his love of all things Sinatra but mentioned that if it was slow, danceable and you had the right partner that's all you needed.
Now when speaking about 'how' to dance the Laminu, Ray offers some simple advice. 'Keeping your feet close & underneath you and thinking of a “bruised heel” concept while taking your steps.'
Some key observations I've made range from the obvious, the basic footwork has a similar timing to many of the triples you've learned in balboa (step, step, triple step- step, step, triple step) but the triples generally happen forward and to the right on the front end and back and to the left on the back end. Another important observation with both Ray and Dean is that the 5 and 6 tend to be transient steps which you can take in any direction. The direction you choose can have a huge effect on how the step looks and can often look like another basic altogether.
Thanks also to Yurina Shin who is nice enough to let me borrow her when Kelly is not around. It's not perfect as getting the facings of a dance that rotates like Laminu can be a bit tricky;).
So... What's Slow Balboa? Conclusion...
I have felt for years that the modern bal scene can get stuck in between their desire to move forward as artists, social dancers and performers, and their desire to respect and teach the dance passed on to them by the old timers. I believe the answer involves striking a balance between the two, which begins with understanding what these dances actually were.
I find it hard to listen to people argue over what Slow Balboa is when I know if I asked them to show me the difference between Laminu, Slow Bal, etc. they would have no idea how to do it... many arguing connection issues on the dance floor when they've never bothered to learn how to lead or follow the steps. This means about as much to me as when Lindy Hoppers share their opinions on Balboa when they haven't studied it. Opinions can be had by all, but don't expect me to respect your opinion on a subject you know nothing about.
Here I will offer only my opinion, as someone who in the past years along with Kelly has busted his butt to learn all he could. We have a few dances listed above which you could argue as Slow Balboa. Laminu would be in my estimation the dance done at the Rendezvous by the greatest number of dancers to slower tempos. Another vintage dance no one seems to have unveiled in great detail is Slicker, which I look forward to seeing if someone devotes the time to it. Following this is Dean's Slow Balboa which you could argue is more of our Bobby McGee's example; and as most modern dancers look more like Bobby McGee's bal dancers than Beach Clip swing dancers, it seems obvious this would become the standard. Although their is no proof of it existing when people were actually dancing at the Rendezvous.
However, if one mans interpretation can be taken as a basic then the next logical step for the artists in the dance scene is to expand upon this basic, adding to it as the old timers would have if given the tools. In the end, we loved the old timers because of their individual spirits on the dance floor. proving to me that there is nothing more vintage than doing your own thing.
So... What is Slow Balboa?... don't ask me, make your own decisions... SHOW ME SOMETHING.