The Switch Workshop and the Beginner's Mind of Chester Whitmore

After a planning meeting for Swingin' at the Savoy 2017, we hit up a nearby German restaurant.  Few beers later, Stuart Collin - mastermind behind the youtube hits alphabetical jazz step volume 1 & 2 - said, "what if we get Chester Whitmore to do a volume 3?"

Chester Whitmore is a multi-talented entertainer and a living history book on African-American music and dance of the past half century.  He trained under the Nicholas Brothers and went on to become a renowned dancer, choreographer, band leader, filmmaker and even karate master.  But none of that are actually why I want to write about this latest installment of alphabetical jazz step.

His way of being - in spite of his accomplishments as a jazz dancer and musician - is why you gotta see this snippet here, demonstrating the Eagle Slide:

I wasn't particularly surprised that Chester has not heard of the move.  For all I know, it could have been a more recent creation that is popular only in today's scene.  But I did not expect to see how he adamantly wanted to learn this sequence, catching even Stuart by surprise.

(By the way, DO check out the whole clip at some point.  It's got so much historical context and wisdom that you'd wish Chester went on for another 30 minutes.  We all owe Stuart and the SATS team a big thank-you for making it happen.)

In Japan, they have the phrase "shoshin", which means "beginner's mind".  When encountering something new, we often feel a sense of wonder to the unfamiliar experience.  Once we start to repeat this same experience, we can easily lose that initial attitude.  But it is with that beginner's mind where we are the most open and capable of growth.

Shunryu Suzuki, a renowned zen monk, elaborated in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind":

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.  In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.

Surely someone with Chester's stature could have brushed off the unfamiliar move and continued down the list.  It took a humble yet confident "beginner's mind" to stick with it.  That morning, he offered us more than his knowledge on vernacular jazz.  He demonstrated a short but impactful lesson on life.

Few months after the recording, The Switch Workshop had its debut.  It was an event focused on ambidancing, the art of being both a leader and a follower - sometimes during in the same song.  I saw many friends who have been dancing in a single primary role for many years, taking a plunge into something familiar yet completely brand new.

At the end of the classes on Sunday, there was a practice session on the official schedule.  Usually, this is when folks are exhausted and begin to socialize, stretch and relax.  But not that weekend!  People were engaged like they needed to study for a final on the next day.  Except, everyone was having a blast.

(Our instructors - bless their soul - I feel we really put them to work that weekend.  Ann, Laura, Adam, and Rafal didn't get much of a chance to take a breather as they were constantly getting pulled in by students.  They were gracious with their time, and they stayed locked in as much as the rest of us.)

The organizers created a very collaborative and unpretentious vibe through out the event.  I kept hearing about how the fellow dancers showed much empathy for each other, especially when someone screwed up.  In the practice session, dancers were actively collaborating, even giving and receiving critique from each other!  To me, it hasn't been very common in the swing scene to see dancers both caring and bold enough to exchange feedback, especially when compared to the urban dance scene.  I was freaking excited to see it happening that weekend - so much so that the organizers gave everyone a reminder about how to do it in a respectful and safe manner.

I tend to think about the different kinds of critiques on a spectrum.  There is the side that stem from an impulse to appease the ego, and the side that stems from understanding and support.  We know the latter fosters growth, and the former doesn't.  Yet despite the best intentions, we sometimes unconsciously stray to the side we intend to avoid.

That weekend, many dancers at the workshop came ready for a challenge.  They also understood and empathized that they were all gonna be a beginner again in this challenge.  It takes a beginner's mind to receive a critique with humility, and it takes a beginner's mind to give a critique with empathy.  That weekend, I saw both.

Samantha, one of the organizer, told me that part of their idea for running the practice session came from our open session at The Breakaway.  But honestly, the energy I experienced at The Switch Workshop was actually what I had hoped to create!

I can think of many times in my life - not just in dance - where I instinctively balked at the idea of being a "beginner".  Maybe it was in an area that I had worked hard at.  Maybe it was a skill that I felt confident about.  Maybe it was something I believed so strongly that I had come to identify myself with it.

During those moments, it takes heck of a lot of courage and confidence to let myself be humbled.  Yet, it's also during those moments where we have the most opportunities for growth.  Look at what my buddy Rik said in his blog post after the workshop - "I am a terrible follower. And I love it".  That is such a beautiful attitude!

Oh it feel great to be an expert at times, but I wish to be a beginner for life!

Shawn Chiao1 Comment