Better Know a Dancer: Ruby Red

Hello, thank you for reading our installment of Better Know A Dancer! Today we have Ruby Red from Chicago who will be teaching at Nocturne Blues 2014.

Mark
When you were younger, did you want to dance professionally?

Ruby
No. I thought I’d be a fashion designer, a pop-star, an architect, and a fighter pilot… in that order. I took ballet classes as a little girl, but when I actually thought about career, I thought about those other things.

Mark
Were there other physical activities beyond ballet?

Ruby
Living in the mountains. Hiking. Wheeling carts of rocks from the riverbed to the garden. Biking around the desert. Riding horses. Skiing. Skating. Yoga. My mom was really physically active. She still is. So, that’s how we lived.

Mark
Currently you are also massage therapist, how did you come to that?

Ruby
I met a guy at the DMV who had just finished massage school. He and I ended up dating for a while. He was “getting in his hours” when we met, so I was the beneficiary of a lot of bodywork during that time, which I realized I couldn’t really live without. Having come from a really physical upbringing, plus having had a mom with a serious physical injury, it was clear to me early on how important hands-on-therapy was for the body. I had chronic low-back pain all the way through high school and college, so learning how to get over that through studying bodywork was important to me.

Mark
So dance and massage therapy are a natural extension of how you’re life has always been.

Ruby
Pretty much. Although I had early exposure, I’m not one of those dance teachers who has been training in some dance form since she was three. I did a lot of my real movement learning after college, and as a result, I have had a strong desire to focus on adult learning. Too many people feel they can’t commit to an art because they didn’t study it since childhood, so they just give up. That’s bullshit. Anyone can learn anything they want at any age. They just have to be really into it.

Mark
So according to your site, you were studying circus arts when you fell into swing. How did you get into circus arts?

Ruby
Before starting circus training, I was doing solo burlesque performances in the queer underground in San Francisco. There’s a lot of crossover between circus, burlesque and cabaret. I’d already studied some contemporary dance at Mills College, which has a really strong dance program. Plus, I’d taken classes at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music, which has a ton of avant-garde performers and musicians. I was pretty interested in cutting-edge performance. When you meet a bunch of circus
artists doing weird cabaret routines, taking up circus training is almost defacto. Plus, I love heights.

Mark
How did you get into burlesque?

Ruby
It was a natural extension of the social groups I hung out with in San Francisco in the mid 90’s. I went to a few shows and thought, “I could do that.” I started spinning out ideas and pretty soon, any humorous theme that involved a burlesque element got turned into a project.

Mark
as this the first sort of performance art you did?

Ruby
I suppose so.

Mark
So you got used to being on stage pretty quickly.

Ruby
I’d say there was a fair amount of performative work throughout my younger life, so it wasn’t a stretch. Some theater work in middle school, a few dance classes here and there, a skating show.

Mark
So with circus, and burlesque, I sense a draw to outside-the-mainstream performance art. Was there any overt interest in that or did you just fall into those types of performing arts?

Ruby
I value freedom of expression over just about anything. So, art forms that give me a lot of room to experiment are more interesting. Although I’ve trained in the Ballroom dances, the performative aspects within the culture of Ballroom Dance are very strict. You only get to be really creative in an exposition setting. One of the ice skaters I remember loving as a kid was Rudy Galindo. The judges were always marking him off for props or costumes. I remember he did a performance of “Send In The Clowns” for a championship. I thought that was so cool. He never went far, but he was pushing the boundaries. I felt that way about female figure skater, Mae Berenice Meite in the 2014 Winter Olympics. She was the only female not in a skirt, and a total ass-kicker of a performer.

Mark
You began with art forms that are centered around creativity and freedom of expression. Currently you teach Lindy/Swing, which has a well-defined movement vocabulary. Do you feel that there is a lot of room to experiment in Swing?

Ruby
I like the structure and limitations of Swing, for how they force me to innovate inside a box. And in truth, there’s a lot of room in Swing for freedom of expression, innovation, ideas and boundary pushing. But emotionally, Blues music resonates more with me. Thematically there’s just more there. I can’t really think of that many swing songs that are about death, loss, pain, heart-break, a cloudy day, or anything that isn’t cheerful or winsome. Culturally, Blues is very rich for the wide variety of stories and moods that can be communicated. Also Blues has less formal structure dance wise.

Mark
And we have arrived at that classic question everyone gets asked, how did you get into the Lindy scene?

Ruby
A gal from the college Salsa/WCS dance team I was on invited me out to the Metronome Ballroom in San Francisco for a swing night. I remember she asked, “Do you lindy hop?” and I was like, “what’s Lindy Hop?” The first time I went dancing, I was standing on the side-lines and she got asked to dance a bunch because she knew a few people and I think she was also really beautiful. After a while someone came up and asked me to dance. Just before I walked on the floor, I asked her, “It’s step, step, triple-step, right?” Because I had just come from a culture of learning many dances in a few months, all you did was pay attention to base rhythms and basic follow skills. It makes me laugh that that’s how I did my first few months of Lindy Hop before ever taking a class… just dancing the rhythm and trying to figure out what the leads wanted.

Mark
That’s impressive.

Ruby
More dancers should learn like that… Sometimes, the fewer preconceived notions you have about a dance, or an art-form, the better. Education can really stymie creativity.

Mark
Funny, coming from a professional dance educator. Do you put that philosophy into your lessons?

Ruby
Definitely! Which is really challenging for me, because I have very strong ideas of “right and wrong” when it comes to body movement, connection and communication. So I’m always fighting a battle between providing good tools and giving people the freedom to explore and create the dance. I’m not a preservationist. It’s not important to me that people dance the way the dance was done back in the day. It’s more important to me that they dance the way they want and need to, as long as it’s comfortable for their partners.
For example… I had a dance friend years ago, who was incredibly creative and innovative. He was SO expressive. Our dances were mind-blowing. They weren’t “blues” according to the modern definitions of the aesthetic. But they were artistic explosions. He changed his style and got some training, and while his current dancing is beautiful, it’s nothing like what it used to be. Now it’s more anatomically correct, and he probably hurts himself less… but I miss that old dancer.

Mark
As you said, there is a natural tension between the need for free form expression and the physical realities of how to communicate movement: the importance of frame, dance connection, and good movement habits. But that simply requires another challenge, isn’t that being creative inside the structure?

Ruby
The best dancing makes you think the dancer is breaking all the rules. They make you think they’re out of control… flying around. Good Lindy Hop looks incredibly elastic. But good lindy-hoppers aren’t jerking each other around the way that newbies think.

Mark
Dance is an illusion.

Ruby
All good art is. If I look at a painting and think, “I can splatter paint on a canvas too,” it’s not art to me.

Mark
Well they make it look easy, no?

Ruby
But if I think, “Wow. How did he achieve that incredible regularity of splatter?” then that’s interesting.

Mark
How do you balance teaching established movement dynamics with your desire to urge creativity in your lessons? Perhaps some examples of what you think you do differently.

Ruby
First, when I’m creating a class, I ask myself:
1) Is this how I actually dance this dance? How do I break this down? That gives me the groundwork for the tangible form of the class.
2) Then I ask myself, “how can I get my students here without telling them, ‘this is what’s right.'”
3) Conversely, I ask myself, “what if I did the opposite of what I did last time, or the opposite of the established teaching dogma? Would I still get something valuable?”
Again, I’m always fighting my internal desire to tell people what *I* think is correct, vs. having a dialogue with the students about what they are discovering.
And of course, how much of this IS dependent on the level of experience of the student.

Mark
Could you give an example or two of what happens in your classes which are manifestations of this philosophy?

Ruby
In our search for perfection, we limit our movement. Follows develop this artificial sense of frame that’s really quite limiting. Someone tells them to have “arms like a Barbie doll” and then they lose all this elasticity. So, I often build exercises that allow one person in the partnership to explore a range of tone, or a range of arm movement. When they feel the edge of what works and what doesn’t, they discover that they can have more range while still communicating, rather than working within a very small margin of tone, or frame, or shape. In fact, I had some follows do this last month. I asked them to tone up and tone down, naturally at some point the follows had to out-tone their leads to follow my direction and they got upset at me. Some of them said, “well, it’s not correct to do that, because then I’d be leading, so I didn’t do the exercise.” That made me laugh so much! When I pushed them to test the boundaries, I think they ultimately got a feel for how much more range they could actually have.

Mark
That is an interesting challenge, humans are naturally wary of what is outside their experience.

Ruby
People want to “get it right” all the time rather than feeing what is. “Tell me the answer!” they say.

Mark
I think you defined the basic problem all spirituality addresses.

Ruby
Whoah. That’s another interview.

Mark
Amen. So let’s change the subject a bit. Ruby, we are all really excited about having you join us for Nocturne Blues, can you give us any insight as to what you have planned for us?

Ruby
I’ve had extensive conversations and planning sessions with John Joven, Joe DeMers and Jenny Sowden. In every case, I feel like each of them has been really receptive to my own personal challenge to teach something new or teaching something differently. In a way, I’m confronting a lot of my own personal challenges as a dancer right now about how to improve without a Blues Mentor, how to be creative, and how to continue to develop fluency in my modes of expression. To me, these are the big questions right now, beyond just working on good technique, or “getting it right.” I’m also asking myself, how can I teach at the highest level possible, while still giving people the techniques and mechanics they need for the level they’re at. Any last questions? I have to get to drum practice.

Mark
Drum practice?

Ruby
I’m not joking when I say Rhythm is my religion.

Mark
And we see it in your dancing. Thank you.

Ruby
Thank you, see you soon.

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