|still from the film Swing Kids|
The term jam circle originated during the swing era of dancing, probably borrowed or appeared in parallel with the expression "jam session" in music. Scenes with jamming may be seen in movies and musicals, such as Hellzapoppin.
How do they start?
They can start different ways. Sometimes a jam circle will start spontaneously. Two people are dancing, and the dancers around them stop and start clapping to encourage them. This can happen because people are simply wowed by their style and musicality. Sometimes the music is so fast that only one or two couples are feeling up to the challenge, and so the other couples instead choose to encourage them. Other times you just see some of your friends doing some crazy stuff, and you're so overcome by their coolness or hilarity that you choose to cheer them on instead of going off and dancing. Often these will turn into steal wars, where one couple is dancing in a circle of a few friends, and then someone in the circle will steal one of the dancers.
Other times people hear a song played at just the right time, when the energy screams "jam circle!" and they'll start clapping. More and more people will start clapping, a circle forms, and eventually a couple takes the plunge and jumps in the jam circle.
Finally, at some places they actually announce jam circles. This is a good way to introduce the concept in a place where jam circles don't often happen, and it especially makes it easier to get less experienced people comfortable with going in the circle.
So, what do you do in a jam circle?
Well, sometimes jam circles are a bit intimate and a lot like a group of musicians getting together and jamming. It's just about dancing together among friends and improvising to the music. You don't really think about doing anything spectacular, you just play around and enjoy yourself.
Other times, jam circles can be all about showing off. Swing dancing has from the very beginning been a dance with social and performance aspects, and the jam circle is kind of a way to mix the two by showing off in a social context. Jam circles are a chance to do moves such as aerials which aren't usually safe to do in social dancing.
So usually the jam circle is when people pull out all the stops, and do those crazy moves they've been practicing with a partner for the last few months. People will do their tricks, drops, aerials, and crazy Charleston steps--basically anything that will get people to cheer, and anything that takes a lot of practicing with a partner to really get down pat. Of course you don't have to go in with a partner--just get in there and dance your butt off. But if you've been working with a partner on some cool stuff, this is your chance to do it.
It's especially a chance to do moves that require more room, or moves that are too dangerous to do on the social dance floor, like aerials and some drops and tricks. These are the kinds of moves that you should save for jam circles, when people will really appreciate them.
Entering the jam circle
It's important to know how to enter and leave the circle. If it's a more intimate circle, all you have to know is to let the person before you dance for a while before you jump in. Watch them carefully to see if they look like they're about to do something cool that you don't want to interrupt. Generally it's best to wait until the end of a phrase, because that gives them a nice musical point--a break or a focal point--to do anything cool they were planning on. If they don't use it, too bad for them, but at least give them the chance!
Another thing to do is to edge to the inside of the jam circle with your partner, moving to the music or doing a jockey step so that the people dancing can tell that someone is ready to enter.
If you really want to show off, plan something cool for your entrance. You can go in with partnered jazz steps (like boogie woogie or Shorty George, or something more original or complex), with a move like the toss (a classic aerial for entering a jam circle), a drag, a slide, or anything creative you can think up. The main thing is that you're trying to entertain your friends and show your stuff. You can be stylish or you can draw on your days as the class clown or drama queen; the thing is to get people laughing, cheering, and clapping.
Now that you're in...
Once you're in the jam circle, anything goes. Obviously, don't do anything unsafe that you haven't practiced with that partner. Not only could it be dangerous, but you'll look like an idiot... which is only cool if you do it on purpose.
If you're going to do an aerial, plan it to go with a focal point in the music, which usually but not always happens at the end of a phrase. At the same time, don't try to overload your time in the jam circle with a bunch of crazy moves. Go in the circle with one, maybe two cool moves in mind, and just think about doing them. Often it's best to have contrasting moves, too, like a cool drop followed by an aerial, or something circular followed by something zippy and linear. If you're going to do aerials, often it's a good idea to choreograph a sequence with a good entrance and exit from the aerial to ensure a smooth transition.
There's nothing worse than getting in there, and trying to do every cool move or funky styling you've ever learned, and it all turning into a rushed mess.
One trick for the leaders is to use lots of simple six-count moves interspersed with cool moves. The reason is twofold: first, you'll look cooler doing stuff you know well, and six-counts last less time! Which means that if at the last moment you realize you miscalculated when the focal part in the music was going to come, then you can change the move to an eight count or elongate it even more. So your six-count bring-in-the-girl can change into a Swingout, Lindy Circle or Rhythm Circle. In fact, it's very useful to be able to turn any move into a similar move with a different count.
Get outta there!
So you've done your one or two cool moves, and since you've been looking around you the whole time, you see that another couple is ready to enter the circle. Just like for the entrances, it's cool to be creative with your exit. You've still got the same ideas I mentioned for the entrances, but what can be fun for the girl and good for comic effect, is for the girl drag the guy off in some creative way. The main thing is creativity.
Done well enough, the entrance or exit can be the main thing. You can do a cool entrance, get in there and do a few swingouts and stuff, and then the girl decides to drag the guy out!
Just one last thing for jam circles: CLAP ON TWO!
Swing Victoria / Class Notes by Byron [firstname.lastname@example.org]
I liked Byron's notes so much I re-posted them here almost in their entirety. Here's the site they come from: [http://www.swingvictoria.com/showarticle.php?id=45]