Not every new dancer dreams of becoming a famous lindy hopper. It’s hard work to be in the spotlight.
Many of us want to be like Peter Flahiff, a well-loved Seattle dance instructor. He runs an increasingly popular Friday night dance venue, East Side Stomp.
Now, I was originally going to title this post, “Who the Hell is Peter Flahiff?” Most of my readers have no idea who Peter is or why they should care about him.
But Peter Flahiff has something a lot of us want:
People line up to dance with him.
A line of people who love to dance with him, and whom he loves to dance with. For most dancers, nothing’s better than to simply be liked!
Why does everyone think Peter is such a dreamboat? How does he do it?
Recently, I had Peter over for an interview so I could find out his secrets. Out of our 50 minute conversation, I pulled the very best snippets to help you get in Peter’s head.
By the way, Peter is freakin’ hilarious. He told many more awesome stories than I have room to share here.
me: So I actually tried to stalk you online, and you had strategically taken down your website the day I was looking for it!
PF: Ug, I have to pay GoDaddy.
me: Luckily, Google cached it for me. Unluckily, it said pretty much the same things as the other site I found. I also watched some old clips of you and Rusty Frank.
PF: Sorry about that.
me: I actually thought they were awesome.
PF: In that case, sweet!
me: So here’s what I found out. You started dancing lindy hop in 1994.
PF: I was 18 years old.
me: You learned socially, yes?
PF: Uh, yeah. The long, hard, awkward way.
me: How long did you learn socially before you started—
PF: —Actually learning? [We laugh.] It was probably year and a half before I set foot in a lindy hop class and learned I’d been doing everything wrong. I’d had a growing sense that I was not doing things well. I was falling out of that initial phase of, “Swing dancing’s supposed to be just going out there and feeling it, and cranking the girl around, and just ooooo!”
It was a very long, prideful year and a half before I could suck it up and say, I don’t know what I’m doing. And I need to go find out.
“I thought it was lame to learn actual ‘steps.'”
me: Is there a time you felt like your ego came down and intersected with your ability? Or were you always pretty aware of your dance level?
PF: Oh gosh no. There was a long period of time at the beginning where I was convinced I knew what I was doing. I thought it was lame to learn actual “steps.” It’s a language, and for a long time I wasn’t speaking the language.
It probably took a couple years of classes before my ego leveled with my ability.
me: You’ve been dancing for 16 years. Are you satisfied with your dancing now?
PF: Oh no. God no. That’s the moment where you might as well get out, in my opinion. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with approaching it as a hobby, and just getting to a comfortable point in your dancing. But I’m perpetually curious about whatever it is that fascinates me.
All through my life, if I was interested in a subject, I’d be at the library researching it. And with something this big, I’m not even close to satisfied.
me: When did you partner with Rusty Frank?
PF: About 4 years into my dancing. I was really lucky early on to have partnered up with her. It was very humbling to be at these dance camps with literally the cream of the crop. It was a hugely skyrocketing thing.
me: Have you ever been this close to quitting dancing?
PF: Yes. I was coming to the end of my partnership with Rusty. I felt like it had been a really cool chapter in my life. I went from knowing nothing, never having set foot on a floor. To being asked to teach in Herrang in a very short amount of time.
I just felt like, where would I go from here? That’s the mountain top, right? I thought this would be the time for me to retire.
And I did. When I finished working with Rusty, I told everyone I was quitting. I told them I was going to be a writer, which is something I’d wanted to do most of my life.
I took a couple of day jobs, Starbucks, Barnes and Noble.
me: Were you writing?
me: Were you thinking about lindy hop?
PF: Constantly. It lasted just a couple of months. I was miserable.
[We cry together softly.]
PF: I think I was worried about whether I would have any value to anyone outside of the context of my partnership with Rusty. Without her, does anyone even know me as anything other than Peter of “Rusty and Peter”? It was scary, and I thought it would be better for my ego not to find out.
me: So here’s something I’ve really been wondering about. What’s your secret to developing such a loyal following in Kirkland? [Kirkland is where Peter teaches, not far from Seattle.] Quite frankly Peter, they love you. They would fight zombies for you.
PF: The zombie apocalypse.
me: Yes, the zombie apocalypse is coming, but your ass is safe. I see—I feel like there are girls lined up along the edge of the floor, just waiting for the right time to ask you to dance. And the guys would, too.
PF: [laughs to stall for time] …I think, if I’ve done anything to create followers… People can probably tell that I love the crap out of this. Genuinely, deep down to the marrow of my bones, love the music, the dancing, the people, love to teach. I think that resonates with people, when they see someone who really cares about something.
“If we’re not diligent about getting everyone who’s faintly interested out on the dance floor, this could go away again.”
And I don’t want to stop and think about how successful it is. When I started out, it was a couple of years before the revival. Back then, there was nothing cool about swing dancing. It was hugely dorky.
It was on par with how most of the world views, say, square dancing. It was a fringe thing with a group of off people wearing funny clothes, doing this old, old dance.
People would be like, “Dude, what are you all dressed up for?” “Oh, I’m a swing dancer.” And the only thing they can think of with “swing” is like, wife swapping.
When I started, there were only about a dozen other people my age into swing dancing. And in the back of my head, I keep in mind that it could always go back to that. If we’re not diligent about getting everyone who’s faintly interested out on the dance floor, this could go away again.
me: See, that’s what I think is really magnetic about you. You feel like every single dancer counts. You don’t just give it lip service. You don’t just love the music, culture, and dancing, you love each and every dancer.
[Peter is nodding and grinning.]
me: See, it’s true! You’re not concerned with whether they like you. You want them to love dancing.
PF: Yeah, pretty much.
me: So, what advice would you give to the dancer who wants to be well-liked, super comfortable at dances, and have lots of people to dance with every night?
PF: Two important things. One, if you do get really good, like rock star status, locally or whatever, don’t buy into it. Don’t let praise sink in. The most deadly thing is when people buy into their own hype.
“I want every girl to feel like that was the best dance she’s gonna get all night.”
Even the biggest rock star in the lindy hop community is still only a rock star TO the lindy hop community. Nobody’s going to stop you in the grocery store and be like, “It’s you! I love your swing outs!”
And the other thing is to really enjoy dancing with the person you’re dancing with. Not dancing at them or showing off. It’s been on my mind a lot because I’ve been seeing all over the place lately.
I feel like the dance has drifted toward a much more performance-oriented style, even on the social dance floor. Like, dig these cool moves, look at this cool stuff I can do. There’s not a lot of, “Let’s enjoy the next 3 minutes and see how good we can make it feel.”
That’s what try to do with the girls I’m dancing with. I want every girl to feel like that was the best dance she’s gonna get all night.
me: Oooo! If all guys had that attitude… I’d just be happy every night.
PF: You know, and it goes both ways, too. There are times when I feel like I could grab the follower, shake them a little bit and say, “Calm down!” [Rebecca giggles.] “You know, just relax. It’s 3 minutes. Let’s just enjoy this.”
me: What you’re getting at is connecting with each person individually. Even when you’re talking about dropping your ego. Don’t separate yourself from the crowd, because it intimidates people. So you have to drop the ego act over and over. Every night, check your ego at the door.
If someone wants to be really magnetic and have people lining up to dance with them—
PF: Take care of them. Get out on the floor and do whatever you have to do to make that person feel amazing. Whether it’s someone dancing for the first time, or the local rock star. Every single time, it matters.
In conclusion: drop the ego, love the dance, and treat your partner like gold.
Has any of this been insightful for you? Leave a comment and join the discussion!
Photo credits: Paul Kammer and Andrea DeBrino.