Lindy Hopping through the lockdown
How creativity and creative thinking can help to improve the well-being of young people during lockdown
by Aurelija Plūkė
While discussing the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic brings for youth, we will also look at creativity and creative thinking and how they can help young people to maintain their well-being. To look at this from a practical perspective I will be talking with Daiva Veliulytė who teaches children and young people Lindy Hop dancing. I was curious to hear from Daiva how she managed to run dancing classes during the lockdown in a way that young people wouldn’t have missed for the world, even though the dancing classes happened online. I also talked to Meda, one of the kids who attends Daiva’s classes, to hear how it is from her perspective. Although Daiva does not call herself a youth worker, listening to how she works and what the kids think about her classes, I would say she has all it takes to be a great youth worker. You will gain some practical insights into what helped Daiva to design engaging and creative online classes and how her classes helped a bunch of kids to endure the lockdown.
Covid hits young people harder
Many research studies have shown that young people have been more affected than others by the Covid-19 pandemic and that it has had a negative effect on their well-being. At this age young people start to seek more autonomy, and spend increasingly more time with their peers and less time with their families. Several longitudinal studies have documented increased mental health symptoms and decreased psychological well-being during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Young people appear to experience high levels of stress, depression and anxiety, and lower levels of life satisfaction. Their social contacts become limited, leading to increased feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Creativity – a phenomenon with many faces, and how we understand it
I work at the association Kūrybinės jungtys (Creative connections) which has 10 years’ experience of applying creativity and creative thinking as a foundation when working with pupils, teachers, youth centres and cultural organisations, helping them to become creative, open, resilient and learning communities. Creativity is defined in many ways; however, at Kūrybinės jungtys we base our understanding on a definition developed by Sir Ken Robinson, which you may know from his famous TED talk “Schools kill creativity”, and the model “Five habits of creative mind” developed by Guy Claxton and others.
Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as “Imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value”. And he derives this definition first by describing four characteristics of the creative process. First, the creative process always involves imagination, imaginative thinking and/or behaviour. Second, this imaginative activity is purposeful: that is, it is directed to achieving an objective. Third, these processes must generate something original. Fourth, the outcome must be of value in relation to the objective.
Creative thinking is not a creative activity itself; it is rather a precondition for such activity. Therefore, the creativity of an individual can be fostered by developing and strengthening the habits of creative thinking. Milda Laužikaitė, head of the association Kūrybinės jungtys points out: “creativity is not only imagination, but it also includes consistency, persistency, curiosity and ability to collaborate with others”, which summarises the model “Five habits of creative mind”.
Creative thinking includes many essential sub-habits, such as wondering and questioning, exploring and investigating, challenging assumptions – which is what critical thinking is about; playing with possibilities, making connections between different things and ideas, using intuition; sticking with difficulty, daring to be different, tolerating uncertainty – which never was more important than now, in a world that can be changed instantly by a virus. It also includes working collaboratively, which is essential, especially during lockdown when so many young people face loneliness and isolation. And it talks about the ability to learn new skills and techniques which help young people to adapt easier to a changing context. (For a fuller explanation of the model, please download the research paper here).
The need to enhance the “flat” online world
Due to the lockdown, young people had limited access not only to mental health and other important services, but also to creative and cultural activities which could help to maintain their well-being. Even though many new possibilities, workshops, events and other activities opened up online, not all educators had figured out how to make online activities more engaging, interesting and able to meet the current needs of young people.
As with the rest of educators, teachers and youth workers, we at Kūrybinės jungtys also had to adapt all the creative methods and sessions to an online format. At first it was a fun challenge. However, when lockdown continued, the kids became more and more tired from all the screen time and spending all day in a “flat” online world. More than anything else, young people needed to have a safe space and tools to express and reflect their emotions, to discuss how they felt, what was happening and to stay connected.
“My best teachers were those kids, not my dad!”
When I talked with Daiva, she radiated energy and positivity even through a Zoom screen. Daiva (age 31) has been dancing Lindy Hop since she was 14 years old.
The Lindy Hop is an American dance, danced to jazz music, which was born in the African-American communities in Harlem, New York City, in 1928.
“My parents got divorced when I was 13 and got to live with my grandfather and my father who was a Lindy Hop teacher and had his own dance studio Čarlis (Charlie) in Klaipėda” (the biggest city in Western Lithuania), shares Daiva. She would spend most of her time in a small town called Joniškis at her grandpa’s house and would go to visit her dad in Klaipėda at weekends. She would hang out at the dance studio, where she first saw people of all ages, also teenagers – boys and girls dancing. “I was amazed, not about my dad being a good dancer, but it was incredible to see all those kids dancing!”, remembers Daiva. “My best teachers were those kids, not my dad! Some of them were even younger than me, but they’ve motivated and inspired me so much, that I try to pass on what I’ve got from them to other children up until now.”
“I tricked my conservative town into dancing Lindy Hop and they loved it!”
Every time, after living her dream during the weekend that she would spend dancing, Daiva had to come back to her small, conservative and boring town where nothing interesting was happening. All Daiva wanted to do was dance. “Then I started to think that I need to do something, because otherwise I will go crazy. I was 14 then”, remembers the dancing teacher. Then she started inviting young people from Joniškis to come over to her place to learn Lindy Hop. “That’s how it started – I started motivating people to dance in my town”, recalls Daiva, and adds that it wasn’t easy.
First of all, the young people didn’t like jazz music at all, so Daiva had to think of some other way to make them come. So, she came up with a new idea: “I invited young people to hip-hop dance lessons instead. It was 2004 and hip-hop music was very popular among teenagers then”, Daiva explains, also that hip-hop is a very suitable music for Lindy Hop as it has a clear rhythm. “So even though I didn’t know any hip-hop dances at all, I started to teach Charleston (one of the Lindy Hop dances) that I’ve learned in the dance studio from those kids according to hip-hop music.” This did the trick, and eventually the young people liked dancing Lindy Hop. And the adventure helped Daiva discover her biggest passion – Lindy Hop and teaching the dance to kids and young people. Now Daiva is one of the most known Lindy Hoppers in Lithuania. She teaches dancing to children and young people in a youth centre and school.
“The dance and its technique is not the most important thing, the most important is how people are feeling themselves”
I was curious to hear how Daiva had managed to do dancing classes during the quarantine, when we were all under lockdown. She remembers that at first it was kind of fun and adventurous to connect with kids via Zoom, to see how all this works online. But Daiva had never done online dancing before, so both she and the kids were kind of sceptical about it at first. She was always very open with them; she shared what she really thought about the situation, and she didn’t try to convince them that everything would be OK soon. Because nobody knew anything for sure.
She asked the kids how they feel and what they think. Daiva points out that for her as a dancing teacher learning new steps was not the most important thing. Dancing is more of a tool to help young people feel better during the challenging time of the lockdown. “The method when I just show kids the dancing steps and ask to repeat after me no longer works, especially in online classes. Children and young people need not only a teacher, but also a friend who jokes and improvises with them, who hears them and is 100% there for them”, Daiva explains. “My main goals as a dancing teacher during quarantine wasn’t to teach kids to do the steps perfectly, my goal was to make them smile”, says Daiva. The educator encourages, “just not to be afraid to do nonsense during your classes, especially during the quarantine when everything around is so serious and depressing”.
Whatever emotions young people would bring to the class, there was a space to share about it openly. It helped kids to feel seen. The more seen people feel, the more they are likely to engage. Therefore, the first thing they did in their classes was to chat and only then would Daiva encourage them to dance, to move and to learn something new.
Lindy Hop – a way of expression of freedom and emotions
She thinks that Lindy Hop, just like jazz music, allows much more freedom and improvisation. The rules are less strict, which helps to liberate people, encourage them and raise their self-confidence. She noticed that Lindy Hop allowed young people to rage and express their emotions through movement. “In this dance you are not only focusing on the steps, but also on emotions – there is a lot of shouting, screaming and other ways to expressing yourself. There are not so many rules and I try not to emphasise mistakes. As the educator I think there are no mistakes in this dance as long as you make that step with energy and emotion.”
First, I thought what I would like to do
When quarantine started, the youth centre where Daiva was teaching asked all the educators to do whatever it takes to keep the kids participating in online workshops. “And this permission to do whatever we want, kind of changed everything for me. I started to think, what I could do during my classes”, shares Daiva. She admits that “first of all I was thinking what I would like to do, and only then I thought about how to convey this idea to the kids so they would be willing to get involved”. Daiva started to experiment with all kinds of ideas that she thought would help to keep the kids showing up and engaged.
She started from small things like streaming an online class from a different location every time to surprise the young people and get their attention. She also noticed that a small detail like her voice tone mattered. She tried to avoid speaking in a monotonous rhythm to keep the kids’ attention.
It was important to give meaning to everything we did
Before the quarantine they would always have a number of events planned and during the classes they would prepare for them. But this changed during the quarantine – all the events were gone, and it was challenging to create a sense of meaning for them. What’s the point of learning new dances if they have no clue when they will be able to perform? Daiva felt that just to connect, chat and do some dancing was not enough. “I started to experiment with small thematic projects. First, we started to follow all the festivities and do something related”, tells Daiva. For example, for Lithuanian Independence Day they made a video of the kids dancing Lindy Hop with the Lithuanian flag. Such short projects really worked out very well. The kids were interested – they had a purpose to learn something. They would make short videos of their dance with their phones and Daiva would make a short movie out of all their videos. In this way, the young people could see the result of their work right away, they could share the videos on their social media and with their parents, and they usually got lots of positive reactions. They were excited, felt cool and proud of themselves.
Daiva says that she used young people’s skills and involved what they liked. They used such platforms as TikTok and Snapchat. They did some Lindy Hop dances using Snapchat filters on their cameras. It was so much fun, and they could experience this well-known dance from a different perspective. Daiva also notes that “it is very important to not forget to see these young people and their skills, to make them feel proud and appreciated for their achievements”.
“Quarantine forced me to look at my classes from a different perspective and as a result of that we did so many interesting projects”
As one of the main personal learnings brought by this pandemic, Daiva names the ability to come up with so many interesting ways to teach Lindy Hop. “The whole world is challenging you and you have to deal with it and figure out how to make life to be fun”, says Daiva. During all the online classes Daiva and her dancers tried various ways to keep themselves entertained and to connect Lindy Hop dancing to different themes. They used what they had around them at home. One of the projects was called Gulliver’s Travels and they did a dance with their legs coming out of a mug. They put a mug near to a phone camera and the dancers had to be further away to appear small.
They also watched dancing videos and discussed them. “The most interesting thing was to watch our dancing videos, where you could see the same kids dancing. We would stop the video and zoom in certain clips with someone’s expression and would joke why this person is not smiling or something like this. Usually kids would laugh a lot”, remembers Daiva. “We also did a flash mob at the main square of the city. I suggested this idea, we had a dance that everyone knew, we could do it while keeping a safe distance and kids loved it. It was so cool! We just came at a certain time, did our dance and split”, tells Daiva. They were even filmed by Polish TV. “You can work on so many topics through the dance!”, she explains. During the quarantine they worked on some historic events, on environmental topics and even baked Lindy Hop cookies! It was also an interesting way to broaden young people’s horizons, to teach them new things, not only dancing.
I hated online classes, but I was looking forward to them
I also was curious to talk to Meda Jakniūnaitė (age 12) who has attended Daiva’s classes for almost two years now. When I asked her how she liked online dancing classes, she said she hated the fact that they had to do online classes, “the internet would freeze sometimes, and it was very difficult to learn new dances, because we saw the steps Daiva was showing like in a mirror, so we would always use the wrong leg. And we missed dancing together”, remembers Meda. But on the other hand, these dancing classes were something she was eagerly looking forward to. When she talked about what she liked, she kept repeating that Daiva was not like a usual teacher, she was more like a friend and they could talk with her like friends. “I liked Lindy Hop dances with Daiva from the very beginning, because there is no boring routine, we talk, we go to events, we do different videos and go to a camp. It’s so cool! And we all got to know each other very well”, shares Meda.
Creative thinking can also help to deal with uncertainty
Although Daiva does not call herself a youth worker, the way she uses creativity and creative thinking in her work seems to be a very important part of successful youth work, especially during this time. It helped her to deal with uncertainty and to find new solutions. Her example shows that creative activities, be it dancing, acting, film making or some multidisciplinary form, when designed in a way that helps young people to nurture their creative thinking habits, can be an important tool to help maintain their well-being. It was very interesting to hear Meda, who would probably not attend dancing classes online if they were just simple classes to learn dancing steps. The value for her was the possibility to talk, to spend time with an adult like a friend (the opposite to a hierarchical teacher–pupil relationship), to express her emotions, to belong to a community with other peers who know each other well, because besides dancing, they also spend time talking and sharing emotions. She also valued that in Daiva’s classes there was no boring routine, which many of us felt during the lockdown. For her it was fun and interesting.
- Kūrybinės jungtys, Kūrybinės partnerystės. Gyventi ir mokytis kaip kūrėjui, Vilnius, 2015.
- Kūrybinės partnerystės, Gyventi ir mokytis kaip kūrėjui, 2015, Vilnius, p. 45.