Photo: David Poul

A Little Lindy Talk, with Tomasz Przytycki – Part 1

I have recently been wanting to learn more about Lindy Hop in Europe. Fortunately, I was able to sit down with someone who has been a big part of that story, not only in Europe but in America as well. Tomasz Przytycki has been involved in the Polish Swing community for over a decade, he teaches both locally and internationally, and is a driving force behind Dragon Swing, one of the crown jewels in Kraków’s Swing festival calendar.

In this two-part conversation, we dive deeply into how his upbringing shaped his views on life and dancing, as well as what we can learn from different teaching styles. It was a joy to open up Tomasz’s thoughts on everything.

Greg Austin We’re here in Kraków, it’s a beautiful spring day, and you just got back from several months in America. Welcome back to Europe! How are you doing?

Tomasz Przytycki Yeah, I’m doing good, a little frazzled by the transition, it’s been two weeks, but I’m still jet lagged, or maybe I just haven’t entered the flow of things here yet. But in general I’m good. It’s a really nice day and I’ve already managed to have a dance partner from Ukraine come and we’ve done some work.

Greg In the States, where are you from?

Tomasz My family is in the DC area, Bethesda, Maryland. That’s where I actually lived most of my life. It’s not where I spent most of my time these past three months, but I at least went there to my family for Christmas.

Greg But your family is Polish, right? That’s how you ended up in Poland?

Tomasz Yeah, basically. Yes, and then, basically. My parents are Polish. I was born in Canada when my mother was studying at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver. I was born there and my brother was also born there, in between her PhD thesis defenses. And soon thereafter we moved around a bit, first to Riverside, California, then to Odense, Denmark, and then when I was about 7 years old we moved to the East Coast, to the DC area, fairly permanently.

Greg And you’ve been living in Poland for about a decade, but before we get there –

Tomasz Can I clarify? I’ve been involved in Poland for about a decade, but I’ve lived here for about 3 years.

Greg Ah, great. But first, you mentioned your mother’s thesis, your parents are both mathematicians, right?

Tomasz Yeah, well my mother is a computer scientist, but on the theoretical end, so basically a mathematician. And my father is a professor of mathematics at George Washington University and my mother is a researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Greg How did that impact learning growing up? Having two mathematicians as parents?

Tomasz It creates a specific value system. For one thing, they’re both really passionate about what they do. So it became very important for me to do what I’m passionate about. So that’s from one end. On the other hand, there was a lot of push towards academia. It took me a while before I decided that it’s OK for me not to go for a PhD just like them.

Greg In mathematics?

Tomasz Yeah, exactly, I was studying mathematics for a while. I was in my father’s footsteps, while my brother just finished defending his PhD in computer science and now is a post-doc in San Francisco, doing essentially the same thing that my mother is doing.

Greg So when the whole family is together, do you talk math over the dinner table?

Tomasz Not as often as before, but I talk math with my father now and then, while my brother and mother talk computer science, pretty much whenever I see them, they’ll transition over. It’s one of those things also where we’ll usually be talking Polish, but once we start talking about the intricacies of research, it switches to English.

Greg So instead of getting your PhD…

Tomasz I finished my bachelors in mathematics, I started up on a masters PhD program in the University of Iowa, but then I dropped out after a semester. Because I was too spread out…

Greg And how did you go from that to dancing?

Tomasz Well, even when I was doing my bachelor’s, I was really involved in dancing. Not just Lindy Hop, I had been taking lots of dance classes in Modern dance, I was also learning Flamenco, the main person that I credit towards pulling me towards dance was Aileen Passloff, who is a Modern dancer from whom I was taking a whole bunch of Flamenco classes.

So once I went for my PhD in math master’s classes in Iowa, I was also taking a full load of undergraduate classes in dance, simultaneously to taking my graduate classes, as well as being a teacher’s assistant, as well as being involved in Lindy Hop and having a dance partner with whom I’d practice.

Greg Do you remember the moment when you decided that you wanted to make dancing a bigger part of your life?

Tomasz Yes. There is two answers.

At the beginning, I thought maybe I can double major in dance, but by then, for one thing, the studies were too expensive to extend them. Second of all, we had a system in which we didn’t really have “majors,” per se. We had concentrations, and we had to have a thesis at the end of them. And for each concentration you did, you had to have a different thesis, so I didn’t want to have multiple thesises, I didn’t see a clear path, or a clear ambition in myself to combine them into a joint thesis. And so I didn’t do it…

Because I was doing so many things… I was sleeping an average of 3 hours a night. I was sleeping usually in my office. Most normal people would go home after studying, but if there was a study session, it would last until midnight or 1:00 in the morning. Afterwards, I would have this enormous office space to myself. So I’d call up my dance partner and we’d practice there. Sometimes we’d even actually take the stage of the lecture hall and practice there, because I had the key to the building. After practicing dancing, I often just ended up zonking out there, rather than biking home.

Back to the point of when I realized I had to make a choice between math and dance. Essentially I saw that I was not sleeping much, I was drinking more coffee and energy drinks, I was falling asleep in all of my math classes, and I started falling asleep in my dance classes. So I started drinking even more caffeinated beverages to prevent that from happening, until one day, I basically felt a weird feeling when I was walking up stairs. After doing some Google searching, I realized I was having heart palpitations. That day, I decided that I’m cutting out the caffeine, sleeping more, and this was going to be my only semester of doing math, because I felt like I can return to math later, but for dance, really, it helps to be young, at least to get your foot in it, rather than deciding 20 years from then that I wanted to dance. I still feel that the door towards mathematics is pretty open to me still. I could return if I wished to.

Greg Any regrets on that decision?

Tomasz Not yet.

Laughs

My main concern is that right now, my income is not stable, once in a while I have to ask for help from my family. So it’s unclear whether it’s sustainable and I’m trying to find a variety of ways… in that… it’s a dice roll right now, whether I make it one month or not, financially.

Greg Alright, fair enough. Let’s fast forward. You’ve been involved in the dance scene in Poland for a decade, here mostly full time for the past 3 years. When I was preparing for this interview, some of the community members lovingly told me that you are known as the teacher who sometimes has trouble counting when they’re teaching. As someone who studied math, would you like to clear the air on that?

Laughs

Tomasz I don’t know if I have trouble “counting,” per se, but I have trouble multi-tasking. Often, if I’m trying to emphasize a point that’s besides the counting, and by impulse I start counting in, sometimes that’s completely disconnected… it’s not where my mind is at; and so I wind up kind of counting wrong.

I didn’t realize that was actually my reputation. I feel like, for one thing, I don’t take pride in messing up my counts. I find it is important to know when you are timing-wise and count-wise, but sometimes when I get into the spirit of improvisation, I just don’t know where my counts sit, because I’m focusing on something else.

Greg What are the things you focus on when you are teaching?

Tomasz I find that there are three main things that need to be emphasized. Understanding of technique. Understanding of music. And third, is improvisation, which I say in this way, kind of, um, not detached from music, but as a separate skill from musicality. If you understand music and you understand improvisation, then you have the power to be musical. I know that people have different approaches towards this, but I often teach improvisation just as a separate skill, apart from how you hear the music.

Greg Can you put those things into two buckets? The technical bucket and the improvisational bucket? What I’m trying to get at is, do people learn those two things differently?

Tomasz Yes. I’m going to use your “bucket” metaphor. I use different buckets of tools depending on the class. For example, I feel that one of my strengths is teaching improvisation, and when I teach improvisation, I do my best to put aside all the technical stuff. If the goal is to learn to improvise, I do my best to put as little, on what’s your technique, your technical skill.

I believe it is also a completely separate tool set. Some people are great improvisers, but can’t figure out what 6 counts is at all. I feel that they’ll have a good time in this kind of improvisational structure, while having trouble in the other. That being said, they have to learn technique at some point… a swing out is a fairly technical thing, which is good to learn, you can’t get away without it if you’re dancing Lindy Hop.

But in my opinion, it’s also the other way around. You can’t get away without learning some improvisational tools. We all catch some when we’re dancing. Like, if you’re leading, making the decision, “Am I going to swing out?” or “Am I doing a tuck turn?” or whatever, but having those improvisational tools let you give that extra little push to let you be a bit unique. Give a bit of your individuality into it.

Greg Talking about the different ways you can learn to dance, whether approaching it from the more creative, self-development point of view or from that mathematical, structured point of view, how has the history of Swing dancing in North America and Europe developed differently? Has it developed differently?

Tomasz I believe it has. One little piece of history, in terms of the Swing revival in the 80s, is that it did happen in Europe and the States concurrently. However, I feel like in the States, your average person on the street has an idea of what Swing dancing is to them and in general for most Americans are like, “Swing dancing is a thing I can go out and do, maybe learn the basic step and then have a great night out.” And a lot of people will approach it this way.

While in Europe which is far physically and culturally from the African-American roots of the dance, a lot more people are like, “Swing dancing is a skill I’d like to learn, so that I can dance like these crazy dancers.” They are more likely to discover Swing dancing by watching YouTube videos and see either one of the old, Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown videos, or watch Hellzapoppin’, or one of these other clips we’re all familiar with. And they’re like, “Oh, I want to do that.”

Greg And both of these approaches are valid?

Tomasz Oh, of course! It creates a completely different feel from people who are beginning to learn the dance. In Europe, I find that there is more scenes in which you’ve got an enormous quantity of people taking classes and only a small percentage of those people showing up to the dances.

While in the States, you often have people who have never taken a class in their lives and will just show up to the dances and are like, “Yeah, it’s Swing dancing, what’s the trick here? It’s just a thing you do, you feel a rhythm and you kinda do a thing.”

Both approaches are great and it’s one of those things where sometimes it’s like the grass is greener on the other side. Sometimes when I’m in the States, I wish people would put more work in their technique. And when I’m in Europe, I wish people would let go and just dance!

I realize that this is a gross over generalization, and for the record as well, there are many other factors that may influence individuals and scenes to develop this way – or another. I take pride in the Kraków scene developing quite strongly towards just going out there and dancing, and there’s a lot of people in the States who absolutely work very hard on their technique.

So ultimately I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to learn and dance in both scenes, and I feel that this has enriched me as a dancer. Same as with what we started with in terms of my roots in mathematics – I don’t know what would have happened if I started with dance, but starting with math gives me access to a particular way of thinking. But what I’ve learned is sometimes you gotta go out there and forget how to count.

Greg Ha! I see what you did there. Laughs. Let’s continue on with that theme. How do you like learning today? And how does that impact your teaching?

…We continue with Part 2 of the conversation next time.