If I do put the schools chapter last, I think I’ll use it in the following way:
I begin with Afro-American vernacular dance because contemporary swing dance culture itself ‘begins’ with af-am v dance. The ‘original swing era’ is a powerful myth in swing culture. It is used to justify many cultural and social practices, beginning with actually dancing itself – learning to dance swing dances is seen as a way of ‘reviving’ dances from this ‘original swing era’. The idea that these dances need reviving implies that they are in some way ‘dead’ or otherwise incapacitated. Literature discussing vernacular dances makes the point that they are continually changing and responding to cultural and social context as cultural discourse. For a particular dance step or dance style to be danced, it must retain relevance. In other words, dances ‘go out of style’ because they no longer appeal or embody the needs and interests of dancers. This is quite often related to changes in musical form – swing dances like the lindy hop were replaced by dances which were better ‘suited’ to the successive musical forms, and to the needs of successive generations of dancers.
The point is also made in much of the literature dealing with Afro-American vernacular dance, that particular moves or movements are not always wholly lost. The cross-generational nature of vernacular dance – it occurs in ordinary, everyday, cross-generational community spaces rather than in segregated ‘youth’ or other spaces – means that dance steps are more likely to move between generations than in generationally-segregated dance traditions.
The lindy hop, then is not ‘dead’ – it is still present in the movements and bodies of Afro-American dances today.
To declare that it is dead is to make an ideological statement about creative and cultural form. It is an act of power. It is also shifting the dance form out of Afro-American vernacular dance discourse and into middle class, urban youth culture. This shift is achieved through the use of a range of communications technology – media – and through institutional mediation of dance-discourse (schools or studios). This shift – this cultural transmission – is inflected by power and ideology and wider social relations. The ‘revival’ of swing dances in non-Afro-American communities is an embodiment of relationships between white-dominated middle class, mainstream discourse in the USA, Australia, Europe (and ethnically congruent groups in Korea, Singapore and Japan), etc and Afro-American people today.
The thesis, then, will begin with Afro-American vernacular dance, positioning lindy hop and other swing dances within a tradition of vernacular dance and identifying the cultural social uses and forms of dance in this context. Particular themes in Afro-American vernacular dance are identified in this initial chapter, and then attended to in later chapters. This thesis reads swing dancing as an Afro-American vernacular dance form which has been transmitted to another culture – another time and space and group of people. This approach is an attempt to question the centrality of white, middle class heterosexual cultural in Australian discourse. It is also an attempt to assess the processes of hegemony in the appropriation of a black dance form for a white community.
This first chapter also positions dance as cultural discourse – as a series of texts and positionings and relationships guided by ideology and instutitions – the ideas and beliefs of individuals and groups. It suggests that swing dance culture today – the embodied practices of contemporary swing dance communities – carry evidence of the ideological and social practice of its participants. The primary concern of this thesis is with the role of media in these practices.
Afro-American vernacular dance – though inflected by various media technologies such as radio, film and recorded music – is centered on face to face interaction – embodied practice.
Contemporary swing dance culture is far more heavily informed by media technology.
The second chapter pursues this point, noting the ways in which contemporary swing dance culture is mediated both by communications technology, and by insitutional bodies – the dance school or studio specificially.
This chapter also introduces the ways in which contemporary swing dance culture is a localised global community of interest. Afro-American vernacular dance is a product of African diaspora, carrying within it an embodied history of African culture, slavery in America, emancipation, oppression and finally movements towards cultural autonomy and freedom. Each decendent of that original African diaspora – each Africanist society – is unique and inflects cultural form in unique ways. There are distinctions to be made within the ‘Afro-American’ community, across time and geography – local distinctions.
Contemporary swing dance culture is a localised ‘global’ community. The community is not necessarily one of ethnic or genetic heritage – it is one of interest and cultural form. The links between local communities are maintained by travel and by media use and practice.
The second chapter introduces the notion of a community of dancers which is heavily mediated.
The third chapter begins an analysis of the forms of this mediation in contemporary swing dance culture. It examines the uses of Audio-Visual media in three periods in contemporary swing dance culture – the original ‘revivalist’ era of the 1980s, the rise of significant local communities in the 1990s, and the development of a locally inflected global community of dancers in the 2000s. The first period is characterised by the use of archival film in the revival of swing dances – footage of dancers from the ‘original swing era’. The second period is noted for the rise of videos produced by local communities and individuals in the promotion (and commodification) of local teachers and events. Specificially, commemorative videos for camps and exchanges and instructional videos. The third era, however, is characterised by the massive increase in AV media production, disemination and consumption in swing communities around the world made possible by the development of digital AV media technology. Here, dancers not only download and view clips filmed in other communities, they also film themselves and members of their own community to upload and share with the wider international swing dance community.
These three periods are broadly read as correlating with the face to face dance themes of immitation and impersonation; improvisation and innovation; and a later combination of the two, as dancers have increased access to both archival footage and images of contemporary dancers in their embodied dance practices, which they then film and disseminate.
The fourth chapter explores DJing in contemporary swing dance culture. The rise of DJs as a distinct role and identity in local communities is an indication of that community’s age and development of cultural form and practice. DJs not only make extensive use of digital media in their embodied practice – playing music for dancers – they are also making great use of digitial media in their acquisition, research and discussion of music online. Swing DJs have also developed an international community of interest which complements their face to face practices in their local community.
This chapter reads DJing in terms of impersonation and immitation in DJ’s choice of music and DJing style (specifically, in their intensely ‘recreationist’ ideology), yet also sees them as innovating and improvising in both their online and face to face practices. DJing in swing culture is seen not only as the ability to recreate musical moments from the past, but also as being capable of responding to the immediate needs and demands of the dancers on the floor before them.
Both AV media and DJing practice in swing dance culture are mediated by their relationship to – or place within – various discourses wihtin local and global communities. The final chapter explores the local Melbourne swing dance community as one which has increasingly become the preserve of one major institution – a dance school. This school not only manages the face to face events at which DJs work but also discursively manages the music DJs play and dancers’ responses to this music. This discourse is not only embodied in dance classes and at events, but also exists online in newsletters, websites and other ‘official’ discursive texts and forms. Schools also produce official AV media – videos and DVDs – though their management of ‘unofficial’ digital media is more complex.
The final chapter of this thesis explores the role of the swing dance school in contemporary Melbourne swing dance culture, and the ways in which it mediates embodied dance practice within this community. This chapter explores the commodification of dance – through classes and performances – and the twin imperatives of creating and sustaining a market which motivate schools’ social and cultural activities. Swing dance schools justify their activities with the revivalist myth that they are ‘recreating’ and ‘reviving’ a vanished art form and cultural practice. This notion is used to justify the commodification of dance, and the management of face to face practice in ways which impede the development of a contemporary vernacular dance culture in Melbourne.
This chapter is concerned with the ways in which pedagogy – as practice and ethos – is utilised in the commodification of cultural practice, and in the mediation of discourse.
This chapter sees dance schools as emphasising immitation and impersonation rather than innovation and improvisation in both teaching and discursive practice, and discouraging alternative forms of learning and acquiring knowledge which deconstruct challenge institutional heirarchies of knowledge and – consequently – power.
The thesis closes with this chapter as an examination of a local swing dance community where institutional discourse attempts to manage a local dance discourse in an increasingly globalised – or internationally networked community. Changes in this school’s internal practices and discursive practices are read as responses to these community changes which attempt to reposition dance as a commodity – a product to be bought and sold – rather than as a process of cultural production or a discourse which can be made or created or participated in beyond the bounds of institutional discourse or practice.
If I do put the schools chapter last, I think I’ll use it in the following way: