thesis update

I am editing like a crazy person. Well, preferably like a clever, articulate and focussed academic.
I’m up to the 4th draft of Chapter 2 (Dance as public discourse: Afro-American vernacular dance). Actually, I’m mid-way with draft #4 of Chapter 3 (cultural transmission in dance: the movement of cultural form and practice as ideological and mediated process). This will be followed by the 4th drafts of Chapter 4 (AV media in contemporary swing dance culture: revivalism and the ideological management of mediated dance), Chapter 5 (DJing in contemporary swing dance culture: the collusion of cultural practices in mediated dance), Chapter 6 (institutions in contemporary swing dance culture: swing dance schools and the ideological management of embodied practice via media) and rounding up with a first draft of my conclusion. Then I go back to Chapter 1 (Introduction) to do its 4th draft.
Then I edit for typos/grammar/spelling and all that rubbish. Hopefully to submit in August.
It’s all going pretty well, and the supes gave me the thumbs up on my recent effort at making 6 seperate blobs of work one comprehensive ‘story’ about swing dancers’ use of media in embodied practice. It was a matter of juggling writing style, making each chapter support a key thesis (which I can’t articulate right now, sorry), and then each point in each chapter support that thesis.
So Chapter 2 is now looking pretty comprehensive (dance as discourse; how to discuss dance as discourse, theoretically and analytically; dance discourse as culturally specific; then considering Afro-American vernacular dance of the 20s/30s/40s as an example, paying most attention to the relationship between the introduction of new ideas/dance steps (mostly through improvisation) and community structures which regulate/manage this process. In other words, how is the representation of ‘self’ and individual identity (through improvisation, creative ‘work’) by individual dancers ‘managed’ by community structures (such as musical structures, social conventions regarding sexuality and public behaviour, etc etc).
I make the point quite clearly that individual self expression in Af-Am v dance (or the representation of self and individual interests and ‘difference’ in public (dance) discourse) is more flexible than in contemporary swing dance culture.
I see the formal heirachies of teaching and learning (esp in schools) as the reason why there’s less tolerance/opportunity for the representation of self/difference in contemporary swing dance culture. And teaching and learning in contemporary swing dance culture is dominated by ‘revivalist’ ideology – the idea that swing dances are dead, they were great, and they need to be ‘revived’.
I explore this in greater detail in Chapter 4, the AV chapter, where I look at the role of archival film in the revivalist project.
In Chapter 3, though, I talk about ‘cultural transmission’, and consider contemporary swing dance culture, noting how it’s a fairly homogenous culture, in fact a predominantly youth/consumer culture, a consequence of the formal pedagogic practices of swing culture. I take Melbourne as an extreme example, looking at how the swing dance school’s commodification of dance as a package to be bought and sold via classes has resulted in a homogenous ‘market’ for this product – white, middle class, hetero kids.
But this chapter is more interesting than that. I argue swing dances’ movement into the white American mainstream in the 30s was achieved primarily through the mediation of the form: film and dance studios brought swing dances to the mainstream (with obvious asides to stuff like Afro-American troops interacting with white women, though I argue that the segregation of the day prevented the wide-spread effect some dance historians argue for. I think film and dance teachers were significant – though it was a combination of factors).
I’m most interested in the mediation of swing dances in their movement from Afro-American communites to mainstream America and then into the internaitonal community. There’s plenty of work on this stuff, esp in relation to mambo and latin dance and their movement into mainstream America (admittedly in later years).
I’m interested in how film was important. Then I make the point in Chapter 3 that these films represented the racism and segregation of the day in various ways (ie some studios not showing black and white characters on screen together – segregation in-text; racist work-practices in the studios themselves). And then, that revivalist dancers cannot help but reproduce these racist and dodgy themes in using these films as key sources for reviving swing dances. The problem lies in their not critically engaging with these issues in their teaching/researching dance. In fact, I argue quite strongly that swing dancers today are notably reluctant to engage with issues of race and class in their discussions of swing dance history. Which concerns me, esp as 20s and 30s ‘Harlem’ and ‘slavery’ seem quite ideologically loaded terms.
Ok, so with all that in mind, I then introduce swing dancers as fans, through their media use, and through their class/age/etc demographics.
Then I say: ‘ok, so with all that in mind, what evidence do I have for all that in actual examples from dancers’ embodied practice? Where is this shit in the dancing?’ And then I do some neat analysis of actual dance stuff, in particular reference to gender and sexuality (because they’re key issues in swing culture). And I make the argument that just that fans are engaged in ‘textual poaching’ – tactical engagments with dominant ideologies and discourses, so too are swing dancers. It’s even more interesting when you read Afro-American vernacular dance as embodying tactical resistance to dominant American ideology and discourse of the day – hell, let’s be blunt. When you read Afro-American vernacular dance as the dance of people whose history involves racism, segregation, jim crow legislation, racial violence, etc etc. In that situation, of course cultural production will be resistant. Particularly dance, for people of West African descent.
So then I do some neat analysis, basically asking how sexual and gender differences are represented in contemporary swing dance cultures around the world. I look at how, for example, young women in North America use swing dance to explore ‘sexual display’ within a safe social context, where they may (beyond dance) be unwilling to do things like flash their knickers, wear suspenders for show, shimmy, etc. I’m also interested in stuff like women leading and men following as a way of subverting heternormative social forces. I’m also facinated by local differences – eg blues dancing in Korea and Japan, as opposed to blues dancing in Canada or Australia or New Zealand.
And of course, the most imporant part of all this the role media plays. How contemporary swing dancers use the internet, AV media, etc in all this. How important are swing discussion boards in the way young people in swing dance communities represent sexual and gender differences? I argue that media is very important, and provide some neat examples from different discussion boards, websites and email lists.
Then I move on to AV media in Chapter 4, where I talk specifically about media use in contemporary swing dance culture. I take AV media as an example of one key media form (and practice), and then DJing as an example of the collusion of different media forms and embodied practices – in swing DJing we see dancers using discussion boards, email lists, websites, digitial music technology (from downloading mp3s to DJing from laptops), to research, purchase, discuss and explore music and how to use it. Then I look at how all this stuff functions in embodied practice: how DJs’ media use actually functions in their embodied DJing for a crowd of dancers.
In Chapter 5 I look at how all this stuff – media use – is managed by institutions in contemporary swing dance culture. I focus on Melbourne as it has the largest swing dance school in the world, and is a local scene dominated by school discourse (which is, incidentally, capitalist discourse). And I look at how capitalist discourse functions to commodify what was once a vernacular dance – to sell young people a lifestyle product. And, most facinating of all, how they are also sold an ideological ‘product’ as well. I’m interested in how the ideology and discourse of schools in Melbourne reflect dominant social discourse and ideology in the wider Melbourne and Australian community.
Therefore proving my original argument, that dance = public discourse, where ideology is represented, and that this discourse is representative of the social/political/cultural forces of the wider community in which this community-of-interest is located.
I squeeze the fandom stuff in Chapters 4 and 5 in more detail, mostly to explain specific media practices.

3 Replies to “thesis update”

  1. Impressive, very impressive. Is there any fallout for you in progressing this thesis argument as a member of the Melbourne swing dance community/scene? Do you discuss these ideas while you’re out? What’s the reaction?

  2. I do discuss this stuff with other dancers.
    Some of it comes up on the Swing Talk board ( and gets discussed a bit there. Never as much as I’d like – I love the way dancers will just ignore academic comments as completely irrelevent, or just some crazy idea I’ve had. It totally shreds any delusion that acadamia is actually all-powerful and influential. In that particular discourse, an academic argument or way of arguing is often completely useless. So I guess you get good at adopting different modes of representation/participation…
    So for example, rather than just sitting about on the Swing Talk board bitching about how men always lead and women always follow, and how this recreates patriarchal and heteronormative ideology/discourse, I bitch online and get my arse out there on the dance floor leading.
    A positive, embodied example or contribution to swing discourse is always most effective and influential. It’s also empowering for you/me…though it can be exhausting.
    This is a key point in my thesis: the embodied is always the most authoritative contribution to public discourse in swing dance.
    So far as negative fallout for me in the community, in regards to some of the more critical points that I make…. I think that one of the results of being reluctant to adopt a clear position on many of these things has been the lack of clear, coherent argument in my thesis. It’s not ‘normal’ to adopt a clear, inviolate argument in ‘normal’ everyday life – we chop and change. So my thesis tended to reflect this, as I’m quite often writing about my everyday life in my work. My thesis really came together when I decided to get off the fence.
    Anyways, I do wonder about the posible effects of my recent stance on the role of schools. It’s not in my interests to be perceived as ‘anti-schools’ in normal swing discourse. Nor is it actually a clear reflection of my own beliefs: I’m not anti-schools. But it’s difficult to communicate the subtlety or complexity of my position (where I feel that some things about schools are bad and some good and some neither) on a discussion board, or in the difficult social context of dance-spaces, where there’s no time to delve into issues, the music’s too loud, and people simply aren’t interested in that type of talk.
    I’d also like to devote some time to the ways in which high-profile teachers (particularly the revivalist sort) and their actions can make positive contributions to swing culture. I always think about the way Peter Loggins teaches with Sugar Sullivan. He’s a young, white North American guy. She’s an Afro-American nanna. They’re both hardcore lindy hoppers. He shows her the utmost respect when they’re teaching together: he listens to her and respects her opinions (esp since she’s an ‘original’ lindy hopper). She does the same with him. He sets a nice role model for male students in how to relate with female partners (esp when it comes to race stuff). She’s way super-cool about things like female leads: she may be in her 60s, but I found her the most inspiring woman role model – she kicks arse in her dancing (none of this baby-delicate-lahlah-lady dancing), but she’s all woman. I think that this type of hetero-pairing is just as important as same-sex pairings. It’s an example of the value and importance of teaching couples in swing culture, particularly when the community is comprised largely of young people….Which kind of leads to some stuff I’d like to write about the role of ‘original swing dancers’ in contemporary swing culture: they tend to be old, Afro-American, working class dancers with grandkids or kids and a whole wealth of experience as pro and amateur dancers. I like to watch the interaction between them and the kids.
    But mostly, I simply haven’t brought up these issues in any clear way in ‘ordinary’ swing discourse. Sure, I talk about it with my friends, and many of these friends and other dancers read this blog. But just as Tseen wrote on her Acadamia101 blog (a href=””) it’s best not to burn bridges in a small community.
    I’ve found it far more useful to phrase my ‘concerns’ as positive feedback or participation.
    So, for example: What if I don’t like the way there’s cliqueness and heirarchies in social dancing spaces, where teachers don’t mix with students, and ‘more experienced dancers’ don’t dance with ‘newbs’? Instead of bitching about it (or in addition to bitching), I get my arse out there and be part of a positive solution: I dance with everyone. I play nice. Try to be proactive.
    I may formulate ‘theory’ about the way things are in my academic/private life, but then I use this thinking to inform what I do, practically. It reminds me of things Nancy Fraser wrote in “Structuralism or Pragmantics? On Discourse Theory and Feminist Politcs” in her book Justice Interruptus arguing about the role of feminism in womens studies and so on…. get practical with your political theory.
    The way I function in swing is pretty much the same solution I would adopt in other everyday situations.
    Don’t like the way your supervisor’s supervising you? Tell them what you need from them as a supervisor.
    Don’t like the way the bike paths have disapeared on Queensberry Street? Get out there at midnight on Sunday and pull the tape off…. did I just type that out loud?
    If I didn’t… I’d go nuts. I write in my thesis about how my academic work – my theorising of what I do in swing culture – makes my position in dancing tenable. By actually being proactive, I feel like I make i possible to actually remain a part of this community.
    One of the most frustrating things, though, is that swing culture has a problem with longevity: dancers don’t stick around too long. So I feel like I’m continually rehashing the same points and doing the same work over and over again.

  3. WOW. It is way cool to happen upon your site and to read about your thesis like this. I am working (slowly) on my master’s thesis in Montreal, Canada on the translocation of breaking (aka breakdance) to the contemporary dance stage. I am hugely inspired by your brief notes on Swing dance as an African American vernacular dance and its current practice as a ‘revivalist’ form – I see many parallels here with my research. In fact, it was while doing a search on LeeEllen Friedland (wondering what university she taught at – still haven’t found out) that I came across your site.
    Although it’s not a focus of my research, I am very aware of the influence media has played in transmitting breaking and other street dances such as locking and popping, around the world (including Montreal), and in fact of the dances of hip hop as being at the vanguard of the global spread of hip hop culture, even as a precursor to the music. However in breaking the dance passed by white mainstream culture as a fad and installed itself among minority youth in Montreal. I would be extremely interested in reading your completed thesis (or incompleted.)
    Interesting point about the formal hierarchies of swing schooling and improvisation – I would say that in breaking I suspect that the community structures of the battle (an organized event, often with judges) and the cypher (solo freestyling in the round) serve as devices for novice dancers to take their classroom learning to another level, into the skilled use of improvisation. Organized battles and the informal arena of the cypher are places where improvisation is celebrated. I don’t know much about the swing dance scene here in Montreal, but I do recall an interview I helped with when I was still participating in a radio program on dance (Movement Museum, with a mambo dancer who does teach improvisation and spoke beautifully and passionately on the subject. I think her name is Caroline Paré.
    I will end now, but try to find the time to look at more of your site later. Good work on waiting until after you finished your thesis to have baby – I type the end of this message with 12-month old sleeping in my lap. Very slow indeed.

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