a long story about blues, women, feminism and dance

Angela Y. Davies writes in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

During Bessie Smith’s era [the 20s and 30s], most black heterosexual couples – married or not – had children. However, blues women rarely sang about mothers, fathers and children. in the subject index to her book Black Pearls, black studies scholar Daphne Duval Harrison lists the following themes: advice to other women; alcohol; betrayal or abandonment; broken or failed love affairs; death; departure; dilemma of staying with man or returning to family; disease adn afflictions; erotica; hell; homosexuality;infidelity; injustice; jail and serving time; loss of lover; love; men; mistreatment; murder; other woman; poverty; promiscuity; sadness; sex; suicide; supernatural; trains; traveling; unfaithfulness; vengeance; weariness, depression, and disillusionment; weight loss. It is revealing that she does not include children, domestic life, husband, and marriage (Davis 13).

She continues,

The absence of the mother figure in the blues does not imply a rejection of motherhood as such, but rather… The female figures evoked in women’s blues are independent women free of the domestic orthodoxy of the prevailing representations of womanhood through which female subjects of the era were constructed (Davis 13).

Davis’ book explores these themes in women’s blues of the period, and my interest is caught by the section describing domestic violence. One of the points Davis makes is (to quote again – sorry) that

Women’s blues suggest emergent feminist insurgency in that they unabashedly name the problem of male violence and so usher it out of the shadows of domestic life where society had kept it hidden and beyond public or political scrutiny (Davis 29-30).

I think this is one of the points that I like most. This sort of music is centrally concerned with individual women singing their stories. They mightn’t be ‘true’ stories, but they’re true in the sense that they are about these women’s lives, and about the lives of women of their day (and of today, I’d argue). And they’re discussing issues and experiences which we don’t see in the mainstream films and white music of the period.
Davis goes on in her book to explore the feminist themes in this music, and she notes

…even in their most despairing moods, the female characters memorialized in women’s blues songs do not fit the mold of the typical victim of abuse. The independent women of blues lore do not think twice about wielding weapons against men who they feel have mistreated them. They frequently brandish their razors and guns, and dare men to cross the lines they draw. While acknowledging the physical mistreatment they have received at the hands of their male lovers, they do not perceive or define themselves as powerless in face of such violence. Indeed, they fight back passionately (Davis 34).

As someone writing about contemporary swing dancers, all this is really important.
One of the central concerns of my thesis was with the way contemporary swing dancers use history in their ‘revival’ of dances and music. This ‘history’ is a very carefully clean and safe history, though, and neglects (to quote Paul Gilroy), the “unnameable terrors” of black history where

slavery, pogroms, indenture, [and] genocide….all figured in the constitutions of diasporas and the reproduction of a diasporan consciousness, in which identity is focussed less on equalizing, proto-democratic force of common territory and more on the social dynamics of remembrance and commemoration defined by a strong sense of the dangers involved in the forgetting the location of origin and the process of dispersal (Kelly, quoting Gilroy 318).

As I wrote in the first chapter of my thesis,

African American vernacular dance – including Lindy Hop and other swing dances – remembers this history in specific steps as well as general themes and methods for acquiring and disseminating new steps. It is important to describe African American dance as product of historical and social forces not only for reasons of conscience and to avoid the dangers Gilroy implies, but also to explore how reframing African American vernacular dance in contemporary communities has had particular ideological consequences.

One of the things I’ve noticed about contemporary swing dance is that there’s a lot of talk about the creative moment in swing dance history – a proliferation of stories about how dancers invented steps – but very little investigation of the social and political context out of which these steps developed. So, for example, we hear endless stories from Frankie Manning about working in theatre and film. But we don’t hear him discuss the working conditions of black dancers in Hollywood (except in passing), nor do we hear discussions about the reasons why people like the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers came to be able to spend all day and night dancing. Unemployment, poverty, violence and so on are neglected in the popular history of swing dances. My favourite example is the pimp walk – each time it’s taught in class, I hear the story of how it was inspired by pimps swaggering about Harlem. But I have never heard even the slightest reference to the specifics of the pimp’s employment – his reason for swaggering about town.
And of course, if we follow Davis’ point, if there’s no naming of the ‘unnameable’ terrors, there’s no public response possible for the women (and other disempowered individuals). It is all neatly swept under the pedagogic (and practical) blanket of contemporary swing dance.
I’ve also noticed a neglect in contemporary swing dance culture in Australia of the sort of blues music I’ve been talking about. This is in part a result of the musical tastes of dancers in my scene – a preponderance of supergroove. But in neglecting dirty nanna blues, or the sort of crude, funny, violent blues which I quite like, there’s also a clear depoliticisation of blues music and blues dancing in Melbourne. I think that this has been clearly illustrated by a suggestion made for MLX7. If it were to be themed ‘7 deady sins’ (and this is just one of the millions of ideas being floated), and blues was named ‘lust’, then blues dancing and blues music becomes simply sex – a sexualised dance. And, as people like Ma Rainey and Rosetta Crawford and Alberta Hunter and all their sisters have made very clear, ‘the blues’ is far more than just sex. It’s about food, too. ;)
If all the other political and social elements of blues music and dance are neglected, there is no point of reply for these women in song. And, I’d argue quite strongly, the emphasis on follows simply ‘surrendering’ to the lead in blues music as it is danced in Melbourne (where the close embrace and tango-inspired moves are prioritised over other historical forms), supports a particularly scary patriarchal theme in swing dance culture in this city generally.
Shut up and dance, girl.
And of course, as a DJ, it’s endlessly frustrating to hear only a series of repeated supergroove or soul tracks that don’t seem to have any soul at all trotted out for dancers. As a learning-DJ, I want to hear a range of music which can both inspire me as a dancer, and also inspire me as a DJ – encourage me to seek out rare gems and learn more about this music and its history.
One thing that has interested me in all this is the way solo blues (dominated by women) tends to favour the sort of old school blues that reeks of more interesting social themes. There’s a world of difference between East St Louis Toodle-oo, Black and Tan Fantasy and The Mooche and Oscar Peterson tinkling away through Bag’s Groove once again.
I’d really like to see some solo blues to some of the sassy nannas I dig… though the lyrics might actually be a problem – they tend to anchor meaning in a song, limiting the potential scope for interpretation in a dance performance… which might actually be one of their advantages when we’re talking about someone like Nina Simone, who tended to wear her politics on her sleeve.
But, to be fair, there is also the convincing argument that swing dances, as vernacular dances, should reflect the lived experiences of the dancers. This is the one, clear argument for doing things like combining tango steps with blues dancing, playing ‘unswing’ or ‘unblues’ (whether it is soul, r’n’b, hip hop, trance or whatever). I’m certainly not for blind recreation (and preservation) of some imagined historical moment or essence.
… but I’d much rather swing dancers today took on both the feminism of 1920s black blues women in a third wave feminist moment, rather than simply accepting the patriarchal (and capitalist! and heteronormative!) constraints of the pedagogic relationships which dominate contemporary swing dance culture!
And of course, there’s still a great deal to be said about the anti-feminist sentiments of blues music, and disturbing people like Jimmy Witherspoon. Though I think it’s worth pointing out that the 50s and late 40s were far more conservative moments than the 20s in popular African American music and dance.
[edited to add reference:
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Toronto: Random House, 1998.]

7 Replies to “a long story about blues, women, feminism and dance”

  1. Thanks, dood.
    It’s so NICE to have time to just write and write and write. I have NOTHING TO DO… until 5pm, anyway, when I’m off to an ANZCA conference meeting (the first of my new responsibilities for 2007).
    And I’m feeling inspired by that dance conference. Plus I’m still kind of flying on my thesis results (the markers’ reports will get to me in a couple of days). At our house I have found that the best way to win any argument is to say “Well, that’s fine, but NO CORRECTIONS, so I think I might be right. All the time. In fact, that means that I’m never wrong.” The Squeeze has responded with anything from a little derision dance of his own to just lying on top of me and crushing me til I can’t breathe (or talk) any more.
    I had my first weekend off since semester 2 started last weekend. It was AMAZING. Event if it meant missing out on the practical component of the dance conference :( + :)

  2. ahahahah. Brownies. ahahhaha.
    I had a mild clash with a dood at dance tonight, so I’m feeling a bit less euphoric now. Though the markers’ comments should arrive soon (they’re being posted from uni), so I might start flying again soon. I just can’t believe it. I’m waiting for a phone call: “sorry, we made a mistake.”
    I’m not happy with the moderated comments set up.
    I use Movabletype and I’m not sure if they have the sort of comments moderation set ups that blogspot, etc have. That would be vastly superior. But I do have to have some sort of moderation as I get spammed a lot otherwise.
    If anyone knows of another option….

  3. I was just thinking that perhaps the reason why Frankie and co emphasise the positive moments in (his) dance history has something to do with dance being a way to purge the blues. Social dancing was the escape – the feel-good thing to do.

  4. I’ve thought that too.
    I think it’s also important to remember that Manning is paid to do lectures to swing dancers. And swing dancing is marketed (quite comprehensively) as a ‘feel good’ bit of social fluff. It wouldn’t mesh well to have Manning then talk about the difficult history of growing up in Harlem. And a sad story about slavery or the ghettoisation of Harlem won’t sell passes to dance classes.
    And then of course there’s Manning’s personality – he’s not a miseryguts.
    I’ve noticed that other dancers from the era are often more likely to talk about these issues than he is.
    …my concern, though, is with the way the commodification of swing dances requires this neglect of the history of the dance and the people who produced the dance. People like Paul Gilroy (and others) make the point that we need to remember these histories, especially in a diasporic context.
    I feel that in neglecting this history we appropriate a black dance in a way that has all sorts of nasty precendents.
    For me, it’s kind of like asking permission to be on aboriginal land when you do a lecture or event – you signal your respect for the land and its owners/caretakers by remembering them. It’s a gesture of goodwill, of cooperative sociability. And it’s a way of making recompense for past events, of saying ‘I remember’.
    I’m also very keen on (as an Australian, and particularly as an immigrant Australian, who’s very conscious of being here as an invited guest) putting things like the stolen generation and the invasion of this country into our history books and historical narratives. To ignore this history is… well, damn frightening. It suggests that we don’t think there was anything particularly bad about what happened. That it wouldn’t be _so_ awful if it happened again. But if we remember, we make these events meaningful and something we can learn from.
    People like John Howard and Keith Windshuttle are WRONG to neglect this history.
    And I think, as a dancer, I (personally), need to do the equivalent of ‘asking permission’ from the ‘owners’ of this dance – I need to signal my respect by acknowleding the history of the dance. And by telling that story when I can. And by learning more parts of this story.
    And of course, vernacular dances carry their social history with them in their very forms and structures. Black bottom – it’s part of an agrarian slave history (despite the ‘white’ part of its history). Things like the Big Apple have their roots in ring shouts. And ring shouts were a way of obscuring the religious practices of slaves – a way for them to both practice christianity and maintain the embodied spiritual practices of their African forebears.
    If we didn’t think the history of the dance was important, why would we bother dancing lindy at all?
    To ignore the darker parts of these dances’ history (which, to me, are more narratives of strength and survival and also excellently exciting moments of tactical resistance and subversion – the cake walk!) is to ignore the strengths of those dancers as well as the darker parts of their history. As a feminist, I take the examples of resistance and subversion (and all that other delicious stuff) and see a model for my own resistance to and challenges of injustice and inequity. Lindy hop screams ‘BRING it – improvise! question! critique! comment! Don’t just blandly accept what you’re told. Engage!’.
    Having said all that, Albert Murray talks about ‘stompin’ the blues’ (and Malone talks about ‘steppin’ the blues’) as a way of dealing with heartache and pain. You don’t hide it away and ignore it. You take it out and you dance it with your family and friends til it doesn’t hurt any more. It’s about community networks and social structures and the importance of dance as a social discourse where people deal with the wider spectrum of social life.
    I don’t think it’s escape, I think it’s the public sharing of feeling in a met-linguistic way. Words aren’t enough. But working with musicians and other dancers is (or is a part of a wider spectrum of cultural practice).
    I’m also all for a discourse that shifts an emphasis away from linguistic communication – I think it’s a nice way of empowering people who aren’t super-literate, super-articulate (ie slaves in the pre-emancipation era; other disenfranchised people in the current context).
    I think that’s why I’m all for a blues dancing culture that complements lindy hop – it’s the other end of the emotional spectrum. Or perhaps a more nuanced range of emotion and affect.

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