I talk an awful lot about women’s bodies, and women and the erotic gaze. I am, of course, working with the assumption that most dance performances are geared towards a male gaze, which Laura Mulvey introduces in her 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, and which caused such a stir Screen then devoted an entire issue to the matter. But I wonder if that’s what’s actually going on in dance performances? Are we really that dull? In this post I’m going to look at some hot male bodies, and see how we might go about fucking up shit in the modern swing dance world. High heel shoes: for all!
This idea of the male gaze was originally constructed as a response to mainstream narrative cinema, and argues that mainstream narrative films are constructed (from story to shot framing and mise en scene) for an imaginary, idealised male viewer. In this context, men and male protagonists operate as the active, subjective heroes (the people the viewer wants to be) and the women are reduced to bodies to be objectified, acted upon by others (the object the viewer wants to possess or act upon).
You can see how this approach would stimulate lots of discussion. It’s an inherently heterocentric reading: what about queer women watching these female, sexualised bodies on screen? What about queer men watching and wanting to possess and be the male subject? And is it really useful to use this fairly fucked up psychoanalytic approach to cinema which boils everything down to sex? Whether you dig Mulvey’s approach or not, she certainly started people talking – in loud and quite excited ways – about the way cinema constructs stories and images of bodies and people, and she invited us to critique assumptions about gender and power in cinema studies. Which can only be a good thing.
Now I don’t have much patience with psychoanalysis as a tool for analysing film and performance. I don’t think it works, mostly because it boils everything down to sex, and I think that this approach tells us a lot more about 19th century middle class Austrian men than about cinema. But I do think there are some interesting starting points, here. And I want to apply them to dance. Because that is what I do. I’m also interested in the way vernacular dances – on-stage and off – allow the audiences and performers to interact, in a way that cinema does not. In a dance performance, the sexualised body (be it male or female) is capable of physically, verbally and discursively interacting with the audience whose gaze they’ve invited. I think this adds a really interesting and exciting element to the fairly dull model of visual pleasure.
…I have to mention, much of this discussion draws – in a fairly long distance way – on Judith Butler’s talk about gender performance in Gender Trouble. If I had room, I’d go into that, and then into transgender performance, but I don’t think any of us could be bothered with that now. Another time perhaps.
It’s tempting to leap into a discussion about burlesque here. But I’ve done that already (in this post ‘My concerns about burlesque’), and I’m kind of over it. I want to talk about something new. I want to remind people that it’s not only women who are sexualised and men who are sexualising. Just as Mulvey was a starting point for discussions of cinema, I want to move on from talking about sexualising women’s bodies in dance (in the context of contemporary swing dance culture) and talk about sexualising men’s bodies.
I’d like to pause here, and note that I once delivered a conference paper on the sexualised male body in blues dance performance. I was squished, once again, into a panel that featured no other dance talk. In fact, I was after a woman talking about child rape and sexualised children and before a woman talking about literature by women who’ve survived rape. The crowd was all women, with one or two scared young men, and these were hardcore queer studies women, who were absolutely disinterested in men. Sexually, socially or academically.
At one point during my paper, as I began a section discussing the appeal of a young, well-muscled man performing a highly sexualised solo blues routine, I thought “aw fuck.” Needless to say, my lines about the pleasures of gazing upon Falty’s fine young frame and his own pleasure in his body and performance did not go down well.
But, then, this is the point of it all. We are not all watching cinema in the same way. Each text yields – encourages! – a range of viewing positions and ways of looking.
But let’s pause and consider the clip with which I tried to excite those angry lesbian separatists:
The nice thing about this clip… well, hells, there are plenty of nice things about this clip. But the one I most prefer is the way solo dance is more accommodating of a queer gaze than partner dance. In fact, solo dance gives us a chance to side step heteronormativity. Here is a young, healthy man dancing for his own pleasure, and engaging with a range of discourses about gender and sex and sexualised bodies and audiences and performances. He is not anchored to a particular partner (and associated sexual preference). He is autonomous, sexually complete in himself. Which is pretty interesting, as women-as-sexual-object are pretty integral accessories to the heteronormative, hegemonic Man that patriarchy digs.
Despite Mike’s independent display, this is also definitely a performance for an audience – the audience in the room, watching, the audience behind the camera, the other dancers in the performance itself, who are following and imitating his movements. The last is especially interesting: here is a young, white man modelling sexualised dance movements for a range of women and men.
Most importantly, though, Mike’s performance climbs and climbs and climbs, the tension increasing, the sexual show exaggerated and exaggerated until it suddenly tips over. His taking off his shirt is met with screams of delight and excitement, embarrassment, laughter, clapping – all the lovely responses this sort of display requires. It’s not until we see his grin that we are let in on the joke. He knows that this is exaggerated play, and we are allowed to see that he both enjoys the attention (as he should – this is the point of it all, right? Pleasure in being the object/subject as well as pleasure for the observer?) and has performed for us. He doesn’t quite slip out out of character, but it’s very clear that this has all been framed as performance. It’s not, for example, a real performance of sexual invitation. … is it?
[Note: understanding the difference between real sexual invitation and, well, just being there in your body, is something a lot of men have trouble with. They assume that all women are constantly available. If they are outside their homes (or inside them), wearing revealing clothing (or not)... hellz, just breathing. I feel the urge to explore the currently-raging slutwalk debate, but I don't have the energy. But I would like to link to this article to suggest my concerns about the topic.
But all this makes it clear that we cannot compare male and female sexualised performance in a cultural vacuum. We need to remember context. And for me, that is patriarchy.]
Well, the point of my using this clip here is to say, well, fuck. That conference paper failed. Can you see how it went down awfully in that session? Right. Framing is everything for this sort of show.
So let me show you three other clips. They’re all blues dancing performances. Two are partner blues, one is solo blues. But to frame that one as ‘solo’ blues is a little misleading. The most successful of these types of solo blues ‘battles’ or competitions rely, utterly, on engagement between competitors, and between competitors and audience. Visual play, but also aural and oral engagement. Between dancers and audience, but also between musicians and dancers. There is no solo in solo blues competitions. Not if you’re doing it right. This is not a self-contained performance of sexual immanence. It’s a battle, a demonstration, a performance of sexualised movement which requires interaction. Demands it. This is the call; you bring the response.
I’ll begin with that other solo performance, then. This is the solo blues final from the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown in New Orleans, 2009. I’m most interested in the first minute of the competition. You might be interested in the rest, to compare the male and female performers/performances, but I just want to talk about the men, here. Though I have to note: it is rare to find men in solo blues comps. And their style is very, very different to the women’s. And don’t get me started on the whole not wearing shoes thing.
That particular dancer is Dax Hock. He’s been a professional dancer and performer for years, and, obviously, possesses the mad skills. I like the way he engages with the other (women) performers, and the way he displays his body (and mad skills) to the audience. This is at once a highly sexualised male body, but also a very professional demonstration of performance and dance skills. He won that competition.
As you watch, listen as well. Listen to the audience’s response. To the band and consider the way Dax engages with both. This, to my mind, is where the real skill lies.
There are so many things to talk about in this performance. The references to Snake Hips Tucker, a frightening, mesmerising performer. The moments where Dax spreads his legs ridiculously wide, from the hip, suggesting invitation and echoing a woman’s spread legs as invitation for penetration. In a man, this is transgressive: he invites the gaze, the penetration. But it is also aggressively hegemonic masculinity: admire the phallus (down here!). This is sex talk. With the body. He makes eye contact with the audience, with a suggestive/aggressive invitation to admire him (a cocked head, a nod, the eye contact). He repeats this when he turns to address the other competitors, but his more blatant hip thrust (and display) is less a marker of sexual invitation as an invitation to compare sexual/dancing ability in competition. It’s derision dancing at its finest (I’ve written about derision in dance in regards to race and violence in blues music here, and there are links to references there).
The comparison of male and female sex/groin/performance is interesting as well. A man asking a woman to compete with him for the audience’s attention… is he asking the women to compete with him for the male gaze? For a male/female gaze? Really, I think this is where the term ‘queer’ really comes in useful: he’s inviting women to participate as equals (well, as not-quite-equals) in a performance/display/competition to be both sexual object and subject for a male/female/straight/gay/bi queer gaze. He’s fucking up gender norms here.
But it is the music that makes it all wonderful. The song is shouting ‘sex!’, but it’s also shouting ‘humour!’ and ‘laugh!’ and ‘shout!’ and parody and engagement… so many things, so many different points from which to engage with it, that it defies that heteronormative, male gaze narrative. Which is how blues and jazz roll, really. Slippage. It has it. And Dax, wonderfully, extends that aural invitation with his body.
Do note, here, that we are looking at two young, fit, healthy white male bodies. Not too transgressive, huh? But perhaps it is…?
Let’s move on. Here’s something different. Another competition from that same ULHS 2009. This time it’s partner blues. So we see heterosexuality on display. Or do we? As with most of these sorts of dance competitions, I always wonder if the men are really engaging with the other male performers and with the men in the audience (who are also ‘dancers’) more than with the women they dance with.
So let’s look at the point where Peter dances with Ramona. They’re the second couple, entering at about 0.24 (and yes, Todd’s exit, facing them, his back to his own partner, legs spread, does invite some discussion of phallic competition, yes?). The point I like most is at 0.29, where he breaks them into open position – they’re not touching – and he proceeds to perform for her, and ultimately for us within the frame of their heterosexual pairing. Yes, this is for her (and she responds), but ultimately, we all know that this is for us, the people watching and judging. How are we to assess his performance? In part through Ramona’s response to him. She likes it? He must be hot/good. But we’re also invited to see how his sexualised display (more hips, more pelvis) invites her creative response.
With all this to-ing and fro-ing between Peter and other male competitors and the audience, I’m seeing a whole lot of queer, right here. Particularly when you think about the dance partnership as a professional, working creative partnership. It is always implied, but a professional dancing relationship like Ramona and Peter’s, is not necessarily sexualised. So while Peter and Ramona present as a nice, straight couple, they don’t work that way on every level. So they become available for a little queer co-opting.
The best part of reading on the slant like this, is that I’m pretty sure the men involved wouldn’t be comfortable with my reading them this way. Straight man panics! omg! they might think I’m gay! I’d better butch up! And NSFW!! there’s nothing queerer than the hypermasculine, right? SFW Right? And I have a feeling they’d be equally uncomfortable with the thought of straight and queer women and straight and queer men (let alone transfolk) finding this queering hot.
Here, a short aside. There’s nothing new about straight women imagining straight male pairings as gay. Queering them. Camille Bacon Smith writes about it in her book Enterprising Women, in relation to Spock/Kurk slash. Personally, I enjoy the thought of Sam and Dean Winchester as secret boyfriends. And I’m not alone. But for me, the real pleasure lies not so much in what they actually do together in this imaginary sexual(ised) relationship, but in the thought of their queering – their fucking up – the heternormative world. I like imagining that Dean and Sam have whole lives beyond the television episodes we see. And this enriches what I do see on screen.
I mean, to make alternative readings of women and women’s sexuality work, we have to have alternative masculinities as well. It’s the subversion, the transgression, the rule breaking and naughtiness that I find so appealing. I especially like the way we can read against the grain this way and no one can stop us.
But let me give you one final clip. This one is another partnered blues performance. But it’s not in a competition. So there’s display, but not the same sense of competitiveness.
This one is interesting for the fact that this is a white woman dancing with a black man. There are all sorts of discussions about the young African American man as hypersexualised ‘buck’ to be explored here (check out Donald Bogle’s work on stereotypes of black American identity for a starting place). But I don’t have the references to hand. But I do think it’s cool to see the way this performance subverts that mythology. Here is a young black man with seriously mad dance skills. He has brilliant control. We can see culturally specific as well as gendered movements and bodily awareness at work here. But they are working together as partners. The difference in style is what makes this work. The humour – the parts where we laugh or smile at the jokes – defuse the sexual tension, but at the same time heighten it. It’s the adrenaline and chemical high of laughing that makes us feel good, and we’re more likely to read sexualised subtext as sexualised if we’re feeling good. Or so the theory goes.
This is my favourite partnered blues dance performance. I like the humour, it reflects the things I like about a lot of blues music. I love the use of solo and traditional jazz steps. I adore the use of tango rhythms and styling, as tango was massively popular at the same time as blues music in the 1920s. This is recorded music, not a live band, but it’s a modern performance – Winton Marsalis – covering Jelly Roll Morton’s song ‘New Orleans Bump’. Marsalis himself suggests an engagement with race and ethnicity (though he never seems to gain any sense of reflexivity about gender and sexuality!). And Jelly Roll Morton? Well. He’s all about braggadocio and sexualised masculine performance.
There’s lots more to say about all these. But I think I want to end here, pointing out that my favourite parts of all these are:
- The male bodies (rather than female) presented for an eroticised gaze.
Men are presented (and presenting themselves) as sexual objects as well as subjects. I think that this transgression is a useful model not only for other male dancers, but for women dancers as well. As I said on FB, these guys make it clear that the sisters need to put their shoes on and get their action in gear.
- The invitation to play and to laugh is central to the sexualised display.
Laughter is about rule breaking. It interrupts power and control. It is power and control. For many women, their greatest fear is being laughed at or ridiculed because they aren’t sexy/beautiful/young/skinny/white/whatever enough. I think that we can gain some sense of self power to engage with the humour in an assertive way. Combining humour and dance is very difficult. It requires a great deal of skill and confidence. Why not model our dancing on the example set by men, and then twist it, queer it, to undo the traditional gender and power dynamics?
- It’s all about breaking rules.
I really, really like performances which break rules. I don’t like to see people hurt or humiliated. I do like to see assumptions about what is ‘proper’ tipped upside down. I do like to be surprised. Patriarchy is boring. Heteronormativity is dull. I want to be entertained. And these are performances. If I’m going to stop dancing and sit down for 3 minutes (or longer), you need to make it worth my while.
- It moves us away from the boring, stupid idea of sexualised performance embodied in boring second rate burlesque. Yes, ladies, there are other ways of being powerful, sexually, than just presenting your body like a big present for male audiences.
Do, please, go on and seek out other images of men dancing that subvert the hetero stuff. There’s plenty about, from both present day dancers and historic dances. Why not start with these:
- two G.I.s dancing together in the film ‘Canterville Ghost’ in 1944
- Al Minns and Leon James demonstrating different jazz dances in 1961
- photos of men dancing together
[EDIT: I would really like to engage with the race stuff in the final clip, but I don't feel I'm properly up to date on the literature, so I'd just be bullshitting my way through. But race is absolutely central to this stuff. Contemporary American swing dance culture (accommodating all the related dances) is dominated by white, middle class young people. Dancing dances that developed in black working class and working poor American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This has to be addressed, if we are talking power.]
Bacon Smith, Camille, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, Pennsylvania Press: USA, 1992.
Bogle, Donald, Uncle Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films, Viking Press: USA, 1973.
(this topic is introduced in the chapter ‘Origins of Black Body Politics’ of Jackson’s book)
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge: USA, 1990.
Jackson, Ronald L, Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media, Suny: USA, 2006.
Mulvey, Laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): pg 6-18.
LOLMulvey image from alibosworth
LOLFreud image from you are doing that wrong
-> both c/o LOLTHEORISTS
LOLButler image from thrownoverboard