I began this as a post where I’d just link up some badass solo comp clips from Lithuania. But it has become a sort of hardcore manual for feminist activism. Geez, bloody feminists. With the raging and the ranting. And the badass fall-off-the-logs. These are the things I say to myself; where I say ‘you’, I’m talking to myself. I’m encouraging myself to be more awesome. If this is too much for you, go back to the post full of clips. Or you can keep reading about how I love jazz dances because they’re built for feminist badassery.
A year or so ago, after I came back from about nine months off dancing with a shitful plantar fascia injury, I discovered the thing I’d missed most about dancing was the solo stuff. I love lindy hop. I love it so much. But I think, ultimately, I want to dance alone.
I like dancing alone, as in, not with a partner in a formal lindy hop dance (I do like dancing with other people on my own) for lots of reasons. One of the things that pushes many women in particular into solo dance is the lack of leads in their local scene. I use the word ‘push’ deliberately, because I suppose most women in a lindy hop scene approach social dancing looking for some partner dancing. Dancing alone is not always taught as a staple in regular classes, so most new dancers don’t feel as comfortable dancing alone as they do with a partner.
I like dancing alone because I’m often frustrated by leads who don’t listen to what I’m bringing, or more often, I’m frustrated by leads who just roll us through a series of fairly set combinations of moves without listening to the music. That drives me NUTS. For me, it’s the music that makes me dance. So I like to explore everything a song has got. If I’m being rushed through swingouts one after another, bang-bang-bang, there’s no time to explore the delaaaay that’s so central to swung rhythms, let alone all the other lovely layers in a song.
I do a lot of leading when I social dance. I get asked to dance by followers a lot, I ask other women to dance, and I also follow myself a lot. But I do like solo dancing most. I
could WILL! make arguments about how women leading and solo dancing fuck up gender and power dynamics. In fact, I’ve done so, many times. And if you go out dancing in a scene where there are women leading, you can actually see how this shifts the social dynamics. Women aren’t just standing about on the side of the dance floor waiting for a dance, wondering if they’re not being asked because they’re a crap dancer/too fat/too old/too uncool/too weird/too horrible/wearing the wrong clothes, etc. Women aren’t rushing at male leads, competing for a dance. Women aren’t basking in the attention of a lead on the dance floor, grasping at a moment of confidence and self worth.
When women lead and solo dance in a scene, you see a shift away from bloke-centred social dancing dynamics. Suddenly all those women standing about on the side of the dance floor have moved onto the floor, experimenting with movements and rhythm, becoming better dancers, enjoying each other’s company and generally having a bloody good time. The blokes are no longer the centre of their universe.
I’m sure you can see how I then get particularly shitted off when a bloke wades in and drags a woman out of that sort of setting to dance with him. Back off, motherfucker! The hot shit is being brung!
How do you get to the point where you have lots of people (male female and inbetween) solo dancing as well as partner dancing at a ‘swing dance event’? Well, firstly, it’s worth pointing out that there’s next to no solo dance in rock and roll and the RnR type ‘swing’ dancing, at least not here in Sydney. When you go to those dances, most people only dance with people they know or even with just their own partner. Because that scene tends to be a bit older, a lot more conservative, and also rooted in a different dancing culture. I think that if you ground your lindy scene in vernacular jazz dance, then you’re setting yourself up with some nice conditions for solo dance as well as partner dance peppered with wonderful improvisation.
So how do you do that? Despite what you might think, reading this blog, I’m not actually a big fan of preaching at people. I like to work out my thinking and ideas in word-form, especially in places like this blog. But I firmly believe that if you want to initiate cultural change in a dance scene, you need to get your bad self out there on the dance floor and do it. Talk means nothing when you’re making a point about dance. Dancers are very much influenced by what they see on the dance floor. Duh. So if you want to see more solo dance in your scene, you need to get yourself out on that dance floor and do that solo dance. You need to do it with confidence, and with as much skill as you can. Work on that shit and be as good as you possibly can be. And if you can’t get any better, enjoy what you do badly and let that pleasure show.
In other words, you need to model the behaviour you want to see.
Same goes for women leading. If you’re a woman tired of the bullshit gender dynamics in your scene, get your fine self out there on the dance floor and model the shit you want to see. And do it well and with confidence. Own it. Work on it in your own time or in classes and improve. Don’t let your leading be a novelty. Let it be a legitimate act. Don’t enter comps hoping to get noticed just because you’re different. Go in comps and bring the best shit you’ve got. The novelty will wear off; you’re going to need to back up your claims with some pretty good stuff.
And I also think it’s important to say positive, encouraging things to people who are doing awesome stuff. Or, really, if you see the awesome, applaud it! Rather than getting shitty and snarky about something that shits you (eg not getting asked to dance by blokes), get positive and supportive. There’s no point continuing the nastiness of dodgy culture by making yourself unhappy. After all, that’s how patriarchy works: women and men collude in their own oppression. Seek out the unusual and the wonderful. If someone has a brilliant idea, tell them it’s brilliant! Don’t get jealous and resentful! Sometimes being an audience – the response to the call – is more important than being the performer. In practical terms, if you see someone do a rockhardawesome boogie back, cheer them, loudly! And then tell them, later, that you thought that was totally cool.
I think of this as a very nice approach to all sorts of social activism. Just talking about this stuff is fairly useless. This is why I think that we shouldn’t just be doing scholarly writing and talking about gender and power. We also need to get out there and do feminist stuff. To be feminists, with our bodies as well as with our brains. I know a lot of academics feel that theorising activism and culture is how they contribute to feminism, but I feel very strongly that this only touches a small proportion of our community directly. No, writing newspaper articles isn’t a way to ‘engage’ with the wider community. It’s too safe, yo, and too distant. Take a risk. Let yourself be changed.
I think that we need to bloody well open our eyes and engage with the everyday places in our lives where we can make a difference. On the bus. At the shops. In cafes. On the dance floor. Make eye contact, hold doors open, step in when someone needs a hand, ask your employer if they do maternity leave, even if you don’t need it yourself. And I also think it’s a good idea to make it as fun as you can. Getting angry is useful. But in and of itself, it’s not productive. You need to be an agent for positive, constructive change, as well as a mighty smashing force of rage. Find small ways, everyday, where you can fuck shit up. Or at least vibrate at very low frequencies until you rattle that patriarchal bedrock to bits.
That’s why I like dance. Fucking up the patriarchy, smashing gender binaries and generally being difficult can be super fun. It can also be positive, friendly and engaging. You won’t win friends to your cause by being rude and aggressive. But you will by making jokes, being kind and friendly, and by being sneaky. Jazz dance is built for this stuff. As the public discourse of an oppressed people, African American vernacular jazz dance has all the tools you need for misbehaving.
Ok, so yes, modelling stuff in a social setting is important. What if you’re a teacher and you want to see more solo dance in your scene, regardless of gender? Same goes. Get out there and do it. Do it in a social setting, but also get out there and do performances. You need people to see what makes solo dance so awesome. And then you need to make them want to do it too. It’s no good you just getting out there on your own every week if you want to see new stuff in your scene. Other people have got to want to do it too.
Running classes in solo dance is the next obvious step. I’m a big fan of classes devoted to solo dance. But I’m even more a fan of classes which work on combining solo and partner dance. How do you fit a shorty george into your swingout? Why is the shim sham an absolute gold mine for steps to add into your lindy hop? I don’t like to use the phrase ‘variations in a swing out’ because it suggests that the swing out is still the centre of the dance and the jazz steps are ‘variations’ on that single step.
Yes, swing outs are central to lindy hop. But this isn’t a one note song. I think that jazz steps – dancing alone – is just as, if not more important than, the swing out. So when you use jazz steps – things like shorty george, suzy Qs, kick-ball-changes, broken-legs, crazy-legs, and so on – think of the swing out as a framing device for your hot shit jazz step. Or better yet, deliberately choreograph sequences that break partners apart and require some sort of solo bling. I think that if you’re teaching solo jazz steps – jazz steps – as an integral part of your lindy hop, and as key part of your classes, you’re setting up students with the skills and materials for dancing alone on the social dance floor. You’re creating the expectation of improvisation. You’re provoking creativity.
So, to sum up, this is what I say to myself when I’m going dancing or working on dance:
- Solo dancing is good. It’s good socially and culturally (diversity! creativity!). It’s good for your lindy hop. It’s good for your dance skills. It’s good.
- Lead by example. That’s a very patronising way of saying ‘convince people solo dance is awesome by getting out there and doing awesome solo dance’. Quit bitching and getting unhappy; get out there and fill yourself full of glee.
- Without jazz steps, your lindy hop is flat. You will never really fulfill your potential as a partner dancer if you can’t dance alone. Or, in other words, learn how to dance by yourself so that you can actually dance with a partner.
- Don’t accept any arguments that start “Men only do…” or “Women always do….” You don’t want to be like everyone else. Be like yourself.
- Your body is a brilliant tool. This is the one that’s most important to me. If ever I start thinking ‘oh, I’m too fat for that’ or ‘I don’t have long enough legs’ or ‘I’m not fit enough’ I stop myself and say, very sternly, “Self, you have a unique body shape, and a unique approach to music. Stop bitching about not looking or feeling like everyone else, and START exploring what you are capable of. That short, square body you have? What can it do that no one else can? How does it let you move in ways that are utterly unique? How can you emphasise your short legs or your wide arse or your round belly? How can you exaggerate these parts of yourself in ways that no one else will be able to copy?” The goal is to be utterly unique, not to look like everyone else. You want to get people’s attention, to arrest the eye. Patriarchy demands women make themselves invisible, make themselves simulacrum of some impossible ideal. Why not fuck that shit up by making yourself defiantly unique? And, best of all, enjoy sticking out?
I don’t know if this is a useful approach for everyone. It can be tiring, being so determined. Sometimes it is nice to just sink into following, and to become the extension of some bloke’s creative vision. But I figure, that’s ok. Just don’t make everything you are the result of someone else’s ideas. Do misbehave. Do be that Difficult Woman, if only in a little way, sometimes.