I’ve had a couple of emails about what was a fairly glib throwaway line about Nathan Bugh’s piece ‘Ladies First’ in my last blog post Gendering Dance Talk. This kind of surprised me, because I didn’t really think a lot about Bugh’s article in the first place, and I don’t have any sort of opinion about his teaching, dancing, writing or person. Though I know he’s quite popular with students, I’ve never done a class with him, I’ve never met him or seen him in real life, and I think I’ve watched maybe two or three clips of him dancing.
That’s all good.
I have noticed that if I’m at all not 100% about a particular high profile teacher or dancer, I get a bunch of comments and emails where people passionately defend that dancer and give me a good telling off for being mean. Or they explain in expansive detail how I am wrong.
I have to say, my first (unspoken) response in this instance was ‘Yeah, whatever. My care factor is really kinda low.’ But then I reminded myself: this guy is probably up there in the ‘celebrity lindy hopper’ category. So a lot of people have a great deal of emotional investment in him and his ideas as ideas. And as anyone who’s ever made a joke about Beiber knows, fans got furious opinions.
So here is the point of this particular post: it’s ok for people to disagree with someone you admire. Rereading Bugh’s piece, my thoughts are a bit like this:
That’s a lot of blog post to basically say “Stop talking about moves, start talking about leading and following.” And then I remind myself about my own blog post lengths.
I do still think the implication in that piece is that attention to the following is important because it improves leading. I think that reading, though, is really just a result of the structure of the piece over all. I guess he could be saying ‘to improve the connection/partnership and learning experience, we have to focus on both parts of the partnership – leading and following’. But he’s not. He’s saying that and that the followers are responsible for the leaders’ learning in class. Here, this is where he says that explicitly:
However, when it comes to learning and teaching lead/follow skills, the follower’s technique is a much higher priority than the leader’s. Her dancing ability, her awareness, strength, balance, use of the floor, etc. are the elements from which spring her following ability AND the leader’s leading ability. She is the beginning of the logic in the dance. In class, the followers empower the leaders to learn. Leaders judge their progress according to the results that their partners embody. Followers are the focus of the lead/follow process, and they have to follow before the leaders can lead.
My problems with this approach?
Making women responsible for men’s learning is so boringly old fashionedly sexist, I can’t even begin to engage with it. And I think that Bugh’s consistent use of gendered pronouns reveals the gender bias at work in his thinking. Language is important: the words we choose reflect and affect the way we think. I believe that leaders are responsible for their own learning. Both partners are responsible for the partnership, and the teachers are responsible for facilitating this learning. Women /= mothers for all men, responsible for their problems and mistakes. Boooooring.
Having said that, I think this idea is at the heart of a dilemma a lot of follows face, whether they’re brand new dancers or quite experienced. And it’s a discussion we seem to have quite regularly in lindy hop (I wrote about it almost two years ago to the day in lindy hop followers bring themSELVES to the dance; lindy hop leaders value this.) The dilemma the follow faces tends to be do you follow exactly what is led, so the lead gets clear feedback on what’s happening, and on the consequences of their actions (so that they can actually learn and improve)? I think, in class, the answer is yes. But what about on the social dance floor?
This is where we tend to be split. Yes, on one hand we should always follow as well as we can, to give that clear feedback to the leads. And if you do follow like this, you find that most leads improve during the dance, as they assimilate and act on the feedback. But some leads definitely do not: the arrogant lead who assumes that if the dance isn’t working with this follow, but is with all others, it’s because this follow is wrong. Even if this particular follow is the only one who’s accurately reflecting what the leader is leading. But when we’re on the social floor, we’re both invested in making this dance a success, so we ‘help’ the lead by making moves work, even if that’s not exactly what the lead had intended.
This, of course, is the rub. If we’re ‘helping’, are we still following, and is the lead actually leading? In my experience, the better a follow, the more likely they are to not help. They do me the compliment of assuming that I know what I’m doing, and they do exactly what I ask. So I suddenly realise that I lift my left arm up into the air on &8 of a swingout, because I see the follow respond to that ‘lead’. And I stop doing that.
This is where I think we see social and cultural conventions inflect our dancing. Social dancing is social dancing, so do have that unwritten social contract with our partner: make this a good dance. And we do what we can to make that work. So that might mean a follow helping. Even if their definition is to add in some fun rhythms when the lead isn’t actually leading anything, and you’d both be standing there stock still otherwise. Our personalities, the social norms of our scene, even gendered relations will shape how we do this social part of the leading and following. Because technique is only one part of a dance.
Bugh states that point, quite clearly at the end of his piece:
Lead/Follow technique is just one, narrow hallway in the mansion of Lindy Hop
Which is where I’d like to leave this post. But I have one more final point to make. It is possible to hear or read someone’s point and to disagree with it, respectfully. It’s ok that someone disagrees with you. Or with someone you admire. In fact, it’s a good thing to have dissent in a discourse.
I can read that piece of Bugh’s and say ‘Yeah, I’m ok with some parts, I’m not ok with others, and I don’t think I agree with the overall premise of the piece.’ That doesn’t make Bugh wrong and me right, or me wrong and Bugh right. Nor does it mean that the discussion ends there. I can go away and think about these ideas, work on them with my own dancing and teaching, talk and write about them with other people. I can change my mind. I can come to value that first part I agreed with even more. Or I could come to disagree completely.
It is not only ok for people to disagree, it is vitally important that we are not all in agreement all the time. We need diversity of opinion, to have conflicting and competing opinions if we are to remain creatively and culturally viable as a community. Without it, we’d still be doing charleston and we’d never have broken away. Both our feet would be on the floor, all the time.
Of course (to make this allegory clear), I see dance as a model for discourse. As discourse. Just as much as a conversation or written exchange of ideas. In dance, we hash out ideas, we share points, we disagree, we battle, we resolve tensions and conflicts.
[NB this point is important to the things I talk about later. I want to argue that it's really really important for dance classes to prioritise the idea of follows contributing actively to the dance, and by not 'just following'. I think that encouraging women to be passive contributes to rape culture. I write about this a lot, but most explicitly in A Difficult Conversation About Sexual Violence in Swing Dance Communities and Dealing with Problem Guys in dance classes. I have also pointed out before, in I vant to be alone how encouraging women to speak up and be active makes for good lindy hop and good lindy hop scenes.[/]
I think the problem for a lot of lindy hoppers is that while we have a degree of coherency on the dance floor (we tend to agree that a ‘good dance’ is a good goal for all of us, and that violence is not), we don’t have that cultural coherency off the dance floor. We are from so many different countries and cultures, we find it difficult to reach a true understanding, when it comes to language. Though we tend to carry that idea with us from lindy hop, that a ‘good dance’ is important.
Frankie’s influence is clear here: for the next three minutes you’re in love; this is such a happy dance; politicians should see how lindy hop makes people happy. I think his influence on our international community cannot be overstated; his example is central to this ideas of accord being central to a ‘good dance’.
[Here is where I'd like to make a very contentious point about social power and why we avoid conflict. I would not be the first person to point out that people without power avoid conflict with people with power. There are risks involved in confrontation (I write about this in regards to music and dance in what again?! I’m still crapping on about dance, power, etc). Frankie himself writes in his autobiography (I think it is - I'd need to check the reference) about an experience with segregation, where he chooses to be quiet and to avoid conflict when faced with overt racism. Norma Miller, however, rarely advocates keeping quiet. One of the key parts of patriarchy is that it requires people without power to keep quiet and accept subjugation. We must become complicit in this disempowerment. It also requires people with power to keep quiet too. This ideology makes it essential that we all accept that the risk of speaking up outweighs the risk of keeping quiet.]
But, in the final analysis, we are not always dancing. Sometimes we are talking and arguing and disagreeing. This doesn’t make us any less a community. It makes us a more vibrant, healthy community. I don’t even want to argue that we should only disagree in particular ways. I’m not of the opinion that every disagreement should be civil and polite. I think that sometimes we need to be angry and to shout and to be upset and impolite, particularly as women, who are told by everything in our societies that we should be polite and not initiate conflict or disagreement.
So (and this is my final point), it’s ok to disagree, and it’s ok to argue. Some of the most fantastic, most creative and intelligent work in all sorts of cultures has come from disagreement. Academic journals used to publish articles and responding articles where two authors might hash out an idea through disagreement. Public, mannered disagreement that ultimately led to leaps forward in thinking in the field. The air steps were invented as an attempt to ‘win an argument’ in a dance contest. That argument was of course ‘which ballroom has the best dancers.’ Cutting contests see two (or more) musicians get up and battle it out for supremacy. And a cutting contest is really only a more enthusiastic version of a jam.
I like to think of this online disagreement and argument and discussion as trading twelves. Just like jazz musicians. Or Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison.
The second ending to this post
I’m sorry this is such a jumbly long post. I had intended to finish here. But then I didn’t.
You might have realised that this post is working in concert with, or as part of a broader discussion going on in the lindy hop interkittens. Let me trace the geography for you:
- Lindy Shopper wrote Assaulted by Breasts, which sparked a discussion.
- Word flew around the world, as dancers all over the place interested in gender and dance emailed and private messaged each other, and then got active and wrote down their ideas. This tells us that Lindy Shopper’s blog is influential, and that her opinions are listened to. It also tells us that there’s an exciting network of creative women around the world, and that they are listening to each other, even if they don’t always agree.
- People’s first responses were as comments on Lindy Shopper’s blog post. They were quite emotional responses. And then I think people realised that it wasn’t appropriate to logjam LS’s comments, so they started writing longer responses. To me, this tells me that LS had touched on something important, and had stimulated people’s minds and feelings.
- Parrot Cat wrote a post in response My breasts don’t assault you just by sitting here actually.
- There was, throughout this, a series of FB posts and messages, emails, twitter conversations and general talk that happened in private spaces, so I don’t want to list them here. But I think it’s important to note that almost all the people involved in this discussion were also having private conversations. Which, in my experience, were very kind and civil.
- Jerry posted this FB status update for Wandering and Pondering and that’s where things got a bit full on. W&P really serves as an aggregator for lindy hop related clips, gossip and bits and pieces. I have found that when W&P links up my blog I get a sudden rush of traffic, and plenty of people, primed by the directing site, pour in to read that one post and get all up in my grill (I wrote about this process a little while ago).
This is what was posted on W&P:
Actually, I have been assaulted by breasts. I once danced with an overly endowed woman who insisted on not turning until the last possible moment whenever I lead her in for a swingout. This resulted in not just ABG, but one time she full on used my arm as a shelf for her rack. And they were heavy too. I had forgotten about that until I read this post. Thanks.
Yeah, so Jerry doesn’t win any prizes for language choice here. And his framing of this link set LS up for a wave of hassle. And LS’s blog is well-trafficked – she’s used to serious internet attention.
- In poured the comments on LS’s blog. Some of them were far too harsh.
- LS posted On Having a reasonable discussion in the lindy hop community, where she shifts the focus from bodies and breasts to the way these issues are discussed.
In my circle, this post wasn’t received terribly well. It does read a bit like a dismissal of disagreement of her arguments and points as ‘But you just didn’t understand what I was saying.’ I don’t want to go into that. I think the important part is that many people reading realised that this was LS saying “Hang on. I’m upset. I want this to stop.” And whether her original points were wrong or right, that was the important part.
I think you need to know that in this post LS talks about how her thinking was coloured by her own experiences with assault. She writes
I had immediate anxiety about how the meaning of my post could be misconstrued.
This is a perfectly natural response. In our fucked up culture. You know that quote from Margarate Atwood, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them” ? That’s how it feels. Our culture tells us that we need to keep quiet, to not speak out, because we’d be provoking assault. We’d get what we deserve. So when we do speak out online, part of us is often niggling over that fear. We don’t mind being laughed at. We’re frightened of being physically attacked. And we immediately blame ourselves for attracting attention, and then we try to protect ourselves.
This is why I think that LS’s post is important. It tells us that she has deeply conflicted feelings about these issues. And I think that’s also why so many of us were angry when we read this. All the stuff that feeds into rape culture means that these issues are deeply complex. And upsetting. Which is why we use all-caps when we’re responding. Why we get angry. Why we feel afraid. The part that astounds me is that women can even manage to step up and continue to speak after this. The one thing I hope is that LS doesn’t let this experience shut her up. And I hope she realises that those women responding to her post with a bad case of the shitty pants were listening to her, and that they have her back and that she is safe with this crowd. But that there’s going to be some shouting too. And that that can be ok.
- Parrot Cat wrote a post in response to this, On having an adult discussion in the lindy hop community- which I think we are. I think Parrot Cat’s point is quite clear in the title of that post: this is what an adult discussion sounds like.
Sometimes we get angry and upset and use all caps. Sometimes we rage out. And then sometimes we calm down and continue to take you seriously and to respect you as a person but we also disagree with your argument completely and utterly. I disagree almost completely with everything LS said in her original post, and in much of her second post. But that doesn’t mean that I stop respecting her, or stop listening to her. But my rage has burnt out. Now I want to talk more about this, in a less all-caps way.
- Jerry posted another update on W&P. It looked like this:
Laura clarifies some things from her post about breasts. This issue got pretty big yesterday. Often times people like to grab onto these sort of things when they perk up.Whether you lean towards one side or the other, or just want to bounce them around, I think both deserve as much support as you can give them.
As you can tell, I have nothing substantial to contribute to this conversation. Just isn’t my cup of . . . ok, I’m done.
This post actually made me quite angry. He belittles the discussion, he belittles the high emotions of the people involved, he belittles LS’s distress. AND he makes a series of childish jokes which aren’t appropriate in this setting. They’re also largely out of character for W&P, which doesn’t usually make these sorts of childish sexy jokes. So I wondered if he was feeling uncomfortable with the topic, or if he just thought everyone was being silly. Sure, you mightn’t value the points at play, but there are other ways of making light of the discussion.
One of the consequences of this post was another wave of traffic to the posts involved. And that wave was made up of people primed by Jerry’s glib dismissal of the issues at hand. I’m just glad I wasn’t moderating the comments on those blogs.
- I think about Why Do Women Need To Be ‘Good Sports’?, which a clever friend hooked me up with earlier this year. I think about the way those W&P posts trivialised these women’s concerns. I get a bit angry.
- I want to wade in. I have a bunch of notes, and I’m keeping track of my thinking. But I’m just too bloody busy. My classes started back this week, and I have a million commitments (which I itemise here). Look, just pretend I wrote a post with a lot of swears in it, ok?
- There’s a post on Bug’s Question of the Day where people get all up in their emotions. More waves of traffic.
- vernacular jazz dance (aka fuckyeahswingdance) responds
- cue tumblr
- I write that post Gendering Dance Talk where I get boring with talk about language in dance classes, because I’d just taught my first dance class of the year. But I’m still thinking about all this.
Right now, writing about this stuff, part of me wonders if I’ve managed to fuck up my professional dance life. I organise big dance weekends, hiring international teachers and generally getting up in people’s grills in a public way. What are the consequences of my mentioning Nathan Bugh by name? Will I have screwed potential contacts? What if I wanted to hire Nathan for a gig? Or one of his friends? Would they refuse? Will I be blackballed? Or less dramatically, will they avoid working with me because they think I’m ‘too loud’ (I’ve spoken too much), ‘too aggressive’ (I’ve disagreed)?
As LS wrote, “I had immediate anxiety about how the meaning of my post could be misconstrued.” The temptation is to apologise, and to explain and explain and explain. Which is what women do to avoid conflict. But I’m not going to. I will not apologise for having an opinion, but I will apologise for frightening or upsetting someone. So, Lindy Shopper, I’m sorry I went all caps on you in that comment on your blog post, and I’m sorry if/for contributing to your distress.
- So now, let’s look at something nice that happened. There’ve been a slew of blog posts and tumblr posts about this. Tumblr: come for the Teen Wolf slash prn fanfic, stay for the opportunity to express your ideas and form complex international support networks.
Aries wrote something interesting which lends a really nice empathetic, emotionally laden tone to the discussion. I think that this is an important post because Aries talks about the issues that are at the heart of this. The way we internalise body shaming and slut shaming, and the way these feelings battle with our intellectual, feminist thoughts, leaving us feeling conflicted and trying not to shout at the people we disagree with. I think Aries’ post allowed us to feel the feelings, and to be ok with the fact that we can’t actually be calm and rational and adult all the time. Sometimes we’re upset, or worried, or frightened. And then, best of all, sometimes we are triumphantly cycling to victory in our sports bras.