Jazz dance is feminism

I wrote this post in April this year. And I began it with Clementine Ford’s piece ‘Why ‘can you have it all’ is this century’s dumbest question’.

I’d like to make a provocation:
A dance floor of one’s own is as important as a room of one’s own. And just as Virginia Woolf’s essay(s) are problematic for women of colour, the idea of a dance floor of one’s own is not without its own problems. But let me begin to explore the idea, and we’ll pick up those problems as we go.

There something powerful about simply having the time and energy to commit to self expression, to a creative art, to pleasure for pleasure’s sake.
Accepting and acting on the idea that what you have to contribute is valuable, important, creative, funny worth while is a radical act. Speaking up – getting on the dance floor – is a radical act, because it presupposes your ideas are important. In this respect, dancing is a contribution to public discourse, to public life, and to creative, social life. This is where lindy hop – as a social dance that you do with other people in public spaces – is different to writing or painting or other visual arts. It is a public, social cultural and creative practice.
The distinction between professional dance and amateur dance is important. There is the sense that being a dancer is ok if you can ‘make a living from it’ or ‘make something of it’. Dancing just for the sake of dancing – for the pleasure of your own body in movement – is dismissed as irrelevant, trivial, selfish, unimportant.

There is nothing more important than a woman accepting, and being able to accept, that her own pleasure, her own interests, her own ideas are important and relevant. Important and relevant to her. They do not need to be deemed important by a male observer, or by culture and society as a whole. They can be wonderfully, deliciously, selfishly important to the person dancing, and to her alone. She needn’t even be very good at it, so long as it makes her feel good and brings her pleasure. Or even if it brings her occupation, challenge, stimulation. This is important in the broader context of patriarchy, where women are expected to subsume their interests, desires and pleasures in the needs of others. For men, for children, for parents, for employers, for babies. One of the most challenging and powerful parts of lindy hop is that it can exist solely for a pure, social and selfish pleasure.

Clementine Ford makes this point:

It’s abundantly clear that women … aren’t considered to have ascended to the status of accomplished human being until they shuck off that amateur mantle of ‘woman’ and become mothers.

In this sense, women are expected to prioritise the needs and interests of others. To concentrate solely on art or creative practice, to use her body for something other than making babies, is considered less important, less valuable. By extension, women are judged for their bodies, not their creative or cultural or social actions. This body must be beautiful, and it must make babies, and these babies must be the centre of a woman’s life.

There is the obvious discussion about women’s bodies and sex to be had, but that is not what I want to talk about. I think the idea that a woman might use her body for something that is not sex or sexual reproduction is quite radical and powerful. I’m not the first to point out the empowering qualities of physical exercise. I’d argue that lindy hop combines the power of adrenaline and knowing your body can be trusted, is powerful, is a source of pleasure and excitement, with the creative and artistic process of painting or drawing or writing. But while painting or drawing or writing in their most traditional forms are quiet, solitary things, lindy hop is loud and exuberant and dangerous. Even when it is at its quietest and gentlest.

As a jazz dance, lindy hop responds to jazz music, which combines both structure and improvisation. Rules and rule-breaking. Cooperative and collaborative work with individual, independent creativity. While we might shut ourselves away to write a book, lindy hop demands its participants publicly accept and value a woman’s creative work in a public, and creative communal space. Lindy hop is a public discourse, a public creative space. And women’s contributions are not only tolerated, but expected and required.

On a more prosaic level, simply choosing to leave the house to go dancing is a radical act. I choose to walk away from the dirty dishes, the unfolded laundry, the unwritten essay, the incomplete report, the unfinished argument. I go out into the night, by myself, to meet other people in a public space. And in that public space, I can commit myself, wholly to my own body, to my own pleasure and satisfaction. When I dance with men, we are both negotiating a public relationship that is necessarily mutually respectful and creative. Though there are always moments when the power dynamic between partners is fucked up (the disrespectful, controlling lead), lindy hop itself – with the open position – builds in time for subversion, resistance and powerful self-expression. Improvisation is expected. It is required.

This is where solo dance and women leading become the ideological icing on the cake. A woman leading is an act of radical politics in a community that cannot even manage to divorce the word ‘lead’ from male pronouns.

The follow up piece to this post, then, is what happens when a woman lindy hopper has a baby? This is particularly relevant to us now, as the most recent generation of lindy hopping women move on to having children. Is there space in lindy hop for women with babies? Can they have it all? At this point, I want to rage the way Clementine Ford does. This is not the question that I want to ask.

We should be asking: “How can we make room for fathers with children in lindy hop?” and “How can we make room for children and babies in lindy hop?” We should not be assuming that caring for babies is the sole province of women. It is the work of men and women, in partnership, alone, and with same-sex partners. More importantly, for a community which has perennial problems with longevity and social sustainability, children are the responsibility of all of us, of all lindy hoppers. It is in our interests (as well as theirs!) to build dance communities which accommodate children, babies, parents and carers. Not simply for the sake of those children, or for our communities.

Our creative worlds are made eminently richer by the presence of the dancing woman, who has that moment in time and space to be utterly submerged in her own body and own dancing pleasure. Because that moment of utterly independent pleasure is essential to the health of our communities as a whole. We cannot be a socially sustainable community if we assume that for the majority of our dancers (and women are the majority of our dancers in lindy hop) their own dancing can never be their highest priority. Adequate child care facilities, supportive partners, robust communities allow women moments where they can make their own dancing the most important thing in that moment. Child care does not disappear for them in that moment, but they have the freedom to accept and believe and be confident that someone else is looking after their child, and that they can be trusted.

Our culture spends a lot of time – all of its time? – convincing us that men in particular cannot be trusted. That they are dangerous. And that women have to protect themselves (and children) from men. From the world. Working to secure child-friendly dance communities works hand in hand with securing women-friendly dance spaces, without sexual harassment and bullying. And, ultimately reworking our perceptions of bodies and bodily responsibility are good for men too. If it is bad to be continually thinking of yourself and your body in danger, what must it be like to be continually, always regarding your own body and self with suspicion? To fear, all the time, that you might hurt someone. You might rape or assault them. That your body cannot be trusted, that you cannot be trusted? Patriarchy is not kind to men either.

Having said, that I think Ford makes an excellent point when she says

Gender inequality wasn’t created by women and their unreasonable ambitions. It’s vital that we shift the focus of women’s oppression back to its beneficiaries rather than perpetuate the kinds of meaningless conversations that imagine these things are perplexing problems for women alone to solve.

I think we need to start engaging with masculinity and ideas about men in the modern lindy hopping world. \

1 thought on “Jazz dance is feminism”

  1. Just picking up on the making lindy hop a place for children so that everyone can enjoy a good old dance. I live in Gothenburg Sweden and west coast jitterbugs have a tea dance on Sunday afternoons every so often and offer babysitters so that families with small kids can come along and dance and know that their kids are being cared for. It’s all kinds of fabulous. Tea, coffee, cake, DANCING! and kids playing. Brilliant.

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