Uses of history: a revivalist mythology

An issue has come up over on Wandering and Pondering. I did write a comment there, but it got too long. The post there is responding to a post on Authentic Jazz Dance by Harri Heinila, which has managed to shit off an awful lot of people. I don’t have a whole lot to say about that particular post of Harri’s, mostly because I find the written expression so clunky it obscures his point. I just can’t figure out exactly what he’s trying to say. So I don’t really want to engage with it one way or another. But I do have some things to say (of course I do).

Here is the huge comment I deleted from the Wandering and Pondering page:

If I was marking this essay [Harri’s blog post], I’d give the comments: “There are some problems with your written expression, which at times confuse your argument” and “I would recommend closer critical engagement with your own approach to ideas about dance, power, the uses of language and ideology in dance.”

There are some really confusing bits of writing, that I think perhaps might be a product of having English as a second language? And I also suspect that some of the points of conflict (eg the use of the word ‘vernacular’) might be a product of confusion about language use, rather than a real disagreement. From my perspective, I find the use of historical methods problematic: as a feminist cultural media studies person, I want more engagement with ideology, and less emphasis on ‘sources’ and ‘facts’. But then, I’m not a historian.

Having said that, I’ve noticed that the further we get from Frankie the man (ie the more time passes after he passed away), the less critical engagement with his life and work we have, and a more uncritical, adulatory tone we take in describing him and his work. This actually came up in the Frankie Stream discussion session at Herrang, where one of the newer dancers actually said something like (and I paraphrase) “You [the teachers and everyone] say many good things about Frankie, but was he this perfect? What were his faults?”

It was interesting to see that none of the teachers or participants were willing to discuss Frankie’s faults as a dancer or person. You can understand why – we are reluctant to speak ill of the dead, and particularly reluctant to disrespect someone so important to the modern lindy hop scene, who was also a dear friend and respected mentor and teacher. But I think the questioner (and I) were left wondering if perhaps we are losing a wholer picture of the man by taking such an adulatory tone.

Similarly, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice when we take an uncritical approach to the ‘lindy hop revival’ narrative: we should be asking questions like “Who benefits from this revival?” and “What are our limits when it comes to ‘growing the scene’?”

….at any rate, I think that one of the things that Harri makes (and which I think is lost in his writing style), is that the history we tell of the ‘dying out’ and ‘revival’ of lindy hop tends to lack context, critical engagement, and complexity. It’s easy to tell the story like this:
“Jazz stopped being popular, so people stopped lindy hopping. Then in the 1980s some people (mostly white, mostly European, but also American) found the old time dancers and then they revived it.”
This story is very popular for a number of reasons, and I think that Harri approaches a convincing point when he suggests that money is at the heart of this. I don’t think money is actually the reason these stories dominate (though, contrary to public mythology, you can actually make a living from lindy hop, most of us actually don’t). I think that the ‘myth of the rediscovered lindy hop’ actually reinforces and cements existing power structures in modern day lindy hop. And we should be very sceptical of these.

To be blunt, I think that this story is inaccurate: lindy hop did not ‘die out’. At the very least, it changed form a bit (because it was a vernacular dance), and it moved out of the public eye. I haven’t done enough research on this stuff, so I can’t comment on who was doing what dancing where, or what its standard was, or whether it counted as ‘lindy hop’.

I’m actually increasingly suspicious of the mantra that we should ‘grow the scene’ or convert more people to lindy hop at the cost of all else. There is a loud discourse in lindy hop that we should sacrifice all (income, time, relationships, health) to bring more people to lindy hop – to continue the revivalist project. I have an intense dislike of this martyred approach to running events, teaching, or working in the lindy hop scene. It normalises exploitation, it encourages working for free, rather than economic sustainability, and we see the same sorts of people being exploited, while the same sorts of people benefit from this exploitation. This system (and ideology) of ‘sacrifice’ ultimately attributes power and status to the people who take organisational roles in this project.

[A brief interjection: when I run events I am 100% keen on NOT exploiting anyone. I am STRICT about good working conditions, about breaks, about reasonable workloads, about people being paid, about punters paying for things. This shit is part of the music and entertainment industry, not some bloody religious movement. So nobody gets screwed over if I can help it, and I have NO PATIENCE with martyrs.]

If we were to realise that lindy hop didn’t actually die out, and if we were to realise that the world won’t actually explode without lindy hop, then all that revivalist sacrifice and work will be for nothing, and all that power and status will just trickle away. So there are bodies and people with vested interests in maintaining an uncritical support of a revivalist project, and revivalist mythology.

Me, I think that we’d do just fine without lindy hop. I’d be pretty darn sad, but life would go on. I think there are some really big problems with the way power and status work in our various communities, and I think that Harri is quite brave for raising the issue. I do not, however, agree with the core of his arguments, nor do I like his approach.

I think that we should be more critical of adulatory and ‘sacrifice’ narratives about the revival (and Frankie), but we should also be respectful of elders, respectful of each other, and supportive of projects which are, at their heart, about a philosophy of dance which encourages tolerance, mutual respect, peace, and harmony.

I think that one thing the modern day ‘revivalist’ project has brought us (largely through Frankie Manning’s personal example) is an ideology of dance which prioritises: interpersonal connection and respect (‘you are in love with this person for three minutes’); creativity and self-expression, from all dancers (the swing out has built-in improvisation time, and solo dance is a key part of lindy hop); and an open, welcoming social dancing culture, where anyone is welcome, and where peace and goodwill are valued.

At the same time, though, I like to remember that lindy hop itself has a built-in capacity for critical engagement, for resistance, and political commentary. Imitation, impersonation, competition, ‘step stealing’, and so on are all elements of lindy hop that make it a great vehicle for ideological and political resistance. And if we forget that – if we forget the importance of constructive criticism – then we’re forgetting the most powerful part of lindy hop.

[Another addd comment: Yes, the Savoy was a wonderful place for overcoming segregation. But you’re fooling yourself if you think that racial tensions, issues of power and privilege and sexism and class weren’t a part of that community space as well. We should be deeply, deeply suspicious of bullshit claims that lindy hop dissolves all differences. Because the corollary to that point is that if you are speaking up about wrong doing or about racism or sexism or bullshit in the scene, that idyllic view of the past makes you a trouble maker.
Relatedly, a Swedish friend noted in Herrang that the idea that Herrang is this wonderful, hedonistic place where everyone is happy and wonderful and joined by a love of dance is actually a problem. If Herrang is this wonderful a place, what do you do if something bad actually happens to you? Where do you go if you are assaulted or threatened or bullied? And you’re fooling yourself if you think that these things don’t go on.
When we insist on this idealised idea of lindy hop, we ignore the difficult stuff, and we make it impossible for people to raise challenging issues. Yes, this is a very happy dance. But we are still humans, and we can do pretty awful things to each other. So we should be actively vigilant and critically engaged, not just telling each other to shoosh up and be happy.]

2 thoughts on “Uses of history: a revivalist mythology”

  1. Right. On.

    And this revival thing is interesting – I think we are operating in another mode, which should not be ignored, and runs parallel to bringing in more dancers all the time in an effort to grow the scene, and that is a mode to document the dance itself, fixing it in place so it can’t get away from us again.

    This urge to document and archive keeps us in a terrified revivalist mode, which asks our producers, teachers, and performers to sacrifice for the sake of the community, because we “should” be afraid of what will happen to the dance and to the scene if they do not. Instead, I am interested to work on other means of production and transmission, other ways of understanding memory (embodied memories within repertoire, for instance), that can create some room to breathe for our cultural laborers and for social jazz dance as a genre of forms.

    I am glad to hear your anecdote about the dancer in the Herrang Frankie Stream, but I am concerned that the hero-worship given to Frankie and the Old Timers in the generation of dancers just older than me has been transferred to the Rock Star Instructors in the generation just younger than me. Like you say, “Lindy Hop itself has a built-in capacity for critical engagement, for resistance, and political commentary” which are part and parcel to the ontology of jazz in general, a way of being that I think we also do not tend to acknowledge in our practices. Jazz draws on the knowledge all around it – I’m thinking of the way bop worked with old standards and contemporary hits – and tries to gain a different perspective on it. How can we use jazz to get a different view on current discourses in education, production, and transmission of dance?

    Thanks for the great article, Sam, and hello from New York!

  2. Indeedy. I agree with all of the things you’ve said here. The evangelical nature of how some people approach lindy hop is part of the reason my husband is not at all interested in getting involved. The whole growing the scene stuff gives me the heebies, and I loves me some lindy hop and having more people to dance with. And unquestioning, uncritical adulation is a silly thing to engage in. That sort of hero worship is another aspect of the dancing scene that gives me the heebies. I very much like the way you have expressed yourself in this post Sam. Noice.

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