Remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer

There’s recently been a fairly loud and emotional discussion about sexual violence in lindy hop. I don’t want to rehash it here, because I find it very upsetting. Rehashing this stuff in detail disempowers me. I don’t want to discuss the male teacher named in this discussion, because I don’t want this to be all about him. Again. I want to take that power away from him. I want to find power in this, for me, and for other women.

Here is something I wrote on facebook today, in response to Gwen Moran’s piece How We Can Help Young Girls Stay Assertive. This piece described Deborah Ann Cihonski’s article ‘The experience of loss of voice in adolescent girls: An existential-phenomenological study’. I don’t know what that original research is like (haven’t read it yet), but it’s an interesting place to start.

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This article is particularly relevant to the current discussion about assault and safety for women in the lindy hop scene.

I am deeply disturbed by comments emphasising how we might ‘protect’ women and girls in our communities. I think it is problematic (to say the least) to perpetuate this idea of femininity as vulnerable (and passive), and masculinity as dangerous (and active).

It’s important to remember that most sexual assaults happen in privates spaces (dance halls, practice rooms, bedrooms, lounge rooms and so on), and most women are assaulted by people they know. ‘Rapists’ aren’t wild bears or volcanoes: they aren’t forces of nature that we have to protect women from. They are people who need to fix their behaviour.
We need to remind women that they are powerful and capable of caring for and protecting themselves, and for making decisions about their bodies and lives.

So I think that one of the most effective tools for making safe spaces in lindy hop is is empowering women. Some practical tips:

  • Do use gender neutral language in class (ie follow does not = female by default). I have heard many male teachers resist this, saying that it’s ‘too hard’, or ‘not important’. Believe me: it is important. If you are a woman leading in that class (or thinking about leading), it makes you feel part of the group. It makes you feel like a lead.
  • Follows are not passive; following is an active process (ie leads don’t ‘tell follows what to do’, and follows don’t ‘carry out’ leaders’ creative ideas)
  • All partners should take care of each other (ie it’s not that ‘leads look after follows’, it’s that we all should look after each other). eg follows are responsible for floor craft too.
  • List the female dance partner in a teaching team first. This is ridiculously rare in lindy hop, and we need to make up for lost time by over-representing women as the ‘first’ member of the teaching team.
  • Teach female students how to say “No thank you” if they are invited to dance, but don’t want to. Teach yourself how to say this.
  • Don’t use sexualised humour in class. This makes it clear that classes are learning spaces. If all the sexy jokes in the world were gender-win, it’d be ok. But most of the sexualised jokes teachers make in class use gender stereotypes that disempower women.
  • Have female role models in your scene: women MCs at big events, women musicians (!!), women organisers, women teaching on their own, women DJs, women publicly making decisions and solving problems (ie female managers), women doing physical labour (beyond cleaning, aye?), women eating well-balanced meals with enthusiasm at shared tables (and not talking about ‘being bad’ when they eat delicious food).
  • Value other types of work, particularly the types of work dominated by women. Working the door is as important as DJing. Make that clear. Name all your volunteers in your PR copy.
  • Talk about old timer dancers who are women. Al, Leon, Frankie: they’re all wonderful. But so are Norma, Sugar, Josephine, Dawn, Big Bea.
  • Research women dancers and teach their material, in their names. And that means more than just another class on swivels. Talk about women choreographers, troupe leaders, and managers.
  • Teach solo dance. Women dancing alone is an act of agency and power in a partner dancing world. And teach a variety of styles: sexy, sweet, powerful, aggressive, humorous, gentle, sad, athletic, witty, cerebral….

Congruently, men in lindy hop need to be taught some things too:

  • Work on your own strategies for speaking up when you hear a sexist joke. You know you should call that guy on it, but what exactly will you say or do? Will you walk away? Will you laugh along?
  • What are your limits, when it comes to ‘blokey’ or ‘boys own’ behaviour? Sexy jokes? Talking about women you see in the room in a sexual way? Competing with other men to ‘get’ a woman? Know your limits, then act on them.
  • Defer to female opinion and example: if you’re in a discussion, listen to women before you speak. In all matters, not just sexual safety. Once you’re good at it, then start working on ways of expressing your opinion in a collegial way.
  • Don’t call women girls unless they are actually girls (ie under 13). It’s patronising. Don’t call women or girls ‘females’, unless their gender is what you want to discuss: eg “Female dancers are as capable of leading as following” is as good as “Women dancers are as capable of leading as following” but “Females are good leads too” is not ok. Women are not meerkats.
  • Encourage women to take up leading. Encourage women who lead. Encourage women to comment on leading. A compliment on their technique is good, but asking a woman for her opinion on leading is even better. If a woman chooses to lead in class, don’t make a big deal about it, and make it easy for them to stay in that role (deal with uneven follow/lead ratios in other ways – eg talk about how if you’re standing out, this is a chance to work on your dancing)
  • Seek out women DJs. They may be harder to find, but don’t default to the usual male DJs at your events. Men are more likely to speak up, so you need to keep your eyes and ears open for women DJs.
  • Proactively encourage women DJs, women leads, and women organisers.
  • Use your online time to support women, and to support other men. Men are less likely to chime in with a supportive comment on a general thread about dance than women are. Men generally speak up more often, but they aren’t as likely to just say something like “Hey, great idea!” and then leave it at that.
  • Support men who are doing good gender work: compliment or say ‘yeah!’ when you see guys doing good stuff.
  • Support male follows: don’t make that sexy “wooo!” noise when you see two men dancing together. When you make that noise it announces to everyone that you are uncomfortable with two men dancing together. Probably because you think that two men dancing together is a sexual thing. Which means you probably think partner dancing is a sexual thing. Which means you need to check yourself.
  • When you thank the teachers for a class, say thank you to the female teacher first.

There are a bajillion ways we can be better humans in lindy hop. They don’t have to be formal policies or official responses. Be the change you want to see: men should assume that if they’re not pro-actively changing things, they are part of the problem.

The nice thing about all this, is that being a better human is really quite nice: you get to be nice to people, and that makes you feel good. Doing genderwin stuff can be an empowering thing for you. If it feels a bit hard (eg some guys say using gender neutral language is too hard), then remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer: we love hard things! We love challenges! We dance the most complex, wonderful dance in the world, because we love complex, we love challenge, we love creative solutions!

The point of this, of course, is that feminism is good for all of us. Change can be confronting. But that’s why we love break steps, right? Because change is exciting and stimulating too!

A final note: it’s ok to have heroes. It’s totally ok to fansquee for a big name dancer. Having a crush on your dancing hero (no matter what your sex or theirs) is also ok. It means that you are inspired by what they do.
But don’t stop there. Use the inspiration they bring to become a better dancer yourself. Tell them you love what they do, but stop there. Then move on and tell someone else you love what they do, even if they aren’t a big name dancer.

And remember that if we are all to be held accountable for our actions, we need to be sure that we all have the power, the agency, to make our own decisions, and to control our own bodies and actions.

NB:
I have written about these issues many, many times here on this blog. I am an old school feminist, and I believe in the idea of patriarchy, and in discourse and ideology. The bottom line is that I believe that if you want to prevent sexual assault, locking up rapists is not the solution. The solution is in dismantling ‘rape culture‘, or a culture of sexism and patriarchy. I know! It seems like so much work! Good thing we have jazz to sustain us, aye?

Here are some of these posts:

13 thoughts on “Remind yourself that you are a jazz dancer”

  1. Adam Speen and I organize our pedagogy in a similar way for teaching and learning in the dance scene. Sam Carroll, this is brilliant–thanks for putting all of these strategies in one place! We’re sharing this—and pointing other instructors here.

    You are amazing.

  2. Thank you for writing this in such a clear and positive way. You’ve put into words many things that I have been feeling over the past week or so.

  3. “Which means you probably think partner dancing is a sexual thing. Which means you need to check yourself.”

    i do think there are many instances visually, emotionally, and spiritually that dancing (solo or couples) is a sexual thing. we are sexual beings and this goes into dance. i would rather like to think, that for some reason people get hung up on the word sex or sexy or sexual… like it becomes immediately a bad connotation. “cat calls” or “whoo-hooing” two men dancing is not meeting needs for respect and consideration. that’s it. it’s almost like you begin to judge the judgers if you say they need to check themselves if they think dancing is sexy. IT IS !!!! and that’s part of the intrigue for me.

    1. If you can’t separate sexual relationships from platonic relationships, and if you don’t know when and where it is appropriate to act on sexual desire and impulse, you are in serious trouble, Beth.
      You may find dancing a sexual act, or an expression of your sexuality, but other dancers do not. In this case, it is important for you to respect those other dancers.

      Adults understand that happy, healthy, consensual sexual relationships are good (and nothing to be ashamed of). Adults also understand that there’s a time and place for the expression of this sexuality.

      I think that you need to re-read this post, as it seems you have not understood the basic premise of the argument. Nor are you familiar with some of the broader arguments around sexual assault, sexual consent, and _enthusiastic_ consent. I’ll be deleting any further comments you make.

  4. Never even thought about half of this stuff, thanks for sharing, I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind and keeping a look out for how to make the spaces inclusive for women

  5. Great post! I’ve been trying to compile something liek this, but this is great & better!

    I also have a question. I don’t know if you or someone else has a good suggestion here, but there are times when I see 2 men dancing together in a competition and I think it’s awesome in a non-sexy/sexual way. I want to show my support, so I do it the way I normally do, with some “woo!”s and “yeah!”s. Is there a way to ensure that my “woo!”s are reading as non-sexual, as I intend, or another better way to show the dancers my support of their awesomeness?

  6. I would add, in addition to using neutral language, not using possessive language. I was writing something earlier today and kept saying “your follow”, “your follower’s body”, etc. Once I paused I realized that phrasing it in such a way is problematic especially giving control of the body of the follow to the lead, and more so when typical gender roles are held to. I went back and changed every your to an article.

    1. That’s an interesting one. I’ve noticed that I actually use my teaching partner’s name when I’m talking about what the follow does (I pretty much only teach as a lead), instead of ‘the follow’ or ‘your follow’. It’s quite an interesting shift.
      Saying ‘your partner’ is a good alternative – I think partners do belong to each other, to a certain extent.

      …hm. Interesting. I’m going to start paying attention to that. Ta for the heads up!

  7. So good to see feminism in Lindy Hop at last. To me dancing has always been a political act, and I love Lindy because of its history of often pushing for racial equality, and throwing away some of the gender binaries.

    Thank you so much for writing this. Can I add a little something? Please can male teachers check their input levels. I often go to classes where there’s an amazing female teacher, but they don’t speak unless spoken to, and if they try they’re cut off by the big name man. Women are more than props, and I feel so sad when their voices are so publicly removed.

    1. lool0lololol – I never think of this one, because I teach with other women, and our main issue is _stopping_ talking too much! Two confident women teaching together = massive amounts of talking because COMMUNICATION.

      But this is my bugbear when I’m at bigger workshop weekends: hey, you male teachers! Stop talking!
      Sometimes I think it happens because it’s easier to talk about the lead first (because they may be initiating the move), and to skip the follower’s talk, because you suddenly realise it’s time to dance, not talk.

      I have noticed that this habit is worse in teaching teams who don’t work together that often, and in teaching teams where the teachers haven’t planned out how they’ll say what and when before hand. Not in the sense that they’ve scripted the whole class, but they haven’t actually spoken about this stuff out of class.

      …this leads of course to the question of how you prepare classes. Do you do it in a rush in the half hour before class, or do you prepare away from the dance floor? I’m in the latter camp (of course I am – NERD). But the time and labour constraints of teaching for most people makes extra prep time too demanding.

      1. I am a male dancer, teaching the lead role. I tend to talk quite a bit because I have a very precise idea in my head about what I want to communicate.
        A simple way to ensure that my co-teacher, most often a woman, gets enough talking time is to agree that she talks first every time its talking time.
        This might not be possible in the very first explanation of what move or whatever, we want to work on, because following by nature is a reaction to leading, but once the class is ongoing, the follow´s comments to technique etc can just as well come before the lead´s comments.

        1. Or, you know, you could talk _less_?
          You may have a very precise idea of what you wan to say, Soren, but you might actually need to reassess that and cut back on what you say, so that your partner can say what they need to?

          And perhaps you might also reassess whether following is by nature _always_ about responding to a lead. Follows are responsible for maintaining their own posture, etc etc, and they owe it to the music and _themselves_ to have a clear sense of rhythm and timing, that they don’t compromise for the sake of the lead’s vision of their dance.
          If you consider following as always being a reaction to leading, you take away their agency and reduce them to objects, acted upon by the leader’s desires and choices. And if you are a man, mostly teaching with a woman… well, you’ve set yourself up with some pretty dodgy gender action there.

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