The mighty Anaïs asked on fb today:
the statement of the “African-American” quality of Jazz dance and Lindy hop has disappeared from the front page and main description of what was taught and celebrated at the Herräng Dance Camp…Why?
Here is what I think.
Herräng is a white-run and European-based business which gains much of its status from the idea that it is offering an ‘authentic’ jazz/swing dance experience. This idea of authenticity or ‘realness’ is really developed by the focus on and use of the idea of ‘vernacular.’ Vernacular, in this sense, means everyday, ordinary, ‘of the people,’ rather than concert or performance or formal or prepackaged. A significant part of the camp’s appeal lies in the immersion style experience campers have: there is music and dance everywhere, every day, all the time.
This is all well and good. But if white organisers leave out the black part of this ‘vernacular’, we’re left with the implication that this ‘vernacular’ has nothing to do with race. Or class.
This is the bit that makes me very uncomfortable. That’s straight up appropriation: taking something that belongs to someone else and repackaging it for your own gain.
It’s difficult to get around this issue, because we are talking about relatively wealthy, middle class, socially and culturally powerful people using a dance which is really appealing. And fun.
One of the solutions suggested by scholars and activists of colour is to name check the people who developed and own this stuff. I like to compare it to recognising the traditional owners of country (ie Aboriginal Australians). It’s a way of saying, “Hello, I saw what you did. I recognise your power and work. I want to apologise for the past. I give you the chance to forbid me use of this dance and music. This is yours.”
When we say, “this is a black dance” we are saying “I do not own, nor did I create this dance.” We are recognising the traditional custodians of this creative land.
So, when Herräng leaves off the words ‘African American’, they’re essentially obscuring the black roots of this dance. The focus on authenticity in camp is likely to leave punters with the idea that this white version of black dance is the ‘real’ or most ‘authentic’ version of this dance and history.
This is cultural appropriation, but it is also colonisation.
Without name checks, without reference to and discussion of real history, Frankie’s face becomes an appropriated icon as much as the swing out.
This is why it’s important that people like Anaïs and others publicly ask, “Hey, where did the words go?” because she is also saying, “Hey, where is the recognition of the custodians of this traditional knowledge?”