Moving away from gender essentialism in teaching talk

In a recent facebook talk about teaching and gender in lindy hop we took the next few steps past not using gendered pronouns to describe leading and following. We then went on to look at how people gender particular dance styles or movements in essentialist ways.
Here are some comments from that discussion.

I’ve had teachers ostensibly ok with non-binary/non-bro peeps leading, then unable to even look at me when we split into lead/follow groups in class.
But there are definitely teachers around who are good at dealing with their own errors and then fixing them. eg Georgia and Kieran.
I am definitely on board with the goals of uncoupling leading and following from gendered archetypes. I’m personally not interested in switching roles mid-dance, but I do lead and follow, and think of the two roles as functioning in very different ways.

I was interested at a recent weekend workshop to hear/see Kieran talking about ‘attacking’ a rhythm to make the lead/follow element work. This is often a word associated with masculine archetypes. But he was asking leads _and_ follows to try this. Which effectively asks all peeps to try on this masculinised characteristic, ‘even’ while following. Which then reconstructs following as involving stuff outside archetypal femininity.
Even more interestingly, Georgia asked us at later point while we were playing a game where you copy your partner’smovements/rhythms without touching, to ‘not hesitate’. She asked not to pause and worry about being right, but to continue through.
Same concept as with Kieran’s comments, but different language: confidence, continuing despite lacking certainty. This is particularly important for women, who are trained to self-doubt or try desperately to ‘please’ their partner.

I think this approach – describing one skill in a range of ways – helps deconstruct the gender norms at work in our ideas about leading and following.

And I think ethnicity and class are key in this. Eg white, m/c, younger women are trained to self-doubt and not ‘attack’ movements. So we might also look at the dancing of Anne whatsit from Whitey’s as an example of a woman who really attacked rhythms.

Alex asked:

Have you seen the opposite? Teachers asking all students to try on feminized characteristics? With anything like the same frequency? I’m not sure I’ve ever considered this topic in this context, but I’m aware of the phenomenon of attempting to address gender inequity simply by offering masculinity to women and girls but not doing the same with femininity and men and boys.

And I replied:

yerp, marie n’diaye talked sbout it explicitly in the chirus line stream at herrang last year: asking people try ‘masc’ and ‘fem’ styling.

Other than Marie, nope. I know lots of men/non-woman-IDing peeps who dance femme, but no teachers asking all students to try.
Ask men to dance femme? Their penises would fall off, right?

Alex then made some more really good points:

And I guess that wasn’t quite what I was asking. If I understand correctly, the teacher you referenced above didn’t ask students explicitly to try something masculine, but he asked students to attack the rhythm and you picked up on the gender association. My guess is that it’s more common for teachers to ask students to so things or adopt characteristics associated with masculinity (attack the rhythm, be assertive, take over) than it is to ask them explicitly to “do this masc.” So I’m wondering about the presence and frequency of calls for students to take on feminine characteristics or engage in feminine activities, rather than being asked to “do this femme.”

Now that I’m thinking of it (and talking with Samantha) we do this a little. Telling our students to pretend that their partner is a terrified newbie and to take care of them is an example. I’d like to think about this more and see where else we can do this. For instance, I see plenty of people attack the rhythm. I’d like to see them treat it gentle more. Nurture the rhythm.

And like… How far can we take this? Gestate the dance. We’re just out of the intro, if you try to birth it now it won’t make it. And don’t feel like it needs to be big. You’ll tear.

Then Magnus chimed in with a good comment:

Yes, Marie N’diaye showed us examples of dancing “feminine” and “masculine”, and we tried dancing the different styles. She also talked about how some famous dancers back in the day would dance feminine or masculine opposite of gender, although they wouldn’t call it that (Cab Calloway for instance).

To me, I don’t connect these styles with feminine or masculine, these words are just cultural constructs. But it feels good to dance in a style that some people may deem feminine.

I think this is what’s key for me: these characteristics are just characteristics or qualities. They only become ‘masculinised’ or ‘feminised’ in a wester cultural setting that uses gender binaries.
I keep thinking about other cultures where there are more than two gender roles, and how these variations offer us so much more creative room than a boring old gender binary.

I also agree, Alex, that we tend to see masculinised qualities prioritised/valued in an anglo-celtic western culture. That’s pretty much the definition of patriarchy right there.

Other ways of describing stuff that isn’t masculinised that I’ve heard teachers used:

  • Lennart has described having clear rhythm as ‘eating the rhythm’. With our students, we say “eat the rhythm, swallow it down, and now it is in your belly, right in your belly.” It’s a very useful image, because it also encourages groundedness, a physical vs cerebral understanding of rhythm, an idea that the core/our pelvis is the birthplace of rhythm (how’s that for gynocentrism? :D ) and is just nice.
  • Rikard and Jenny and peeps like Ramona talk about it as ‘taking care of the rhythm’, and Lennart talks about ‘taking care of the music’. I like to say ‘make friends with the music’ and ‘take care of the rhythm’. This idea of ‘taking care’ and congeniality is really nice because it’s a nice contrast to that ‘attack the rhythm’ model. _But_ the attack the rhythm image does give you an impetus and energy that ‘take care’ does not.
  • I like to talk about dancing every rhythm or every step as though I’m teaching it to my partner, or demonstrating it so well that they can pick it up and then dance/steal it too. This of course grew from my own teaching guiding my dance practice, but we found games like i-go, you-go reinforced this model. If you are dancing as clearly as you can, as though you are showing someone, you dance really clearly, _and_ you connect with a partner. This makes dancing a way of connecting with a human (reciprocity) rather than just artistic self-expression (individualism).

I’d be super curious and really excited to see how people from different cultures describe and imagine dancing clear rhythms. I mean, the whole shift from ‘doing footwork’ or ‘good technique’ or ‘clarity of movement’ TO talk about rhythm, call-and-response, etc etc, in American/Anglo/Australian/Canadian lindy hop discourse is evidence of a clear ideological shift. A shift away from a very antiseptic lindy-as-science, towards lindy-as-art, lindy-as-social-connection. I know that it’s very tempting to see this shift as proof of a shift towards positioning lindy hop as vernacular dance (again), but I’m not convinced. All this _talk_ about dancing in class is simply another way of doing what middle class, white capitalism has been doing with dance for a century or more: commodifying dance with particular words and discourse.

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