How much will you pay Black dancers; how much will you pay for Black art?

One of the things I’ve thought about a lot over the years, running workshop weekends, is how much we pay teachers. My general policy with paying teachers is that I always pay what they ask (I never bargain them down), I always pay teachers the same rate (so never paying less to the female partner, or less experienced teacher), and I try to pay more than they ask for.

This is because we underpay dance teachers. When I was working in academia, ten years ago, my per-hour rate for guest lectures was far higher than any dancer teacher receives per hour for teaching today. And I understand that teaching dance is not only about the face time and class prep, but about the toll it takes on a dancer’s body (especially with newer teachers who haven’t figured out how to dance less while teaching).

We also under-charge for workshops. I’m always pretty stunned when I see how low the workshop costs are for American events. Even the BLHF intensives seem too cheap to me – 105 euro is only $AU163 for 7.5 hours of teaching, which is the same as two full days of classes. Here in Australia you’d pay at least $200, probably over $300 for that, and the workshop income always subsidises the parties. Yes, that does pay for more expensive airfares, but it’s still almost at cost. The profit margin is far too small, and it hasn’t changed in decades.

It’s totally ‘normal’ for an ‘A-list’ teacher to be paid more than a newer teacher. We have this unwritten set of rules about whose teaching is worth more. And there are only a couple of people of colour in that highest tier. By far, most of them are white, and most of them are white men.
Why do we feel their work is worth paying more for?
It’s partly to do with promotion. A big name event feels like it’s worth paying more to attend. Competitions build reputations and pay rates, so if a teacher has won big name comp X, then we are more willing to pay for their classes. But we rarely see people of colour win lindy hop or balboa competitions at that high profile level, and white men dominate the solo jazz competitions.

There are ways to get around this racist tangle. If your event has a profile and reputation in its own right, then attendees will come simply to be part of it, regardless of the teaching line up. Before covid, we were seeing the beginnings of a market for ‘unique’ events. Boutique events. Events like Upside Down in Belgium, where the event offered far more than a series of workshops and parties in the familiar schedule. Events with a strong local culture and ‘flavour’, offering more than just adrenaline and a sample pack of dance steps. I think this market exists only when the bigger market is saturated with standard party/class events, and attendees can pick and choose between events. Europe, with its cheaper flights, closer cities, and saturated scene is the most obvious place. If you are operating within this context, then you can afford to offer something unique.
How does this explain BLHF? I don’t think it does. I think that BLHF is more a response to the mainstreaming of Black Lives Matter during the covid pandemic. In that pressure cooker moment during 2020, when Covid locked us in our homes and inequities became undeniable, the BLM movement took flight. While Black dancers have _always_ been talking about and living these issues, the mainstream discourse’s taking up of BLM ideas gave Black dancers an opportunity to present racism within lindy hop to white dance audiences. And of course, in that covid moment, dancers finally stopped dancing long enough to listen.

When I’ve asked other organisers in the US or Australia or Europe why they don’t hire people of colour to teach, there’s usually some humming and hawing about marketability and profile and paying the bills. And I keep asking myself: why haven’t I hired more people of colour? My own answers have been the same: marketability. And I tend to hire teachers I’ve taken classes with or worked with as a DJ. So of course, this is a self-perpetuating cycle of racist work practices.

A couple of years ago I posted on fb: “Why not begin with the assumption that you’ll only hire Black teachers for a lindy hop weekend, then ask yourself to work harder to justify any white teachers.” I was surprised by the angry responses from white dancers. Just as I’m surprised by the comments I see from white dancers who want to break into teaching, where they declaim: take a risk on a new dancer! As though they have a right to teach at an event… because they’re white?

There are only two events in Europe and the US that I know of that start with the assumption that they will only hire Black teachers: BLHF and the International Swing Dance Championships. Tena Morales Armstrong is involved with both. Events with a lower profile, catering mostly to local dancers, may use people of colour – eg Mapoto Swing, South Korean, mainland Chinese events. This reflects the figures we see in government – local government features a more diverse line up of MPs, but as we look higher, members of parliament become more homogenous. They represent the most powerful members of that local community.

I look at all of this and think ‘white supremacy’. This is how white patriarchy works. It employs capitalism to disempower some and empower others.

So what does it mean to have a dance class that is taught only by Black dancers, and is free for Black dancers? It is a clear act of empowerment for Black dancers. But it’s also transgressing the dominant discourse of white lindy hop. This dominant discourse says that ‘lower profile’ teachers (ie teachers who aren’t white men) are worth less than higher profile teachers. Black teachers are worth less than white teachers. The BLHF is simply saying: Black teachers are worth as much as white teachers, and in this case, they are worth _more_.

When we look at the teaching line up for a big event and see no people of colour, yet still pay for workshops, then we are accepting the idea that white people are worth more than people of colour.

We should be looking at the BLHF workshop line up and say “Holy shit, these teachers are rare as hens’ teeth! I should pay MORE to work with them!”

But as the line goes, white people value Black art higher than they value Black people.

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