Who is responsible for enforcing safe spaces?

With regards to ‘types of physical spaces’ and who is responsible for them… Let’s ask ourselves: who has the power here?

I feel, personally, that if I know a person has assaulted or harassed someone, that I don’t want them at my event, and I don’t want to be at an event they’re at.
Because they are unsafe.
Because they are putting my friends at risk.
Because I am at risk.
So even if they’ve committed an offence in a space I’m not ‘responsible’ for, then I will still take action.

Further, we are all responsible for each other. When we start saying “Oh, this isn’t my event, I’m just here as a guest, I don’t want to do anything about that man I can see groping each of his partners,” we are abrogating our responsibilities to each other as humans, as friends, as a community. We are also perpetuating a patriarchal system where the most powerful people at the top of that hierarchical pyramid of power do all the acting, and the people at the bottom are acted upon. Where the white straight middle aged men at the top do all the decision making and acting, and all the women, people of colour, queers, young people, old people, poor people are acted upon.

I’m actually at the point in my work on this issue in dance where I think that we need to move away from top-down solutions, and on to a flatter, peer-centred solution.

In this setting, yes ALL men are responsible for preventing sexual harassment and assault. Which means that they not only police their own behaviour, they also keep an eye on their male mates, and step in to say “Hey, that’s not cool” when they see them do dodgy stuff. Whether they’re a teacher, DJ, organiser, keen social dancer or bar fly. All men have a responsibility for each other, and for the rest of us.

Similarly (and more powerfully), people who are positioned as ‘powerless’ or without responsibility in dance spaces (eg young women, social dancers, beginner students, teenagers, etc etc ) should be encouraged to find ways they can take care of their friends.
Together, we are mighty.

I’d like to get more active on a ‘peer program’ like the ACON Rovers (https://pivotpoint.org.au/why-i-love-the-acon-rovers/).

Or to simply teach students in class to:

  1. Trust their instincts. If it feels wrong, then it is wrong. If it feels bad, then it is bad.
  2. Practice saying NO and STOP. ‘No thank you’ to dance invites, ‘Stop’ mid-dance, and to step in and tell someone “STOP” if they see them making someone else uncomfortable.
  3. Experiment with how they touch and are touched in class to develop a spectrum of touch, and to get to know what ‘good touch’ feels like and ‘not good’ touch feels like. And to understand that these aren’t fixed states, and can vary with each partner. eg I love to hold my good friends very close, but I can’t bear to have someone unpleasant touch my hand.

Once they have these tools, these students will then go out and interact with other people, teaching them through example about how to touch, and how to be ok with people saying no to dance invites, or asking them to change how they touch people.

More than a Code of Conduct

I have some feels about this topic, largely based on my experiences writing and thinking about sexual assault and harassment, and on my experiences as an event and school manager, dance teacher, and DJ. But mostly as a consumer and attendee: someone who’s tried to get help at events.

With specific regards to a code of conduct:
A CoC is just one part of a range of strategies for responding to and preventing sexual assault and harassment (and other dangerous and/or illegal anti-social behaviours). It’s important to think about the _purpose_ of a CoC. This is one for my current event, Jazz BANG 2-5 May 2019. I’ve just seen an error in there where I’ve clearly fucked up the html, so I’ll fix that. Lesson there: the first draft of a CoC is never the best. This is about the.. tenth? draft of mine. And It’s definitely not perfect.

What should a CoC say? I think of it as:

  1. a statement of the organisation/host’s values;
  2. a public list of ‘rules’ or a statement about how this event abides by laws regarding anti-social/dangerous behaviour.

Who is the intended audience for a CoC?

  1. The staff and organisers of the event/space are the first audience: this document should remind them of the things they value and hold dear. It should be a positive rallying call: “We believe people have a right to safety. We believe that lindy hop today should honour its black roots. etc etc”
  2. A CoC addresses contractors and casual staff: visiting teachers, one-off volunteers, musicians in visiting bands, etc. It tells them what this space values, and the general attitudes about safety and mutual respect. This suggests to marginalised peeps that they can be safe here, and ask for help, but it also says to potential (or existing) offenders that their behaviour will not be tolerated (so hopefully it works as a deterrent).
  3. A CoC addresses punters/customers, students, guests and attendees. People who pay to be there. It is a public statement of values, an invitation, and a welcome for people. It’s also a warning to offenders: don’t do that here, because we will act on it.

More broadly, a CoC can also work as a smoke screen, or token gesture. eg I know offenders who’ve publicly declared that they have and support a CoC, with the intent that this action would then absolve them of future offences: ‘I can’t be an offender, I have a CoC and I support safe spaces’.

Structurally, a CoC is useful if it has:

  • a statement of intent or value statement (what we value, who we are, what we believe in)
  • a code of conduct (what we will not tolerate)
  • a specific sexual harassment policy that outlines what the local laws define as sexual assault and harassment, and then how this manifests in a dance context
    -> a reminder that businesses (eg in NSW, Australia) have a legal obligation to work to protect employees and customers from sexual harassment and assault
  • the very first thing a CoC needs is a helpline: how to get help in a hurry (phone number, email, person for f2f)
  • then a description of the process (what happens) after reporting
  • and a description of the consequences for offenders.

Articulate the ‘unspoken rules’
I think it’s essential to have a CoC and to never rely on ‘common sense’, because the lindy hop world is characterised by travel and travellers: we are from different cultures and countries, we speak different languages, and our countries/regions have different laws. So there is no _common_ sense, just a lot of different types of sense that regularly contradict each other.

I’ve found this idea of ‘unspoken rules’ needs to be interrogated when we’re doing this work. eg I’ve found that women reporting offenders may say “He made me feel gross.” Which is a legitimate comment. But then, if we want to tell men not to ‘be gross’, we need to know exactly what it is that ‘felt gross’. So it’s important to encourage women (and men and everyone else) to articulate what it was that ‘felt gross’. For example, ‘feel gross’ might include:

  • standing a bit too close than is comfortable
  • maintaining eye contact too long, or ‘following her with his eyes’ wherever she was in the room
  • touching her frequently and in many ways from the very first meeting
  • asking her to dance repeatedly
  • buying her drinks

In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with these actions. But it’s the combination of actions, and the duration or number of these actions that makes someone ‘feel gross’. Looking at this pattern, I’d say that this man is dominating a woman’s time and physical and social space. If he’s continually speaking to her, asking her questions, etc etc, he’s also isolating her from other people: he’s dominating her time and space. If this is happening to a brand new very young woman dancer by an older man, then we would hear alarm bells.

But all these ‘feel gross’ in more ways in some cultures than in others. And we often know the difference between someone who is accidentally inappropriate and someone who is deliberately inappropriate or carelessly inappropriate.

So if our CoC is meant to be useful, we need to have specific examples of what’s not ok. eg, a ‘How does this relate to dancing’ section.
After you’ve put a lot of research and work into this, you need to think about how you deliver this information. I feel a multimodal approach is best:

  • a digital version on the website
  • a paper version on a page at a dance
  • an abbreviated, visual or comic version online, on a poster at events, on flyers/postcards or other take-home paper media
  • short spoken comments and intros in classes and at parties.

From here, though, you realise quite quickly that a CoC means nothing if you don’t also have a range of other tools in place. You need a) response strategies, b) prevention strategies, c) training and support for staff, d) legal advice for drafting documents and enforcing rules.

Responding to incidents:

  • what is your response strategy if someone does make a response? Are you staff trained in this? Are their responses consistent?
  • do you have a report making process to record the incident?
  • if you do eject someone from an event, how long are they ‘banned’? How do you tell staff that someone is banned? What do they do if the banned person turns up at events – when do they call the police?
  • what is the actual step-by-step process of ejecting someone from an event? Who does it? When? How?
  • if you ‘warn’ someone, what are the consequences if they repeat offend?

And so on and so on.
I’m personally very not ok with approaches that focus exclusively on responding to incidents, and that use a top-down hierarchy to enforce consequences. If we just have a boss ‘telling people off’ and banning people to ‘protect women’, then we are just maintaining the patriarchal status quo. We’re not actually changing culture.
I believe that we need to dismantle this. So we need to talk about _prevention_. And that’s where things get complicated.
Threats of consequences for offenders do not work as dissuasion. If it did, then the existing laws would be adequate.

How do we change the current lindy hop culture?
We need to look at class culture and the way teachers speak to each other, students interact, etc etc.
….and lots of other stuff.

What next after Codes of Conduct?

A few years ago, in 2015, I did a survey of Australian dance events, to see if they included a code of conduct on their event websites. There were mixed results, including a fairly unpleasant email from the organiser of an event which did not have a CoC at the time, and has since folded.

I (or someone else!) should at some point revisit this survey, to see if things have changed much in Australia. Do we see CoC at all Australian events? If not, which events don’t have them, and why not?

But that’s not the topic of this post.

Now I’m wondering if events (including local party nights) have follow-up processes to accompany their CoC. It’s all very well to have a list of things attendees cannot do at the event, but I have some questions.

  • Does the CoC provide specific examples of what constitutes sexual harassment or assault in a dance setting?
  • What are the consequences for people who break the rules?
  • Who enforces the rules?
  • Is there a spectrum of responses from warning, through banning, to calling the police or evacuating a building?
  • If these responses exist, are they listed in the CoC?
  • What is the in-house process for these responses?
  • Who has the authority to call for a consequence and then enforce them?
  • How are these actions documented?
  • How are these documents stored?
  • Who has access to them?
  • Is there any follow-up on these actions?
  • Is there any scope for the repatriation of banned offenders?
  • What are the terms for their return to the event?
  • Who monitors this process?
  • How is information about who is banned passed between generations of staff at an event?
  • How does this communication of knowledge account for Australian defamation laws, which would deem this publication of a potentially defamatory statement?
  • If a banned person does decide to sue for defamation, who would they sue – the organisation/business? An individual working at the event? If the latter, how does the host organisation respond to and support this person?
  • How does the host organisation ensure that staff are not exploiting their power to break the CoC rules? What measures are in place to police the policers?

I feel at this point the majority of events have gone no further than simply cutting and pasting a CoC. These later questions all ask for a fair bit of work. And I know there are some organisers which do not prioritise safety to the extent that they would invest in this sort of labour.

Who is responsible for fighting racism in dance?

White people, particularly white people of influence (like dance teachers) need to get their learn on. Rather than placing the burden of policing racism on the backs of people of colour, white people need to listen to people of colour, and start policing their own behaviours.
Just as men need to be responsible for policing their own sexist behaviour, rather than waiting for women to do all the labour of speaking up.

We can be certain that the preponderance of white faces in lindy hop today is a result of the white mainstream’s appropriation of black culture. Being able to steal-and-sell a cultural practice is a mark of power and privilege. The repackaging and ‘toning down’ of the black racial markers of lindy hop (and other dances) is part of this process of appropriation. Insisting on using counts, focussing on biomechanics rather than music, enforcing white middle class gender roles, and so on are all markers of white appropriation of black dances. These dances are made palatable (and marketable) for white middle class audiences through this ‘whitening’ of black dance.

If we _don’t_ address this matter in our classes, and in our own thinking, we are perpetuating it. We are doing racist stuff. We are shoring up racism.

Breai Mason-Campbell has asked people “What are you doing to decolonise lindy hop?” Because that’s how we address racism in this dance. We, white people, do something about it.

A lot of white people will be uncomfortable.

Nathan Sentance’s piece Diversity means Disruption (November 28, 2018) is important. It addresses the experiences of people of colour (specifically first nations people) within arts and information institutions – libraries, museums, galleries. My own background is in universities and libraries, with my information management postgrad work focussing on the management of first nations’ collections and access to collections.

In this piece Sentance makes it clear that diversity in itself is not useful. Just having people of colour on the team does not provoke institutional change. Representation is not enough; we need structural, institutional change to disrupt the flow of power and privilege.

In this post I’ve taken some lines from Sentance’s article (in green italics), and I’ve responded to them with specific reference to the lindy hop and swing dance world.

Why a diverse teaching line up will change the culture of lindy hop. And a lot of white people will find that uncomfortable.

Or

Having black women teach at your event is radical.

Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?

Why hire people of colour to teach at your dance event within your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?

Why don’t libraries, archives and museums challenge whiteness more?

Why don’t dance events and dance classes challenge white, middle class modes of learning and learning spaces more?

As result of the invisibility of whiteness, diversity initiatives are often about including diverse bodies into the mainstream without critically examining what that mainstream is

As a result of the invisibility of whiteness within lindy hop, diversity initiatives are often about just hiring black teachers at big events, without critically examining the way the classes and performances at these events construct a white ‘norm’ that reinforces the mainstream.

Kyra describes this “When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we necessarily position marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination”

White lindy hoppers ask ‘why aren’t there any black dancers in my local lindy hop scene?

I have seen a high turnover of staff from marginalized communities, especially First Nations people, as well as general feelings of disenfranchisement.

Black dancers get tired of being the only person of colour, asked to ‘give [themselves, their time, their energy] a talk about black dance and black culture’ to white audiences, to give, to work, to be visible, to represent blackness. Tokenism is tiring. Tiring.

1.Don’t let white fragility get in the way of change.

….[white people] need to understand that [their] discomfort is temporary, oppression is not and as organisations we need to create more accountability.

It is difficult to be told you are racist, when you are pretty sure you aren’t. It’s difficult to be criticised, as a dancer, as a person, by someone you feel you are including as a charitable act of ‘diversity’.

Ruby Hamad wrote about this and how the legitimate grievances of brown and black women were instead flipped into narratives of white women getting attacked which helped white people avoid accountability and also makes people of color seem unreasonable and aggressive.

If you feel attacked, perhaps it is only that you are being disagreed with?

3. Support us.
…Being First Nations person in a majority white organisation means a lot is asked of you that is not in your role description. This needs to be acknowledged.

Being a black teacher at a majority white events means a lot is asked of you that is not in your role description. This needs to be acknowledged.

Your extensive planning and carefully structured workshop weekend might seem very good and progressive to you. But it might be alienating, discomforting, and marginalising for people of colour. You might feel your black guests are ‘helping white people learn’, but they may feel set up as a ‘great black hope’ on an inaccessible stage. When what they might prefer is to spend time with other dancers as a new friend, as a peer, and to teach using other models.

If all you’ve changed in your program is the colour of the skin of the people presenting, then you haven’t changed anywhere near enough.

Additionally, support should include providing First Nations only spaces when necessary as well as supporting staff with time and resources to connect with other First Nations staff in other organisations and to connect with different community members as part of our professional development.

Support should include providing black teachers and performers with black only spaces. …and the time and resources to connect with other black teachers and performers.
Hire more than one black person at a time.
Give black women time with other black women; ‘black girl talk’ is important.
Hire black dancers from different styles, black singers and musicians, black artists and writers, and give them time to talk and make friends.

4. Remember it ain’t 9-5 for us

Dance teachers at events are ‘on’ all the time they are in front of other people. Black dancers are black all the time. Their experiences of race shape their whole lives.
Black dancers often consider themselves part of a bigger black community, to whom they owe loyalty and responsibilities. They don’t owe you a complete and full history of everything black about lindy hop. Some things are private, and some things should remain secret. They don’t owe you all their time and energy to ‘help white people learn’. They have and need time in their own communities and families.

A useful analogy:
The Savoy ballroom was an integrated space. That means that white people had access to black spaces*.
Some spaces need to remain black spaces, where white people cannot go.
Some dance history and dance knowledge needs to remain black culture; white people aren’t owed all of black dance.

This is what it means to decolonise black dance: to take back physical and cultural space. To say “No” to white bodies and voices. And for white people to accept that.

Nevertheless we cannot have change or meaningful diversity without disruption.

Having a black teacher at your event will not change the status quo.
You will need to change the way you structure your event. The way you speak. The pictures you show. The language you use.

Having a nursing mother teach at your event will not change the status quo.
You will need to change the way you structure your event. The clothes they wear. The way you speak. The start and finish times of your classes. Their bed times.

Representation is not just about black bodies or female bodies being present. It is about disrupting the status quo – making structural change – to accommodate change.

To have more women teach at big events, to have black women teach at events mean something, you will need to change the way you run events. You cannot simply slot a black or female body into a space a built for a white man and expect to change your culture. You will need to change that space completely.

A lot of your usual (white) students and attendees will feel uncomfortable with a space that privileges black culture and black people. This won’t make these students and attendees happy. They may not have a ‘nice’ time. They may find classes challenging or upsetting. They may not like the way black teachers talk to them, or that they don’t have 24/7 access to black teachers’ time and energy. They may be angry that their previous knowledge and skills weren’t valued as highly as other (black cultural) skills and knowledge are at this event.
This will be difficult for many white organisers to deal with, both in the moment, and in feedback after the event.

Are you prepared to deal with that?
No?
Then it is time you started taking classes with teachers who ask you to learn in new ways. It is time for you to humble yourself. To do things that are difficult and confronting. To be ok with feeling uncomfortable. Practice. Because you need to be ok with this. You are going to have to give up ownership of some of your most valued possessions.

Lindy hop wasn’t dead, white people. It wasn’t dead and waiting for you to revive it. It was alive, it was in the bodies and music and dance of a nation of black people. Modern lindy hop culture is marked by white culture and race, by class and power.
This is why black lindy hop matters.




*Marie N’diaye, LaTasha Barnes, and I were in conversation one night at a bar. Marie made this point. It made a profound impact on me, to have a black woman say this to me, at a white-dominated event that purported to be all about African American vernacular dance. “The Savoy ballroom was an integrated space. That means that white people had access to black spaces.”

It made me realise: I do not deserve or am owed access to all black dance spaces and culture. I do not have a right to learn all the black dances, to acquire all the black cultural knowledge. It is not mine. And it is important for me to remember that a desegregated Savoy in the 1930s gave white people an even greater degree of access to and ownership of black culture and black bodies in motion. A key part of decolonising lindy hop, is for me – a white woman – sit down, and accept that I don’t get everything I want. And in that particular moment, I needed to know when to get up and leave the conversation.
Because black girl talk is important. Black vernacular is important. And I shouldn’t assume I have an automatic right to participate in it, even if it’s happening in desegregated places.

This is made explicit in Kyra’s post, How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion:

Closed spaces for marginalized identities are essential, especially ones for multiply marginalized identities, as we know from intersectionality (not to be confused with the idea that all oppression is interconnected, as many white women who have appropriated the term as self-proclaimed “intersectional feminists” seem to understand it). Any group, whether organized around a shared marginalized identity or not, will by-default be centered around the most powerful within that group. For example, cisgender white women will dominate women’s groups that aren’t run by or consciously centering trans women and women of color. A requirement for all groups to be fully open and inclusive invites the derailment and silencing of marginalized voices already pervasive in public spaces, preventing alternative spaces of relative safety from that to form. Hegemony trickles down through layers of identity, but liberation surges upwards from those who experience the most compounded layers of oppression.

What is the problem with teaching ‘traditional’ gender roles in lindy hop?

On the face of it, nothing. There is nothing wrong with teaching a class where students experiment with ‘gendered’ movements. In fact, a class like that is very powerful and empowering, because it teaches us how gendered movement is constructed and learnt through the way we hold our bodies, the speed of our movements, how we occupy space, the way we hold our head, our gaze and eye line, etc etc etc.

I’ve seen a number of classes where this has been done very cleverly, and very well. Once Marie N’diaye was teaching a chorus line class at Herräng, where students were taken through the ways in which chorus lines in the 30s were gendered: how to emphasise your hips v your shoulders, how to turn your head, present a particular profile, focus on shapes or sizes of movements. I’ve also seen ‘girls’ hip hop’ classes taught by a man at a local street dance studio, where the students were taken through very femme movements and choreography employed by women dancers in music videos.

All of these classes make it clear (implicitly) that gender is something you can perform. That you can put on gender and take it off again, like a suit of clothes. And this idea of ‘performing gender’ is borrowed from Judith Butler’s book ‘Gender Trouble’. This is very important. Let me make it clearer: Butler (and other feminists and transpolitics writers) lay out very good cases for the idea that gender is something we _do_, not something we _are_. We learn to behave in ways which align with a particular gender role. This gender role is constructed by the culture in which we live. And the gender we choose is often chosen for us, by our families, our schools, our communities.

Right here and now, we can borrow from black feminists, who point out that there is no single way of being ‘female’ or ‘male’, and that these gender identities are culturally specific. So authors like bell hooks in We Real Cool point out how the dominant masculinity in modern American culture is _white_. It’s informed by race as well as gender. And then authors like Thomas Defrantz in Dancing Many Drums go further, pointing out how black masculinity isn’t just regulated by white ideas of what it is to be a man, but by heterocentric ideas of what a man should be.

In sum, gender is made.
Gender is not just about skin colour or the food you eat. It’s about class, it’s about sexuality, it’s about age, it’s about who we are and how we live every day.

And there are ‘dominant’ ideas of gender in different cultures. By dominant, I mean ‘most preferred’, or ‘seen most often’ or most favoured’. In some cultures there are more than two acceptable gender identities. But within western capitalist heterosexuality, there are only two. In this limited world, there is a dominant, hegemonic masculinity. This idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is culturally specific. I like this term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ because it asks us to talk about class – capitalism – as well.

An ‘ideal masculine’ varies between cultures. If we’re talking about lindy hop, then, we need to allow for the fact that lindy hop today is a cross-cultural, international activity and community. There are different types of masculinity. Many cultures go another step further, and order different gender identities (or ways of being masculine or feminine) in hierarchies. Or, some ways of being a man or being a woman are considered ‘better’ than others.

So what is the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ at work in today’s lindy hop? The answer is going to be different, depending on which country and which city and which local community you’re considering. Let me start with Australia, because that is where I live. And let me start with white, mainstream culture. Here, hegemonic masculinity is:

  • white (anglo-celtic, coloniser)
  • heterosexual
  • able-bodied
  • economically affluent

Where did I get this list?
Well, if we have a look at a few things in my culture, we can find answers very quickly:

  • The nation’s political leaders (prime minister, cabinet ministers, etc);
  • The people with the most money (millionaires, industrialists, business owners);
  • Religious leaders in the most popular religions (bishops, ministers);
  • The most commonly-seen and employed actors and entertainment figures.

All of these people are male. And until very very recently, openly heterosexual (often ‘proved’ by having a wife and children), white, able-bodied. Rich. Coloniser.

You can do the same sort of exercise with the dance world. What are the most powerful roles in the modern lindy hop world? How many of these roles are filled by men, or filled by women? And what types of men and women fill these roles? How does your local scene compare with what you see in the videos and websites for huge international American, European, or Asian events? How does your national scene compare with these?

But what about women?
Hegemonic masculinity cannot exist without a dominant model for ‘femininity’. This ‘ideal woman’ is:

  • white (anglo-celtic, coloniser)
  • heterosexual

But she is dependent on a male partner, as she is also

  • physically weak or vulnerable
  • economically weak or dependant
  • physically ‘attractive’

Her heterosexuality is proven by her ability to have children, and her physical appearance (her sexual appeal). This ‘appeal’ is again contextually dependent. In Australia, she is slim, long-legged, pale-skinned, long (straight) haired, has small feet and hands, clear skin, ample bosom (but not too ample), hips (but not too broad)… and so on.

In fact, her body is an impossible ideal. Women are trained to pursue this impossible ideal at the expense of all else. They are trained to spend more time on how their body looks, than on how it works. To spend more time thinking about what they look like, than on what they can do. They spend time in the gym working on their body’s appearance, rather than their body’s functionality.

If you pay attention, you can see how these physical characteristics are all racialised. She has pale skin. She has narrow hips and thin legs. She has straight hair. The small hands and feet and long legs can be achieved by the way she points her toes and extends her arms. She does not give us de kneebone bent, because that would be ‘inelegant’. That would be black.

From here this ideal femininity and masculinity can also be defined by how they behave, or how they act. Men are active, physically tough, powerful, defensive and offensive agents. They take up physical and aural space in public. Women are passive, acted upon, vulnerable, hurt, weak. They make themselves small and speak softly so they don’t take up space. These two models are used to justify the relationship between the ideal male and ideal female: the female requires a strong man to protect her. The strong man requires the vulnerable female to give him children (and incidentally prove he’s not gay :D ) and keep his home. The active, fierce man is complemented by the passive, emotional, gentle woman.

And so on.

All of the things I am writing here are old news to anyone who’s done any feminist reading. I myself have two theses and a bunch of articles drawing on extensive field work and textual analysis to prove these ideas. In fact, my doctoral thesis looked at how this stuff plays out in the lindy hop world.

Let’s go all the way back to that first question:

What is the problem with teaching ‘traditional’ gender roles in lindy hop?

Nothing. While some feminists would disagree with me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being vulnerable or small or pale or delicate. Or strong and bold and heterosexual. But I do think there’s a very big problem with a) these models being presented as the only ways of being a man or woman, b) with ‘man’ and ‘woman’ being the only options, and c) with these dichotomies (either-or options) being the most preferred models.

In lindy hop today, we see traditional white, heterosexual gender roles rewarded and valorised across cultures.
Take a look at the winning ‘couples’ at ILHC, the Savoy Cup, or any of the other big competition events. Who wears the dresses? How does each partner move independently, and in reference to their partner? What is their ethnicity? What angles and lines do their bodies make?
The competition finalists and winners are almost exclusively white, heterosexual-presenting, and adhere to these very conventional gender roles. We can make occasional exceptions, we might even see one same-sex couple. There may be a few women wearing trousers. But taken as a whole the repeating, and therefore dominant elements do nothing to reconstruct or challenge the gender norms. We never see women leads in winning couples. We never see men as winning follows. In fact, we rarely see a deviation from this gender binary: man/woman. How dull. How dangerous.

What’s the problem with this?
If these winners align with the dominant values of their community, is there anything particularly wrong with this?

This is where things get really interesting.

What exactly is the problem with these two gender roles?

These two roles encourage particular types of behaviour. That’s a very general comment, so let’s get specific. I’m going to take an issue that’s very important: safety.
How do these roles contribute to sexual assault and harassment in the modern lindy hop world?
I’m going to assume that you agree with me that sa and sh are bad things. Remember, this isn’t a universal belief. There are plenty of people who don’t believe that sh and sa are actual real things. I believe that they are. I believe that they are bad, not only for the people involved, but also for the community as a whole.
sa and sh physically hurt people, but they also discourage women from entering high profile or well paid roles (DJing, teaching, MCing, organising). This means that sh and sa limit the way our communities grow and do things. It makes us ordinary.

Let’s take that dominant feminine identity and apply her to lindy hop.

  • The follow role is associated with the feminine
    We only have women or femme folk teach as follows at big events, we see workshops in ‘feminine styling for follows’ (but rarely other gendered options).
  • Follows are ‘quieter’
    She doesn’t initiate moves or outshine the lead. She doesn’t interrupt or speak louder than the lead in class.
  • Follows are objects that things happen to
    She doesn’t turn or spin; she is spun. She doesn’t decide where to move; she is moved. She doesn’t choose moves; the moves are chosen for her. She isn’t an equal partner; she makes the lead’s moves ‘work’.
  • Follows ‘look beautiful’ – they have long legs, small hands and feet, a slim build (with bosom, but not too much), they have pale skin, they have long straight hair
    She wears clothes that exaggerate these elements – dresses and skirts, form fitting trousers, high heels (to make her legs seem longer and her feet smaller), make up. She dances in ways that exaggerate these elements – she points her toes and straightens her legs and arms, she extends her neck and drops her shoulders, she opens her arms with the palms up and open.
    SHE IS WHITE. SHE HAS STRAIGHT HAIR. SHE HAS PALE SKIN. SHE HAS A SMALL ARSE AND THIN THIGHS. SHE HAS SMALL MUSCLES, NOT BIG, STRONG MUSCULATURE.
  • Follows are helpful, polite, and unaggressive
    She does as she’s led, she doesn’t abort moves. She spins as many times as the lead wants. She turns in the direction the lead wants. She doesn’t interrupt the lead’s moves, or distract from him. She is passive and helpful. She does not solo dance alone. She looks at the lead all the time. She does not say no to dances. She does not stop dances mid-way. She doesn’t tell men to stop hurting or touching her. She will compromise her rhythm or timing for the sake of the lead’s rhythm or timing.
  • Follows are vulnerable; things happen to them, which they need to be protected from
    She is vulnerable to kicks and accidents on the dance floor, and has to be protected by her lead. She is vulnerable to sh on the dance floor, so she needs a man to protect her. She doesn’t say no to dances. She must be walked to her car.
  • The follow is dependent on a (male) lead
    She doesn’t say no to a dance; she cannot solo dance (she’s too afraid, she doesn’t know what to do). She cannot dance with a woman; only men can/are lead properly. Dancing with a woman would make people think she was a lesbian. She gains her worth from her heterosexual relationship with a man. She doesn’t tell a harasser to STOP; she reports him to a (male) organiser.

And so on and so on.

But remember: you cannot have this ideal femininity without an ideal masculine, and vice versa. Because in this story, the ideal fem or masc is heterosexual. Without a man, a woman is a lesbian (or a failure). Without a woman, a man is gay (or a failure).

We can do the same exercise with men and this ideal masculinity.
Can you do that? I’m a bit tired of typing, so I’ll leave you to make a little list. Write it down. What are the ways ‘leading’ is gendered hegemonic ‘masculine’?

These are all things that happen on the dance floor. But the modern lindy hop culture encourages us to see dance floor behaviour as the ideal model for off-floor behaviour. The most influential and powerful people at events are teachers and competition winners – people valued for their dance skills.

What happens when we extend this idea that a woman never says no to an invitation to dance? She is, in effect, told that she cannot say no to a man wanting to touch her. That she should smile and facilitate all the things that he wants to do to her body.
I wish that I could dismiss this as an exaggeration. But if we keep in mind the whole rest of the culture in which lindy hop is embedded, then we see that it’s not only unlikely, it’s also very difficult for a woman to say ‘NO’ to a man’s desire to touch her body. On and off the dance floor.

Here, look: this is how a dominant gender model informs lindy hop culture, and how this gendered dancing enables sexual assault and harassment.

Let’s go back a step.

Because I can’t stop there. I can’t stop at this feminist analysis. I need to do some feminist activism as well. I need to do and say something that will make it possible for me to go to lindy hop events. Make it possible for me to dance.

What are the problems?
1. We are using only white, middle class, mainstream Australian culture as a source for gender identities.
2. We haven’t considered this dance in historical context. What was happening in terms of gender in the 1920s and 30s?
3. We haven’t considered this dance in historical cultural context. What was happening in terms of black gender in the 1920s and 30s?
4. We haven’t considered this dance in contemporary cultural context. What is happening in terms of black/Asian/poc gender in Australia today? What is happening in terms of black gender in America today?

There are ways we can rethink gender in lindy hop: by actually watching and listening to black dancers.

In other words: thinking intersectionally about lindy hop (decolonising lindy hop; taking it out of white hands) will help us prevent sexual assault and harassment. I’m saying it clearly: there’s a problem with white, middle class, mainstream masculinity and femininity. And it has done bad things to lindy hop. Bad things to black lindy hoppers as well as white.

So, as a white women, I need to get my learn on.
For me, the first thing I have to do is sit down and listen. Stop talking. I need to watch and see what black dancers are already doing. I don’t ask them to come and give a lecture or wait at my beck and call in a dance class. I look at their work now.

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женщина & Sistas (an article on gender and following) – Grey Armstrong March 20, 2017

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Let’s look at those examples I listed above, where we had men dancing the ‘femme’ role. Let’s look at vogueing. Here, at first glance, we have ‘men’ performing that dominant femininity. But that sentence doesn’t go anywhere near explaining all the things that are happening. For a start, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and ‘female’ and ‘masculinity’ seem awfully limited.
Who are these people dancing? Would they describe themselves as men? As women? As trans? As nonbinary (enby – N.B.)? As soon as we ask these questions, and we ask these people these questions, we get a sudden explosion of gender and identity. I like to imagine that a black and white binary drawing (man/woman, male/female, strong/weak, good/bad) just opens up in a massive rainbow spectrum of colour and identity. Strength, weakness, power, vulnerability, creativity, gentleness, violence, beauty, ugliness.

Right here, we see a whole range of ways to do femininity or masculinity. Lots of different ways to be a man or a woman. Or to be a person that doesn’t want to fit into this binary.
Queer studies gives us lots of ways of to think about gender and human relations.

Let’s go back again. Remember where I mentioned Tommy Defrantz? Where I talked about the kneebone bent?
Defrantz is a queer black dancer, whose book looks at black dance history in America and asks ‘where is the queer black masculinity here?’ He himself offers us a very different way of moving his body:

Dood is extremely gay. He is so gay. He is the gayest. And he’s out. And he’s black. And he’s political. He’s also a dancer. A street dancer. A concert dancer. An academic. A thinker. An activist. He is all these things at once, AND he’s a man. This is a different way of embodying masculinity. Look at him while speaks the language of tertiary academia, the academy, territory of white masculine power.
But listen to his higher pitched voice. Look at the way he holds his hands close to his body, taking up less space. The way he shifts from foot to foot, implying uncertainty or a lack-of-obstinant-determination. Then watch all that change as he STAMPS into the ground with the buck dances. The way he embodies this role of the ‘buck‘: aggressive, fierce, determined, sexualised, large. And then he shifts again, demonstrating the wing dances, which he morphs until THERE! we see vogueing, and the ballrooms of 1980s queer black Harlem.

In this single two minute clip Defrantz takes us through a hundred years of black dance and black masculinity. He shows us how rhythm can be style. He shows us how rhythm can be black masculinity. And because he can then take it off again, he shows us – all of us, whatever our gender – that this masculinity can be put on and taken off at will! Imagine a black woman putting on that identity for a moment. Buck dancing!

But what if we actually look at a black woman dancing lindy hop. First ‘vanilla’, then ‘with sauce’. Here, Cookie (Angela Andrew) shows us how to dance as a follow, as a woman, as a black woman. Her skin is black. Her hair is up in a turban. She wears loose trousers and shirt. She addresses the camera. She is with her partner, but she is also taking creative space, saying I AM HERE with her clarity of rhythm. HERE I take a triple step and make it a stomp off. HERE I pause, I stop moving, I hold the time in my body and groove it on down. And HERE I suggest a rhythm to my partner, and because he listens to me, because he is open to my contributions, he takes it up and he joins me. We are together in this moment as equals.

It’s exciting. It’s very exciting.

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Black Culture a Lesson in Formality – Grey Armstrong – January 25, 2019

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And what is the next step?
I actively choose not to hire teachers who run workshops which prioritise gender norms, or who exploit those gender norms. That means that I don’t hire teachers who’ve been reported for sexual assault or harassment. I don’t hire their friends who’ve stood by them and not called them up on their behaviour.
I do not hire teachers who’ve done publicly racist or antisemitic things. Nor do I hire their friends who’ve stood by them and not called them out on their behaviour.

Instead

I hire dancers of colour. I pay them good cashmoney for their work. I choose to hire teachers who are either actively engaging with gender, in a critical way, or I choose to hire teachers who are implicitly engaging with gender in an active way. Simply through being and dancing gender in different ways. This means that I can hire white teachers who talk the talk and attempt to walk the walk, and I can can hire dancers of colour who are teaching me about being gender simply by dancing-while-black.

More importantly, I can take their classes. Yes, that means you, dancer who thinks they’re too good to take classes any more. Be humble. Show you are willing to learn from this person of colour. Say, with your open face and willingness ‘I value what you have to teach.’ Be present in that class, be mindful. Learn. Assume that you don’t know how this works. Learn. Be open. Learn.

I think this is important: it’s not ok for me to ask teachers or dancers to articulate exactly what they are doing that makes them ‘black’. It is my job to learn to see how ethnicity informs who we are and how we move. It is my job, as a white woman, to stop seeing ‘whiteness’ as a default ‘norm’. It is my job to take my assumptions about what ‘good lindy hop’ is, and to see how my own privilege as a white women has shaped this set of values. All of this jargon – frame, connection, musicality, tone, leading, following – all of it is language circulated and controlled by white teachers, and commodified in formal dance classes. It is, truly, the colonisation of black dance.

It is my job to learn how to learn in new ways. To learn how to be in a class with a teacher and see how their movements, their ways of holding their bodies, of taking, of looking at students and each other, of being inform their dancing. Whether they are black or white, hispanic or asian. If dance is culture, then I need to do more than just ‘have a class with a black teacher’. I need to learn how my entire understanding of dance and classes is informed by my own ethnicity.

Here is a list of people you may choose to hire, who are not skinny white heterosexual women and men. Some of them are lindy hoppers, some tap dancers, some do dances traditional to their peeps, some are musicians. I haven’t even really gotten into Asia with this list, and it is totally not exhaustive.
And please note: being the old black/queer/asian in the village can be tiring and intimidating. Why not hire two! Or three! Or ALL of them!

  • Angela ‘Cookie’ Andrew
  • Dee Daniels Locke
  • Josh McLean
  • Fatima Teffahi
  • Sing Lim
  • Kieran Yee
  • Katharina Duarte
  • Nick Davis
  • Javier Johnson
  • Nika Jin
  • Tricia Sewell
  • LaTasha Barnes
  • Shana Maria Weaver
  • Anaïs Sékiné
  • Marie N’diaye
  • Helena Martins
  • Damon Stone
  • Josette Wiggan-Freund
  • Joseph Wiggan
  • Usman Camara
  • Ursula Hicks
  • Corina Kwami
  • Maria Schilling
  • Kevin Harris
  • Denise Minns Harris
  • Andrew Hsi
  • Paulo Inacio Pereira Pereira
  • Chester Whitmore
  • Remy Kouakou Kouame
  • Tamisha Anthony

Gaslighting within safe space activism

After dealing with sexual assault and harassment in public dance forums for a number of years now, I’ve noticed a clear ‘type’.

He presents as a feminist ally, someone who knows a lot about antisocial behaviour and feminism, and professes to be very anti-hegemonic masculinity.
Yet he’s always the loudest voice in a fb conversation, dominating discussion and correcting others.

And he later proves to be an offender.

I don’t want to think on it too much as it’s too upsetting, but this feels like a type of gaslighting: I’m an ally, I can’t be an offender! Look at me talking the talk online!

This piece Ill-Met By Gaslight by
Na’ama Carlin (February 6, 2019)
is a good read.