Cognitive load and lindy hop

Leah Jo linked up this interesting article, ‘Cognitive Load Theory
How the cognitive load of a learning task affects a person’s ability to memorize it’
on facebork.

It’s very interesting.

Fran then asked about the point that because processing more than one type of data increases cognitive load, we should avoid it.

I’m not entirely sure I understand the article’s point, as I haven’t read the original research. But that won’t stop me blabbering on.

I’ve just read that bit, and I reckon it means:

  • Different types of data are processed in different ways (eg auditory info – sound – and visual info – stuff we see).
  • Processing more than one type of info at a time increases cognitive load (ie it’s more work.)
  • Therefore (this article suggests) we should only present data in one form at a time.
    In our case, that’d be just scatting a rhythm, or just dancing a rhythm, not dancing and scatting.

I think I can dig this, especially for total beginners who are just learning to dance for the first time. They can be learning to process visual info (bodies in motion), auditory info (clapping), etc etc etc.
So what we’ve found (coincidentally – I’d never heard this theory before), is that we demonstrate one thing at a time. eg we dance the whole move. Then we clap a rhythm. Then we may tap the rhythm with our toes. Then we may step it out with no sound, but shapes. This way the info (ie the rhythm) comes to them as lots of different data types, but one at a time.

Having said all that, as we know, dancers are super good at processing a few different types of data at once: we can be led through a routine and see the shapes, we can listen to the music and hear the melody, we can feel the physical cues and respond with the shapes.

But these are skills we come to after practicing and learning for a while.
I think retention (memory) is under-emphasised in our skill sets. I mean, we learn complex rhythms (which are essentially like learning complex mathematical formula or series of words), retain them, and then repeat them back with or without variation. We also learn whole sequences of steps during our dancing years, and then recreate or revise them in real time.
So one thing we learn when we do a dance class is to see/hear/feel data in one way, then retain that ‘way’ and information while we’re watching and retaining a section, third, fourth set of data. Then we synthesise it all and do it with another human being surrounded by heaps of other human beings also dancing or playing music!

That’s some seriously heavy cognitive load. So one thing we need to do in classes is teach students how to cope with a) the pressure of increased cognitive load, b) how to actually carry increased cognitive load. And lindy hop is awesome because it’s so fun: it rewards increased cognitive load management with good endorphines and happy times. :D

We can also just start with simpler tasks, then increase the complexity. For example, begin with one type of data at a time, then gradually increase the combinations. I think we do this with our beginners. So we may just give them one rhythm in the baby version of i-go, you-go, but as they get more experienced, we increase the number of things they have to do during that task (eg the next step in this game is to have the pair take turns dancing a rhythm at each other, in real time, so they have to invent a rhythm while they’re watching and retaining their partner’s rhythm. The simple solution to this is to take something from your partner’s rhythm and build on it in your rhythm, so you don’t have to make something entirely different. This is what tappers do in jams. It also provides rhythmic coherency or consistency).

I’ve been interested to compare teaching in a quiet environment after teaching in a noisy environment with lots of distractions. The former is very much the marker of middle class, anglo-european teaching philosophy. The idea that we need a quiet ‘room of one’s own’ to do good solid thinking and learning. But if there’s one thing we know about lindy hop, it’s that it was born and thrived in loud environments full of information and noise and other people. One of the very first things you learn in a tap class, for example, is how to handle the cognitive load of a very loud learning environment. A lot of people simply can’t get past that first bit (I personally really struggle with this).

I also noticed that when we started welcome small babies and children (and doggos) in our teaching space, at first I found it impossible to stay focussed. Then I just learnt to ignore it (as I suppose mothers learn to ignore random kid noise, but respond to particular noises or lack of noise :D). So you learn to filter out extraneous data to decrease your cognitive load.

…following that thought on. We know that people learn best in environments where they feel happy and safe. This is probably because when we feel unsafe, we are ‘hyper vigilant’, taking in lots of information about our environment, _and_ keeping our bodies ready to fight or fly. Which is why anxiety or social phobias or trauma are so exhausting.

So while I dig this article, I think that it’d be really useful to compare it with learning in other cultural spaces. I haven’t checked the samples in this piece, but I wonder if they used predominantly white, middle class people between 18 and 25 (ie university students) in laboratory environments as their samples?

Perhaps one of the most important things about thinking of lindy hop as a black dance, is that we remember where and how people learnt to dance: in vernacular spaces. Everyday spaces. Spaces full of noise and stimuli and other people. Which is not only why we see the influence of everyday stuff in lindy hop (eg rhythmic movements borrowed from stuff like sweeping or hammering or ball games or playing hop scotch; familiar personalities like pimps and kids skipping; familiar animals like chickens and cows), but the ability to bear massive cognitive load while completing complex tasks…

Ethnicity v race

Why do I want to hang onto class when discussing race and ethnicity in dance?

A friend, Superheidi, noted recently that she’s not entirely ok with the way some white dancers use the word ‘race’. She made the point that ‘race’ isn’t accurate; we are not different races because we have different skin colour. We are all one species.

But the social or cultural concept of ‘race’ is still important. I actually use ‘ethnicity’ more than ‘race’. ‘Racism’ is often about skin colour and appearance.
But ethnocentrism is about more than skin colour: it’s about culture and identity.
If we talk about ethnicity, we can distinguish between west africans and east africans, african americans and africans. And so on. The important points become cultural and social: who a people are rather than just what they look like. This becomes super important for first nations people who have been displaced from their homelands, especially in Australia after the stolen generation.
‘Being Black’ is about identity, culture, who we are inside.

This approach also gives us a hook for talking about whiteness, and presenting different types of whiteness as ethnicity. eg white australian = largely anglo celtic; vs white dutch. Same colour skin, different culture. Different ethnic identities.
It’s a standard distinction to make in feminist studies.
And the concept of ethnicity helps us talk about things like ways of moving your body or talking, which are learnt not biological.

For me the word ‘race’ is highly problematic. I really don’t like to use it.
Unless we are talking about racism specifically, and then I need that word. Racism is a specific issue: the hatred of a particular group of people for irrational reasons (eg simply because they look different or act differently). Ethnocentrism is a more complex concept. It’s about prioritising and privileging your own ethnicity and own lived experience. It can allow us to talk about anti-semitism, where a person might not look physically different, but be culturally distinct.

If we aren’t different races (or species) at at genetic level, how do we account for tropes in particular populations? For example, the overrepresentation of indigenous Australian youth in prisons? Or higher instances of diabetes in some African American communities?

This is where intersectionality gets really useful: class is the bigger factor in black women’s high infant mortality rates. Clearly, gender is also important, as it’s women’s bodies which are regulated by anti-abortion laws or subsidising abortion under public health care acts.

And there is some interesting work on the way trauma has a physical effect on bodies (with potential genetic damage). I remember reading about something to do with aboriginal women’s experiences with malnutrition + trauma = ill health for future generations. Starvation can cause genetic or inheritable damage too. And while these symptoms might be prevalent in black women, it’s not because these women are black, but because being black in modern American or Australian society means you’re more likely to experience violence (including sexual violence), poor educational outcomes, and other economic disadvantages, not to mention poor health care services.
In Australia, these latter symptoms are a direct result of racist government policies which reduce community-centred health care services and support services.
All of these points make it clear that while ‘being black’ or ‘being white’ has clear physical effects that are inheritable, these biological elements are the product of social, environmental factors. To be clear, then: we are the sum of our biology and our culture. Who we are is the result of nature and nurture. Ethnicity, then, is a more useful word than ‘race’, because it allows for variance, for the role of environment and culture.

When I say ‘class’ I’m also referring implicitly to education: women with a lower education level are more likely to have more pregnancies, to have higher infant mortality rates, to be in lower paid work, and to die younger. No matter what their ethnicity. But when you combine class markers with ethnicity and gender, you see a more severely disadvantaged group. Why do we see particular ethnic groups caught in these intersectional binds? Well, this is where the concept of patriarchy comes in handy: it helps us see how ideology (ideas about the world) and discourse (the way these ideas are communicated) shape institutions (like schools, hospitals, governments) and society.

So ‘class’ isn’t just about how much money you earn, it’s also about other economic advantages – the suburb you live in (and the services it has), the type and length of education you get, the health services available to you in the public system (which again are often worse, and over-stretched in black areas), the food available to you (see discussions about ‘food deserts’ in urban america), broken family networks (which leads to children leaving school to care for younger siblings, etc) and so on.

This is why capitalism is a key part of patriarchy, why Cierra’s point about vintage wear being ‘expensive’ is so important, and why I think it’s essential to hang onto intersectionality when we talk about race in lindy hop.

Looking for Langston

Speaking of the black experience in jazz and blues dance…

I haven’t yet ready anything in the blues and lindy hop community about the black queer male body dancing.

There’s been some good work on black women’s bodily experiences in modern jazz dance culture, and a bit about black masculinity. Quite a few too many white men have whitesplained how blues works as a black space, and far too many white women and men have avoided talking about vintage fashion as an ethnicised scene.

Apparently the black queer body in a well cut suit or gorgeous gown is too terrifying even for whispers.

I saw Looking For Langston (an art film by Isaac Julien) last night. The whole project – a film made during the 80s AIDS crisis by a black British man, about a black American man of the Harlem Renaissance – is a meditation on queer desire, jazz aesthetics and the blues. The name (and a lot of the content, including some proto-vogueing) reminds me of Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna, and the queer-eye-on-art. It includes voice work by Stuart Hall and Toni Morrison, Paul Gilroy gets props, Jimmy Somerville plays a cherub (again), and Tongues Untied is referenced. Also there is some cock.








The installation at Rosley Oxley9 Gallery features some beautiful large scale black and white stills from the film, depicting black men dancing in closed embrace. Photos I regularly see linked up on facebook as examples of queer dance in the swing era. Ha.

Liah says it’s good to check out the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the agnsw as well, so you can see how Julien’s work responds to Mapplethorpe (and the white queer gaze on black bodies).

I’ve hooked up this obviously pirated version of Looking for Langston, because it’s a hard one to get to see.



mise en scene pic from Isaac Julien’s set (source).
Stuart Hall, from his obituary in the Telegraph.
Toni Morrison by Gregg Delman in the Times.
Paul Gilroy (source).
Jimmy Somverville in Sally Potter’s Orlando.
Tongues Untied (source).
My pic from the exhibition.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Two Men Dancing (source).

Who wants to pay me to research gender in the Australian jazz music industry? Have relevant experience, skills, degrees, etc.

a long post from fb.

I am interested in:

  • sexual harassment and assault and its role in discouraging women musicians;
  • the recent round of cuts in arts council funding and its role in pushing musicians o/s;
  • do women follow the jobs o/s as younger men do, or do they have domestic commitments keeping them here?;
  • whether or not a lack of attention to female historical figures in jazz education disuades young women musicians;
  • intra-band culture and masculinism, and their role in discouraging women from playing instruments (v singing), and consequent effects on the music itself;
  • are broader industrial factors inaccessible for women, because of impossible child care and donestic labour making the late hours, excessive drinking and drug use cultural factors central to jazz music culture and networking)

And so on.
I also want to look at the intersection of race, class, and sexuality, because the australian jazz world is very white, very straight, and very male.

What’s the point of asking these questions?

  • most dance event organisers are women; does jazzbro culture impede collaboration? Would it be different if there were more women musos?
  • jazz is slowly fading away as musos and audiences pass away. Why is the jazz world ignoring (even fighting) the great resource of 51% (more!) of the population?
  • how would the music itself be different if it became the vernacular not just of some white bros? How many more people would it resonate with, if the stories were more varied and interesting?

I just need money for research (incl library access, transcription resources, secure places for data, travel $$ for interviews, etc). But i could plan and do this research no worries.

Here is a thing I read today RE arts funding which made me think about this:

And I’ve also been reading first-person accounts by very brave young women recording their experience with sexual assault and harassment in the jazz scene, both in the US and here in Australia.

Basically: getting raped and harassed every day by staff, teachers, students, and punters discourages young women musicians. How can it even be true. Unfathomable*.

Upshot: sexual assault is a very good way of getting rid of threats to male egos and careers. ie talented young women.

Similarly, racism (both explicit and implicit) is another good way to get rid of threats (to white masculinity): talented young musicians of colour.

None of this is news. We have decades of first hand and academic research supporting this idea that sexual assault and harassment are tools of the patriarchy: discouraging women and others from breaching the citadel.

*insert sarcasm gif

I feel like the ban on black/american musicians touring Australia until the 50s is also relevant. And the role of the musicians union(s).
…and I want to look at the role of women in the Australian jazz industry to date. Especially the role of the women in the 50s, 60s, and so on up til now – the people who managed gigs, sold tickets, etc etc. All that unpaid, low status work that actually makes a gig possible.

I think that ‘uses of history’ is going to be important too. Something about the way historical figures, historical recordings and texts, ideas about history, authenticity, etc etc are used in ‘jazz’.

I feel like there’s some connection with the way Herrang really discourages modern black music like hip hop, house, rap, etc etc, yet sponsors the Frankie Manning ambassadors and young black people to the camp. These kids are allowed to come as ‘ambassadors’, but they aren’t allowed to bring their own, modern day music and dance – stuff they are authorities on. They have to be positioned as ‘special cases’ accessing black history via white ‘specialists’ in Europe, v accessing black history via their own families and communities and bodies and contemporary culture.

…I guess it’s all about culture, gatekeeping, power, and access to knowledge. And the discursive role of words and concepts like ‘authentic’, ‘history’, even ‘swing’. And which historical figures are used (Louis Armstrong vs Lil Hardin Armstrong etc).

So I guess we’re looking at the intersection of ideas about ‘work/labour’, ‘art’, ‘creativity’, ‘gender/race/ID’ in a particular creative field. Same old same old, really, but in a new context. And the new part is the role of funding and support (eg universities) by governments today, and jazz’s shift from vernacular music and culture funding by everyday spaces (eg bars, cafes, dancehalls) to ‘art’ funded by the state and high-end sponsorship. Which, it turns out, is much more precarious. There’s also something in there about education, learning, and teaching in vernacular vs institutional spaces. I think that’s the bit that’ll interest me most.

I’m already pretty interested in community arts practice via ‘art’ in galleries, opera houses, conservatoria, etc etc. I’d like to have a look at some cultural policy studies literature on engagement with the arts in Australia. ie do more people ‘engage with the arts’ as amateur makers via craft courses, community choirs, school holiday programs, etc etc, than they do via more formal routes like ‘going to see a show at the opera house’ or ‘attending the Sydney Festival’? I’d also like to look at the pathways to professional musicianship – via places like the Con, or via music programs in universities, or via informal apprenticeships with family members, or via ongoing lessons with teachers? And do these pathways offer particular obstacles or opportunities for women/POC/queer folk?
And of course, what are the more complex (and interesting) networks and convergences of all these pathways and factors? eg attending the Con, taking classes as a kid at school, practicing with friends in high school, making a band, recording and broadcasting at home for youtube, etc etc etc.

Muddling through thoughts about ethnicity and dance and gender

A very interesting discussion happened on fb recently in the teaching group.
The issue of gender and power and the nuances of leading and following was examined and tossed around in detail, in a very respectful, constructive way. One of the key points that came up was raised by a black American woman: this dance has real history and meaning. The gender roles and relationships at work in the history and material of lindy hop were real and meaningful to her, not just arbitrary social constructions from another culture or time. Because we were all working within a discussion of teaching – the transmission of ideas between individuals and groups, within relationships of power and knowledge – who says what is very important.

This lent the discussion a really important and useful edge, and it’s an issue I’ve seen come up in other feminist talk when ethnicity and intersectionality are recognised. For white women throwing off traditional european gender identities is empowering, but for this black woman, recognising and valuing black American gender identities is empowering. This is, of course, a very very… ESSENTIAL point in a discussion of identity and gender in postcolonial spaces: we have different values and goals. And it important for powerful white dancers to remember that they are speaking and writing and dancing from a position of contemporary and historical power.

When we are talking about cultural appropriation, to say “I want to lead in lindy hop, but I want to change the gender dynamics because they are bullshit” without any historical context, is problematic. For a black woman to say, “No, this is what this dance MEANS and MEANT,” is very important. It is essential that white dancers stop and listen. They may disagree, but the act of speaking up and defining what dance means is central to activism. As is the white response of ceding the floor and listening to black voices. With dance, where, as Tommy Defrantz said, under slavery, “serious dancing went underground, and dances which carried significant aesthetic information became disguised or hidden from public view. For white audiences, the black man’s dancing body came to carry only the information on its surface (DeFrantz 107). Stopping and listening to the story of meaning is part of making reparation for cultural appropriation.

This is why we need to not only engage with the dance, but with its history. And it’s important to remember that black women are not homogenous: different women will have different ideas and responses to the way gender is and was negotiated in black dance both then and now.

Me, I like this topic because it can’t ever be ‘settled’. We can’t ever be done and just forget. We should remember the darker parts of history, we should celebrity tenacity and creativity. It is a discussion in constant motion, as we respond to each person and each culture and each moment in history. We have to be agile. Intersectional.

Anyhoo, this is what I wrote in that thread, after a bit of thinking and listening.

I’ve been thinking and talking about this issue a lot. And I agree with Alex. There really is room for people to disagree on this issue. I think of it as more that because each of us is different, and come to the dance with different baggage, we’ll approach the dance in different ways. So, for example, a woman might really like following, and really enjoy working with leads who define quite strong shapes and structures. And that’s ok. The bit that’s worrying is when one particular approach becomes orthodox.

Having said that, I also think that while we’re enjoying one approach, we need to be actively engaged with, and respecting other approaches. We need to recognise and interrogate our own relative positions of power. So when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘we who have the power to speak, the status to have our opinion valued. I’m talking to white dancers. We need to state who we are, and where we come from, and how this affects our engagement with the fruits of another culture. I don’t want to just say ‘anything goes’ and ignore the history of oppression and cultural infringement of lindy hop and black cultural history. I want to keep that in mind: as a white woman in a postcolonial nation, I need to keep saying to myself: you are a visitor here. Pay respect.

And more importantly, we need to be continually referencing the history of this dance. And for me, that means, respecting the cultural history – the peeps – who developed these dances.
I think of it a bit like recognising the traditional owners of country: we actively say “I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this country, [name of country] Land, the [name] people.” And having an aunty or elder do a welcome to country is important: it gives you permission. Seeking welcome (ie permission to enter a country) is important. Not just for respecting current custodians of knowledge, but also to recognise and seek resolve for historical misdeeds.

I transfer that model to dance. I want to acknowledge the custodians of this knowledge (ie name check our OGs regularly, and name check our dance steps and their history). I want to make active payment for the use of this knowledge (whether by respect or donating money to various funds). I want to remind myself of my own privilege, as a white middle class woman living in an urban centre, engaging in a dance which came to me from an other culture and time.

So this way I feel I can adapt this dance (ie a cultural transmission or appropriation which is functional and not fucked up), but also ask, rather than demand.

For me this helps me straddle the ‘historical preservation/contemporary cultural relevance’ tension.

…I do think, as a dancer myself, that doing all this name checking and asking permission and acknowledging who I am, and my own social and cultural power, I give myself a way to be a better dancer. If I am honest with myself, and if I approach the dance with humility, but also belief in who I am, I can be more creative. I can do better art.

I don’t want to ‘be Frankie’; I don’t want to appropriate his space. I want to ‘be Sam’, and dance and be as me, inspired by the OGs, but not limited to imitating them.

DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.” Moving Words: Re- Writing Dance. Ed. Gay Morris. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 107 – 20.

Lost post: the trouble with linear jazz narratives + more

Here’s a post I’ve just discovered, that may have fallen off my database somehow.

MAY 4, 2009

In the earliest parts of my researching into jazz history, I tried to set up a sort of ‘time line’ or map* of musicians and cities and bands. Who played with which band in what city at what time? Then where did they go? This approach was partly based on the idea that particularly influential musicians (like Armstrong) would spread influence, from New Orleans to New York and beyond.

But drawing these time lines out on pieces of paper, I found it wasn’t possible to draw a nice, clear line from New Orleans to New York, passing through particular bands. Musicians left New Orleans, went to New York, then back to New Orleans, then off to France, then back again to New York. The discographies revealed the fact that a band recorded in different cities during the year – they were in constant motion, all over America. Furthermore, musicians didn’t stick with one band, they moved between bands, they regularly used pseudonyms and even the term ‘band’ is problematic. The Mills Blue Rhythm Band, with its dozens and dozens of names, was in fact a shifting, changing association of musicians, and did not even have a fixed ‘core’ set of players. Perhaps this is why the MBRB is so important: many people played with them, and they were a band(s) which moved and changed shape, a loose network of musicians who really only existed as ‘a band’ when they were caught, in one moment, on a recording. Or perhaps on a stage (though that’s far more problematic). I wonder if that’s why it’s so hard to find a photo of them? Perhaps the ‘Mills Blue Rhythm Band’, as a discrete entity didn’t really exist?

The more I read about jazz and ‘jazz’ history, the more convinced I am by the idea of ‘jazz’ as a shifting series of relationships. I think about cities not as fixed locations, but as points on a sort of ‘trade route’ or even as a complicated web or network of relationships between individual musicians (which is, incidentally, how I think about international swing dance culture – the physical place is important, but it’s not binding).

Right now I’ve followed some references backwards to an article by Scott DeVeaux called Constructing the Jazz Tradition, which is really interesting. It not only outlines some of the political effects of a coherent ‘narrative’ history of jazz, but also the economic and social effects of positioning jazz as a ‘black music’, with interesting references to consequences of the ‘jazz musician as artist’ for black musicians. Read in concert with David Ake’s discussion of creole identity and ethnicity in New Orleans as far more complicated than ‘black’ and ‘white’, this makes for some pretty powerful thinking.

I’m very interested in the idea of a ‘jazz canon’ and of the role of people like Wynton Marsalis, the Ken Burns Jazz discography, jazz clubs and magazines developing during the 30s and 40s devoted to New Orleans recreationism and the whole ‘moldy figs’ discussion. The tensions surrounding the Newport jazz festival also feed into this: the Gennari article (which I discuss in reference to its descriptions of white, middle class men rioting at Newport here) pointed out the significance of a festival program loaded with ‘trad’ jazz – for black musicians and for the popularising of jazz generally. I’ve also been reading about the effects of this emphasis on trad jazz for superstar musicians like Louis Armstrong.

O’Meally and Gabbard have written about the way Armstrong’s public, visual persona is marked by ethnicity.
Armstrong was known for his visual ‘mugging’, or playing the ‘Uncle Tom‘ for white audiences, particularly on stage. Eschen writes

…as the struggle for equality accelerated, Armstrong was widely criticized as an Uncle Tom and, for many, compared unfavourably with a younger, more militant group of jazz musicians (193)

This, as Eschen continues, despite the fact that Armstrong was actually an active campaigner for civil rights in America, and overseas.
The trad jazz movement – or ‘moldy figs’ pushing for the preservation of an ‘authentic’ jazz from New Orleans – effectively pushes Armstrong to continue as Uncle Tom – unthreatening black man clowning for white audiences. A narrative history of jazz which emphasises a beginning in New Orleans and a consistent, clearly defined lineage of musicians and styles also, more subtly, relies on an idea of the black musician as powerless or unthreatening. DeVeaux makes the point that positioning jazz (and jazz musicians) as artistic loners who do not ‘sell out’ with commercial success:

Issues of ethnicity and economics define jazz as an oppositional discourse: the music of an oppressed minority culture, tainted by its association with commercial entertainment in a society that reserves its greatest respect for art that is carefully removed from daily life (530)

In this world, the ‘true’ jazz musician is ‘black’ (in a truly singular, homogenous sense of the world), he is poor and he is mugging for white audiences.
Billie Holiday becomes a particularly attractive representation for this idea of the ‘jazz musician’: poor, black, addled by drugs and alcohol, a history of prostitution, yet nonetheless, a creative genius pouring out, untainted in recording sessions (and I’m reminded of the ‘one take’ stories) and tragically cut short.

All of this is quite disturbing for someone who really, really likes jazz from the 20s, 30s and 40s. Am I buying into this disturbing jazz mythology? It’s even more disturbing for someone who found similar themes in contemporary swing dancers’ development of ‘narratives’ and geneologies of jazz dance history. As DeVeaux writes (about jazz, not dance), though, this is

The struggle is over possession of that history, and the legitimacy that it confers. More precisely, the struggle is over the act of definition that is presumed to lie at the history’s core (528)

I wonder if I should suspect my own critique of capitalist impulses in contemporary swing dance discourse?

I don’t think it’s that simple. Gabbard discusses Armstrong’s work with Duke Ellington, including the filming of Paris Blues (in which Armstrong starred, and for which Ellington contributed the score) and the recording of the ‘Summit’ sessions:

at those moments in the film when he seems most eager to please with his vocal performances, his mugging is sufficiently exaggerated to suggest and ulterior motive. Lester Bowie has suggested that Armstrong is essentially slipping a little poison into the coffee of those who think they are watching a harmless darkie.Throughout his career in films, Armstrong continued to subvert received notions of African American identity, signifying on the camera while creating a style of trumpet performance that was virile, erotic, dramatic, and playful. No other black entertainer of Armstrong’s generation “with the possible exception of Ellington” brought so much intensity and charisma to his performances. But because Armstrong did not change his masculine presentation after the 1920s, many of his gestures became obsolete and lost their revolutionary edge. For many black and white Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, he was an embarrassment. In the early days of the twenty-first century, when Armstrong is regularly cast as a heroicized figure in the increasingly heroicising narrative of jazz history, we should remember that he was regularly asked to play the buffoon when he appeared on films and television (Gabbard 298)

You can see a clip from Paris Blues here.

Armstrong’s performance gains meaning from its context, from the point of view of the observer, from his own actions as a ‘real’ person (Armstrong was in fact openly, assertively critical of Jim Crowism and quite politically active) and from its position within a broader ‘body’ of Armstrong’s work as a public performer. Pinning it down is difficult – it’s slippery.

The idea of layers of meaning is not only interesting, it’s essential. This physical performance of identity, tied to the physicality of playing an instrument reminds me of the layers of meaning in black dance. And of course, of hot and cool in dance, and the layers of meaning in blues dance and music. Put simply, what you see at first glance, is not all that you are getting. Layers of meaning are available to the experienced, inquiring eye. Hiding ‘true’ meanings (or more subversive subtexts) is important when the body under inspection is singing or dancing from the margins. Tommy DeFrantz discusses meaning and masculinity in black dance during slavery:

serious dancing went underground, and dances which carried significant aesthetic information became disguised or hidden from public view. For white audiences, the black man’s dancing body came to carry only the information on its surface (DeFrantz 107).

Armstrong’s performance is more than simply its surface. As with any clown, the meanings are more complex than a little light entertainment. Gabbard continues his point:

In short, Ellington plays the dignified leader and Armstrong plays the trickster. Armstrong’s tricksterisms were an essential part of his performance persona. On one level, Armstrong’s grinning, mugging, and exaggerated body language made him a much more congenial presence, especially to racist audiences who might otherwise have found so confident a performer to be disturbing, to say the least. When Armstrong put his trumpet to his lips, however, he was all business. The servile gestures disappeared as he held his trumpet erect and flaunted his virtuosity, power, and imagination (Gabbard 298).

This, of course, reminds me of that solo in High Society that I mentioned in a previous post. There’s some literature discussing the physicality of jazz musician’s performances, but I haven’t gotten to that yet (though you know I’m busting for it). I have read some bits and pieces about gender and performance on stage (especially in reference to Lester Young), and there’re some interesting bits and pieces about trumpets and their semiotic weight, but I haven’t gotten to that yet, either.

Sorry to end this so abruptly: these are really just ideas in process. :D

To sum all that up:
– The idea of a jazz musician as ‘isolated artist’ is problematic, especially in the context of ethnicity and class. Basically, the ‘true jazz musician who doesn’t sell out by making money’ is bad news for black musicians: it perpetuates marginalisation, not only economically, but also discursively, by devaluing the contributions of black musicians who are interested in making a living from their music. Jazz musicians are also members of communities.

– Linear histories of jazz are problematic: they deny the diversity of jazz today, and its past. Linear histories with their roots in New Orleans, insisting that this is ‘black music’ overlook the ethnic diversity of New Orleans in that moment: two categories of ‘black’ and ‘white’ do not recognise the diversity of Creole musicality, of the wide range of migrant musicians, of the diversity within a ‘white’ culture (which is also Italian and English and American and French and….), of economic and class relations in the city, and so on.

– ‘linear histories’ + ‘musician as artist’ neglect the complexities of everyday life within communities, and the role that music plays therein. These myths also overlook the fact that music is not divorced from everyday life; it is part of a continuum of creative production (to paraphrase LeeEllen Friedland and to refer to discussions about Ralph Ellison – which I will talk about later on).

– Music and dance have a lot in common. They carry layers of meaning, and aren’t simply discrete canvases revealing one, singular meaning to each reader. They are weighted down by, buoyed up by a plethora of ideas and themes and creative industrial practices and sparks.

DeFrantz, Thomas. “The Black Male Body in Concert Dance.” Moving Words: Re- Writing Dance. Ed. Gay Morris. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 107 – 20.

DeVeaux, Scott, “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography” Black American Literature Forum 25.3 (1991): 525-560.

Eschen, Penny M. The real ambassadors. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 189-203.

Friedland, LeeEllen. “Social Commentary in African-American Movement Performance.”
Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in
Movement and Dance
. Ed. Brenda Farnell. London: Scarecrow Press, 1995. 136 –

Gabbard, Krin. “Paris Blues: Ellington, Armstrong, and Saying It with Music”. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 297-311.

Gennari, John. “Hipsters, Bluebloods, Rebels, and Hooligans: the Cultural Politics of the Newport Jazz Festival.” Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 126-149.

Lipsitz, George. “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz,” Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004: 9-26.

O’Meally, Robert G. “Checking our Balances: Louis Armstrong, Ralph Ellison and Betty Boop”. Uptown Conversation: the new Jazz studies, ed. Robert O’Meally, Brent Hayes Edwards, Farah Jasmin Griffin. Columbia U Press, NY: 2004. 276-296. (You can see the animated Betty Boop/Armstrong film O’Meally references here.

*The jazz map was found via, but they don’t list the url for the map in context.
There’s something seriously addictive about historic ‘jazz maps’. I think it’s because they’re imaginary places. My latest find: New Orleans ‘jazz neighbourhoods’.

Conflict or bullying?

As we move on with our responses to sexual harassment in the dance community (and I’ll brag about just how well Australia is doing), we’ve come across some stumbling blocks as well. This is something I wrote on fb today, thinking about how we think about conflict. I’ve written many times about my own approach (and why I’m ok with swearing).

What is the difference between bullying and just arguing or conflicting with someone? This issue is particularly relevant in the lindy hop world atm, as we are developing shared definitions of harassment, abuse, violence, and so on. Understanding the Difference Between Bullying and Conflict is a nice little reference for kids (which is always a good place to start, as it means the language is good and simple and helpful). I’ll draw on it below.

1. What is conflict?

Conflict is a struggle between two or more people who perceive they have incompatible goals or desires.
Conflict occurs naturally as we interact with one another. It is a normal part of life that we will not always agree with other people about the things we want, what we think, or what we want to do.
Most conflicts arise in the moment because people of the same relative amount of power see the same situation from two different points of view.

2. What is bullying?

Bullying behavior is very different from conflict. It is behavior that is intended to cause some kind of harm. The person doing the bullying purposely says or does something to hurt the target of his/her behavior.

There is always an imbalance of power (physical or social) or strength between the person doing the bullying and the target of the behavior. The person doing the bullying make be physically bigger or stronger or may be older or have greater social status or social power than the person being targeted.

Not bullying:
The last part – about imbalances of power – is the most important.
So if, for example, I and a woman teacher of my age and relatively similar status in the dance world have a shitfight on facebook, it’s not bullying; it’s conflict.
Unless one of us persists in attacking – again and again and again – even after the other has backed off.
It’s not bullying if we exchange a few barbs and then move on.
It’s not bullying if we both have access to influential modes of discourse (ie we speak and people listen), or if we both have similar financial or social influence in the same space.

Is bullying:
If, however, I started hassling a brand new woman dancer who was much younger than me, commenting on all her fb posts, sending her fb messages, and telling her she’s wrong, disagreeing with her, calling her names, being aggressive and patronising, then it is bullying. Because my status as a teacher, experienced dancer, DJ, organiser, and general Speaker of Opinions mean I have more support and power in the dance scene than she does.

Kate responded to my fb post with a link (and some qualifications) to this piece, The Bully Label Has to Go.

It’s a good follow-up piece. I responded

But the label is not likely to stick to anyone in a position of organizational power; it will stick to the person that those in organizational power want to eliminate — the whistleblower who is “too negative,” the high performer who is “too demanding,” or the target of discrimination who is “always complaining.”

This bit is interesting. I’ve been thinking about the effect s.h. activism is having on the women and men I know in the dance scene. Basically, it’s exhausting them. Because they face vicarious trauma (reading and hearing and listening to stories of quite horrific stuff), it sometimes feels like this is an un-stoppable behaviour in men; there’s so much resentment and refusal to act or change bigger organisation and institutional structures to make positive change.
So I’ve been seeing more and more of my activist friends all around the world, men, women and glorious other, reduced to illness, exhaustion and tears. Most of whom were never activists before, but are mostly just caring teachers who want to do something to protect their students.
Me, I’m bloody knackered, and increasingly less tolerant of people who refuse to accept that assault and harassment are happening and their behaviour or school or event contributes to it. I’m also made very angry by the more powerful members of the scene complaining when their privilege is curtailed by tactics of resistance. This line is in on my mind a lot these days: When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression

As a feminist, I’m so used to being dismissed as ‘never happy’ with the way things are, I hardly even notice it any more. But I’ve been expecting more serious repercussions for being vocal. More serious than the usual hate mail, threats of violence, verbal attacks and implied threats I get in person, by email, fb messages, blog comments, etc.

I genuinely figure it’s only a matter of time before some doodbro decides to ‘shut me up’. Especially lately, as I’ve realised just how prevalent men covering for sexual offenders and violent offenders is. At first I’d thought it was just me being paranoid, but I’ve actually realised lately that powerful white men are covering for offenders, because those offenders will work for free, for reduced wages, in shittier working conditions, etc etc etc.

The cruel and the brutal; the brave and the kind

A very clever and articulate friend with a very gentle heart wrote a interesting fb post about alternative approaches to the state regulation of drugs. He wrote:

The US initiated War on Drugs was designed to criminalise the black and the brown and the poor. …It also militarised police forces, turning them in to the occupiers of poor neighbourhoods and probably now the not so poor too. We see that in the plague of police killings across the US and the cancerous gun culture that sustains it. It also promoted the worst forms of masculinity, the cruel and the brutal.

That last sentence really moved me: it “promoted the worst forms of masculinity, the cruel and the brutal.” I think a lot about masculinity and men, particularly lately as I’m writing and thinking about women’s safety at dance events. We talk a lot about how to ‘keep women safe’, when I think we should be thinking about men. I get so angry, feel so frustrated, I find it difficult to by sympathetic to men, to whom patriarchy is just as unkind.

In this post, my friend was writing about the relationship between national schemes to criminalise drug use and users, and the way it recruited white men and objectified black men. The way it asked white men to become brutal and violent, and pushed black men to violence. It all seems too relevant today, when American police kill so many black men ‘for looking bad’, and Australia police leave black men to die in the back of police cars or in prison cells. Men are forced to be so brutal, to women, and to each other.

I was struck by this sentence in this post, because this friend is a long time queer activist, practicing catholic, and profoundly spiritual person. He was one of the very best tutors I ever had at uni during my BA, and is one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met. He has worked in various community health projects, volunteering with the very ill, the very poor, the very needy. He was an inspiring force to be around when I was 19 and living in backwards Brisbane in the 80s and 90s. I learnt so much from his radical politics and truly kind, generous heart. His bravery, as an openly gay man in Brisbane at that time, was inspiring. His example continues to teach me to speak out, stand up, and give a shit, no matter what the risk.

Anyhoo, I wrote this comment on his post:

I teach dance, partner dance, and see a lot of men come to classes, struggling to express any emotion that isn’t a rough sort of humour. Our classes are very gentle. We have two rules: take care of the music, take care of your partner, and an implied third rule: take care of yourself. So the only time we step in and give very clear direction is when we see someone being rough with a partner, or stepping on someone.

And when we ask them to ‘find the groove’ in the music, and put it in their bellies, I see men, particularly middle aged men, struggle to find and then plant in their belly something in the music that brings them joy. These men are always looking for other rules or other things to do in class: where to put their feet, how to move their arms, when to start dancing. We usually say ‘put your feet wherever they need to be to get you to your destination’, or ‘let your arms relax, and hold your partner in your arms’, and ‘start when you feel ready’.

These men can’t just relax and enjoy holding someone in their arms, enjoying music together. It makes me so sad that it takes them so long to relax enough to feel safe just moving their bodies in a way that isn’t linked to violence or aggression. But when we do find men who stick with it, and enjoy dancing and treating women and other men with respect, it’s such a joy. They just light up inside. I think that it makes them so happy to see their bodies as a source of happiness and kindness, and find a place where being gentle man is valued so highly.

I do enjoy following you on fb.

Women of colour respond to white appropriation of the margin(alised)

Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s piece ‘I walked out of the Brisbane Writers Festival Keynote Address. This is why.’ is being linked up a bit in my book-friend circles, with emphasis primarily on Shriver and the topic of the piece. But I’m mostly interested in how the author got up the guts to walk out of this talk in such a public way. It’s essentially a marginalised woman ‘speaking up’ in a white elite space. It’s an act of bravery.

Breai Mason-Campbell’s talk ‘Dancing White: Race, America, and the Black Body…’ was linked up in a dance group last night by Anaïs, and something about it reminded me of this keynote article. I think it’s Mason-Campbell’s highlighting of the literal framing and display of OGs* at a dance event. It’s very much like the framing and display of marginalised folk in Lionel Shriver’s keynote.

And both pieces are by women ‘speaking out’ about the appropriation of POC’s bodies and minds by people in power for their creative work. In one case the ‘speaking out’ is non-verbal and in the other it’s after the fact. Both of which reduce the ‘danger’ of these acts for the women.

But these two pieces together are making me think and rethink very carefully my approach to OGs in the modern lindy hop scene. Part of me wishes we did ‘acknowledgement of traditional custodians’ at the beginning of every dance event. And that we asked our OGs if they wanted to do a ‘welcome to country’, and if they didn’t, we didn’t go ahead.
*(Original Groovers)

Mason-Campbell’s talk (start at 37.20):

Why we should talk about sexual assault in dance.

I was just thinking about why women telling their stories about being assaulted or attacked or harassed in the lindy hop and other jazz dance scenes is so important.
It’s about consciousness raising.

In an old school feminist consciousness raising group, women would speak about their experiences. They would just tell each other about the things that had happened to them.
The assumption was that their experiences were important, and unique. Worth listening to and sharing.

Kathie Sarachild … noted that the pioneering feminists had initially thought to use consciousness-raising as a way to figure out what their next action would be. They had not anticipated that the group discussions themselves would end up being seen as a radical action to be feared and criticized. (link)

I’m always surprised by the aggression in people’s responses to suggestions that we might actually talk about, let alone do something about, male sexual violence. But I shouldn’t be: it is a profoundly powerful act.
Women should be quiet. We should do as we’re told. Because we are overly emotional and can’t be trusted to be strong and capable. So many things in our day to day lives tell us to shoosh and sit down.

You’re too fat! Too uncool! Your hair is weird! Your skin is bad! Don’t draw attention to all that!
Don’t draw attention to yourself on the train (you’ll get hassled)!
Don’t wear a short skirt (you’ll get catcalled)!
Don’t ask too many questions (you’ll be seen as needy)!

Stop! Don’t! Think twice! Question your choices! Question yourself!

We’re encouraged to doubt ourselves, and that doubt keeps us in our seats. It makes us want to be invisible.

We’re also encouraged to believe that sexual assault is something that strange men do to women on the street who aren’t careful.
But it doesn’t. It usually happens in our homes, and is perpetrated by people we know.

But because women’s voices are drowned out by film, television, popular music, books – patriarchal discourse – women assume their own experiences are an aberration. Unusual. Probably their own fault. If those things even happened at all. ‘Gaslighting‘ is a particularly horrible way of making women shut up. People tell these women that what they’re talking about isn’t true, and didn’t happen. And women believe them.

So when women do speak up – just as Sarah and those other women did – it’s consciousness raising.
It tells other women that their experiences aren’t (sadly) unique.
It tells other women that they are not alone.
It tells men that they can’t get away with their actions in secret; women won’t keep those secrets for them.
It tells men that their friends, family, and partners – not strangers – are hurting women.

Because it’s the secretiveness that enables male crimes of violence.

Carol Hanisch said that consciousness-raising worked because it destroyed the isolation that men used to maintain their authority and supremacy (link).

This is why it’s not only important to speak up, it’s important to speak up in public, and to speak to other women.

Once these women have spoken up, it’s our job to take the baton. We can’t ask them to do everything: this one thing that they have done has taken monumental strength and bravery. We owe them a response that is as brave and coherent as action.